Exploring the capital city of Texas, Winston Aldworth finds a cool town that stands apart and makes a big noise
Cowboys are cool. In fact, they pretty much invented cool. A rough definition of keeping cool might run as follows: wearing a languid expression and maintaining a calm demeanour when all around you is chaos and clamour: heck boy, cowboys were doing that 100 years before Arthur Fonzarelli arrived on the scene. Skinny jeans — check. Steely glint in the eye — check. Check shirt — check.
When the tobacco industry wanted to find a personality cool enough to make smoking look cool, they sure as hell didn't go seeking city slickers or sailors.
Nowhere has more cowboys than Texas. But for many Kiwis, the downside of Texan cowboy culture is the awkward association with farting around the campfire, gun-toting rednecks and political leanings that just plain don't make sense to us. (In Roberts County, Texas, 95.3 per cent of votes in last year's Presidential election were for Donald Trump, the highest percentage of the more than 3000 US counties).
Austin is different. It's as Texan as driving a big car or finding shade on a hot day, but the
state capital stands alone. It's an enclave of liberalism in the Lone Star State and proud of its offbeat status. (While Hillary Clinton pocketed 56.5 per cent of the vote in Austin, she could manage just 43.2 per cent statewide.)
In Austin, the cool of the cowboy is tempered with fantastic design, boosted by terrific food and aided by a live music culture to die for. We visited a week before Austin City Limits, seeing the city set up its stalls for one of the world's hippest and smartest festivals.
An oasis of weirdness in a conservative desert, Austin is seriously cool.
Bruce is pretty cool. Though he's not a cowboy and he definitely didn't vote for Hillary.
Hailing from Washington DC, he sat across the aisle from me on our flight into Austin. A friendly, bulky, everybody's-buddy kinda guy, he was also a Trump-voter of epic Trumpishness. (Our conversation touched on Formula One and I mentioned that I was hoping to catch the Singapore Grand Prix.
"Singapore, huh? Is that a country or a city?" he asks.
"Uh, it's kinda both."
"Hmm. Is it the one that China's trying to take back?" ("I think that's Hong Kong, mate.").
Politically, me and Trump-voting Bruce were from points as disparate as we were geographically — but he was a lovely bloke and funny, with a Trump plug always near at hand ("So you're a journalist, huh? I guess we're having to import those now because all ours are fake news!").
"You're gonna find Austin is a bit different from the rest of Texas," Bruce confided.
"Texas is red [Republican] through and through, but this place is different. And it's definitely the coolest place in Texas."
Bruce was right about that, and he was full of hot tips. Like the secret speakeasy bar on 5th St hidden behind a sign which says "Floppy Disk Repair Co." — you can only get in if you have the pin code for the locked door. Bruce had the code.
It's a typically cool joint in a city full of them.
You really know Austin has something unusual going on when you try the coffee: it's so good, you could think you weren't in America. The modern restaurants are so un-American the ghost of Senator Joseph McCarthy would like a word with them.
In Austin, they even make brussels sprouts cool. We ordered the much-maligned vegetable in three different restaurants and each plate was a barbecue-flamed stunner.
The best of them being mayonnaise-whacked wonders at Perla's in the SoCo District. South Congress is a hub of cool. Retro shops vie with top restaurants and design stores for your travelling dollar.
Whatever you do with your dollars in Austin, make sure you have a few put aside for when you get to Allens Boots. This is the first step on your path towards true Cowboy Cool.
I'm not much of a travelling shopper, but Allens Boots had my credit card sweating from the moment I walked into the place. This is the store to get your cool cowboy kit — of course, their main trade is done in boots, buckles and 10-gallon hats (which are steamed and pressed into shape on the premises), which are a bit too far western.
Many of the boots — near-knee height works of art in leather — are decorated with everything from skulls to roses.
The boots that caught my eye (plain brown and not so high up the shin) cost about three times more than I've ever spent on footwear. I ummed. I ahed. I tried them on and they fitted like a glove ... well, a sock.
But that price — surely they're too much?
"You'll die in those boots," said a travelling companion, sealing the purchase.
Across the road, there's a cosy live music venue with a worn, reddened interior and a small, unassuming stage. The Continental Club (Robert Plant's preferred drinking spot when he's in town) is one of America's greatest live venues.
The city's cool was built in no small part on great music. Over at The Moody Theater on Willie Nelson Blvd, they film Austin City Limits Live, the longest running music series in US television history.
This isn't the city that was built on rock 'n' roll, it's the city that built rock 'n' roll.
Austin is cool all over.
Getting there: American Airlines resumes its daily service from Auckland to Austin, via Los Angeles, on October 7.