Population = 15,362, latitude 37º16’, longitude 107º52’, elevation 6,595 feet, average January low temperature = 10.2, Average July high temperature = 85, average sunny days = 266, annual snowfall = 68.8”, annual rainfall = 19.1”
The approach to Durango winds through more desert country, sparsely speckled with tough little bushes and tumbleweeds. Towns are few and far between so we are sure to keep the tank full. Eventually we get to the really steep mountain passes and climb up to the valley that contains Durango.
We are still recovering from the flu we got in Albuquerque, so we soon discover that congestion and high altitude is not a good combination. Our heads feel inflated and bobbling, our breath runs out after very little effort, our butts are dragging. A lot of our stay in Durango is spent resting and reading and generally recovering. We do manage to get out and about and explore a little.
One of everyone’s favorite features of Durango is the Riverwalk. The Animas River runs through the valley, through the heart of the city. Alongside the rushing river are over 7 miles of walking/biking trails with lots of benches, playgrounds, and parks. The stroll through the city part is an easy walk for us older folk, while the hilly part South of the city looked to be a good challenge for the bicycle and spandex crowd.
Our rental is at 10th Street and Main Avenue, right in the heart of downtown. Even in our depleted condition, we can easily walk to lots of good restaurants and taprooms. We sample tacos, curry, burgers, kung pao, scallops, and wings, all just a few minutes totter from our front door. We sample porters, stouts, pale ales, lagers, red lagers, brown lagers, and Belgians, all just a few minutes stagger from our front door.
Due to our limited time and energy, we skip the highly recommended narrow gauge Durango & Silverton Railroad. During the winter months they offer a shortened ride from Durango to Cascade Canyon, climbing through scenic mountain passes and spectacular valleys. Twice a day, the steam engine chugs past our window, chuffing out coal smoke and blasting the steam whistle. We did make it to their museum, which features many antique locomotives and train cars, some automobiles, Civil War uniforms, and a massive model train diorama.
The people that we talked to in Durango love their little town. It is big enough to have everything, but small enough to have a small town feeling. The compact, walkable little downtown contains lots of little Mom-N-Pop shops, restaurants, and taverns. There is a Walmart and a big enclosed mall, but those are well outside of the downtown area. There are 6 breweries in town, 5 of which have taprooms. There is a nice little liberal arts college. Winter skiing is nearby. Summer mountain biking and hiking trails abound. Campers, hunters, and fishermen all have their favorite spots nearby. The most common complaint we heard is that people love it so much, property values are rising rapidly and it is becoming less affordable.
Population = 520,481, latitude 35º6’, longitude 106º37’, elevation 5,335 feet, average January low temperature = 26.1, Average July high temperature = 89, average sunny days = 280, annual snowfall = 26.7”, annual rainfall = 15.3”
Before reaching Albuquerque, we stopped for lunch in Hatch, New Mexico, known as the Chile Capital of the World. Indeed, there were roadside stands advertising all sorts of chiles for sale. Our choice for lunch was a well-known tourist destination called Sparky’s, which served its World Famous Green Chile Burger with a side of pineapple coleslaw or sweet corn with Hatch green chiles and onions. The burgers were delicious and lunch was accompanied with music by a one man band singing and playing his guitar, drums, and harmonica.
We arrived in Albuquerque with a long list of things to do. According to friends who have lived here before, it is great city, filled with lots of interesting things to do and see, a moderate cost of living, and many opportunities for good food and beer. According to our research too, ABQ falls into the right brackets of latitude and elevation that moderate climate, winter and summer. Certainly a city worth looking into. We settled in to our new place, had dinner at Monroe’s Mexican Restaurant, bought a few groceries, and started planning our explorations.
Unfortunately, the next day, Marylu started getting sick. I went shopping again and got some chicken soup and other simple, chicken based foodstuffs for her convalescence. The next day, she felt even worse, so we made a run to the CVS Minute Clinic to see what was up. After the trademark long, sloooow analysis, the Nurse Practitioner declared FLU and prescribed Tamiflu. Then the wait transferred to the pharmacy. Ever wonder why it takes so long to count out pills into a jar? Me too!
(National Geographic Science Photo Library)
Back to the rental house. Marylu gets all tucked into a warm bed for a long nap. I am feeling fine and decided go out for a walk. As it happens, there is a brewery just 6 blocks away, so the laptop and I stroll over there. The patio is warm and sunny and the brown ale is tasting great. I ponder the important issues of the day and think lofty thoughts and write a few well chosen words for posterity.
