One reason I take road trips is to see old friends again, because it’s a great way to reconnect.  And one of my favorite stops on any road trip around America is Austin, Texas, because it’s the home of my dear friend Joan and her two adult kids, Julie and Lou, all of whom I’ve known virtually my entire life. 

 
 
Above:  I spent five days in Austin, a much-needed reprieve from all the driving I'd been doing the past three weeks.  It was great to see my dear friend Joan again as well as her two kids, daughter-in-law and two grandkids (not to mention the five dogs!)

Years ago, Joan’s husband Ace and my father were colleagues at Michigan State University.  My Dad was a professor of Education at MSU and Ace was one of his grad students.  Our families grew close and after my family moved to San Jose, California when I was a kid, Ace, Joan and their kids would fly out to visit us during the summers.  They eventually moved to Austin though sadly, Ace passed away a few years ago.  Ace was a real character, a proud Italian who made, quite literally, the best spaghetti sauce I’ve ever tasted.  And, like my Dad, he had a terrific sense of humor.  I always made a point of stopping in Austin during my around-the-country trips to see my good friends, including visits in 1995, 2001 and most recently, in 2013. 

Ah yes, the 2013 visit.  I’d been working in Qatar for a few months and flew back to the U.S. for a week of vacation.  After a few days in Portland, I was going to fly down to Texas to see my cousin Steve in Dallas, then rent a car and drive to Austin, where I’d visit Joan and her kids.  At least, that was the plan.  The day I got to Dallas, though, I came down with pneumonia and my cousin Steve drove me to the Emergency Room at 4 a.m.  I could’ve driven there myself just fine but Steve, being the considerate cousin he is, insisted. 

After I spent four hours in the Emergency Room, the doctor concurred that indeed it was pneumonia and gave me some antibiotics, then I left at 8 a.m.  The total bill for my four-hour stay in the Emergency Room?  $12,700.  And since it happened in the U.S., my Qatar Health Insurance covered only a small portion of it.  I had to pay the rest, over $7,000.  Yikes!  Ironically, if I had gotten pneumonia just a few days earlier when I was still in Qatar, the bill would’ve been close to nothing (literally, like $0) because all Qatar residents are covered by the government’s subsidized health plan.  Gee, maybe the U.S. should have something like that, huh?  What a concept.  Americans like to boast that their health care system is the best in the world.  Well, no, it’s ranked about 20th, but it IS the most expensive health care system in the world, that’s for sure.

But I digress.  After leaving the Emergency Room in Dallas, I said goodbye to Steve with a hearty “Thanks” for driving me to the hospital, then I hopped in my rental car and drove four hours down the freeway to Austin.  But I had a quandary now because, while I wanted to visit with Joan for a few days, I obviously didn’t want to give her pneumonia.  The Dallas doctor had assured me that I wasn’t contagious now that the pneumonia had been treated, but I didn’t want to take any chances. 

I had planned to stay overnight in Joan’s house, back in 2013, but that idea, of course, went right out the window (no pun intended), so instead I got a hotel room nearby.  During the days, I did some sightseeing by myself – one day around Austin and the next day to San Antonio where I saw the Alamo – and during the evenings, I came back to Joan’s house.  While she sat at the kitchen table inside her house, I sat out on the front porch 10 feet away and, through the screen door, we visited for several hours each evening.  I never did see Lou, since he understandably didn’t want his young daughter to get pneumonia, and Julie treated me like a leper the whole time (ha! Just kidding there, kiddo).  It was definitely an unusual visit, talking through the screen door to Joan each evening while keeping my distance, but it worked out and, most importantly, she stayed healthy.

My Previous Visits to Austin

 

Hanging Out with Joan... and the Kids... and the Dogs

But on this visit in 2016, I was healthy, too, so I stayed in Joan's house and for nearly a week.  I had a great time visiting with her each evening (sans screen door) usually while watching one of the NBA playoff games.  I spent most of my days working on my website and doing data backups, and one morning I took my truck into the Toyota dealership for its 5,000-mile check-up.  But it was very relaxing after having driven, at times, like a veritable maniac to get to Austin by Memorial Day weekend so I could be in Oklahoma City the following week (more about that in my next entry).

Julie, who’s about my age and lives a few miles away, came over a few evenings and the three of us had a lot of fun.  On Saturday, we all went over to Lou’s house out in the country, and he and his wife Joanna prepared a great barbeque.  Lou has – now get this – five dogs, so I asked him, “Why do you have five dogs?” and he replied with a wry smile, “Because four isn’t enough,” then he went back to grilling the chicken.  I’d met Joanna back in 2001 during a previous visit to Austin and she and Lou were dating then.  I was hoping they’d get more serious because she’s a terrific person and they make a great couple.  And that’s what happened, and now they have two little girls who are, quite possibly, the cutest kids in the entire world.  That’s unofficial and only hearsay, but I do believe it’s true.

So I mentioned Ace’s spaghetti sauce earlier.  Well, one night while I was there, everyone came over and Joan made Ace’s sauce (I was secretly hoping she would) and it was just as good as I’d remembered.  Of course, we all missed Ace, but sitting there with the family and scarfing down Ace’s amazing sauce with pasta, it seemed like he was right there at the table saying to me, “Hey chief,” (he always called me “chief”), “you want some more?”  The next night, Joan, Julie and I went to Chuy’s, a local Mexican restaurant/institution where I gorged on a huge chimichanga and the following night Joan cooked up some Swedish meatballs for dinner.  She’s a proud Norwegian but once in a while, she’ll give in and try something from across the border.  It’s hard for a Norwegian to admit that Swedes make better meatballs (or better anything), but Joan’s a pragmatist – as well as an excellent cook.

All in all, I had a terrific time in Austin seeing Joan, Julie, Lou, and Joanna – as well as the two cutest kids in the world (plus the five dogs).  And it was a nice break from all the driving I’d done the previous two weeks.  I said goodbye to Joan on Wednesday morning and headed to Oklahoma, and as I crossed the Austin City Limits sign heading north on I-35, I was already looking forward to my next visit.

Five Days in Austin