Murder in Mexico

101 Spring Street
JOURNEY’S END Rivard found Philip True’s body. Photograph by the San Antonio Express-News.

True Story

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 2001

When a San Antonio Express-News reporter was killed in Mexico, the paper’s editor took the matter into his own hands-literally.

IT WAS A PLEASANT, MILD DECEMBER DAY IN SAN ANTONIO almost three years ago when Bob Rivard’s life changed. At the time, he was taking a golf lesson with the general manager and the publisher of the San Antonio Express-News, the newspaper he edits. Rivard had heard two days before that his paper’s Mexico City bureau chief, Philip True, was missing in the mountains of west central Mexico. He had dispatched one of his reporters to find him. But he couldn’t get True out of his mind. Now he made a more difficult decision: Against the advice of his associates, he would go to Mexico and find Philip True himself.

True had been on vacation, taking a solo one-hundred-mile hike through remote territory populated by 20,000 Huichol Indians. True knew the Huichols were perhaps the least assimilated and most undisturbed of all the indigenous peoples in Mexico. He wanted badly to write about them. But he had been rebuffed by his editors, so he decided to learn more on his own time.

He had been gone for thirteen days-longer than the trip was to have lasted-and had failed to check in with his wife from the fourth village on his route, one that she knew had a pay phone. He had never failed to check in before. His wife, Martha, in Mexico City and pregnant with the couple’s first child, telephoned the Express-News, reaching Susana Hayward, a reporter who had recently covered Mexico City for the Associated Press. Rivard then sent Hayward to Guadalajara to join Martha’s brother-in-law Manuel Obaya and True’s best friend, Fred Chase, in their search for True. In a rented plane and using the detailed map True had given to his wife, they combed an isolated area straddling the border between the states of Nayarit and Jalisco. They landed in several villages, including Almotita, where the Indians were openly hostile. Yes, they’d seen True, one villager said. His legs had been bleeding because dogs had attacked him. Something about the story didn’t seem right.

By then, Rivard was in Mexico City, determined to help Hayward and the others track down True. As it happened, he was uniquely qualified to do so. He was a veteran correspondent with both a taste for exotic adventure and the ability to speak Spanish fluently. His coverage of the guerrilla wars in El Salvador and Guatemala and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua for the Dallas Times Herald and Newsweek in the eighties was considered first-rate. Eventually he became Newsweek’s chief of correspondents. His south-of-the-border credentials were so good that in 1999, after two years as the editor of the Express-News, he was offered the job of editor of the Miami Herald, the most important English-language newspaper in Latin America. He declined, persuaded to stay in San Antonio by promises made by the Hearst Corporation (which owns the Express-News) to increase his salary and let him hire more reporters to write longer, more literary pieces.

Rivard began leveraging every personal and professional contact he and the paper had in Mexico, working his way up the chain of command to Fernando Lerdo de Tejeda, President Ernesto Zedillo’s minister of social communications. The Cabinet officer asked Rivard what he wanted.

“I want you to treat this like Senator Kennedy’s son is missing,” Rivard said. “We want that same kind of resource allocation.”

Perhaps True had been hurt, making it difficult to walk, Rivard theorized. Or, even though True was an experienced hiker, he could have gotten lost in the unfamiliar terrain. Lerdo de Tejeda then spoke with the minister of defense, and by the end of the next day, Rivard was flying into Guadalajara to meet the army general in command of the region. A massive public information campaign was launched. Hundreds of leaflets offering a 10,000-peso reward were distributed to the villages. The Huichols’ radio network, broadcasting in both Huichol and Spanish, made announcements every hour. “I don’t think there was a Huichol on earth who didn’t know we were looking for a foreigner named Philip True,” Rivard says.

Then came a break: A Huichol hunter named Margarito Diaz walked two days to tell the search party that he had found a body between two villages. The general’s helicopter, containing Rivard, Chase, and Diaz, took fifteen minutes to fly near the spot, which was in a steep ravine. The body was no longer there, but there was clotted blood in the dirt. Rivard then followed a trail of feathers from True’s sleeping bag to the bottom of the canyon. “A dog ran up to a sandbank and started to dig and sniff,” says Rivard. “You could smell death. Fred and I got down on our hands and knees and started to dig in the sand.” They found Philip True’s body stuffed in his sleeping bag, his bandanna knotted tightly around his neck. The gruesome discovery provided some closure for True’s family and friends, but having found True, they now sought justice.

Shortly after True’s body was found, two Huichol Indians, Juan Chivarra de la Grin and his brother-in-law Miguel Hern‡ndez de la Cruz, were charged with his murder. The last entry in True’s diary spoke of an unpleasant encounter with an Indian named Juan who had threatened to take him to jail and had asked True to follow him to his village, where True evidently spent the night. True’s binoculars, camera, and backpack with his personal papers were found in Chivarra’s home. The suspects quickly confessed to the killing, providing the police with details that only True’s attackers could have known. Their reasons were vague: at various times they said True had taken photographs of sacred sites, insulted Chivarra by calling him a veterinarian, and barged into Chivarra’s abode and beat him up while drunk, then raped his wife.

After the two were apprehended, Rivard-who is convinced of their guilt-tried to speed the murder trial through Mexico’s balky judicial system. In February of this year, he met personally with President Vicente Fox and with officials from Fox’s new administration, just as he had met with the State Department, three judges who have presided over the case, and four prosecutors. He enlisted journalistic organizations in the United States and Mexico to speak out on True’s behalf.

But he was up against more than just bureaucratic intransigence. Two months earlier an American expatriate from Atlanta named Miguel Gatins had taken an interest in the case. Gatins, who lives in Guadalajara, felt that Chivarra and Hern‡ndez were unable to defend themselves because of their status as poor, indigenous people. He financed a legal team that rolled out a parade of expert witnesses who said that the Indians had been tortured into confessing. They also presented findings of a third autopsy, which concluded that Philip True had not been strangled (though by then the corpse was so disfigured from previous autopsies that there was no neck on the cadaver to examine) but instead had accidentally fallen to his death while staggering around drunk. On the strength of this new evidence, the accused were released by a county judge in Jalisco in early August.

When Rivard heard the news, he returned to Mexico, meeting with Martha True and securing the support of Jeff Davidow, the United States ambassador to Mexico. Davidow said, “The evidence strongly indicates foul play”-pointed words coming from a diplomat. Rivard met with Fox’s top legal adviser, who, Rivard says, shared his disbelief. (“To this day, the court has not notified Philip’s widow or this newspaper about the acquittal,” Rivard says.)

He held a press conference to remind the Mexican press, including those papers siding with the Indians against the gringos, that True’s plight was also theirs. “The Mexican press was having a field day,” he says. “Drunk American hiker dies. We win. America loses.’ We tried to point out this was not a soccer game, with a winner and a loser. Philip’s not getting special treatment. There are many journalists in Mexico who’ve died. It’s in their interest to seek the truth.”

Gatins, meanwhile, has hailed the Indians’ release as a “great victory for justice.” The Huichols, he said, had been treated like “the classic scapegoats: Indians with no connections, no money, up against the power of the press and American institutions.” Bob Rivard sees it differently. “This man, like some other people here, [has] an attitude that ‘They’re Indians; they can’t possibly be guilty of homicide.’ That’s a quite romantic view. We’ve always been emotionally prepared that the Huichols would not pay for their actions. But we weren’t prepared for the judge’s finding that True’s death was accidental.”

The case is still alive. Prosecutors have filed a final appeal of the acquittal before a panel of three state judges. The Express-News has continued its coverage. In one story, the paper profiled Gatins, who spent $30,000 to finance the legal team that freed the Indians. In another, it wrote about the suspects, Chivarra and Hern‡ndez, both of whom now deny killing True. Back in San Antonio, Rivard, whose newspaper is seeing to it that Martha True and her son are financially taken care of, is trying to concentrate on his main job. “We’d like to get the Philip True case behind us and focus on the newspaper,” he admits. But he’d like a better legacy than the official Mexican version-a drunk gringo stumbling around, beating up Indians, raping their wives, falling off a mountain. You get the sense Bob Rivard sees himself in Philip True, before he crossed over into management. “It meant a lot to me because he was a writer willing to go to the mountains to get his story, use his vacation time to do the work so he could sell it to us,” he says. “How many reporters have hammered away at their editors and weren’t able to get them to see their genius? You ask again and again, and if you still believe in it, you just go do it. Which is what he was doing. What I’m doing is what any editor should do. The staff should expect their editor to be passionate. If not the editor, then who?”

[San Antonio Express-News] [Texas Monthly]


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Texas Ranges

Texas Mountains - coverTexas Ranges

Texas Monthly
by Joe Nick Patoski
November 2001

 

For most of their lives, senior editor Joe Nick Patoski and freelance photographer Laurence Parent have explored and chronicled the mountains of the Trans-Pecos. In this excerpt from their forthcoming book, Texas Mountains, they show and tell where their love of the outdoors is at its peak.

I GOT HOOKED ON THE TEXAS MOUNTAINS at the age of six, when I climbed to the top of a small hill adjacent to the Chisos Basin lodge in Big Bend National Park, rode on horseback to the Window, and peered over what seemed then to be the edge of the world. I became fixated on the idea that there was actually a place called the Christmas Mountains; it was visible through the Window’s massive slickrock aperture, beyond the park’s northwestern border.

The relationship continued through my youth, when I discovered that there wasn’t a more enchanting city view in Texas than the twinkling lights of El Paso and Juárez at night, seen from Scenic Drive on Mount Franklin. I climbed the pilgrims’ path to the top of Mount Christo del Rey and straddled the line between Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua. As an adult, I’ve touched the roof of Texas atop Guadalupe Peak, perched on the edge of the South Rim of the Chisos in Big Bend on a brilliantly clear day when objects two hundred miles distant were visible—the biggest view in the whole world—and watched a comet from the top of Mount Locke at McDonald Observatory, illuminated by more stars than the eye can comprehend in the darkest skies in America.

These mountains are located in the Trans-Pecos part of Texas, which stretches for some 250 miles east to west and extends about 200 miles north to south—about the size of South Carolina. It is the most sparsely populated part of the state. Save for the city of El Paso, where more than half a million people live, no more than 30,000 residents live here. “Wide-open spaces” is not just some catchphrase in this part of the state. They really do exist. Within the boundaries of the Trans-Pecos sprawl the thirty-odd named ranges of Texas. The Trans-Pecos is a region so expansive that several of its counties are bigger than entire states. This is the Texas of dreams.

