Don’t get mad, everyone. I know you’ve heard only great things about Austin and you’re super excited to get to visit one day….but I’m here to dampen your expectations. I’m sorry Austin, but you’re really not that cool.
Austin is Weird. That’s their whole shtick. They sell Keep Austin Weird coffee mugs and t-shirts to anyone with a mohawk and a sneer. Okay, that’s a dramatization, they probably just sell them to anybody at all. But the point is that, unless you’re visibly sporting your own counter-culture dress and attitude, you’ll be seeing a lot of dirty looks from Austin residents. I had a meeting with BookPeople in Austin, so I was dressed in business casual clothes and I actually got some menacing looks thrown my way. I understand that, in Austin, wearing anything close to business attire might be the equivalent of stamping “Tourist” on your forehead, and that’s fine. What isn’t fine is when a city’s attitude toward tourists is closer to Get Out than Come Learn What We Have To Offer.
And counter-culture hotspots don’t have to be like that. Portland has their own Keep Portland Weird campaign, but they welcome everybody to join in the weirdness. Boulder is all about alternative culture, but the attitude there is Do Your Own Thing, It’s All Good. Plain and simple, Austin is weird and they don’t want you infringing on their weirdness. It reminds me of this episode of Bar Rescue that I saw once (sometimes I watch bad T.V., deal with it) where the owner of a bar in Austin would purposefully drive away customers who weren’t from the area and assumed that anyone ordering a drink with more than two ingredients was a snob who didn’t deserve to be served. Of course, in the episode they turn the owner’s mindset around and get his bar business going again to cap off their feel-good story, but the initial scenes of that show felt exactly like Austin. There is a definite punk edge to Austin’s particular brand of weirdness, but it’s about the least inviting weird that I’ve ever encountered.
Now I don’t want to pretend like my short time in Austin is the end-all-be-all on the city. I wasn’t there very long and I didn’t visit every place, but these thoughts are all about the general impression that I’ve picked up from my travels and, on that scale, Austin was quite low on the totem pole.
Even the logistics and attractions of Austin left me rather unimpressed. I will give credit to a very cool cafe called Flipnotics that had solid offerings and an outside, multi-level setup that was incredible, but even at the cafe I caught the familiar stench of judgment and “otherness” that I just wasn’t expecting from the town. Parking in Austin is the most confusing thing that I came across on my trip. I saw countless signs pointing in various directions for public parking, but they inevitably lead to a parking lot with signs telling me how quickly I’d be towed without the proper pass or other lots that were filled past the brim and were a nightmare to navigate through. I really don’t think of myself as someone who get’s flustered easily, but I was on wit’s end trying to follow the signs for public parking. Eventually I found a place that definitely wasn’t meant to be for public parking, but it was far enough out of the way that I felt semi-confident they wouldn’t jack my car up on a tow truck in the next couple hours. And in the thirty seconds it took me to walk across the parking lot I had two other cars pull up and ask me if the lot was public, so I know that this problem is at least somewhat common.
The final disappointment of my time in Austin was the bats. Exiting from the Congress Bridge every night in the Summer, up to 750,000 bats leave downtown Austin to go hunting for food. The peak comes in July or August and I was there in early June, so I wasn’t expecting it to be quite the spectacle that I’d heard about, but I was let down even with my lower expectations. In my mind I still had the idea of a lot of bats leaving their homes within a few minutes of each other, resulting in a flock of bats unlike anything I’d ever seen. What I got was a steady stream of bats exiting the bridge for upwards of 15 minutes. It is cool, but it isn’t a sight. Its impressiveness was a result of longevity, not of overwhelming numbers and I almost immediately wanted the five or so hours back that I had spent exploring the city waiting for the time that the bats would set loose. If you aren’t catching it at the peak of the season, you might be better off skipping this event entirely.
And with a sour taste in my mouth, I promptly ditched Austin. Unimpressed from start to finish, Austin was my biggest disappointment on the Booktrip. So I’d recommend thinking twice before making your trip out there. It’s true that it doesn’t share the conservative blooded ferocity that is prevalent in most other areas of the state, but that doesn’t mean it’s much of a gem itself. Until the city becomes inviting in some way (any way) you’re time is better spent elsewhere.