08 February 2019

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

I’d be lying if I told you I’d read the book, but everyone knows the opening lines. And it only takes a few seconds to Google the classic work and learn that the two cities in question were London and Paris, and that Dickens wrote of those places at a time of great disruption, that being the French Revolution, plus or minus a few years, and how conditions impacted the lives of those who made their way through those places and times.

I, on the other hand, am simply stealing his well-known title to make a point of how civic conditions, and I would posit the leadership decisions that brought them about, make a difference in the lives and experiences of both residents and visitors to, in this case, two cities, these being domestic and thus a little closer to home, but rivals in a sense not unlike London and Paris. And yes, you could say we are also living in a time of great disruption, since my transit to and from the second visit in this pair was anything but certain in the face of our governmental disfunction thanks to the antics of a certain highly despised authoritarian figurehead and his similarly highly despised tortoise-like legislative crony. But this is no place for politics. Even if it had to be said. And I’ll be happy to go on. But I won’t.

Austin and Dallas. A hipster town and the Big D. Texas rivals, of a sort, though I suspect that Austin sort of shrugs its shoulders at Dallas, while Dallas makes a big point of being that Big D. But I don’t judge a city on its size and might. Rather, I judge on livability, which for me, as you might guess often comes down to runability. If a town makes the effort to create places where you can get out and get some fresh air, it seems to me that that town is thinking in the right direction. And that town is a lot more pleasant to visit.

I used to travel to Texas regularly, but till a few weeks back it’d been quite a while since last I set foot in its broad expanses. I’ve now made two trips in the last two months, one to each of the aforementioned municipalities. I made the effort – as I almost always to – to get my runs in while in each of these venues. And how do they compare? Well, my verdict was easy to reach: Dallas wants to be known as the Big D, and I’ll agree; it earned its Big D, while Austin lived up to the irony that its name begins with an A, as it easily earned that grade.

If I was blessed with bazillions of readers I’m sure there would be denizens of Dallas who would protest. Fortunately, with my blog’s miniscule eyeball count, the likelihood of anyone from that locale reading this is low. But even if they see this, I’ll stick by my story, despite my assessment not being terribly thorough or scientific, or by any means above reproach on other dimensions.

First, let’s cover off all the holes in the logic of my judgement. On my trek to Dallas, I never made it more than five miles outside of the perimeter of Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport. Bedded down in Irving, literally in view of the vast open space that is DFW, and working in Coppell, I never made it into Dallas proper. Had I made it downtown, I’m told that Dallas does have a trail, albeit paved most of the way, known as the Katy Trail, that heads more or less from downtown out toward Southern Methodist University and the White Rock area. I’ve been to White Rock and it’s reasonably pleasant, with some walking paths around the lake and some interesting birds to notch on your life list, if you’ve got one. It even hosts Dallas’ marathon.

But nine times out of ten, when you go to Dallas, you don’t go downtown or anywhere near those places. In all of those trips to Dallas over all of those years (and there used to be lots, I’d say I’ve been there at least twenty times), I ended up staying downtown exactly once. Sadly, the typical Dallas excursion places you in the endless pave-the-next-county sprawl of places like Richardson and Plano, where everything is made of the exact same shade of beige concrete. Cut-and-paste society, a colleague of mine once called it as we travelled around looking for dinner one night. Everything pretty much repeats every three to five miles.

On my last trip, I tried striking out north from my hotel, away from the airport, into Coppell. In the span of a six mile loop I crossed two freeways twice, scrambled through massive intersections designed with no recognition that pedestrians exist, and alternated between the leg-crushing (beige) concrete and trying to run on the artificially-installed turf strips along the road that have a uniquely hard and lumpy surface that is entirely non-trail-like and nearly impossible to stride over. But that was where there were places to run. Dallas has no qualms about narrowing a four-lane arterial (and they’re all four, or six, or eight lane arterials) to two narrow lanes lined with barrels over a bridge and – of course – no pedestrian space. At times like that, I had to take my life into my hands, because I really didn’t know the area well enough to pull off an ad-lib detour. In calmer moments, it was still a drunken wander, since in many cases where sidewalks do exist, they were infected with the New Jersey Wandering Disease.

Huh? The New Jersey Wandering Disease? Yeah, so named because that’s where I encountered it first. It’s when suburban sprawl road designers think it’s cute to make the sidewalks squiggle all over creation because, after all, those sinuous bends look good on real estate brochures, and they figure nobody is going to walk on them, and if they did, they’ve got no place to go anyway. Hey folks, I’m going for a run, not to a theme park.

