Candid thoughts from a solo trip to Austin, Texas, during SXSW
My boyfriend of a year and I broke up about a month before spring break in 2016. The loss of him in my life shattered my reality. I became numb and indifferent. I lost sight of my responsibilities, drank too much, and started to slip drastically in school. My friends were trying to fill a void and pick up the pieces all at once. My parents were calling every day to check in, asking if I was sober and going to my classes. I wasn’t.
I had been in touch with them about my plans to travel over spring break and they knew it was part of a travel writing class project. They were also well aware that I desperately needed to get away. It was my dad’s idea for me to stay with my cousin, Maria, in Austin, Texas. We often hosted her in our house when she made her way from Portugal to The States for various solo trips of her own. She had always said that, when my time came to explore, I’d have a place to crash. I was looking into other options as well, but something about Austin during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music, Film and Interactive Festival spoke to a part of me that had been buried for too long. My parents knew this. I clung desperately to the possibility that time away would wake me up from a deep slumber.
I gave myself over completely to being in love and lost half of myself along the way, not because he ever forced me to but because I was too eager to please. I prioritized him over myself and began to feel like I was disappearing. The half of me that had been raised unconventionally by a rock and roll father and a gypsy, belly-dancing mother grew small. In short, I subconsciously began to shed some of the “weird” from my identity.
In order to remember who I was, I clung to memories of summer days when my parents hosted parties in my childhood home. When the day grew dark, friends would make their way from our yard to the basement for secret adult jam sessions that never failed to peak my curiosity. I dreamt of being down there with them. My little cousin, Dylan, and I would play “spies” and creep down the stairs like mice, hoping to catch a glimpse of the magic coming from the basement through thick clouds of smoke. I marveled, wide-eyed, at the shadows of bodies dancing, the cacophony of grunge music blaring from inside, and the overlapping voices engaging in the kinds of conversations I was too young to understand but wanted to be a part of.
Sometimes, if I was lucky, my parents would let me say goodnight to everyone before bed. To ten-year-old me, that was like being handed a VIP pass to the sold out concert in our basement. I made the best out of the time I was given. I would engage in conversations with artists, musicians, writers, and listened intently. I’d jam out on the drums with my dad’s band, soaking in encouragement from people I respected. By the end of the night, I would lie in bed going over everything that had happened. I would fall asleep to the sweet sound of music and laughter coming from below me. I knew that was my world. I felt fulfilled.
For a year, while I was lost in a relationship, I struggled to find that same sense of fulfillment that tied to the roots of who I am. I neglected my needs, desires, and passions. It was as though I had become an extension of someone else who kept growing and evolving while I remained stagnant. I was free-falling. I thirsted for finding my place or purpose again and made the decision to be alone so that I could begin a new journey without anything or anyone clouding my judgment.
I landed in Austin at midnight on Sunday, March 13th. Only an hour after I arrived on southern soil, Maria and I found ourselves weaving through thousands of people on 6th Street in downtown. The city was overflowing with drunk people, rock and house music blaring from every corner. I passed and bumped into over a dozen musicians lugging around heavy amps and guitars from gig to gig. I watched a handful of girls in stilettos make their way to clubs; one tripped over her friend’s dress and they both went down like dominoes. My eyes darted to the obvious poverty as well, the homeless men and women wrapped in blankets, trying to sleep on the concrete as party-goers walked around them. This was downtown Austin during South By Southwest. It was chaos! It was alive. The city slapped me in the face, and I had only just arrived.
I knew Maria from the handful of times she came to stay with us throughout my life. We’d always catch up on a few things but she was never around long enough for us to truly get to know one another. I saw her as this poised, elegant, and naturally beautiful enigma. She was independent, always traveling and building a successful life for herself. I admired her. Maria had only been living in Austin for a couple of months. Within that short amount of time, she had rented what I deemed the “Snow White Cottage” in all its mythical stone-lined glory, landed a grueling yet rewarding job as a teacher at a juvenile detention center, and attracted a rock lead singer and guitarist hottie who only lived a couple blocks away. Within this seven-day period, the two of us bonded and connected like old friends. We laughed and opened up to each other about our personal lives during every car trip back and forth from downtown. I felt at home in her presence. Most importantly though, she gave me space. Whatever independent spirit hid in the depths of me, she conjured it out. She encouraged me to explore the city on my own while she was off healing lost children. Maria inspired me with her own stories about traveling alone and forming friendships with strangers. I told myself that if she could do it, I could too.
On my last day in Austin, from about one in the afternoon to nearly three in the morning, I explored the city until my legs were numb and my Vans ripped at the toes. I went in and out of endless “Keep Austin Weird” vintage shops, sneaking pictures and pretending not to see the signs urging me to do otherwise.
At the end of South Congress Street, I walked into what seemed like a thrift store, took a quick look at the abundance of Halloween costumes surrounding me in the middle of March, and was on my way out when the cashier pointed out my shirt.
“Are you wearing that for the concert tonight?”
His question threw me for a loop. By chance, I had grabbed my favorite Deftones band-tee out of a pile of clothes that morning. Surely there was no way they were actually here for South By Southwest. I would have known this. I would have bought my concert tickets way in advance. I told him, “I didn’t see them on the lineup.”
