Why SXSW Is the Perfect Vacation

Posted on June 15, 2011 by

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by Anthony Dean-Harris

The author at SXSW with Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio

As a person of rather limited resources, I don’t go on vacation all too often. I hear vacationing is nice and I’m filled with appropriate levels of resentment whenever I see friends’ pictures on Facebook of their travels without the whole voyeuristic process becoming a hatred of others’ resources or my own wallowing in self-loathing (I’m trying to cut down). Yet from time to time, I’m actually able to get away from it all and revel in this vacation thing I hear so much about. A couple of months ago, I schlepped up to Austin for the South by Southwest music festival, which I found to be the perfect vacation for a neurotic control freak like me for a host of reasons. This was the likely the best vacation I ever had in my life (which is why I held this essay idea in my head for what’s now three months) and I realize it’s because it’s constructed exactly for my personality type. SXSW is totally keyed into passions I have about certain fundamental elements of life.

The Music
A point like this seems so glaringly obvious that it would need to be mentioned either first or last. Of course, the main reason to go to a festival like this would be to see so many live acts that have saturated the city of Austin, both officially and unofficially. Compile this with the fact that wandering around Austin seeing acts that one typically reads about in music blogs and it would seem as if the whole event is a physical manifestation of a corner of the Internet. It’s all just as cluttered, just as supported by corporate advertising, just as entertaining and simultaneously confusing, and just as likely to give you some type of virus if you aren’t careful.

The Food
The first time I was ever in Austin, I happened across a food truck (out of likely hundreds in Austin) touting its delicious chicken and waffle tacos. It’s really just a chicken tender wrapped in a waffle, but as a person who had never had chicken and waffles before (which is weird considering the four years I spent in Atlanta), I knew I had to immerse myself in this wondrous creation. That night, the truck didn’t even have maple syrup, much to the chagrin of my fellow soul food compatriots (which is odd since I’m pretty sure I was the only black guy in the crowd, the dude in the food truck included), so each taco was topped with honey. Still, from that evening on, I was obsessed with the chicken and waffle taco. Every time I returned to Austin, I had to find that same food truck.

When I was planning the trip to SXSW, I was required to get a chicken and waffle taco the first night. Just one or two days later, I also had to get a $3 cupcake. Yes, a $3 cupcake and yes, it’s so good that I can’t complain about that high cost. I’ve been pretty much hooked on all the food that Austin has to offer, much of it far outside the confines of brick and mortar establishments. After visiting Austin, I was obsessed with the carne guisada tacos of El Chilito on Manor, the whole menu of Torchy’s Tacos (and its ridiculous wait time), the delicious but curiously simplistic Frito Pie from Thundercloud Subs, the overwhelmingly chill nature of Home Slice Pizza, and the potential of so many other places I’ve yet to expose to my gustatory joy.

It didn’t take long after careening through Austin when I noticed a paradox as a San Antonian. How can my hometown be so often considered the fattest city in America when just an hour and a half drive north is a city that’s considered one of the fittest with much better food? Is it because Austin is a smaller, less sprawled out city? Do the congested streets lead to a need for superior food stuffs? I may never know.

Free Stuff
I am notoriously cheap. Any of my good friends would say this about me in relation to my eating a chicken wing (I do not stop eating until there’s nothing but bone, this is not an exaggeration) to my decorum at fancy events with refreshment tables and open bars. If there is ever a time for free things, it’s a massive event sustained largely by media conglomerates clamoring for eyeballs. So like a swallow to Capistrano, SXSW beckons the cheapskates who try all they can to spend as little money as possible while still obtaining all a body needs to sustain itself through what could be considered a very slow-paced, musical marathon. Been walking around for a while and need a drink? Don’t pop into that convenience store, just keep your eyes peeled for free Monster Energy Drink out of a random truck on 6th Street, which for the next week resembles the activity and saturation of a New Dehli marketplace. Don’t like Monster? Who cares? It’s free. There’s a saying about gift horses and mouths. One can easily coast a good buzz from all the bars offering free Lone Star Beer to get the hapless denizens through their doors. Lone Star, by the way, will also keep you hydrated throughout the entire affair due to its closeness to water, but hey, it’s free and it’ll certainly get you closer to drunk than water will.

Meticulous Planning
The key to ensuring one can see all this great music while paying as little as possible (while still keeping one’s phone charged) is through meticulous planning, which at times led to some of the most blissful time I had the entire festival. There’s nothing quite like waking up on a friend’s floor (because remember, if you’re notoriously cheap, you clearly don’t have a hotel room) at 9am (I’m a morning person, much to the chagrin of every other twentysomething I’ve ever met), still drinking beer left over from the night before, then checking whatever device is in the immediate vicinity to put together the day’s schedule, noting all the parentheticals indicating “no cover” or “open bar” and fleeing away from anything involving the word “wristband” (the lucky bastards/suckers who paid $300 to wait in slightly shorter lines than the rest of us hoi polloi while I see the same act the next day at a smaller show in East Austin). Early mornings hunched over stacks of Post-it Notes, plotting out the potential of what each jam-packed day of vacation had to offer, all while taking parking, location, walk time, free time, free food and drink, and priority of viewing a known or unknown act altogether brought about some of the best quiet, calming moments of my whole vacation. These early morning moments as everyone slumbers are just as fulfilling to me as the activity of the day that followed.

Spontaneity
As I’ve grown, I’ve learned that there’s only so much one can control. I used to be a rather impatient person and I still am to many extents, but I’ve learned that a true test of character is having adaptability when plans fail. Those aforementioned meticulous plans to navigate the City of Austin from bow to stern sometimes shift wildly to make way for bathroom breaks and cell phone charges and the everlasting quest for parking (seriously, there’s like no parking in Austin). It’s just as exciting knowing what to face, where to eat, and who to see. It’s even more exciting to know that it’s perfectly fine to leave four hour blocks of free time specifically dedicated to wandering overcrowded streets, actually paying attention to the myriad buskers, and finding even more food carts to appreciate. This is a time made for adventures and happening upon random shows and disposing of mysterious documents from international consulting firms (yes, this actually happened).

Developing Regular Spots
Stay in one place long enough and patterns will form. It only took one or two visits to Austin before I knew where to find my beloved chicken and waffle tacos, which is right next to my favorite bar and pretty cool music venue. No matter where you are, there are few feelings more comforting than having a regular bar. In Atlanta, I have Java Lords or Manuel’s Tavern. In San Antonio, I have The Friendly Spot or Tucker’s Kozy Korner. But when I’m in Austin (a city where I have never lived but, if it isn’t clear already clear, I certainly would like to), I have Cheer Up Charlie’s. Patterns are how we make sense of the world; forming them in strange places is how we shake those nasty tourist expressions off our faces as quickly as possible. I could only hope to one day get rid of that tourist feeling I always have.

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