After that first disastrous outing, I headed the opposite direction for the next two mornings, where the sidewalk (which you have to use because that route was another four-lane shoulder-less arterial, even though it was brand new and there was barely a car on it) rose up a bank, became ten feet wide, and, you guessed it, went all New Jersey on me. I guess you need something to break the monotony when otherwise all you’d see is the massive mile-long wall built to shelter the residents of the latest McMansion development from that riff-raff of (horror!) the road. Oh yeah, did I mention it was beige?

Get me the hell out of Dodge, please.

But this past trip was to Austin. I’d been to Austin only once before, so many years ago that I don’t even think I was running then. Back then I went to Austin both on a history tour, as I was reading through Robert Caro’s brilliant biography series on Lyndon Johnson (which was intended to be a trilogy, but he’s now working on the fifth book – I like people who operate that way – and I highly recommend all of his work), and because I was so sick of going to Dallas that I needed something different. My recollection of that trip was good, but vague.

Cut to this past excursion, when I was camped in a “luxury” (read: overpriced) hotel downtown to be near the convention center since this was, in fact, for a convention. Downtown anything Midwest can be, like Dallas, a flat concrete jungle. But Austin is blessed with two things: first, a river that runs through it (or, since it’s dammed, they call it a lake), and second, and I’m guessing on this here because I know it takes positive action to make this happen, the civic leadership to espouse such a jewel and develop it for the betterment of the community.

Because of this, Austin doesn’t have the character of a concrete jungle. Now, I’m sure that when one goes away from the center city, there are concrete jungle zones. I certainly saw the size of their freeways heading from and to the airport. But I also saw on the maps that there are quite a few green spaces even away from the city center, and many of them appear to connect.

The part I do know about, after nearly a week ‘in country’, is the trail network around the Colorado River (a.k.a. Lady Bird Lake), and up Barton Creek past Barton Springs. Trails encircle the lake, extending five or six miles end-to-end, punctuated by dedicated pedestrian crossings, some glommed onto automotive bridges and one dedicated entirely to human-powered travelers (ignoring for the moment the ubiquitous electric scooters that litter the sidewalks and add a little sport to pedestrian navigation). These trails occasionally coincide with parallel streets’ sidewalks, but mostly traverse the riversides on dirt and gravel, often through shaded arbors, and in a couple of places on boardwalks (well, false flagstone walks) on bridges over edges of the river, er, I mean lake. By mixing up the bridge crossings, I was able to create a healthy combination of loops.

Then there’s the Barton Creek trail, which I explored on a run with a co-worker from Canada also in town for the conference. Extending southwest, this trail first leads up to the city’s swimmin’ hole, at which point you do have to hit some pavement to get around. But on our first foray we missed the spot where the trail heads away from the creek and found ourselves at an odd dead-end, staring at a dam, a concrete wall, and a fence. Before I had a chance to turn back to find our error, my daredevil companion had shinnied out on the pipe while clinging to the fence and swung himself around the wall onto the other side, which turned out to be the swimming area. I had no choice to follow, though my acrobatics were considerably slower and more cautiously executed. (Easing back into a run along the shore, we were duly chastised by the lifeguard about the ‘no running’ rule. Lifeguard? Swimmin’ hole? January? Right, southern Texas.)

Beyond there, the trail turns rough, rocky, and technical as it skirts small waterfalls, white water, and calm basins. It’s not exactly green, this being a fairly arid climate and it being January, but it feels green enough, and it’s just, well, lovely to be in this space within running distance of the skyscrapers of a major city. An eight mile out-and-back from the hotel got us well into this bit of quasi-wild canyon – which extends much further – which is at times rimmed with civilization atop its walls but is all rocks and trees and water down below.

And the people. These trails are full of people. This system is the life of the town. I spoke with numerous people who told me they’re out there every day. Runners, walkers, dog people, you name it. It’s healthy, it’s community, and it’s a damn fine cure for when you stay out way too late in Austin’s famed music scene. Yeah, I took one for the team, so to speak, and put in one of those ‘I don’t do this very often but yeah, that was awesome’ nights at Pete’s Piano Bar, soaking up the amazing raw talent of the musicians and slicing several serviceable years off my vocal chords despite trying to soothe them with copious amber fluids.
Oh, and there was that now infamous ‘wall of donuts’ at the convention closing party. Yeah, the trails are good for that, too. One last sunrise run before heading to the airport made even that fifteen-and-a-half-hour odyssey getting home entirely bearable.

Austin feels more Oregon than Texas. The river (er, lake) and its trails define it. The community forms around it. It sets a tone that extends well away from the river. And if I had a chance to select the location for a future meeting, it would draw me back.

It was the best of times.