I don’t know who it was — but the person responsible for making Austin’s bat colony a tourist attraction was a P.R. genius.
Somebody like me, say, would have looked at a colony of 1.5 million bats hanging under a major bridge and thought, Ick! Rodents! Flying rats! And, aren’t bats rabid? But the unnamed PR genius saw an opportunity that’s become one of this city’s great tourist attractions.
At dusk, from March to November, crowds gather at the Congress Avenue Bridge to wait for nightly departure of what is now the largest urban bat colony in the country. That’s where my husband and I were last night — waiting with tourists and locals who sported cameras and leaned expectantly on the railing. On either side of the river, small crowds had gathered, too, sitting on the grass. Two boats populated with onlookers hovered just on the other side of the bridge.
As it grew darker, camera lights flashed from every direction — tiny points of light. My husband and I couldn’t get a place at the railing, so we stood on tiptoes, craning our necks. Nothing. Just an iridescent sky, with silvery clouds, easing into night as the sun set. We have the most beautiful skies on earth in Texas; it’s a world you can lose yourself in, that makes even the most determined agnostic think there might possibly be a God — otherwise, where did this vast and gorgeous sky come from?
But my husband and I were here to see the bats, not the sky. We figured the bats owed us one, since they hadn’t shown up last week when we came here with friends from New York. But here we were, once again, waiting. The wind picked up a little and it grew cooler (the kind of coolness we will pine for, come July and August) and we waited, with everyone else, for the show to begin.
Still, activities aren’t always that simple and straightforward. We were here because I had to leave the condo, had to move, had to try to divert myself for a little while. We had just heard the kind of news that crushes your soul and reminds you of how merciless life can be: A young man from our old neighborhood, who had often played at our house and hung out with our son, had been killed in a car wreck.
I kept seeing him, with his sweet, dear face, I kept seeing his mother and aching for her. The death of someone my age is sad, but the death of someone young is something entirely different and unbearable.
So there we were, waiting for the bats that weren’t showing up yet again, hoping for what I don’t know. Just a little release for a few minutes. Couldn’t we have that? No, we couldn’t.
So, we turned and walked back down the sidewalk on the bridge, when a sudden murmur rose up and people applauded and cameras flashed. We moved back toward the railing, peering through it, as a dark flood of wings swept out and disappeared into the night. They poured out endlessly, occasional wings illuminated by camera bulbs — just an instant of light on one small winged body, almost like the curve of an envelope flap — then the darkness again.
Even when the camera flashes had extinguished and you couldn’t see much any more, you knew that rush of movement still went on as more than a million little bodies hurtled on, guided by sound and instinct into the night. After a few minutes, my husband and I left, walking slowly, finding our own way home.
We returned to a world where hearts had broken and lives would never be the same and no one was safe. But for a few short minutes, we had escaped, we had flown, we had seen the bats.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)