The easternmost ranges, the Housetops and Spencers, flank U.S. 90 twenty miles east of Marathon like two sentinels. The Glass Mountains, the first range of significant height and breadth, swell up more than a mile above sea level between Marathon, Fort Stockton, and Alpine. From there all the way to the state and the international boundaries to the northwest, west, and southwest, mountains dominate the landscape. Some consider the Texas mountains to be the southern extension of the Rocky Mountains, tumbling out of Colorado and New Mexico. But only the Davis Mountains, the wettest and one of the highest ranges in the state, and the Guadalupes, the highest range of all, with the four tallest peaks in Texas, really resemble their Colorado neighbors.

These are not easy mountains to love. They lack the altitude and drama of either the Sierra Nevadas or the Rockies. The tallest mountain in Texas, the 8,751-foot Guadalupe Peak, would hardly rate a glance on the other side of the New Mexico line. They are located in one of the least accessible places in the continental United States, far from most population centers. As a result, few people even know they are here. Even though Interstate 10 cuts through several ranges, most travelers keep their eyes glued to the road and have no idea what they’re passing through. The two most impressive ranges in the state, the Guadalupes and the Chisos, are protected as national parks, but most of the other ranges in the Trans-Pecos and the Big Bend remain unknown and unseen because they’re off-limits. Unlike other western states, where federal lands sometimes comprise more than half of a given state’s land area, Texas is mostly private property, mountains included.

This is a harsh country. Annual rainfall averages barely ten inches a year, and a severe drought persisted for almost a decade at the close of the twentieth century. Each of the four seasons has its own hellish peculiarity. The blistering winds of early spring are brutal. An ovenlike heat can set in as early as March. The soothing midsummer monsoons of July, August, and September, which can green up the countryside overnight, can bring killer floods with them too.

When the monsoons don’t come—which happens more and more frequently these days—the furnace effect down on the desert floor of the Big Bend becomes so severe that every living thing, it seems, either burns, dies, or withers away. But even when that kind of heat is on, up on the Marfa Highlands or in the Davises and the Guadalupes, in August it’s chilly enough at night to sleep with a blanket. The coolest summer nights in Texas are in the Texas mountains. Starting in mid-November, blue northers blast in the bitterest cold, dropping temperatures as much as fifty degrees in as little as an hour and occasionally leaving a dusting of snow on the mountaintops, stirring visions of the Rockies or the Alps if only for a day or two. Yet the same season can also bring temperatures above 100 degrees to the lower desert.

For the people who love these mountains, such realities are really blessings that have kept away the crowds. After all, who wants to share the stands of quaking aspen found in the Davis range, the maples of the Guadalupes and the Sierra Vieja, and the small slivers of greened-up high country that flourish on the mountaintops and in crevices and crannies, far from public view? If you’re blowing through at 70 miles per hour on the interstate or peering out the window of a jet plane at 30,000 feet, you won’t get it. Those of us who do get it like that just fine. We know, as I have learned, that there is much more than meets the eye. These mountains just require a little more patience and a whole lot more effort.

Many of the Texas ranges—the Guadalupes, the Delawares, the Huecos, and the Franklins—are largely devoid of vegetative cover because of a dearth of moisture. Because they are so naked, they expose thousands and millions of years in their layers and folds and are a playground for geologists. Within the Texas mountains are geological features and formations found nowhere else on the planet: a stone freak show of weird globs, jagged spires, gravity-defying balancing acts, marbled swirls, scoops of melted ice cream, and dribbled sand castles that wildly vary from extraterrestrial to lunar in appearance. In spite of their apparent desolation, the mountains harbor a huge variety of plant and animal species. The area is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest and highest desert in North America. Here life flourishes in surprising places: on a remote cloud-catching ridgeline or under a rare canopy of shade in hidden canyons fed by springs and waterfalls.

Even though they are not the highest mountains around, these ranges offer some of the most striking panoramas anywhere. Range after range fades to the vanishing point, each separated from the next by vast desert floors that go on forever. From the top of Mount Livermore in the Davis Mountains, the highest peak in the second-highest range in Texas, mountain landmarks are clearly visible in every direction: the rectangular hump of Chinati Peak to the south; the long ridgeline of the Sierra Viejas bulging out of the flats to the south and toward the west, fading into the Van Horns, the Apaches, the Eagles, the Beaches, the Baylors, and the Sierra Diablos. Beyond them all is the lone sentinel of Sierra Blanca, marking the route to El Paso and the Pacific.

The last time I was in the Chisos Basin, I noticed that little hill by the lodge again. Forty-three years had passed since I first scaled it. For much of that time, the little hill didn’t seem that big. It was but another example of how things shrink and diminish when you grow up. Lately though, it has started looking more like a mountain to me again, just like it did when I was a kid. Just like it does to kids scurrying up its rocks today, I’ll bet.

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Tall Tales

Tall Tales

Texas Monthly
November 2001

Photographer Laurence Parent and senior editor Joe Nick Patoski talk about climbing, the best shot, and their new book, Texas Mountains. Interview with Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski

Texas Mountains - Joe Nick Patoski

texasmonthly.com: When was the first time you saw a mountain? Do you remember where you were and what you thought?

Laurence Parent: I was born in the mountains of New Mexico, so I guess that I saw them when I was pretty young. They must have made an impression, although I sure don’t remember my first thoughts.

Joe Nick Patoski: The mountains I remember seeing were in the Big Bend. We’d driven in my daddy’s new ‘59 Studebaker Silver Hawk from Fort Worth to San Antonio one day, then from San Antonio to Ciudad Acuña and on to Marathon the next, arriving at night. The following morning we got up and drove to Big Bend National Park and up to the Chisos Basin. I thought it was pretty cool.

texasmonthly.com: Laurence, your father was a National Park Service ranger and your mother wrote travel pieces. Do you think you may have a different perspective on the outdoors because of their influence?

LP: My parents had a huge influence on me. Growing up in beautiful National Park Service sites with parents who loved the outdoors greatly shaped what I do for a living (outdoor photography) and what I love to do for fun (hike, run, camp, and climb).

texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to publish a book on the Texas mountains?

LP: No one had ever done such a book. Some Texans don’t even realize Texas has mountains. Many others don’t realize that there are beautiful mountains in Texas besides the Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains. I wanted to surprise people. The Texas mountains have waterfalls, movie sets, pine forests, aspens, and many other surprises.

texasmonthly.com: How long did it take to come up with the material for your book and put it all together?

JNP: A little more than a couple years. I’d really been working on it for more than forty years, but just didn’t realize.

LP: Some of the photos go back to the mid-nineties (they were shot for other projects). Most, however, were shot specifically for this book beginning around mid-1999. The West Texas drought didn’t help. The schedule accelerated last fall, though, when rains finally came to West Texas. The grass greened, the air cleared, and the waterfalls flowed. I made two trips in October and November to wrap up the book that lasted 26 and 17 days each. After that, I was ready to be done.

Joe Nick Patoski at Coal Mine Ranch
Joe Nick Patoski
at Coal Mine Ranch.
Photo by Laurence Parent

texasmonthly.com: Joe Nick, what was involved in getting your information? Did you go on many climbs?

JNP: Lots of time was spent in libraries, online, and on the phone. But the best part of doing it was getting to go on-site. A lot of the ranges are on private land, so our research involved introducing ourselves to folks, asking permission for access, and in many cases, assuring sources that we wouldn’t identify precisely where we were lest trespassers and poachers try to go where they’re not welcome.

I should mention that the photography required getting to vantage points on peaks and pinnacles that were not necessarily the highest points in a particular range. Nonetheless, we climbed a bunch. There’s one photo Laurence took of me standing on a smaller pinnacle in the Chinatis that ran in Texas Highways (Laurence needed a model and I was the only other human around). The picture is pretty great, capturing me standing on this high point overlooking the rugged, desolate valley of the Rio Grande, with no other human being or any man-made structure in sight. What you don’t see is how I propped myself up on the rock, trying to maintain my balance, and how I was seized by a severe case of acrophobia while trying to stand still and remain calm. The wind was gusting, and I kept trying not to look down, because one false move and I was a goner. Standing across the way, on an equally perilous promontory, was Laurence, snapping away, changing cameras, loading film, trying to get the shot. It’s one thing to ramble around high points and scurry up to the top; it’s another thing to do that while carrying sixty pounds of equipment on your back. Laurence, I think, has a little mountain goat blood in him.

texasmonthly.com: Laurence, what type of format do you use? Why?

LP: I mostly use a large-format camera, 4×5, for my landscape work. Only a tiny handful of the photos in this book were done with a 35mm camera. A 4×5 reproduces larger, with greater sharpness, less grain, and potentially greater depth of field. I do use a 35mm for shooting outdoor sports, but there wasn’t any of that in this book.

texasmonthly.com: Do you find the mountains in Texas that different from the mountains in Colorado? Why or why not?

LP: The mountains in Texas are significantly lower and drier that those in Colorado. However, many of the Texas mountains have considerable relief (above the surrounding plains) and are still very impressive.

JNP: Much different. As a University of Texas at Austin professor from Germany told me recently: “We in Germany know about the Rockies, the Cascades, the Sierra Nevadas, the Appalachians. We have mountains like that. But there’s nothing in Germany like the Texas mountains. That’s why we love to come here.” It’s the delicate combination of mountains and desert. Nowhere but Texas.

Joe Nick Patoski at Sierra Diablo
Joe Nick Patoski and Chris Gill
at Sierra Diablo.
Photo by Laurence Parent

texasmonthly.com: What is necessary to get such spectacular shots? Can you describe a shoot for me?

LP: First and foremost, you have to be a pack mule. My camera pack usually weighs between 35 and 40 pounds just for day hikes. A lot of strenuous hiking was required for this book to reach the photo locations that I wanted. Quite a few hikes were cross-country in areas with no trails. Several shots were taken on overnight trips, and my pack weighed 60 pounds or so. Besides dragging my gear to ideal locations, I have to anticipate the light and weather to try to get the best possible images. Many times the weather does not cooperate, requiring me to repeat a trip, often several times.

texasmonthly.com: When is the best time of day to take nature shots? Why?

LP: Most commonly, the light right before, during, and after sunset works best because contrast decreases, long shadows give depth, and the light turns gold and pink. However, weather is at least as big a factor. Dramatic skies, especially from breaking storms, add immeasurably to photos.

texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite photo in the book? Why?

JNP: I don’t really have a favorite. I love‘em all. But when I first thumbed through the book, the shots of ZH Canyon really stirred me. Sunrise on a perfect June morning, seeing and hearing and witnessing all the life in this “isolated” spot—the canyon was a veritable aviary, choked with raptors and Neotropical songbirds. It was one of the more blessed moments in my life. The photos brought it all back.

