Amtrak Train 1/421 - Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle to LA

1201. 14 May 2019.
West Texas.

We're departing Alpine, Texas, home to Sul Ross State University and, by the looks of it, a vibrant art community. I've been on the train since around 8:15 PM yesterday when, after a nearly two hour delay, I got on the train in Austin.

I had a really enjoyable time in Austin. After arrival and some dinner on Thursday with W.W., Friday was a full day, with a breakfast that could only be had in Texas - a bacon cheeseburger quiche, topped with queso, along with pancakes, from Cafe Java (11900 Metric Blvd., Austin, TX). Very good. Following that, we went to take W.W.'s dog to the park - Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park, a very nice park north of the city center.

The landscape around Austin is shaped by the limestone that permeates the ground for miles around. Water erodes the stone easily, forming the creeks and springs that can be found throughout the area. Creeks cut deep, forming gullies and ravines lined with shrub and scrub, with clear water flowing along a silty bottom. Such a creek can be seen in Downtown Austin - Shoal Creek flows through downtown, into Lady Bird Lake, and on the day I left, a few rocks on the banks were full of turtles sunning themselves.

The rest of Friday was occupied by two different events - W.W. and I went to see a movie at a movie theater/microbrewery, and then we went to a housecooling party thrown by W.R.'s apartment crew, as they were moving out soon for the summer. It went late into the night, and it was probably 3 AM before I was able to turn in.

The next day was occupied, after breakfast at the Red River Cafe (2912 Medical Arts St., Austin, TX), primarily with attending the 42nd Annual O. Henry Pun-Off, presented by the O. Henry Museum. A mutual friend of W.W. and W.R., A.D., was participating as a contestant, and we arrived in time to see the late end of the "Punniest of Show" monologue competition, as well as the entirety of the "Punslingers" head-to-head tournament. In the latter, 32 contestants were pitted against each other in 4 elimination rounds and a final. Pairs of punners had to pun on a topic, going back and forth until one of them was unable to pun within 5 seconds of being prompted. It was honestly a mentally exhausting experience - the strain of trying to parse a non-stop stream of puns for almost five hours was certainly palpable by the end, and on the drive to go to dinner with K.M. later that evening (Thai Fresh, 909 West Mary St., Austin, Texas), every sign seemed to have a pun hidden inside it. Perhaps one of the best puns of the day was one from the winning monologue, given by Jerzy Gwiazdowski of New York City - his theme was medical conditions, and he punned "appendicitis" for "a pen to sign this" as the grand finale to his monologue. There was a standing ovation in the packed ballroom.

In the end, A.D. ended up taking second place! Ultimately he lost the final, but he was undoubtedly one of the fasted punners on the stage that day, and certainly one of the most gracious contestants. The entire competition took place in an environment of good cheer and friendly competition, and it was interesting to get a peek into the pun subculture - punners came from all over the country, some from other pun communities in Spokane and New York City.

Sunday was another day started off by an enormous breakfast, then followed by a wonderful hike on the Hill of Life trail in the Barton Creek Greenbelt. W.W.'s dog enjoyed getting out in the sun and the water, although he enjoyed the other dogs somewhat less. The recent rains meant that the creeks were full of water and the grey-green flow was dangerous in parts. The smaller pools and creeks to the side of the main stream were calmer, with clear water cascading over limestone shelves and pools of water shimmering at the base of waterfalls. The Greenbelt is known for these falls and swimming holes, as well as for the caves, off-limits but to local groups of cavers, that run through the limestone, the longest in Texas.

After hiking, we went for tacos, and I had to make use of practically all of my Spanish vocabulary to order (My Spanish vocabulary is not very large). The taqueria, next to a gas station, was exactly what I needed - cheap, good, tasty tacos, fresh pico de gallo, tender carnitas with bits of crispiness. If you are ever north of Austin, I recommend Matamoros Tacos (10304 N Lamar Blvd., Austin, TX) wholeheartedly. Following this meal, we went back home, and then changed to go out to a rather different venue with some of W.R.'s current and future roommates - the Roosevelt Room, a craft cocktail bar in Downtown Austin. Due to some interesting miscommunications, we all ended up dressing up to go out, and it was overall a bit excessive - two people were in suits, and I borrowed a jacket from W.R. simply to not appear outclassed. The bar itself was exceptional - their drinks director recently did a residency at a craft cocktail bar in the Boston area, and the menu stretched to over ten pages. All very good, and a good time was had by all, even if there was some grousing about taking the bus downtown.

Austin is served by Capital Metro, which runs fairly good bus service including two "MetroRapid" routes, limited-stop services that operate along a common trunk serving UT and Downtown along Guadalupe. Ticketing is either by phone app or cash, and service is fairly frequent - every 15 minutes or less along some key corridors. I was impressed by their bus stops, which had very high-quality informational signage, as well as their MetroRapid stations, which had arrival time boards and voice announcements.

On Monday, I slept in a little, and W.W., in an amazing act of generosity, drove me down to W.R.'s house during lunch. Lunch was In-N-Out, a treat for me, reminding me of childhood trips to California. I took the bus downtown from W.R.'s house and walked around a bit, visiting the Austin Central Library and the Ransom Center at UT. Both are well-worth a visit. The Central Library is in a dramatic new building near the Colorado River, and boasts an excellent café/bar as well as a roof garden. The Ransom Center, near Guadalupe and 21st, had an excellent exhibition about the Arts and Crafts movement, and has in its collection a Gutenberg bible as well as the first photograph ever taken.

I went down to the train station, and due to an abundance of optimism, arrived expecting an hour delay to stay that way. Needless to say, it did not, but eventually I was in my compartment, sweeping on through the night towards San Antonio and points west. At San Antonio, my car, as well as some others from the Texas Eagle, were unhitched and attached to the westbound Sunset Limited. Now, as a combined train, we're rolling west, bound for El Paso, Tucson, and eventually Los Angeles.