Distinctly Austin

By Shelly Steig

Town Lake and Congress Avenue Bridge
© David Sucsy

Orange blood runs in my veins. My father graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, a proud Longhorn who sported the team colors and bought my mother a burnt orange and white mink coat. In their apartment near campus, my mother felt me kick for the first time.

It had been more than 30 years since my last stopover in Austin, so recently I grabbed my boots and returned to the city of my roots. And while Austin is much bigger, some aspects haven’t changed. It still celebrates originality, is vibrant and endearingly quirky.

The Archives War

In true Texas style, Austin’s beginnings are marked by clashing egos. In 1838, Mirabeau B. Lamar, then vice-president of the Republic of Texas, was captivated by the region’s beauty, the gently bending river and the rolling hills. Upon succeeding Sam Houston as president of the fledgling republic, Lamar dispatched a surveyor to plan a new capital city named to honor the “Father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin.

Lamar then moved the government archives there. After Houston resumed the mantle of president in 1841, he was miffed that his namesake city had lost its status. So he used the threat of outside attacks to re-re-locate the government. Under his orders, Rangers entered Austin clandestinely and began loading wagons with archives. A local resident heard the commotion and fired off a cannon shot. Austinites chased the wagons and recaptured the documents.

The Republic was annexed by the United States in 1845, but it took two statewide elections to permanently make Austin the capital city. The political wranglings left their mark: when officials sought to place a new university in Austin, they were met with opposition since many felt the politicians’ proximity would corrupt student morals. But the University of Texas won out and opened its doors in 1883. Five years later, workers built a magnificent new capitol building, second in size only to the U.S. Capitol. The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum offer more fascinating glimpses into the personalities and circumstances that shaped the character of Austin.

Today the city boasts 735,000 residents and one of the nation’s largest public universities, with 50,000 students. And in an ironic twist, the flagship campus has influenced the city’s politics: Austin is now a liberal drop in the conservative Texas bucket. It has many other quirks. The sprawling city center with its low-slung skyline feels suburban, because it is dotted with parks and three man-made lakes, and bisected by the Colorado River. It is modern, yet retro; cultured yet kitschy; famed yet unpretentious. And the thread that ties it all together happens to be a guitar string.

Marching to a different drum…or guitar…or piano

Collings Guitar Factory
© Shelly Steig

Austin has branded itself the “Live Music Capital of the World” with good reason. I stepped into the airport and followed my ears to the baggage claim, where a young man serenaded visitors. With 2,000 local recording artists, Austin talent runs deep. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks and Shawn Colvin all have been residents. Throughout the city, every imaginable style of music plays nightly at nearly 200 live music venues. The most famous include The Continental Club, The Broken Spoke and Saxon Pub. Many visitors simply wander down ultra-hip 6th Street and follow their ears to a tune they enjoy.

Radio station KGSR identifies tracks of 500 locals by declaring, “Sounds like Austin.”And funky, independent Waterloo Records & Video features hard-to-find vinyls and a Texas Music Catalog.

On a tour of the Collings Guitar factory I learned about the manufacturing side of music. Collings only finishes five guitars a day — gorgeous instruments painstakingly handcrafted with amazing detail and fabulous sound. Take a virtual tour of the Collings Guitar factory at their website.

I also toured the Austin City Limits broadcast studio. A PBS staple for 36 seasons, ACL hosts one of the city’s well-known celebrations of music, the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Music lovers also flock to the capital city for South by Southwest (SXSW) Conferences and Festivals, a convergence of music, film and emerging technologies.

The recording industry isn’t the only music in town. Austin also boasts a professional opera, symphony and ballet. And there are nearly 30 performing arts theaters, including UT’s, which is one of the largest in the nation.

Weird and wired

Colorful food carts in Austin
© Shelly Steig

If I were to stereotype Austinites I’d say they are exceedingly polite. Even in the worst traffic, there’s seldom a honking horn. They think big is huge, and value honesty, “guts and gumption.” Austin is a city both green and smart: it is the national headquarters of Freescale Semiconductor, Inc., and Whole Foods, Inc., which boasts an 80,000-square foot flagship store. There are more blog contributors and readers in Austin than any other metropolitan city and the number of tech companies has earned the region the nickname Silicon Hills.

Austin residents, with their rollicking humor and keen sense of irony, stoically embrace the stereotypes. For example, a few years ago a merchant coined the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” during his campaign to block an influx of big-box stores. Since then it’s become a rallying cry to maintain and celebrate Austin’s uniqueness. And Austin is unique, and eccentric, and just plain fun. I shopped for well-worn cowboy boots and Western wear on South Congress Avenue (SoCo), which is home to chic vintage shops, small independent businesses and food carts. I also cheered on Baby in “Dirty Dancing” at the Alamo Drafthouse’s Girlie Night. The Drafthouse, a combination movie theatre and restaurant, sells out most of its special features including Music Mondays, Weird Wednesdays, and special sing- or quote-along nights.

Unfortunately I was too late in the season to watch the bat flyover, Austin’s oddest tourist attraction. From April through October, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats roost on the underbelly of the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. Just before sundown, the largest urban bat colony in North America emerges like a huge black cloud, consuming up to 30,000 pounds of insects per night. Read more about the Bat Bridge at Austin.com.

Other unique-to-Austin sites and events include TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls roller derby matches, The Cathedral of Junk and Yard Dog art gallery. And speaking of art, there are 17 major galleries and museums in the city including the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, a park-like indoor/outdoor gallery featuring 130 of American sculptor Charles Umlauf’s pieces. A UT professor from 1941 to 1981, Umlauf overcame difficult circumstances to pursue his passion, and in that pursuit demonstrated the same grit and gumption prized by Austinites.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden
© Shelly Steig

Austin à la “cart”

Austin and Portland, Ore., are currently in a tug of war over which is the capital of the food cart industry. Whoever triumphs, Austinites are the real winners. Moms with kids and men in business suits line up for grub served from fancified carts and retro Airstream trailers. The best of the best? Hey Cupcake!, Torchy’s Tacos and Flip Happy Crepes. You can track the trailers or learn more about what’s served at www.austinfoodcarts.com.

Those who prefer meals off wheels can go gourmet at Ranch 616, Sagra, Olivia and the Mansion at Judges Hill, a lovely, historic boutique hotel and restaurant near the UT campus. Or chow on comfort food at Threadgill’s, Magnolia Café or Artz Rib House.

And, of course, you can always find Tex-Mex anywhere in the city.

Shelly Steig is a freelance writer based in Parker.

AAA Connection
In 2010, Austin has 10 Four Diamond-rated hotels and 6 Four Diamond-rated restaurants. Find Four and Five Diamond-rated properties.

AAA Colorado can help you plan and book your trip. Visit AAA Travel or talk to an agent at your local branch office.

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