LP: Tough question. I’m not sure that I have a particular favorite. I do like the cover, in part, I guess, because it was taken during a miserable windy sunrise in a spring dust storm, which is why the light is so red—not because of a filter. Another favorite is probably the aspens shot because it was such a bear to hike to them, plus it reminds me of the New Mexico mountains, where I did a lot of my growing up.

Joe Nick Patoski at Coal Mine Ranch
Joe Nick Patoski
at Coal Mine Ranch.
Photo by Laurence Parent

texasmonthly.com: What was your most difficult shoot? Why?

LP: Several are contenders. The aspens shot was difficult because it required carrying my heavy gear cross-country up and down very steep, loose, and treacherous slopes. I twisted my knee when a slope shifted under me; it still hasn’t completely recovered. The shot of El Capitan taken from the summit of Guadalupe Peak required carrying my pack four and a half miles up a trail while gaining three thousand feet of elevation in a howling, frigid dust storm in January. After taking my sunset shots and getting almost hypothermic, I hiked all the way down in the dark.

texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite mountain range in Texas? Why?

JNP: My favorite ranges are the Franklin, Hueco, Guadalupe, Sierra Diablo, Sierra Vieja, Davis, Chinati, Chisos, Bofecillo, and Glass ranges. Each has qualities separate from the others. Laurence has convinced me that there is much more to the Quitmans than initially meets the eye. The Eagles, which parallel Interstate 10 to the south for twenty miles or so, west of Van Horn, are the most underappreciated. The view from Eagle peak was one of the most breathtaking of them all.

LP: I’m not sure that I have a single favorite. They’re all really different. Some favorites are the Sierra Vieja, Davis, Guadalupe, Chisos, Beach, Quitman, and Sierra Diablo mountains.

texasmonthly.com: If you could climb any mountain in Texas, which would it be? Why?

JNP: North Franklin Mountain. Because I haven’t done it yet.

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Guad is Great

Guadalupe River
High Season: A cold Guadalupe means rapid transit. Photograph by Woody Welch

Guad is Great

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 2001

When the weather turns cold, the drunken hordes leave the lower Guadalupe, and the river is an answer to a paddler’s prayer.

Ah, the Challenge of running white-water rapids, of dipping a fly in swift streams rife with rainbow and brown trout, the exhilaration of being in a wild place when there’s a chill in the air: These are a few of my favorite things. Every summer, I pine for the Rockies or somewhere else in the great American West. But over the past couple of years, I’ve discovered that I don’t have to wait until June or travel a thousand miles to be on a great Western river. In stead, I just wait till Labor Day has passed and head for the Lower Guadalupe. You heard me right. The same stretch of river that is notorious for drawing hundreds of thousands of tubers and floaters, especially on summer holiday weekends, becomes a wilderness experience from September to March. Gone is the horde that has given the stretch of river between Canyon Lake and New Braunfels the unsavory reputation as a floating party of drunks and litterbugs. By the autumnal equinox, everything has changed. The beer cans have been cleaned up. The few people still hanging around the river are a friendlier bunch. Wildlife comes out of hiding. And the 23 miles or so of river below Canyon Dam, ending in Gruene a couple of miles from Interstate 35, become some of the most accessible wilderness in Texas.

The recreational stretch begins just below the dam at the Horseshoe Falls fishing area. Five miles downstream is the put-in point at FM 306 for all-day paddle trips. The next nine and a half miles are prime fishing territory known as the Trophy Zone, which is stocked by a nonprofit group called Trout Unlimited and Texas Parks and Wildlife. The Trophy Zone ends at a bridge known as Second Crossing, and the river runs pretty flat for the next three miles down to First Crossing. Here begins my favorite part of the river.

My thing is kayaking, and there’s no more reliable white water in the state than the five-mile run from First Crossing down to Gruene. Five major rapids will test any paddler’s skills-whether with a canoe, a raft, or a kayak. Huaco Falls and Slumber Falls have nasty hydraulics guaranteed to tump inexperienced boaters. Slant is ideal for practicing wave surfing. Clutter requires the most technical skill; miss your slot and have a close encounter with Mr. Tree. Gruene Rapids, with a standing wave waiting to launch your boat and grab some air, offers enough tossing and turning to end a trip on an upbeat note.

The ride can be mild to wild. It all depends on how much water is being released from Canyon Dam, measured by the cubic-feet-per-second (CFS) reading at the Sattler measuring station, which is maintained by the United States Geological Survey; this number can be found on the USGS Web site, tx.water.usgs.gov. In winter the CFS tends to stay higher, meaning faster, whiter water. If the CFS is at 300, decent paddling is assured. A reading of anywhere between 500 and 800 CFS promises close to ideal conditions, with enough force and waves to make a paddle challenging. When the CFS cranks above 1,000, bigger rafts become the norm as the Guad turns into wicked big water, helmet required. The hole at Huaco swallows boats. Numerous standing waves appear in unexpected places. The take-out at Gruene becomes a very tricky proposition. The reward is a river run as wild as just about any in the beloved Rockies.

Of course, there is the chill factor to contend with, but it’s not really all that bad. Coming off the bottom of Canyon Lake, the water checks out at a bracing 54 to 60 degrees, which makes wearing a wet suit a good idea. But considering that the average high air temperature in January and February on the Guadalupe ranges from the low to mid sixties, the weather is similar to that of Idaho or Alberta around Memorial Day.

To do the run from First Crossing to Gruene, I usually park at Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, a river concession at Gruene that remains open year-round, and pay for a shuttle ride up to First Crossing ($10 per person, including your boat). Or I arrange shuttles with my paddling pals, paying $5 to park at Rockin ‘R’s Camp Huaco Springs upstream. For a full day’s paddle, camp or park and put in at Whitewater Sports, at the FM 306 bridge, the area known as Fifth Crossing-the larger the crossing number, the farther upstream you are. The trip is scenic but lacks the action of the stretch below First Crossing and requires portaging around a couple of small dams.

For fishing, head upstream to the Trophy Zone, a stretch of river that marks the best trout fishing in Texas. The Lower Guadalupe is the only river in the state that supports a year-round trout population-a man-made happenstance that is the result of the release of cold bottom water. After years of stocking, the Guadalupe now has the potential to mature into a world-class fishery. The state-record rainbow trout (8.24 pounds) and brown trout (7.12 pounds) came from the Lower Guad. The miracle miles are around River Road Camp, Cedar Bluff Campground, and Camp Beans, at Third Crossing. At some of these sites you have to pay to get access to the water for fishing. Most fishing is done on a catch-and-release basis, though some visitors take home their daily limit: one fish at least eighteen inches long and caught on an artificial lure. Outside the Trophy Zone, fishermen may keep five trout per day with no restrictions on size or bait.

Parks and Wildlife will stock trout in the river on December 13 and 28, January 10 and 24, and April 4 and will arrange for free access for fishing at Camp Beans, Camp Huaco Springs, and the area directly below the dam through April 2002. Trout Unlimited stocks from November to February. The organization also leases land in the Trophy Zone; to gain access to the riverbank, you must acquire a $40 Trout Unlimited membership and pay an $85 access-orientation fee. TU is the big dog on the river, politically speaking, with the legal clout and the financial muscle to get the attention of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which wants to draw more water from Canyon Lake to sell to San Antonio, a proposal that also incurred heated opposition from paddlers, recreation-oriented businesses, and Canyon Lake residents.

The Lower Guad in winter is not the exclusive off-season domain of paddlers and anglers. The winding River Road, no longer choked with traffic, actually becomes pleasant as a biking route. Campgrounds can be parklike in their solitude. The wildlife viewing is splendid. It’s a bad day on the river when I don’t see a great blue heron emerging from the brush along the riverbank to lumber through the sky. Kingfishers are almost as ubiquitous as the turtles that return to sunbathe on the rocks. Winter residents include large contingents of hawks and eagles that ride the updrafts and soar along the cliffs with the turkey buzzards. Ospreys were prevalent a couple of months ago. The Lower Guad is on a major migratory route, and I’ve had the good luck to witness massive flyovers of hummingbirds and monarch butterflies this autumn. Even if the trees have dropped their leaves, the steep canyons and sheer limestone cliffs are some of the most scenic vistas found in the Hill Country this side of Enchanted Rock. A pretty fair tradeoff, I’d say, for the occasional shiver.

Camping: At Fifth Crossing, Whitewater Sports (830-964-3800); at Third Crossing, Cedar Bluff Campground (830-964-3639), River Road Camp (830-625-5004), and Camp Beans (830-964-2484); at First Crossing, Camp Huaco Springs (call Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, 830-629-9999 or 1-800-55-FLOAT).

Outfitters and guides: Whitewater Sports and Rockin ‘R’ River Rides (see Camping, above) for parking, shuttles, guide services, and rentals of canoes, kayaks, and inflatable rafts; Gruene Outfitters (1629 Hunter Road, New Braunfels, 830-625-4440 or 888-477-3474) for fly-fishing gear and guide recommendations.

Fishing: Valid Texas fishing license ($19) required along with a Texas Parks and Wildlife trout stamp ($7); Trout Unlimited national and local membership required ($40), plus $85 access fee and completion of the lease orientation class; Captain Scott Graham, a past president of the Guadalupe chapter of Trout Unlimited, offers guided trips through Guadalupe and Beyond Fly Fishing Adventures (877-898-7688).


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Distress Signal

tower illustration

Distress Signal

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
November 2001

How San Antonio’s Clear Channel Communications is ruining radio in your town—and in the rest of the country.

IF YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD OF A SAN ANTONIO COMPANY called Clear Channel Communications, it’s because you aren’t listening. From its unlikely nerve center in south-central Texas, this once modest, family-run owner of a handful of radio and television stations has exploded into a media giant, dominating radio like no single entity ever has before. Unleashed by government deregulation in 1996, founder Lowry Mays shelled out billions for properties like Jacor Communications and Tom Hicks’s AMFM, formerly the biggest radio conglomerate in the country. Today one of every ten commercial radio stations in the United States belongs to Clear Channel—including six stations in Dallas-Fort Worth, eight stations in Houston, seven stations in San Antonio, six stations in Austin, six in El Paso—a total of more than 1,200 domestic channels in some 250 markets. Its closest rival, Cumulus Broadcasting, has 240 stations. (Texas Monthly’s parent company, Emmis Communications, owns 23 radio and 15 TV stations and is another of Clear Channel’s competitors.)

