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A quest for the weird in Austin

By Jarrett Bellini, CNN
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Four people keeping Austin weird
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Austin, Texas, is irrefutably hip, but not outrageously weird
  • Still, the city's bounty of independent businesses is refreshing
  • And many artists and characters fit the bill for human weirdness
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Austin, Texas (CNN) -- There was nothing particularly weird about my hotel room, but fortunately, my search for Austin's famed eccentricity wasn't confined to the Courtyard Marriott.

That would just be lazy. Plus, it would make for a really bad travel story: "Hey, come to Austin and visit room 315 next to the ice machine. It's totally weird!"

So, I diligently wandered out of the hotel and into the city to accept Austin's weirdness in all its true glory.

But what I found wasn't all that weird. It was just ... good. Really good.

Where on your average American street corner you might drive past, say, a Wendy's, in Austin you're more likely to find a rickety trailer that serves Korean beef tacos. Because why the hell not, right?

And where another city might erect a lakeside monument to some random deceased person of civic interest, Austin props up a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan. I mean, sure, rock 'n' roll legend has it that the guy used to dissolve cocaine into his Crown Royal whiskey, but damn he could play guitar!

And that oughta count.

You see, it's in these little ways -- encouraging food trucks and honoring its tradition of great live music -- that Austin has rightfully earned its status as one of America's hippest towns.

And speaking of food trucks, the Freeto Burrito at The Vegan Yacht is easily one of the greatest things that has ever happened in my life. Which either says a lot about the burrito or very little about my 32 years on this planet. Probably both. I need a hobby.

Still, despite these proofs of coolness, all one ever reads or hears is the famous saying: Keep Austin Weird.

Yet, despite how much I was enjoying the unique vibe of the city, I still couldn't identify the weirdness. True, there were more than a few people who might get turned away at Ruth's Chris for lack of decorum (or at least until they adopt a "pants optional" policy), but it was nothing I haven't seen before. Let's be honest: Every city has its oddball characters, and if the occasional cross-dresser on a bicycle is all it takes to qualify your city as weird, then the world is officially one big funny farm.

The truth is that "Keep Austin Weird" isn't so much a commentary on the people -- where it's generally understood that, socially, Austin exists as a little blue dot in a big red state -- but rather as a rallying cry to support locally owned businesses.

And it seems to be working. For in this land of chain restaurants, big-box stores and cookie-cutter strip malls, the heart of Austin seems, by and large, to have chosen not to participate.

And if you look around most American communities, you might agree that, yes, that's weird.

Nevertheless, I had totally set my hopes on human buffoonery, and I wasn't leaving until I met some genuine characters. Thus, my search for Austin's weird led me to a local tour guide named Howie Richey. He calls himself the Texpert, and my initial thought was that maybe he was really, really good at messaging with his phone. This would have been a positive start to my day, but I was quickly disappointed to learn that he's actually a Texas expert.

Meh.

But things did get better as we cruised down South Congress Avenue, where it became even more abundantly clear that, quite possibly, Austinites live for two things: live music and any food that comes from a truck. Maybe in that order.

After passing by a great number of small, unique businesses, we soon found ourselves turning off the main drag and winding in and out of residential neighborhoods, stopping occasionally to meet some of Austin's true goofballs.

Our first stop was the Cathedral of Junk. Basically, many years ago, a guy named Vince Hannemann started collecting odds and ends in his backyard, and his obsession eventually turned into a massive three-story tower of crap.

Mind you, it's amazing crap.

With everything from a prosthetic leg to an old Barbie doll to a British Columbia license plate, Hannemann's castle is more than just a reason to get a tetanus shot. It's a grand monument to the human spirit ... for junk. But make sure you leave a donation. Junk ain't free.

Actually, it usually is. But leave a couple of bucks anyway.

Next, we journeyed over to Bill Oliver's house and/or boat yard and/or place where he's squatting. I'm still not exactly sure just what Mr. Oliver does, but the man who runs MrHabitat.net is a super cheerful guy, and he calls himself an environmental troubadour.

I think this means he goes around singing educational songs about conservation and sustainability. This, I deduced from lyrics to his song "Bring Your Own Bag":

This plastic bag is fresh from a fossil
Floundering in a tanker at sea
Destined now to leach in a landfill
It will outlive you and me

Nice guy.

There were several other stops on our three-hour tour, but only two were really worth mentioning here. And though they don't necessarily qualify as weird, they do qualify as interesting.

The first was a visit to Todd Sanders at Roadhouse Relics. Todd is an artist who specializes in modern-vintage neon signs and decor. And, seriously, you have to stop in this place. His work is out of this world. In fact, you've probably seen his masterpieces in Hollywood movies. They're that good.

He even made special limited edition signs for Willie Nelson's 70th birthday concert ... which I'm sure the Red Headed Stranger promptly tried to smoke.

Atta boy, Willie!

The other quality stop on the tour was the South Austin Popular Culture Center. Here, Henry Gonzalez led us around an expansive collection of local concert posters from years past. Concert posters have always been a fascinating art form, and these were no exception.

Even better: Henry sort of reminded me of an older Jerry Garcia. An older Jerry Garcia in a Sean Jean shirt.

In the end, after my little tour with Howie, I felt that I had sufficiently fulfilled my human weirdness quota. And, more importantly, I think I gained a better understanding of Austin's true weirdness -- the many small businesses that make it a one-of-a-kind city.

But if that doesn't do it for you, maybe check out room 315 next to the ice machine.