From The Arms Of God To The Trinity River: Texas’ Ancient Interfluvial Hell

Turkey VultureI was in a terrible mood when I woke up, but I plowed on. I overnighted in an interstate hotel, one of those terrible specimens of an automobile based society: tidy, but dirty, water too soft to wash the soap off and a strange lingering smell between week old beer and stale cigars. I had to backtrack from Brookshire to San Felipe on IH-10. This, aside from a stretch on IH-35 from Cotulla to Laredo would be the only time I spent on the interstate. Sanchez had some interesting comments about San Felipe:

“The village . . . Consists, at present, of forty or fifty wooden houses on the western bank of the large river known as Rio de los Brazos de Dios, but the houses are not arranged systematically so as to form streets; but on the contrary, lie in an irregular and desultory manner.”

This remains true. While DeWitt’s town, Gonzales, thrived, San Felipe hasn’t changed in 170 years. The general store looks like it was closed thirty years ago. There are no regular patterns to the streets. The town doesn’t have, nor does it ever looked as if it had, a town center, or square. It’s looks more like urban sprawl than anything else. Stephen F. Austin was many things, but a city planner he was not.

Sanchez was stuck here for several days, due to “several parts of the wagons” that needed repairing, but what really caught my eye from Sanchez’ diary was this passage:

“It was with much regret we noticed the river begin to rise as is customary this time of the year. The water rose considerably next day, and the stream began to bring down enormous tree trunks, pulled down from its wood covered banks.”

Berlandier, the French naturalist attached to the Border Commission was even more explicit, watching the river rise more than ten feet in an hour. Texas is noted for its flash floods, but this is impressive, ripping trunks right off the bank? When you consider what the Brazos looks like today, in light of our falling water table and drought, seeing what Berlandier and Sanchez did had to be impressive. So impressive, it kept them from crossing the Brazos for several days and then only with much difficulty, but no loss of life.

They crossed the Brazos on May 11, 1828. They didn’t reach the Trinity River until May 25. By comparison they left Laredo on February 20 and reached San Antonio 9 days later on March 1. (1828 was a leap year.) The distance from Laredo to San Antonio is three times the distance from San Felipe to the Trinity River crossing of  Paso Tomas, now known as Robbins Ford, where Highway 21 crosses the river just north of Midway, Texas.

The hell Sanchez and his men endured on this march is hard to fathom today. What was once a writhing, hostile mass of undrained swampland is now rolling prairies, cleared for ranching and farming. The creeks, due to the drought, are low too. Daily tribulations marching through fetid snake infested swamps with poison ivy everywhere taxes my imaginative powers. Some days they only marched a league or two. In old Spanish a league is the amount an unencumbered man can march in one hour, usually about 2.3 imperial miles. But it wasn’t only men who suffered, the pack animals did as well. Sanchez writes:

“Our beasts of burden not being used to this climate suffered a great deal because of bad forage. . . The ground was so full of water, and there were so many mud holes, that is was necessary for the soldiers to pull out the carriages and the horses by hand almost at every step because they both sank so deep in the mud.”

Lack of fodder was not the only silent enemy they encountered. As Sanchez wrote on May 17:

“In the morning Mr. Berlandier and John, the cook, were sick with fever.”

It might be hard to image this area of Texas was once a giant wetland, a swamp of malaria-bearing mosquitos from San Felipe to Nacogdoches. When they reached the Trinity so many men were febrile that General Teran ordered all but 10 members of the Border Commission to return to San Antonio. Sanchez, General Teran and eight soldiers would continue alone. With this decision any mapping of the border between the United States and Mexico was doomed.

Although the Border Commission was ultimately a failure, my attempts to walk in Sanchez’ footsteps would prove successful. After crossing at Tomas’ Ford on the Trinity traces of Sanchez began appearing everywhere. I knew it was only a matter a time until I literally walked in his footsteps and saw what he saw.

I sped down Highway 21 smiling, the sour mood of the morning evaporating in the piney woods of East Texas. Serendipity was just around the corner.

Compare and Contrast

This is where Lt. Sanchez began in February of 1828. And this is where his journey ended. Quite the contrast between the South Texas Brush Country and the Piney woods of East Texas.

