According to the Nielson Company, which invented the concept of “market research” some 80 years ago, the people of Austin read and contribute to blogs more than residents in any other U.S. city. An outfit called Scarborough Research seconds this, estimating that 15 percent of adults who live in Austin are bloggers.

That’s about 573,000 people. Blogging. In one city.

So when Jill and I rolled into Texas’ famously free-thinking state capital — a place referred to in less progressive Lone Star circles as “300 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality” and “the People’s Republic of Austin” — I turned to her and made a rebellious declaration: “We’re not going to blog about Austin.”

My rationale: Austin needs another blog post like it needs another burned-out hippie or boot-wearing state senator. Besides, after 37 cities and 10,000 miles, I figured Jill and I needed a break. I suggested we find a weekly rental, wander aimlessly around town, read books by the lake, catch a live band or two, and generally take a vacation from our vacation.

I wanted, too, to see Jill saunter down the sidewalk unburdened by her camera and the constant artistic demands that come with having it slung across her shoulder. Is it fair that she squints at our every destination through a viewfinder while I amble at her side hardly ever scribbling a note? The answer, Jill reminds me frequently, is no.

I must also admit to another, more selfish motive for my proposed blog boycott of Austin: I don’t really like blogging.

Maybe its Austin’s countercultural spirit that compels me to make this declaration. Or maybe I’m just copping out, threatened by the creative class of thirtysomethings who mill about the city carrying laptops in leather messenger bags. Surely their blog entries are cleverer than mine. I bet they shoot video and post daily and have advertisers. I hate them.

I am generally not a man who’s prone to self-consciousness, but Austin is one of those cities — not unlike Boulder, Colo., or Cambridge, Mass. — that tweaks my nose and makes me question my credentials. Austin is Lance Armstrong. Austin is South by Southwest. Austin is Dazed and Confused. Whole Foods is headquartered here. “Austin City Limits” is filmed here. Wes Anderson matriculated here. Austinites who aren’t smart are pretty: Tattooed girls sunbathe topless in Zilker Park, and Matthew McConaughey jogs shirtless around Lady Bird Lake.

I contributed to my own private unease by finding us accommodations in SoCo, a neighborhood sandwiching South Congress Avenue that is the steady-thumping heartbeat of all things cool in Austin. From our garage-top studio apartment we were within walking distance of the city’s hippest hotels, coffee shops, fashion boutiques and food carts.

Jill quickly became obsessed with the latter — old trailers, trucks and buses that have been converted into food stands that serve everything from fried avocado tacos to grilled quail to bacon doughnuts. (That’s right: bacon doughnuts.) It’s like being able to eat every day at a magical state fair where the concessions are operated by the Food Network.

Jill ate at Torchy’s Tacos three times in five days. Its trailer shares a graveled plot of picnic tables with two other food carts (Man Bites Dog and Holy Cacao) to constitute the South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery. Jill also drooled over Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, where she ordered the grilled quail and I tried a pork-belly slider. I wasn’t crazy about the fancy food most of these trailers dish up, but the price was right, and I did enjoy being able to dine outdoors with the dogs.

When not filling her gullet with trailer food, Jill was stuffing her feet into cowboy boots. She had decided she would not leave Texas without buying a pair as a souvenir, and she tried on two-dozen varieties at Allens Boots. Pulling on and pulling off new boots ain’t easy, and Jill emerged from Allen’s with beads of sweat on her upper lip and blisters on the undersides of her index fingers. (She also emerged bootless. Her quest would have to continue at boot stores beyond SoCo.)

Congress Avenue is also home to the Continental Club, a live-music institution in the Live Music Capital of the World. The Continental Club began its life as a private supper club in 1957, when it hosted acts like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. It is purported to be the first place in Travis County to sell liquor by the glass. The Continental morphed into a burlesque club in the ’60s before returning to his musical roots a decade later, when Austin icons such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Ely and Kinky Friedman played to audiences bathed in cigarette smoke and neon.

We were lucky enough to catch Dale Watson and his band on a Monday night at the Continental Club. Watson has the salt-and-pepper pompadour of aging greaser, the tattooed arms of an ex-con, and the gleaming horse teeth of a televangelist. His performance is pure SoCo: smooth, retro, satirical. Watson’s act would be considered campy on any other stage in any other city — listen to “Whiskey or God” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies” — but the guy was born to play the Continental Club in Austin.

