Night air thick as water
Touching down, the dilapidated, peeled Mexican bars show their face like boys’ town border bordellos, and the loose desert straggle of blackland prairie vegetation, overgrown, weedy, uncut, unkempt, welcomes you to a land, warm, the air as thick as water and skin temperature and heavy with spring season potential.
Austin is weirdly provincial. You slowly get into downtown from one of the stuttering neighborhoods, and it pulses with life right away as you course along its wide section of river, built from the dam that you passed on the way into town from the east on the river-bordering First Street, changed to Cesar Chavez a decade or more ago. Below the dam, the river is more true to its name, a willow-draped, living thing with sand bars and channels; above, it’s a ribbon of lank, over-flooded river. You feel overstuffed, as you do with most flooded valleys of the earth’s waterlogged watersheds.
The night, velvet, comes on very slow, starting with a smattering of crickets, the sound wafting with the day’s heavy wind, the air, as heavy, rich, potent as springwater, lends a swimming feel. The sky, wider than you think it would be, framed by a massive live oak, the tops of farther-off sycamores, a taller box elder and some pecan trees, has a full, muted palette of blue with grey-white clouds, shading a bleached light pink. They fill the sky, wide, between that framing of rich green, the massive, full-bodied limbs of the 500-year-old Live Oak tree, painting strong, compelling, sculpted, full lines across the full sky.
The hundreds of tree species stand out, bugs flying around – you are in the south now, and not just any south, a south where several ecosystems mix and creates a burst-forth of life, like shaking a can of jelly beans, each different and letting them loose in your mouth, a hundred flavors on your tongue, crickets, a thousand humming sounds in your ears, seeming to emanate, in their now fast, now slow, languorous rhythms, like the heartbeat of the land itself, its breath, inundating your senses, all of a sudden made permeable by the velvet, silk-like feel of the air, the under-ghost smell, rich, of a certain unbelievable potency of the air, the sex of trees, or the humming insects, the full, rain-gorged creeks and over-abundant plants, wildflowers, bringing your body to a humming high-tuned pitch, ears almost ringing, mind definitely dazed, in a smooth way, with the hip-hop mix, the swimming-day feel, the plenipotency of a land on fire, unburnt and soaked to dripping with a power unharnessed, never used, but there floating around like the impenetrable, inscrutable gaze of a young girl in (the safe cage of the mind) love.
The energy peaks at 6th and Lamar; you can almost feel the Gulf Stream-like channels of water underneath, the famous Edward’s Aquifer; all bets, even though this is the north side of the river, and the hill country at a perpendicular X with the Colorado River, flowing just 100 yards away (you can feel its cypress-blooded pulse there, too), on the south side, basically ending that West Texas high, lonesome, sparser-as-you-head west desert, high-plains and rolling as the Hill Country, dissected and carved, ends like the edge of a never-ending pool, the river that edge, the Colorado.
Downtown’s in that transition zone, in the flatland in the never-ending’s disbelieving aura of impossiblity staring you in the face, or, more accurately, bathing you in an air-bath of life-filled energy, a never-to-exist land, a fairie land, there in the flesh, a million-colored mirage, two or three for-sure degrees unreal, as you walk around and stare at the limestone-sculpted buildings, the two-story bars, the clean plate-glass windows, the warm firelight of a night, and the spangle of night gone wild, surreal, and magic like it never should happen, can’t-believe-it’s happening. And a constant is-this-for-real? doubt’s there that excites you up to your eyes, and gives you a slight, strong, sincere smile, even if not registered on the face, your brain, reptilian, smiles its own, superseding any stupid thoughts. An ease despite itself.
And 6th and Lamar that swirling chaos meets a peak of sorts at that intersection. A sharp, real point, that hits you somewhere just above your stomach below your ribs and spreads from there to your whole body, until it feels like you can’t take it anymore; the flagship Whole Foods store, sitting in all its marketed-to-the-hilt inept glory, Anthropologie, Amy’s Ice Cream, Waterloo Records. It reaches a peak here, which is diffuse, though strong, too, everywhere else.