The Beautiful Weirdness Within Austin’s City Limits
The beginning of January in the “Live Music Capitol of the World” would never be considered high-time, tourist season, or, really, anytime special to visit Austin. With the University of Texas and the state government workers on holiday, I would say visiting the city at this time of year would be considered inopportune.
But all I’ve ever heard about Austin was that “It’s cool.” Right? It’s one of those few remaining cities that actually has personality. A place you should visit once in your life, even if it’s not really your scene and scared the “weirdness” may rub off on you. After all, when you mix cowboys, artists, government officials, celebrities, musicians, students and athletes all harmoniously, it should be a little weird — almost needs to be weird. Otherwise Austin would fade into the abundance of soulless urban jungles where Dallas calls home.
One of the better travel techniques deployed for this mission was to prepare naked. This had nothing to do with being bare-bottomed. Having never been to Texas, let alone Austin, I had no more than a few hints and a vague Facebook message to suggest some course of action for the weekend. Staunch with a new-found trip philosophy, my wife and I walked out of the airport anxiously waiting to find out what the “Austin’s cool, you’ll dig it” suggestions truly meant.
The area of Congress Avenue south of Lady Bird Lake is home to an area of bars, boutiques and street vendors dubbed “SoCo.” We were fortunate to arrive on the first Thursday of the month, so greeting us was a frenzy of activity unlike any other boutique district I’ve been. The shops sported tubs of free beer, selections of wine paired with cheeses, and sale items lining the shelves. Each stop filled its own niche of locally produced and offbeat items from t-shirts to jewelry, art to music.
Musicians opened their cases and defied the cold temperatures of winter to find comfortable street corners. Sounds of the nearest local talent spilled onto the street from adjacent courtyard stages. Mesmerized, I survived a crowd offering free hugs and past lively capoeira groups with more than enough free Lone Star Texas brew to fuel me for the evening. “If only all shopping experiences were like this . . .” I thought to myself.
Soon enough, it hits you: Austin drips . . . with talent that is. And talent seems to breed talent — damn those vicious cycles. Any musician who’s anyone has ties to the place. Stevie Ray Vaughn and Willie Nelson are pretty good company. Actors and actresses are drawn to the city’s creative side; Own Wilson and Sandra Bullock (who, I’m sure, missed my letter telling her I was visiting) reside there. The health consciousness of the city that gave rise to the Whole Foods Store empire also attracts world-class athletes such as Andy Roddick and Lance Armstrong.
One Ball Coffee
With one of the greatest cyclist in the world living in Austin, it’s only natural the greatest bike shop in the world resides there as well. Maillot Jaune is translated from French to mean yellow jersey, of which Lance owns seven. All of them are hung on the walls of his bike shop in downtown Austin called Mellow Johnny’s — the Americanized translation. If you have ever put a card in the spokes or ghostied your bike off a dock into a lake, this place is a must-stop.
In a refurbished warehouse, Mellow Johnny’s serves less as a shop and more as a cycling temple. The main floor is as a fully functioning bike shop. It has racks upon racks of two-wheeled chariots, any accessory imaginable, and Lance paraphernalia. The downstairs is a functioning museum. Poised dramatically on a lit stage sit Armstrong’s custom bikes. The building is abuzz in daily bike activity.
Commuters stop by the in-house Juan Pelota Café (meaning one ball, a wordplay based on Lance’s testicular cancer) for a cup of joe before the work day. Tourists snap pictures of the yellow jerseys before renting bikes, and employees pitch the latest bike technology to customers while the mechanics are hard at work behind the bike stands. Mellow Johnny’s has a welcoming energy, casual feel, and unique style. It’s hard not to realize its existence is, in part, a result of Austin itself.
The minute we left the front doors of our hotel and turned left, we noticed an unmistakable thumping in the distance. As we approached Sixth Street a smooth riff drifted over the drums, moonwalking through the large open windows and down the street. This district can be heard blocks away; proof that the live music capitol is living up to its name. We passed some orange barricades and continued down the dotted line in the center of the street. Blocked off to traffic, people ebb and flow from bars to food vendors and back again. To the left was blues music from middle-aged men living out their dream. Past the people dressed as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on my right was a brand of irresistible acoustical stylings. We ducked in and grabbed a drink.
The lyrics were true, real and even raw at times. His voice erupted, more from emotion than anywhere else. His artful guitar was an extension of himself that blended seamlessly. Watching James Moran live was something special — a kind of musical nirvana, his talent dripping from the edges.
The seven blocks of Sixth Street is still the beating heart of Austin’s entertainment district. Lined with historical buildings holding fast to the days of Pecan Street, they now house bars, cafes, tattoo parlors, film houses and restaurants. The varied music, from down-home Texas country to punk, draws an equally eclectic group of people, all of whom seem to be chasing the dream, finding the dream, or truly living their dreams. Somewhere within that dreamy continuum, I find myself.
Experiencing this city, if only for a few days, it’s evident Austin possesses something other places do not. In my search for verbage to describe this pulse, I may have dug too deep. The city may simply be content — comfortable in its skin. It may simply be the trademark “weird” that makes this city so beautiful.
It’s undeniable the glass and metal of progress lurk in the shadows. It creeps ever closer to Austin’s spirit poised to chink the armor of weirdness. Fortunately, what makes Austin weird, also makes it strong.
And you don’t want to mess with weirdness, you want to embrace it.
By Jon Wick
About the Author
Jon Wick was pulled by the education universe from his home in Wisconsin to Iowa, Alaska, and finally into an elementary position in Montana. He entered the realm of travel writing while on sabbatical teaching English in Korea.
You can find Jon at TheExpeditioner.com as the Managing Editor and in-house bike mechanic, authoring the series of QWick Guides for Montana trails, and pursuing his Master’s Degree in Technical Communication at Montana Tech. Jon is also co-editor of The Expeditioner’s Guide to the World.