my friend Joe Gracey

from the Austin American-Statesman

By Brenda Bell


Updated: 7:19 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011

Published: 10:20 a.m. Friday, Aug. 26, 2011

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February 2002: In a room full of people in love with the sound of their own voices, Joe Gracey’s silence turned heads.

He had almost backed out of this reunion of the AM radio station where he had briefly worked in the 1970s, when his broadcast star was rising. At the last minute he decided to come anyway, the former boy wonder whose story everyone knew.

His youth was gone, of course, and a graying beard partly concealed where the surgeons had ravaged his neck and jaw. Still it was hard to think of Gracey as a middle-aged man. He was working the crowd with his usual puckish charm, a beer in one hand and a kid’s Magic Slate in the other.

We talked for a while — or rather, I talked and Gracey scribbled, rapidly filling the slate, erasing it and writing more. This is the drill since losing his voice to cancer in 1978: When Gracey “talks,” he’s actually writing.

The son of a Fort Worth trial lawyer, Gracey had always been a talker, fluent with words and fascinated with sound and music. As 13 he had his own “pirate” — i.e., illegal — radio station and by the time he started in commercial radio at 15, he had a baritone voice that “kind of jumped out at you,” recalled Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski.

Radio men called such voices “ballsy” and admired Gracey’s insouciance, his smart grasp of the disparate styles — Western swing, blues, alt-rock — forming an eclectic music scene that would become Austin’s signature. The sound of “progressive country” was born at KOKE-FM, where Gracey spun the records.

“He played a compelling mix of Texas musicians, the Allman Brothers, Hank Williams Jr.,” Jan Reid wrote in “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock.” “His playlist was brash, seamless and almost all Southern: Listen up, here, this was the direction country music was going, and Nashville had better hop to and pay attention.”

“Joe was the real deal,” said Patoski. “If he liked something, you knew it was pretty cool. He was evidence of something that was happening here that was unlike anywhere else.”

Now, tonight, Gracey was bursting with all that he could not say. “This must be hard for you,” I said.

His hand wrote furiously on the slate: “I’ll never get used to it.”

Not who he is

July 2011: Kimmie Rhodes, Gracey’s wife, is lounging by the pool of the Hotel ZaZa in Houston while Gracey naps upstairs in one of the rooms reserved for outpatients at nearby MD Anderson Hospital. He has been living here since his latest cancer — esophageal this time — was diagnosed in February.

“I don’t think this should be about Gracey’s cancer,” Rhodes says. She often calls her husband by his last name, as does everyone of a certain age in the music business in Austin. “One of the hardest things about it is, people define who you are by it. That’s not who he is.”

Rhodes and Gracey were both married to other people when they met in 1979. Gracey had teamed up with Bobby Earl Smith, a newly minted lawyer who had blown off the law to play music. In a makeshift studio in the basement of KOKE dubbed Electric Graceyland, they recorded a pantheon of local musicians, including Jesse Sublett’s seminal rock band, the Skunks; Stevie Ray Vaughan, Alejandro Escovedo, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Alvin Crow, the LeRoi Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel.

Rhodes was a born artist who painted, sang, wrote poetry, plays — and, as it turned out, music. With Smith’s and Gracey’s encouragement, she became a successful singer/songwriter, crafting songs in such profusion she has trouble remembering them all.

Gracey had a roguish reputation, but his marriage to Rhodes in 1984 thrived. “One of the reasons we’ve stayed together so long is we had a really great friendship before we got married,” Rhodes says.

It is Rhodes — energetic, wired to be positive — who roused Gracey this morning and readied him for a photo shoot in the white linen jacket he wears “just to thumb my nose at fate.” It’s Rhodes who slogs with him through the slough of chemotherapy; Rhodes who strategizes how to get him home to Austin for the weekend, leaving this all-cancer, all-the-time world behind.

And it’s Rhodes who interprets his rapid-fire sign language when he doesn’t bother with the slate. Her voice, Gracey’s words — after 27 years together, it’s all one thing now.

As the shadows lengthen over the ZaZa’s pool I ask the voluble singer if she ever wondered about casting her lot with a man who could not speak. She doesn’t hesitate.

“I never gave it a second thought,” she says, her blue eyes steady beneath a silvering mane of hair. “I always found him mysterious — more interesting than people who could talk . . . . and he was just so damn much fun.”

The hot-shot

August 1977: Gracey is riding high.

The hot-shot program director at the hottest radio station in town, he is pushing the envelope on the progressive country format, slipping in wild cards like Clifton Chenier and exhorting listeners to “Drink lots of water, stay off your feet and come when you can.” He seems to know every singer/songwriter who blows through Austin, and many of them turn up on his radio show.

“It was a heady time to be here,” Gracey would write much later, “and I was riding the groove as hard as I could.”

At the age of 23, Gracey had put KOKE-FM — the call letters were a kind of running joke when cocaine seemed to be everywhere — on the map when it won Billboard magazine’s trendsetter of the year award . He lined up talent for “Austin City Limits,” a new PBS show being broadcast from the University of Texas campus. He wrote about rock music for the American-Statesman and others.

