Bicentennial (Part 2, Austin Chic)

---The Obscure Penguin---

The Obscure Penguin
On July 3rd, 1976 about 8 in the morning Rodney and I were hoofing it in Austin, heading south on Lamar. The mechanic had told us the street would eventually branch and we were to take the Guadalupe side all the way to 29th and turn right. Oat Willie’s was there and they were selling tickets to the Willie Nelson 4th of July picnic in Gonzales.
Rod had taken his Canon EF SLR with him, which he carried in a camera bag. Rod was a great photographer and he was equally impressive in a darkroom. They didn’t have Photoshop back then. I watched him a couple times as he manipulated images. I thought that was the coolest thing. That was probably the first time I realized what you see isn’t necessarily real. I also carried a backpack with a little bit of food and a hunting knife. It was already beginning to heat up and get humid but I was comfortably dressed in my favorite blue and white long-sleeved cotton shirt I wore untucked over my bellbottom jeans. I always rolled the sleeves up to my elbows and unbuttoned it low enough to show off the pewter cross necklace a girlfriend had given me. Luckily my sneakers were new and had lots of bounce. Back then I had long straight hair down to my shoulders. Rodney’s hair was curly and long so he looked like he had a big Brillo pad on his head. If I remember correctly he wore jeans, a western shirt and cowboy boots. I remember what I wore because later, we each took each other’s photo on the highway with our thumbs out. I had that photo for years but then I lost it. It’s probably in my ex-wife’s garage. The point being we didn’t stand out much in those days in Austin, but we probably looked like a couple of thugs on the road, which is why, on down the road, many folks didn’t give us a ride. It didn’t occur to me until later when we actually had our thumbs out that we probably looked like stray dogs. And who’s going to help a stray dog? Much less two of them? Well, that’s a bit later in the story.
As we trudged along the streets and sidewalks of the city a part of me wanted it to be more than what I saw. I had built up an image of Austin in my imagination in anticipation and now, as we passed ordinary businesses and ordinary people and ordinary cars in ordinary heat, I began to sweat and realized we had nothing but ourselves in a strange city. The lack of a car adds a significant level of vulnerability. But the excitement hadn’t waned. I took it all in with a good if not thirsty spirit. Bottled water was not a thing. Of course we could buy cokes at gas stations and partake of water fountains. Rod and I were essentially tourists in the city so we were pointing out oddities to each other. It wasn’t Amarillo so at the very least it was somewhat exotic. It struck me how lush and green it was, and sticky. Austin back then was not the huge city it is today. There wasn’t the impersonal atmosphere then. Folks were by and large friendly and open, cowboys, hippies and all those between and beyond.
After a very long thirty blocks or so we found ourselves at Oat Willie’s. There must have been a swamp cooler inside pumping out a cool patchouli breeze that hit us as we entered. There were head shops in Amarillo in those days, but Oat Willie’s in Austin was the iconic Texas destination. The building had once been owned by the guys who created The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers underground comics. Those were on display as we entered, as well as posters for concerts at the Armadillo World Headquarters and bongs, papers, clips, anything a “long-haired, dope-smoking hippie” needed. I was expecting to hear Kinky Friedman playing on the stereo but instead I remember hearing the Alan Parsons Project. Through a beaded door there was a backroom of black light posters, featuring R. Crumb’s Keep On Truckin’, and more. After walking as far as we did, being in the cool shop was a relief. And buying the tickets committed us to finishing the journey. There was no going back. We saw the poster for the concert and chatted with the guy who sold us the tickets. We told him our car had broken down and we needed directions to Gonzales. He said we needed to cross the University and hit 19th, which became MLK Boulevard that year, and cross I-35 and head down to Airport Boulevard, head south on that and that will turn to 183 and that’s the road to Gonzales. We asked if he thought we’d have trouble catching rides and he said not at all. He said the concert had already started and there was a lot of traffic headed that way. We thanked him and took off across the University, passing under the ominous tower where only a decade before Charles Whitman had killed so many people, past the football stadium, past the freeway and into East Austin, which in those days appeared to us to be the poorer side of town.
