A Wallflower at South by Southwest
The Karaoke RV, photo by M Edward Johnston
The Karaoke RV, photo by M Edward Johnston
Smoked Meat on a Bun, photo by M Edward Johnston
Deep Fried Pickles, photo by M Edward Johnston
There were lots of strange and wonderful beards on display in Austin, photo by M Edward Johnston
One of the many TexMex dishes sampled in Austin, photo by M Edward Johnston
CapNCrunch Coated Chicken Waffle Cone, mmmm, photo by M Edward Johnston
Taking Dance to the Streets, photo by M Edward Johnston
Have you ever been on vacation in a place that, while it was great, made you feel like you were an outsider? Like the community was allowing you to be there out of tolerance rather than welcoming? And no matter how gorgeous the scenery or how tropical the weather, you just sort of feel like a ghost, drifting about the lives of others. I’ve had a few of those in my life but my most recent trip to Austin, Texas and the South by Southwest Music Festival was not one of them.
The South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) is known throughout the land as an event where Austin’s downtown core gets overrun by technology geeks, music lovers and indie film buffs – all rushing to the city for conferences, speaking engagements, live events and street parties. To some, this might not sound very enticing and to be honest, it didn’t to me either. However, through an occurrence of happenstance, I found myself piggybacking my wife’s, legitimate, work-sponsored, networking-oriented journey down to the festival. How could I say no? The hotel, food and taxi fares were all being paid for.
I only needed a cheap airline ticket and with that, I found myself smack-dab in the middle of Austin, Texas, even more smack-dab in the middle of a media and arts festival that had just begun to whip itself into a frenzy.
What’s important to note here, is that almost all of the major events that occur during SXSW require the purchase of a festival pass that ranges in price from $500 to $1400. So at these prices, the SXSW Festival is seemingly geared toward media and arts employees that have their attendance subsidized… or is it?
As I was piggybacking my wife’s attendance and lacked a pass of my own, there was no way to gain access to these crazed, celebrity-ridden events. At first I was kind of bummed out, feeling that I’d be missing out on all the fun but within just a few short hours, I came to realize that it’s actually impossible to not have fun while in Austin, during SXSW. You see, during the festival, the entire downtown spreads its arms wide-open, not only welcoming but feverishly anticipating the arrival of visitors from all corners of the globe. Austinites love their city, their way of life, their festivals and jump at the chance to show them off.
So even though I lacked a festival pass, it really didn’t matter. What wound up happening was that I spent the better part of a week just walking the streets, getting caught up in the exuberant shuffle of festival attendees and being guided in my adventures by enthusiastic suggestions, given out with little warning or pretense. For example, as I stood with my wife outside the convention centre, we overheard a group of people going on-and-on about deep fried pickles. “What?” we asked. “Yeah, totally. They’re totally Texas. They’re awesome!” is the answer that came immediately back. With that, we cruised up the street, found the restaurant in question and proceeded to stuff our faces with the deep fried pickles in question. While we gorged ourselves, the waitress couldn’t help but become fascinated with our Canadian accents, welcoming us to Austin and exuberantly extolling how our next meal has to be Tex-Mex and how we have to “head on up to the Jackalope on 6th”, her favourite hole-in-the-wall, to grab a Lone Star beer and stay for the blues band playing later on.
As we left the restaurant, I parted ways with my wife (back to the conferences for her!) and headed up to 6th Street, to wet my whistle at the Jackalope. Walking the few blocks, I was bombarded with a gaggle of geeks, forming a semi-circle, drunkenly laughing and razzing each other about who had the nerdiest graphic t-shirt. My vote went to the guy wearing an “I only shoot RAW” shirt. As I made my way past the group, I was suddenly assaulted by a tall, skinny, long haired man clomp-clomping his way down the street, wearing nothing but high-heals and one of those ‘Borat-style’ swimsuits. Totally gross and freaky yet to my delight, festival goers began flocking to him, congratulating him on “taking it to the next level” and lining up to Instagram some photos, while while laughing, cheering and having all kinds of good fun.
I never actually made it to 6th for that beer, as on the next block, I came across another group of ecstatic individuals who were ear-deep into some sort of smoked meat-on-a-bun deliciousness. Being a total sucker for BBQ and being in one of America’s great BBQ cities, I didn’t hesitate to ask how the sandwiches tasted and where they got them from. “Oh my God, so good. Bar-B-Q Heaven over on 7th and Red River… just some dude selling on the corner.” Salivating at the thought, I immediately turned to make my way to smoked-meat heaven, but not before the group invited me to head down to the river valley to take in a gigantic group of flocking bats, which apparently live under one of Austin’s bridges. I declined their invitation, motivated solely by my weakness for all things barbeque and as I finally made my move to leave, looked up and saw (heard!) the SXSW karaoke RV making its way past. For those that don’t know, the RV patrols the downtown and is a hop-on/hop-off karaoke extravaganza that is well known for hosting the drunkest of celebrities. I didn’t see any but I was certainly thrilled that I might.
I could go on and on, as every day that I wandered the streets, my experience was the same. The enthusiastic festival attendees and jazzed-up locals, eagerly bumpered me from one suggested activity to the next. From street dancing next to an outdoor rock-a-billy bar, to perversely taking photos of the giant oil painting of George W. Bush in the State Capitol building, to peeling around like an idiot on a Segway scooter, I felt like a pinball, bouncing around, adventure-to-adventure.
My week in Austin went from potentially being a bit of a bummer to being one of the most surprising and enjoyable vacations I’ve had to date. While Austin has a lot of attractions, it’s not the ‘things’ that make the experience so fantastic. It is the people, their genuine enthusiasm and being welcomed into their crazy community that takes it to the next level. Never once did I feel like an outsider. In fact, even though I’ve already been, I’d go back to Austin and the SXSW Festival in a heartbeat. Actually, I’d go back to Austin just to get another taste of Bar-B-Q Heaven’s smoked-meat on a bun. It was that good.
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