Clear Channel’s manic, multimedia shopping spree didn’t end there. Last year it also bought SFX Entertainment, which owns the majority of the outdoor amphitheaters in America, including the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater near San Antonio, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion near Houston, and a minority interest in the Smirnoff Music Centre (Starplex) in Dallas, as well as dozens of theaters and other performing venues. This instantly made the company’s subsidiary Clear Channel Entertainment the dominant concert promoter in the United States. And wait, there’s more: Clear Channel now has the second-largest number of billboards of any company in the United States, nineteen television stations, and nine hundred radio and TV Web sites. The company, which was founded in 1972, has doubled in size every eighteen months over the past five years.

All of this may sound like harmless, run-of-the-mill media giantism in the early twenty-first century. Unfortunately it’s not, especially the way the Mays family—Lowry and his sons, Mark and Randall, the company’s iron triangle—plays the game. In fact, they give new meaning to the phrase “control of the airwaves.” Their size and aggressiveness have given them unprecedented say not only over what you hear on the radio all over the country but in how music is sold, promoted, and performed. As the big guys on the block—who dictate programming at 1,200 stations—they are more responsible than anyone else for the cookie-cutter state of radio, where more and more stations sound the same, no matter where you go.

That may be good for business, but it almost certainly isn’t good for listeners. I love radio and its ability to be local, immediate, and mobile in a way that other media cannot. There is nothing more “local” in origin and impact than a hometown radio disc jockey or talk show host. But Clear Channel is changing that, bringing to the airwaves the hard, bottom-line logic of the fast-food franchise, and I don’t think it translates. Radio doesn’t need its own version of Wal-Mart. A listener in Tampa doesn’t necessarily want to hear the same oldies that are popular with listeners in Seattle, nor are classic rock, news talk, modern rock, or hot country all the same coast to coast.

Clear Channel doesn’t see it that way. In place of local hosts, the company is syndicating personalities such as Bob and Tom on their classic-rock properties or Kidd Kraddick on contemporary-hits stations they own in Texas and in other states. Some of these choices have been dictated by the company’s acquisitions. To achieve “synergy” from its purchase of Premiere Radio Networks, Clear Channel needs to employ the syndicated radio personalities that came along with it. A perfect example is Clear Channel’s hometown flagship station, WOAI-AM, which has altered its news-talk format by replacing locally hosted talk programs with the syndicated Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, Phil Hendrie, and Art Bell, all of whom were part of Premiere Networks. That may have improved the station’s efficiency and affirmed Clear Channel’s synergy, but it has compromised WOAI’s ability to function as a true voice of its community.

Another practice that sacrifices local content to national business considerations is Clear Channel’s cross-promotion of radio and its entertainment properties. Traditionally concert promoters have worked with radio stations to promote events through giveaways and plugs that go beyond traditional advertising, a practice that benefits not only the stations and the concert halls but also the music acts. Clear Channel has made this arrangement proprietary: Its radio stations give priority to Clear Channel Entertainment-promoted concerts over non-Clear Channel ventures.

This has prompted a number of complaints by competitors in both radio and the concert business. Though many of the detractors have declined to voice publicly their dissatisfaction lest they offend Clear Channel, one Denver concert promoter, Nobody In Particular Presents, has gone to court accusing the San Antonio company of monopolistic and predatory practices by preventing the promoter from hiring touring musicians. They say that some of those musicians fear losing airplay on Clear Channel radio stations if they don’t work with Clear Channel Entertainment concert promoters. The company denies these allegations. One independent concert promoter says he’s found it almost impossible to work out promotion arrangements with Clear Channel radio stations because of Clear Channel’s policy. Sometimes the company takes this practice to absurd lengths: It once hyped a Michael Bolton show on a modern-rock station even though it likely hurt the station’s credibility with its audience.

Competitors who try to subvert Clear Channel’s control end up paying a price. A Washington, D.C., radio station that bought $3,000 worth of tickets for a Wango Tango concert in Los Angeles to give away to listeners was hit with a lawsuit by the concert’s promoter—Clear Channel Entertainment, of course—claiming that only Clear Channel stations could give away tickets to concerts it promotes, no matter where they are.

The way Clear Channel makes its will known to its far-flung holdings became apparent in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack. In the week following the disaster, corporate headquarters circulated a list of songs it felt would not be suitable for airplay. Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” or AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” were predictable choices. But other songs on the list, such as John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and anything by Rage Against the Machine makes one wonder what their programmers have been drinking. According to Mark Mays, Clear Channel’s president and chief operating officer, Clear Channel did not dictate such playlists to its stations. “As always, programming decisions are made locally by each station manager and program director,” he says.

Meanwhile, ticket prices for concerts—an industry in which Clear Channel Entertainment now controls about half of the business in the U.S.—are at an all-time high. I realize the company has to justify the inflated price it paid for SFX, but when consumers have to subsidize it with $7 service charges added on to each ticket purchased or $4 for a twelve-ounce bottle of water—as was the case this summer at the new Verizon Wireless Amphitheater—something is wrong with the picture. No wonder overall concert revenues were down 12 percent earlier this year at concerts by the top fifty touring acts, according to Pollstar magazine.

Mays says the criticism about Clear Channel is coming largely from disgruntled rivals who can no longer compete. “No one likes change,” he says in an interview at Clear Channel’s cool, casual corporate headquarters in the Quarry Market area in San Antonio. “How would you like to be the Z102 guy who gets fired because he’s being replaced by Bob and Tom? It is our responsibility to provide compelling programming to our listeners, and that requires change—which is always difficult.” Mays insists that Clear Channel is practicing good business and not playing out of bounds. The number of stations Clear Channel owns isn’t the issue, Mays contends, so much as the diversity of what is heard over the airwaves. He is emphatic in his belief that Clear Channel promotes more, not less, variety in radio programming. And Clear Channel is delivering the goods so effectively, he says, that those eating its dust are not happy about it.

“There is no question in my mind that the consolidation has increased the diversity of programming,” Mays says. “If we were a stand-alone operation, we would not be able to operate in the diverse number of formats that we do today.” Clear Channel’s success, he explains, is based on running each of its divisions as a separate entrepreneurial business unit under a centralized financial management umbrella. “We have created a platform that is very unique and very different for the business we’re in—operating like a little company with big resources.” He says his stations have plenty of autonomy. The lawsuits, Mays says, are just part of doing business. “Because of our ability to compete and be successful, someone is going to be upset about it.”

As much as I was impressed by my visit to Clear Channel’s offices—whose atmosphere suggests a small, successful family operation where the boss’s door is open to every employee—I still don’t buy Mays’s argument that the company’s approach is ultimately not bad for listeners. The bigness beyond the building is too hard to shake. The gargantuan scale of Mays’s “convergence, consolidation, and synergy” is on the verge of tipping that delicate balance between art and commerce that has characterized radio for the past half century. That is not a good thing. Since radio first came into existence, listeners have always had a clear option if they didn’t like what they heard: Change the channel. But what choice is there now, really, when everywhere I go it’s Bob and Tom?

[Texas Monthly]


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You Cheated

November 2002 coverYou Cheated

Austin Chronicle
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
November 8, 2002

There’s an inherent flaw to creating a Texas Top 40 using Billboard as the source: Billboard didn’t (and still doesn’t) have a clue. According to Billboard, Mouse & the Traps, the Tyler, Texas, band that paid homage to Bob Dylan with “Public Execution,” later immortalized on the Nuggets punk retrospective, didn’t even exist. In Austin, Ray Campi’s “Caterpillar,” the Slades’ “You Cheated,” and Roky Erickson’s first band the 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” also acknowledged on Nuggets, Vol. 1, were all radio hits. The Moving Sidewalks, Billy Gibbons’ first band, garnered loads of Houston AM radio airplay with their psychedelic single, “99th Floor,” alongside the Elevators and Fever Tree’s “San Francisco Girls.” Rene & Rene’s bilingual belly-rubber “Believe Me” got so much South Texas airplay that they were radio gods. So, my Texas Top 40 is offered with considerable hesitation. You may think Christopher Cross was somebody because Billboard recognized “Ride Like the Wind” and “Sailing.” I find another local San Antonio chart-topper, Sonny Ace y Los Twisters, who was doing Rock en Español before there was a name for it back in the mid-Sixties, far more significant, not to mention spiritually nourishing. Any chart that doesn’t have room for Jimmy Dee’s “Henrietta,” the Triumphs’ “Garner State Park” (before B.J. Thomas went solo), Bruce Channel’s follow-up to “Hey Baby” — “Going Back to Louisiana” — isn’t really an accurate barometer at all.

[You Cheated in the Austin Chroncicle]


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West Side Horns

West Side Horns West Side Horns

Austin Chronicle
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
September 13, 2002

San Quilmas (Dialtone Records)

Within the first few bars of “Rainbow Riot,” the opening track of the West Side Horns’ San Quilmas, three great revelations came to me while getting reacquainted with the honey-dripping saxophones of Eracleo (Rocky) Morales, Spot Barnett, and Louis Bustos blending with Al Gomez’ trumpet, Jack Barber’s swinging bass, and Arturo (Sauce) Gonzalez’s fat Hammond B-3 chops: 1.) Doug Sahm lives! The Horns defined Doug’s puro San Antonio pachuco soul, and you can hear it right here. 2.) San Antonio Express-News music critic Jim Beal was right on comparing the West Side Horns to the Memphis Horns, and the reggae rhythms of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. They’re that good, and that distinctive; worthy of the North Texas tenor tradition, articulated by Buster Smith and carried by David “Fathead” Newman, and the Honker & Shouter school, defined by Arnett Cobb and still practiced by Grady Gaines. The West Side Horns sound like San Antonio should, with roots firmly planted in the R&B and swing traditions of Aaron (T-Bone) Walker and Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown in particular, with a jalapeño con Big Red afterburn. 3.) They’re pretty great taken on their own terms, especially with the added presence of Johnny Moeller on guitar and his brother Jay on drums. They traffic in a bluesy instrumental jazz-funk, where lead breaks are economical, short, and to the point, and all ears are first and foremost locked on the rhythm. Sort of like those other all-stars from Memphis, Booker T. & the MGs, if they’d grown up on El West Side: an obscure Freddy King instrumental (“High Rise”) here, Joe Zawinul there (“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”), and like-sounding originals (“Hit’ N the Jug”) sprinkled in. Thrice the formula is broken, when Morales vocalizes (quite well) in an earthy voice, recalling in verse and timbre the great Jimmy Reed, one of the first black bluesmen to find favor among white audiences in the south and Texas in the late Fifties and early Sixties (he influenced Delbert McClinton, Steve Miller, Augie Meyers, and Dusty Hill among others). Ever since he single-handedly revived the career of Freddy Fender with his searing solo on Sahm’s version of “Wasted Days, Wasted Nights” more than 30 years ago, I’ve regarded Morales as the one of the best, if not my very favorite, horn player in the state. His sendup of Reed seals the deal, because he’s got Jimmy, trashed-out and drawling, down cold. Rocky Morales is beyond cool. Rocky is hep. But on this recording, he’s only among equals, because he stands next to Spot Barnett, the house band leader at the Ebony Club on San Antonio’s east side, and the object of admiration of all three horns in the West Side Horns as teenagers as well as Doug. (“I used to want to be a pimp like Spot,” Sahm told me almost three decades back.) Barnett came out of retirement at Sir Doug’s behest in the mid-Nineties and has stuck around, his seasoned honks providing the anchor for the horns in more ways than one. In that respect, San Quilmas is really a piece of history, a continuum of Doug, T-Bone, Gatemouth, Freddy, Clifford Scott, and all the other arbiters of Texas jump blues pumped into the corpuscles of SA vatos. The breadth of their repertoire, always coolly danceable, and a pedigree of those they quote from underscore a greater, bittersweet truth that when the Horns finally hang it up, this kind of sound will be gone for good. Hear it while you can. It’s the sound of roadhouses and jukes, dancing to the music so hard you can feel the whole joint shake. And while you’re at it, you might want to work on those dance steps, too.

