Austin City Limits (for the love of play)

The funny thing about road trips is that the immediate surroundings don’t change all that much. The weather may change, for example, but the temperature is the same. So I didn’t truly feel like I was in Texas until I stepped out of our van onto the field behind our pal Josh’s house and smelled the dry sagebrush and juniper that settled in the air. We plugged into an electric extension chord, took the dog for a walk along the country road that has no shoulder and no street lights, and locked up to head into the city for the night. Josh lives about 12 miles outside Austin, and the change from rural to urban was a little unnerving, coming from a week on the road, and even years before that living in a quiet little oasis in the center of Pittsburgh with no one coming or going but those of us who live there. I’d forgotten what a real city feels like, and it took me a moment to get into the rhythm of not responding to every doorman who shouted out beer prices and show lineups, every homeless person who asked for change demanded money.

It seems like everyone we know has moved to Austin, though Josh is from the area and our friend Joe’s dad lives just outside of town. We met Joe at a little vegan burger joint called Arlo’s, a little trailer in the parking lot of a hip and dimly lit bar. Joe warned it was going to be the best burger I’d ever had in my life and he may be right. The edges were a bit dry (sorry), but the style was classic Big Mac style, with vegan bacon, and it tasted like a family treat after my sister had a basketball game when we were little kids (we weren’t really fed fast food growing up except on rare occasions, and by the time I was able to buy it on my own, I was vegetarian).

Our friends Carousel from Pittsburgh just happened to be playing a show just across the street at Beerland, so we went for a walk to explore the neighborhood and ended up back at Beerland, just as other friends were starting to show up and the band arrived. There are few things as comforting while living on the road, whether it be a longterm lifestyle change like we made or a cross-country band tour (or hell, just a show at a bar different than what you usually play at), as seeing familiar faces who are happy to see you. Carousel had a few mishaps along the way, between a lineup change and a broken van, and it was nice to see that they had at made it so far south to Austin City Limits. We weren’t sure ourselves if we were going to make it (well, says Evan), between the bad weather, bad roads, and the bad luck that seems to hover over the Northeast region like a cloud. But from here on out, there should be smoother sailing for all of us.

The next day, we rode bikes through the city and along the dusty, curvy riverside bike paths to see our friend Emily, who runs (among other things) Butter Days Caramel Company. Texas has generous laws regarding small businesses and food preparation, and unlike Pennsylvania where an industrial kitchen is required, all one needs is a clean, pet-free cooking area. Lucky for Austin, because her caramels are perfect. Emily got into caramels because she used the process of making the confections as a teaching tool when she taught people how to roast coffee in Portland, Oregon. As it turns out, she’s great at both and while she is still heavily involved in Austin’s coffee culture, her caramel business has taken off. Her sweet treats can be found these days at most coffeeshops and some small markets. The name comes from a letter her grandfather wrote her one Christmas, telling the story of growing up during World War 1. His family would save all the butter rations for the weekend, calling the delicious two days the Butter Days of the week.

We are fairly remote out here by Josh’s house, so we can’t commute by bicycle as much as we’d like to, so we’ve gone on a few bike rides for the pure love of riding. We first hit up Georgetown Lake’s Jay Hoggs trails (which I wrote about here), and then went on a road ride along country roads where we were chased by two dogs. it was worth the agony of defeat on the trails and the fear of being bit on the road for the untouchable beauty of this section of Texas. Sure, the cows along the side of the road are going to be killed pretty soon and turned into hamburger, but they sure are peaceful creatures to come across on the road. Today, we rode a different park, and it was crowded from all the Austinites enjoying the beautiful Sunday afternoon, but the trails were perfect and it was some of the most fun mountain biking I’ve ridden in a while. I’d love to go back there again, if only I can remember the name of the park.

Emily had told us Austin is becoming the city of donuts, and I believe her. There is an independent donut shop on almost every corner, and even Voodoo Donuts has come down here to get a piece of the jelly-filled action. We have been doing our part to make sure every bakery feels welcome in this town, so it’s a good thing we’ve been riding as much as we have.

Right now, sitting outside our camper, watching the sun begin to set on the farmland that stretches out in front of my for ever, a marching band is playing somewhere in the distance, with Tejano music playing, possibly with the band and possibly from our next door neighbor’s house. A woman gets on a megaphone occasionally and shouts out in Spanish. It could be a school program, it could be a protest. We are too far away for me to understand what she’s saying or what’s going on. If this was Boston, I’d assume it was a protest, but here in Austin, people may just be making noise for the love of play.

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