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View from the USA: Keep it weird

Our new column from ‘across the pond’ reflects on one of the United States’ lesser-known freedoms — the right to be weird

View from the USA: Keep it weird

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No one does weird with the gusto of Americans. Take Austin, Texas for example. Most cities build tributes to statesmen and politicians; Austin gives centre stage to a statue of a notorious pothead, Willie Nelson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, a guitarist most people have never heard of. This is the capital city of the most conservative state in the union, but Austin is a flower among the Stetsons. All that matters here is that, damn, those boys could play.

Perhaps that’s not surprising. This city’s slogan is ‘Keep Austin Weird’ and they take it seriously. Head down to the southern districts and Christmas decorations adorn public trees year round, while shiny airstream trailers serve up homemade cupcakes by the side of the road. “This is the last enclave of freakdom,” local music star Alejandro Escovedo told me when I visited. “The rest of the world is so uptight.”

But weird here doesn’t just mean googly eyes and talking to yourself. It’s about being a free thinker. And that’s what the United States all about. They say this is the land of opportunity — actually, it’s not. It’s the land of social creativity.

I have a theory why. As a country, the US is at the tweeny stage — less than 250 years old. Compare that to the more than 1,000 years us Brits have been kicking about. In nationhood terms, we’re wearing khaki slacks; they’re in hip-hop trousers. If our countries were rock bands, we’d have a collection of critically acclaimed albums and a comeback tour scheduled in the distant future; they’d still be jamming out in a garage.

That’s why being in the US is so exciting. It’s a social blank canvas; anything goes. In my hometown of Boulder, Colorado alone there’s an annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival, which pays homage to an actual dead guy who was discovered cryogenically stored in the back of someone’s shed and still resides on ice today, plus a weekly fancy dress bike ride and a Halloween sprint through the town wearing nothing but your birthday suit and a carved pumpkin on your head (yes, the naked pumpkin race is an actual thing).

But, however peculiar my little enclave of the Rocky Mountains is, nothing represents North America’s capacity for oddness better than Austin’s Cathedral of Junk. Standing 30ft tall, in the back garden of an ordinary suburban house, and created over 25 years using discarded pieces of household scrap, this walk-in, two-storey, multi-room monument is, perhaps, the world’s greatest example of taking a weird obsession way too far: bath duck tables, CD disco balls, spiral stairs made entirely of bicycle tyres. There are doorways constructed from unstrung tennis rackets and vaulted ceilings moulded together with tape decks and baby doll heads. Everywhere glistens like a kaleidoscope. Every piece of useless crap has had its former glorious life restored. It’s the architectural equivalent of taking magic mushrooms. I loved it.

And that’s the point. Weird is the squeezed fruit of our creative juices. Without weird, art would be reduced to advertising. Weird’s fun too. Blasé won’t get you a cup of tea, but you’ll be dining out on the truly bizarre for years. Especially if you go to Austin. In a single night out, I watched a ballet dancer in full snorkelling gear, a man on stilts pretending to be a duck and a naked — and apparently very cold — man playing the banjo. And then, to cap it all off, I finished in a honky-tonk joint drinking beer next to a cowboy on an actual horse. In the bar. For real.

Dallas had the series, Houston had the problem, but Austin keeps it weird. And thank God, they do. That night, on my way home, I bumped into a young poet wearing an ushanka hat, mirrored sunglasses, Bermuda shorts, loafers and a Superman backpack. It was as if every part of his body had been dressed for a different occasion. “Life is just a popsicle under the sun,” he said. “You got to be who you are.”

Perhaps that’s the USA’s big secret. Individuality trumps social grace. Weird is the new frontier. Free yourself and your smile will follow. Like Austin’s statues of Willie and Stevie Ray, perhaps all that matters in life is how hard you’re prepared to play. Take a lead from the US: do it with gusto.

British travel writer Aaron Millar ran away from London in 2013 and has been hiding out in the Rocky Mountains of Boulder, Colorado since.


Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)