Walt Wilkins and the Mystiqueros

Dale Watson provided the opening set for my and Jill’s near-nightly musical tour of Austin.

We saw Walt Wilkins and the Mystiqueros play at Saxon Pub and were treated to an amazing show by LuceroShooter Jennings, son of Waylon, opened — at Emo’s on 6th Street.

Really, if you can’t find good music in Austin, lean your face toward the nearest plane of glass and see if you fog it — you might be dead.

Maybe the only thing better than Austin’s food and music, in my book, is its walkability. In five days there we barely moved our car. Besides strolling around SoCo, we walked the length of Congress Avenue to the Texas State Capitol. This Italian Renaissance Revival marvel was the seventh-largest building in the world when it was completed in 1888, and it remains the biggest (if not tallest) state capitol building in the country. Its construction also prompted one of the largest barter transactions in U.S. history — the capitol’s principal builders were paid with tracts of land in the Texas panhandle. (The laborers who built the capitol weren’t compensated quite as well; most were convicts and migrant laborers who earned a pittance for six years of toiling.)

Even though Austin’s population is about the same as San Francisco’s, its downtown skyline is comparatively unremarkable. The state capitol is the reason for that. For decades, building restrictions prevented the construction of any skyscraper that would obscure views of the capitol from other parts of the city. Those restrictions have recently fallen by the wayside, however, and in their void have risen condo towers and a cloud-kissing W Hotel. Even in a progressive city like Austin, not everybody can agree this is progress.

Texas’ magnificent state capitol is responsible for one other thing, too: Jill finally finding the perfect pair of cowboy boots. During our meandering walk back toward SoCo from to the capitol grounds, she spotted a small downtown shop bearing the sign “Heritage Boots.” She went inside and fell in love with the first pair of boots she tried on.

So we left Austin feeling good. Miles of urban hiking had awakened our leg muscles, a new playlist of country songs rang through the car speakers, and Jill’s ideal souvenir sat upright in the back floorboard as if worn by an invisible cowgirl.

I have a feeling, though, that my shins are going to lament the purchase of those new boots when Jill — whom I implored not to carry her camera in Austin — finds out America’s most blog-crazy city has inspired me to write a 1,300-word post that is in desperate need of photographic accompaniment.

Oops.

—Scott

One of the beauties of unhurried road-tripping is that some days, when you don’t know where to go, you can spread out your atlas like a Ouija board and let the tip of your finger find its way to your next destination. Maybe you gravitate to a place because its name is strange or it exists in a polygon of shaded green on the map. Maybe you’re drawn to a city because it figured prominently in a book you’ve read, or you remember it as the hometown of a favorite athlete or actor.

Or, in the case of Luckenbach, Texas, maybe you pick your next stop because it is the title of a classic country song.

“Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” was a No. 1 hit for Waylon Jennings in the summer of 1977. It’s a song that slides easily into your mind and then, like a sleepy drunk at last call, refuses to leave. I began humming its chorus immediately after spotting Luckenbach on the map, a faint blip southwest of Fredericksburg and nearly smack-dab in the center of the Lone Star State.

We took our sweet Texas time driving to Luckenbach from Marfa. We stopped at a ramshackle roadside attraction in Fort Davis that claims (believably) to house the largest exhibit of live rattlesnakes in the world. And we checked out a spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park that’s 25 feet deep and has aquatic critters swimming in it. (The Balmorhea pool is yet one more fascinating attraction we’ve encountered that was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I’m thinking of ordering a bumper sticker that reads “God Bless the CCC.”)

By the time we pulled into the Armadillo Farm Campground in Luckenbach, the sun had set and our bellies were groaning. Gay, the friendly proprietor of Armadillo Farm, suggested a secluded campsite where the dogs could roam and told us the best bet for food at the late hour was the Luckenbach dance hall, just across the pasture.

Now is probably a good time to explain that Luckenbach isn’t actually a proper town. When Waylon Jennings sings, “Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas,” what he’s referring to is the old dance hall. Little else exists in Luckenbach, other than a post office, general store and saloon — all three of which are housed in a small wooden building that looks like it was preserved from the set of Gunsmoke.