Original Camino Real

Shadowing Sanchez

Sunset, Ford RanchThe early morning air was already hot as I pulled out of Don Henry Ford’s ranch. Late evening clouds from the night before teased rain, but it was bone dry that morning, a thick coating of Guadalupe River floodplain soil on my windshield. The fields and pastures adjacent FM 466 on the way to Gonzales, even this close to the river, were parched and grazed to the quick by hungry cattle. I stopped and looked at a field next to the Guadalupe River where the Texas War for Independence began. The land in the last 175 years has been drastically altered, cleared for farming and cattle and hardly resembles the primeval Texas Sanchez walked across and which he waxed poetic about:

When one sees the herds of deer fleeing, inhales the perfume of numerous flowers, and listens to the singing of the birds, the soul seems to revel in an unknown joy; and those who have a romantic heart seem to be transported to an enchanted country, or to be living in the illusory Arcadia.

I’ve seen a fair portion of the planet and I have to agree and not just because it is home. The land here is some of the finest in all of Texas and has the potential to grow just about anything. The soil is that rich, fed as it is by the finest alluvium the Texas Hill Country has to give up, year after year, flood after flood.

I turned up Highway 97 and sped towards Gonzales, stopping at the old ferry spot on the river, where Sanchez crossed in 1828. Very little remains of the Gonzales of 1828. I inquired at the Gonzales Museum about an early map of the town. Oliver M. Davis, a retired banker and now curator of the museum said, “I have just what you are looking for!” He dug through a pile of papers, whipped one out and photocopied it, all in between introducing the museum to the tourists visiting. I thanked him and headed out of the museum towards downtown. As I had suspected the original homes, including that of Green DeWitt, the empresario of the grant were nearest the river, where it makes a slight bend, but well above the floodplain. Sanchez writes:

On the eastern bank of this river (Guadalupe) are built six wooden cabins inhabited by three North American men, two women and two girls of the same nationality, and a Mexican, all who form the village of Gonzales.

There are no traces of the DeWitt homestead any longer. It’s now a feedlot and a city park. I did manage to see the DeWitt family plot in the Masonic Cemetery in town. Green DeWitt, the founder of the colony isn’t buried there (he died in Mexico of cholera). But one of his daughter’s is. After visiting the site of old Gonzales I trundled into town and took a few obligatory photos, downtown and the courthouse but like almost all rural Texas towns it’s lost a great portion of its charm to Wal-Mart and the other mega-chains out on the highways. More is the pity, some of the old homes in town are stunning. Our farm lands continue to depopulate and the small, homestead farmer in Texas is now a thing of the past.

My next task was to locate Tejocotes Creek and a string of low-rise hills grandiosely called Loma Grande. After much research I concluded that Tejocotes Creek had been renamed Peach Creek. I find this name annoying. First, peaches are not native to Texas and could only have been brought in much later. Second, I love old toponyms, how they morph and change over the years but retain a hint of the original. One thinks of Alexander The Great’s Maracanda, now Samarkand, and so many others.

I sped down FM 532 for a few miles and then crossed a creek. I stopped the car and walked around. The creek, a perennial creek in Sanchez’ time, had a trickle, which surprised me considering the drought Texas is enduring. The woods were thick, luxuriant and humid. A woodpecker hammered a tree in the distance and Mockingbirds mocked. About 15 miles past the creek my car pushed up a hill and I spied and outcrop of old stones. The topographic maps I studied confirmed these were the only hills within a day’s march from Peach Creek. This had to be where he camped, as Sanchez wrote:

We halted at a place which, because it had no name, the general called Loma Grande, and we did not continue further for fear of crossing a creek that was rather deep, and because it was two o’clock in the afternoon already.

The key here is the subsequent creek, which does lie over the hills and although currently dry was exceptionally deep. Sanchez writes that he marveled at the soldiers fortitude and hard work, because every time they crossed a creek they had to cut timber down and build makeshift bridges for the carriages. After crossing at least two dozen creeks since leaving Laredo several days ago I concur with Sanchez: his soldiers were indeed hard-working.

