Austin City Limits
I first moved to Austin shortly after graduating from college in 2008. It was my first big move. The first time packing up my all my belongings and driving across the country to live in a new state. Having never been to The Lone Star State, I knew very little about it besides Hollywood depictions and stereotypes. Cowboys. Country music. Steers and queers, that’s Texas, right? or at least according to Full Metal Jacket. For me, it was a place that had music. Austin City Limits was all I needed to know. That was my pull, my draw to the second largest state in the U.S., a place so big it claimed everything was bigger.
Two college friends had made the move a few months prior and had a couch with my name on it, or rather, a space behind the couch where I could place an air mattress. I arrived a little after the New Year, leaving behind a cold, dreary Michigan winter for a cool East-Texas spring. I liked the change of weather, but it took a while for Austin to warm to me.
Being in a new city is like being in a relationship. It’s a process, one that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an exchange of vulnerabilities. You have to completely surrender yourself to the unknown, get out of your comfort zone, and be open to talking to strangers or trying new experiences. Otherwise, you find yourself in a constant state of homesickness, always seeking the familiar. It took me a good five or six months to feel completely at home in Austin. A big part of that was location and having a group of people who were my Austin friends, not friends from back home. You fall in love with the people just as much as you do the place.
For the first few months, I lived way up north near Parmer Road, a good twenty-minute drive from downtown. There was little to do in the neighborhood, another casualty of urban sprawl. The people uninteresting. The landscape suburbia. Getting to the city center, the heart of the place, meant dealing with traffic and parking. I wasn’t connected to the city’s pulse, but rather having a long-distance relationship with it.
When I did get down to visit, the city seemed huge and foreign. I felt small in its vastness and unexplored corridors. My eyes wide. My heart thumping. Where to begin? What to see? Who to talk to? It was all overwhelming. The misfortune of any newcomer is trying to do everything at once. Time is an ally we often mistake for an enemy.
Things changed in early summer when we moved to the Barton Springs area. Downtown only five minutes away as opposed to over twenty. All aspects of my life started coming together. I made new friends, mostly local musicians, and found a decent-paying seasonal job. I no longer had to depend on a map to get around. Streets and places put to memory. The landscape less daunting, becoming smaller and smaller with each passing day.
I quickly learned that Austin, like most hip metropolitan areas, is a city of transplants. It was rare to find someone who was actually born and raised there. My friends a diverse group. Some from West Texas. One from Brazil. Another from Nigeria. Both coasts—East and West—represented. And only one local. Music was the string that tied us together.
I met most of them at open-mic night at the Irie Bean, a coffee shop on South Lamar where Alejandro Rose-Garcia (Shakey Graves) used to play acoustic, long before his drum kit, band, and indie success. Four or five of us gathered there every Wednesday night, sharing songs and stories over cups of coffee and beer. Somewhere along the way we became close friends. Our bond sealed by a trip to New York City to play a music festival in upstate Utica. All great friendships are tied to key events. We are connected to the people we shared it with just as much as the memory.
Perhaps the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had was my first away from home. One of my roommates cooked the Turkey, the other supplied the beer, and I handled the sides. I invited my new Austin friends—equally stranded from family and home. It was a truly multicultural gathering, with a handful of nationalities present: Brazilian, Nigerian, Israeli, Mexican, and Native American, making it a true Thanksgiving of sorts.
I felt truly blessed and humbled to have so many good people at my place, sharing in the holiday. Nothing brings people together like food and music. It was the first time since college that I had a sense of family away from home—something I would experience repeatedly through my many travels both in the U.S. and abroad.
Within no time, my one-year anniversary came and went. Austin was no longer a place on the map. It was my home.
What I loved most about Austin was how green it was. Everywhere were parks, swimming holes, and wooded trails. Some so secluded and pastoral that you almost forget you were in a city. The Barton Springs area and the Texas Hill Country natural works of beauty, with rolling green intermingled with crags of granite and limestone, great for rock climbing. The Colorado River running wide and lazily along the banks of downtown, forming two major manmade “lakes,” Lady Bird Lake (also known as Town Lake) and Lake Austin, before flowing into the much larger Lake Travis, a reservoir stretching over 65 miles. Mount Bonnell, elevation 780 feet, overlooks Lake Austin and its many effluent neighborhoods, with houses and mansions more suitable for Beverly Hills.
What’s also great about Austin is that it’s within driving distance of Texas’s three major cities: Dallas a two-hour drive north, Houston three hours east, and San Antonio only an hour south. In between the urban landscapes are plenty of natural breaks, perfect for camping, hiking, and exploring. About 100 miles west of Austin lies Enchanted Rock, a large, isolated, granite rock standing 1,825 feet. Looking like a crater in reverse, it’s a fun hike, offering panoramic views of the surrounding Texas vista.
Austin’s nightlife never seems to rest. On any given weekend, there’s something going on. Most people wander to 6th Street, where the street is blocked off on Fridays and Saturdays. A college-style shit show ensues and it’s common to see people on the streets passed out or puking or both. The less chaotic 4th Street district is perfect for upscale, young professionals looking for cover bands and expensive drinks. I personally preferred the more punk-rock and hipster areas of Red River and East Sixth, lots of character and easy on the wallet.
