Platt Crossing

Platt Crossing

Austin’s outdoors hold many hidden gems. In particular, I just rediscovered a public place that isn’t a park or preserve per se. The Austin Water Utility owns frontage along 3.5 miles of the Colorado River’s north bank near Bergstrom Airport. The 1,200-acre Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant offers a major bird observatory, manufactures Dillo Dirt compost, hosts the Center for Environmental Research, and partners with several ecologically minded organizations. Among them and headquartered in an ecohouse on the Hornsby Bend site is Austin Youth River Watch. They held a party last weekend that featured a walk though woods down by the riverside.

Fellow geographer and guide Elizabeth Welch, who directs the youth programs, is a wealth of information about the flora and fauna there as well as their cultural uses. She led us past several ponds and tall stands of wild rice to the Colorado’s edge, which had been the historic Platt Crossing.  In view were violet henbit, catchweed bedstraw, variegated bull thistle, and teeny speedwell. We saw evidence of beavers and heard that otters were nearby.

Pecan: State Tree of Texas

Pecan: State Tree of Texas

At the end of the trail was the biggest pecan tree I’ve ever beheld. Leaning downstream from some ancient flood, this gargantuan being overwhelmed our little group. Six of us couldn’t have joined hands around it. On the ground were remnants of last fall’s nuts—the small native type. Still dormant, this and other Carya illinoensis will likely bud in April. The tree would have witnessed the Hornsby family’s arrival here in 1832.

In collaboration with Travis Audubon, Hornsby Bend offers frequent owl prowls at night and other birding events. The facility is open to anyone every day from dawn to dusk. The Center is accessible off FM 973, and the nature trail is at the end of Platt Lane.

SA to Henly

SA to Henly

When I know the route my clients use to get to or from Austin, I often suggest things for them to see. Here’s what I wrote for four Canadians recently:

My tour to the Alamo City goes along US 281, one of the prettiest highways through mid-Texas.

You’ll probably notice a strong German influence in San Antonio and in areas north and west. Look for Teutonic names on street signs and villages.

A few miles north of the Texas 46 intersection, you’ll cross the Guadalupe River, perhaps the state‘s lovliest. Beneath the bridge, behold a couple canoe and inner tube liveries that outfit floating and paddling on those swift rapids.

The crossroads of Twin Sisters gets its name from two matching peaks just to the west. They stand on the divide between the Guadalupe River basin and the Blanco River valley.

In Blanco proper stands the original courthouse from 1885 when Blanco was the county seat. Uptown Restaurant serves decent meals, and you can take a short walk into the municipal park to see the second-oldest live oak in the county. Also there is one of my favorite regional breweries, Real Ale, which makes Fireman’s Four and Full Moon Rye.

Please use Ranch Road 165 as a shortcut to Henly. This skirts the river for a few miles. Just past the 2325 junction is Peyton Colony, a Black freedman’s community founded after the US Civil War. You’ll then notice a long upwards slope. Just before the summit, safely pull over and look behind you for one of the grandest views in Central Texas. This is Singleton Pass, which marks the divide between the Blanco River and Onion Creek, a tributary of the Colorado. The Twin Sisters show prominently on the far horizon.

Past Dripping Springs, you’ll begin to see suburban Austin.

There’s more, of course, but these few factoids should enhance your experience a bit. Remember, safety is no accident!

Trees Before Numbers

Trees Before Digits, 1839

Last time, we learned the origins of Austin’s north-south street names. Here’s a narrative of the grid’s other half, the numbered east-west streets.

When Edwin Waller and his merry crew began to build the Texas Republic’s new capital in 1839, the Colorado River was lined with an almost impenetrable thicket. Spanish explorers had avoided this scary area in their explorations 100-plus years earlier. For Waller, however, the trees presented an abundant resource almost as valuable as the river’s water and the ground’s rocks: lumber.

Again, as in other cities, streets got the names of important trees. North Avenue (an exception, 15th Street) was at the top. Then came Walnut (14th), a tree that yields some of the prettiest furniture material anywhere. The stout bottomland hardwood also gives nuts.

Peach (13th) isn’t, strictly speaking, a Texas native: it was carried from Persia to Europe by the Romans. The ornamental cherry laurel is sometimes called a wild peach, but the two aren’t related. Settlers would bring peach trees with them to plant in their gardens.

College Avenue (12th) is another exception to the naming convention. Austin was to host an institution of higher education, but the early plans placed the campus west of Capitol Square. Later, the university was moved north of the old city, but UT still owns properties to the west.

Mesquit (spelled without the ending e on the map, 11th) is a thorny legume that grows extensively on the Texas plains. It can be a nuisance, but the bean pods are edible, and the trunks make fair fence posts. Nothing beats mesquite blossom honey in the spring, and many barbecue cooks swear by it for smoking meats.

The Mulberry (10th) grows in wet and dry areas, and its fruit becomes a tasty jam. Ash (9th), another bottomland hardwood, is prized for making baseball bats. Hickory (8th), cousin to walnut and pecan, makes a stout tool handle.

Bois d’Arc (7th), also in the mulberry family, is known as Osage orange for its bark’s color and horse-apple for the globular fruit that’s supposed to repel roaches. Does a great job on elephants, too. Wonderfully durable, its name refers to the making of bows for arrows.

Pecan is the State Tree of Texas, a marvelous shade tree for our lawns and an important agricultural crop. In wet years, the nuts come due in mid-November, just in time for the pies and pralines of the festive season. Even before Austin’s second building boom of the 1870s and 80s, Pecan Street (6th), standing as it does above the high-water mark of the Colorado River and a straight-shot in from civilization, became the main commercial strip. Today, the seven blocks of historic structures between Congress and the former East Avenue (now IH-35) serve as Party Central for the Live Music Capital.

