University towns rarely let me down. Put enough bright young things with scope to procrastinate in one place and you will inevitably produce an enthusiastic social scene focused on having the most fun for the cheapest price. Which is easy in the US where beers and burgers are bargains.
With one of the biggest universities in America, Austin certainly has the numbers to produce a scene – and what a scene it is. It’s a big call, but I’ll make it: South Congress in Austin is more hipster than Williamsburg, NY. Although perhaps they have an unfair advantage – no doubt it’s easier to track down pre-loved plaid shirts in a State full of farmers.
Boldly claiming the title “live music capital of the world”, Austin sets expectations high. But clears the bar with ease. We’re there on a Tuesday and live bands are playing in all of the multitude of bars and beer gardens dotted along SoCo. It’s not hard to imagine how crazy it must get during the week long South by Southwest festival when dozens of temporary stages pop up across town – in Churches, laneways and drive-in movie yards – to complement an extraordinary number of regular music venues (well extraordinary for an Australian who is more used to music venues closing down than booking out). The festival is firmly on my bucket list together with Eeyore’s Birthday Party – a 50 year old Austin fundraising festival where attenders might, say, swing giant hoola hoops while enjoying live music in the shadow of the Statue of Eeyore – a Winnie the Pooh version of the Statue of Liberty.
Tonight, we skip the busy bars for the more relaxed food trailer park. Primed with veggie sliders packed with avocado and black beans, we kick back and join the locals listening to a veteran busker plucking out some old bluegrass tunes. A young girl nervously asks to join him and suddenly we’re watching the Austin school of busking as the old man coaches her on voice projection and the other skills required for acoustic open-air performance. By the time we retire to our eco-bungalow (when in hipsterville…), they are belting out southern duets which sound surprisingly good for two strangers from different millenniums.
SoCo can at times feel almost like a parody of hipster culture – what with its retro rollerskates, vintage vinyl, fair-trade food and moustached men. But it’s hard to resent it, even a little. Because Austin is one of those places that just make you feel great. The city is so full of life – students riding bikes through the streets, kids dangling from the many tire-swings scattered in residential gardens, toddlers climbing through pumpkin patches as their parents hunt for the perfect jack-o-lantern, middle-aged couples enjoying local beers and local bands under the stars. In an era where so much of our social interaction is done on our Apple device of choice, Austin is a vibrant outdoors community that oozes a welcoming warmth.
As we farewell this glorious student town, I feel refreshed and healthy – full of vitamin D, fresh Mexican food and deep sleep after exhausting days of cycling. If it wasn’t for the size of the utes it would almost be hard to believe we just spent a few days in the Lone Star State. That is, until I spot a man crossing the highway with a dog by his side and a Texas Rat Snake in his arms. Suddenly our “Don’t mess with Texas” souveneirs seem rather apt.