The next day, Marylu is still very sick, so it is a take-care-of-chores day for me. US Bank has a branch here so I can deposits some checks we have been carrying around for months. Gipsy needs the 60,000 mile maintenance checkup, so I find a dealer way across town. Getting pretty shaggy and decide on getting a haircut. After the long and congested drive home, I am tired and grateful for our quiet little house.
The next day, I wake up in the fog and coughing, drippy nose, aching misery that is the flu. You don’t want to hear about it and I don’t want to dredge it up again. Our exploration of ABQ is over. We spend whole days napping, reading, eating little meals that taste like sawdust. I elected to take the Tylenol Cold and Flu pills, rather than pluck down $135 for Tamiflu. By the end of the week, we have both been through the grinder and feel like it.
Next time we pass this way, we will give Albuquerque another try. Sorry we missed it this time through.
We thought Austin might qualify as a possible retirement destination since it met so many features on our wish list – tolerable year round climate, close to a major airport, lots to things to keep us busy, and good economic outlook.
Using a home rental website, we found a suburban neighborhood duplex to call home for our stay. This is the first time we were seriously disappointed with the property. The location was good but everything about the place was shabby, maybe not quite a dump. You decide.
We learned to avoid flushing during the night!
A few days in Austin reinforced my aversion to driving in large cities, especially after New Orleans and Houston! Austinites blame it on transplants from California. We did try the bus one day but learned their transit system needs improvement and expansion. Sound familiar, Minnesotans?
Downtown was a great place to visit after we learned to negotiate the streets and parking. We found plenty of things to do and see and enjoyed as many as we could tackle.
Alan detailed most of our adventures, so I’m just going to list some of my favorites. Actually, it’s funny to list them because there was such a range of activities.
Esther’s Follies was like Saturday Night Live, Laugh In, and a magic show all in one. It was especially fun in this pre-election season – no one was safe from their humor. Another plus, it was on 6th Street well-known for Austin Weird.
Supposedly, as the remains of the “Minnesota Iceman” had just been returned to the Museum of the Weird from a study to determine its origins; part of the ice was melted away exposing some of the hair on its finger – whoa! No photos were allowed, but just type Minnesota Iceman in your browser for lots of interesting stories and photos. The rest of the museum was small compared to the Ripley Museums we’ve visited. Our traveler from the Mardi Gras parades, Mardi Claws, did enjoy the diverse company and photo op.
Timing for our tour of the State Capitol was perfect as the legislature wasn’t in session. That meant we were able to be on the floor of the House and Senate chambers AND the corridors weren’t full of people.
A wonderful guide gave us a tour of the Lieutenant Governor’s Reception Room with details about its time as a residence, the dishes, a fire, reconstruction and details such as the needlework on the chairs and how the new carpeting in the House chambers had been hand sewn.
For me, the all time highlight of our time in Austin was a visit to the LBJ Presidential Library. Who knew that I would find him to be an inspiration almost 50 years later? My recollections of the man and the times probably align with those of many others of my generation: Vietnam War, protests and sit ins, and his crass manners. How did I fail to recall his accomplishments? The 1964 Civil Rights Bills, federal aid to education laws, Driver’s Education, Head Start, Work Study, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act.
Visiting the library was like looking into a time capsule from my college years.
Although Alan mentioned going to Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon for Chicken Shit Bingo, he didn’t tell you that he was lucky enough to get a ticket. Aw, the poor chicken….everyone crowded around the pen waiting for nature to take its course and crying out in glee as it wandered near his/her number. Silly to get so excited but kind of fun. I think it would go over well in some bars in Nordeast Minneapolis.
On that note, off we go to El Paso via Fort Stockton. It was just an overnight stay, but we found a monument and some pretty good, authentic Mexican food.
Our living quarters in El Paso were a great improvement over Austin! The place was situated at the top of a hill overlooking the city. Great view, I tried multiple times to get a good night shot.
I liked El Paso except for the cloud of dust that hovered over the city all of the time. Getting around was comparatively easy discounting the closed roads under construction. Even then, it was straightforward until we tried to get GPS support from Fort Bliss back to our condo. Twice we were on the road to cross over into Juarez, Mexico! Fortunately, there is a u-turn at the last opportunity before going through the border crossing.
Fields of yellow poppies were in full bloom during our visit; a little early for the season, we were told.