The Pine (5th) grows in East Texas, formerly near Bastrop, and in the mountainous Trans-Pecos. Its workable wood goes into flooring, furniture, and framing. Cedar (4th) is what many locals call native juniper. True cedars exist only in the Middle East and Western Himalayas. Both the red juniper (east) and Ashe juniper (west) logs make excellent fence posts, and the resin repels moths. Juniper berries (their cones) flavor gin and add spice to venison and pheasant.

Cypress (3rd) loves to hug the water’s edge. Its lumber is soft like pine but with a tan color. These trees, like their redwood and sequoia cousins, can live immensely long lives—almost 2,000 years. They drop their needles in winter, which is unusual for conifers.

The stately Live Oak (2nd) differs from most of its deciduous relatives in that it stays green throughout winter. It sheds its leaves in the spring just before blooming and sprouting new foliage. Also blessed with long life, at least three Texas specimens are more than a millennium in age.

Our final exception, Water Avenue (César Chávez) referred to its paralleling the Texas Colorado, the longest river entirely inside the state.

In about 1890, the tree streets were changed to numbered ones. This was to facilitate navigation and postal delivery. One can see the former botanical designations on historic signs along Congress Avenue and East Sixth. Honoring the original titles, Austinites enjoy the Old Pecan Street Festival spring and fall, look at glass art in Pine Street Station, and enjoy cocktails at Cedar Street Courtyard.

6th at Neches

6th at Neches

Streets Named for Rivers

Plan of Austin, 1839

Among the many reasons Austin is a unique city, its street-naming pattern seems especially remarkable. Laid out by Edwin Waller in 1839, the new capital of the Texas Republic edged the largely unknown frontier. Residents understood the region’s basic layout well enough by its rivers, most of which had had titles since the days of Spanish exploration.

So, similar to what other towns had done, Waller named the north-south streets here for major Texas rivers, but he did so geographically. West Avenue marked the western boundary of the 640 acres, and East Avenue (now IH-35) contained the other side. Between, except for Congress, the streets literally map the state’s great streams.

Flanking Congress are the two big Central Texas waterways, the Colorado and Brazos. Driving east or west offers a geography quiz: if you just crossed Trinity, what would be the next river? Notice one mistake: in reality, the Red River flows east of the Sabine.

Using minor streams, this naming convention continued into new areas as the city grew, but with only general geographic correlation. In East Austin, you’ll find Brushy, San Marcos, Medina, Waller, Onion, Attayak, Navasota, Angelina, Comal, Concho, Leona, and San Saba. West of Lamar is Blanco and Pecos. Shoal Creek gets a boulevard, and Bull Creek a road.

Whereas, after a big rain, streets seem to turn into rivers, this is how the opposite happened.

Next time, we’ll learn the secrets of Austin’s east-west streets.

Texas Scenic Regions Map

Mother Nature’s Self-Portrait

Texans are blessed with lots of scenery. Because of our position smack dab in the middle of North America, we enjoy proximity to an amazing variety of landscapes and climates. One way to get a handle on such diversity is to draw a picture. This I did in 1982, and here’s the story behind the map.

Each of the state’s dozen geographic zones claims its own characteristics and personality. The map shows each region’s general boundaries plus elements that make it distinctive: moisture, temperature, vegetation, geology, and soils. Some, such as the Piney Woods, Cross Timbers, and Post Oak Belt, acquired their names from the plants dominant there. Plains and prairies make up half of the regions—no surprise. One recalls a human name. The Trans-Pecos and Rio Grande Plains cozy up to important rivers. I purposefully deemphasized cities to draw more attention to the countryside. Each area will get its own well-deserved chapter in the book I’m writing.

It’s always a cause for celebration to trend from one territory to another, watching the indicators change. In some places, such as between the Edwards and the Llano, the shift is immediate. Others are more gradual, happening over several miles.

For folks to appreciate the Lone Star State’s variation, I give this map to every client who takes a tour or attends a class. It and others like it are useful for planning travel or study anywhere in Texas.

What’s your favorite part of Texas?

Because of the Earth’s elliptical orbit, winter is the shortest season in the northern hemisphere.

Texas Surf Museum entrance

Texas Surf Museum entrance

Corpus Christi, my hometown, plays host to an aircraft carrier you can explore, an aquarium to tour, boats to ride, and lots of other coastal activities. I met my three sisters there in our childhood home, where our dear mom still lives, for the end of 2011. It was a rare treat for us to all be together in the Sparkling City by the Sea for the holidays.

An outing was in order New Year’s Eve, so we piled into a van and headed downtown to a place none of us had ever visited. Next to the Executive Surf Club, the best night spot in town and the site of my recent 40-year high school reunion, stands the Texas Surf Museum. An artful woodie station wagon beckoned us inside. We marveled at the wooden surf board replicas, recreated board work bench, old 8-mm wave-rider films, and other memorabilia. On the north wall is a map of the Texas coast bedecked with grainy photographs of surf shops, boards stuck in the sands, and groups of surfers, many of whom my elder sister, Betty, knew and remembered. I only body-surfed in my time, but we idolized our twin cousins, Gary and Terry, who were and are still avid surfers in Southern California. Lina’s brothers all surfed, too, mainly around Oceanside, where exists the California Surf Museum.

Queen of the Sea

by Pompeo Coppini

We lingered a while in the well-stocked gift shop before strolling across the South Texas Music Walk of Fame to the Club for lunch. In the shadow of one of the oldest shellcrete walls in CC, we gobbled up fried shrimp, chicken wraps, and burgers. After, we drove around our old haunts downtown and uptown, marveling at the Queen of the Sea bas-relief on the famed bluff that separates the two elevations.

Corpus is a wonderful place to be from. Who wants a tour?