If every city has its quirks, Austin, TX is that manic pixie dream girl who stars in the last five indie movies you’ve seen and enjoys life a little too much to be warranted. One of our prime tourist attractions, for example, is standing atop or below Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset to watch 1.5 million bats swarm out from underneath you like a plague of ravenous locusts.
Naturally, I went bat-“watching” (you’ll understand the quotation marks later) on a first date last year. Mostly I felt I needed to build my Austin street cred—I’d lived here for a year and hadn’t yet seen them—but also bat voyeurism, to me, screams romance.
The date itself was fine. The guy was extremely nice, and we had a good time sitting in the lawn beneath one end of the bridge getting to know each other as we waited for the bats to come out. The sun began to set. The grass pricked at my outer thighs as I shifted positions so my feet wouldn’t fall asleep. I was getting the strong sense he and I could be good friends. Darkness fell. We thought we could hear the bats chirping, but nothing was happening. The silhouettes of onlookers remained atop the bridge.
Me: It’s dark. Do you think they’re not coming out because it’s cold?
Guy: Maybe not. They don’t fly every time.
Me: But look at everyone waiting on the bridge. I mean, that many people can’t be wrong.
As it turns out, they could. And were. We waited for another half hour to no avail, and I returned home. My roommate asked how the date had gone, and I told her we hadn’t seen any bats.
Roommate: It’s November.
Roommate: It’s not their season.
Roommate: I could’ve told you.
Me: Thank you for this information. I can never show my face again.
Ten months later, I decided it was time to revisit this experience. Just as I tried cooking crystal a decade after multiple failed childhood attempts, so I wanted the glorious satisfaction of besting insignificant past failures because I’m incapable of letting things go. I got tickets to attend Austin’s annual Bat Festival, an eight-hour event on Congress Bridge where local bands, arts and craft vendors, and companies converge to celebrate all things batty.
My friend, whom I’d met through a Reddit post earlier this summer, her coworker as of a day, and I roamed across the bridge as we waited for the 7-8:45 PM window of bat flight. We weaved through, surveying $6 hotdogs and $10 hippie tie-dyed T-shirts from afar. When Mike Jones was playing, we hung around the edges of the crowd because the music volume hurt my friend’s ears and I was just glad she’d said something because my head was also throbbing but now I didn’t have to seem lame. We picked up free bottles of Sweet Leaf organic iced tea, which you know has to be healthy because it tasted like mouthwash.
At this point, enough people had lined against the rails for us for us to start keeping an eye out. There weren’t any open spaces left, so we craned our necks around an impossible number of heads, squinting for any black dots in the sky.
Friend: Are we sure they don’t fly out the other side of the bridge? Everyone’s on this side.
Me: I mean, this many people can’t be wrong.
We looked at each other. Then rushed to the other side and started frantically Googling “bats both side congress bridge.”
Friend: Oh. No, they’re right. The bats fly east.
Me: Watch them not come out.
Friend’s coworker: On the day of Bat Fest.
Me: Rude, right?
Friend’s coworker: That’s like people showing up to your house at night celebrating you and you not even coming out to your own party.
… So now I really felt like they had good reason not to show up. And then they came.
A sudden burst of them came further down the bridge, and the three of us raced for a better view. Five minutes later, there was another burst from the spot we’d left. Bats shot out in forceful streams, funnelling into the pinkened skies.
It really was a sight.
Gradually, the bat streams—and crowds—began to thin. We watched a last burst to our right as the sun fully dipped out of view. The night lights of kayaks on Lady Bird River, beneath the bridge, blinked to life. We were just commenting on how the people who’d come to see the bats on kayaks were so much smarter than we were when one boat tipped over.
The whole lot of us still on the bridge watched, confused, as the two people in the water made no move to turn over their capsized boat or retrieve their paddles, which were drifting away. Multiple kayaks stopped by them and left, and we grew increasingly perplexed. After probably ten minutes of floating, the two in the water flipped over their boat and just started dragging their boat while swimming away. Soon they were out of sight.
It was an odd conclusion to the night. The three of us tried to explain what we’d seen on the way back. Maybe they’d refused help because they’d jumped for the experience. Maybe it was for fun, the spontaneity of trying new things with new people, the adventure of swimming in the lake, water and sky bleeding into each other. Or maybe the shock of the water had been so much that they’d been unable to communicate their distress to any of the passersby and we were just packaging their trauma into a convenient moral lesson.
Nah, we thought. Some things are best left unexplained.
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