Welcome to the United States, the world’s most unfree free country

Austin Letter: Climb Mount Bonnell and see a land of contradictions laid out below

American rarity: Mount Bonnell  is open to the public for free. Photograph: iStock/Getty

American rarity: Mount Bonnell is open to the public for free. Photograph: iStock/Getty

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Amid the cut and thrust of trying to make it in the United States, I’ve found a hillock of limestone posing as something grander emerge as my go-to refuge in Texas.

Overlooking the Lake Austin portion of the Colorado River as it flows through Austin, the state capital, Mount Bonnell provides a panoramic vista of the city, river and surrounding hills – all set against the bright blue sky turning into a luscious swirl of reds, oranges, pinks and purples as the sun sets.

Despite not actually being much of a “mount”, rising a rather paltry 230m above sea level, it has been a popular tourist destination since the 1850s, and remains a heartening spot today.

Hence the constant visiting groups of friends, families, courting couples and hen parties – even the occasional British freelancer, escaping his desk to make the most of an American rarity: something open to the public for free.

The consequence of there being a price tag on just about anything is much of society living in fear

You don’t notice it coming as a tourist, when you expect to shell out all the time, but once you’ve lived here you confront the harsh origin of the American saying that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Visitors to the US have been lamenting its fixation on wealth and material gain since Alexis de Tocqueville came in 1831. I’m afraid I have to join them. Because the consequence of this fixation and the corollary of there being a price tag on just about anything is much of society living in fear – fear you’re not going to earn enough to make ends meet and pay for the never-ending list of bills.

Alistair Cooke, the BBC’s renowned US correspondent, reported on the astonishing array of comforting gadgets and amenities available to the average American before noting: “But the catch is that America is no more willing than it has ever been to give these things away.”

That was in 1949. Nearly 70 years later it’s even less willing, and Austin, currently in the throes of rampant gentrification, is increasingly an example of this; hence my appreciation for the readily available simple charms of Mount Bonnell.

It’s not just that it’s free. There’s a good vibe – although that may well be linked to the lack of expense. Walk into most smart-looking restaurants in Austin and across the country and there’s a strange tension in the air, perhaps passive aggression emanating from diners reading their ludicrously high bills.

Free of such fiscal tensions atop Mount Bonnell, however, people are laughing, hugging, taking photographs, asking strangers to take their photographs, carrying balloons celebrating birthdays and anniversaries – no pretence with no expense.

“I like the clarity you get up here. It’s my favourite place in the city,” says a young woman who is sitting on the rocks and scribbling in a notebook. “The beauty helps give you inspiration; one of my New Year’s resolutions was to do more journalling.”

Mount Bonnell also appears to be one of the few places in Austin where people of different ethnicities mix freely and easily. I’ve traversed swathes of downtown Austin unable to stop myself wondering where on earth all the black people are. You’ll see some African-Americans homeless and shuffling along a street, but in the same restaurant bulging with affluent whites? Unlikely.

Happily, they’re there at Mount Bonnell, along with Hispanics, Indian and Asian immigrants, whites, even the occasional hijab-wearing Muslim – a more accurate reflection of American society than its economically created enclaves permit.

Just look at the poor and tired huddled masses working two or more jobs whom the US – or at least the idea of it – was meant to take care of

The diverse gathering admittedly strikes an ironic note, given that the spot is named for George W Bonnell, journalist and soldier, who in the 19th century, while working for the Texas bureau of Indian affairs, advocated a harsh policy against indigenous Americans.

But the United States excels at contradictions. I’ve never forgotten the words of a black soldier I met in a San Antonio bar during the Texas portion of a road trip: “Welcome to the most unfree free country in the world.”

He was talking about government over-regulation, but his point applies more widely; just look at the poor and tired huddled masses working two or more jobs whom the US – or at least the idea of it – was meant to take care of.

It’s easy, being an overly sensitive non-American from the swaddled environs of the UK, with its National Health Service and welfare system, to get riled by the United States’ hard edge. But then you invariably encounter one of the more inspiring and nobler sides to the American experiment and character.

Once the sun has set, from Mount Bonnell you can see, on the other side of the river, atop the opposing hills, a collection of giant radio antennae and masts. Eyesores during the day, they look at night, covered in blinking red lights, like something from a science-fiction movie, a symbol of those exciting possibilities Americans are so good at striving for, that “orgiastic future” immortalised by F Scott FitzGerald in The Great Gatsby.

Elated and deflated by all this atop Mount Bonnell, I reach for my flask of home-made margarita and start to calm down about it all, and just savour the view.

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