From this last stop on to San Felipe de Austin on the Brazos it’s difficult to track each of Sanchez’s stops. The land is rolling prairies or flat, featureless plains. The only two stops of note are the Colorado River Crossing, which I was unable to find and the San Bernard River, a sandy, wide stream cutting through the coastal prairie. The San Bernard is odd precisely because of the heavy, coarse sand filling its banks.It’s clearly sand from far, far above the coastal plain, drainage from an altogether different ecological niche of this huge state. The river banks, to this day, are mined for conglomerate, used in road building and other industrial age pursuits.

I stopped shadowing Sanchez about three in the afternoon and detoured to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. One wonders if Sanchez saw the Attwater Prairie Chicken on his journey. Berlandier, the French naturalist attached to the Border Commission makes no mention of them in his journal.

Sadly, the birds don’t seem to have a chance. There are only 210 remaining in the world. Houston’s creeping ex-urbanization is pushing more and more people out to this area. Eagle Lake grows as a winter hunting destination and the oil and gas industry are what they are. It is a pity, beyond measure, that possibly in my lifetime the bright orange boom of the Attwater won’t grace these fascinating prairies. The Great Blue Herons and Crested Caracara’s here will be all the lonelier for it.

I crossed the Brazos just as the sun set, an orgy of crimson settling on the sandy red banks of this powerful and temperamental river. Stephen F. Austin State Park was closed. I would visit in the morning. The next day would see me in the great inter-fluvial swamps between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers, the  portion of the journey that taxed Sanchez the most.

Ranchers and Prairie Chickens

I’m headed out to Don Henry Ford’s ranch today outside of Gonzales. Anything y’all want me to ask him while I am there? I’ll be taking an obscene amount of photos so rest assured that will be covered. I’m excited. It’s been a little over a year and a half since I last saw Don and Leah. And this will be the first time I’ve been to the ranch.

After meeting with Don and staying at his ranch for a night I’ll make my way up to San Felipe, the homestead of Stephen F. Austin. In the area is the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge where I hope to snap some shots of a the bird itself. I’ll be dilly-dallying around the area for a day or so, checking out old grave sites and trying to fix the location of where Sanchez crossed Tejocote Creek, which is now called Peach Creek. I will endeavor to locate more of the Daughters of the American Revolution granite markers on the old King’s Highway. (I’ve already documented two.) And also try to locate some more of his infamous “hills.” I’m about to go all Inigo Montoya on him, because he keeps using that word and I don’t think he knows what it means. I had a damnable and impossible time find a hill with iron deposits in it south of San Antonio, as I recounted yesterday.

After that I will head up to Nacogdoches, making a stop in Alto, Texas’ most recent libertarian paradise. More soon.

Creeks, Sands, Rivers and Missions

Mission San Jose

Cañada Verde, February 24 1828: The ground continues to be covered with vegetation which seems to increase as one approaches the interior of Texas. Herds of deer and wild cattle were encountered all along the march, which ended at a beautiful watering place formed by a ravine among the hills where good permanent water is found. The place is known as Cañada Verde. ~from the diary of Jose Maria Sanchez

Yesterday I traveled from Laredo up to the San Antonio Missions. I tracked the Mier y Teran Border Commission’s progress pretty well, but was unable to locate Cañada Verde. It’s there, I’m sure, but more than likely on private property. After this they stopped on the Frio River and then went on to San Miguel Creek for another night. Both the Frio and San Miguel were permanent waterways in 1828 and both are bone dry now, a combination of drought and the depleting our or aquifers.

Except for one stretch along Interstate 35 from Laredo up to Dilley, I took all local roads. Along the way I found two Old King’s Highway markers placed there in 1918 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. One was in La Salle county near Fowlerton and the other was in Bexar County near the Medina River. These old granite markers are fascinating. They certainly came from a quarry like this in the Hill Country near Lake Buchanan.

(The full photo set can be found here.)

I’m trying to stay off the big highways. One thing that struck me as very obvious is that the Brush Country was not always like it is now. Climate change may be altering Texas now, as heretofore perennial creeks like San Miguel are bone dry, but before climate change came man with his suite of animals that altered the landscape. Charles Mann writes about this at length in 1491–that often landscapes which look wild and untouched, have been altered by humans in many ways.