A favorite museum wasn’t even on our radar. We went to see the botanical gardens at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and learned there was a museum displaying treasures of all kinds. It was larger and more varied than most collections we’d seen elsewhere. Definitely worth stopping if you’re in the area.
If there’s an opportunity to tour a cathedral, I always put it on the list. St. Patrick’s Cathedral (built from 1914 to 1916) was open during our stay, so we were able to learn a bit more about El Paso. Catholic Irish miners were part of the active mining industry at the time the church was being named, naturally, St. Patrick won out as the favorite. Due to suppression of religious freedom in Mexico, this church became a place for seminarians to study creating historical links between the two countries.
We also enjoyed the art and history museums in downtown El Paso.
Toured the Maggofin House.
And visited Rosa’s Cantina.
While traveling in the off season saves us money on rentals, it also limits the number of open attractions. Since this is our USA exploratory trip, we’re making notes of opportunities missed. Sometimes it seems as though we are zooming by so many places and things to see! Next time around we should stop at Carlsbad Caverns, White Sand National Monument, the observatories in New Mexico, and ….
Population = 614,882, latitude 31º46’, longitude 106º26’, elevation 3,918 feet, average January low temperature = 31.3, Average July high temperature = 95, average sunny days = 297, annual snowfall = 5.8”, annual rainfall = 8.4”
The distance from Austin to El Paso is roughly 575 miles. We didn’t want to spend an extra long, miserable day behind the wheel, so we stopped for the night about halfway in Fort Stockton. The next day we learned a lesson about Texas: be sure to fill up your gas tank before you cross the desert. Just before El Paso we found a gas station and put 14.85 gallons into our 15 gallon tank. At Esther’s Folly’s in Austin they did a bit about Texas breaking up into five states; one for each letter. T is the Top, E is the East, X is the good stuff in the middle, where Austin is, S is for South, and A is for the Western part, also known as Ain’t cuz there Ain’t a damn thing out there. Very funny until you drive it and see nothing but sand for hundreds of miles.
El Paso is shaped like a big “V”, covering the tip of a mountain range at the point. The West half runs toward New Mexico, the East half runs toward Texas and Mexico, and the downtown is in the middle. El Paso is not the night-clubbing, honky-tonking, crazy weird street life kind of town that Austin is. The pace is a bit slower, the people a bit more “normal”, the rush hours not so massive frantic. There are no districts devoted to Weird. There are not even that many breweries. We found all two of them and they lean more toward gastropub than saloon. The taprooms offer creative food offerings to pair with the many craft beers.
The food tends to be more Mexican here than Tex-Mex. Sure, there are lots of taco joints, but there are also some great authentic places that serve distinctly non-gringo stuff. I ordered the machaca platter at L & J Cafe and got beef, chilis, and onions, mixed with egg, fried into a patty, and smothered with queso sauce. WOW! But don’t get me wrong, I do love a good taco. At the H & H car wash, the crew scrubbed down Gipsy as Marylu and I wolfed down succulent and juicy $3 meat and potato tacos in the attached diner. At Crave, I fulfilled a long-standing wish and had chicken and waffles. OK, so the classic version is served with maple syrup. This one was chicken breast wrapped around green chili, then stuffed into a poblano pepper. Lightly bread and deep fry until golden then place on a waffle with green chili cream dressing. Another WOW.
It turns out El Paso has some great museums and most are Free! Marylu and I took a couple of afternoons and went “museum surfing”. The Museum of History has interesting tales and artifacts, but is probably as well know for its “touchpad wall” where you select topics and times and scroll by dragging a finger along the wall. I could play with this thing for hours.
The Museum of Art has works by local artists, as well as some old masters.
The Border Patrol Museum has history, uniforms, and vehicles used by both smugglers and Border Patrol officers.
The Archeology Museum has dioramas and artifacts from the primitive peoples that lived nearby so long ago.
The UTEP Museum of Chihauhaun Desert is a little garden plopped into the middle of the campus that showcases many desert trees, flowers, and cacti. In the building next to it is the Centennial museum. It features archeology, geology, and mineralogy exhibits.
The Magoffin home is a beautifully preserved and restored home that used to house the richest and most influential family in El Paso. Much of it is original furniture and decor. The tour guide is a wealth of information on the construction of the home, the period, and the family.
