Thick plumes of barbecue-scented smoke drifting towards Zilker Park. Runners, joggers, cyclists and walkers, sweating profusely in the hot late September sun, crowd the parallel paths that run along side the wide Colorado River. Thumping music pouring out of air conditioned dive bars across the street from late night taco stands catering to a youthful crowd. This is Austin.
I flew in on a Tuesday afternoon to get a head start on exploring this sprawling, rapidly growing capital. What brought me here, though, was something that turned out for me to be bigger than Austin itself: TravelCon. The brainchild of legendary travel blogger Matthew Kepnes, the conference was billed as the premier setting for people interested in making travel a bigger part of their career. One look at the agenda and I was fumbling as fast I could for my credit card. The moment had finally come for me to break out of my own inertia and pursue a more travel-centric life. I had hoped to learn from expert speakers, meet other like-minded travelers and hone in on a niche that I would feel comfortable occupying. All of those things and more happened, proving that it’s never too late to figure out one’s mission.
Enough about me, though. Let’s talk about the host city herself. Ranked #1 in U.S. News & World Report’s 125 Best Places to Live in the USA, Austin is a dynamic and vivacious place. It has experienced a growth spurt that has caused typical big city problems like traffic congestion, homelessness and increasing housing prices. However, with “more than 250 live music venues“, hip bars, renowned food truck culture, tacos and barbecue, boutique shops, beautiful parks and trails, and close proximity to San Antonio and the Hill Country, it’s easy to see why droves of people want to be there. Within an hour of arriving, I was one of those people.
To truly explore all of what Austin has to offer would require a car, and though the motorized scooter was a popular way to get around, I opted for my own two legs. The best way for me to explore a new city is to walk, typically for hours, along major streets as well as side streets and residential areas to get a feel for the place. Despite humidity and a palpable afternoon sun, I slapped on sunscreen and headed across the Congress Avenue Bridge to the neighborhood now known as SoCo. This strip of funky boutiques, restaurants, bars and more line each side of the street in all their retro glory.
By the time I got to end of the main strip, it was mid-afternoon and I was ready to tear up some enchiladas. I also needed coffee, and after all that walking in the heat, it was going to have to be iced. Magnolia Cafe did not disappoint on either count. The diner is Elvis-themed but much more flavorful than typical diner fare, and heavy on the Tex Mex food options. Surprisingly, the cold brew was outstanding. I had no room for dessert, so I hit the streets to explore more.
Having seen it on postcards and and Facebook photos, the famous “Greetings From Austin” mural seemed to be one of the most photogenic attractions of the city, yet I had no idea where it was. The helpful clerk at Prima Dora eclectic souvenir shop next door to Magnolia gave me the simple directions, which happened to be only about four blocks away. Semi-desert plants and trees lines the quiet streets in between busy South Congress and First Streets. Across the street from the mural the telephone poles were bedecked with stuffed animals (mostly snakes), and in front of Austin Natural Soaps, with its deep patchouli and lavender scenes wafting over the neighborhood, a large rubber duckie in a bathtub beckoned the passerby to indulge in its fragrant offerings. A shoe store featured a large pink stiletto on a dais. There was even a place called the Glass Coffin Vampire Parlour. These elements, among many other artistic signs, sculptures and storefronts, represented well the city’s motto: “Keep Austin Weird.”
Still feeling stuffed and highly caffeinated, there was no way I could have partaken in the many delectable establishments that I passed strolling up First Street: Dolce Neve Gelato, Mellizoz Tacos, Seventh Flag Coffee, The Tasty Spoon, Terry Black’s Barbecue, Biscuits & Groovy, SquareRüt Kava Bar, and even the legendary Chuy’s (of which there is a branch in Rockville, Maryland of all places). By then I had walked for almost an hour and it was even hotter than before, so I needed to cool down. A refreshing and body temperature-lowering snow cone was the perfect solution, and Sno-Beach did not disappoint with a grapefruit-flavored heap of shaved ice topped with fresh squeezed lime juice.
