Back in late February, my partner and I took a trip to Austin, Texas.
For me, the trip served to reconcile my fond childhood memories of the city with reality — and Austin didn’t disappoint. We were met with sunny days, fantastic food, and friendly service. People lined the streets and shopping centres buzzed with activity.
However, our timing couldn’t have been stranger. We had no idea that our visit would occur on the cusp of a changing city — and a changing world.
It had been 16 years since I had last set foot in the state of Texas.
In the early 2000s, my Dad moved my family across the nation in the pursuit of career opportunities. The migration would conclude with us settling down in Vancouver, Canada in 2007. In retrospect, Austin was a short 1-year pit-stop in what became a series of cross-country relocations. But the quirky sun-baked city was also my favourite of the four places we lived in.
I was only nine or ten years old when we lived in Austin, but the city made a lasting impression. Aside from loving the warmth of the weather, I loved Austin’s delicious no-nonsense cuisine and its celebration of weirdness and eccentricity. I also enjoyed learning about Texas’ larger, storied history and significance as a point of contention in the history of the burgeoning United States.
But as much as I loved Austin, I also believe in reconciling sentimentality with reality. Given that the mind has a penchant for filtering and distorting our memories, I wanted to revisit the city and gauge its merits from a fresh perspective. So, as a birthday present to myself, I booked a four day trip with my partner to touch base with the capital of Texas once more.
To try and get the most from our journey, I organized our itinerary so that we would have ample time to explore Austin’s city life and surrounding nature.
Austin is particularly famous for its many mouth-watering eateries, so we spent a good chunk of time roaming downtown Austin and sampling the local cuisine.
The best Austin BBQ spots are infamous for long lineups. This place was called Terry Black’s, and we got caught up in an intimidating dinner lineup upon arrival. For a plate of carcinogen-rich meat, the food was pretty damn good!
The city’s abundance of BBQ would’ve made it possible for us to subsist purely on a diet of brisket, ribs, and sausage alone during our stay. However, out of respect for my digestive system and a desire to visit some of my favourite non-BBQ childhood restaurants (namely Schlotzsky’s and Chick-fil-a), our trip wasn’t too BBQ-heavy.
After getting our fill of food and shopping, we ventured out further out from the city to get a glimpse of the surrounding countryside. I suppose to some, Texas’s ecology is blasé. But as someone who has lived in the Pacific Northwest for the last thirteen years, I had a great time rediscovering the state’s arid, rugged ecology.
“Why in the hell did you come all the way out here?” — Our Uber driver
Some of my excitement for Austin’s nature was also probably spurred by Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel Blood Meridian, which I had been reading throughout the trip. It ended up being the perfect companion book for our travels: McCarthy’s semi-fictional story largely takes place along the US-Mexico border in the 1800s and features vivid descriptions of native flora and fauna.
As we walked through Austin’s scenic River Place Nature Trail, I kept thinking about the thousands of others that had undoubtedly set foot here before us. Although picturesque and serene, the trail could’ve been the backdrop for every kind of human interaction known to man throughout history — including the most brutal and vile as depicted by McCarthy.
A bucolic riverside scene in Austin’s River Place Nature Trail, the beauty of which Cormac McCarthy could undoubtedly convey in a rich, vivid run-on sentence
A visit to the Austin Zoo ensured that there was no shortage of fauna during our trip, either. The zoo, which operates as a non-profit rescue and rehabilitation facility, featured a wide selection of animals. Of note were giant tortoises, a three-legged pig, and an extremely horny monkey.
The aforementioned animals
I thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Austin. But at the same time, it’s strange to look back several months later post-pandemic. We left Austin in early March when coronavirus deaths were still in the single digits in the US. Back then, precautions were few, and panic was low.
But over the next thirty days, the virus would devastate America, particularly in New York, leaving behind a death toll in the thousands. And in retrospect, our trip was littered with ominous moments that seemed to hint or relate to the looming threat of the virus. While flipping through channels on our hotel room TV, the grave faces of politicians and medical authority figures flickered by, forecasting a grim state of events to come.
But most notably, there was the airport shuttle driver, who said his job allowed him to converse or eavesdrop on many kinds of riders. Although cheery, he spoke disapprovingly of a selfish, inconsiderate attitude he often encountered from passengers. He wondered when we would get an “empathetic wake-up call.”
If I had known better, I would’ve said it was coming.
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