Austin has always been an alternative haven in the middle of conservative Texas. Twenty years since his last visit, Barry Divola returns to see if the city’s motto, “Keep Austin Weird”, still holds true.
I first went to Austin by accident. This was back in 1991, when I spent 10 weeks circumnavigating the US, going from city to city on a whim and a Greyhound pass. I met a guy called Nick in New Orleans and we bonded over our love of indie rock, beer and guitars.
"You're heading to Austin, right?" he asked, after I told him that Texas was my next stop. "Um, where?" I said.
I'd planned on going to Dallas (grassy knoll photo opportunities), San Antonio (to see the Alamo) and El Paso (because one must visit any town mentioned in a Marty Robbins song).
Nick espoused the many benefits of Austin: good-looking Southern girls who like to party, bands playing in every bar, great food, cool record stores, 300 days of sunshine a year. He had me at "good-looking Southern girls who like to party."
It ended up being everything he said and more, a laidback university town with an alternative outlook in the centre of one of the most conservative states in the US. Austin is defiantly Democrat while the rest of Texas is Republican. They call it the blueberry in the middle of the tomato soup.
I returned in 1994 with my buddy Frank during a 12-day, 5000km, seven-state road trip from LA to Memphis, where we stopped at every roadside attraction along the way. Outside Austin, in San Marcos, was Aquarena Springs, a strange amusement park built around the talents of a swimming pig named Ralph.
We only spent one night in Austin, but Frank and I talk about that night to this day and it has only become better in the telling. We had the time of our lives, hanging out with the friendly natives, eating excellent Tex-Mex food and wandering from bar to bar to see a series of increasingly wild bands, culminating in an unclassifiable act named Herman The German, a gentleman who played loud electric guitar, hollered at the top of his lungs and wore a German World War I helmet and leather chaps with no pants.
I haven't managed to get back until now. I've returned two decades later to see what's stayed the same and what's changed.
Austin has an official motto: Live Music Capital Of The World.
But it also has an unofficial motto: Keep Austin Weird. Austin-ites have always prided themselves on swimming against the current, but now their secret is out and everyone wants to move here. Big companies such as Dell and Whole Foods call Austin home, and when the tech boom exploded in the '90s, money started pouring in. The hills to the west of the city became a haven for multi-millionaires, or as the locals call them, Dellionaires.
Back in 1991, I remember someone pointed at the Congress Avenue Bridge that spans Lady Bird Lake and said "Don't cross that bridge unless you want to buy drugs or sex."
That situation changed by the time the '90s ended and gentrification got underway. On my first day in Austin, I rent a red Austin B-cycle – one of the share bikes docked in 45 stations around town – and ride across that bridge to the formerly sketchy neighbourhood now branded SoCo, short for South Congress Avenue.
Today it's a pedestrian-friendly street dotted with cafes, restaurants, boutiques and funky stores. You can browse the Willy Wonka paradise that is Big Top Candy, walk into Allens Boots an Australian and walk out a Texan (from the ankles down, anyway) or stock up on your antler and vintage signage needs at Uncommon Objects. At South Congress Cafe I eat a lunch of blackened tuna and drink local craft beer in a mid-century diner setting. For dinner I stand in the ever-present queue snaking out of Hopdoddy and eventually sit down to eat the best burger in town. Across the road at socially conscious retailer Toms, which opened in March, you can buy shoes, sunglasses and coffee and know that your purchases will help provide footwear, eyesight and water to the needy.
One Austin-ite joked to me that the city is now No. 1 on lists about No. 1 cities in the US. It's the fastest-growing city in the country; 110 people move here every day. It ranks in the top 10 for bike and hiking trails. The 17-kilometre Town Lake Trail is used by 7000 people a day, either on two wheels or two feet. Academically, UT (University of Texas) is 28th in the US, but the ranking that most prospective students are interested in is this – it's one of the top five party colleges in the US. Back in 1991, you basically went to one place in Austin to have fun – Sixth Street, or as the locals call it, Dirty Sixth. In my travel diary from that year, I seemed to be there every night. I'm obviously older now, but today Sixth Street seems to be what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans or Beale Street to Memphis: a loud and leery mix of beer barns, covers bands and stores selling tourist souvenirs, including, ironically, Keep Austin Weird t-shirts. At night the street is closed to traffic so the alcohol-fuelled hordes can sway and weave without getting run over.
