Thursday, May 29, 2014

Getting Crazy Weird in Austin

Somewhere on 6th Street. That's where it happened. The realization that Austin really is...weird.

But in the best sense.

This past Memorial Day Weekend, I traveled to Austin, Texas, for my friend's bachelorette party. After grabbing my bag and hopping on the MetroAirport bus ($1.50 to the city - what a deal!), I made my way downtown to the Omni Hotel, where our group was staying. Only four of us were there early on Friday, so we decided to explore the city a little and get some lunch on South Congress (SoCo).

We decided to go to Magnolia Cafe, because, apparently "Everybody Knows - Everybody Goes." We were welcomed by a neon "Sorry, We're Open" sign, which may have been a hint to the oddness of Austin. But I thought nothing of it, since I'd seen similar signs in Chicago and elsewhere. There was a short wait, so we went next door to Prima Dora, a little gift shop with Austin souvenirs and crafts from local artists. This is where we saw our first (but definitely not our last) "Keep Austin Weird" mementos.  I knew this was a common saying in Austin, but I never realized the sheer ubiquity of the phrase until this past weekend.

It was fitting that I should see these funky, tie-died souvenirs within the first few hours of the trip, because it only got stranger from there.

After lunch, we walked down SoCo, where we found some eclectic places, lots of interesting gifts and trinkets, plenty of cowboy boots and more than a fair share of food trailers. We even sampled some rather off-beat drinks, including cilantro lemonade, which I did not expect to like, but actually found extremely refreshing.


That evening, we took part in a dance class at Broken Spoke, one of the last of the true Texas dance halls. But not before one of the craziest, weirdest cab rides of my life. Our driver held what looked like a conga drum and played us some interesting versions of popular songs during our drive. He also liked to honk his horn at so-called "douchebags," crack jokes non-stop and give us all multiple compliments (of various appropriateness). Needless to say, we got more than a few looks as we drove by, but I think many of them must of been visitors, too, because this kind of peculiar behavior is common in Austin, right?

We arrived at Broken Spoke just in time for the class. A tiny, very tanned woman stood at the front of the dance floor telling us all about the Texas two-step and the history of the dance hall (she did more talking than dancing), and then showed us some basic moves (slow, slow, quick, quick, slow). I'll admit that we weren't the best dancers, but we spent the rest of the evening swinging around the dance floor with various gentleman who asked us to dance (including a suave 70-year-old man and a crazy talented 19-year-old kid who claimed to work for Disney and had plans to be on Dancing with the Stars, no joke).


After we'd had our fill of dancing, we left the Broken Spoke and headed back downtown to 4th Street, where we hopped from bar to bar collecting interesting folks (mostly men) along the way. We hit a couple gay bars, but it must have been near closing time, because the dance floors were practically empty. The bride-to-be wanted to keep going, so we found another gay bar that stayed open until 4am (don't ask me the name, because I couldn't tell you). But when we got there, we discovered that Austin bars stop serving alcohol at 2am (or at least this one did). Why then would you bother staying open until 4? Just strange.

The next day was spent relaxing on the calm waters of Lake Travis, where we rented a pontoon boat for the afternoon. A few hours of basking in the intermittent rays of sunlight, quick dips in the refreshing lake and a couple drinks, was all we needed to gear up for another long, weird Austin night.

That night, we hit 6th Street, unaware of exactly what we were getting into. Apparently, there are two sections of the street that are polar opposites of each other. West 6th features trendy, contemporary bars and rooftop lounges, exuding a sense of fun sophistication. East 6th is packed with a variety of sports bars, cheap dives and college hangouts. Guess which side we ended up on.

The night started at Cheers, a joint known for its array of shots. We met a bachelor party, and they bought us a pickle shot (vodka and pickle juice), and claimed it was delicious. I completely disagree! A couple more cheap drinks there, and then we headed to Maggie Mae's, one of the nicer bars on this strip of 6th. We walked into a New Orleans-style courtyard, with the night sky above our heads, and then made our way up to a huge rooftop deck where a large screen projected music videos in front of a dance floor. Most of our time was spent overlooking the street outside the bar, which kept getting busier and busier by the minute. Before we knew it, the whole street was swarming with people...of all different colors. It was one of the best places to see how peculiar Austin can get.

And that kookiness spread throughout the bars. The next place we hit featured a mechanical bull (the bride-to-be gladly took a ride), and more than one slightly creepy guy making candid comments that nearly made my jaw drop. We ended the night dancing on the bar at a place called The Library, which is kind of ironic but seemingly appropriate for the city that has truly caught us all by surprise.

As we fought our way through the streams of people pouring out of the bars at closing time, we came across plenty of quirky characters that forced a second look. Despite my awe, I couldn't help but laugh. This city gave us some crazy memories unlike any other, and I can't help but credit Austin's weirdness for that.

Our last full day was spent hanging out at the rooftop pool of our hotel, where we met some local guys who were oddly entertaining and more than willing to put our drinks on their tab. The afternoon was spent chatting about the most random topics (Game of Thrones, styling hair, proposals, etc.), meeting other groups hanging around the pool and reveling in how different Austin is from the rest of Texas. In fact, a guy we met from Dallas even said Austin should be a separate state.

I went to Austin once when I was 15, but it has changed significantly since then. The city has boomed in just the last 10 years, becoming one of the top destinations in the country. And as much as I've written about the city and all the great reasons to visit, I hadn't experienced it first hand. The curious nature of Austin is a bit bewildering at first, but once it settles in, you wouldn't want it to be anything other than beautifully weird.

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