It was Gracey’s voice — Old Blue Eyes, he called himself, a wink at Frank Sinatra — who advertised upcoming acts for the Armadillo World Headquarters, where cosmic cowboys were drinking Shiner beer in a haze of pot smoke.

“What we now take for granted as the alternative culture in Austin, what led to South by Southwest and Austin City Limits — it’s all feeding off that period in time,” said Patoski.

In the age of iTunes and satellite radio, it’s easy to forget the hold that radio once had on youthful music sensibilities. At night after the local stations signed off, kids in small Texas towns tuned to powerful stations far away — WLAC in Nashville, Tenn., KOMA in Oklahoma City, WLS in Chicago. They went to sleep with the gravely voice of a Shreveport, La., disc jockey in their ears, one the world would later know as Wolfman Jack.

“I was totally influenced by that music,” Rhodes once told an interviewer. “It kind of set the tone for the rest of my life.”

But by 1977, Gracey had been in the radio business for more than a decade and was getting restless. He was singing with Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys, a western swing band that Smith was managing. In August, he broadcast his last show on KOKE, and he and Smith hit the road to promote the band’s album, a task made easier by Gracey’s reputation.

“Every 50,000-watt station had an all-night disc jockey who played country. We would call them up and they would know about Joe already — he was a big deal,” said Smith, who’s now a criminal lawyer in Austin.

Driving from one radio tower to the next across the South, Smith noticed that Gracey kept touching a bump on his tongue that had been bothering him for months. More months would go by before he saw a doctor and learned the sore was malignant.

Tongue cancer is notoriously lethal, but its victims invariably try to bargain with the disease, begging surgeons to salvage as much of the organ as they can. Gracey was no different. In a series of painful operations he lost his tongue bit by bit, until there was nothing left to take.

Finally, the cancer was gone. His larynyx was gone, too. Radiation destroyed his taste buds, saliva glands and some jaw tissue. The medical assault on his mouth would cost him most of his teeth, and the act of eating became a slow ordeal.

Gracey’s beautiful voice, so deep that his mother said her mouth fell open when her baby boy spoke his first words, was silenced for good. He was 28 years old.

Ahead, the rest of his life beckoned. He swore to fully enjoy every pleasure it offered, and keep going.

Talking again?

March 2009: “I figure it’s time to talk to my friends and readers who may be interested in what I’ve been up to lately,” Gracey wrote in his Letters from Graceyland blog, where he chronicles his adventures in food, wine, travel and life. “The quick answer is I learned that I have cancer. Again. After 30 joyous years of being a proud ‘survivor,’ I’m back to being a ‘patient’ again.”

The news shocked Gracey’s many friends, who had figured he owed no more debt to the karma store. “I couldn’t go anywhere without people asking me, how’s Joe?” said Smith.

However, his “brilliant lady surgeon” at MD Anderson said the small cancer inside his mouth was treatable and the prognosis was good. Not only that, but the doctors proposed new surgical procedures to partially repair the damage of his first surgeries, and to implant a valve in his throat — drum roll! — to let him to speak again. Gracey was giddy with the possibility.

“Yikes,” he wrote. “Me talking again? The crazed wonder of it is carrying me away on a river of impossible happiness.”

For the past three decades, Gracey had busied himself with more attainable sources of happiness: raising a family (their daughter, Jole, and Rhodes sons, Gabe and Jeremie), making music (he plays bass guitar with Rhodes’ band and produces albums at their recording studio at their home near Driftwood), touring with the band in Europe, where Rhodes has loyal fans.

“He coped,” said Patoski. “He dealt with it and did very well for himself. He transitioned to become a great sound engineer and producer. He’s had a pretty rich life.”

In the studio, Gracey has mellowed from his cocksure, younger self. “He’s really, really patient,” said Smith. “Artists get temperamental if they feel like it’s not working. They have a sound in their head, but it’s a whole world between the head and the record. And Joe knows that world.”

He knows almost as much about food — his pieces have been published in Saveur magazine, and he and Rhodes have taught cooking classes — though exactly how he experiences taste is something of a mystery. Gracey believes he does it with his nose and “a few taste buds left in the odd corner of my mouth.”

“It’s amazing he has a sense of smell at all,” said Dr. Amy Hessel , one of his surgeons. “Joe has the memory of taste in his brain, and uses his sense of smell to tell his brain what something tastes like.”

For many reasons, Gracey is a case for the textbooks, Hessel said. The radical “salvage” surgery he underwent in 1978 was a last-ditch attempt to salvage life, not normal function, and the survival rate is only 10 percent to 20 percent. His second cancer in 2009 was not a recurrence but new, another anomaly: “He’s outplayed the odds in every way.”

Hessel said she had never had a patient undergo a tracheoesophageal puncture (a TEP) to regain speech so long after the original surgery. “We would never have done this for Joe — we would not have done it for most patients — but for his motivation. Joe motivates you to want to do it.”

Smith knows that better than most. “He’s an incredibly determined individual, very willful,” he said. “When we were on the road with the band and we took a wrong turn someplace, he never wanted to turn back. He would always say, ‘Let’s just go on. Make a new road.'”

