Monday, April 26, 2010

travelin' man . . .

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to explore Austin, Texas for just over a week. Joni's conferences for work have afforded us many opportunities to visit locales in the United States that we would otherwise not even consider. I'm beginning to feel well-traveled and can often identify cities in the opening scenes of movies because of the privilege of having been to so many places (relatively).

Joni began the tradition of extensively researching the locales we visit, utilizing at least three travel guides (typically, Fodor's, Frommer's, and Mobil or Moon) as well as the internet. She would create itineraries that would make the most experienced travel agent weep. Her itineraries would be based upon those sites deemed most noteworthy by at least two of the three guides and would include a timetable that took into account the proximity of the desired destinations. In other words, she would map out the locations to efficiently minimize travel time each day. In some of the bigger cities, the itinerary would include parking garages and prior to the purchase of our portable GPS, she would have mapquest printouts attached. Since work has proven to be increasingly demanding for her, I have taken over the planning responsibilities of our trips. Thus far, I have successfully matched her itinerary planning skills to a level that has not drawn any criticism (and sometimes even appreciative praise).

My priorities always gravitate towards the best places to eat in each city. I'm sort of a foodie. Although Joni's itinerary always included the best restaurants, I'm not sure that she BEGAN her planning with the restaurants. This is always where I begin. Plan on where to eat. Everything else is secondary. Some places are so highly recommended and popular, it is important to make reservations as far in advance as possible. As an example, on our last visit to San Francisco, one restaurant, Gary Danko's is such a hotspot that it is recommended you make reservations three months in advance. Needless to say, we missed the opportunity to go there, although we did have a callback from them after being wait-listed. Sadly, the opening was at 10:00 PM one evening, a little late for even us. We're heading back there next year, so you can be sure I'll be calling them three months in advance. Incidentally, Open Table is the way to go to book reservations, even locally. We've had amazing meals throughout the years. If you're really into food, I recommend Portland, Maine as THE spot for the greatest concentration of absolutely amazing restaurants. The NY Times and the now defunct Gourmet Magazine also concur, so you don't have to take my word for it. But as always, I digress . . .

One of THE must see tourist attractions in Austin is the Congress Avenue Bridge bats. The Congress Avenue Bridge spans Town Lake in downtown Austin and is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. The colony is estimated at 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats. Each night from mid-March to November, the bats emerge from under the bridge at dusk to blanket the sky as they head out to forage for food. This event has become one of the most spectacular and unusual tourist attractions in Texas. The most spectacular bat flights are during hot, dry August nights, when multiple columns of bats emerge.

Naturally, we positioned ourselves for this event on the first day we were in Austin. Some of my most spiritual and moving experiences in life have involved encounters with nature, specifically some of the wonderful creatures that populate our planet. I've chased whales in a zephyr in the waters of Alaska, been swimming with a sea turtle in Hawaii, kayaked past alligators in the Florida Everglades, etc. There is something to be said for encountering creatures unexpectedly in their natural habitat that still elicits a sense of wonder in me that I once thought was reserved exclusively for my childhood. You can imagine my sense of anticipation and excitement at the prospect of witnessing the nightly flight of 1.5 million bats at dusk.

The day we were there the crowd lined the Congress Street bridge. Prime viewing space was difficult to come by, but we managed to position ourselves so that we could see the bats emerge. Several boats loaded with tourists started patrolling the waters beneath the bridge. Occasionally, they would shine a red spotlight under the bridge where the bats roosted. From our position, we could not see where the light pointed, but no need, the bats would still emerge . . .

Dusk arrived. It grew darker as night descended. We strained against the darkness, confident that if the bats emerged we could still see their shadows against the reflection of the lights in the water below. People stirred impatiently as the dusk surrendered totally to the night. A woman nearby pointed to a small portion of the bridge near our location. "Can you see that?" she asked. And indeed, I could. I saw a lone bat flit out from beneath the bridge and quickly return. Then, after a few minutes, I saw another (or perhaps it was the same bat). And then finally, another. People were leaving now. The boats cruised lazily away. The bat feeding had evidently reached its full frenzy with the three bats I spotted. No clouds, no waves. No spectacular awe-inspiring encounter with nature. Reluctantly, we departed.

The next day, I asked an employee of the Austin Visitor Center if there were occasions when the bats did not emerge from the bridge. "Oh, my, yes," she replied. "Sometimes, the night before, they have a particularly successful feeding. Since they have happily gorged themselves, there is no need for them to even leave the bridge the following night." Apparently this was the case last night.

I suppose in life we will always encounter our share of disappointments. 1.5 million expected bats actually turns out to be three. The nest egg you have accumulated for retirement that promises a comfortable life is dashed by the downturn in the economy. That job you were uniquely qualified for is given to somebody younger and prettier. You know the story. I'm sure you've experienced your own share of such things.

Conversely though, there are those special unexpected moments that infuse us with joy, wonder and hope. Honestly, those moments, even though they may occur less frequently and perhaps with less magnitude than the disappointments, still outweigh everything else. Occasionally I lose track of this, but lately I've been reflecting upon the small miracles and marvel at those still to come (even at my advanced age). I'm anxious to see what happens next. Maybe 1.5 million bats WILL emerge the next time I'm there. (Which is of course, predicated on the assumption that I will return someday.) And even if they don't, did I mention I've swum with a sea turtle in Hawaii and kayaked past an alligator in the Everglades?


Sarah said...

That's too bad about not seeing the bats! That would've been so cool. Jason and I also love to travel, and love viewing amazing things in nature. We too have swum with sea turtles in Hawaii (and dolphins too!) and canoed on the peace river in Florida, where we saw many alligators (that was kind of scary, actually) but we have yet to go to Alaska... it's on our list!

Stephen Seko said...


I marvel at our commonalities. I appreciate your comments. It's always nice to receive feedback. Alaska is beautiful. The alligators were a little intimidating. Shortly after passing one on a huge log in my kayak, I overturned the kayak, throwing me into shallow water in a "tunnel" of reeds. I freaked! It took a while to get myself into the kayak, and I'm sure it looked comical as I scurried in full-blown panic mode to get the hell out of the water. It makes for an amusing story (now).