Local legend holds that a larger-than-life Texan (is that redundant?) named Hondo Crouch was thirsting for a beer while driving through Luckenbach in the early 1970s. He stopped for a drink at the saloon, but it was closed. It was also for sale — along with the general store and dancehall — and Crouch decided to buy the whole town. Another account suggests Crouch purchased Luckenbach after seeing an advertisement in an Austin newspaper that read “Town For Sale — Population 3.”

I don’t know how tall those tales are, but the Texas State Historical Association confirms that Crouch — a humorist, writer and All-American swimmer at the University of Texas — bought Luckenbach in 1971. He then proclaimed himself mayor and installed a single parking meter.

Crouch took advantage of the town’s status as a municipality to govern it as he saw fit. The historical association writes that Crouch “declared Luckenbach ‘a free state … of mind’ and successfully turned the small community into a foil of the nearby ‘Texas White House’ — Lyndon Johnson’s place down the Pedernales River at the LBJ Ranch.”

Crouch died in 1976, a year before Jennings’ hit song forever burned Luckenbach into popular music’s hide. But Texans who love outlaw country will tell you the place was put on the musical map in 1973, when Jerry Jeff Walker recorded his album Viva Terlingua at the dance hall. And Texans who love state history will tell you Luckenbach almost ascended to worldwide fame in 1865, when the local schoolmaster tested a flying machine 17 years before the Wright Brothers’ successful flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Alas, the schoolmaster crashed.

That schoolmaster might have been the first person to crash in Luckenbach, but he was definitely not the last. The Armadillo Farm Campground actually advertises itself as a “secure place to ‘sleep it off’ after over-indulging at the latest concert event over at the Luckenbach Town Dance Hall.” Thanks to Jerry Jeff and Waylon — and countless other country musicians cut from the same ragged cloth — the dance hall has a reputation for hard drinking and caterwauling. (If you read “dance hall” and envision a grand room with chandeliers, please take note that Texas dance halls are built for two-stepping and swigging beer. For a layman’s introduction to them, check out this NPR story.)

I must admit that Jill and I found our Friday-night visit to Luckenbach pretty tame. A middle-aged songstress performed a set of mostly covers, and the audience in the half-full hall applauded politely at the end of each number. A few folks two-stepped, but most simply sat at long tables drinking bottled beer and munching on snacks.

A hot dog and BBQ pork sandwich satisfied my and Jill’s hunger, but we were surprised to find the bar only served beer — no whiskey. Did Waylon and Willie and the boys really come down here and not drink whiskey? Say it ain’t so.

Underwhelmed, we walked the dogs back to the campground, where we noticed the communal campfire was ringed by several people — two of whom wore cowboy hats and held guitars across their laps. We were encouraged. I found a stump to sit on, and Jill fetched the flask.

Fittingly, the first campfire song we heard in full was “Luckenbach, Texas.” In the firelight it was hard to gauge the age of the fellow playing it, but his voice — raspy and fragile — suggested he was at least 70. We learned he lived just over the hill and was an Armadillo Farm regular. I suspect he had performed “Luckenbach, Texas” a thousand times since 1977, and the arrival of Jill and me prompted what was probably his third or fourth rendition of the night. His arrangement included changing the lyric “firm-feelin’ women” to “firm-breasted women.” I silently wondered how long it had been since he’d felt a firm breast. Probably years. But one can never underestimate the sex appeal of a six-string and a cowboy hat.

The other guitarist, who I’ll call Slim, was a bandy rooster of a man who sported the standard boot-scooting uniform: wide-brimmed hat, Wrangler jeans, pressed Western shirt, colossal belt buckle. He was 6 feet tall but couldn’t have weighed more than 140 pounds soaked in Shiner Bock. When he wasn’t singing, a grin never left his face, but you could only spot it in his eyes and facial creases due to the presence of a mustache that would make Sam Elliott blush.

Slim at first seemed fabulously drunk: He spoke and sang with a lisp, and when he rose from his seat he teetered forward and backward, as though his spindly legs could not support the weight of his hat and mustache. But in apologizing for the quality of his picking and singing, Slim revealed (with a grin) that he had recently recovered from his sixth stroke. He then began strumming the first chords to an old Mickey Newberry song called “Sweet Memories.”