There was one last bit of history that we just had to see; Rosa’s Cantina. You’ve heard the song about the gun fight on the “Wild Western streets of El Paso”. Maybe you didn’t know that there actually is a Rosa’s Cantina. The stories differ as to whether Marty Robbins ever set foot inside, but the legend continues. The menu serves up a big sloppy green chili cheeseburger that they named after him. If you want to keep the peace with the locals though, don’t play that damn song on the juke box.. AGAIN!
El Paso seems a nice town, just about the right speed for a couple of fogeys. Lots of good food and taprooms. A few golf courses nearby. Trouble is the blistering heat in the summer. Even though it is dry heat ( 8% humidity when we were there), it is still way hot half the year. And when the wind whistles down the valley, you can see the dust in the air. We are well into desert territory now. As a Minnesotan, I miss the green. Lawns are gravel and brick here! Just not right.
Sunday was a busy day for us. First on the list was something of an Austin icon: Ginny’s Chicken Shit Bingo. Everyone has heard about it but not that many have been there to actually witness it. The bingo occurs in Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, a fun little dive on Austin’s North side. At 4:00, a bartender walks out onto the patio, into the throng that has gathered there, and selects a table at random. The line rapidly forms as the patrons pounce on the opportunity to buy a number out of the bucket for $2. The resident rooster is well fed and tended to all afternoon until, at 4:30 sharp, he is placed in a wire cage with a numbered floor. When the chicken “selects” a number, the ticket holder takes all. Good clean fun for all.
Our next stop is back downtown. We are going to see and event at Austin City Limits. They are in the Moody Theater these days, not outside anymore. The theater is a beautiful structure with ample stadium seating, and nice food and beverage sales areas. We have an amazing “tamale pie”, shredded beef and vegetables on a cornmeal biscuit with a fiery green chili sauce. Tonight’s show is a tribute to Texas Songwriters and installs four of them in their Hall of Fame. Most of them are people we have never heard of. They wrote the songs and others performed them. For instance: JD Souther wrote “Heartache Tonight” for the Eagles; Will Jennings wrote “Higher Love” for Steve Winwood; Joe Ely wrote “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” for the Clash. The lists goes on and on and the songs are mostly familiar and the performances great. But we came for the fourth songwriter to be honored: Roy Orbison. Roy was unique in that he wrote his own music to fit his own music and voice. We all remember that amazing voice and that little growl / purr that he would slip in now and then. Raul Malo takes the stage and brings the audience to their feet with dead on covers of a few of Roy’s hits.
The next day we are back on the food trail. This time it takes us out of town to the Salt Lick BBQ. This is a place that gets mobbed on weekends so they have parking for hundreds and probably a half acre of patio dining. It is not real busy on a weekday so we get right in. The menu is simple, by the pound or meal combos. We select the senior version of baby back ribs and get big platters with ribs, beans, potato salad, and cole slaw. The BBQ is so good, it brings a tear to your eye. Perfect texture, color, flavor, just a splash of sauce. On the way out, we pause to watch the pit master flipping racks of ribs and briskets. I would pay just to stand there and smell the smoke.
Still no luck finding great Tex Mex or Mexican food. We tried a couple of places and found the “stuff wrapping in a tortilla” plates with murky beans, bland rice, and maybe some lettuce without dressing. That said, we did find some excellent tacos at Torchy’s Tacos. We had to search a big mall area to finally locate the place, but it was worth it.
The LBJ Presidential Library is a trip back in time for us Baby Boomers. The country was changing back then, evolving into kinder, gentler, more inclusive and safer country. The LBJ administration and congress passed legislation that affected civil rights, clean water, student loans, highway safety, veterans benefits, and medicare, among many others. But then there was that damn war.
We finished off our day with a great brewery, ABGB. This is a big shed with long rows of picnic tables. You get in line to order their beer and food, then take a number and find a place to sit. We claimed some stools along the wall and settled in to eat and drink and enjoy the band. Warren Hood and band fired up some fine fiddle music. Something along the lines of “Orange Blossom Special” but all his own. Never seen anyone strum a violin before, but he does and the sound is amazing.
Lots to do in Austin and I know we could have done a lot more but we run out of time and energy. Not sure if I would return. Austin has grown so fast, the city can’t keep up with itself. The most popular places (and highways) are jammed with people. Real estate prices are rising so rapidly, the locals are getting priced out. Philosophizing over beers, some of the locals said they were happy to see us, but please don’t stay.
