Most of Texas is flat, arid, and desolate. It’s the kind of place where tumbleweeds rule, explorers disappear, and jackolopes go to die. People live there through the good graces of diverted water and cheap oil. Cities like Amarillo and San Antonio survive because of technology and persistence. Some would say that’s the Texas way.
In the south-central part of the state, however, lies the Hill Country. Rivers meander through the rolling topography of the Balcones Escarpment to empty, eventually, in the Gulf of Mexico. One such river—the Colorado—winds through arguably the most habitable region in the state. Along the way, it passes the state capital of Austin.
While Austin today stands as a symbol of Texan economic, cultural, and political power, the city is also a place full of paradox and humor. It isn’t only the state capital, it’s a college town with a reputation for great music, a place where cowboy boots and Birkenstocks two-step side-by-side.
When we visited the area, we had a knowledgeable guide, an old friend who’d moved there years earlier. Our friend, whom we’ll call Wilton because that’s his name, owned a ranch about 100 miles west of Austin. When we arrived, he led us on a tour of his ten acres, carrying his granddad’s old .22 rifle, “just in case anything needed killin’.” Luckily, nothing did.
On a good day, he didn't kill nothin’.
After a few days of R&R, we drove “into town.” Anything to escape the quiet solitude of Wilton’s rustic hospitality. The long dusty drive ended at a Texas BBQ. Even though the Ironworks Restaurant sat on a street corner within spitting distance of Austin’s downtown district, it felt as if we hadn’t left the hills. A claw-footed bathtub full of iced bottled beverages sat by the door, waiting for us to help ourselves. The long wooden tables and family-style seating were already crowded with our next best friends. Beer bellies and cowboy hats waved us a “howdy”—and that was just the kitchen crew.
Wilton hadn’t let us down. The meat was so tasty we gave up trying to stay clean after the first rib. We washed it all down with a Big Red soda, which tasted just like bubblegum.
Afterwards, Wilton showed us the sights. We paid homage to the Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial at Town Lake. We photographed the state capitol building, which is one foot taller than the Capitol in Washington, DC (everything’s bigger in Texas). After nightfall, we mingled with the 20-somethings outside the downtown clubs on Sixth and Congress, where we met enough characters to populate a Kinky Friedman novel: punks and hippies, cowboys and geeks, all staggering along to their own inner cowbell.
When you move to Texas, you have to become a guitar-playing cowboy. It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law.
In a head shop around the corner, we found a “Keep Austin Weird” ballcap. Although it seemed like the perfect souvenir for the wacky downtown scene, the slogan actually began as a plea by local small businesses to maintain the city’s cultural identity. It worked better than they could have hoped . . . or perhaps wanted. Now, the slogan lives up to its name, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Wilton then took us to South Austin. While you could walk everywhere downtown, here you had to drive, but South Congress made Disney’s Main Street seem real by comparison. Ceramic figures and artistic graffiti adorned the shops and clubs. On top of one building, a meditating monkey in a fez prayed, probably to Allah. Did it indicate the broadminded tolerance of the Texan locals or was the monkey on the roof to avoid a lynching? It depends on who you ask.
South Austin’s a playful mix of businesses. Coffee shops and antique stores sit alongside gun shops and a meat processing plant. It’s where Bubbaville meets Hippyville, thus the ceramic monkey dilemma. But the area’s residents have agreed on one thing: a slogan of their own, which they devised for their friendly competition with the downtown scene. The motto—tauntingly offbeat yet surprisingly truthful—reveals their own down-home wit: “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”
Lessons Learned: Watch out for the weirdoes—not to avoid them, but to revel in their unique take on Texas life. Austin can be a great place for an adventure, as long as you keep your sense of humor. Texans, especially in that part of the state, don’t take themselves too seriously, except (presumably) within the state capitol building, which they’re quick to tell you is one foot taller than the Capitol in Washington.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
Native Population: 710,000
Normal Attractions: The Live Music Capital of the World is home to South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Oh, it has museums and a zoo, too.
Final Point of Interest: Hippy Hollow is Texas’ only clothing-optional public park. Somehow, we missed it.