Once Upon a Time in Texas: Weeks 1 & 2

Robert Earl Keen rasps his way through “Shades of Gray” on the radio. I’m sitting in my Austin, Texas, apartment trying to decide how to start this story about my time here. Since I’m listening to 98.1 KVET’s “Sunday Night Texas Show,” I guess I’ll start there. The radio.

I was scanning through static and gospel stations north of Dallas when I got my first taste of what I was going to love about Texas. The station I landed on boasted playing “everything from Americana to Ameri-kinda.” It was mostly a Texas Country station and I loved it. Then the rain hit. The Bible Belt had greeted us – my mother and I – with some biblical shit. The road was covered in water and I could barely see the tail lights in front of me. We crawled along at a snail’s pace, everyone on the road gridlocked with their blinkers on, but the rain let up soon and gave way to the sunny Texas hill country.

As we rolled down I-35, passing Whataburgers and BBQ joints, I was nervous and excited. I had just landed the greatest opportunity of my life so far: interning at Texas Monthly, and it was about to start. But I was also headed to a huge city – full of hipsters, hippies, cowboys, bikers, and who knows what else – where I didn’t know anyone. That was part exciting, but mostly nerve-racking.

Rain again. This time between Dallas and Waco, and much, much worse. Gridlock again. Blinkers again.

We finally came out of the rain and not too long after made it to Austin. It was Memorial Day, so I couldn’t move into my apartment. Instead, we stayed at The Austin Motel. It’s an eclectic motor lodge that has been re-purposed in the hipster hub of South Congress. Every room is different, but ours had hard stone floors and an aquatic, sea-foam motif.

From the moment I woke up the next morning, the week was eventful. I moved into my apartment, traveled south to San Marcos – pronounced “mark-us” I was told – for a live TV taping of Texas Music Scene, and started my adventure at Texas Monthly.


My palms were sweating as I rode the elevator up to the 17th floor of 816 Congress Avenue. The doors opened and I was greeted first by a picture of John Travolta, and then by the receptionist. She lead me back to the office of Stacy Hollister, who would be our – the other interns and I – keeper for the summer. She’s a petite lady who spends her time bouncing around the office making sure everything is running perfectly. Stacy got us started with some introductions, a tour, and initiation materials. It was a little awkward at first, but as we got seated at the intern station, I fell in quickly with my two companions. A weight lifted off my shoulders and I decided I was going to like it here.

I still hadn’t gotten to fulfill my goal for the first day, though. I wanted to meet John Spong. The man who wrote some of my favorite pieces about Outlaw Country, Lonesome Dove, and Lone Star beer. As I chatted with the other interns and filled out paperwork, a thin man came around the corner and stopped at our desks, twirling a can of Copenhagen in his hand. This was John Spong. We later had a meeting with him and talked about stories, got some work to do, and met a lot of the other writers. I knew that if nothing else, I was going to like being here this summer.

The weekend. Usually a time for rabble rousing and other old-timey was of saying getting drunk and loud. But I sat alone in my apartment drinking Lone Star and watching movies from the enormous collection the guy I sublet from left. I started to feel a little homesick. “Homesick” in itself is an odd term for it, though. I find that it isn’t a case of missing your home, but missing your friends and family. If they were all here in Austin, I wouldn’t be wishing I was home. But anyway, I was homesick. I wanted to be in Hepler, Kansas, at my friend Mitch’s shitty house drinking half-warm Bud Light with him and my cousin. Or in Des Moines taking shots at West End while I played darts with Nordeen, Bursik, and Whitehead.

I made my way to Hole in the Wall – a favorite campus bar for hipsters and townies alike – and the bar district of “Dirty Sixth.” Dirty Sixth definitely wasn’t my scene, and while Hole in the Wall was great, going to a bar alone just isn’t really worth it.

The John at Hole in the Wall.

The John at Hole in the Wall.

Sunday came and I picked up and went to the Reckless Kelly Celebrity Softball Jam. It’s a charity slow pitch softball game and concert put on by musicians and played by athletes, artists, and local media celebrities. It was awesome and I talked to a lot of great people. But I got my first real introduction to the Texas heat. I left drenched in sweat and burnt to a crisp, but with a smile on my face.


The next week I settled in even more. I loved – and still do – being at work and being surrounded by so much talent. I met some more writers, got to know the other interns, and saw Stoney LaRue for free at Hill’s Cafe. I had Torchy’s Tacos. I had Whataburger. I checked out a few bars. I went to the Salt Lick for great BBQ. I had more Torchy’s Tacos. By the time the weekend came, I didn’t really mind sitting in and drinking a few Lone Stars with a movie. But I wouldn’t get that opportunity this weekend. I flew back to Kansas to play the reception of an old schoolmate’s wedding. It was a good time and the Busch Light flowed freely. I drove back with my guitar on Sunday and this time there wasn’t any rain in sight. Just Texas traffic that would make anyone contemplate jerking the wheel into the noticeably less crowded, oncoming lane. Even though the going was slow. I eventually made it home.

Home. Yeah. That’s what this was for now. And it was even starting to feel like it.

Torchy's Tacos. Damn good.

Torchy’s Tacos. Damn good.

Stoney LaRue at Hill's Cafe.

Stoney LaRue at Hill’s Cafe.

The number for my first Whataburger of the summer.

The number for my first Whataburger of the summer.

"The Rancher" courtesy of the Salt Lick.

“The Rancher” courtesy of the Salt Lick.

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