Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mess With Texas & Keep Austin Normal

Allens Boots
As you shunt off the main artery, I-10 onto State Highway 71, one can begin to feel the pulse of Texas again.  The Industrial Country Market describes itself as, and I quote, “asustainablealternativeretailsurplusgardeningartsynativefolkfunplace”.  If you pass the solar panels and the glass bottle & bowling ball trees, you should turn around. It’s worth it. There are hydroponic gardens and greenhouses accented with recycled art and local products. It may be the only place in the world where you can buy a Mexican blanket, Indian curry products, Texas-made earrings as well as take a solar power education course and compost your own poop all in one stop. The woman at the counter fanned out a deck of cards and said with a smile, "pick a card." I picked the 10 of Spades. "Look at that," she said, "you get a 10% discount!"
reused circuit board ceiling of the composting toilet outhouse
And this is what makes me feel good about Texas all over again: people who pull themselves up by their locally-made, reused leather bootstraps and do some good in this beautifully-shaped state. 

If you have been to or live in Austin, you are familiar with the ever-popular slogan, “Keep Austin Weird”.  I’m going to let you in on a little secret…Austin is not weird. Austin, in fact, is the southern poster child for the new normal. 

You know what’s weird? Driving up, down and across most of the major highways in the US and repeating the same commercial mantra every 5-20 miles: McDonald’s, Chik-Fil-Gay, Bass Pro Shops, Cracker Barrel, Shell, BP, Cracker Barrel, outlet mall, Panera…did I mention Cracker Barrel? Homogenous landscapes are WEIRD to me. The feeling you get is not carsickness; it is an overdose of corporate déjà vu. This country is in serious need of a local injection...and it's happening...slowly.  Austin is the epitome of local. In fact, the "Keep Austin Weird" campaign was started by the AIBA (Austin Independent Business Alliance) in an effort to support small business. BookPeople, Allens Boots, Waterloo Records, the Mighty Cone, Austintatious Blind & Shutters, Wheatsville Co-op, and Deep Eddy Vodka are just a drop in the ocean of small/local businesses endemic to Austin. It was refreshing, for once, to have to really look for national brands. I was so enraptured in local fare that I barely even felt the 10 straight days of 105 degree heat.  I managed to get a few runs in while I was there, but I soon learned that any run after 8 am was out of the question. During these runs, I heard a lot of squawking, and just assumed that there were an unusually large number of parrot owners in Hyde Park, where I stayed. As I ran to the UT intramural fields, however, I discovered hundreds of Quaker Parrots (Monk parakeets) foraging in the fields and nesting in the stadium lights. Named for their modest shade of green, these feral birds have also taken up residence in Brooklyn, Chicago (also in Hyde Park), and Miami. Apparently, they have been here since the 60's.  How they got from Argentina to Austin is still in question, but whatever the case, they're local now.

My deep connection to Texas is in the Hill Country just outside of Austin. Many childhood memories were engraved in Wimberley. My grandmother, Gammy lived on Collins Court--named after her because she was the only one on the street.  The population has increased 10-fold to 4,000 since I was a kid. Although I went to a new restaurant called The Leaning Pear, my old haunt was the Cypress Creek Cafe.  The last time I went there (several years ago), I ordered a beer and was asked if I had a drinking license. That's right, before 2008 you needed a license or "membership" to drink, some of which cost a whopping $1.00 for the year. Since then, there have been a slew of wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms that have infiltrated Wimberley. And many of these wines are damn good, which is not surprising as Texas is one of the oldest wine growing states in the US. However, Texas is STILL recovering from the effects of Prohibition with 25% of 254 Texas counties still not legally able to whet their whistles. A little known fact among common folk like myself is that the Texas wine industry saved the French wine industry from going belly up in the late 1800's. A beautifully named, but devastating little pest called phylloxera took hold and laid waste to about 40% of french grapes in about 15 years. Enter Texas-based horticulturalist, Tom Munson who worked with France by sending phylloxera-resistant root stock where it was grafted onto french vines. Apparently, it is still done to this day. Frexan wine, anyone?
I stopped just outside of Boerne to visit Cave Without a Name--one of about 7 Texas caves open to the public. CWaN has been open  since 1939 and despite (or even because of) the curmudgeons who tour groups through, it's worth a visit.  Lots of stalactites, stalagmites, drapery, soda straws and all kinds of other fantastical formations. Crazy things happen when you add a little carbonic and sulfuric acid.
Junior bull ridin'

Smokey, the high-diving mule
The Bandera rodeo was my next stop. I have wanted to visit the self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World for many years and it was everything I hoped it would be.  Technically in Pipe Creek, TX at Lightning Ranch, the Friday night rodeo cost me $3. It was refreshing to be in a place where the people and bullshit are real. It began with mutton bustin’ which is basic training for aspiring bull riders. Manic sheep are donned with brave little 5 year-old boys and released into the arena. There were about 10 of them--all fell off in the first second except for the last one who stayed on for at least 6 seconds. He was about 2 feet tall and bullet-proof, with his cowboy hat and tiny little chaps. I fell in love.  Other events included team roping, barrel racing, Peruvian horse routines choreographed to a remake of "Footloose", junior bull riding, sheep scrambles, a magic show involving a toy poodle and a llama and a grand finale of Smokey the high diving mule bravely cannon-balling into a pool of water. I was terrified, but soon comforted as Smokey casually trotted down the ramp, shook it off and chomped willingly on his post-dive carrot. I was brokenhearted to find that the jersey shore hair had, in fact, made it's way into the small town Texas teenage girl's coiffure. But it made me reminisce about the good old days of primping with my curling iron and Final Net hair spray, blue eye liner, and mini skirts...and all in the name of boys. I watched these two little blond girls attempting to lean casually against the gate, as close to the teenage boy bull riders as possible, but strategically looking off in the other direction at nothing in particular.
I ventured to Garden Ridge, TX in order to see the largest congregation of mammals on the planet.  There is a population of Mexican free-tailed bats (one of the 1,250 species worldwide) in Bracken Cave, which is located on land owned by Bat Conservation International.  There are between 20-40 million bats here. Twenty to forty MILLION.  This was a completely magical experience. I was with a group of about 20 other tourists and when the bats came out at dusk. We were so quiet you could hear a pin drop...or in this case, the beat of a bats' wings. The size of a key lime, each bat weighs as much as a dozen paper clips. The collective beating of millions of tiny wings was so soothing. I've never heard anything quite like it--almost like the sound of millions of hands rubbing together. I wanted to camp right there among the live oak, limestone and thunder...forever.
Bracken Bats
This summer, I spent a lot of long overdue time meandering around my state, my origin, my home place. When I was a teen I truly thought that there was no place for me in Texas. People seemed close-minded, big-headed and too afraid to challenge convention. Every place started to look the same--too hot, too crowded, and too predictable. But over time I realized that I was the close-minded, predictable one. I just didn't want to believe that Texas was big enough for every kind of person and that I didn't have to go to the rainforests of Brazil to be surrounded by biodiversity. It's been here all along.  I guess it has taken me 15 years of traveling all over the world to realize that somewhere between the cowboys and the hippies lies a cozy limestone hollow just for me. This is my home...y'all.

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