Overexposed in Austin

On the highway later, I looked down at the odometer: 85 m.p.h. It didn’t feel all that fast. It was the landscape’s lack of landmarks.

I was open to falling for Austin, but Austin, I found, was too open for me.

A drive up Congress Avenue, Austin’s main thoroughfare, gives you a good feel for the town. This summer, as I headed north toward downtown on my way to work each morning, I passed an empty lot occupied by food trucks, anchorless restaurants bordering on the carnivalesque. The proprietors of the food trucks were usually un-established, many anti-establishment—in Austin, there seem to be as many food trucks as there are restaurants. A retro silver bullet motor home selling South Asian food has tacked to its roof a sign reading “Nomad,” spelled out in Sanskrit-looking script. Further ahead, determinedly hip restaurants and eclectic boutique stores and some slightly less so—the American Apparel—line the road. I usually drove by at least three cars with a “Keep Austin Weird” logo plastered to their rear bumper. It is “decidedly and self-consciously Austin,” as a summer friend of mine liked to say.

From about a mile and a half out, you will see Congress Avenue’s six lanes march straight up to the city’s nucleus, the ivory neoclassical State House. You can see past the stores, the high-rise hotels, the bridge over Lady Bird Johnson Lake, and the eleven blocks of 30-story skyscrapers. Men, many years ago, carved this street out of hill, but nothing seems like it’s more than 15 years old. They flattened and shoveled until they had laid the city’s heart bare.

Classmates, both those who knew me well and those who did not, had told me I would “just love” Austin. But when I arrived there for my summer internship, I found this excessive line of sight unsettling. As a born-and-bred Bostonian, I wasn’t accustomed to such an unobstructed view. There was too much sky between buildings. The city was too open, too exposing.

I remember sitting on the hood of my rented Mazda that first night, parked just outside the lot of food trucks, eating Pad Thai made from spaghetti. It was 8:30 p.m.; I was parked illegally, and I couldn’t move. The moment there, and the spaciousness of that asphalt artery and the city fanning out around it, wouldn’t let me go. High rises bathed in the red-gold light of the setting sun. The mirror façade of the boutique across the street, a clothing store that I would never enter or learn the name of, swayed in the changing light. The sun dipped just below the roofline of the taco bar and the bourgeois burger restaurant.

I called my mother to let her know I had landed in Austin safely. She asked me about my flight, my apartment, and the city itself. The flight was fine, I said. And the apartment was clean and modern. Austin, however, confused me. I didn’t know how to explain this to her. I hadn’t lost my way on my drive from the airport. Streets were clearly marked. But with no crumbling jam-and-cram architecture for shelter, I felt, I don’t know, left out in the open, maybe. Vulnerable, perhaps.

“It’s not like home,” I said, at that point unable to verbalize the squeamishness in my stomach. “You didn’t expect Austin to be different?” asked my mom.

At night, whether it’s 90 degrees or 30, I sleep under my bed covers, completely—head, limbs, everything. For as long as I can remember, I’ve curled up and en-wombed myself. An old friend says that I “burrow” in my sleep. When I was a kid, my dad would wake me up in the middle of the night. He would pull the covers back from my face, and the rush of cold air would snap me out of my dream. He couldn’t see me, he’d tell me the next morning, and he wanted to make sure I hadn’t suffocated. He wondered how I could breathe under there. It doesn’t feel suffocating, I replied, just warm, and safe.

Several weeks into my stay, I was driving back from San Marcos, about 40 miles from downtown Austin. It was a Thursday. I had gone down each day that week to cover a capital murder trial. A daycare provider was accused of killing a ten-week-old in her care. I diligently recorded witnesses’ tears and doctors’ testimonies for eight hours a day. (Notes: “Prosecuting attorney –‘Were you holding Ben when he died?’ Father – ‘I was.’  SNIFFLES, SOBS.”) After trial that day, I staggered out of the courthouse particularly numb. The defendant had taken the stand. She broke down several times as she pleaded her innocence. On the highway later, I looked down at the odometer: 85 m.p.h. It didn’t feel all that fast. It was the landscape’s lack of landmarks. I pushed down on the pedal softly. 90 m.p.h. First time I had hit 90, ever. I pressed down a little more. I had heard friends talk about that time they hit 100. I wanted to, too.

The needle crept toward 100. It was 8 p.m. The sun was coming down, casting an orange-yellow light on the expanses of land lining the highway. Country music rattled through my rental’s cheap speaker system. It was reckless and exhilarating. And it seemed, just for a moment, as if the music was coming from the land itself—as if the notes had tumbled across the flat, browned fields. I looked out over the open terrain, hoping I could see them.

Eyes back on the road. I was gaining on the car in front of me. I eased off the pedal. 95. 90. 85. 80. 75. The distance between us comfortable again.

—Tara W. Merrigan ’13, a Crimson news executive editor, is a History and Literature concentrator in Adams House. She hasn’t hit 100 m.p.h. in Boston, yet.