When I was twenty-two and living in New Orleans I dodged a hurricane with a long weekend in Austin. I had been working at a restaurant on Magazine Street when we received word that it was going to make landfall. Staff was giddy. This was pre-Katrina. Every year you had five or so major hurricane warnings, and they always amounted to a bit of heavy rain and maybe some moderate flooding. You hit the grocery store (which is also the liquor store, bless you, Louisiana), park your car on the neutral ground (that grass-covered median in the center of the road), and have some friends over. Hurricane parties were de rigueur and often lasted a few days. The news was being typically hyperbolic in their presentation of the story and now the city was urging businesses to shutter for a couple. We’d all just been given a vacation.
I was headed out to join some of the staff for drinks when my friend Sarah approached asking if I’d be interested in making the 9 hour trip to Austin. A friend in the back of the house had some buddies there who would let us crash on their couch/floor. The two of them were going to leave town once he finished breaking down the kitchen from the night’s service. I went home to pack a bag and an hour later they were picking me up.
We got to the city as the day was starting, and set to taking it all in with the unlimited energy of early twenty-somethings. We day drank, saw the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge, waded knee-deep at Barton Springs Pool (nobody had thought to bring a bathing suit), and ate all of the tacos. Saw something at the Alamo Draft House that none of us were sober enough to follow. The Doves happened to be playing so we went to a show. We didn’t sleep. Two days later we drove back towards New Orleans with just enough time to get our friend to his day shift. Austin had won me over.
When J and I were discussing leaving Pittsburgh, Austin had been a highly ranked prospect. Now I was excited to introduce him to the city I had been crushing on all these years. Excited to see how it had changed. Beia was just as eager to show us around. The last time I had seen her, weeks away from moving here, I had told her about my soft spot for the city. Now two years later, Austin had fully ingratiated itself to her, and she was persuading me to reconsider a move.
We three woke up and went to breakfast, which was awesome. If you had told me gluten-free pancakes were to give me a food coma, I would have said fuck you. One of my sisters, Alyssa, is celiac, in a strange turn of events which is, at least in the legendarium of my family, squarely upon my young nephew’s shoulders. Believe you me, little Bennett and I have had The Talk: “Once, young one, your mother could Pong beers with the best of them, but now tis only cider she sips. But seriously, you’ve said “hi” a dozen times already, and you should brush up on your vocabulary. This schtick of yours is going to stop impressing everyone in this family five minutes ago.” In any case, Tapioca flour banana pancakes – ain’t nothing wrong with that.
We started with a late breakfast at Picnik, which is exactly the grass-fed, organic, gluten-free, cold-brewing, ashwagandha adding cliché that Austin’s detractors bemoan. It’s bright and airy, servers are informed and gracious, there are hot pink dragonfruit margaritas, breakfast foodstuffs, the coffee is amazing. If you can hate on anything after a meal there, you’re the bad roommate. Beia went home to steel herself for an evening of being hospitable and we headed out to explore the town.
We chatted a bit more after breakfast before leaving Beia to a pre-shift nap, a tradition both revered and respected amongst our people. Y had found a really quaint and lovely park to take a short and relaxing walk through before hitting a small campaign’s worth of spots in the city. The short and relaxing walk, due to our shared unrelenting and stubborn nature, became anything but. We allowed ourselves to be painted into the corner of a long and angry walk through the underbrush because reasons.
Mayfield Park and Preserve is a small, wooded park with a few short trails and a creek running through it. Twenty-three acres of nature tucked away in the middle of the city. However, its diminutive size was no help in preventing us from losing our way. Despite being a half hour hike, max, from the edge of the park in any direction, our arguments as to the best way out mimicked the day’s increasing barometer, eventually exploding into a blistering silence. We trudged our way through the brush, the lilting sounds of people actually enjoying one another’s company eventually piercing the stillness between us. We caught sight of a trail, made our way up a hill, and vacated the woods.
A very long half hour later J and I had backed down enough to take a walk around the preserve’s ponds and garden. The appearance of two white peacocks among the muster felt like a sign to try to stop ruining each other’s day. With delicately balanced sensibilities, carefully chosen words, and the reckless optimism that neither party would shove the other over, we made our way up to the Mt. Bonnell Terrace to look down at the Colorado River cutting its way through the city.
As tempers cooled and boundaries were re-established or firmly demarcated, we managed to find a modicum of peace in the neighboring peacock gardens, where the universe reminded us we were on the trail with a few white peacocks. Which we wouldn’t really talk about for another few hours because we were still re-living our recent search for Dr. Livingstone, I presume, and way too cranky to talk metaphysics.
