Austin, Texas; an oasis of breakfast tacos and juice bars in the heart of a wasteland of cowboys and oil. Those are stereotypes, of course, but not too far from the truth. There is a different vibe in the capital city. Corporate culture is snubbed, brisket is worshiped, 20-somethings in tight jeans roam freely. So when ESPN set its sights on a location for the X Games for the next four years, why not Austin?
And here I am, on the outskirts of beautiful Austin, at a concrete paradise. The first motor racing circuit to be built specifically for Formula One in the United States, Circuit of the Americas, is a massive 3.427 mile track. And now it is hosting the X Games. And I am here. And it is hotter than shit.
I'm from Texas. I'm used to this weather. I thrive in the heat. But I guess it wouldn't be the eXtreme Games if I didn't feel like I wanted to die about 15 minutes in. The competing athletes seemed to share this sentiment. At every press conference I attended, the first thing each athlete mentioned was some variation on "it's really fucking hot here." Xtremely hot. Sorry.
Upon doing a lap around the venue, which takes about an hour and a half (remember when I mentioned it's a 3.4 mile track?), I suddenly feel like I'm transported back to Southern California. I'm surrounded by tank tops and white sunglasses. A chubby guy in a CrossFit Hollywood t-shirt with a skateboard deck strapped to his back looks like he's about to pass out from the heat. Teenage girls with their asses hanging out take awkward selfies in front of an X Games sign. I can immediately tell those who are X Games veterans, marked with leathery skin, graying hair, and an unfazed look in their eye. I am surrounded by food trucks and recycling bins, and for some reason there are children everywhere. Extreme parenting, I guess. But that's what happens when the X Games are around for 20 years. People grow up. They become parents. Become grandparents. Wrinkles form on formerly fresh faces. Years in the sun start to take their toll.
I feel a strong dividing line between the extreme sports enthusiasts and the locals coming to check out a new event, but one thing is clear: we are all in survival mode. Because the day is young, scorching hot, and Kanye will be performing at the end of it. The gates opened at 10 a.m. and Kanye will be performing at 11:20. That allows for approximately 13 hours of drinking and heat stroke. Employees and volunteers are constantly screaming "DRINK WATER" as we walk past them, but there is no denying the allure of a giant frozen margarita in 95-degree heat, or refreshing craft beer served in a large plastic cowboy boot.
As the day drags on, it becomes apparent that the X Games organizers didn't fully think this through. Not only are people sticking to the pavement like a hot glue gun, but the wind is picking up. Due to the lack of surrounding mountains or ... anything, really, even a light breeze seems treacherous at the top of a 60-foot-high ramp. I had climbed to the top of that ramp earlier in the day and half-expected the wind to blow me right off. I clenched my phone until my palms began to sweat as I held onto the makeshift handrail made out of plywood and cursed the fact that I thought going to the top of this would be a good idea. I was terrified, and now I sit at the bottom hours later, watching kids on BMX bikes sit at the top, waiting for the wind to die down so they can begin their competition.
After several delays, the competitors and spectators had both become restless. But that was nothing compared to what was happening behind all of this. People had begun to pour into the amphitheater where Mac Miller was about to play, followed by Kanye West. Groups of teenagers in Mac Miller t-shirts clutched water bottles filled with vodka as they began to grow restless in the general admission line, which had now taken on a life of its own. As the final competitions of the day come to a close, a sea of people, most of whom look like they have no idea where they are, swarm the amphitheater. Security guards begin wielding power with no discretion. The seats are filled. General admission is packed beyond capacity. While some are here to see Mac Miller, most are just putting up with him to get a chance to see the main show.
I have no idea where to go. I was given specific instructions earlier in the day on where they would let me in to see Kanye, but in the dark nothing seems clear. I sneak around on the side and after sweet-talking a couple of employees, I'm led to a nearly empty general admission area. Do other people know about this? I'm not even sure how the other people in here got to this point because we are surrounded by barricades. It turns into a constant push-pull between security guards who at first seem gruff and demanding, but in turn seek me out to let me know I have access to an area they previously told me I was not allowed in. I befriend a police officer and a security guard, manning the stairs for the VIP area, including the pit by the stage. After asking me if the Kardashians are there, the police officer explains to me how he knows O.J. Simpson was guilty.
The people around me are getting drunker. Alcohol is still being served. EMS is waiting nearby. Suddenly it's dark, and the security guard tells me I can go down. I push my way through the crowd and find a spot up against the front barrier. Before I know it, it's pitch black. I'm standing near a speaker which I both love and regret. The bass is shoved down my throat and I feel like I'm choking. There are only a couple of people on stage but Kanye is a force, and everyone can feel it. He has taken over and we are just along for the ride now. The people surrounding me have started to black out, from either the drugs, the alcohol, or the music. Limbs are flailing, people are speaking gibberish, eyes are glossed over. But I am present. The X Games were truly a task of survival and this is the gift for making it through. The athletes are immersed. The day's competitions are just a memory now. It's all lights, and bass, and Kanye.
Near the end Kanye explains that he normally likes to move around on stage a lot more, but this stage is "slippery as fuck" and is making it difficult for him to move around.
So much for eXtreme.