[More About West Side Horns] [order from Dialtone Records] [this review in the Austin Chronicle]


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Water Foul

Caddo Lake
It’s not just for the birds. An egret hunts on the surface of the lake.

Water Foul

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 2002

To the city of Marshall, Caddo Lake is a profit center, a reservoir from which millions of gallons can be pumped each day and put up for sale. To the people of Uncertain, Karnack, and other communities nearby, it’s an ecological jewel, a symbol of our natural heritage – and depleting it for a few quick bucks is an unforgivable affront to nature.

On a blazing hot morning in June, I got lost paddling a kayak in the swampy backwaters of Caddo Lake. This is not a difficult thing to do. The greenish-brown water is so dense that you can’t see the bottom. The surface is covered with an iridescent lime-green coating of duckweed and water lilies. The shoreline is barely discernible, and any view beyond is blotted out by an impenetrable thicket of sweet gum, ash, pine, oak, and tupelo. The heavy, dank stillness that’s a defining feature of these parts only adds to the disorienting sense that you’ve entered another world. Earlier in the day, when the British-born president of the local chamber of commerce told me with a straight face that she wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see a dinosaur rise up out of the murk, I found myself nodding in agreement.

Eventually, five men in a spacious pontoon boat pulled up alongside me and offered me a lift. When I saw the ice chest full of beer, sodas, and water, I hopped aboard; typical Caddo Lake hospitality, I thought. But then I found out that they had set out to find me-that they knew who I was and why I had come to this remote area of northeast Texas. I was curious about news reports of an impending threat to the wellbeing of the lake, which is the only naturally formed lake in the state and the biggest in the South. The City of Marshall, with the state’s blessing, planned to capture water from Big Cypress Bayou, the primary source of Caddo, and sell it to a willing buyer. Those plans had been thwarted by the “lake people,” an unlikely coalition of bubbas in overalls, urban dropouts, and other novice ecowarriors, but only temporarily. The threat was still real, and that’s what the men in the boat wanted to show me.

At the helm was Ken Shaw, a retired manager at International Paper who lives on the lake and sits on the board of the Cypress Valley Navigation District, which maintains the markers that show the way through the network of sloughs and keeps them open. Riding shotgun was Jack Canson, a public relations consultant who spent several decades in Austin and Los Angeles before coming home to Marshall. His boyhood buddy taking photographs from the boat’s bow, Ron Munden, had recently moved back to Marshall after living in Northern California, where he designed software for the Navy. Next to Munden was Barry Benniek, a Houston native who runs the Pine Needle Lodge on the lake’s isolated northwestern shore. Manning the binoculars was Tom Walker, who grew up near the western shore and now works as a librarian at Texas State Technical College’s Marshall campus. As we puttered along in a shallow part of the lake, Walker pointed out places with colorful names Whangdoodle Pass, Death Hole, Old Folks Playground-and Shaw engaged his depth finder, calling out readings: “Four feet. Four feet. Five feet. Six feet. Four feet.” At Kitchens Creek, we cruised past two john-boats occupied by elderly black fishermen picking up bream. “By summer’s end,” Shaw said, “most of these routes will be impassable.”

Shady Glade Marina, Uncertain
A pier at Shady Glade Marina in Uncertain.

They’ll all be impassable, the men told me, if Marshall prevails. In addition to the 5 to 7 million gallons that it already draws out of the bayou daily for residential use, the city of 23,000 can, according to the permit approved by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC), pipe out several million more gallons each day and sell them, even in drought conditions. Only when Caddo drops seven and a half feet below the spillway at Mooringsport, Louisiana, would an “emergency situation” be declared, at which point any water taken would have to be replaced. “By that time,” Bennick explained, “there’ll be no lake left.”

“Or alligators,” Walker chimed in. “Or snapping turtles. Or fish.”

If this has a familiar ring, it should. Across Texas, the war over water is all anyone wants to talk about these days. In El Paso and the Panhandle, water marketers like developer Woody Hunt and corporate raider Boone Pickens are plotting ways to move the suddenly precious commodity from rural areas to thirsty cities. In San Antonio golf course developments and booming bedroom communities are competing with recreational interests and small towns to the north for water from Canyon Lake and the Guadalupe River. Along the border, farmers are squabbling with their counterparts in the Mexican state of Chihuahua for their fair share of water from the Rio Grande Basin. And on and on. Court dockets are backlogged with water-related suits (you might say they’re waterlogged). Candidates for high office speechify about the problem but offer no real solutions. Lobbyists stuff their pockets in anticipation of a legislative session in which water will be on the agenda yet again, one of the most serious long-term issues facing Texas and Texans.

At first glance, the Caddo conflagration looks a lot like the others. In the eyes of the state, it’s not so much an ecological jewel or a symbol of our natural heritage as a reservoir, a storage facility that can be drained at will. That mind-set explains why, although the lake belongs to all Texans, it’s perfectly legal for a city like Marshall to profit from it. But in fact, there are two things that distinguish this fight. One is the involvement of folks with pockets deep enough to make the playing field level. Chief among them is Don Henley, the drummer for the rock and roll band the Eagles, who was raised nearby, in Linden. In the past decade Henley has donated more than $1.6 million to the Caddo Lake Institute, a nascent research and educational facility, partly to pay legal fees associated with court fights on behalf of Caddo. You may remember that a few years back, Henley’s passion was saving Walden Pond, the Massachusetts stomping ground of Henry David Thoreau, from the clutches of developers. Well, his latest cause celebrity is Caddo, where he caught his first fish as a boy.

The other thing is that the locals have decided, to borrow a phrase, that they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore-a point that was brought home to me after a couple of hours on the lake, when the pontoon boat docked by the grocery in the tiny town of Uncertain. Behind the counter was Betty Holder, Uncertain’s mayor, who greeted each of us with a very certain hug. The diminutive Miss Betty, an area resident for thirty years, reiterated Shaw’s calculation of how much Caddo can stand to lose. “They’ll leave us with nothing but a mud hole,” she said. “People can’t imagine Marshall being so simpleminded. The only good thing coming out of there is Highway 43.”

Betty Holder
Betty Holder, the mayor of Uncertain.

Her feistiness turned to elegance when she spoke of the lake. “We have something here. We didn’t buy it. We didn’t make it. The good Lord gave it to us. We’re just trying to take care of it, and we won’t give up. We’re going to win. When people around here band together, we pull in the same direction.”

ONCE YOU’VE SET EYES ON CADDO LAKE, IT’S DIFFICULT NOT TO GET emotional about it one way or another. No other body of water in Texas remotely resembles it. If you stand on its banks, which are lined with stately bald cypresses draped with Spanish moss, and gaze on the still water, you’ll either scream, turn around, and never come back again or you’ll get hooked for life.

By day, distant culls of Acadian flycatchers, northern parula, Prothonotary warblers, and cardinals echo through the forest along with the buzz and hum and splish and splash of the natural world, and you might spy a yellow-crowned night heron plucking its breakfast out of the water or a great blue heron lumbering in flight above the canopy like a pterodactyl. By night, bullfrogs work themselves into a whooping frenzy, almost drowning out the whir of crickets and locusts and the occasional hoot of barred owls. In the summer Neotropical songbirds are drawn to the lake; in the winter it’s wood ducks and bald eagles. Year-round, alligators, snakes, and lizards thrive here. “Remember the year when people were wondering where all of the frogs had gone?” Bennick once asked me. “We knew where they were.”

The ethereal, primordial lake of today wasn’t always thus. When the Caddoan people, a relatively sophisticated civilization that embraced farming and a highly organized, complex society. set down roots in the area 10,000 years ago, it was just a rivet No one knows for sure when the lake was formed. Indian lore speaks of a big shake from the Great Spirit, implicating the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. It could just as well have been the Great Red River Raft, an eighty- to one-hundred-fifty-mile logjam of red cedar, cottonwood, and cypress so thick that you could literally walk across it. By 1856, the raft had backed up to the Big Cypress Bayou tributary, effectively creating Caddo Lake and making the upstream town of Jefferson Texas’ main riverport. The lake became permanent when a dam was built at its eastern end in Mooringsport, south of Shreveport, in 1914.

Ever since there was a Caddo Lake, hunting and fishing have been popular, but its recreational potential wasn’t fully realized until the state’s oldest continually operated hunting and fishing club, the Dallas Caddo Club, was established in 1906 on its southern shores. A flyin fishing resort even operated briefly in Uncertain, which was incorporated in 1961 to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages. But Caddo’s popularity had already peaked; over time, jet-skiers, cigarette boats, and the high-dollar bass-fishing crowd were lured to the wider-open waters of new lakes like Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, and Lake 0′ the Pines. Promoters continued to hatch big ideas for Caddo, the last a half-cocked attempt ten years ago to build a barge canal. Otherwise, the lake is about as off the beaten path as you can get. In 1993 the Nature Conservancy purchased seven thousand acres on the northern banks of the lake and turned them over to Texas Parks and Wildlife, which designated them a wildlife management area.

Ed Smith
Ed Smith, the mayor of Marshall.

