- By Courtney Runn Special to the American-Statesman
The boardwalk on Lady Bird Lake is a delightful promenade, a constant parade and a public party. It’s a 1-mile-plus trail that has become a crossroads of cultures, rendering everyone equal, from celebrities to locals.
You never know who or what you might see along the water in this boardwalk concert that glides along under I-35 and heads both east and west from there.
You can pick your own route on the boardwalk. The only way to get lost is in your thoughts. But if you want an authentic Austin journey, look along the boardwalk railings for the 36 bronze belts embellished with song lyrics from Texas musicians. Many of the melodies perfectly match the essence of the boardwalk, which opened in 2014. The belts, a permanent public art project, make the perfect guideposts to capture the culture of Austin.
Here are some of our favorites.
Crazy for Cryin’ Crazy for Tryin’ — Willie Nelson
When the idea of building a boardwalk along the lake was proposed, some people thought it was a wacky idea. As the city of Austin and the Trail Foundation pushed forward with their plans, they got pushback. Why spend millions “for 1.1 miles to nowhere?” one opponent asked, even though the boardwalk closed a gap in the lake’s hike-and-bike trail.
Fred Schmidt, a resident in a lakeside apartment complex along the boardwalk, protested the cost of the project and the placement of the path over water. He favored a path wholly on land that would cost less. Today, he’s a regular user of the boardwalk. While it doesn’t follow the blueprint he preferred, he says it’s all “water under the boardwalk.”
The Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line — Waylon Jennings
On warm summer nights, you might see P Curtis Kensinger walking on water. He crosses the water in a ballet of balance, his uplifted arms swaying in step with his feet, which are curled around a slackline (similar to a tightrope). People stop to watch, and often accept his invitation to try out a beginner line.
Kensinger, who goes by the name Tar Zen, meaning hands of Zen, is a slackliner by night and a massage therapist by day. He works just a few days a week, preferring to spend his time out in nature. He’s been balancing on things for decades, starting with fences in his backyard.
“I saw my cat doing it,” he said. “So I thought I could.”
Kensinger is barefoot, shirtless and calm. It’s evident that people come back not just for the slacklining, but for his advice. Boardwalk runners and walkers call out to him, and some stop to give him a hug. He doesn’t care about pursuing material comforts and status, opting instead for crossing canyons and lakes on a flat piece of webbing, one stable foot at a time. Walking across water brings peace and happiness — and a metaphor for life.
“This line is life,” he said. “Life has a balance.”
La Ti Da! — Marcia Ball
Ever spotted a Marcia Ball look-alike on the boardwalk? Well, you should have gotten her autograph.
The famous Austin musician is a regular along the path, but she didn’t know her lyrics were on display until she was walking with a friend when the bronze belts caught their eye. They admired each one, and then a belt looked familiar. “Oh, boy!” she thought.
Ball’s belt reads “La Ti Da!” — both the title and chorus of one of her hits. The classic party song, on her 1989 “Gatorhythms” album, describes the carefree attitude that distinguishes Ball and her audiences.
It was water that first drew Ball to Austin. Born in Texas, she was raised in Louisiana and planned to move to California after college in 1970. But her car broke down in Austin. It was a good summer for water. She spent her first day on Lake Travis, her second at the springs of Hamilton Pool west of town, and her third at a “great party.” She was hooked and never left.
“I’m a believer in all our outdoor spaces,” Ball said. “The parks are the lungs of the city.”
If You Were a Raindrop (from ‘If You Were A Bluebird’) — Butch Hancock
Victor Emanuel is one of the boardwalk’s best-kept secrets. Several times a week, the world-renowned birder walks along the water, binoculars obscuring his face as he mingles among trail visitors. He has guided former President George W. Bush and Britain’s Prince Philip on birding excursions and runs the world’s largest company specializing in birding tours. But along the boardwalk, he helps families and children identify birds.
Most birders choose areas with a higher bird density, but Emanuel likes the boardwalk, which is near his home. “There’s a lot of possibilities,” he said. “You never know what you might see.”
Snowy egrets, great blue herons, great egrets and nighthawks can be spotted from the boardwalk. Emanuel always looks forward to the arrival of ducks. Buffleheads are his favorites, arriving in winter with bodies perfectly white except for deep jewel-toned feathers along their necks and heads. When the sun hits their bodies, their colored heads glow, Emanuel said.
“If you’re connected in nature, there’s beauty all around all the time,” he said.
Emanuel’s next project may be on the boardwalk. He would like to see signs installed to showcase birds of the area. Meantime, if you need help identifying a bird, look for Emanuel. He’ll show and tell.
She’s About a Mover — Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quartet
When you’re on the boardwalk, keep to the right unless passing to avoid collision with some of the path’s most frequent visitors: runners.
Iram Leon is a regular boardwalk runner. He blends in with the other runners, so you’d never know he has brain cancer. Leon doesn’t let a tumor slow him down. He first gained attention in 2013, when he won the Gusher Marathon in Beaumont, pushing his daughter in a stroller across the finish line. Since then, his tumor remains stable and he continues to compete, his 10-year-old daughter now running with him.
Leon is president of Austin Runners Club, which has donated $25,000 to the Trail Foundation. He runs on the boardwalk about once a week.
He runs with music, focusing on the lyrics to escape the physical pain of running. He believes everyone is born a runner. Some stop, but not him. He’s running for his life now.
“You sometimes see the reflection on the lake,” he said. “And you think, ‘I run this town.’”
I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day — Billy Joe Shaver
Jacob Hodges and Emma Miller spent a romantic night on the boardwalk they will never forget.
The young couple, high school sweethearts from Seattle, spent this summer in Texas — Jacob for military duty and Emma for a summer job. April 29 was a sultry, 92-degree evening. Jacob suggested they visit the boardwalk for the first time. Emma suspected something was up because Jacob showed up for their dinner date in new clothes.
Jacob rushed through dinner at J. Black’s on West Sixth Street, insisting they had to get to the boardwalk for golden hour, the time of day best for taking glowy pictures as the sun starts to dip. “Why does he care?” she thought.
When they stopped strolling to admire the skyline, Jacob fixed his eyes on the sky but told Emma to look over her shoulder. When she looked back, he was on one knee. A fisherman congratulated them, a photographer snapped away and Emma cried.
Two-Headed Dog — Roky Erickson
Austin’s homegrown psychedelic rock star Roky Erickson celebrated his 70th birthday on July 15 with a concert and a cake shaped like a big, brown two-headed dog in honor of his classic song from the mid-’70s. This famous frontman of the 1960s-era 13th Floor Elevators band doesn’t have a dog to walk on the boardwalk, but that just leaves more room for all the other dogs.
So many walkers, runners and cyclists take their dogs to the boardwalk that it is not unusual to see dogs recognize each other.
If I Had a Boat — Lyle Lovett
Ahoy! You’re sure to see boats from the boardwalk. There are fishing boats, canoes, racing shells, kayaks, double-decker sightseeing cruise boats and stand-up paddleboards (considered vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard).
Small boats even pass under the boardwalk as they head for shore or to the best fishing spots. Boaters get so close they can converse with landlubbers on the boardwalk.
If you’re on the boardwalk to view a full moon, watch for the informal flotilla of canoes and kayaks that congregate in the middle of Lady Bird Lake on that monthly occasion. And listen while they howl at the moon. Arh-wooo!