That night, I meet up with a college friend who has moved back to Austin after years in Oregon. Carole Zoom, an artist and activist, knows the weirdest place to take me after dinner. Tonight is the rare coincidence of a total lunar eclipse and the start of the winter solstice, and Zoom has heard about a celebratory gathering at the Enchanted Forest.
The what? "You'll see," she promises.
We take separate cars down South Lamar, turn onto Oltorf and park. True to her name, Zoom comes zooming up in her electric wheelchair (she has had muscular dystrophy since childhood), and we head through unmarked but ornate open gates and down a gravel path through what looks like a junkyard.
In fact, the place is part "Sanford & Son," part Burning Man. We pass various trailers and cars until we get to the center camp, where vintage furniture sits under tarps, next to an outdoor kitchen and even a little music room crammed with records and speakers. Zoom introduces me to the place's landowner/patron, Albert DeLoach, who says, "Wanna look around? Follow me."
As soon as we move out from the lights of the little tarp-covered camp, I can barely see a thing, but DeLoach leads us to a curving 17,000-pound granite sculpture made from countertop scraps, then to a life-size rocking horse and to other pieces by an artist named Shrine. It's pretty eerie here at night, especially with the sound of drums mixing with crickets, and the drums grow louder as we head around the corner. We come upon a shirtless, bearded guy who's twirling and spinning fire, and DeLoach points straight up at the moon, which is starting to be eclipsed but is hidden behind clouds.
"Whenever they start drumming, it opens up the clouds," says DeLoach, who has endured his own zoning disputes with the city but has persevered to keep the forest open. "Come on, bring it on, man, let's see what's going on up there." He gets me to help him drag out an old recliner to make for easier, no-neck-craning viewing. No dice: The clouds win out.
We start to leave just as a dozen college kids, many of them holding paper-bag-covered bottles, begin to stream in. As I'm pulling my car around in the little lot, I see a young man dressed like Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean" caressing the gate's ironwork. He comes up to my car, eyes wide as saucers, and asks, "Is this the Enchanted Forest?"
"Yes, it is," I reply. "You look like you belong here."
He smiles: "I was drawn to it."
Street art and street food
For all the criticism it gets for enforcing zoning and permitting issues, the city government fosters some weirdness, too, such as some of the art it commissions. Drive south on Lamar Boulevard from downtown, for instance, and just past Fifth Street, as you go through an underpass, you might wonder just exactly what those bright blue and white street signs on either side of the bridge are trying to tell you.