Most visitors today frequent the state park or the fifty or so bed-and-breakfasts around Uncertain and the neighboring town of Karnack, the birthplace of Lady Bird Johnson. They may drop a line or dip a paddle, but mostly they come to sit and contemplate in one of the most picturesque spots in Texas.

“I INHERITED THIS PROBLEM,” ED SMITH SAYS WITH A LONG SIGH. The affable mayor of Marshall, who runs a petroleum exploration company when he’s not doing the public’s business, is a fourth generation local for whom fishing in Caddo is a treasured boyhood memory. But the problem he’s referring to isn’t the city’s plans. It’s the behavior of the lake people. “I tried to work with them,” he says. “I hope the ability to reason has not gone out the window.”

As far as Smith and the city were concerned, the deal was going to be a no-brainer, an economic-development project that required little more than moving water in exchange for a big, fat check. The potential buyer came on line a year and a half ago: New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation, which needed water to cool its power plant under construction near Marshall and was willing to pay $600,000 for it annually. But immediately the lake coalition attacked the deal. First it demanded a guarantee from Marshall that any water taken from Caddo during dry spells would be replaced with water from Lake 0′ the Pines. Marshall officials agreed in principle but disagreed about who would determine when water replacement should start. Then the coalition attempted to contest Marshall’s permit or, at the very least, bring the matter before a public hearing. The TNRCC shut them down on both counts-a decision that drew fire in a rare public fashion from Parks and Wildlife, who warned that drawing down lake levels would result in a severe loss of habitat in the adjacent wildlife management area. The back and forth continued until May, when Entergy executives decided they’d had enough, pulled out of the agreement with Marshall, and resolved to buy the city of Longview’s treated wastewater instead. (Even though Entergy is out of the picture, the Caddo coalition is now contesting the permit in a Travis County court.)

The turn of events greatly pleased Henley, who has been back in East Texas over the past few months tending a sick relative. “There are too many people interested in using up the lake’s resources without fully understanding, or caring about, the health of the ecosystem,” he wrote me in an e-mail. “They just take and take without putting anything back. Fortunately, true stewardship traditions exist within the lake communities. We decided to make significant investments in those communities to help them move beyond the meaningless lip service of those who say they love Caddo Lake but do nothing about the risks to it. We wanted to give the people who truly care the means to take action-to make reasonable demands on the state and federal agencies that should be intervening to reverse the lake’s decline.”

That wish is seconded by Dallas oilman Albert Huddleston, whose political leanings, it should be noted, are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Henley’s. A longtime contributor to Governor Rick Perry’s campaigns, Huddleston has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into defending Caddo Lake. “I believe in both economic prosperity and environmental awareness,” Huddleston told me by telephone from Peru, just hours after he’d climbed down from Machu Picchu, “but sucking water out of Caddo Lake and destroying that fragile ecosystem is no different than sticking a pipe in the Alamo and selling it brick by brick.”

Albert Huddleston
Albert Huddleston has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into defending Caddo Lake.

Henley’s and Huddleston’s money has bought, among other things, the expertise of Dwight Shellman, who is the founding director of the Caddo Lake Institute. Henley met the slight, 68-year-old attorney in the late eighties in Shellman’s hometown of Aspen, Colorado, where he had a reputation for bringing together apolitical factions of the community to beat back excessive urban expansion. The rock star thought Caddo could use a guy like Shellman and paid his way to Texas, where his first act, in 1993, was to negotiate the lake’s designation as a Ramsar site, the thirteenth wetlands in the U.S. said to be internationally important according to criteria adopted at a global ecological convention in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971.

At Shellman’s behest, the institute initially focused on education, developing wetlands science programs for the Marshall public schools as well as East Texas Baptist University and Wiley College, also in Marshall. He made headway with the colleges, using the resources of their science and biology departments for research. But the public school program was scuttled in 1998 after an instructor on a field trip realized that Marshall’s sewer main was on the verge of collapse. Instead of being rewarded for reporting her discovery to the city, she was reprimanded, and eventually she resigned and moved elsewhere to teach. “I realized then that the environmental education of teachers and students in a place like Caddo Lake was a poor investment because these were people who were ready to leave town,” Shellman says. It was then that he shifted the institute’s focus to promoting activism within the lake communities. “The people closest to the landscape are the ones who have the greatest awareness,” he says. He set out to find common ground among the institute, the Caddo Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, the Greater Caddo Lake Association, and the town of Uncertain and held meetings, under the fancy, official-sounding name of the Caddo Lake Ramsar Wetlands Clearinghouse, at which the locals were taught how to play the game. Judging by the outcome of the Entergy deal, it worked, and the lake people are grateful. “Dwight is a real sweetheart,” coos Robin

Holder, a burly, bearded lake guide who is married to Uncertain’s mayor.

The mayor of Marshall, not surprisingly, has a less charitable view of Shellman’s efforts. As much as Ed Smith says serenely that the city may simply find another buyer for the water, his displeasure with the other side shows. “It’s not about the power plant anymore,” Smith says. “Sometimes I think they’d like to see the bayou as a national park or a wildlife refuge. You have to question if their aim is to get Marshall out of it altogether.”

On muggy Tuesday night in August, about seventy people are congregated inside the community center in Karnack, just down the road from Uncertain, for a clearinghouse meeting. It’s TMDL Night, as in total maximum daily loads, the maximum tolerance levels of air and water pollution as allowed by the state. For three hours, the talk focuses on nutrient loads, dissolved oxygen solids, and airborne mercury contamination. Shellman, who moderates the discussion, explains that if the TNRCC would formally establish a TMDL limit for the lake, it might prevent even more pollution and maybe even speed up the lake’s recovery. But for that to happen, the TNRCC has to designate Caddo as a high priority, rather than its current medium ranking, and the Legislature would have to fund a TMDL program. The process is simple, he says. “You determine what’s contributing to the problem, find the total load, and then find the rate that it’s deposited. The goal is to restrict input from the source.” Translation: You figure out who’s polluting the lake and get them to stop.

Presentations made in the Karnack ball by Roy Darville, the chairman of the biology department at East Texas Baptist, and Henry Bradbury, a freelance environmental manager in Dallas, both members of the clearinghouse’s scientific advisory board, underscore the lake’s failing health. Five years of water-quality data indicate a severe loss of oxygen, in an area that already has a high level of acid rain-thanks to coal-fired power plants in East Texas-and the presence of mercury contamination throughout the Cypress River Basin’s food chain at levels high enough to warn pregnant women and infants against eating fish caught in the lake.

The responsibility for combating those problems, Shellman tells the group, rests with them. They appear to be happy to step up. Armed with scientific data, fluent in regulatory legalese, they discuss existing power plants in East Texas that are already polluting, how to build alliances with people on the Louisiana side of Caddo (one third of the lake’s 25,000 acres are over the border), how to make a formal presentation to the city of Marshall, and how to beef up Caddo tourism-for instance, qualifying it for a “Keep Texas Wild” specialty license plate, which at the moment features only bluebonnets and the horny toad.

The message is clear: It’s their show, not Shellman’s, Henley’s, or anyone else’s. “I’ve learned that these citizens don’t normally participate in the political process,” Shellman says. “They’re like most Texans who own property. They want to live within their boundaries and be left alone. But if you rile them up, watch out.”


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Undammed and Unforgiving

Dolan Falls - The Devils River
Dolan Falls at dusk. Photograph by Wyman Meinzer

Undammed and Unforgiving

Texas Parks & Wildlife
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 2002
Photography by Wyman Meinzer

You know how songs get stuck in your head?

There’s one written by the great Texas composer Billy Joe Shaver called “The Devil Made Me Do It the First Time” that wouldn’t go away while I was on the Devils River. The diablo connection was probably how it burrowed into my brain in the first place, but the story line was the gnawing part. The singer blames all his troubles on Satan the first time around, but says “The second time I did it on my own.”

Billy Joe had the river and me down cold.

My first time down the Devils was easy to explain. I’d only been hearing about it for the past 30 years. It was the great, lost Hill Country river, a spring-fed jewel on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau, running swift and fast through that vague badlands where Tamaulipan scrub — also known as South Texas brush country — fades into the Chihuahuan Desert, from somewhere between Ozona and Sonora down to just above Del Rio, where it dissolves into Lake Amistad. Its almost-Caribbean hue was striking, as pretty pale as a summer sky. The translucent water brimmed with smallmouth bass you could follow with your eyes, the clarity was so sharp.

The Devils lives up to its name. It is almost impossible to see, landlocked by sprawling ranches whose owners have been known to vigorously file trespassing charges and sometimes take even more extreme measures to discourage river use by outsiders. It is wild, empty country. Spotting wild turkeys is easier than spotting another human. Doing most of the floatable part of the river takes two days, requiring 15 miles of paddling on one stretch. There is no room for accidents. Rescues are out of the question. Once you get on, there is no turning back.

When I moved near the Blanco, a river that has become sacred in my life, the Devils always loomed. Half the time I’d talk to people about “my” river, the Devils came up, usually in the context of local river folks pointing out that the Blanco is the second-cleanest river in Texas.

“And what might be the cleanest?” I’d inevitably ask, never challenging the veracity of the claim.

The Devils.

My love of the Blanco, that “cleanest” superlative, and a developing obsession in paddling down rivers, beginning in an inflatable Sevylor and presently in a Yahoo sit-on-top kayak, led to the conclusion that if I really wanted to know what everyone was talking about, I’d have to get on the Devils.

That was easier said than done. Not only is the river in a very remote, lightly populated part of the state, the environment is particularly harsh, and the flow tenuous at best. It is reputed to be a homewrecker and heartbreaker that could tear lifelong friendships asunder. Too hot to run in the summer, and too cold to endure in the winter, it is best attempted in fall or spring. If one could get on the river at all, that is.

Map - The Devils River

In a state where property owners have historically clashed with recreational river users, the Devils is arguably the most hostile. “You didn’t just risk getting shot, you might be held under fire for six hours,” one retired boater claimed, in relating what happened to him 20 years ago shortly after he put in at Baker’s Crossing and got separated from his canoe. Even touching the bank can get one arrested for trespassing. Ranchers like to invoke the Spanish Land Grant version of property rights, which accords ownership of a river to include its bottom.

Until 1988, paddling was downright impossible if you couldn’t do 25 miles in a single day. That’s the year the Finegans sold the Dolan Creek Ranch to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which designated the land as a state natural area with virtually no park infrastructure. That made it possible to run the upper 15.5-mile part of Devils from Baker’s Crossing — still a physically exhausting challenge — and legally pull out to sleep, then do 9.5 miles to the takeout, where fishing guide Gerald Bailey operates a shuttle service.

