If you've ever thought about visiting Austin, the coolest of Texas towns, do it soon.
Known for great music, good food and liberal attitudes that wither in other parts of Texas, the capital of the Lone Star State is riding a technology boom that may change the heart of hill-country cool forever.
On a recent weekend visit -- when heavy rains ended a summer-long drought and the University of Texas football team ("Hook 'em, Horns!") demolished the University of Missouri in a homecoming football game -- many locals lamented that I was already too late.
Indeed, to get some of the big money being put into play by companies like the Computer Science Corp. -- which now stands where the fabled Liberty Lunch once featured live music -- some residents of downtown's late 19th-century Rainey Street neighborhood are trying to be removed from the historic register so they can sell out.
What do they want to build in its place? A sports arena with a parking garage to complement the nearby convention center.
The influx of high-tech firms and the accompanying building boom is so pronounced that small towns south of Austin -- Kyle and Buda -- have gone from fields and ranchland into bedroom communities. In the past two years, 30 new residential subdivisions have been built in those two towns alone.
Yet, I discovered on long walks along Sixth Street (the Fells Point of Austin, but bigger and with better music) and drives down Congress Avenue with folks who love Austin the way I love Bawlmer, that it takes more than subdivisions and yuppie coffee bars to choke the life out of a place.
(Best independent java house in town: the 503 Coffee Bar at 519 W. Ortoff Road. It has a big fish tank, Billie Holiday on the sound system and is down the road from an H.E.B. supermarket that will cash personal checks up to $50 if you get in a jam.)
Now a central-Texas metropolis of more than a million people, including a much-in-the-news George W. Bush, Austin got its start on Tonkawa Indian land along the Colorado River. Named for Texas founder Stephen Fuller Austin, the town became the state capital in 1839. It is surrounded by low, purple-tinted hills that inspired the early poets of Tejas to dub Austin "City of the Violet Crown."
More than a century later, Janis Joplin honed her vocal chops here while the Beatles conquered England, Nanci Griffith waited tables, and scores of other musicians made their way to Liberty Lunch and Austin City Limits to share their songs and catch a break.
Development and George W. notwithstanding, it's nearly impossible to push such a town completely through the Dull-A-Tron when it boasts diversions like Ray Ray's Soul Dance Party at the Red Eyed Fly at Eighth and Red River streets. And let's not forget the Congress Avenue bridge, where daily from mid-March to early November you can watch millions of bats fly out at sunset to feed.
From dives where Janis sang the blues to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library that chronicles an era of national blues, it would seem that no amount of corporate excess will completely drive a stake through Austin's rocking heart.
(The LBJ Library is extraordinarily well done and a must-see for anyone alive in the '60s. The library contains every pen Johnson used to sign legislation that aimed to make a just nation for all, as well as JFK's Catholic missal, upon which Johnson took the oath of office. There is enough here for an entire day of touring. Black or white, hawk or dove, much of it will make you weep.)
While the hard-to-find locals (Austin is like New York in that way -- it seems everyone is from somewhere else) suffer increases in traffic and mourn the loss of a favorite tree here and an old drugstore there, they seem to move at a slower pace than the newcomers and take as much in stride as they can.
But enough whining.
A groovy motel
To get on with the fun, you'll need to get there (I bought a round-trip ticket with one changeover through priceline.com for less than $200) and you'll need a place to stay.
While Interstate 35 is busy with chain motels in the $50 to $90 range, I suggest a groovy night or two at the Austin Motel, vintage 1938.
Awash in high camp and surrounded by bohemia at 1220 South Congress Ave., the Austin Motel is a classic Route 66-era roadhouse decorated along the lines of Baltimore's American Visionary Arts Museum and a favorite of artists, writers and musicians.
"So close," says the marquee below the red-rocket neon sign outside. "Yet so far out."
A single room costs about $50 and is billed as "small, cozy and comfortable." Top-of-the-line suites with marble whirlpool baths go for a little more than $120.
Get a glimpse of the Great Wall of China Room and other splendors at austinmotel.com, and make reservations a month in advance.