Category Travel

Buc-ee’s, a friend to all travelers in need

It’s hard out there on the roads in Texas. Their highways are bigger, faster, and more complicated. You’ve got to watch out for flash floods and there are yellow warning road signs for churches so I guess you have to watch out for those, too. I still have minor PTSD thinking about my drives through Houston with its ten lane highways all swirling about one another with left and right unmarked exits and oh shit I need to cross six lanes right now. Lanes in general in Texas seem to be…more like suggestions. Same deal with speed limits and apparently driving while drunk, as it seemed like every stretch of road I traveled featured a sign with “drive sober or get pulled over” or “plan while you can.” I had a lot of time on these roads to think about these rhyme-based slogans and I’ve come up with some snappier ones that the state of Texas is welcome to use, free of charge:

  • share the road, you greedy toad
  • cut the chatter or get splattered
  • to these words pay heed: don’t you dare fucking speed
  • don’t make the highway a dieway
  • E.T. Leave your phone alone
  • when you drive like trash, don’t be surprised when you crash
  • drive drunk and johnny law will punch you in the junk

Sure, some are more usable than others due to potential copyright infringement issues but that’s for the courts to decide. I hereby absolve myself of all legal or financial responsibility should the state of Texas use any of these as their new road slogans. 

The point is, the night is dark and full of terrors on Texas highways something something chainsaw massacre and from that darkness emerges a friendly face on a yellow sign. Buc-ee Beaver ready to welcome you at all hours to his obscenely large convenience store, one of which is the largest convenience store in the world. 

THE LARGEST CONVENIENCE STORE IN THE WORLD. The world’s largest convenience store, featuring:

A size so immense it continues almost to the vanishing point!

Its own BBQ restaurant inside!

An almost shocking amount of Buc-ee brand souvenirs. “This is the magnet I bought to remember the time mom ate those bad tacos and we needed to pull over.” 

A straight-up ridiculous amount of Buc-ee brand preserves, candy, and baked goods, and charcuterie!

A coffee bar that has everything and you can make a gallon size coffee if you want. Plus walls and walls of drink and other food options. 

In case you didn’t realize just how large this flask truly is from the previous photo. This is the flask of a cave troll or a dedicated alcoholic.

A whole section of explicitly “Texas-y” merchandise–lots of leather and hide, flashy silver bits, big hats, gun rhetoric. My favorite thing made out of cowhide was definitely the coasters made to look like miniature cowhides. Are cowhides even good coaster material? Who cares!  I myself bought the flashiest, rhinestoniest belt with a fist sized buckle from a Buc-ees, and when I wear it, I look like a lumpy disco ball. It’s glorious.

PLUS this place has the greatest bathrooms. THE GREATEST. Tons of stalls. They’re huge and private. Hand sanitizer in each stall. Plus tons of sinks and mirror space and it’s cleaned constantly throughout the day. It’s the complete opposite of every gas station bathroom horror story you’ve ever heard, and it is a blessing to anyone who has ever spent three plus hours in a car and still aren’t at their destination. 

Oh yeah, and one station I visited had the world’s largest carwash, too, so now all I need for Buc-ee Bingo is the world’s largest  gas pump, which I have to assume is out there somewhere. I’ll keep an eye out for it the next time I’m in Texas: don’t let me down, buddy.

 

Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, TX

One hundred and forty four people live in Driftwood, Texas. At any given moment, visitors to Driftwood’s Salt Lick BBQ outnumber the residents: cash in hand, waiting in line for their turn for pork, bison, and beef ribs basted with their signature pecan sauce, their tender brisket, coleslaw flecked with mustard, thick slices soft white bread with a generous sifting of sesame seeds on top, and slabs of pie and warm cobbler, nestled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. On the weekends, there’s a bonus menu with items not on offer during the week with a down-home comfort food feel, like scalloped potatoes and green bean casserole. On our BBQ tour of Texas, Salt Lick was Jason’s favorite–he really dug the bison ribs and he’s also a big fan of the pecan sauce, so much so that we ordered some to try in tandem with our new smoker. Now to find a bison rib supplier…

Photo post: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX

Jumping spider? Maybe? 

The famous Texas Bluebonnet was juuuuust coming into bloom on my visit. I particularly like the way its fuzzy leaves appear to be softly highlighted in chalk.

What is this!?!

Looks like a Texas spiny lizard to me! Someone or something startled it and I heard its rustling through the leaf litter and looked until I found it. 

