Bryan is navigating. I’m driving. Road 290, also known as 71; but it just threw us onto loop 1 (North). Also known as Mopac. We can still see Blake’s car ahead, weaving slowly between towering pick-up trucks bearing the distinctive logo of the Texas longhorns. We exit the highway (again), then shoot straight through the lights, back onto the road we just left.
We’re navigating the treacherous rush-hour traffic of Austin, on a Friday night. We’d come down to do some bike racing in the hill country, but with that over, it was time to catch up with Blake and Caitlin. When Blake lived in Boulder, he’d always said Austin was a little different than the rest of the Texas. A Boulder-esque bubble of not-quite-corporate-America in the middle of the lone star state. I knew very little about the place – just rumours of music festivals and bars that party long into the night. So Blake showed us the town.
From the northern outskirts of downtown, we made our way to the banks of Lake Austin – the dammed section of the Colorado River (not the one you’re thinking of) that snakes through the city. We found a table on the water, with the sun just beginning to skirt the oak lined hills on the south shore. We found plentiful beer as we watched the sunset. It was a great first impression.
We woke up to a humid morning. The pinion pines around the house seemed coated in a fine silver lining of moisture. Stepping outside into the warm wet air promised a nice day to explore the city, but soon the temperature dropped. We met Blake and Caitlin at Austin Java for caffeination, and in my case, a good dose of eggs benedict. As we sat outside, the the wind picked up, and in no time it was pouring rain. Our hosts were in shock – with a day to spend in the city, and the water rebounding firmly off the pavement outside, we had to alter our plans. We decided to do some culture.
The Texas State capitol building is the biggest in the country – bigger even than the one in Washington. Like all the buildings that house power, they’re designed to look powerful. I can imagine that when it was built on the hill overlooking the river in the late 18th century, it was grander and more important than anything for literally thousands of miles. We toured around in the hushed silence that old places seem to require. I resisted the urge to state that I grew up in a house older than this one (but admittedly a lot less grand). For me, the most interesting thing was the huge mural on the floor proclaiming “the republic of Texas”. Alongside the beer Lone Star, with its slogan of “the National beer of Texas”, it gives an idea of how Texas was viewed by the people who first got here. Still, I’m sure there’s a vocal minority that want to secede from the US, but it’s a funny paradox that being Texan means embracing patriotism so fully, but also holding on to Texas being the best state in the country. I had an interesting conversation with Blake about how regionalist nationalism is an enduring trait of almost all countries. Wherever you may travel, there are citizens of a country who aren’t happy with their place in the nation. Close to my home, we can see this playing out in Scotland with the vote on independence. A less serious UK example is those in Cornwall who think their small chunk of the island is somehow fundamentally different to the rest of it. Having lived in Austria, Tirolean nationalism is alive and well, and the newest example may be the resurfacing of discontent in Crimea. Texas has something going for it, though; self believe. It’s a lesson for everyone really – there is a definite feel in Austin that people get things done.
So after some ‘high culture’ in the heart of the city, Caitlin decide we should have lunch at a more authentic locale. We pulled into a shell petrol station, assuming the car needed to be fed to get us to our lunch stop. But no, in actuall fact this is where we were eating too. It was the first time I’d walked into a restaurant with the words ‘welcome to shell’ written on the door. We lined up between crates of stacked beer to look at the menu. It read “meat, meat, meat, meat”. We ordered some big piles of meat.
We also got to experience a cool line of bars running though a run-down and bedraggled street. We had driven in off the motorway that buzzes along a couple of blocks away. The traffic was at gridlock. After crawling through a couple of really slow turns, we started to see the lights of the bars, and people walking around. It was a contrast from the rest of the city. People don’t do much walking in Texas – the car dominates. The highways and shops are also all designed around cars, too. So Rainey Street was a contrast. The 15 minutes it took us to park perhaps were exactly what the street was going for in its atmosphere – it wasn’t easy and convenient and grab-and-go like the rest of the town. It was little and different and lit with glowing warm lights strung between poles.
Houses had been unceremoniously stripped of their home-like properties, and instead reinhabited with bars and eateries. In dirt parking lots between them, mobile food trucks offered a huge range of delicacies produced on the spot. The atmosphere was of quiet enjoyment – people out in the warm humid evening air socialising somewhere that doesn’t do neon and corporate. We did a lot of people watching.
Austin is an interesting place to visit. It has greenery and water, hills and trails, cool bars and good food. There is a city-wide aim to ‘keep Austin weird’. Weird in the sense that it doesn’t fall into the chain-store America that surrounds it. From my perspective, that wouldn’t be keeping it weird, though. It would be keeping it liveable. Keeping it somewhere that has a name and an identity, a reason for existence and a reason to keep attracting new people. I had very little idea of what Austin would be, so I wasn’t shocked or blown away by the town. It’s just simply a nice place to be. At least in March, anyway.