Turns out the universe has a great sense of humor. The headliner for the massive Lady Bird Lake concert caught the flu, and the Deftones, already on tour, filled in last minute. One of my favorite bands of all-time was going to be in Austin at 8 PM. The kicker? It was a free show.
I had some time to kill before the concert and decided to head to a bar I’d walked past a few times. The entire place, inside and out, was something out of a fairytale. All of the eccentric and beautiful musicians congregated there like woodland elves in need of a pre-show potion, or many. With my head held high, I walked straight to the bar and sat down; on my left were two traveling ladies in their twenties and on my right was a woman holding the margarita I should have ordered instead of a Corona. It was my last day in the city and I had been in and out of bars alone a few times. I knew what to do. I heard Maria’s voice reminding me to let go, be open, and dive in. I introduced myself to all three women sitting next to me and, before long, neither one of us could shut up. As fate would have it, I quickly discovered that one of my new friends was from Boston like myself. She worked for the successful brand, Timberland, and was attending the festival with a few of her coworkers. “What do you do? Who are you with?” she asked. I explained the writing project, the fact that I was traveling by myself for the first time, my plans to write for a living in the future, everything. She listened intently and explained that many companies, now more than ever, were on the hunt for writers – young, friendly, and charismatic people to go to events like SXSW and document their experiences. My eyes widened. She encouraged me to keep writing, to start a blog, and to reach out to her as a friend in the industry. There I was, receiving words of encouragement from someone I had already grown to respect. I was forming connections, talking about art, music, my future, and began to feel my pieces getting sewn back together again.
I exchanged numbers with my new friends, left a tip on the wooden bar, and set off on the next journey toward Lady Bird Lake for the concert. I couldn’t have timed anything better and was one of the first people to land a spot only fifteen feet away from the largest stage in Austin. That’s what happens when you’re a tad early and the last-second “secret” Deftones concert hasn’t reached everyone’s radars yet. I stood patiently and watched as, slowly but surely, thousands of people came flooding in. What was once a vast green landscape quickly became a boisterous cluster of hipsters. Beside me, while waiting for the show to start, I met another band from California who had just left their gig to watch one of their main inspirations in action. “I can’t believe they’re here!” they kept repeating. They complimented my shirt and, suddenly, I’d made new friends. We instantly hit it off and they promised to protect me from the moshing when the time came. Turns out I wasn’t experiencing this concert alone at all.
An hour later, at the peak of the show, I was merely a tiny speck – shaken fully awake within a sweaty mass of screaming, dancing, and moshing fans. Every hair on my body stood high throughout the entire concert. I was in the thick of it, smack dab in the middle of the action. The combination of exhilaration, euphoria, and the fear of being shoved to death by a two-hundred pound moshing meathead, made for an out-of-body experience. I felt myself bleed into the moment as if the night was infinite. At one point, Chino Moreno, the lead singer, walked among the audience and his arm grazed mine. I must’ve asked myself how any of this was real about a thousand times.
The show ended too soon and I thirsted for more as the sea of people dispersed. I searched for the band I’d befriended, but they were nowhere to be found. I followed the mass back into downtown, still running on a high from what had just happened. Eventually I found my way back to 6th Street and decided it was time to hit up my favorite venue, just one last time for one last drink. My entire body was throbbing but this had to be done. I was on my way to the far end of 6th Street when I felt someone grab my arm. “Hey, you! Wait up!” As though the universe still had a few more tricks up its sleeve, I had been spotted within the late-night 6th Street drunk sea of chaos. My band friends from the concert picked me apart from thousands of people. “I saw your shirt” the drummer said. I couldn’t help but laugh. My Deftones shirt was a genie, granting me all my Austin wishes. “You guys want to join me for a drink at Hotel Vegas?”
If any place could recreate the same magic I felt coming from the basement during my parents’ grunge parties, Hotel Vegas was it. On the outside the venue looks like a cheap southern motel from a Quentin Tarantino film. Myself and the band got to know each other on the way there. Turns out the lead singer was Azorean and spoke fluent Portuguese, just like me. The universe, again. The flickering neon “Hotel Vegas” sign greeted us at the entrance and the five of us walked, through thick clouds of smoke, into the party I had been waiting for.
When I was ten and allowed access into my parents’ basement parties, I knew that as much as I felt part of it all, it wasn’t my time yet. Here I was brought back into that world, only now I could truly live it. I was one of the writers, talking to other aspiring writers, musicians, dancers, creative people of all kinds. We were all feeding off of each other’s energy. I danced my heart out. I let myself go completely until all of my “weird” was out for everyone to see. I didn’t give a shit about anything. I laughed until beer came out of my nose as my lead singer friend did “the Carlton” when the ‘80s music came on. The two of us attracted a crowd of dancers and all I could see was blurred bodies and light. I let that light consume me. I don’t know how long this party lasted. I don’t remember every inspiring conversation I had. What I do remember is the moment I felt myself watching this scene from afar, like a film. I realized that everything I had attracted in front of me, I accomplished on my own. I felt whole again.