Cecropia moth

 

VIA 313 and Steel City Pops in Austin, TX

I visited these places one right after another and I’m not even going to pretend like I didn’t. Via313 was recommended to me as an Austin must-try, and I kind of love that an Austin must-try is Detroit-style pizza. What is Detroit-style pizza? It’s a soft, tender thick crust baked in a rectangular pan for crispy edges all the way around, and the only sauce is a thick swipe of red down the center of each piece. Cheese and toppings are generous because the more substantial crust can hold it. It doesn’t reach the casserole-y levels of a Chicago deep dish but it is substantial. I ordered “the detroiter” which added a layer of smoked pepperoni under the cheese and still more pepperoni on top. All that generosity makes for a heavy pizza, however, and my appetite tapped out after one piece. But leftovers are a good thing–of course, it’s pizza!

I visited Steel City Pops for the first time after eating at Via313, but over the course of my two weeks in Texas, I went back several times. If you’re a new customer at Steel City, they give you a popsicle stick to redeem for a free pop on your second visit, but even if I hadn’t gotten a free pop, I still would have gone back. And then Jason joined me on the trip and I had to take him. These fresh popsicles are perfectly balanced icy treats. The cucumber lime pop was super refreshing with a good balance of flavor, not too vegetal, not too tart. The lavender in the lavender lemonade pop was subtle but I’d rather that floral flavors be subtle than bold anyway. And their patio is a great place to hang with a book and watch cute dogs walking by.

Tyson’s Tacos in Austin, TX

Still not 100% on what a kiss blown is. A kissairconditionerasted?

clockwise from upper left: burnt ends, al pastor, crispy duck, tasty basterd

Tyson’s Tacos is a charming restaurant with an inventive menu, though none of those things are what brought me here. I was lured to this establishment by two rumors: first, that there’s a ukulele at the ordering counter and in case anyone would like to sing for their supper, Tyson’s is willing to make that trade, at a going rate of one song per taco. The second rumor was that of a gold toilet in their restroom. I stalked my way all the way around this building and the only toilet I found was tragically white.

The ukulele, however, does exist, though the kind of off-key error-riddled song I could play on a uke would only be worthy of the saddest taco, the lonely little scamp trying to run away from home and make a new life in the dumpster. And I didn’t want a sad taco, I wanted a robust taco. Four of them. Al pastor, burnt ends, tasty basterd, and crispy duck, specifically. Plus a horchata, like the two kinds of agua fresca they had available gratis wasn’t good enough. 

The decor at Tyson’s is eclectic, with chippendale chairs next to chunky blonde wood chairs with carved in butt grooves and neon rainbow spatters dot the black ceiling. Rainbow dots among other things–birds come right inside and conduct their business. In addition to the type of business you already thought of, they also hop on the tables and chairs and scream at people for food.

They couldn’t have mine.  I did not love my al pastor taco, as I found it full of gristle. However, the tasty basterd, a surf & turf taco with shrimp, fajita steak, sriracha, and cheese surprisingly works. I mean, come on, it’s an unholy trinity: seafood and steak and cheese. Those very specific textures don’t tend to enter my mouth in tandem, but I was intrigued enough by the pure fortitude it took to invent this taco and then put it on a menu to order it and it really does work. By the end of it, I was a little creamied out, I think it ended up being too much of a good thing. I felt the same about the burnt ends taco. With onion rings, jalapenos, and valentina cream, it was delicious but I was done with it before it was finished. The last, the crispy duck, was a perfectly fine taco. I thought the crispiness of the duck and the fresh crunch of the cucumber was a wonderful pairing; I’m just not personally a huge fan of duck. I would’ve loved to see all these tacos in a smaller version so I could try more kinds of tacos, but that’s just greed talking. Greed and my failure to order five tacos so I could try the Prince taco. 

Spotted on the Roadside: Congress Bridge Bat Colony in Austin, TX

Before dusk, crowds start to gather on the Congress Avenue Bridge overlooking the Colorado River and the lawn in front of the Austin American-Statesman. On the day I visited, there were people holding up a giant white cross on the bridge itself, so I elected to go to the park instead. The park immediately felt like the right choice as I chatted with people and pet their dogs. Out on the river itself were a number of swan boats, canoes, kayaks, and even a party boat, all there to watch the bats. When I visited in March, it was early in the season, but still thousands of bats streamed out from the bridge, all hunting for dinner. Or is it breakfast? I bet they go to a diner so they don’t have to decide between eggs or a meatloaf sandwich. Over the course of the evening, as they become satiated, they’ll return back to their spot under the bridge as individuals. 

The truth is you do have to experience it to understand just how many bats live there, but I didn’t choose to post no bat photos to force you to go see it for yourself. I have no bat photos to post because every “bat photo” I took was an indistinguishable grey blur against a white background interspersed with like a thousand branches. These photos look like an x-ray of a nightmare. 

