Austin, Texas encapsulates the very essence of what continues to make America the richest, most successful place on the whole damn planet. It is the modern boomtown. The rich vein of bonanza wealth, however, is no longer hewn out of the ground with pick-axes but is carved out behind computer screens and in techie science laboratories. For we are in the 'Silicon Hills', in a city with a $100 billion GDP and glittering skyscrapers to match. This is the modern-day definition of what continues to make America great, and will, as a certain egomaniacal president keeps telling us, Make America Great Again... and Again and Again.
The state capital has a population of around a million, growing at a rate of over 60,000 each and every year. You can almost hear the buzz of progress, the sound of a city that is working flat out. It must be a truly exhilarating place to live, so long as you are a part of this explosion of invention and affluence.
However, every success, every pleasure has its price. Visually, for the visitor, it does not take long to realize that any real historical legacy has been completely erased in the focussed and merciless march to greater prosperity. Apart from the State Capitol, which stands defiantly in the center of the city, nothing much remains here to bear witness to its pathway from dusty outpost to where it stands today, America's fastest growing city.
Austin's State Capitol
It is also the bastion of liberalism in this part of the world. In a state that is known for being a red Republican stronghold, Austin is glaringly blue Democrat. It is the Berkeley of Texas. You can usually expect most western cities of more than 500,00 to be more progressive than reactionary with the hard support for the left-wing coming from either the very poor or the very rich. Brutal urban life seems to magnify this. The down-trodden have-nots and the well-heeled haves, aka the chattering classes, bizarrely share the same ideology, one group for survival, the other because they can afford to be compassionate. The New England states and the California cities (especially those where the opinionated mega-rich film stars have their mansions) share this same phenomenon with cities like London and Paris. In Texas, Austin is the Lone Star of Democratic tub-thumping. It pushes out its slogan 'Keep Austin Weird' to promote its values and diversity, while failing to see the irony that the commercialization of this motto, on T-shirts and car stickers, flies in the face of the spontaneous eccentricity it is so proud of.
Probably the most dramatic landmark after the Capitol dome is the dominant tower at the sprawling University of Texas right in the city. This was where one of the earliest and most infamous mass shootings took place. On August 1st 1966, after stabbing to death his mother and wife, Charles Whitman, a former Marine, took a cache of rifles and ammunition to the top of the Main Building tower and opened fire indiscriminately on people below. In 90 minutes of carnage, 16 people died and 31 were injured. He was eventually shot dead. Whitman has taken his place in the history books as the man who introduced America to the idea of mass murder in a public space. Sadly, not much has changed in 50 bloodstained years.
The infamous University Tower
Austin is certainly a 'must-visit'. It is a hub of trendy urban regeneration, with an abundance of trendy minimalist restaurants serving trendy fusion food. Be prepared to be uplifted by its confidence and complete immersion in the present and don't expect it to have time to look back and revere a sense of history. Austin doesn't look back, just forward into a Brave New World.
The moment we had arrived at our campsite, 9 miles out of town to the East, we had looked at one another with a shared crest-fallen expression that needed no words. Before we even checked in, we both recognized this as the most soulless place we had yet seen, a park that matched the flat, charmless, scrubland area in which it sat. We had booked six nights before moving on to our next major stop, San Antonio. It was the quickest decision of this trip to cut that back to just two nights.
So now we now had the task of finding somewhere to stay for four nights between Austin and San Antonio. Here, as on so many occasion, chance brought us unbelievable good fortune. Through this sudden change in plans, we unwittingly found one of those hidden gems we always talk about.
We had never heard of Bastrop. There's a good chance you haven't. Our good friend Darren in Naples, Florida mentioned it to us as somewhere we might like. So, as his advice usually has the touch of Solomon about it, we booked a park in this small town some 25 miles away.
Bastrop is one of those small packages that you open to find the best present. It is exactly what we were looking for and was just what we needed to lift our spirits because this little town of 8000 residents has more history in its corner cupboard than Austin has in its entirety.
By complete accident we learned that we were inadvertently traveling along the 'Silk Route' of southern North America. We were treading in the steps of history. We were following the greatest southern trail of the past 500 years - the 'Camino Real', the Royal Road. When we visited little Nacogdoches on our last stop (which we covered in our last blog) we discovered a small town anchored in time. Two hundred years ago, it had been a vital staging post on the well-trodden route from mid-East America to and from the heart of Mexico, right down to Mexico City. Its origins go back to the Aztecs and Native Indians. As it passed through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, missions, small hamlets, trading posts and governmental offices emerged on the side of this well-worn mule trail. You have to remember that Texas was nothing like it is now but had been Spanish as part of Mexico and, only much later, became an independent 'Lone Star' state before joining the Union on December 29, 1845.
The route we had chosen, totally by chance, from Nacogdoches through Bastrop to San Antonio was in fact re-enacting the 'Camino Real'.
Bastrop was at one time hugely important and one of the most significant towns on the route, for it was here that you could wade across the Colorado River (not the same red River that eats away at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, by the way), fording it with your weary donkeys, horses and cattle. It was considered early on for the honor of being the capital of the new free Texas but the then bigwig, one Stephen F. Austin, the 'Father of Texas', decided on a town called Waterloo a few miles away, which just happened to be where he owned a great deal of land. It wasn't long before he changed that name to immortalize his own self-importance. Austin was born.
Bastrop is quintessentially quaint, charming, beautifully preserved and a historical wonderland. What a find. At its heart, it is made up of a Main Street and a few offshoots, each lined with covered sidewalks and spectacularly atmospheric buildings, all built around 1885. No wonder so many movies have used it as a location (including the Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
And its history is as fascinating and colorful as its a architecture. It was founded by a likable rogue who went under the name of Baron de Bastrop, who in truth was not at all what he seemed. Felipe Bögel was born in Dutch Surinam in the East Indies in 1759. He had moved back to Holland with his parents as a young man and became a tax collector. This provided just too much temptation for Felipe and in no time he was accused of having his hand deep in the till. So he made a quick exit to Mexico, introducing himself on his arrival as a Dutch nobleman, Baron de Bastrop. With this grand title, he 'blagged' his way into signing contracts with the Spanish colonial governor and moved to Texas at the time of Louisiana's sale from France to the US. He set about moving settlers into the area and immodestly lent his new nom de plume to the new town at the river crossing, forever to immortalize his own re-invention.
No portion of Texas suffered more from Indian attacks and outrages than Bastrop. Scalping was commonplace. One poor fellow, a Josiah Pugh Wilbarger, had the hair and flesh removed from the top of his head in an attack in 1833 and was left for dead. He was later found and lived, with a silk skull-cap covering his skinless skull, for another 11 years, that is until the luckless Josiah, however, died after bashing his head against a beam in his cotton mill. Ouch.
The Spanish came along every now and again and the total population fled, hid, only to return to a sacked, looted town which they then had to rebuild.
This is an extraordinary place. Sitting on the edge of the majestic Colorado river (currently swollen to record levels following torrential rains), this collection of glorious old buildings now houses sympathetically designed restaurants and bars as well as local trades. History is around every corner. Unlike Nacogdoches, Bastrop has a massive beating pulse and is very much alive. It has retained all its small-town feel and its movie-set historical legacy but its people have an enthusiasm and optimism that make it a terrific place to stop for a night or two. Don't miss it.
The Bastrop riverside walk on the banks of the Colorado - last week
At our favorite Bastrop eatery, Neighbor's Kitchen and Yard
Our neighbor in the park, a Texas longhorn
And some friendly deer in the field next to our 'bus'.