Continuing along towards Zilker Park, lazy Barton Creek appeared, flanked by parallel running/cycling trails, replete with sweat-drenched Austinites getting fit, undaunted by the heat. Others were taking advantage of the cooler waters by paddling along with the creek’s lazy flow, and occasionally someone would scramble up the steep banks and jump into the water from the footbridge. Barton Springs Pool would have been a natural next stop for even further cooling off, but I hadn’t packed my swimming trunks. For a Tuesday afternoon, the pool was filled with people of all ages enjoying the natural springs.
More well maintained trails continued along both sides of the Colorado River, which bisects the city, separating the downtown from South Austin. I missed the noteworthy Stevie Ray Vaughan status on the south side of the river, having crossed back towards downtown near Lamar Boulevard. I was too early to catch the famous Congress Avenue bats that typically come out at night. Yes, the nocturnal creatures make an appearance sporadically in the twilight hours. As I walked under the portion of the bridge under which they supposedly were sleeping in the crevices, I heard high pitched squeaking that did not sound like the pigeons that I did see. On the bright side, at least I avoided a guano shower.
Speaking of showers, I was feeling pretty filthy from the four-hour walk, and I hadn’t even checked into my hostel yet, so I ventured back so that I could get cleaned up, eat dinner and head back out later to catch a live music show. I knew there would be no time for that later and I wanted to experience the energy of a live concert in a city that is known for its music scene. Since Willie Nelson wasn’t playing nearby, I went to one of Austin’s next most popular venues called Stubb’s BBQ. What sounds better than music and barbecue? Well, I’d already eaten and by the time I finally left the hostel, the opening bands had already played. I walked in the door about 10 minutes before the Dreamers went on. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I had heard a couple clips and really liked their sound. They did not disappoint in the live show, which was surprisingly small and intimate, yet as lively as a large show. It reminded me of when I first had moved to Washington, DC and was going to concerts all the time at smaller venues like the Velvet Lounge and the Black Cat. I had a complete blast, and the whole thing was just over an hour and cost $15 (OK, plus an additional $6 for a local beer). For a half day in Austin, I think I did Day One justice.
More walking ensued the next day, with visits to the sprawling campus of the University of Texas at Austin and my first presidential library, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. Beyond the Vietnam War controversy and knowing that his first term was a result of the assassination of President Kennedy, I really didn’t know much about LBJ. The museum certainly changed that, presenting a wealth of information about his upbringing, thought process and milestones of his political career. It also included his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who was an important figure in her own right. One could argue that the museum was biased towards his good deeds, but I felt that it portrayed his struggle with the war and his underlying hope for a better world. Among the multiple laws that were passed during his administration, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare, Voting Rights Act, Social Security Act, and Freedom of Information Act are just some that stand out.
The temporary exhibit “Get in the Game: The Fight for Equality in American Sports” provided a timely look at past discrimination, triumph and diversity throughout the sporting world, from early baseball greats such as Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson to the modern day controversial figure of Colin Kaepernick, and everything in between in all sports. I may not be a huge sports fan, but this was one of the best exhibits I’d seen. These athletes broke many barriers and persisted when odds were stacked against them. It was truly powerful, as I believe we can all relate on some level to the fighting spirit in all of these remarkable people.
Moving on through the UT-Austin campus, abuzz with students moving in every direction, I passed a huge activities fair that clogged the already wide sidewalks that led to the center point of campus. From the gushing fountain, I saw the beautiful clock-towered building that I’d seen from a distance on my way. My stomach rumbling, I ducked into Arturo’s Underground Cafe to cool off and fill up before heading to the state capitol.