After awhile you understand if you just “keep on truckin’” you’re going to get someplace eventually. If you have a destination, just keep walking. You can make better time than you expect. We walked quite a long time before we came up on a small store and Rod had in mind a celebration. He said since we’d gotten this far and were on our way, we should reward ourselves with a six-pack of Lone Star. The sun had been beating down pretty hard on us and I thought that was the most wonderful idea Rod had ever had. We bought the beer and continued our march, drinking and carrying the six-pack. We got half a mile down the road when a battered old pickup pulled up beside us. An old black man without any teeth asked us where we were going. We told him. He said he’d give us a ride to just on the other side of the bridge that crossed the Colorado River for a beer. We obliged. We hopped into the bed of the pickup, gave him a beer, and he took us about a mile up the road onto the south side of the bridge and let us off. We had gotten our first ride without even trying. It was a good omen.
In fact, now that we were on 183, traffic was definitely thicker and younger. It was obvious where everyone was going. I remember sticking out my thumb for the first time, thinking it was kind of a rite of passage. Rod and I smiled at each other, knowing we were doing this for real now. A few folks passed us by, a couple yelled obscenities, but probably no more than ten minutes passed before a white van pulled up in front of us. We ran up to it and the guy asked if we were going to the concert. We said, “yeah!” And he said, “hop in!”
The air conditioner seemed to be be blowing air from Heaven. Instant relief. Blue Oyster Cult blasted from his 8-track. I rode shotgun and Rod sat in back. Space and comfort. The guy looked to be our age, maybe a little older. He had a dark tan, long black hair, big sunglasses, and a great big smile. He told us to dig into the cooler next to Rod. Rod removed three very cold Pearls. He had a CB radio and was talking to a good buddy who knew where the bears were. They were apparently clustered around Lockhart. He told me to open the glove box. I did. It was stuffed with weed. He told me to open the console. I did. It had more weed. “Maui Wowee,” he yelled over the Cult. He was clearly excited. “This is going to be a gosh darn, freakin’ awesome concert,” he yelled, although not in those exact words. He punched his cigarette lighter, produced a joint, lit it, and we cruised down 183 at 55 miles per hour.
I don’t think I need to tell you my paranoia set in when I realized we were headed to the concert with a very friendly but also very ambitious drug dealer. All the way through Lockhart I was on edge, trying to find any trace of law enforcement, but we saw nothing. The guy drove conservatively. He clearly came to do business. We talked music and he’d eject one tape after another, from Nugent to Zeppelin, digging on the floor to find something else. It was about three in the afternoon and I was thinking we were pretty lucky we’d gotten a ride all the way to the concert, even if he was a drug dealer, even if I was terrified of getting busted. He was certainly a nice guy and very generous with his product.
We passed more hitchhikers, some holding signs, many with chairs and camping equipment and they got picked up, and it was clear there was one primary purpose behind the human chain leading into Gonzales. It was time to party. As we got into town the traffic was more congested and between Gonzales and the concert site it was nearly bumper to bumper. That’s when the bikers showed up. They weaved around the van, swarming it like bees. We pulled off to the side of the road and the bikers followed. I thought our driver was in trouble. I didn’t know what was happening but I could see a lot of them wore colors indicating they were Vietnam Vets. Our guy reached into the console, removed the contents and nonchalantly walked over to one of the bikers, who greeted him like a friend. They made an exchange right there, out in the open, no attempt to hide it. They chatted for a while and then our driver returned. Everybody got back into the traffic, we and the swarm of bees, and inched our way into the concert. Once inside he gave us each a beer and said “Vaya Con Dios!” We thanked him and stepped out into the Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic.
The day had begun at dawn. For Rodney, earlier than that. We had hiked all the way across Austin and out of it in a sizzling sun. We’d been picked up only twice to get to the concert at roughly four in the afternoon. I marveled at the excellent time we’d made despite the fact we didn’t have a car, but now the sun beat down on us again. There was no shade. It was a large patch of scrubland in the middle of nowhere. We stood, awestruck, looking at the stage and all the people who were setting up campsites around it. We were absolutely baked.