Some of my favorite Austin activities included: hanging at Zilker Park, a 350-acre park where the Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival is held each year; paying respects at the Stevie Ray Vaughan Statue on Lady Bird Lake Trail; catching a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse, a theater with cabaret-style seating, hilarious promo videos, themed movie parties, and food and beers delivered to your seat during the film; happy hour on any outdoor patio drinking cold beers chilled in buckets of ice; drinking margaritas and eating Tex-Mex from any restaurant on South Congress; hanging at my favorite dive, The Barton Springs Saloon; going for a dip in the cold, refreshing waters of Barton Springs, a manmade pool staying at a constant 68°F yearlong; exploring all the different springs and swimming holes, including McKinley Falls, Deep Eddy, Bull Creek, Hamilton Pool, and Krause Springs; tubing down the San Marcos River; eating Texas barbeque and brisket, a Texas staple; catching a concert at Stubbs, the Cactus Café, or Antones Nightclub; getting a coffee at the Spider House Café; visiting the Cathedral of Junk, a massive spire of debris hid away in the heart of suburbia; drinking free beers at Independence Brewery Co. the first Saturday of every month; helping to “Keep Austin Weird” at Eeyore’s Birthday Celebration, a hippy festival, with colorful costumes and drum circles held every year on the last Saturday in April at Pease District Park.
Nothing compared to my two favorite Austin experiences: the ham jam and South by Southwest (SXSW). Both revolving around music and unique only to Austin.
The ham jam somewhat of an underground congregation that I only heard of thanks to a few of my musician friends. Taking place the first Monday of every month, it was hosted by a gentle soul named Daren, who welcomed all kinds of musicians into his mansion of a home so that they could do what they did best, play music. It was called the ham jam because not only did Daren offer up his house and hospitality, but he fed the musicians as well, with yummy pre-cooked whole hams for sandwiches and a delicious, baked brie pastry. There were also coolers of beer and bottles of wine to help loosen the creative spirit.
The fun started at around nine and lasted into the early morning. From dusk until dawn, the house rang with music. Every room a different genre. A bedroom would be a jazz jam; the living room, bluegrass; on the balcony, a singer-songwriter circle; down a hallway, blues; the outdoor patio, country. Some nights there was close to a hundred people in attendance, crowding every room and space available, including the bathroom. The latest I ever stayed was five in the morning and the music was still going when I left exhausted and ready for bed.
Whereas the ham jam was intimate and a private affair, SXSW was a weeklong indoor/outdoor music festival in mid-March that took over the entire city. Used as a way for record companies to showcase their up-and-coming talent, it was one big party, with almost every venue downtown having live music of some kind.
Without an industry in, bracelets and badges can run a couple hundred dollars, but I found the best way to experience SXSW was to go the free route. Most parties offer free food, free booze, and a ton of free swag (shirts, CDs, stickers, etc.). All you have to do is register online beforehand. The only hassle is the mobs of people, with most places standing room only.
The best part of SXSW is the randomness. You just never know who you are going to run into or what band you could see. I was front row for Jakob Dylan and the Delta Spirit and caught the Mowgli’s before their song “San Francisco” became a popular hit. Big name celebrities and acts like Bruce Springsteen and Metallica often put on private concerts, but they are hard to get into and require waiting in very long lines.
My most random celebrity encounter occurred in 2012. I was hanging with a group of friends at Zilker Park, where free concerts played throughout the day. On the far end of the lawn, promotional tents gave away bandanas, shirts, and energy drinks. With my hair in desperate need of a cut, I put on a bandana to keep it from blowing in my face and took a t-shirt for later.
At one of the tents, the Texas Lottery gave away VIP passes for the backstage area. The only catch, you had to buy a $10 scratch-it ticket to spin the prize wheel. I bought a ticket, won two VIP passes, and even made my money back on the actual ticket.
One of my friends, Josh Halverson (contestant on season 11 of The Voice) proceeded to drink free beer and vodka-spiked ice teas for the rest of the day. On the second drink, I noticed there was another VIP section, this one with access to the side of the stage. Only people with special bracelets could enter. Not easily deterred, I stood outside the gate, asking people as they left if I could have their bracelet.
The first five people said no. The sixth walked away, but then stopped and came back. “That bandana you’re wearing,” the lady said. “I work for the company giving those away. Thanks for supporting us. Here, take these.”
She handed me two bracelets. Score. Josh and I stockpiled on drinks and then set up shop on the rail, with a perfect view of the stage. The Cult was the headlining act and halfway through their set, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Hey, man, can you hold my drink for me? I’m gonna hop over.”
I took his drink, thinking yeah right, buddy. They’re just going to toss your ass out of here. I did a double take and holy shit, it was Matthew McConaughey. He hopped over the rail, took back his drink, gave me a high five, and then proceeded to play congas with the band. When finished, I helped him back over and then he was gone. We spotted him later in the show, standing in front of the stage with his hot Brazilian wife, rocking out to “Fire Woman,” and doing some crazy Tae-Bo-like dance moves.
Josh turned to me and said, “Whatever drugs he’s on, they’re certainly working.”
That was what I loved most about Austin, its beautiful randomness and creative energy. It was a place for artists and free spirits. Its only downside, it’s surrounded by Texas. To get anywhere fun and adventurous requires a long drive or flying. That was part of the reason why I left; the appeal to see so much more, to discover the magic of Austin in the remaining states I had yet to see.