Doug Stienstra, Austin writer on a mission

Writer Doug Stienstra arrived in Austin in November 2011.

“I loved many things about Austin,” the native Iowan, 27, says. “The self-starter culture of entrepreneurs, artists and musicians. And there’s so much to do. So many ways to meet people. … Austin is place of discovery for me. I’m discovering what I’m going to do with my life and what I enjoy the most.”

I met Stienstra at a BookPeople signing for “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories.” He expressed interest in local lore, so I invited him to join seven other history buffs one morning as we searched for the entry and exit points of the Chisholm Trail fords on the Colorado River. Next, we sat down over coffee and tea at Seventh Flag Coffee, partly to talk about whether he should attend graduate school to study journalism.

Doug Stienstra, writer.

Since he currently holds down a good job at Facebook and already has worked for Apple, I advised him to stay employed. Avoid all student debt. Instead, I’m exchanging a structured weekly course in journalism for his help in creating an eBook version of “Indelible Austin” with geo-locating links. One of his past projects was working on the ground for Apple Maps. Just another boost to the “sharing economy.”

Our first writing exercise: I profile him; he profiles me.

Stienstra was born in Estherville, Iowa, about three hours from Des Moines. He grew up in Orange City, Iowa, about 90 minutes southeast of his birthplace. “It’s known for its Dutch heritage,” he says. “There’s a tulip festival and most people have names like mine that you can’t pronounce.”

Both his parents descended from Dutch immigrants, though for a while, his maternal grandfather claimed some German heritage as well. Turned out, he’s 100 percent Dutch.

“I went to the town of Steins, Netherlands, where we came from,” he says. “The ‘stra’ means ‘from.’ and ‘stien’ is probably Old Dutch for ‘stone,’ though I’m not exactly sure.”

Did he feel at home in Stiens? “Yes, there were lots of tall, skinny, blue-eyed people there.”

Did his mother have her hands full with four Dutch-American sons? “You have no idea.”

As a child, Stienstra was curious, shy, always outside exploring.

“I was obsessed with snakes!” he says. “I read a lot about them. Snakes were my life at the time. It was weird. I emailed a herpetologist and went out looking for rattlesnakes when I was in seventh or eighth grade.”

He learned to play drums and piano and joined a high school band. Yes, he went through a heavy metal phase. Now he’s mostly a music fan, another reason to love Austin.

Stienstra didn’t jump on the education train until college, where he majored in international studies with emphases in anthropology, entrepreneurism and a dab of philosophy. He’s fluent in Portuguese and German. He lived in Switzerland as an exchange student in high school, then spent two years studying abroad in Brazil before finishing his degree at the University of Iowa.

A Brazilian former girlfriend inspired his first start-up, FlashPals, which were essentially stuffed-animal flash drives.

“I looked around and found a cheap teddy bear online,” he recalls. “I was pretty sure I could make something better than this. So I gathered up material: Finger puppets and flash drives for the first version. It was adorable.”

And young women, especially, loved them.

“When you see a clear demand, you are onto something,” he says. “When I came back to the States, I worked some more on it and launched in 2011. The local paper ran a short profile, which led to a bigger city paper, then Entrepreneur magazine. That’s when I decided to take it really seriously.”

At first, he assembled the fuzzy drives by hand in his living room while watching movies, then he worked out a mass supply chain in China after visiting a trade expo in Hong Kong. He found, however, no real mass market for FlashPals.

Stienstra moved to Austin when his now-fiancee, Texas-born Monica Castillo, landed a job here. Before Facebook, he worked under contract for Apple Maps, researching locations and correcting them. He then transferred to the “ground truth team” after a call went out for Portuguese and Spanish speakers who were willing to travel up to 70 percent of the year.

Stienstra: “An easy choice for me!” He worked in Australia, Singapore, France, Germany, Brazil and, of course, the U.S.It was during his travels that Stienstra starting writing the blog, Life on a Planet.

“It was mostly a way to digest what I was experiencing,” he says. “I was meeting so many interesting people and encountering fascinating cultures. It was mostly for myself, but also for others to see what I was up to.”

Now he’s on a mission to make that impulse into something much more.

Best Texas rivers: San Marcos River

This repost of our Texas River Tracing of the San Marcos is part of an effort to collect records of all 50 trips, some still in progress. Go here for the most complete links.

