Before I got to Austin, TX, I spent a few days in St. Louis under that ginormous arch. You can’t fathom how big that thing is until you stand beneath it; it’s the largest man-made monument in the U.S., visible in the city from several miles away. I had also gone to the St. Louis Zoo, deciding that my three favorite animals are the sloth bear (think performing bears juggling on roadsides wearing tubular hats), the beaver (what other creatures–besides ourselves–change their environment to suit their needs, rather than the other way around?), and the red panda, with that brilliant, ruddy coat, that bushy, powerful tail, and that scrunched-up Pokemon face. Yes, I love mammals.
I met up with another lovable mammal in St. Louis, Efren, a soul cowboy I befriended in my Chicago days. He drove in from the suburbs and met up with me on my final night in Missouri, relaying some fantastic details about his own 9-month sojourn through Mexico and Central America a couple years back. Originally heading down to Oaxaca to paint murals in a Catholic church, the community took him in as one of their own before he made a spontaneous decision to drive a girl to Mexico City so she could get the medical attention she needed. After six weeks in the capitol he went back to finish the job he was commissioned for before heading to a beach town on the Pacific and somehow falling in with a bar owner with pistols tattooed around his waist who gave him a job, food, and lodging. By remaining open to spontaneity, he came across characters and situations that made my journey seem ordinary. “But it seems like you’ve seen so much,” Efren said. And it’s true. In the words of Johnny Cash, I’ve been everyware, man.
It’s shameful to think what time it was when Efren dropped me back off at the Huckelberry Finn hostel in Soulard (the Soul Yard, I said), a red-bricked neighborhood south of the arch full of beer bars and yuppies. Let’s just say the sky had the rosy hue of daybreak when my head hit the pillow. Thankfully, the Huckelberry Finn hostel concerns itself with very little (including clean sheets and bug prevention), so I slept till near one, there being no checkout time, went through the now-familiar routine of packing my bag, and made my way toward the station for a 24-hour ride to Austin.
When I woke up the next day, we were in Texas. I opened the curtain to cows and fences and a dry, cracked, amber expanse that went on for most the day. The woman in the seat next to me warned me, when I got to Austin, to watch out for West Nile Virus and thugs downtown lurking beneath the bridge waiting to knock me down and rob me.
I had a different experience than what the woman prepared me for. Not only is Austin the capitol of Texas, with a capital building taller than the one in Washington (leave it to Texas), but it’s also considered the live music capitol of the world. Its downtown features row after row of live music venues, although the ones I found those first couple nights while staying at the international hostel on the other side of that “dangerous” bridge had cover bands playing Garth Brooks and the Eagles and appealed to tourists and binge-drinking college students from the University of Texas at Austin. Where were the awesome hang outs on East 6th Street that everyone had told me about?
Sweetpea laughed when I told her where I thought East 6th Street was. I figured Congress Ave., the street splitting the city up toward the capitol and including that “dangerous” bridge (beneath which, by the way, hordes of bats live and emerge each night at dusk in droves before hundreds of onlookers), marked the east-west divide in the city, but the east side was even frattier than the west. Turns out I needed to go further, all the way under the interstate, to find the hipper part of Austin, and on my last night there I did.
My long-time friend Kim from Central Florida lives in Austin now, and she stays on a farm about five miles southeast of downtown. Though she was off hiking in Colorado, Kim let me stay at her place with the goats, chickens, and Sweetpea, her business partner. Sweetpea plays the ukulele, tends the farm, and bar tends at a craft cocktail place on the north side of town. To earn my keep, I put some metal clamps on the hoses in the spiral-shaped herb garden and turned the soil over with the hoe. It was hot, as the temperature routinely surpasses 100 in those parts, and muggy, having poured the day before for the first time in many weeks. I had taken out the bike and gotten caught in the rain. But as I turned the soil over in the garden, I felt as if I were also overturning many of the reservations and uncertainties contained in me.
As a reward for the labor, and just because locals always seem to want to show a traveling visitor the best parts of their home towns, Sweetpea took me to a few of her favorite places to eat and drink on the east side, all locally owned with eclectic, colorful decor, almost like Portland transplanted to the arid cactus desert. We listened to young people play horns, ate pizza from a food truck, met friends and locals and when I mentioned to people, “Texas is awesome,” they’d say,
“This ain’t Texas.”
No, Austin embodies the best parts of Texas. It does things big, including its music scene, its commitment to alternative culture and going green, its capitol building, and its mustaches. It flies the state flag with that lone star to make sure everyone remembers where they are. And not too far out of its dynamic urban center you can find the open space and ranch life we all imagine in the only state with the right to secede from the union.