With COVID-19 showing no signs of letting up any time soon, my family was recently overcome with cabin fever. Our toddler stoutly refuses a mask, a gaiter, bandana or face covering of any kind, (heck, he won’t even wear a hat), so our options for a getaway were pretty limited. No air travel, since our little guy won’t comply with a mask mandate, no flight to Europe in any case (since Americans aren’t exactly welcome) and a long drive wasn’t happening (toddler, as I mentioned) … so, what were we to do?
A few months back, we tried the camping cabins and that was a complete bust. Visiting in-laws on the west side of the state wasn’t the semi-romantic retreat we’d hoped for, and we needed to be in a place that was taking the pandemic seriously – lots of hand sanitizer, masks everywhere and restaurants bursting with outdoor seating.
We settled on Austin. It’s only a three hour drive from our Houston bungalow and my partner and I both lived there, albeit some years ago, before we met.
Austin is a “small big city.” Also a college town, it feels a little like Ann Arbor, but has a bit of a Venice Beach vibe. Austin doesn’t take itself too seriously, and although the town’s slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” representing a desire to preserve its quirkiness, it has steadily grown less weird since I lived there in 2008.
It’s still kind of weird, though, and in a good way. It might have more trendy stores like those you’d see in California or in New York, but has remained a cool spot for newer, trendier, online fashion houses, as well. New restaurants serve Tex-Mex and pizza, ice cream and cocktails with adaptogens to provide vitamins while you imbibe. There’s cafes that only roast free-trade beans and oyster houses with towers of crab legs. There might be a McDonald’s and a Chipotle, but there’s also a P. Terry’s famous Austin burger joint and a taco truck or 12 making someone’s grandma’s recipe barbacoa.
You’ll see old hippies who’ve been in Austin for years and college kids walking around with backpacks. For my partner (a University of Texas alum), a trip to Austin is all nostalgia. And for me, Austin was my first stop after graduating from the University of Michigan. It was my introduction to Texas and baptism into adulthood. Much has changed in Austin in the 12 years since I called it home, but the city’s vibe is the same – laid back, liberal, musicians on every street corner, small pop-up markets in places you wouldn’t expect, margarita gardens surrounding a stage that’s just waiting for a performer to hop on up. People there aren’t southern friendly, but not unfriendly, either. Instead, it feels like a place where anyone is welcome to come on in and have a drink, throw a blanket down on any grassy patch you find and just slow down for a minute or two. It’s a relaxed place, humming with energy and music and good food but still, somehow calmer, more collected, a deep breath and an exhale in one.
We stayed in our regular place off South Congress, kind of “weird” central for those who live in Austin. We socially distanced from other people, had cocktails in our room while our son watched Mickey Mouse, and we generally just walked the familiar streets that were just exotic enough to feel like we were away from home.
The pandemic isn’t getting easier, but a little trip out of town to escape, a quick jaunt to our past, was just enough to cool our cabin fever. A few hours away and also a return to sanity, at least a little.