Austin Weird? You Betcha!

Keeping Austin Weird, one weirdo at a time

Having spent a little more than a year outside of my hometown–I feel a little pang of homesickness every time I whiz past the Austin City Limit sign.

I do love living on the ranch on the river in Llano County with all the cattle, wildlife and our house, but I sometimes I miss the wild weirdness of the best Little Big Town in Texas. And I really miss my writer friends.

Not to mention that Austin is like no other place on earth. It’s the younger, wilder cousin of Dallas and Houston, and known as the Capital of Texas, the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, and my personal favorite, The Weirdest Place in Texas, Austin is like no other place in the Lone Star State.

Home to North America’s largest population of Mexican Free-tailed bats, a booming tech industry, and more than 30,000 millionaires (according to Travis County tax records), Austin’s mythology is as wild, colorful and diverse as the wildflowers blooming along Lady Bird Lake.

One of the oldest legends about Austin is that a cloud of lithium surrounds the city causing the skyline to glow purple against the horizon. The soothing effect of the lithium is said to cause Austinites to wander about in a sweetly happy mood bordering on euphoria.

“One of Austin’s most famous writers, O. Henry, noted in his journal that the city wascloaked in a violet crown.”

I don’t know that violet-colored lithium has any affect on happiness—if people are happy in Austin, it’s probably because it’s usually sunny and surrounded by lakes, rivers and lots of rolling Hill Country. We even have a nude beach–though be forewarned–most of the people who let it all hang out are the ones you really wish would keep it to themselves.

A more recent legend has many Austinites afraid to go in the water.

Since I was a little girl learning to swim in Lake Travis, I have heard rumors that Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Berke Breathed (creator of Bloom County and Opus the petunia-sniffing penguin) released alligators into the river, where they grew into a man-eating monsters that lurk beneath the surface to this day.

Though it is true that Berke Breathed did live in Austin and attended the University of Texas, and also true that he was a notorious trickster and did have two pet baby alligators, reports of the crocodile caper set loose in Lake Travis have never been confirmed.

“There are no giant alligators living in Lake Travis,” Breathed said.

There is, however, an enormous, one-eyed, gentle giant of a catfish in the deep water near Windy Point, according to scuba divers familiar with the area.

“His name is Charlie, and based on his size, we think he weighs about 200 pounds,” said Windy Point Park owner Richard Barstow, who regularly dives near the area and has photographic evidence of the catfish’s existence. “He’s huge, lumpy and fat and not a particularly good looking fish, but to my knowledge, Charlie has never attempted to eat anyone.”

Still, having seen photos of this fierce-looking behemoth, I occasionally get a sudden knot of panic when swimming in the deep waters near Mansfield Dam.

As cautionary tales go, it’s been a rumor since long before I was old enough to see “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” that the grisly tale did in fact happen right here in Austin. Thankfully, this rumor is not true, despite the dire warning on the DVD label.

Though Tobe Hooper did live in Austin when he dreamed up the macabre story of a Texas family of chainsaw-wielding, sausage-making cannibals, he says he got the idea while standing in  a long line near a display of chainsaws at a Breed’s, a local hardware store in the University District.

I’ve always wondered if Tobe’s  nightmarish fantasy was prompted by a person ahead of him with eleven items in the Ten Items or Less aisle.

Perhaps we could all benefit from a little cloud of lithium . . .

One of Austin’s more colorful rumors is that a half-nude, trans-gendered homeless man is a perennial candidate for mayor, and it’s absolutely true.

The first time I saw scruffily bearded Leslie Cochran, he was wearing nothing but a tube top and sequined thong undies, and he was carrying a large television down South Congress Avenue. My father pulled over and gave him a ride.

Leslie directed us to a wooded area, where he thanked my dad for the ride, got out of the truck and headed for the woods, muttering something about an extension cord.

Leslie spends a lot of time strolling Sixth Street in his flamboyant thong undies and startlingly high heels, sharing his complex political sentiments emblazoned in Sharpie Marker on the sides of discarded cardboard boxes.

Though his mayoral runs have so far proved unsuccessful, Leslie’s notoriety has made him an Austin Icon and led to the production of “What Would Leslie Do?” bumper stickers, magnets and even a Leslie iPhone app. A local advertising firm once featured Leslie in a full-page ad in the Austin American-Statesman.

As the rest of Texas will tell you, “Only in Austin.”

Leslie proves that city leaders have always been a little different, and Austin’s oldest ghost story is evidence that they don’t even have to be alive.

The scalp-less ghost of city founder Stephen F. Austin’s friend and the city’s first land surveyor, Josiah Wilbarger, is said to haunt the area around Walnut Creek.

“At the request of xxx Colonel Austin in 1833, Wilbarger headed a survey party to stake out the portion of Central Texas that would become the Capitol of Texas,” according to Joyce Coonrod, an Austin-area homebuilder and descendant of Josiah Wilbarger.

Coonrod recounts family records of Austin’s first English settlers departing Hornsby Bend, located west of Austin along the Lower Colorado River.

“Their travels took them up Walnut Creek between what is now East Austin and Webberville, where they were attacked by Comanches.”

Coonrod says the Natives killed all but three of the surveying party. Two escaped, two were shot and scalped. Wilbarger was scalped and shot and left for dead.

Missing half his skull and all of his hair, Wilbarger was left naked (except for a sock on his right foot) on the banks of Walnut Creek. According to historical record, the severely wounded Wilbarger crawled up the bank of Walnut Creek and collapsed under a sprawling Live Oak tree.

Back at Hornsby Bend, Sara Hornsby, the wife of one of the survivors, woke her husband, Reuben, fretting about the dream she’d had—the ghost of a naked man, bloody, hair and skull half-missing.

At Sara’s insistence, Rueben Hornsby and his ranch hands rode out to Walnut Creek and found Josiah right where Sara had said he would be.

Bear grease, specially made hats and even a metal plate were applied to Josiah’s missing skull to stop the increasing infection that years later, eventually devoured his brain.

Throughout the history of Austin, there have been numerous reports of a scalped settler roaming Walnut Creek, making Josiah Wilbarger the subject of Austin’s oldest recorded ghost story.


About kitfrazier

Award-winning novelist and former big city journalist who bumped into a cowboy and woke up in the wild, wild west.
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