The Brush Country is a perfect example. Spanish explorers speak of prairies filled with luscious grass between the Rio Grande and Nueces. It was “an open country, with plains and a few dense woods.” One thing they don’t write of is large prickly pear prairies. In some areas Sanchez and Berlandier mention small stands of nopales–the Spanish word for cactus opuntia, but only in passing. One might think an impenetrable swath of cactus would raise the ire of early explorers. The assumption of most scholars is that they were not there then. These cactus are not immune to the cold, either, as a great cactus die off occurred in South Texas in the 1890s. Hundreds of miles died in a great, hard freeze one year. The cactus prairies we see now are no doubt the result of the cattle ranching.

Many scholars believe this area was the birthplace of the American cattle industry as well. But it was the introduction of Spanish cattle in 1690 by Alonso de Leon that altered what was once excellent cattle country into what it is now: a seemingly inhospitable landscape of cactus, wajia brush and mesquite trees. Cattle move seeds around. Brambles attache to their legs, carrying the grasses and stickle-burs far afield. By 1828 when Jose Maria Sanchez came through he was writing of a place that was undergoing many alterations. He saw wild cattle–the Spanish ranchers just let their cattle run wild, often not even branding them. By the time of the industrial revolution 75 years later the Brush Country had become mostly what it now is.

Crossing the Nueces River is to cross one of those invisible but all to real isohyetal lines. The Live Oak prairies began where before their was only mesquite. Agriculture increases, although it’s irrigated agriculture, not dry farming. Cattle ranching is still very real, it is Texas after all, but it too declines in the wake of cleared, plowed and sowed fields.

After the Frio River is an area of sandy soil, near present-day Poteet. They grow strawberries in the area and melons and have a strawberry festival every year I attended several times as a kid. Sanchez complained bitterly of the sand: “The ground over which we had to travel the following day is almost all loose sand for seven or eight leagues. It is tiresome and hinders rapid travel.”

Later in the day I ambled across an old cemetery where a couple of hundred rebellious subject of the Spanish Empire are buried. They fought nearby at the Battle Of Medina on August 18, 1813: the bloodiest battle in Texas history. As context, Napoleon was fighting in Europe and the United States was fighting England in the War of 1812.

One place that has flummoxed me to no end is a hill in this area called San Cristobal. Sanchez and Berlandier (the French naturalist accompanying the Border Commission) both write that it was large and contained iron ore. There simply are no hills worthy of note in this area. It is flat, sandy soil with lots of rivulets, gullies and the like, but no hills. This is very, very strange. Why? Because I know this area very well. I spent a large part of my youth fishing in the Medina and San Antonio Rivers and Salado Creek and Cibilo Creek. I asked several locals about it, not one of them knew what I was talking about. I then wondered if it had been mined, or somehow worn down by man, but one would think there would be notices of it in San Antonio’s well documented history. Oh well.

I then rolled into San Antonio proper and visited the four main missions in town: Espada, San Juan, San Jose and Concepcion. There is one other mission in San Antonio I didn’t visit, the Alamo, as I have been there many, many times before. But these four and the old aqueduct that is still in use, I had never visited. I spent my whole life in San Antonio and had only seen Espada once before.

Espada, by the way, was the first mission Jose Maria Sanchez saw after a week’s journey through South Texas. It must have been wonderful seeing civilization after a week worrying about Indians. He was very emotional when he first spotted it. And I will leave you with his words:

“We crossed the Cibolo, a small creek, and at a short distance saw the Mission of La Espada. The view of this temple and the few small houses that surround it made an impression upon me that I cannot express. The sight of these dwellings brought forcefully to my mind the fact that I was still living among my fellowmen.”

The Mustang Desert

Great RoadrunnerWhen Spanish explorers traveled through the region between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande in the 17th and 18th centuries the area had already filled up with wild horses. The modern horse, equus caballus, is not native to the North American continent and was brought by the Spaniards and other Europeans. (Side note: the Nueces River used to mark the boundary between Texas and Mexico, until the US-Mexico War settled the border question.)

Some travelers recount thousands and thousands of them in one herd. Recent textual and scientific studies say this is wildly inflated, but it makes sense to call it the Mustang Desert. What it must have been like? Hearing the bullfrogs at night, seeing pronghorn antelope everywhere. Coyotes! Foxes! And wild horses! The antelope are all gone now, except for in Trans-Pecos Texas–where I have seen them, and a small herd that lingers in the far southwestern corner of the Hill Country.