Despite the latent crank factor, we still found enjoyment in both geographic and personal surroundings with a handful of hugs at the top of Covert Park (which is anything but, amiright) and the HOPE outdoor gallery, which is a sort of graffiti playground on an abandoned industrial lot. It was inspiring to see groups of kids sprint around with spray cans and wild, creative eyes, about to engage in some victimless crimes. I was reminded of Buddhist mandalas, watching the the layers of paint develop over masterpieces, and seeing the tell-tale traces of their eventual obliteration. There was an artist off to the side, engaged in surrendering a piece of themselves to the abyss, and we both wondered how long the hard work would stay unmolested before the winds of change blew it away like so many grains of sand.
The HOPE Outdoor Gallery is a park which repurposes the foundation of a demolished structure as the canvas for large-scale graffiti murals. We arrived to swarms of young people running around, paint cans in hand. They tagged walls and expressed themselves amongst the wreckage in varying degrees of ability, but with a singular enthusiasm. It was a scene as vibrant and frenetic as the work itself and we wandered through its rubble alcoves, taking it in. The dynamic backdrop is especially photogenic and as the only space of its kind in the country, a general point of interest. A tour bus pulled up, regurgitating its contents of forty or so business-casual convention attendees onto the street. They obediently followed their guide to the park’s entrance. J and I were crestfallen at the thought of the group engulfing the park. However, the guide muttered a couple sentences about the HOPE’s history and herded his sheep back on to the bus. Off to the next sight.
Tempers more than sufficiently cooled by this point, we headed towards downtown and Commerce street to see the bat colony wake up and take flight. We parked and grabbed beers nearby, snacking on some fried green tomatoes before taking a slug of bourbon from our car bar and hoofing it up the road. The sight of the bats emerging was magnificent. Austin, more than any other major city I’ve been to, is in tune with and firmly married to nature. The hillsides are a solid and vibrant green, and the whole city is rife with native grasses, agave, and cacti. To observe a massive colony of bats take to the skies from the middle of a major American city is nothing short of pure magic, and something I never expected to see in my life.
We headed further South across the river to catch the twilight exodus of the Congress Avenue Bridge bat colony. With an hour to kill before dusk, we stopped for beers to smother any residual hostility. Then added a few shots of trunk bourbon for good measure. We followed the parade of people making their way toward the river to catch the spectacle. We waited. The bats emerged from the bridge amassed in wafting waves. They form a stream a million and a half strong, clouds of helpful little pest eradicators drifting miles in every direction. We watched for the better part of an hour until just a few floundering stragglers remained.
Afterwards, we sought out one of the Moon Towers, an old throwback to an age where electrical illumination was an animal we humans were only just beginning to yoke. Our quota of silly pictures filled, we headed to Luke’s Inside Out for some sandwiches great enough to write about, let alone eat. Jesus, were they good.
Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and arguing done right is an exhausting endeavor. Both a bit spent, we made our way to Luke’s Inside Out to indulge in the restorative powers of beer and sandwiches. Luke’s is an unassuming food truck parked between a bar and a cafe. You can have your meal delivered to either bookending establishment. Its menu is small, specializing in sandwiches that are reworked versions of Italian and Asian classics. One could be forgiven for looking at the modest setup, the sriracha aioli listed as an ingredient, the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives logo decal affixed near the order window, heralding the seal-of-approval from American cheese enthusiast and recently electrified human troll doll, Guy Fieri* himself, and think you were about to be treated to Hawaiian barbecue dusted onion rings slathered in Donkey Sauce™. One would be very wrong. Despite the appearance of 2010’s trendiest condiment and a celebrity endorsement from the man responsible for Dragon’s Breath Chili, Luke’s is putting out some badass food. Their flavors are complex, the quality of ingredients elevated, the compositions seemingly ready to burst and yet somehow managing to retain their structural integrity. If I seem wistful, it’s because I am. I yearn for that sandwich.
Not understanding what we were signing on for, we turned down Rainey Street. Driving through the horde of pre-gaming singles stumbling into their next terrible decision only highlighted the fact that we were in no mood to have any part of that. We stopped to pick up some mead and a few beers for the house and went home to enjoy them peacefully, like the old people we are unapologetically becoming. After a bit of conversation, Beia’s roommate, Monster, decided J was worthy of catering to his head-scratching needs, and with J otherwise occupied I went to bed.
We headed back to base, Y falling out cold in fairly short order, and my anxiety still hovering like an Eldritch horror in the skies of my mind. We both know this sort of adventure, this pursuit of the happiest life, isn’t easy, intellectually, but that knowledge will never change the difficulties of the hard moments. With the two of us being especially attuned to our feelings, the dry comforts of intelligence crumble to dust in short order when faced with the hot winds of raw emotion.
*Descriptions of Guy Fieri that didn’t make it into this post:
1. An anthropomorphized Hawaiian shirt, laundered in Jägermeister, riding a crotch rocket
2. A Mountain Dew-stained albino grizzly rollerblading in a tutu
3. A bloated, brocean pufferfish
4. Your ex-roommate, Chad, who shows up after twenty years to embrace you with a tire swing full of nachos (and not the $200 he still owes you). Fucking Chad.