I would like to tell you the campfire cowboys at Armadillo Farm were wonderful musicians and interesting company, and that Jill and I passed our flask and listened to their crooning deep into the night. I would like to tell you they knew the Townes Van Zandt song I requested and that I joined in during the chorus. I would like to tell you we weren’t sitting next to a guy wearing a plush flamingo hat who implored the cowboys to favor him with a rendition of “Margaritaville.”

But I’d be embellishing our Texas tale.

In truth, the guitar pickers weren’t very good and I kept waiting, in vain, for our Luckenbach experience to feel authentic. When the old fella broke into “Luckenbach, Texas” yet again, Jill and I said our polite goodbyes and walked the dogs toward camp. Still, we sang the chorus all the way back to the tent, and it danced in my head for hours as I lay on my back, sleeplessly staring at a Hill Country sky heavy with stars.

But that ain’t a bad thing. It really is a hell of a song.
      

      
— Scott

I hate hippies. That’s right. I said it. I hate dirty, dreamy, delusional hippies. They can’t dance, they can’t get your order right, and they have no appreciation for SEC football.

The only thing I hate more than a dirty hippie is being mistaken for one. Some folks assume that just because I don’t have a job, shave infrequently and live out of a car with a bleeding-heart-liberal California girl, I must be a free-spirited member of the counter culture. I get offered pot. It’s assumed I like Phish.

Well, like the good people of Muskogee, Okla., I don’t smoke marijuana. And I deplore Phish and just about every other trippy-dippy jam band whose frontman wears a Jesus beard and an oversize sweater.

But about 11 times a day I find myself making an exception for Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. This is because Jill has fallen in flowery, hairy, hippie love with the song “Home.”

We have Jessica Stefan of Santa Barbara, Calif., to thank for introducing us to “Home.” We’ve never met Jessica, but she’s a friend of a friend who discovered the blog and thought “Home” might suit us. And it does.

Make no mistake: I would never pitch a tent next to these people, and some of the guys I might be inclined to punch in the face without provocation. But I do love to listen to Jill sing the lyrics as she bobs and sways in the passenger seat like a Muppet on Ecstasy.

Thank you, Jessica, for following our blog, brightening our days and broadening our musical horizons. When we make it to Santa Barbara, we would love to meet you. I’ve got a Lynyrd Skynyrd mixtape I think you might dig.

—Scott

Hotel Congress has occupied the same corner in downtown Tucson for 91 years. But it sure feels like it’s been around the block a few times.

Look closely and you’ll find flecked paint and cracked tile and water-stained plaster. If you arrive in the morning, you might get a whiff of stale beer from one of the five bars (yes, five) that adjoin the lobby. Arrive at midday, and your olfactory glands might be overwhelmed by the cleaning staff’s liberal swabbings of ammonia.

The iron-framed beds are small, the mattresses a little lumpy. But checking into Hotel Congress with sleep on your mind is folly anyway. Long past midnight bottles clank, kick drums thump, locomotives rattle ancient windows.

The bathrooms? Tiny. A man of average stature can rest his forehead on the wall while he sits on the toilet (which I suppose is helpful if you’ve spent too much time at one or more of the bars downstairs). The showers are about the size of refrigerator boxes, and the temperature of the water trickling out of them is as fickle as Joe Lieberman.

Hotel Congress has its flaws, yes. But love is being able to overlook flaws. And true love is when flaws cease to be flaws at all, but rather contextual definers of unique beauty and your relationship to it — like tiny flecks of rust on your ’69 Mustang or laugh lines around your father’s eyes.

Having said that, let me declare this: I truly love Hotel Congress.

I’m not the only one, of course. Since 1919, Hotel Congress has seduced travelers of every ilk. First it was rail passengers, Easterners mostly, disembarking from Southern Pacific trains that squealed to a stop at a station across the street. Later, in 1934, John Dillinger and his gang decided the hotel’s third floor would be a lovely place to lay low from federal agents. And beginning in 1985, when a club opened downstairs, aficionados of live music, unpretentious booze and cigarette-fogged conversation made “the Congress” their favorite hangout.

