What’s taken me so long to get to Austin? None of my exes live in Texas, so that wasn’t an issue. Over the years, I’ve visited the infamous book depository in Dallas; reveled on the River Walk in San Antonio; had a problem in Houston. Inside that Texas Triangle is Austin. It had occurred to me many times over the years that attending one of the city’s two major music festivals—South by Southwest in March or Austin City Limits in October—might make me hip by association. But it’s not until a June business trip this year that I finally make it to the Lone Star State’s capital.
My long-delayed arrival coincides with an extended streak of 100-degree-plus day. Adding to the atmospheric ambiance, local news reports focus on the arrival of Saharan dust clouds. Trade winds carry these clouds from Africa, up through the Gulf of Mexico and into Texas. They’re hell on your allergies, though the dust-tinged sunsets are spectacular.
So, it’s easy to see why swimming holes are a big deal. By day, the Deep Eddy Municipal Pool is filled with splashy activity. Deep Eddy was the inspiration for the name of a local flavored vodka distillery. And the history at the pool is also intoxicating. It’s the oldest man-made pool in Texas, with a bathhouse built during the Great Depression. Deep Eddy—fed by well water and not chlorinated—got its start as a swimming hole in a portion of the Colorado River, which flows through downtown Austin.
Another evening, I visit the teeming Barton Springs pool in Zilker Park. The parking lot for this natural-spring-water pool is overflowing with cars and rows of glow-stick-adorned bicycles. The pool—where actor Robert Redford first learned to swim—is idyllically surrounded by sidewalks, trees and grassy slopes. Barton Springs is 18-feet deep in some areas; the springs is dammed at the top to create the swimming hole. It’s closed every Thursday for extensive cleaning to make it fit for both humans and the Barton Springs salamander (this is a public pool and a federally protected habitat). The pool is open nightly until 10 p.m.; there’s a small entry fee, but it’s free to enter after 9 p.m.
Austin: What’s in a Name?
The city ought not be defined solely by its soaring thermometer readings. Rather, the focus belongs on an abundance of live music venues, barbecue restaurants, taco stands (for breakfast!), food trucks and coffee shops—and the tongue-inc-cheek names attached to many of them.
There’s something punny going on around here. Witness the Sixth Street wine bar named Pour Choices; the food truck parked just off Rainey Street that serves gourmet hot dogs and is called Glory Hole; the Thai and sushi place I pass several times called Thai, How Are You?
Pushing the envelope further in the name game, one of the featured menu items at Torchy’s Tacos is the Dirty Sanchez—which if you don’t already know is slang for a purported sex act. Look it up.
What else is in a name? Well, when it comes to Austin, an idea recently floated that suggests Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas,” had pro-slavery notions that might deem him unfit to be the namesake of a capital city.
Renaming the city would be political correctness gone amok, according to the twenty-something tech student driver who’d picked me up at Austin Bergstrom International Airport. During a spirited, half-hour chat from the airport to my digs at the AT&T Hotel & Conference Center, he bemoans the “Californication” of Austin. That is, the intrusion of a West Coast-inspired, hipster mindset. He is polite, but he doesn’t believe hippies and progressives belong in Texas.
I guess we’ll see which way the state is leaning after the November midterm elections. Former Republican presidential candidate and long-time Texas senator Ted Cruz is facing a surprising challenge from progressive poster boy Beto O’Rourke (who has country music legend Willie Nelson in his camp). While being driven through Austin suburbs, I notice that “BETO For Senate” yard signs are omnipresent. My friendly tour guide thinks its funny that every time I espy a sign and bark “Beto!” she replies, “Polo!”
One opinion shared by both my left- and right-leaning chauffeurs: Austin is filled with bad drivers—and way too many of them. Indeed, the region is experiencing growing pains. Austin is one of the country’s fastest growing cities, yet is failing at coming up with a transit strategy to meet growing demand.
Another thing to know about Austin roads: If you’re asking for travel directions, be forewarned that locals have slang names for certain streets. San Jacinto Boulevard is “San Jack.” Manchaca Road is “Man Shack.” If someone directs you to “Burn It” you’re looking for Burnet Road.
Get out of your car, get out of the heat and go get a drink. The beers are cheap along East Sixth Street, where there’s somebody banging on a drum set outdoors on nearly every corner. A gauntlet of drinkeries (Happy Chicks, Bat Bar, Chuggin’ Monkey) play loud music through open doors and windows. Some have doormen wearing t-shirts that read “Keep Austin Thirsty,” while others have barkers who yell out nightly drink specials.
Wisely, several blocks of Sixth Street are closed to automobile traffic during nighttime revelry hours.
The Rainey Street Historic District offers less of a college-aged nightlife experience. Once a sleepy residential area near downtown, Rainey Street was rezoned as a business district in 2004. Former bungalows—some with a lot of land—have been converted into bars and restaurants. Just imagine if you went over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house and she had a crowd of strangers on the front porch doing tequila shots.
Rainey Street establishments that will catch your eye include Bangers Sausage & Beer Garden (home to 106 beers on tap and 20 house-made sausages; UnBARlievable, with a giant, colorful giraffe statue on a zoo-like front lawn; and Graj Majal Café & Lounge. Yes, pun alert, the Graj Mahal sign is erected over the house/restaurant’s side garage.
The Hotel Van Zandt is just around the corner from Rainey Street. Next time I visit Austin the plan will be to encamp at the Van Zandt, which is funky and fun (check in and get a welcome can of Tejas beer), music-oriented (from an on-property live-music venue to the cheeky light fixtures in the lobby made of trombones), and exudes healthiness, eco-friendliness and personality.
From modern to historic hotel, I had my last evening cocktail at The Driskill Hotel—haunted by multiple ghosts, the stories go. It’s a genuine, what’s-old-is-new blast from the past. Completed in 1886, The Romanesque-styled Driskill was built with a special ladies’ entrance that enabled female guests to avoid the crude talk of cattlemen who’d be hanging out in the lobby.
Seated in a leather couch at The Driskill Bar, it took all of 10 seconds to fall in love and start tapping my toes to “roll-out-the-red-carpet harmony” of Western Swing music being belted out by the cowpoke-attired Red River Rangers (see cover photo).
Even with sweat escaping every pore in my body, finally getting a beat on Austin was worth the heat exposure. Better sun than snow, is my motto. I made my way all around town—to Zilker Park, where scenes from Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age flick Dazed and Confused were filmed; ambled over the Ann Richards Bridge where hordes of bats hang about; went out to eyeball the ever-changing Graffiti Park at Castle Hill; climbed the steep steps of Mount Bonnell to see the big homes on the Lake Austin portion of the Colorado River; made a pit stop at crowded Oyster Landing; and was driven past the shade trees that cover the affluent landscaping around Tarrytown manses.
Like me, you may have included Austin on your must-see list but haven’t made it a top priority. However, as Matthew McConaughey first uttered onscreen in Dazed and Confused some 25 years ago: “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.” J&J