It’s greener than I imagined it would be, apparently some brief rain wetted the area two days before. But there is little grass and lots of prickly pear cacti and no trees, unless you consider the mesquite tree a real tree. Nothing but a glorified bush if you ask me.

Outside of Fowlerton, a dilapidated hamlet deep in the Brush Country I saw an old 1918 granite road marker denoting the route of the Old Spanish King’s Highway. I’m on the right track!

The Nueces was mostly dry, except for a few green, stagnant ponds. It’s not flowing at all, most of the waters used for farming in the Uvalde area. The Frio was a bone dry ravine, no different from the hundreds of dry creek runnels littering the landscape. I spent my formative years down here. I know this land: I have eyes for it–learning to hunt down here for White-tailed deer, rabbits, dove and Scaled Quail.

Maybe later today I’ll recount the great rattlesnake episode, as I almost lost a leg to six of the biggest, nastiest rattlingest snakes that ever got blasted away by a 20 gauge shotgun. Well, actually, I’ll tell the story now. It was quail season and I believe I was 12 years old, maybe 13. I’d shot a quail and he landed out in the prickly pear flats, much like this. The only difference was I was surrounded by prickly pears, dense and thick. I was not wearing snake-proof leggings, either.

I went to reach for him–he was still fluttering in the brush and as I reached down I heard the unmistakable rattle. I yelled at my Dad, “Dad, there’s a rattlesnake here.”

“Shoot it,” he said.

I shot it.

And then five more rattles went off. Hell, I thought it was cool! So I blasted away with my shotgun for all of three minutes, pulling more shells from out of my bandolier. All told, we pulled six very large snakes from that prickly pear bush. All more than 4 feet long. (I don’t think I could kill an animal anymore, as I prefer to take photos of them now. But when you’re young you just don’t know.)

I never, ever went hunting again without wearing leggings. Quite lucky was I that day 28 years ago in the Brush Country of South Texas.

Regardless, what it must have look like before the aquifers had been drained and natural springs were to be found in almost every county of the region? I searched yesterday for the remnants of one spring Sanchez stopped at in 1828 called “El Pato” (the duck) and think I may have found it. It’s called duck springs now.

And while I don’t believe the stock tank the old farmer called duck springs is anything more than a stock tank, he mentioned his family had been on the farm for 120 years and the area around it had always been called duck springs.

It’s about two days walking distance from Laredo, on a north-northeast route, that fits perfectly with what Sanchez and the French naturalist traveling with the commission writes.

So today I am heading into the Brush Country. Will have more photos and a blog entry later today. The full Texas in 1828 photo set can be found here.

Jose Maria Sanchez y Tapia

If all goes as planned tomorrow morning I will leave for the border paradise of Laredo. After Laredo I will make several stops along the old Camino Real, or King’s Highway, including Pearsall, San Antonio, Gonzales, San Felipe and Nacogdoches. The purpose is to re-create and walk in the footsteps of an early 19th century Mexican officer, draftsman and illustrator named Jose Maria Sanchez y Tapia.

You’re probably wondering who the hell Jose Maria Sanchez y Tapia is? Sanchez was attached to the Meir y Teran Border Commission, which ventured from Mexico City to Nacogdoches and then on to swampy river bottoms of East Texas to map out the border between Mexico and the United States. He wrote a very interesting account of his journey, which I learned of and first read about two years ago. I recently acquired Teran’s diary of the journey as well. I’m also picking up Berlandier’s account of the journey from the library this afternoon. I had hoped to make the entire Mexico City to Nacogdoches journey, but with the Mexican border states as chaotic as they are now is not the time.

Sanchez is one of those rare characters who kept a dairy of his journey that was not only political, geographical and biological observations. He also adds some curious and often times wonderful personal notes. Not sure what I will find along the way but I’m fairly confident there is a story in this, somewhere. I’ll be blogging the journey here. Each entry will contain a snippet from Sanchez’s diary and then my thoughts on what I’ve seen from hopefully the exact vantage points he saw in 1828.

Also, there will be lots of photos. Hopefully some good wildlife. The Brush Country of South Texas may look daunting and arid, but it is one of the most fecund places I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really a shame the white man killed off all the buffaloes, pronghorn antelope, white tailed deer and so much more.