I had always wanted to visit Palmetto State Park, located on a lazy stretch of the lower San Marcos River. Since childhood, I had read about its semi-tropical vegetation, overflowing mudpots and warm springs. Quite the contrast to the prairies and post-oak breaks on the rolling hills above the hidden valley. (Sorry, that’s still Luling directly below.)


What I didn’t know was that the park encompassed the town of Ottine, an open spot that looked not much different from a mid-19th-century, pre-commercial settlement. It had been requisitioned by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression — fascinating panoramic photos can be found n a hallway at the park headquarters — and a large, white, tiled sanitarium building remains, practically the size of the rest of the hamlet.


“It was a big place during the polio days,” my father told me the next day. Who knew? We hiked the trim trails to find sensibly laid-out campgrounds and family activities abounding on an Easter weekend. I didn’t see much in the way of tropical overgrowth until we headed around the oxbow lake, which led us to view reminiscent of the Old South.


Earlier, I had spied this snake, which at first looked to me like a copperhead. Later I identified as a broad-banded water snake. Not so scary.


Our last glimpse of the San Marcos was from a high bridge reached from a lonely Gonzales County road. The wood slats were breaking up and the steel spikes rattled in their holes. The whole experience rattled me too, as I stared down at the river, which had turned gray-green from its upstream blue-green.


As usual on a river tracing, we couldn’t access the actual mouth of the river, which converges with the Guadalupe just above the large town of Gonzalez. Bothersome, it sits behind private-property fences guarded by herds of curious cattle. Still, the San Marcos is pretty dramatic for such a short river. I can see why it remains so popular, recreationally, although far less developed than the upper Guadalupe. And for good reason. The floods, ladies and gentlemen, the floods.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to

Best Texas rivers: San Jacinto River

For our 10th Texas river tracing, we chose the relatively short San Jacinto, which played significant roles in the early colonization of the state, the war for independence and the development of the Houston Ship Channel in the 20th century. My childhood associations with the San Jac were split between a fondness for its sandy banks at Camp Strake, our Boy Scout redoubt, dotted with shortleaf and loblolly pines, sweet gum, yaupon, bay, magnolia and dogwood, and the horror of the lower river’s pollution, flooding and general industrialization.

jacinto3The West Fork of the San Jacinto (above), a little over 90 miles long, rises among pastures and hardwoods near Loma, 30 miles west of Huntsville. In a bad sign for the river’s ultimate health, the stream’s first appearance is clogged with manmade debris.

Luckily, it snakes through the Sam Houston National Forest, immaculately tended by the U.S. government, with nature preserves and recreation-friendly Lake Conroe. The upper parts of the lake are gorgeous and include homes for the red-cockaded woodpecker and the pileated woodpecker (which we spotted).

Below the national forest is a small state forest and the relatively sensitive development of The Woodlands. We stopped at this little spot southeast of Conroe.

The Jesse Jones Nature Center and Museum along Spring Creek, a major San Jac tributary — and there are many — is minutely interpreted and so calming, with its cypress stands, oaks, hawthorns, sandy beaches and picnic areas, it just makes you resent the ugly developments along nearby FM 1960 even more.

But soon, the West Fork is ravaged by short-sighted subdivisions, strip malls, disturbed land and vain attempts to stop the dangerous dissolution of its banks as it nears Lake Houston, the city’s major water reservoir and a recreation-heavy locale most Austinites see from the air when landing at Bush Intercontinental.

jacinto7The East Fork, only 60 miles long, trickles through the Sam Houston National Forest, but to the east of Huntsville. Without a major lake, this stretch feels more backwoods as one winds down old logging trails. It empties into Lake Houston at a large recreational park in a heavily populated suburb.

The navigable San Jac proper, just below the dam at Lake Houston, spills almost immediately into the Galveston Bay system and the vast complex of wharves, refineries, warehouses and factories that fuel the Houston economy. We skipped around to the San Jacinto Battleground and Monument, hoping to make the tower before the 6 p.m. closing, but, predictably for a state attraction, the tower elevators actually close at 5:30 p.m. (Find that anywhere on its site.)

So we headed north and east to the Anahuac National Wildlife Preserve, which sits at the head of East Bay and is home to dozens of migrating and resident birds, alligators and lovingly preserved marshes, prairie and bayside. A cleansing way to end a day on a much-maligned river system.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to