I managed to complete the run in two days, but only after hours of pulling my boat over shallow stretches, getting lost in jungles of river cane, running aground on the coarse, exceptionally abrasive limestone lurking just below the water’s surface, and paddling into relentless headwinds that kicked up waves in my face. Heeding the retired boater’s advice, on the few occasions I actually did touch a bank, it was of an island in the middle of the river. I felt a sense of satisfaction completing the journey, even while I was convinced I’d joined the silent majority whose first time on the Devils was their last. Maybe I’d run it again, I told myself, but only after an extended period of heavy rain, when the Pafford gauge was reading at least 500 cubic feet per second, twice the normal flow.

Less than six months later, I went back on my word. Somehow, my memory had erased all the nightmarish particulars of the first trip. I forgot sleeping for 12 hours straight at the end of the first day’s paddle because I was too exhausted to do anything else.

That’s the only excuse I can offer for returning to Baker’s Crossing in early March to do it again. This time, the flow is the same, give or take 20 cfs, from the previous October. And if conditions aren’t ideal, the one thing I recall from the first trip was, there is no such thing as an ideal day on the Devils. You work with what you get. At least overnight temperatures aren’t dropping into the teens, as they had two days earlier. Even Mary Hughey is reassuring. “The Devils River and kayakers get along just fine,” she tells me as she collects the camping fee from Joe Hauer and me at Baker’s Crossing. Canoes might drag the whole 15 miles down to the state natural area. But not shallow-drafting kayaks.

Hughey is the matron at Baker’s Crossing, the owner of the two-story mansion set by the banks of the tree-lined river and the surrounding campgrounds. A sweet lady who is training her 2-year-old grandson, Casey, for a career in the hospitality industry, she makes it plain to each and every boater camping out to be on the river by nine in the morning, or she’ll make darn sure they will. She gets enough heat from landowners downstream for letting people on to the river in the first place, she says, and she doesn’t need any more grief.

She also raises a warning flag. While talking about lack of rain, a common topic of conversation west of the 98th meridian, I mention the 10-year drought.

“Ten years?” she says. “It’s more like a 30-year drought. The river hasn’t really run since the ’70s.” She isn’t kidding. Thirty years ago, the headwaters of the Devils were generally recognized as being near Juno, 10 miles up the highway. These days, it barely holds a flow at Baker’s, though there is enough moving water to lull me to sleep the instant I climb into my sleeping bag.

We are on the river before eight the following morning, and reality rears its ugly head within 10 minutes, when the little riffle I ride disappears in a pool of gravel. Scrunch. I get up and pull; the first of more drags than I care to count. Somewhere in that first hour, I check the new seat I’d hooked onto my boat for back support and realize the zip pocket behind the seat is not watertight, but in fact self-baling. The topo maps I’d downloaded have turned to mush. I’ve left my river guidebooks in the car.

My first trip in October was with David Hollingsworth, who’d run the Devils before and brought along his GPS to pinpoint our location. This time, I am the experienced one, and now I have nothing — no map, no printed material, no help, since only a handful of people live along the river — nothing but my obviously defective memory. I calm down by reminding myself I’ve done this before. It is only two days. Heck, I could go without water for that long if I really had to. And we had plenty of water, trail mix and nutrition bars stuffed into our drybags. I decide doing it without any navigational aid would be liberating, with the understanding that mistakes would be unforgiven.

Hauer doesn’t believe me when I tell him it will take the full day to get down to the state natural area. Like me on any first time on a river, he keeps thinking the takeout is just around the next bend.

“Patience,” I counsel.

As long as I maintain a steady stroke, I can savor the sweet bliss of floating through a genuine wilderness practically devoid of power lines, roads or human presence — save for the occasional hunting shack. In Texas, no less. The views are sublime: a flock of mallards skittering off the water, coots diving, a killdeer swooping just above the water line, hawks surfing thermals high above, a great blue heron lumbering out of the river cane. A bass spooks from under a shallow shelf, tail flopping above the surface, startled by my intrusion. On almost every cliff overlooking the water, I see caves and overhangs, the types that provided nomadic people over the previous 6,ooo years with shelter and access to the other basic necessities of water and food nearby. There are more pictographs in the Devils, Pecos and Rio Grande watersheds than anywhere else on earth, save for the south of France.

Rushing Water - The Devils River
Rushing water on the Devils. Photograph by Wyman Meinzer

My soundtrack is the steady splish-splish of every stroke, accompanied by distant squawks, chirps and screes, the occasional soft flutter of flapping wings, the intermittent whooshes of wind, and that Billy Joe Shaver song. It is a splendid river. More than once, I find myself on a tight rapid or in a gin-clear pool shaded by nearby groves of pecans and oaks, thinking I was back on the Blanco, more than 200 miles east. The cliffs, the outcroppings and the massive limestone the river cuts through brought Big Bend closer than it really is. Life is distilled to the sweet essence of river, land and sky. But I cannot get lost in the moment. After all, this is the Devils. You never know when the water will run out, or where the next crusty rock is crouching just under the surface, ready to snag an unwary boat. On some rocks, I recognize the distinctive blue streaks of my kayak, skid mark souvenirs from my first trip.

It is not difficult to focus on the dry, desiccated landscape and imagine something that during a much wetter period resembled the Hill Country. The first European to note the Devils’ existence, the Spaniard Gaspar Casta–o de Sosa, was not exactly impressed. He named it the Laxas, which translates as “feeble” or “slack.” Explorers and travelers who followed him held it in higher regard, naming it the San Pedro, and often lingering longer than planned, since it was the last rest stop before striking out west across the desert. St. Pete struck Texas Ranger Jack Hays as an uninspired name for the river when he came upon it in the 1840s, before he moved on to California. He reckoned the Devils would be a more suitable title. A military camp had been established on the river after the Mexican War. Another Texas Ranger, Capt. Pat Dolan, arrived to clear the region of outlaws in 1870, early enough to have his name attached to the falls.

That made it safe for E.K. Fawcett who, along with a group of friends, left his mark inside a cave above Dolan Falls on July 24, 1883. As the Devils’ first settler, Fawcett started grazing sheep by the falls, and others followed with goats and cattle. Eventually the grasses in the watershed were worn down to the nub, leaving rocks, prickly pear, cedar, mesquite and the occasional lechuguilla. The browsing down explained why I heard but a single calf on the trip. Not much is left for today’s livestock to eat.

Gary Garrett, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist who has studied the Devils extensively, confirms that the river is relatively unpolluted and undammed – less than 2 percent of all American rivers remain free of such impoundments, and the upper part of the Devils is the only free-running river left in Texas – and one of the most pristine in the southwestern United States. But he also makes clear that, like every river in Texas, the Devils has been impacted plenty. Its flow has declined steadily. Chloride, phosphate, cadmium, lead and mercury have been found in concentrations high enough to be potentially dangerous for aquatic life and human health. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout, once native to the region, disappeared long ago. The smallmouth bass, which attracts fishermen from all over Texas, is an exotic introduced to the river and, with the cessation of the practice of stocking exotics in the Devils, the smallmouths are just holding on, making the practice of catch-and-release on the river crucial to their survival. Garrett suspects the smallmouth and other exotics, including carp, black bullhead and blue tilapia, maybe contributing to the threatened status 0f the native Devils River minnow.

But Garrett also gives me hope. “Stewardship is at a higher level here than on other Texas rivers, and property owners are utilizing TPWD resources to learn sound land and water management practices,” he says. The big ranches are staying big, thanks to attorneys and doctors who want to keep it that way, buying big chunks of real estate. The Nature Conservancy bought 10,000 acres within the watershed, including Dolan Falls in 1991, and has brokered sales of another 35,000 acres with conservation easements, meaning the land will remain undeveloped forever.

I arrive at the state natural area 15 minutes ahead of Hauer. Usually it’s the other way around. For all the exertion, we haven’t averaged even two miles an hour. Back home we could do twice that distance in less time. But we aren’t back home. We are on the Devils. And it has beaten us down bad. By the time Hauer crawls onto the rock shelf, he is declaring his fealty to the San Marcos River. Why come all this way to be brutalized? He is asleep before the sun goes down. I stay awake to watch the last light of day fade to dark while a couple of bats flutter erratically overhead. The last calls of a lonely mallard pierce the night. It is warm enough to sleep out without a tent, and cool enough to snuggle into a sleeping bag. I don’t care whether the wind whips up or if it drizzles before dawn. I am too wasted.

The second day begins with a short, less -than-a-mile paddle from the state natural area to the juncture where Dolan Creek, the most abundant of 32 tributaries, meets the Devils. The meager flow builds into a churning and hissing torrent, climaxing at Dolan Falls. Water gushes through four chutes carved from solid rock, adorned with maidenhair fern. I’d seen a similar setting once before, at the Narrows on the Blanco. And like the Narrows, running one of those chutes likely would have terminal results. We scout and ponder, craning our necks, and decide to portage, following the metal arrows on the rocks on the left bank.

Dolan Creek’s recharge makes the last nine miles a pleasure. Rapids carry the boats instead of stopping them. Picking a path through the reeds becomes a game of chance. Pick the right chute and get easy passage. Pick wrong, get out and drag. I even find a couple of spots where I can point my boat upstream and surf.

Although we’ve seen a scattering of trailers and cabins, one two-story structure high on a ridge above the eastern bank that looks like a hotel or a resort is the first real sign of civilization, other than all the posted No Trespassing signs. It is tobacco lawyer John Eddie Williams’ Rio Vista Ranch, I later learn.

We find Gerald Bailey’s place with no problem. His hillside home is marked by a canoe jutting into the air. Gerald is out guiding a fishing trip, his wife tells us, but Don Kelley will be over in a minute to drive us back. Don, one of the few other full-time residents of the Blue Sage subdivision, used to be a hunter and a fisherman when he first visited the Devils, but since he moved to a house overlooking the river from a high bluff, he says he’s become a naturalist out of necessity. “You can’t do much of anything if you live here, other than be a screwaround, because it’s so remote and far away from everything,” he says while he ties down our boats and loads us into his Suburban.

I happily pay Kelley $150 to shuttle us back to Baker’s once I see what passes for roads on the Blue Sage subdivision and knowing the next takeout is another 20 miles downstream on a part of the river that is more like a dammed-up lake. It takes an hour to drive the 14 miles out to U.S. Highway 277, and almost another two hours back to either the natural area or Baker’s.