Sunday Zen

Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris)Many of you will remember the story I wrote for Texas Monthly a few months ago about birds. In it I recounted the first time I ever saw the Holy Grail of Texas Birds: the Painted Bunting. This occurred in May of 2010. I was not yet forty years old and this was the first time I had ever seen one.

A month ago a listserve I participate in about Texas’ state parks was atwitter with multiple sightings of Painted Buntings in the Hill Country, many of them in ex-urban places like Helotes and Leander, semi-urban and not your typical haunts for these astonishingly colorful birds. That said, it’s been an exceptional year for birds in my backyard, as I have identified and photographed over thirty individual species. A few weeks ago a juvenile painted bunting–they are mostly green and yellow–even wandered into my very urban yard in Austin. A week after that a photographer wrote in that he had seen almost half a dozen of them in one two hour period in Pedernales Falls State Park, about an hour west of Austin. That was it!

The next weekend my Father and went to Pedernales but only saw one Bunting from afar. (We did see the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, which was very cool.) Dad wasn’t feeling terribly well and wasn’t really that into it, so we left early. I told the Brunette upon arriving home that her and I were going the next weekend and also that Dad and I had heard dozens of them in the trees, but, the problem is, the females are greenish-yellow and tend to blend in to the cover.

So, last Sunday rolls around and the Brunette and I get up at the crack of dawn. We drive out to Pedernales Falls State Park with high hopes. It was unseasonably cool–and very welcoming. It was about 62* degrees and there was no wind. Perfect weather!

Not five minutes into the park we saw one! (He’s the one photographed above.) And then, true to the photographers claims, down by the river we saw half a dozen more (here and here). We also saw Summer Tanagers and a Pyrrhuloxia (no photo of him). But, to think after forty years I only saw one and then more than half a dozen in one day? Great news, right?

Not so fast. The birds are being concentrated, such as they are, due to the extensive droughts in Texas and the fires. I’ve had odd vagrants fly into my yard like a Gray Catbird and an Ovenbird. Many Robins are still hanging around when they should be long gone. Clear signs of population pressure, mostly because we have a bird feeder, bath and suet in the yard. There is a very real danger of fewer birds in years to come as they compete for scarce resources, which is a shame. Regardless, the Painted Bunting is a magnificent bird and it’s your Sunday Zen.

Things Yet Unseen

Autumn ButterlfyI took The Brunette for weekend getaway in the Hill Country, Camp Wood, to be precise. Camp Wood, Texas (population 817) is place so far out that I had only a sporadic cell phone signal and no internet access. It was wonderful being out of the loop for four whole days. The world, even so close to home, seemed distant, unnecessary. And if I’ve been out here a hundred times, it might be a hundred and one.

It was a wet year and the profusion of White-tail deer everywhere along the roadside, darting out of the brush, grazing in the river bottoms were proof. The grasses, long turned golden or cinnamon or crimson, luxuriated in my fortieth Hill Country Autumn, that time of year when cool, dry Canadian air pushes the humidity out to the Gulf of Mexico and desiccates the cedar and caliche hillsides.

The light, as we drove down from Austin, was intense–falling on the Cedar Trees and Hills of Glenn Rose limestone at parallax angles. We saw several ravens, a small herd of Pronghorn Antelope (the furthest East I’d ever seen them), a gaggle of geese in a pond, kangaroos and camels. The last two were obviously at an exotic game ranch, where I’ve often seen giraffes, Black Buck, Oryx and dik-diks. Axis Deer (many escaped from early attempts at raising them) are so common in the Hill Country now as to be unremarkable.

The sun set and we heard the distant clatter of a high school band. Nueces Canyon High School (1-A) was playing D’Hanis. I spent an hour on the porch, reading poetry and fell asleep to the yipping of coyotes and awoke to the crowing of roosters.

In the morning we drove down the road and ate a huge breakfast of All-You-Can-Eat scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits at the ‘Falcon.’

The Casa Falcon serves the tiny Hill Country towns of Camp Wood, Montell and Barksdale faithfully, delivering the best breakfast in three counties: Edwards, Real and Uvalde. On weekend mornings, Sunday included, it’s impossible to find parking, smashed as I was between flat beds and farm trucks. One old timer drove his John Deere tractor into town.