A new ball game

By the end of 2010, Gracey had mostly recovered from the surgical reparations, which involved skin grafts, dental implants and a diabolical device to stretch his mouth so he could eat solid food again. He was speaking a little, though he hated his “swamp monster” voice. He and Rhodes had visited their little house in France, which Rhodes bought and renovated as an antidote to the gloom cast by cancer.

“I got tired of just being pathetic,” she said. “And it worked! Pretty soon people were talking to us about the house instead.”

Then in January a suspicious spot showed up in Gracey’s chest, which led to the discovery of a new cancer in his esophagus. It’s Stage 4, which means it has metastasized. That’s a new ball game, physically and psychologically.

“None of the other cancers was considered fatal, or incurable. This baby had spread from esophagus to nearby lymph nodes and even to the tip of a vertebrae,” Gracey said. “Chemo is a different bird. They won’t promise you a ‘cure,’ just a remission, unless you are one of the very lucky few.”

The months of chemotherapy that followed made Gracey deathly ill, forcing the insertion of a dreaded stomach tube. The TEP device had to be removed from his throat. His last best hope for speaking again is with a computerized voice like the one movie critic Roger Ebert uses, created from voice samples from his old radio tapes.

The verbal spontaneity that was as much a part of Gracey as his sly smile “will never return, I think,” he says. Putting everything in writing — on the ever-present slate, on his computer — long ago changed the way he expresses himself.

“Having to condense everything I have said for the past 30 years into eight-word statements has made me learn to edit myself. One reason I’m good at Twittering,” he said.

But when he’s socializing in a large group, with conversation flying back and forth, the slate often can’t keep up — the moment is gone before Gracey can get a word in.

It’s in his blog that Gracey’s real voice still comes through — quick and funny. He talks about everything: health care, the best boudin, his mother’s funeral. The fear that can blindside him, as well as the joy.

“I think some people are wired to be positive and to go to the higher place every time. I seem to be wired to go to the place I am in and then whine about it,” he once wrote. “I have tried all my life to change this, and get better about it, but it is a little bit like trying to stop being Woody Allen.”

Yet even now, whining takes a back seat to exultation in the extraordinary good luck of being alive.

“Hello from Chemoland!” Gracey wrote in his blog last week. “Four more weeks of radiation and I’m catchin’ the first thing smokin’- first to Paris, then to our newly renovated little home in the Languedoc for some actual Life Its Own Self and not just jabber about living longer.”

Rhodes, the wife he loves “with a love like an ache,” has already reserved the rental car. It’s a convertible.

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the Austin Statesman on THSF: More Than the Game exhibit at the Bullock

link to article here:

The Hall of History section is lined with replica lockers that feature artifacts such as Robert Strait’s windbreaker from Cuero High School and Willie mack Garza’s Refugio High jersey from 1985. Garza rushed for an eye-popping 57 touchdowns.

Laura Skelding/Austin American-Statesman

High school football takes center stage at Bullock museum

By Matthew Odam


The “Friday Night Lights” franchise might have introduced Texas high school football to the rest of the world, but it didn’t take a fascinating nonfiction book, a feature film or a critically acclaimed television show to educate Texans about the importance of Friday nights.

The Bullock Texas State History Museum’s new exhibit, “Texas High School Football: More Than the Game,” explores every facet of Texas’ “national pastime.” From cheerleaders to referees, from the ladies who design homecoming mums to the old-timers who spend hours arguing who should start at quarterback next season and what the coach did wrong last week, “More Than the Game” examines how the ritual that seems to reside in Texans’ DNA has played out in towns big and small for more than 100 years.

“This is sports as culture and why sports are so much a part of our identity,” said guest curator Joe Nick Patoski, who has written about Texas culture for more than 35 years. “We’re competitive people. We get unified now and then when we have a common enemy — the other school. It tells us why Texas is the dynamic place it is today. We’re different from everywhere else. For better or worse, I think we’ve strived to distinguish ourselves from the other 49 states. People have an image that Texans are different, and our enthusiasm and zealotry about this game and how we respond to it speak to that greater thing of why we’re larger than life.”

“It’s not just a game, and it’s not just kids. It’s about community. The great thing is if you want to participate, no matter who you are, there’s a role for you.”

The multimedia and interactive exhibit opened Saturday and runs through Jan. 22, making it the second-longest-running special exhibit in the museum’s 10-year history. The circuitous layout ushers guests through eight stages, from a replica small-town water tower to a concluding section that discusses the way high school football in Texas has been portrayed in the media.

Along the way, visitors will be treated to almost 200 artifacts such as “Dandy” Don Meredith’s Mount Vernon High School football jersey, a copy of the lineup card from the first game played by a high school team and a spring-loaded metal snapping machine invented by coach Felton “Pooch” Wright in the mid-1930s in Ballinger.

While past greats and notable figures from the gridiron receive plenty of attention, the exhibit places a strong focus on community: cheerleaders, drill teams, fans, mascots and boosters.

