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The Last River Run

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I got a call from Molly about a year ago. She was in Seton Hospital in Austin for one more of her never-ending bouts with the medical profession. For some years we had talked about rafting the Grand Canyon. Her message to me was quite direct. A friend was arranging a Grand Canyon trip for September 2006. Her question was, “Will you promise to go with me if I am still alive in September?”

“Of course,” I replied.

That was pretty much the total conversation, and it captures, for me, her indomitable spirit. She was also not one to linger on the telephone. She addressed her life and her illness head-on, no wavering, no equivocation.

Molly first showed up in our lives sometime in the early ’70s, when she signed on with Kaye Northcott as a co-editor of The Texas Observer. My law office was an old house on Seventh Street, and the upstairs housed the Observer and the Texas Civil Liberties Union. This was where I first came to know Molly’s notorious dog—aptly named “Shit.” A Texas black hound that spent most of her days lying around our offices, her name alone was sufficient to alert one that Molly’s sense of humor knew no bounds. These were heady times. The liberal takeover of Austin was under way, the Austin music scene was exploding with the Armadillo World Headquarters, and Scholz Garten was the preferred watering hole. Molly fell fully into the moment. She and Kaye set the state on its ear with their reporting and had an hilarious time in the process. I feel certain that watching the buffoonery of the Texas Legislature did much to hone Molly’s sense of the absurd.

Our favorite recreational activity in those years, aside from beer-drinking and politics, was river-running and camping. I had an old farm out on the North San Gabriel River near Liberty Hill. Many a weekend we camped, cooked, and sang around the campfire. Molly’s 30th birthday party was a gathering of several hundred campers at the farm. At one point, Molly actually lured then-Comptroller Bob Bullock into a canoe for a run down the San Gabriel. I had the pleasure of shoving them off with Molly at the controls. Molly wandered away for a while to big-city lights, but found her way back to Austin in the ’80s, and our outdoor adventures resumed.

Back when Frank Cooksey was mayor of Austin, a group decided to canoe him down upper Barton Creek when it was on a rise. We had some notion that this would persuade him of the importance of preserving the watershed, but of course he didn’t really need persuading. It fell to Molly and me to put the mayor into our canoe. We dumped him about three times in the fast-running creek, but those misadventures did not deter his enthusiasm for the project. In later years we did Santa Elena Canyon in the Big Bend with our dearest friends, Mike and Sue Sharlot; the Rio Antigua in the state of Veracruz with that splendid companion, Steve Fromholz; and Texas’ most beautiful river, the Devils River in West Texas, where our leader, Russ Tidwell, managed somehow to get Molly and me, as well as Doug Zabel, down the river without serious mishap. But Molly and I had always planned to do the Grand Canyon someday. Life’s demands kept getting in the way.

In the meantime, I found myself in California, removed from the Austin scene. It was in California that I first came face to face with the reach of Molly’s influence as a writer. I had always loved her writing, her politics, her humor, but as a provincial, I simply didn’t realize that she had captivated such a huge national audience. Her speeches in Marin County would attract standing-room-only crowds. My wife Sandy and I managed to greatly enhance our community reputation by entertaining Molly on her periodic forays to the West Coast for speeches and book tours. We stayed closely in touch with Molly since the early onset of her illness, always astounded by her refusals to surrender to the seemingly incessant medical challenges.

I later learned from a good friend, Harold Cook, that he had been in Molly’s hospital room when we held our chat about the Grand Canyon. He felt that the prospects of running the Grand had literally given Molly a new lease on life, and she was visibly buoyed by the prospect. Any doubts about the wisdom of the venture were set aside. As September approached and Molly’s health remained compromised, misgivings did emerge, but a deal is a deal. Sandy had the good sense to recruit Brady Coleman, Austin’s most charming man about town, to join us on the venture, and September found us in Flagstaff, ready to embark on a 10-day raft trip in the Canyon. Molly had just completed yet another chemo treatment shortly before leaving Austin.

The trip was splendid. We were joined by some acquaintances of Molly’s from Alaska who made perfect traveling companions, and we were blessed by lovely weather. Molly was weak as a kitten and unsteady on her pins. Every time she boarded or exited the raft, it was a new adventure as we all scrambled to ensure she didn’t end up in the drink. Through it all, she was indomitable. She never complained and never wavered and actually seemed to gain strength as the trip progressed. Brady and Sandy sang to us in the evenings, and Molly joined in. She even managed to organize a talent night for the voyageurs on one occasion. I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to be part of this final venture. She was, as the old Texas saying goes, “a good person to run the river with.” Sadly, the run is over.

David Richards is an attorney and author.