Population = 912,791 (metro area 1,943,299) latitude 30º15’, longitude 97º45’, elevation 531 feet, average January low temperature = 39.7, Average July high temperature = 95, average sunny days = 228, annual snowfall = 1”, annual rainfall = 33.4”
Rolling into Austin, we once again thank God and Technology for a GPS that can find our new home. I used to think that the DOT highway designers in Minnesota lived in a strange world where ordinary human concepts of getting from Point A to Point B no longer existed; where the only clear view of the plan was made visible by inserting head up butt. The highway designers in Texas also live there, but THEY must be smoking something especially odious. We see ramps twisting and turning and stacked like the rich kid’s slot track set. Streets and highways change names and numbers for no apparent reason. Streets become one way service roads that become freeways that become streets.
From all reports, Austin sounds like a very fun city, so our stay is going to be two weeks. The unofficial city motto is “Keep Austin Weird” so we know we will fit right in. On our first foray into Downtown, we strolled along 6th Street, which revels in the weirdness. This is a street of bars, restaurants, odd little shops and museums, and great people watching. I see people with so many piercings, they look like they did a face plant in a tackle box. Tattoos cover everything else that shows and more, I assume. Later on, after sunset, the bands crank up and the sounds wash over the street and it’s people. The more “normal” people appear, looking for some fun and food and music. Pants get longer and skirts get shorter and tighter.
We found some fun places and good food on 6th Street. The Easy Tiger is a bakery/bar with a great patio overlooking Waller Creek. The Waller Creek Pub House has an extensive selection of craft beer and a delicious lamb burger with feta cheese. The Museum Of The Weird has some very strange things to behold, including a frozen “caveman” (maybe?) and a huge King Kong. The second floor balcony of the Old School Bar & Grill is a nice place to sit and sip a cold craft beer and watch the crazy people down on the street. Lots of fun, funky little bars with clever names, eclectic bands, and dueling happy hours.
Our favorite place on 6th though, was Esther’s Follies. This is a little theater that has a comedy/song and dance/satire/magic show. Behind the stage is a big window right on 6th Street. Passersby stop to watch the show. The theater troupe will sometimes run outside with props to back up what is happening onstage. The weird panhandler outside, spinning long stem chrysanthemums on his tongue, opens his coat during the show to reveal a bra with conical cups with tassels he spins. Part of the show or not? Who knows? Weird!
Another fun part of the city is the South Congress area, just south of the river. SoCo is wider and busier, but it is also lined with fun little shops and places to eat. Uncommon Objects houses a collection of strange, unusual, and antique objects that is worth the trip in itself. If you want to go full-on flamboyant, Halloween or otherwise, take a look at the costumes in Lucy in Disguise With Diamonds. There are many other curio and curious shops nearby for the hearty to explore. And of course, when you hit overload, there are lots of places to wet your whistles. We found good beer and good company at Gueros Taco Bar but regretted that we were too full from lunch to sample those Tacos.
Being somewhat history buffs, we toured the state capitol. This edifice is a huge monument to all things Texas. It is built out of “sunset red” marble (don’t call it pink), limestone and, in some places the walls are 9 feet thick. The main rotunda floor has the flags of all 5 of the nations that Texas has been, set into the marble. The walls are lined with portraits of the hundreds of Texan politicians who have trod these marble floors. It is a fine old building and worth a look.
Also on a kind of historical note, we went to The Broken Spoke on Saturday night for dinner and dancing. The nearby condos are rising hungrily around its little patch of land, watching and waiting, so its days are numbered. This place has been here since Davy Crockett was in diapers, and looks it. It is shabby and crowded and serves Bud and Coors, and Shiner and what it calls the best chicken fried steak. It isn’t. But on Saturday night, the back room dancehall opens and hundreds of youngish Texans (and a few suave older gentlemen in cowboy hats) come to do some two-stepping. We left after the first set and they were still pouring in.
One last word here about food. We loved the food in Louisiana, rich and saucy and over the top. We came to Texas expecting robust, spicy Tex-Mex cuisine. Maybe it was just the places we ate, but to me, Tex-Mex is just weak Mexican. If all you have on the menu is meat and stuff wrapped in a tortilla, it is not that big a deal. On the other hand, the Texan BBQ is probably the best we have seen so far. Our first experience with this was at Uncle Billy’s Brewery and BBQ. They serve the whole rib, including tips, that are sweet and smoky and amazing, dry rubbed with sauce on the side. Serve them up with house made beer on the outdoor patio and you got a little slice of heaven.