“I think what people will get from the exhibit is that feeling that high school football is really something that creates a bond that crosses gender, race, religion and that so many different people come together to connect around high school football,” museum head of exhibits Toni Beldock said. “And I think we’ve done a good job of showing all of the different aspects and all of the different people that are involved in high school football and how important it is to everybody.”; 912-5986

They really wore this: Among the player memorabilia in the AstroTurf-laden Taking the Field section is a winter jacket from the Brownwood Lions, circa 1940, taken from the Gordon Wood Museum. Featured in the same case is Drew Brees’ Westlake High School jersey from the team’s undefeated 1996 state championship season. The quarterback would go on to be a standout at Purdue University before leading the New Orleans Saints to victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

Do you know football? The multimedia exhibit features an interactive game that offers visitors a chance to test their football IQ.

Getting their kicks on the field: Texas is home to more than half the dance/drill teams in the United States, according to Patoski. Among the most innovative was San Antonio’s Thomas Jefferson High School Lassos. The dance/drill team is responsible for inspiring the Western dress worn by many today and is the only one that incorporates rope-twirling as part of its dance performance. Visitors also will learn the history behind the Port Arthur Red Hussars, the nation’s first all-female drum and bugle corps, and find out more about the legendary Gussie Nell Davis, who brought her personal flair to the Greenville High School Flaming Flashes before starting the Kilgore Rangerettes.

photograph by Laura Skelding/Austin American-Statesman

Trumpets blaring: Probably not surprisingly, Texas boasts the largest high school marching band in the country. The Allen High School Marching Band (the Escadrille) has 600 students. ‘We just do football better in every element. We like superlatives. Texans embrace superlatives,’ said curator Joe Nick Patoski.

Where the boosters strategize: The introductory section of the exhibit features a replica of the ‘Braggers’ Table.’ Found in quintessential small-town cafes all over the state, this is a place where men from the community sit and talk about what needs to be done with the team and relive memories, some imagined, of their time under the lights. On the table is a ’60s-era custom-made ceramic ashtray from Stinnett High School. The ashtray features the names of every member of the high school football team. The “Braggers’ Table” installation features an audio component that allows visitors to listen to folks talking football in Brownwood, Cuero, Port Neches-Groves, Harlingen and Canadian.

Go, Team, Go: Guest curator Joe Nick Patoski feels a kinship with cheerleaders, having served in that capacity at Arlington Heights High School in Fort Worth. Cheerleading equipment at the exhibit includes megaphones provided by Abilene High School and Philips High School.

This was safety: Among the oldest artifacts in the exhibit is a leather helmet, circa 1920, from El Paso High School.

Team pride on display: The Pre-Game Ritual station in the exhibit features mascot costumes from around the state, including Austin High School’s 2010 ‘Mr. Maroo.’ The area also pays tribute to the mum, an exceedingly Texas tradition. ‘No one does mums like we do,’ Patoski said. ‘And in certain communities, it’s a cottage industry.’

Texas High School Football: More Than the Game

When: Now through Jan. 22

Where: Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (1800 Congress Ave.)

Cost: $9 for adults; $8 for college students (with valid ID); $7 for seniors/military (with valid ID); $6 for ages 4-17, free for ages 3 and younger.

Information: 936-4649,

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Texas High School Football exhibit now through January

from Garden & Gun magazine’s Talk of the South newsletter

July 28, 2011
Talk of the South

The Real Friday Night Lights
(Courtesy Texas High School Football Hall of Fame, Waco)
Goings On
The Real Friday Night Lights

The NFL may be back in business for the fall, but when it comes to football, folks around the South know the true heart of the game is on display every Friday night at the local high school stadium. And nowhere does this display get any better or bigger than in the great state of Texas.

Opening July 30 and running through January, a new exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin captures the storied history of the state’s Friday-night fall rituals. Curated by author and G&G contributor Joe Nick Patoski, Texas High School Football: More Than The Game pulls together some 200 artifacts—from vintage helmets and letter jackets to championship rings to Drew Brees’ high school jersey (Westlake High School, class of ’96). Even mascots get a proper tribute. After all, where else but Texas would you find the Itasca Wampus Cats?

To get yourself appropriately pumped, click here to watch a short video about the exhibit, and then check out this photo gallery for a preview of some of the memorabilia on display. And if you’re anywhere near Austin, celebrate the opening with, what else, a pep rally on Saturday, August 6. “It ain’t bragging if it’s true, as we like to say in Texas,” Patoski says. “And it’s true: We own this game.”

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Snake Farm’s Charms Still Casting Spells

from the Friday, July 15 southwestern edition of the New York Times via the Texas Tribune


Tomorrow is World Snake Day, meaning a large number of vehicles will be veering off of southbound Interstate 35 at Exit 182, between New Braunfels and San Antonio, to pay their respects at the Snake Farm.

Before there was Sea World or Six Flags Fiesta Texas, there was the Snake Farm. Since 1967, when the main highway out front was still Route 81, parents of a certain age have viewed the Snake Farm as the only truly irresistible roadside attraction on the iconic car trip to the Alamo. Inner Space Cavern, Aquarena Springs (which featured Ralph the Swimming Pig), Wonder World Cave and the Natural Bridge Caverns could all be ignored. But if there was a herp freak in the back seat, you had no choice but to pull over at the Snake Farm.

Those carloads add up — and it’s not just families. Even after four-plus decades, the Snake Farm manages to attract 400,000 visitors of all ages annually. At $9.95 per person ($6.95 for children 2 to 12), it’s a tidy little business.

