“Texpert” Howie Richey’s answers: “Just as NY is about being rich And LA is about stardom, Austin is about self-expression. Austin has an unusually high percentage of locally owned businesses. Add to that the liberal influence of the University of Texas and Texas state government, and you’ve got a melting pot of rugged individuals. By the way, the Texas Legislature only meets every other year…now that’s a little weird! But Austinites celebrate weirdness with pride and interpret ‘weird’ as different and unique. Austin’s uniqueness has helped make it one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.”
Horseshoe Bay friends raved to me about the “Keep Austin Weird” tour guided by the Texpert, the expert on all things Texas and specifically Austin. Not only was my tour fascinating, it was peppered with Richey’s extemporaneous puns and jokes. There are many Austin tours and guides available, but few can match Richey’s unique combination of incredible knowledge of the area’s history and geography, years of tour experience and humor. As we walked into a small local grocery store, he pointed out a No Public Restroom sign and said, “I was hoping for a private one.” Come expecting to learn and laugh, and try to stump the Texpert with your most burning question about Texas or Austin history or geography.
Richey was exposed to Texas history at a young age by a scholarly uncle. He soon became fascinated with the Lone Star State and made a hobby of studying maps, books and travel brochures on the subject. “I grew up in Corpus Christi but we spent summer vacations in the Hill Country. Instead of warm salt water, the rivers there flowed cold; not sand, but limestone rocks lay beneath our feet; and in contrast to flat coastal plains, cliffs rose towards the sky. If these two parts of Texas were so different, I wondered, what about the rest of the state?” He enrolled in UT in 1971 and took every course available about Texas. After he received his degree in geography, he began teaching classes and leading tours. Richey was also one of the voices on Austin radio station KUT (90.5 FM) for 19 years. He can currently be heard on station KOOP (91.7 FM) on the “Shades of Green” program promoting outdoor events. In addition, he teaches “Becoming a Tour Guide” classes. Along with touring and lecturing, he is nature program director at Rancho Richey Refuge, a family-owned preserve near Belmont, Texas.
Richey’s green Chevy suburban arrived on time and well prepared with a printed itinerary of my tour. He also has vehicles available for larger groups and will pick you up anywhere in Austin. Times of tours vary, but the Keep Austin Weird Tour is about three hours. Below are my favorite moments and a few of the Texpert’s teachings.
Our first stop was in South Austin, which the Texpert referred to this as “Austin’s weirdest area.” He explained that the city of Austin originally covered one square mile and was called “Waterloo” when it was founded in 1839. When the Colorado River flooded, everything south of the present Congress Avenue bridge would be cut off from the rest of the city. The South Congress (SoCo) area was in decline for years but has experienced resurgence in the late ‘90s to present day. The appearance of several airstream eateries here adds to the area’s funky personality and vitality. Hey Cupcake is my personal favorite. I devoured the standard-vanilla cake with a chocolate buttercream top, but you can find your favorite among the other choices, including strawberry and red velvet cakes. For a great cup of coffee, try Jo’s Coffee Shop but be prepared to stand in line amongst those eager for Jo’s famous lattes and pulled pork sandwiches. Right next door is the boutique Hotel San Jose, which was built in 1939 as an “ultramodern motel court.” The beautifully landscaped courtyard bar is popular with Austinites. Browse the SoCo shops for that unique gift and don’t miss “Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds,” the store of choice for many HSB residents for Halloween costumes. You will also find an enormous collection of costume jewelry, sunglasses and other accessories.
If you aren’t into eating “on the hoof” as my British friend calls it, try one of the many great restaurants on South Congress. You may see many of your HSB friends at South Congress Café (terrific for brunch), Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar, Guero’s (Mexican food), Vespaio (Italian) or Woodland (Southern cooking) with its tree bark façade and a live tree inside. The Magnolia Café serves classic American fare 24 hours a day. Texpert pointed out the weird sign outside Magnolia, “Sorry, We’re Open.” South Congress is casual, affordable and fun, and on a sunny Saturday we saw students, musicians, business people, couples with young children and everything in between strolling along the wide sidewalks and enjoying the shops and restaurants there.
Next on tour was a look at some of the homes in “quiet South Austin,” as one real estate offering describes it. Like many older areas of Austin, lots are small but the homes are generally well maintained. Texpert pointed out one ten year-old-home that looks quite unremarkable from the outside, but its thick walls are made entirely of straw bales. The most whimsical house we saw (from the car) was Casa Neverlandia, which Austin artist Talbot calls a work in progress. In 1979 he bought the 1906 bungalow and has added shimmering Plexiglas mosaics on the facade, glass brick columns peering through the cedar and oak trees out front and four fire poles between floors. Climb the backyard lookout tower for downtown views over the treetops of Austin, then walk across the chain-and-truss bridge to the third-floor balcony. From there you can slide down a fire pole to the second-floor balcony. For tours, available by appointment to parties of 10 or more, ($10 per person) contact Talbot or his partner Kay Pils at firstname.lastname@example.org.