So you’re going to tour UT Austin (and Austin in general)

Man photographing UT tower from a distance

The author, possibly trespassing to get the shot

My daughter Maya was accepted to UT Austin. Despite eBaying a lot of University of Michigan garb (and wearing my old Michigan Soccer schwag), and despite the small “go blue” sticker on her car, and despite her deep distaste for Texas politics, she wanted to check out UT over the first few days of her spring break.

I had never been to Austin but have old friends there. So we booked an expensive flight from Denver and I reached out to one of my oldest friends, Brad Williams, who provided a litany of things-to-do ideas.

I had met Brad on a train platform in Mannheim in 1986. We were both high school exchange students on the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program at the time. I had last seen him in 2008, when he had come to stay during the Democratic National Convention during which the party officially nominated a young man for the top job.

Very different times.

By all rights, Maya shouldn’t have been accepted at UT Austin. Not because she lacked the academic credentials and so forth. Rather, because, in a supplement essay, I suggested she personalize the ending a bit more with a shout out to the UT football team. “Go Aggies!” I added, then was out the door to something I can’t now recall.

Perhaps five minutes later, it dawned on me that the Aggies have to do with Texas A&M, UT’s top rival.

This error fit into a longstanding pattern. Almost all corrections I had ever had to do when working for, say, the Daily Camera, had to do with facts I was quite sure of but didn’t double-check.

I called Maya, which I rarely do, given texting.

“Did you submit that essay?” I asked.

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well, I may have. . .  steered you wrong.”

She laughed, fortunately, and has since gotten a lot of mileage out of the story. I figured we’d simply blown the $75 or whatever application fee. But the Longhorns accepted her after all, probably because the admissions officers got such laughs out of “Go Aggies.”

With that as an online-recipe-length prologue, on to the tour.

The UT Campus

Campus is lovely. Big but walkable. We did a guided tour for admitted students. Besides the intro in which admissions folks talk about dates for committing and so forth, this is I assume the same as the prospective-student tour. The tour being self-explanatory, I would offer only that the Welcome Center entrance is on the south end of the Speedway/”yellow brick road” and a short walk from the Brazos garage, so no need to leave more than about five minutes for the on-campus walking commute once you’ve parked. (I belabor this because Google Maps places it more generally in the Perry-Castañeda Library, which it’s in, but which has entrances elsewhere.).

Nancy Rubins "Monochrome for Austin" sculpture

Either Nancy Rubins “Monochrome for Austin” sculpture or a spectacular boat collision

To-Dos on the UT Campus

Besides the walking tour, you’ve got the Harry Ransom Center (free admission, donations suggested), which houses two amazing artifacts and a great painting that take a total of about 12 minutes to soak in. The first artifact is one of 20 surviving copies of the original Gutenberg Bible, circa 1455. These were the among first publications to use moveable type outside of China. Prior to this, books were reproduced by scribes such as myself.

A few steps away is the the Niépce Heliograph, (“sun writing”), made in 1827. It’s essentially the world’s oldest surviving photograph, though it’s a product of a few days of consecutive sunlight etching an image on a polished pewter plate with help from a coating of light-sensitive bitumen in oil of lavender. These days, sunlight does much the same thing semiconductor sensors in our phones.

Finally, you’ve got a Frida Kalho’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird off to the right upon entry. The literal monkeys on her back represented the figurative monkeys on her back.

The campus bookstore – called the University Co-Op, is technically off campus, but essentially across Guadalupe Street from campus. (It’s pronounced “Guada-loop,” I learned the hard way) due west of the plaza below the UT Tower. It offers the greatest density of burnt-orange items in all of retail. I bought Maya a sweatshirt that will probably turn into a novelty among a lot of maize and blue.

And finally, there’s the LBJ Presidential Library on the northeast end of campus. This is probably a separate excursion.

LBJ Presidential Library quote: "I have followed the personal philosophy that I am a free man, an American, a public servant, and a member of my party, in that order always and only."

Words our modern politicians, especially those on the right, might consider.

It’s well worth it. While the museum dates to 1971, the exhibitions feel thoroughly modern. In addition to being a reminder of what a force of nature Lyndon Baines Johnson was and how ridiculously much he accomplished, it’s architecturally stunning and interesting as hell. Plus, if you’re there before August 11, you get the bonus of the “Music America: Iconic Objects from America’s Music History” exhibition.

This was far enough afield from typical presidential library fare that I initially dismissed it as, probably, a potpourri of obscure artifacts. That it’s curated by the Bruce Springsteen Archives for American Music should have clued me into my misapprehension. Among the items:

Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" album-cover outfit.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” album-cover outfit.


Springsteen Center rock memorabilia

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” album cover dress and other notable rock/pop star outfits.

Around Austin

My friend had suggested the Harry Ransom Center and the LBJ Presidential Library. He had also suggested Matt’s El Rancho down on Lamar Boulevard for dinner, which we did, and Esther’s Follies, which we did shortly thereafter. (For Esther’s Follies, park at the Convention Center garage on E 5th Street and Red River – $15.) The food was great – place is huge and it was packed – and Esther’s is a total riot, with a remarkable magic act, some old comedic standbys, and a lot of fresh takes (ripping on Gov. Greg Abbott, Elon Musk, etc.). Maya was laughing as hard as the old men.

Maya being three years shy of 21, The Sixth Street bars and clubs were going to be tough. But there are indeed a lot of them. A few other highlights:

To shop schizophrenically, we thrifted on Guadalupe Street west of campus and also at The Domain Northside (Maya wanted to stop by Brandy Melville, no relation to Herman). Had some pretty amazing ramen at Jinya, and I say this having lived in Tokyo for three years.

Thrifting on Guadalupe street

Thrifting on Guadalupe street

We swam and hung out at the Barton Springs pool.

Barton Springs Pool, Austin, Texas

The Barton Springs Pool southeast of downtown Austin

We strolled South Congress and ate expensive-but-worth-it ice cream at Amy’s.

Amy's ice cream, Austin, Texas

Amy’s Ice Cream: worth every penny.

We awaited the bats below the South Congress bridge. The bats weren’t into the strong winds that evening, apparently, and failed to emerge en masse. But there were horses, at least.

A man on horse on the Lady Bird Lake path on below the Congress Avenue Bridge

And, on the advice of Matt Kleiman, another old friend who has been in Austin for decades, we drove west to The Oasis, which overlooks Lake Travis, for lunch.

View of Lake Travis from The Oasis, beer partially obscuring the view

I did a morning run on the trail around Lady Bird Lake, which is technically the Colorado River.  My five-mile limit meant an out-and-back (it’s a 10-mile loop). This shot I took not while on a morning run.

View of Austin, Texas skyline from south of Lady Bird Lake at night

We left stones unturned in Austin. But we saw enough to understand why people love this town. And, UT versus UM aside, there’s a whole lot more happening in Austin than in Ann Arbor.

Oh, and that photo I took from the flower bed came out pretty well, actually. . . Hook ’em, Horns!

Photo of UT tower from due south beyond the flower bed


1 Comment

  • Christine Reid Posted April 3, 2024 8:35 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed this review and am rethinking my daughter’s decision to attend CSU. Is it too late to pull her out her junior year?

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