In the late 1970s, the iconic New York punk rockers The Ramones stumbled upon the Snake Farm while on tour between Austin and San Antonio. The band subsequently began to wear Snake Farm T-shirts as part of their stage and offstage personae. Snake Farm shirts, replicas of those worn by the late Dee Dee Ramone, have been available online for $49.95.

Five years ago, Ray Wylie Hubbard (the singer-songwriter who performs on the other side of New Braunfels tonight at Gruene Hall) paid homage with “Snake Farm,” a song about a guy in love with a stripper who works the counter at, yes, the Snake Farm. The engaging sing-along refrain: “Snake Farm, sure sounds nasty. Snake Farm, pretty much is. Ewwwwwww.”

A persistent legend among many young Texas males is that if you asked for change for a 20 at the Snake Farm, your double sawbuck would be kept and you’d be directed to one of the trailers out back, where a lady of the night would be waiting, in the tradition of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange.

The reality is snakes, and lots of ’em. More than 200 species are on display inside a no-frills cinder-block building. Stickers on some vivariums identify the Snake Farm’s Top 10 Most Venomous Snakes. The No. 9 King Cobra and No. 2 Black Mamba appear far more threatening than No. 1, the Inland Taipan, a small, rust-colored snake.

In addition to snakes, there’s a petting zoo, outdoor cages with lemurs, hyenas, parrots, monkeys, kinkajous and peacocks, and a pond filled with crocodiles and alligators. This explains the official name, Animal World and Snake Farm, even though the souvenirs all say Snake Farm Exotic Animal Park.

For the past eight years, the staff, led by Jarrod Forthman, the director of outreach, has overseen daily animal encounters at noon and 3 p.m., offering lizard talks and bringing out a huge python for photo ops. The big ’un is the Sunday 3 p.m. Croc Feed, in which the resident family of crocodilians have their once-a-week meal of raw chicken parts.

Mr. Forthman, 30, describes the weekly feeding as the most dangerous show in the country. “I have some job security, if you know what I mean,” he said with a sly grin. Mr. Forthman added that the farm was not regulated like most zoos. “So we’re able to do things normal zoos cannot,” he said. “You can get up close and personal.”

You can also get bitten. Mr. Forthman, who has been featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” has 100 stitches in his right hand from one croc bite and is missing half a thumb from another.

With the recent purchase of 45 acres behind the present three-acre footprint, Mr. Forthman envisions more snakes, more animals and a drive-through safari. But it’s the old-fashioned cheesy aura and staff members’ willingness to risk digits and limbs in the name of putting on a good show that will keep drawing the crowds.

“I get no greater thrill than having to handle some of the deadliest snakes,” Mr. Forthman said. “Call me crazy, but I’m doing what I love.”

Joe Nick Patoski is a regular contributor to these pages.

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John Mueller delays opening, moves to a trailer

On the week he was supposed to open a new place in East Austin, John Mueller, the Taylor-raised barbecue cook, called to say he’s been in Taylor with his mother Trish, who suffered a heart attack, that his East Austin location at Shady Lane has fallen through (“I don’t want another Manor Road situation,” he said cryptically, inferring his backers and him were not on the same page), and that instead he will open a trailer on South First Street in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Aaron Franklin has almost finished building new pits, meaning the lines out in front of the East 11st Street location of Franklin’s BBQ ought to start thinning, and that Franklin’s will likely have barbecue to sell past 1 pm, which is when he’s been running out.

A BBQ nut from New York, Jason Schramm, recently made a Centex run, hitting City Market in Luling, Smitty’s and Kreuz Market in Lockhart, and several other joints, before working his way through Austin. His nickel review: “Franklin is indeed the best barbecue of the trip. Everything about it, short of the line, was unbelievable. We also got out to Salt Lick (you were right). I was really impressed with Sam’s, though you do have to like mutton to like their mutton; and look forward to getting back there and checking out some more spots.”

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Jacob’s Well Inspires a Push To Protect the Underwater Cave and Springs

photo by David Baker

Groundwater Gusher
The mysterious power and irresistible draw of Jacob’s Well inspire a push to protect the underwater cave and springs.
By Joe Nick Patoski

At first sight, Jacob’s Well appears to be a deep, dark hole at the bottom of a pool of creek water — nothing more. Pay attention to how the hole, about 15 feet in diameter, has perpetually gushed pure artesian water out of the ground since before humans first wandered around this part of what is now known as the Hill Country, and it takes on deeper meaning. Listen to stories about it, and it becomes something much more than just a special natural place.

Spanish explorers described a head of water 4 to 6 feet high being pushed to the surface from far below. American Indians living in the area considered the place sacred. The name Jacob’s Well was supposedly inspired by a survivor of the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle for Texas’ independence from Mexico, who first saw it while looking for a place to build a mill along the Blanco River and declared it “like unto a well in biblical times.”

mp3 button Listen to a podcast of “Groundwater Gusher.”

Local elders speak of leaping in as kids and being thrust back to the surface by the force of the flow. The location in the eastern Hill Country — the dry, rocky rise above the coastal prairie — makes it all the more remarkable. That a place like this exists in the 21st century, when half the springs documented in Texas in 1900 have gone dry and disappeared, is a miracle.

