Going with the Flow
It was not my fight. That was not even my part of the country anymore; I had been living out of the state for years. I knew, though, that it might be years again before I got back with time enough on my hands to make the trip, and what I wanted to do was wrap it up, the river … —John Graves, Goodbye to a River
I have something in common with Laura Bush, and it’s not narcotized adoration of George W.
John Graves’ Goodbye to a River is my favorite Texas book, too. It’s a common choice, but no less defensible for being so often chosen. I like the book for all the usual reasons: the companionable company, the crisp thinking, the thoughtful eye, the slow precision of Graves’ sentences, his hived swarm of memories.
What I think I like most, though, is the way Graves so smoothly toggles between almost Olympian remove and intimate admission. Having excused himself from the messy business of joining the fight for or against the proposed dams that threatened to turn his stretch of the Brazos River into a string of reservoirs, Graves proceeds to tattle on himself.
Or was that, maybe, an excuse for a childishness? What I wanted was to float my piece of the river again.
I have a piece of river. It’s the Colorado River, in and around Columbus, Texas. It’s mine because I claimed it. Not by any birthright—I grew up in suburban Houston near an unnamed and channelized “bayou”—but because it found me.
I hadn’t been looking. I was driving home from Austin in the early 1990s and I ended up on the Hwy. 71 business route through Columbus, which led me across the old truss bridge over the Colorado. I hadn’t seen that view before and I liked it. It was hot, so I stopped and stripped to my shorts and waded in. The water was sluggish and green and just barely cooler than the air.
Later I called the Chamber of Commerce and asked if anyone in town rented inner tubes, which confused the lady on the line. She connected me with Frank Howell, who ran a tire-and-wheel shop on the edge of town.
So began a long series of summers during which a group of friends and I would gather on selected Saturday mornings and caravan out Interstate 10. We’d stop at the local grocery to beer up and float the 6.5-mile loop from that truss bridge to Beason’s Park, less than a mile away by road.
It was always perfect. Nobody else was out there. The river was a skilled hostess, slowly swirling the 10 or 15 or 20 of us into shifting configurations that could seem almost ordained. The beer and the sunstroke helped.
One day we got squatted on by a heavy-duty lightning storm. We couldn’t figure out whether to ride it out in the river (the low spot) on the rubber tubes, or under the trees at bank’s edge (don’t trees get hit all the time?) or beyond the trees in open pasture, where we’d be the tallest targets around. We ended up at the tree line, huddling under the tubes in the slapping rain. People cried.
Then there was the time a buddy showed up late and we launched without him. He swam the first stretch to catch up with us, emerging naked from the deep water like a mirage, his shorts in one hand, two Lone Star tallboys in the other. He hung onto the side of a cooler tube the rest of the way down.
When I pulled into Columbus last weekend, Frank Howell and his wife Evelyn were sitting on the porch of their boat barn watching the river. Frank no longer owns the tire center. He bought a piece of property on the Colorado’s south bank a few years back and set up his livery there, just downstream from the truss bridge. He still rents tubes, now covered in red cloth, with bottom buckets and his name printed on the side. He’s added canoes and kayaks to his stable. We spent a while catching up—we don’t see each other often, but we’re becoming old friends over the years. Then I loaded my canoe and dragged it down the wooden steps of the launch he’s built at the bank and slipped it into the water. Which was low. Seems like it’s almost always low. The float takes about four hours in a tube when the water is optimal, but I’ve meandered my way through plenty of five-hour floats on this stretch. Frank says it’s taking about six hours today.
It takes about two in a canoe, which hardly seems long enough.
It’s not much of a river, but I’ve gotten attached to it. It’s green and wide and thin when the mud’s not up, and there’s nothing you’d call a rapid, just a few brief riffles. The first landmark is a low, scrubby island where we used to beach the tubes and have a smoke and look around. The banks on both sides alternate between tree-lined jungle and low sand bluffs topped with bald pastureland. The wildlife tends toward the pedestrian: egrets and kingfishers and herons, and the occasional eagle. Sometimes a gar will roll; sometimes a water snake undulates alongside for a while. Frank swears that last month some of his tubers floated up on a 5-and-a-half-foot blue catfish trying to eat an egret in the shallows. I would like to have seen that.
This time I saw a deer browsing on the bank, uncharacteristically unconcerned with a flashing red paddle. I don’t usually see them here. She must have been as hungry as Frank’s catfish.
There are scattered houses backed up to the river, and some swooping sandy beaches. There are a few more commercial-looking picnic areas scooped out of the private undergrowth than I remember from my last trip.
About a third of the way down, there’s a long, graceful bend to the right. To the left the bank is bluffed, and the bluff is fronted with thick stands of bamboo. This, I’m pretty sure, is the place I remember from a spring trip close to 10 years ago. I was on the river after midnight under a quarter-moon when I drifted around this arc facing the outer bank, like a huge, curved projection screen, watching I don’t know how many thousands of fireflies dancing against the deep-black backdrop.
Farther down, silty little Cummins Creek enters from the left. Even farther down, near the end, are the ruins of a timber retaining wall designed to keep the river from undercutting the railroad that still runs through the trees above. When my friends and I first tubed the river, Frank had winked and called it the “Snake Wall,” though I never saw a snake there. Livery literature doesn’t call it the Snake Wall anymore. Now it’s the “Great Wall of Columbus” or just “The Wall.”
I’ve been reading The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri La (Todd Balf; 2000). It’s about a 1998 kayaking expedition on Tibet’s waterfall-studded Yarlung Tsangpo through the uncharted Tsangpo Gorge—a trip on which one of the four boaters drowned.
That story is about as unfamiliar to the world of Goodbye to a River, or to any river experience of mine, as an egret is to a catfish. The expedition pursuing the first descent of the gorge was sponsored by National Geographic and took place in a highly pressurized environment of competition and stress. After the aborted trip the Chinese government shut down access to outsiders.
The river itself is huge, the charismatic megafauna of the whitewater world, inspiring suitors and advocates. It’s too wild to run and too remote to ruin.
The Colorado is a hard-used and semi-scenic stream at best. It’s not the kind of river that gets people worked up about saving it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not threatened, It’s water, after all, and water is under siege.
Bloomberg Press is releasing Susan J. Marks’ ominously titled and genuinely scary Aqua Shock in October. Robert Glennon’s Unquenchable arrived in April. James G. Workman’s Heart of Dryness is out this month.
The premise of these books is that we’re running out of water in its usable forms much faster than we’re curbing consumption or replenishing dwindling sources. Water issues are multilayered and deeply complex, but in another sense, they amount to simple math: More and more people struggling for access to less and less water, a seemingly inevitable diminishment calling for sober management.
I’m more inclined to enjoy David M. Carroll’s Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook, published this month. Management and math are foreign to me. Naturalist Loren Eisley wrote, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water,” and it’s magic that claims me on a river.
I saw it again Sunday. I drove through periodically heavy rains to get to the river and put in under grumbling clouds. As so many times before on that looping stretch, those clouds left open a pocket of sunshine, rimmed by heavy blue, that followed me downstream. Only once, on a broad, windy stretch near the end, did I drift beneath a gray wisp, and it rained on me lightly in bright sunshine, drops hitting the water at an angle, backlit and glistening. It was as magical in that moment as anything on the mighty Yarlung Tsangpo, or John Graves’ history-soaked Brazos, or any river anywhere.
Paddling in that rain, simple math began to seem like fuzzy abstraction, and magic—for the moment anyway—the natural state.
With this issue, managing editor Brad Tyer bids fond farewell to the Observer. He’s off to Ann Arbor on a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, where he plans to write a book about a river.