Footpath starts at 200 S Congress Ave in Austin, Texas.

Museum of the Weird in Austin, TX

In case it somehow isn’t 100% clear to you from the photos that I absolutely, positively loved Austin’s Museum of the Weird…I absolutely, positively loved it. The Museum of the Weird has every classic roadside attraction element:

  • A museum incorporating lots of sensational posters, travel ephemera, movie props, and taxidermy including at least one feejee mermaid
  •  An area with a larger legend surrounding it that you can look at but not photograph
  • Enter and exit via a gift shop

In addition, this museum has another museum built on top of the first one full of classic horror movie icons rendered in wax and your tour guide for the legendary part of the tour you can’t photograph is a man who claims to be a wizard and does a brief cold reading show. You heard me. A mother-flipping wizard. 

But first: The legendary Ice Man. The owner of this museum saw the Minnesota Ice Man as a child when it came around on tour in the 60s, which is not really the sort of tour you see going around anymore. Admittedly, I don’t browse ticket buying sites often but I still don’t think “dead guy in block of ice” has much of a chance if it’s in town the same dates as The Book of Mormon. Regardless, dead guy in a block of ice made a big impression on this child, and he began to collect weird items, like a mere glimpse of the ice man radicalized him to a gothic awakening. In 2013, that same Minnesota Iceman was listed for sale on eBay, and the only way I can explain as to why I didn’t know about this/bid on it was that I was going mildly insane with wedding planning at the time. Otherwise I never would’ve missed a chance to bid on something that had a feature on Unsolved Mysteries

On to the wizard: In the ice man room, the wizard put on a show. He had a man in the group picture a person in his mind while holding a crystal in his hand. He gave me another crystal and told me to vividly picture a place I found special or interesting, real or imaginary, somewhere I would want to go. I chose Egypt because I’m dying to go and have wanted to visit since I was a kid, so I suppose in a way Hatshepsut is my Minnesota Iceman. He had the man and myself write down who or what we were picturing, respectively, fold the paper twice, and hand them to someone else in the audience. She mixed them up until she didn’t know which was which, and then she handed them to someone else, who also shuffled them. Saul Ravencraft (the wizard) took one of the papers and burned it. There was then a whole thing about the man in the group’s person but since that part’s not about me and I don’t know how true or false any of his guesses general statements wizard oracles were, let’s skip to the part that’s about me.

…As I go through my notes, it’s clear to me how this particular wizardry worked but it’s delightful all the same, and if a visit to Egypt does indeed “inspire a very interesting creative work” I’ll be sure to quote the wizard on my book cover.

HOPE Outdoor Gallery in Austin, TX

 

Right about the time I started getting antsy to get out of town and see somewhere new, a friend in Austin posted on social media that they needed someone to watch their pets while they were out of town. It felt like kismet, and I booked a flight immediately. After settling in and learning how to give one of the cats her asthma medicine, my first stop was at HOPE Outdoor Gallery, a community art park on the fringes of downtown Austin. I exited my giant rental car (everything really is bigger in Texas!) to a riot of birdsong and followed the scent of aerosolized paint to HOPE.

Founded in 2010 with the help of contemporary artist Shepard Fairey on the bones of an abandoned condo project from the 1980s, HOPE was the only art park of its kind in the world, a living, ever-changing canvas with opportunities for artists to display their messages on a large scale for eight years. In 2019, HOPE will be moving from the center of Austin to its outskirts on Carson Creek Ranch in a new center built expressly for the purpose.

On the day I visited, a bus of kids rolled up and were being taught a class in the spraypaint arts. The rattles of their collective cans sounded like a nest of snakes–not angry, threatening, but saying “Hey. I’m here.”

A visit to Epona Moon Farm

Horse mustache!!

 

Recently, I was invited to a friend of a friend’s ranch, Epona Moon Farm. Nestled in the shadow of Mount Rainier, they casually breed friesian and vanner horses to ride and drive. Though I spent but a few short hours there, I can safely say that it’s one of my favorite places on this earth: dappled sunlight playing over the backs of these healthy, strong, and content animals, the air teasing your nose with pine and rain even in the summer, the lofty barn that glows inside like a cathedral, the fat and happy barn cats that want love so much they’ll flop directly onto one’s feet. I got to help bathe one of the friesians and detangle the mane of one of the vanners, who thought my mango-scented organic hippie sunscreen tasted delicious and proceeded to lick it off of my arm.The mare in the last photo, Edain, has since had a healthy filly named Grace: I love her from afar and I cannot wait to have an opportunity to go back and meet her.