At least that’s how it seems whenever I’m gazing into the blue and green hues tinting the water and the limestone walls of what is the beginning of a giant underwater cave. Everything sparkles like magic, a phantasmagorical welcome to another world below.

Peer into its depths and it pulls you in.

That pretty much sums up David Baker’s life since May 1988. He had been in Austin working as a designer and carpenter on a theatrical production when he took a drive with his wife to the village of Wimberley, got directions, walked down a trail to the end of a limestone bluff and saw Jacob’s Well for the first time.

“The hair on my arm just stood up,” he says as he relates his first impression of the bubbling spring surrounded by elegant cypresses with a rough, rocky bluff rising above it. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was so confident we were going to move here that I rented a storage locker.”

In a matter of months, Baker left a mountaintop home near Santa Cruz, Calif., in the redwoods, where on a clear day you could see the Pacific and the town of Monterey. He packed up his pregnant wife and his 9-month-old son, Jacob, and moved into a rock cottage a few short steps away from Jacob’s Well.

Fast-forward 23 years.

The sign in front of a former RV park reads “Welcome to Jacob’s Well Natural Area, the Jewel of the Hill Country.” A couple hundred yards past the sign, David Baker sits at a desk, typing at a computer, preparing a paper to protect the well he fell in love with. Baker’s office is neither bucolic nor picturesque, but rather chaotic. Baker fields calls, refers to charts and converses in geologist/hydrologist acronyms, citing DFCs (desired future conditions), ADRs, MAGs and GAMs as he talks about the Well’s past, present and future.

Baker toils in the trenches these days, working his way through a very thorny political process, having been schooled in contrarian water laws. Texas treats surface water such as lakes and streams as a common resource owned by all Texans, while groundwater such as Jacob’s Well is considered private property. The “rule of capture” states that the owner of surface property owns the water underground as long as it is not part of a subterranean stream.

Baker was in the minority voting bloc when the board of directors of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, an entity he was instrumental in establishing, voted earlier this year to issue new pumping permits for a development and a golf course that Baker fears will hasten the Well’s demise. There is already an annual decline of two feet under current conditions, Baker pointed out during discussions before the vote.

Board President Jimmy Skipton, a developer and property rights advocate from Henly, responded, “That’s David’s opinion.” As an individual, Skipton has filed a lawsuit against Hays County for establishing development rules that require lot sizes to be at least six acres for homes dependent on individual water wells. Skipton wants to sell 1.5-acre lots on the 165 acres he would like to develop.

David Baker wants Jacob’s Well to continue being Jacob’s Well.

For natural places to remain natural, stewards like David Baker are required. Special places lack lobbyists, money to contribute to politicians and the legal tools to fend off forces that compromise their integrity and threaten their existence. The best hopes are advocates willing to devote time, money and research in order to preserve, protect and conserve places such as Jacob’s Well.

In the big picture of earth science, karst aquifers are rare and unique — spongy-looking hard limestone reservoirs hundreds of feet below the surface that filter water, hold water and produce water, pushing it above ground, as is the case of Jacob’s Well.

The Well feeds Cypress Creek and Blue Hole, the town park and swimming hole in Wimberley, before the water flows into the Blanco River about five miles downstream. The creek courses through scenic landscapes of twisted oak and gnarly scrub woodlands and abundant grasslands, bordered by high bluffs and hills beyond the drainage. The beauty is both surreal and exceptional. Endangered golden-cheeked warblers thrive in abundance here.

My introduction to Jacob’s Well came through Stephen Harrigan’s 1980 article for Texas Monthly magazine and his 1984 novel, Jacob’s Well, in which he tells the story of the Well and its attraction to scuba divers, and how several cave divers died in its chambers. I came away wondering what kind of place exerted that sort of fatal attraction.

Between 1960 and 1985, eight divers died in the Well, primarily because of the tight passageway between the third and fourth chamber, the quicksand-like sediment at the bottom of the third chamber that is easily stirred up and narcosis, a condition of confusion that can affect divers at depths greater than 100 feet. Don Dibble, a master scuba instructor and the owner of the Dive Shop in nearby San Marcos who almost lost his own life on a recovery dive on behalf of the San Marcos Area Recovery Team, wrote his own account of the Well’s allure for divers for Reader’s Digest.

photo by Jesse Cancelmo

I didn’t actually see the Well until the early 1990s after I moved into the Wimberley community and was invited to a festival at Baker’s Dancing Waters Inn.

When I finally saw it, I got it. Of the proverbial 1,100 springs that define the Texas Hill Country, this one was indeed special, exceptional and worth fighting for.