Hotel Congress comes by its agedness honestly. This place isn’t Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button makeup; it’s John Hurt after a bender. It doesn’t so much live and breathe as it creaks and convulses and bellows.

Hotel Congress’ saving grace lies in the details. It gets them right at every turn. The blood-red Mexican tile in the lobby is burnished to a shine that catches every glint of natural light. The bare, mustard-hued bulbs that droop in arcs above the outside patio cast a perfectly dull glow on the tables below. The ornate yet worn carpet in the hallways whispers the stories of a thousand soles, including those that wobbled past the night before.

Hotel Congress’ décor isn’t merely aesthetically pleasing — it’s transportive. Depending which direction you swivel your head, you might feel like you’re in a Spanish hacienda, a Parisian café or a Victorian bordello. It’s the kind of hotel you want to take up residence in for a week rather than a weekend. It’s a place for whiling away writer’s block or having a fling with a European girl on holiday.

With its stylish surfaces and antiquated guts, Hotel Congress reminds me of the old muscle cars my friends and I drove in high school. The exteriors of those cars were studies in the visceral allure of paint and chrome and vinyl, but under the hood were globs of grease and burnt oil. The hidden grime didn’t matter: The engines rumbled like a Zeppelin song, and your date had oblivious fun riding to the dance.

Like John Dillinger — who, with his gang, was flushed from the hotel by a basement blaze and later arrested on a tip from a fireman — my personal history has been shaped in no small way by Hotel Congress. It is where Jill and I hatched the idea for this trip, and it’s also where I audaciously asked Jill’s favorite musician if he would perform at our wedding … at a campground … in rural Tennessee.

That’s a pretty good story, and many of you know it. For those who don’t, here’s the short version:

On Dec. 27, 2008, in Chattanooga, Tenn., during a concert by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, after Isbell sang the lyric “Don’t worry about losing your accent/A Southern man tells better jokes,” Jill took a long drag on her cigarette, then turned to me and asked, “When are you going to make an honest woman of me?” Later that night, after stealing a ring and dropping to a knee next to the Tennessee River, I did just that.

This is the story I recounted to Jason Isbell himself three months later as we stood outside Hotel Congress, next to his band’s van, bathed in neon. It was 3 a.m. He exhaled smoke from a Marlboro red into the night air; I nervously shifted from foot to foot, my hands stuffed into the pockets of my jeans.

“Listen,” I said. “I don’t want to offend you, but is there any chance — any at all — that you would consider playing at our wedding?”

To make a shortened story shorter, six months later Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — a band lauded by SPIN and Esquire and Rolling Stone — graced a rec-center stage at Fall Creek Falls State Park. My 86-year-old grandfather was in the audience. Jill cried. Jason and the band hung out with us after the show, passing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s around the campfire.

And it all started at Hotel Congress.

The place doesn’t have air conditioning. It doesn’t have TVs. It’s loud. The plumbing sucks. But it’s where stories begin. Or end. Or just gestate at the bar. Or, in the case of this post, get rapped out on a keyboard as haggard dogs sleep on shiny Mexican tile.

I would happily stay here for months if I didn’t have so many other places to go.

—Scott

After a pit stop in Phoenix to prepare our tax return and help our fabulous new renter get settled into our house, we are repacking and reloading for another long stretch on the road. That entails updating the iPod with some new tunes.

Back in December, before we set out on the first leg of our journey, I caught part of the 32nd Anuual Kennedy Center Honors. One of this year’s honorees was Bruce Springsteen, and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder paid tribute to The Boss with a cover of “My City of Ruins”. Springsteen wrote this gospel-tinged song about the deterioration of Asbury Park, N.J., but it took on new meaning after September 11 and, later, Hurricane Katrina.

Vedder’s version of the song is available on iTunes, and proceeds from each download benefit victims of the earthquake in Haiti via Artists for Peace and Justice. I was happy to find this recording, and I have friend and former co-worker Stephanie Heckathorne to thank for pointing me in the right direction. Stephanie and I share a love for both Eddie Vedder and gospel-influenced rock ‘n’ roll, and in the months ahead Jill and I will definitely miss Steph’s late-night, red-wine-slurping, story-swapping visits to our home in Phoenix.

P.S. If you dig this particular live performance by Vedder, check out his haunting cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” at a 1992 tribute to Dylan.

—Scott