But now there are areas all over town for drinking, eating and entertainment, including East Austin, the Warehouse district, 2nd Street District and Red River district. Then there's Rainey Street, a former ghost town of neglected clapboard houses. Kickstarted in 2009 by one woman, entrepreneur Liz Lambert, who noticed that the street had been rezoned from residential to commercial, it is now a smorgasbord of bars that cater to every taste. It's only one-block long, but I spend two nights there and can't get from one end to other.
I do manage to patronise the following: Container Bar, constructed from shipping containers; Craft Pride, which has 84 craft beers on tap; VIA 313, specialising in Detroit-style pizzas (they're square and they're thick); Bangers, which serves many variations of German sausage and beer in steins in its fairy-lit beer garden; and Clive, which is decked out like a hunting lodge, complete with wall-mounted moose and buffalo heads. Halfway along the block is a vacant lot crowded with some of the 1700 food trucks that are spread throughout Austin.
If you want to get two Austin residents into a fierce argument, ask them where to get the best breakfast taco in town. It's a highly contested issue, but one name keeps coming up. So on my last day I ride out to South First Street – or SoFi as it has inevitably become nicknamed – and find Torchy's, a food truck in a parking lot. Sure enough, it's great, a soft taco with scrambled eggs, cheese, avocado, green chillis and their special ingredient, crisp corn tortilla strips.
I keep riding and on every block I find an intriguing place to stop and browse: Flashback, a vintage clothing store; Nannie Inez, a modernist design and decor store; Roadhouse Relics, the workshop and showroom of Todd Sanders, who makes neon and metal art (that's his work on the cover of the latest Kings Of Leon album, Mechanical Bull).
I end up at New Brohemia, a vintage men's clothing store, where I meet Stefan, a goateed 22-year-old. I ask him whether Austin still has its weird edge and he tells me about Leslie Cochran, a much-loved local eccentric. He was a bearded cross-dresser who got around town in a tutu, bra, high heels and leopard-print thong. He ran for mayor three times, coming in second in 2000.
"Leslie died a couple of years ago and I think Austin lost some of its craziness with him," says Stefan, who adds that the date of his death, March 8, is now officially Leslie Day. "But even with all this money coming into town and the cost of living going up, I think Austin will always hang on to some of that weirdness. It's just part of the place's DNA."
On my last night I decide to go out with a bit of old-school Austin and head to the Continental Club, a hold-out on South Congress that has been around since 1957 in various forms – supper club, burlesque club and finally live-music dive bar.
The place is packed and onstage is local legend Dale Watson, a 52-year-old with a grey pompadour, a blonde Telecaster, a voice that's heavy on twang, and songs about whiskey, women, or both.
Between songs, a woman hands him a shot of whiskey. He asks her name and where she's from. It's Michelle from Wyoming.
"Wyoming? Well, thanks for coming all this way, Michelle. Here's to y'all…and here's to Austin, Texas!"
And we all raise our drinks and our voices as one: "Austin, Texas!"
The writer was a guest of Discover America, Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau and TravelTex.
FIVE MUSICAL REASONS TO VISIT AUSTIN
With South By Southwest (every March), Austin City Limits Music Festival (every October), Fun Fun Fun Fest (every November) and more, it's difficult to arrive in town when there isn't a festival happening.
Priding itself as "Live Musical Capital Of The World", Austin has a plethora of places to check out bands, including The Continental Club, Stubb's BBQ and Austin City Limits Live At The Moody Theatre.
From the huge selection of CDs and DVDs at Austin stalwart, Waterloo Records, to vinyl revivalists, End Of An Ear and Friends Of Sound, your credit card will take a beating.
Austin is renowned for its musical outlaws, misfits and eccentrics such as Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Doug Sahm and Roky Erickson.
AUSTIN CITY LIMITS
ACL, as the locals call it, is a long-running, award-winning music television show that has expanded into a live venue and annual music festival.
Qantas has six flights a week from Sydney to Dallas/Fort Worth with connections to Austin. See qantas.com.au
The Radisson Hotel Austin is downtown on Lady Bird Lake at the northern end of Congress Bridge. Rooms from $320. See radisson.com.
SEE + DO
Austin is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US. Rocket Electrics rent electric-powered pushbikes from $50 a day and run various city bike tours from $75 (rocketelectrics.com). The Austin B-Cycle bike-share system costs $10 a day and rides of 30-minute duration between docking stations are free (austin.bcycle.com).