In 1996, Baker got serious about protecting Jacob’s Well when Wimberley residents began meeting to discuss formally incorporating the village. Baker was on the water and sewer committee. One consensus recommendation from the committee was the need to form a nonprofit land trust and water trust in the Wimberley Valley to ensure water quality and quantity, a critical element of Wimberley’s tourist economy. Working with Jack Hollon, whose family had donated ranchland to create Rancho El Cima for the Boy Scouts of Houston and who had seen the Blanco River go dry in the 1950s, landowner Johanna Smith, University of Texas history professor Patrick Cox and physician-nutritionist Dr. Philip Zyblot, Baker helped form the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association in December 1996.

photo by Jesse Cancelmo

The nonprofit organization began writing small grants and engaging in water quality monitoring, participating in the Texas Watch program. It also focused on ownership of Jacob’s Well, which had been divided into four major pieces, with more than 120 parcels in the 100-acre area around it.

“It was extremely fragmented,” Baker says. “We debated whether to buy land around the Well to get it under one owner or work on the surrounding watershed to protect the recharge. We decided we needed to get land around it for an educational center.”

In 2005, with financial help from the Save Our Springs Alliance in Austin, the group got a loan for $2 million to purchase 46 acres, including 100 percent of the well. The selling price was about $1.1 million less than the appraised price. The SOS Alliance put a conservation easement on most of the property to prohibit future development and to limit impervious cover such as asphalt and concrete to 6 percent. The Wimberley group had two years to pay back the loan.

In 2007, 69 percent of Hays County voters approved $30 million in bonds for open space. The Wimberley Valley Watershed Association hired the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and architects Lake/Flato to create a master plan with input from 30 residents. The group determined that environmental education, aquifer research and recreation were the top priorities.

The patchwork of acquisitions was completed in late December 2010 when developers of the mobile home park canceled plans to build a “green” development with 65 condominiums and a hotel on 15 acres adjacent to the Well and dropped a lawsuit against the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association over access issues and the perceived right to build a road through the property. Instead, the developers agreed to sell the land for $1.7 million. Hays County ponied up half the price and the Texas Nature Conservancy loaned the other half, citing the unique attributes and ecological significance of Jacob’s Well.

photo courtesy of David Baker

Humpty-Dumpty has been put back together again. Today, Hays County owns Jacob’s Well and 96 acres around it. The Wimberley Valley Watershed Association has a three-year contract with the county to manage the property and oversee education and public outreach.

Slowly but surely, the surrounding landscape is returning to its natural state. Through better understanding of how the land and water are interconnected deep underground, people are beginning to appreciate the critical role we play in this system and how easily we can disrupt the balance that has made nature’s abundance such a critical key to human growth and progress.

But that is not enough.

The “rule of capture” property right accepts the Texas Supreme Court’s judgment made in 1908 that groundwater is too “mysterious and occult” to regulate like a river, lake or stream. Looking down into Jacob’s Well, I can understand the judges making that sort of determination.

But our understanding of groundwater has improved considerably over the past century. We know how it works, how it moves, where it starts and where it stops.

Through Baker’s initiatives, scuba divers and dye tests, we know that Jacob’s Well is connected to the Edwards Aquifer near San Antonio and to Barton Springs in Austin, that the actual well is at least 5,550 feet long as mapped by divers for the United States Geological Survey (the first- or second-longest underwater cave in Texas, depending on the latest measurements of Phantom Cave near San Solomon Springs in West Texas), that the water emerges from the Cow Creek Limestone formation and that pumping from some of the larger of the 6,600 wells in western Hays County reduces the flow of Jacob’s Well.

The Well stopped flowing twice — in the summer of 2000 for the first time ever and during the drought of 2008 when 42 wells in the county and nearby Onion Creek went dry. The Well survived the historic drought of the 1950s but may not be able to endure the population boom in Hays County and the surrounding Hill Country.

Education is the best hope.

“It’s so neat to watch people react to it,” Baker said. “It’s the mystery. This hole in the ground. Nobody knew how deep it was. It was intriguing watching people relate to it. Some would be afraid. ‘That’s where the divers drowned.’

“Some look at it as sacred. I feel that way about it: Here’s the earth, giving water, the one thing besides air we need to live, it’s doing it every day, it’s done it for millions of years, it’s a miracle. It was also chaotic. Nobody really was responsible. I kind of started to become somewhat of a policeman, which wasn’t a pretty job. But someone needed to take responsibility for managing this resource.”

Receiving the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Texas Environmental Excellence Award for 2011 has helped validate his work. Baker prefers another standard of measure: “If the well’s flowing, the water’s still clean so we can drink it and our kids can still swim in it, we get an ‘A.’ If the water’s polluted or quits flowing, we’ve failed.”

He acknowledges he’s in a race against competing interests and that the deck may be stacked against him.

“Sometimes I do feel it’s not going to work out, that it’s too late. But then I see all these people who get it. That’s when I realize that we can do it.”

As if on cue, a women’s hiking club from Canyon Lake arrives and Baker delivers an informal talk about the Well and shows hydrological charts, historical photographs and underwater video before sending the group on the path down to Jacob’s Well. (Free public tours of the Well are conducted at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.)

I’m not sure who walked away happier from the visit — the hikers or Baker.

“I found something bigger than myself,” he told me. “It gave me a purpose for my life the past 22 years to create something that would be here after I’m gone that I could share with the community.”

And now they come — to see, to study, to experience and even to jump in. If Baker gets enough people to do that, they just might save Jacob’s Well for this century and even beyond.