I caught snippets of conversation as I devoured my bacon:

“Old man Edwards wrecked his truck up in Barksdale last night, too drunk, ran into a frightfully big boar.”

“You certain it wasn’t his wife?” asked a lanky cowboy in camoflage.

“Bill’s got a lot of deer on his land this year, gonna make a fortune leasing it out to hunters,” said another.

“How does someone so dumb raise such beautiful game?”

“Panther’s got their butts whooped last night, 42-6,” an old timer told a younger Hispanic man who’d just walked in.

“We’ll get ‘em next year, then.”

Most were dressed in their cowboy suits: tight Wrangler jeans, shredded boots and plaid polyester shirts. Many wore baseball caps—Uvalde National Bank, Texas Rangers, Nueces Canyon Panthers—but only a few pates were covered with the expected ten gallon hat. For these are real ranchers who eschew the ostentation of the obvious.

After breakfast we drove up Ranch Road 335 across Highway 41 and then down Ranch Road 336 to Leakey and Garner State Park, so named after John Nance‘Cactus Jack’ Garner, former Speaker of the House and Roosevelt’s Vice-president from 1933-41.

The park is set between a small range of Edwards’ Limestone hills and the flood plain of the Frio River. Tropical-looking leaves of Madrone Trees dangle on the cliffs. Toothpick straight Cypress trees, tall with leaves in varying stages of orange, line the banks. Tangerine light dances on the marble green waters, clear straight to the bottom.

“When was the first time you came out here,” The Brunette asked me.

“I was eight years old.”

In those thirty-two years, I told her, little has changed, except for the old, decayed natural river ropes dangling from limbs, replaced by the synthetic, and yet, boys still swing from them in narrow arcs, diving into the water during the warm summer months.

“Just as I did all those years ago,” I said.

“Look at the tadpoles!”

She pointed towards little black squiggles congregating in a shallow pool.

“Wow,” I said. “Tadpoles in late October!”

A gentle wind caresses the branches, pushed down from the high limestone summit behind me. She points at the moon, sailing across luciferin skies, bare of clouds.

I hear frogs croak and the water pour down rapids.

Flying upriver comes a Belted Kingfisher.

“Look at that,” I say.

“This place is special to you,” she says, her almond hair and hazel eyes alive in the early afternoon breeze.

“After so many years of travel and so many distant lands I always return here,” I say. “I’ve seen just about every wonder the world has to offer, from the Taj Mahal to the China’s Great Wall. The phallic towers of Ethiopia to the towering minarets of Istanbul.”

“But,” I continue, “every visit to this undiscovered corner of the Texas Hill Country greets with something new, something yet unseen. It’s the first Kingfisher I’ve ever seen in Texas.”

I stood with a smile and we walked upstream.

A Timeless Question, Finally Answered

Why Did The Chicken Cross The RoadIt is a question which has haunted mankind since the first road was built and poultry was domesticated: why did the chicken cross the road?

This morning at approximately 9:53 am, central daylight savings time Bernadette, a Central Austin Rhode Island Red, crossed from her coop on the north side of North Loop Road to Highland Plaza. Frenzied text messages and cell phone calls bounced off towers and clogged communication networks all over Austin this morning. But our intrepid reporter, Sean Paul Kelley, was on the scene first for this unprecedented opportunity. Finally “the” question would be answered.

“Bernadette, millions and billions of humans want to know, ‘why did you do it?’”

“Why, the coffee, of course! Especially the Sumatran dark blend here at Epoch,” she replied.

“Coffee,” asked Mr. Kelley, a bit perplexed. “Such a prosaic answer.”

“What do I look like,” she said, “a chicken from one of those fancy New York City salons? Do I look like an Ayn Rand acolyte? Or a philosopher? I may be a Rhode Island Red,” she added, “but I got shipped down here when I was just an egg. It was an accident I even managed to peck my way out of the shell. And besides, have you seen the size of a chicken’s brain? Come to think of it,” she said, pecking at a small bug in the asphalt, “my brain’s probably a bit larger than Rand’s but still, after worrying about foraging, laying eggs and running away from the local cats, coffee is about all the mental bandwidth I have left for.

“Bernadette,” Mr. Kelley shouted through the crowd of star struck onlookers and well wishers, “care to comment about which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

“No one likes a smart-ass,” she clucked.