Life in the Texas Hill Country around Austin has two main focal pointsthe outdoors and live music. From Zilker Park's Barton Springs swimming hole, to Town Lake's gorgeous hike and bike path, this relaxed and informal city is the centerpiece of an area brimming with recreational jewels. Then, after dark, saxophones start wailing at Antone's, Austin's famous blues joint, and Sixth Street bustles with action as revelers stroll between a wide variety of live music venues. The city, after all, calls itself"The Live Music Capital of the World," boasting more than 120 places to hear bands play.
As both the state capital and the home of the main campus of the University of Texas, Austin possesses an air of erudition and sophistication unusual for a city of just over 550,000 people. But this central Texas gem is growing quickly, partly due to the influx of high-technology companies that are making this the next digital boomtown. Approximately 770 computer-related companies (among them Dell and IBM), employing 84,000 people, now call the Austin area home. Wider recognition of the area's natural beauty is also attracting people to the city, with high-powered executives and celebrities snatching up land around Lake Travis to build palatial homes.
In spirit, the city is somehow wild-west, hippie, and high-tech, all at the same time. It was not so long ago that this was a small Texas town, where cowboy boots, pick-up trucks, and twangy accents come with the territory. The University community, though, nurtures a hippie sensibility. The campus is ringed by health-food restaurants and organic-leaning grocery stores, and this influence is felt throughout Austin. More recently, geek-chic has become a major cultural presence, as more and more of the population is employed in some digital endeavor or another.
Personally, there is something more intangible that draws me to Austin. This place, so blessed with natural beauty, seems somehow spiritual, fostering a sense of peace and contentment. It's as if just being there, reveling in all of the area's outdoor offerings, brings me closer to a more natural state of harmony with the world. I've often said that Austin feels like it has some mysterious, deep connection to the center of the earth. Maybe that's mystical nonsense, but one thing is true. I make every effort to visit each time I return to my native Texas.
The city, which basks in mild temperatures and 300 days of sunshine a year, is situated in the Texas Hill Country, an area of west-central Texas atop the Edwards Plateau along a fault known as the Balcones Escarpment. Elevations in these rolling hills range from slightly less than 100 feet above sea level to over 3,000 feet. Soils are shallow and limestone lies underneath, forming the foundation for the blue-green spring-fed pools, creeks, and rivers that abound around Austin. Deep beneath the surface, water bubbles up from the Edwards aquifer, feeding these waterways and providing much of central Texas with its drinking water.
Austin's waterways are central to recreation in the region. If folks aren't fishing, boating or floating, they're hiking or biking along a river or stream, enjoying views of isolated waterfalls and taking a dip in deep blue-green pools. The rivers' names bear witness to the area's Hispanic heritage, but natives have their own way of saying them. Attempting a Spanish pronunciation might earn you a puzzled stare or a friendly,"You're not from around here, are you son?" The Pedernales (PER-duh-nah-les), the Blanco (BLANK-oh), the Comal (KOH-mal), and the Guadalupe (guad-uh-LOO-pay) all grace the Hill Country. The central river for Austinites, though, is the Colorado, which has been dammed to create an incredible 150-mile chain of lakes. Lake Austin and Town Lake (the section of Lake Austin that flows through the center of town), are the result of human engineering on the Colorado, as are Lake Travis, Lake L.B.J, Lake Marble Falls, Inks Lake and Lake Buchanan (BUCK-ah-nan). Most of these are excellent locales for swimming, boating, and fishing.
The land around the water can be spectacular, too. Where the stone juts up beside the rivers and lakes, you'll see the gorgeous pinkish-yellows of exposed geological strata. This limestone substrate also accounts for the abundance of caving and climbing opportunities in this area. Above the ground, atop these shallow, rocky soils, grow cedars, ash, juniper, Texas oaks, mesquite, and live oaks, many of them shorter than you'd find in other parts of the country because of the poor soil quality. It takes some determination for plants to live here, so the most tenacious of species are the most populous.
Because Austin lies right at the transition from the lush southeast to the desert-like southwest, the animal species here are especially diverse. Species like the white-tailed deer and the opossum share the habitat with their more western neighbors, the armadillo, the roadrunner, and the Mexican free-tailed bat. In fact, Austin boasts of having the largest urban bat colony in the United States, which resides underneath the Congress Avenue bridge over Town Lake. Other Austin-area species are more rare. The springs that feed the area's bounteous waterways also provide an habitat for aquatic endangered species, like the Texas Blind Salamander, the Fountain Darter, and the Barton Springs Salamander, which lives only in Zilker Park.
Aah, what a joy it would be to live only in Zilker Parkfloating in Barton Springs pool, soaking in the sunshine, and mountain biking on the Barton Creek greenbelt! For life in Austin is all about enjoying life's little pleasures, whether it be outdoor dining under a tree along Barton Springs Road, an ice-cold Shiner Bock beer after a hard bike ride, or a view of the sunset from the hills overlooking Lake Travis. And ideally, all of this is accompanied by a live band playing a Stevie Ray Vaughn tune. Whatever your pleasure, you'll likely find it in Austin.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication