The San Francisco Bay Area is severely lacking when it comes to enormous, roadside animal collections, those ticky-tacky highway menageries that seem to clutter other regions.
Cruising over the inky black patchwork of rain-slick roads in the Texas hill country, I found enormous and unexpected joy in discovering these creatures — the pudgy squirrels, the rollicking elephants, the giraffes that seemed to materialize out of the shrubs to offer a friendly, “Hello, stranger. Welcome.”
I like a place where people go out of their way to say, “I like squirrels and you know, after seeing my giant fiberglass specimen, I think you will too.”
This must be what they mean by down home Texas hospitality, these offerings.
It always takes me a few days to get used to the hospitality of other regions. In San Francisco, you’re lucky to get a shrug or even a snort after those casual cash register interactions that come with buying coffee or, say, finding a place to stay for the night.
“Thanks, have a good one.”
It must chip away at the soul, these interactions. Because pretty much everywhere I went in Texas, I was almost taken aback by friendly gestures.
One woman at a coffee shop thanked me profusely for my order.
“Where you from, honey?”
I inched away from the counter and, only later, realized I had lightly brushed my hand against my wallet pocket, just to make sure it was still there.
There’s always a sense of ending in California. Drive one direction for an hour and eventually you hit a mountain or a beach or some new landmark that reminds you of destination, of home.
At twilight, while driving back from Austin to my hotel outside of town, I had a near panic attack at the sprawling, endless vista — the vastness that seemed to settle on the horizon like humidity.
I have a very difficult time at conferences, the reason for my trip. I was speaking on a panel with some amazing dad bloggers about writing, and we had a good time and I think it went really well. But the rest of the time, the parties, the hallway chit chat, the casual get-togethers, I can’t help feeling like the boringest, most awkward moron in the world — the guy who can always find a way to stop pretty much any conversation. So by the end of these things, I’m usually hiding out in my hotel room, reading a book.
I struck out to Austin solo for dinner one night but because of the crowds in the barbecue restaurant had to share a table with a couple, essentially inserting myself into the very situation I was running from. I felt so badly for this couple, who ate and smiled and waited politely for me to leave.
A good friend who happened to be in town invited me to a movie and I jumped at the chance. It’s always such a soul-quenching thing, to hang out with someone who knows you well enough to expect very little.
I called Emmeline every evening to say goodnight and accidentally let it slip that the hotel had not only a few horses to ride but also a whole army of ponies and had even taken to saddling a couple longhorn cows for kicks.
When I finally made it home and slipped into her room at night to see her, she rubbed her eyes and sleepily groaned, “Did you bring me a saddle cow?”
She tried to lift her head one more time and then slumped back to sleep while I kissed her forehead and was grateful for that vast feeling of comfort that sometimes settles on you like a hug. It reminded me to ask her mother whether we could get an elephant for the front yard. Or maybe a zebra. Something wild and tacky to tell the world, “Hello stranger, welcome.”
I had a great time meeting some new friends and also exploring Austin and its surrounding sprawl. Here are a few more of my favorite photos from the trip.