We talk about wild turkeys. I’ve seen more on the Devils than anywhere in my life. We talk about how rocks seem to hold heat in this part of Texas longer than anywhere else, how untamed the river gets when it does flood, and how the same landowners with the hostile reputations are actually protecting the river and the caves and pictographs by discouraging tourists. I marvel how I hadn’t seen a piece of trash anywhere on the entire trip.

We talk about rain, and how it almost never does in these parts.

Hauer figures he left at least $100 worth of his Perception’s bottom on the caustic limestone in the river. His first time on the Devils may be his last. Me, once again I swear on a stack of Bibles that I won’t do it again until there’s been a really, really big dump in its watershed, which may not happen again in my lifetime.

Then again, that’s what I said the last time around. Before Billy Joe Shaver started rumbling around in my head.

[More about Water]

[Additional information on river laws can be found on Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Website at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/texaswater/rivers]


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Two Towns Still Terrific

Union Station
Union Station and other transportation hubs in the nation’s capital reflect heightened precautions for passengers.

Two Towns Still Terrific

San Antonio Express-News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 28, 2002

A family’s summer trip to Washington and New York finds unexpected enrichment in the poignant aftermath of 9-11.

Common sense inspired our family’s summer vacation plan to go to New York and Washington, D.C. We’d thought about Europe, but our 12-year-old had never been to the nation’s capital and the 16-year-old was contemplating New York University. Four Rapid Rewards freebies on Southwest sealed the deal. We’d be doing our patriotic duty spending our money where it’s needed most, I’d joked, but 9-11 really wasn’t a motive. Or so I thought.

Since security has tightened around all airports, we arrived at San Antonio International a full two hours before departure on a Sunday morning. With long check in lines at curbside and the ticket counter and a thorough security check, we made it to the gate with fewer than 30 minutes to spare. We drove to D.C. in our rental car from Baltimore-Washington, got lost, and entered the district through Alexandria, navigating to our West End hotel, the Park Hyatt.

We walked back into Georgetown, then strolled toward the White House. Barricades a block away and a significant police presence were the first signs of stepped-up vigilance. Still, we were able to walk to the gate separating the White House from Lafayette Park. Along with us were a handful of tourists from Sweden and Japan, and we visited briefly with an anti-nuclear protestor who’d been at this very spot along with his partner for 30 years.

We woke up the next morning to a Code Red Day with which Tom Ridge had nothing to do. It was a bad-air day, so bad that schools in Virginia cancelled classes, but still nice enough to allow us to walk four blocks to the Metro, where I finally felt like a tourist. I thought I understood the directions to buying tickets from an automatic machine and using them in the turnstile, but a man in uniform materialized to show me what I’d done wrong.

Union Station
Jane Wooldrigde/Miami Herald

The boys picked up on it quick enough to get us on the right train to the Smithsonian. The Air & Space Museum was as great as I remembered it, once we cleared the security check of personal items at the entrance. The free admission made me proud to be an American, though I quickly learned how expensive “free” can be after the family watched a 20-minute show on the universe in the planetarium ($7 each) and the boys rode in a flight simulator ($12 each).

Kris snuck out to the Corcoran Art Museum, where we caught up to eat lunch. Then we all detoured to the Smithsonian’s “castle” head quarters, drawn by the ground-floor photo exhibit on the World Trade Center disaster, which kept us riveted.

By the museum’s 5:30 closing time, we were exhausted. Thankfully, the kids mastered the Metro ticket system well enough to get us to the hotel without assistance. The local and national TV news was buzzing with stories about Jose Padilla, the accused “dirty bomber,” along with graphic explanations of how many people would have been killed on the Washington Mall if a dirty bomb had exploded there. Evidently, a mock drill had been conducted several days before, so we were treated to video portrayals of bloody victims crawling around the same grassy lawn we’d just walked across. We shrugged.

We found our way to Adams Morgan, a loose, hip, multicultural neighborhood, unlike the government part of the district where we were staying, and ate Ethiopian, something hard to find in South Texas, enjoying the rich curried stews and the communal style of eating, but not the spongy bread that’s used like a spoon, in the tradition of tortillas or tostadas.

New York, still familiar

The five hour drive to the Big Apple the next day pretty much boiled down to paying tolls every 10 or 15 miles and stopping twice at rest areas on the New Jersey turnpike, the cleanest restrooms I’ve seen on a major highway in the country. One even had a Dickey’s Barbecue franchise from Dallas, though not many customers.

Finally, we spotted the New York skyline through the haze. All eyes focused on the south end of Manhattan Island, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to be. Not seeing them was like a missing tooth, or an amputated limb, but the skyline was still plenty stunning.

We descended into the Holland Tunnel to get to Manhattan. Despite the hundreds of other vehicles doing the same, my wife and I later admitted to one another we couldn’t help thinking of terrorists during the five-minute drive underneath the Hudson River. I felt a sense of relief leaving the tunnel, no matter how congested the Lower Manhattan rush hour traffic we drove into.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Southwest has one daily nonstop to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, about an hour drive from D.C., with shuttles and metro connections. We booked a Nissan Altima through Hotwire.com for a week at BWI for $270, including tax and additional driver fee.

Lodging: We booked a room for four at the Park Hyatt, 24th and M Street N.W., (202) 789-1234, through Expedia.com at a $149-plus tax rate. However, our room only had one bed. ‘Happens all the time with Expedia,’ the concierge explained. ‘You should always reconfirm with the hotel when booking online.’ The hotel graciously upgraded us to a junior suite, which runs $175 a night.

Dining: Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant 2434 18th St. N.W. (202) 462-4100. A communal meal for four, with drinks, was $60.

In New York: TKTS has half-price tickets to Broadway shows on sale at Duffy Square, the island at 47th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. The booth is open from 3 to 8 p.m. for evening performances, and 9 am. to 2 p.m. for Wednesday and Saturday matinees and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. Cash and traveler’s checks only.

  • John’s Original Brick Oven Pizza, 278 Bleeker St., between 6th and 7th, (212) 243-1680 Pies about $11 plus $2 for each topping. Cash only.
  • Wo Hop, 17 Mott St., (212) 267-2536, 24 hours, entrees $5-10. Excellent hot and sour soup.
  • Gray’s Papaya, 2090 Broadway at 72nd Street, 24 hours, 75-cent dogs.
  • Toys R Us, Broadway and 44th Street.
  • New York Subway One Day Fun Passes, $4; seven-day passes, $17.
  • Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, 161 W. 22nd St., (212) 366-9176, several shows nightly, $5-$7.

More information: Good general tourist information can be found online on www.nytourist.com and the visitor’s guide at washingtonpost.com.

It’s the same New York, I learned over the next four days, reconnecting with some of Kris’ and my old haunts. But it’s a new New York, too. I’d already seen the effects of Mayor Giuliani’s clean-up campaign over the past 10 years, but this time people really were nicer, happy to give directions to lost, clueless, out-of-towners, and more than once, after hearing me speak, asking where I was from.

The kids loved Times Square, especially the new Toys R Us at 44th and Broadway – the biggest toy store in the world, effectively haven stolen the thunder from the storied FAO Schwartz.

While hanging out at Virgin Records Superstore, right across from where MTV stages “TRL,” the 16-year-old noticed someone giving away tickets, and we managed to hustle seats for my wife and him, passing Jake off for 18, the minimum age to be in the audience. Since I’d already been before, I hung out with Andy

We saw “The Graduate” on Broadway, taking advantage of the TKTS half-price booth in the middle of Times Square, and witnessed the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy in a small venue in Chelsea. We spotted the Naked Cowboy, a local character in a cowboy hat, white underwear, boots, and guitar, entertaining tourists in the middle of traffic in the heart of Broadway. I contemplated taking advantage of the street hustler holding a sign that advertised, “Pick up lines, $1,’ and the kids bought bootleg Oakley sunglasses from an African man clutching a black trash bag on Fifth Avenue, right in front of Tiffany’s jewelers, two for $15.

We ate the best 75-cent hot dogs in the world at Gray’s Papaya on Broadway, “Nobody, but nobody serves a better frankfurter” and scarfed some mighty fine thin-crust pizza at John’s on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. We had very inexpensive, very authentic Chinese at the Wo Hop in Chinatown, and not so inexpensive Italian at Due Amici in Little Italy the night after mobster John Gotti died. My friend Joe Angio, editor of Time Out New York, a weekly guide to the city, later advised Little Italy is really just one big restaurant serving the same red sauce and pasta and that you have to go elsewhere for the good Italian.

We shopped at Canal Jeans, where I bought a Billie Holiday T-shirt for $2.50, heard and saw some wild stuff at the Museum of Broadcasting, and at the boys’ request, went to the world’s largest Pokeman store near Rockefeller Center. We went back to Times Square just to bask in all the lights.

At Andy’s suggestion, we went to the World Trade Center site, a quick subway ride downtown. We had to ask where to get off: at Chambers, on the E or the 1 or 2 train, or City Hall, on the N or R trains, since the World Trade Center stops listed on subway map no longer exists.

Sad feelings, good things

People directed us to the overlook at Broadway and Liberty Street. The site had officially been cleaned up 10 days earlier, but the crowds hadn’t stopped. We walked up the catwalk, adjacent to an 18th-century church cemetery. The ramp’s plywood walls were decorated with memorial posters, tributes, and messages from all over the world. From the overlook, 20 feet above the street, we viewed a vast, empty swath, with only a scattering of heavy equipment and workers milling about to interrupt the flat, abstract landscape.

No one said much. Kris and Andy took pictures. Mostly, we just looked. The same sad feeling that haunted me at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Day’s Inn in Corpus Christi came over me again: something very bad happened here, something fueled by hate.

We walked along the southern perimeter of the site to the World Financial Center, just west of the WTC. Around back, where the plaza faced the Hudson River, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty beyond, the composer Randy Newman was playing for free, just him and his piano. He was singing about his birthplace New Orleans and riding the train across Texas, reprising his song from the film, “Toy Story,” but making no note whatsoever about the place where he was playing. It was a good thing. It meant life goes on, even at ground zero.

A writer friend who lives in Tribeca, less than a mile from the twin towers, allowed how the absence of the Twin Towers has brought the ornate Woolworth Tower, once the tallest building in the world, back into prominence, as well as other architecturally significant buildings that were dwarfed when the World Trade Center went up in the ’70s.

I saw what he meant on our last day, when we hopped the Staten Island Ferry, the best free ride in the Big Apple, past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On the way back from Staten, a crowd gathered at the front of the ferry to look at the skyline, many of them taking photographs, including a family of four from South Texas.

[visit the San Antonio Express-News]


 

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