Erected over a six-year period and completed in 1888, the Capitol is enormous–taller than the nation’s capitol building. This is expected; it’s Texas, after all. A nearby visitor’s center showcases some of the history and offers free maps for the self-guided tour. There were free group tours on the hour, but I opted to meander around the building myself. Access was limited as far as the fourth floor, which was most of the building. It was not crowded, and being so large, I had plenty of room to wander about. Several of the rooms were completely empty when I stopped by. The Senate chamber was the busiest of all, likely because of two large paintings by Henry Arthur McArdle of key battles scenes that were integral to the history of Texas: Dawn at the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. Throughout the building, I noticed detail that spoke to the grandeur that this building was meant to portray–doorknobs with the Texas star, hinges with “Texas Capitol” written on both leaves, a golden Texas seal on the elevator doors. The walkway leading up to the front steps was flanked with various memorials, which continued around the west side of the building and on to the rose garden in the rear. On the east side, a curious tree partially blocked the sidewalk, its branches bowing and growing outward along the ground like something out of Hobbiton.
At this stage, it was time to meet up with a group of TravelCon attendees planning to connect before the conference at Cooper’s BBQ near the JW Marriott where the big event was to take place. Caffeinated and cooled by an iced coffee I grabbed from the “walk by” window of Caffe Medici on the way, I swung by the hotel to get my registration badge and proceeded to join the group for an evening of barhopping and networking. This would pretty much be the way all evenings in Austin were spent for the duration of my stay. Eventually it was exhausting, yet I wouldn’t have foregone it for anything, as I knew I had finally met my tribe, my people.
Someone had clearly researched places to go, which landed us at an Austin beer mecca known as Craft Pride. The display board featured over 50 different beers on tap, more in bottles and cans, and even wine–all from Texas. There were only about 6-8 people in the bar when our group of about 40 descended upon the lone bartender with individual orders. As I waited in line, a friendly local recommended a beer, and I happily deferred to his expertise rather than wade through the extensive offerings. It was the Tupps Brewery DDH IPA, and it was an excellent choice for the first beer of the evening.
When it came time for food, we of course had to try one of Austin’s multiple taco food trucks. Popular Veracruz was closed by then, so we walked to the closer Las Trancas. It did not disappoint, and for $6 I got three delicious tacos with different kinds of meat. The last stop of the evening was an unofficial pre-conference party at the Black Sheep Lodge. We took a Lyft there and arrived early, but soon throngs of people descended on the place and the real party began.
The next morning was what I was really here for, so I didn’t stay out too late in the end. Without going into details of all the three days’ worth of sessions, I’ll recap TravelCon by saying it was a spectacular experience to hear from renowned speakers, knowledgeable experts and fellow travelers on such a wide array of topics from setting up a blog, podcasting, social media strategies, airline points & miles, tax/legal concerns, building a community and building a brand. The keynote speakers were bestselling authors and entrepreneurs Ryan Holiday, Helen Russell, Oneika Raymond, Rolf Potts and TravelCon founder himself Matt Kepnes. There were too many concurrent sessions that I was interested in, so I purchased the “virtual pass,” which allows me to see all of the conference presentations after the meeting. I was truly impressed by the quality of the speakers and the content, and the willingness of everyone to help each other out.
It was fast-paced, with activities filling nearly every moment of the day and social gatherings into the evenings. By the end my head was ready to detonate, yet I felt like I had met so many like-minded people, learned a ton of information, and came away with a lot of ideas that on the plane ride home melded into something that I could shape into a future direction. It may sound cliche, but my hope in attending TravelCon was that I would find my purpose in life, and I can happily attest that I have secured an idea that I am passionate about and believe it has the potential that I’d been searching for. I am no longer frustrated at spinning my wheels all of these years or ashamed of not having already achieved success. Now I feel that there are no limits to what is possible, and it may have taken me 20 years of traveling, working, learning and living to unlock what I’ve always had in my mind.
I will be working hard in the coming months to further refine my ideas and eventually launch a new website that will combine my love of travel, geography and meaningful hobbies, and eventually hope to build a community. The journey will be long, but I am up for the adventure.
Oh, and I’ve already booked my tickets for next year’s conference!