Austin, Texas holds a very special place in my heart. We spent three lovely months there in 2004 and I would go back for a vacation (or a longer stay) in a heartbeat.
One of the reasons I liked Austin so much is that it had a generally happy vibe. I got the impression that people who lived in Austin really liked it there. Public spaces tended to be full of a palpable joy and goodwill. Few places demonstrated this better than Zilker Metropolitan Park, the largest and most well-used park in the center of city, which sits on the banks of Town Lake (which I just discovered was recently rechristened Lady Bird Lake in honor of Lady Bird Johnson – thanks Wikipedia). This lovely lake is actually a reservoir created by strategic damming of the Colorado River divides the city in two and is a wonderful spot for everything from long strolls along the shore to kayaking.
One of our first outings to the park was on a Sunday in late January. It was an incredibly beautiful day, warm and sunny with a brilliant sky. We parked near a large and crowded playground which was full of ramps, slides, and an antique fire truck now outfitted as a jungle gym. When Tommy tired of the playground, we walked about fifty feet to a dais overlooking Barton Springs Swimming Pool, a football-sized spring-fed pool with a constant temperature of 68 degrees that was open year round. Here, next to a large concession stand selling soft serve ice cream and hot dogs and bread to feed the birds, Tommy chased pigeons around the picnic tables and threw rocks into puddles. We watched swimmers doing laps in the clear water; the air was like a blessing. On another visit we would discover steps at one end of the pool that led down to a path that ran along the rest of the lake. This rocky path offered a number of excellent vantage points from which to hurl stones into the water, an activity preferred by so many young boys there that I sometimes wondered that there were any rocks left to throw.
But the real reason for our visit that day was to ride on the Zilker Zephyr, a little green diesel engine pulling a line of small, open-air cars that runs for three miles through the park every day of the week. The depot was situated between the playground and the pool, and we arrived in time to purchase tickets ($6.50 for all three of us) for the first run of the day. As we waited for it to emerge from the tunnel next to the playground where it spent the night, a happy hum of expectation filled the air. It was obvious that tourist and native alike adored this train and that many families made special trips here to ride.
Tommy loved every minute of the 25-minute ride, from the regular whistle blasts to the fact that he could see the joggers on the bike path that in many places paralleled the track. Every time we passed a stroller or a dog he would cry “baby!” or “doggie!” I’m just so thankful that the owners of these dogs kept them in close proximity or on leashes as I’m not sure how Tommy would’ve reacted if they came to close to him. Or even worse bitten him. You could be sure that I would be straight on the phone to a law firm in our area similar to lamber goodnow to try and make a compensation claim as this could be a very traumatic situation for everyone involved so I’d need some professional advice. Thankfully, we didn’t need to think about this. Good job really, as we wanted to enjoy the special time that we had together in the park. We went under a bridge and admired its graceful stone curves. We watched ducks swimming on the sparkling surface of the lake and looked at the large cranes that hung over the cityscape in the distance.
My favorite part of the ride was that everyone who saw the train pass got a goofy smile on their face, and many of them waved. It seemed there was not one person in Austin who did not love that train, who did not have time to take a moment to say hello. And at the end, after we passed through the playground with all of the children waving and shouting we entered the tunnel that doubled as an engine shed and all of the adults started making funny noises to hear the echo, ostensibly for the benefit of the children on board but also just because it was fun.
For more information about Austin, please check out my list of great places to eat with kids.