LITTLE ROCK — Having travelled by automobile through Northeast Arkansas, I cannot help but wonder, when the pioneers were rolling through, spreading alcoholism to the Quapaw and Caddo and pushing waves of Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek refugees before them, what those were like who, upon crossing the Mississippi stopped, stood with hands on hips taking in the panorama of muddy flats, inhaled deeply and muttered, "Right here. This."
1,250,000 – The population of the Austin-Round Rock metro area.
18,988 – Registered participants who attended the South by Southwest Music Conference in 2012.
9,500 – Conservative estimate of the number of superficial, pretentious people who flooded in to Austin to be noticed / recognized as the Next Big Thing / showered with sycophantic flattery by other superficial, pretentious people hoping to network and be recognized as the Next Big Thing.
3,600 – Approximate round-trip mileage for this trip.
1,542 – Dollars spent for hotel, gas, wristband, supplies, clothes, shoes, shuttle pass and gum.
500 – Miles to Memphis, if you believe everything you are told.
225 – Quantity of which I am keeping personal track; I will not say what. I beg your indulgence. It adds to the mystique.
104 – Number of official stages at SxSW in 2012.
58 – Foreign countries represented at the 2012 SxSW Music Conference (which is to say, citizens of 59 countries attended — who says Americans are self-absorbed?).
27 – Annual SxSW conferences, as of 2013.
15 – Cumulative hours of sleep I had in the nine days preceding the beginning of this trip.
7 – Visible suspicious moles on the lady sitting next table over at the coffeehouse in which I am currently writing this part of the article. I am not leering; I am pre-med and, as previously mentioned, a worrier. What you lose in cold going South, you gain in UV exposure.
5 – Estimated number of successful networking opportunities, out of tens of thousands, which led to someone making the ever-more-elusive "bank" following last year's SxSW.
4 – Cumulative hours of sleep I got camping in the freezing cold on the way to Austin.
2 – Times I have gotten the legitimate Waffle House trots.
1 – Thing I must do while in Austin. I must shop for records with Destroyer.
* Some statistics per SxSW's official 2012 economic impact factsheet, http://sxsw.com/sites/default/files/attachments/sxsw_2012_factsheet.pdf
Northeast Arkansas is the place where demolition derby cars go to rust and leach into the soil. Softcore pornographic air fresheners hang here for lonely decades until bought by transient wolves or 25-year-old horndog rockers with an endearingly sophomoric sense of humor. I notice a trailer outside a filling station, filled with empty, trashed cardboard boxes and sitting open in the rain; the state of decay belies a longer period of neglect than would seem rational to persons with no opiate addictions.
There is a restaurant attached to this fuel hole; the entrance sign hanging below a dented, overflowing gutter touts new management. It was obviously handpainted in the late 1980s. The lone waitress I see is thin, with nice curves. When she turns around, she is the picture of 35 years' continuous chain-smoking and possible domestic abuse. She may once have been the homecoming queen, and she probably didn't know at that point she was at the peak of life's ballistic trajectory.
Northeast Arkansas is a ramshackle catastrophe of industrial chicken farms and discarded pork rind bags. It is shit on a shingle. It is a fetid marsh.
Passing through Little Rock: Obits — "City is Dead."
I pass into Texas for the first time in my life at approximately 3 pm CST. The hour gained we will immediately lose tonight as Daylight Pointless Time begins. The United States now spends (shouldn't that be "spend," grammatically?) over seven months per year on Daylight Savings Time. Someone needs to explain to me why Daylight Savings Time shouldn't be renamed Standard Time, and the former Standard Time renamed Daylight Losings Time. Americans just cannot seem to deal with bad news. I'm often told I'm a downer.
In contrast to Arkansas, Texas is new. Brand-spanking, shiny new. West of Texarkana, a suburb begins that stretches, virtually uninterrupted, the entire length of I-30 down to Dallas, and then again down I-35 from Dallas to Austin.
"I can't believe they have Texas Roadhouse here," Mike Oliva, the Harlequins' frontman, exclaims from the middle passenger bench. "Shouldn't it just be The Roadhouse?"
Indeed; if you want to see what East Texas is like, drive north from Cincinnati to West Chester. Imagine that 20-mile drive 20 times over, taken as a repeating sequence. Cincinnati to West Chester is one amino acid; I-30 and I-35 are an entire DNA chain of big-box sprawl. I keep a weather eye out for Mega Lo Mart. Mike Judge nailed it.
I want to see a real, live armadillo. So far, there have been none. There are, however, coyotes – a full, yipping pack of them – somewhere within howlshot of our second campsite, at Lake Bob Sandlin State Park, near Pittsburg, Texas. When we stop at the grocery to pick up dinner, I have to ask a stock clerk if the stores carries veggie burgers.
"We used to," he says. "Let me go ask."
He returns 10 minutes later. Either he had to ask everybody, or he took a few to tell everybody the story of The Guy Who Wants to Buy Veggie Burgers. I can't say I blame him. If a Grey landed in my front yard and telepathically asked me for some plutonium, I would tell everyone too. I mean, we have plutonium in Ohio, but that shit's scarce.
"You don't get much call for vegan stuff around here, I know."
"First time I've ever been asked about it," he laughs. At least he's friendly about it. Leading me to a cooler stuck in the corner of the store, farthest from the checkout counter, he points to the generous selection: one type of veggie patty and a box of veggie chorizo. I check the date on the burgers before buying. They are still mercifully fresh.
We camp next to a giant flood control lake. Fishermen in kayaks have a floating firepit; the reflected flames twirl and break up a clear, crisp starscape. The sublimity of grilling beans and burgers over an open flame is magnified when Alex Stenard unwittingly throws mesquite on the fire.
Tonight, we abide. Tomorrow, we will enter the sonic Promised Land.
Interact with Jonathan in real-time during South by Southwest. Like his WVQC radio show, "Salina Underground," on Facebook or follow @salinaundergrnd, #SxSWSojourn. He also responds to Morse code and smoke signals.