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Barbecue’s New Battle Breaks Out In Austin

Aaron Franklin cutting it up - photo by Jacob Villanueva for the New York Times

The Great Texas Barbecue Road Trip from Austin is hereby declared endangered.

[Expanded coverage of Texas is produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. To join the conversation about this article, go to]

It’s not that pilgrimages to Lockhart, Luling, Taylor, Llano, Lexington or even Driftwood, home of the Salt Lick, have stopped. It’s that the Austin joints are becoming so storied that ravenous out-of-towners who formerly used the capital city as a point of departure are lingering there instead.

Austin’s latest recipient of BBQ love is Franklin Barbecue (900 East 11th Street), which Bon Appétit magazine just named the best in the country. Lines form outside the front door an hour before the 11 a.m. opening, and the “sold out” sign usually goes up around 1 p.m. Customers from as far away as China have been packing whole briskets in their luggage.

Aaron Franklin, 32, and his wife, Stacy, represent a new generation of barbecue cooks who are elevating a food tradition once thought to be timeless and at the same time fading away. Franklin opened as a food trailer in December 2009, quickly becoming one of the stars (along with Torchy’s Tacos) to emerge from Austin’s trailer boomlet and transition to brick-and-mortar locations.

Franklin has recently been joined in East Austin by another market-style, bare-bones establishment, Live Oak Barbecue (2713 East Second Street), overseen by pitmaster Tom Spaulding, while Sam’s BBQ (2000 East 12th Street), a beacon of African-American East Texas wet-style barbecue that has been run by the Mays family since the 1940s, remains the only joint in town with mutton ribs on the menu.

Critical mass will be reached in mid-July, when Mr. Franklin’s former employer, John Mueller, returns to East Austin after a five-year absence. JMueller BBQ will occupy a restored clapboard house (1109 Shady Lane) just off Airport Boulevard.

Mr. Mueller, 42, is something of a barbecue legend. He is the grandson of Louie Mueller, the namesake of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, 40 miles from Austin — one of the oldest and most celebrated barbecue restaurants in the world. In 2001, Mr. Mueller broke away from the family business, set up shop in a cinder-block building on Manor Road and raised the bar for barbecue in Austin, bringing the Taylor style of slow smoking to the city. When Mr. Mueller called it quits in 2005, Mr. Franklin bought one of his pits at auction.

“My goal is to put out some of the best barbecue in the state of Texas,” said Mr. Mueller, who is making his own beef sausage and sticking with brisket, beef and pork ribs, pork loin and turkey breast. (Prime rib will be saved for Fridays.)

And if he reaches that goal? “That’s happiness,” he said. “This is what I was born to do. East Austin is home. I want to finish what we had started there.”

Since 2006, Mr. Mueller has catered events from Taylor while watching the trailer boom that started Mr. Franklin’s career. Mentor and protégé claim mutual respect. “When I’ve been doubled up on catering, I’ve called Stacy,” Mr. Mueller said. The Franklins have returned the favor.

Interestingly, both Mr. Franklin and Mr. Mueller use post-oak wood and a half-salt, half-pepper rub for their brisket. But there are nuanced differences. Mr. Franklin slow-smokes briskets for up to 18 hours and uses natural beef from Montana. Mr. Mueller prefers more direct heat and cooks a brisket “until it’s done,” meaning he doesn’t use a thermometer but thinks his cooking time is somewhere around six hours. “Dad taught me to look at the flame and go from there,” he said.

Mr. Franklin, who grew up in Bryan, where he worked for a couple of years at his father’s barbecue joint, said he learned a lot in Mr. Mueller’s employ about greeting customers, cutting meat and offering complimentary burnt ends — but did not get pit training. “John did all the cooking,” he recalled.

He credits time spent experimenting with an Old Smokey portable cooker with leading him down the path. He clearly figured something out, because his fatty brisket is consistently some of the finest anywhere.

As competition heats up, so does the kitchen. Mr. Franklin is building more pits to expand capacity and eliminate the lines outside the door. “We work 22 hours a day to cook food that lasts two hours and spend the rest of the day explaining why we ran out,” he said. His goal is to remain open into the evening.

Is this the start of Texas’ newest barbecue war? If so, bring it on. And bring extra napkins while you’re at it.

Joe Nick Patoski is a frequent contributor to these pages. He has judged the World Championship BBQ Goat Cook-off in Brady for more than 20 years.

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Fun (Actually in the Water!) on the Trinity

from Friday, June 17th edition of the Texas Tribune and New York Times

Published: June 16, 2011

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The scene near downtown Fort Worth was surreal. On a Thursday night in early June, several hundred people, mostly young adults, stripped to their swimsuits and floated atop inner tubes on the Trinity River clutching soda and beer cans while listening to Josh Weathers & the True Endeavors playing on a stage on the west bank above a sign that read “Trinity River Vision.”
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Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Floaters stay cool at “Rockin’ the River,” a free event sponsored by Trinity Vision, featuring live music.
The Texas Tribune

Expanded coverage of Texas is produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. To join the conversation about this article, go to

It was as if the Guadalupe River had been magically transported 250 miles north.

The Trinity has never been much-loved like the Guad, the San Marcos or the Frio — the state’s most popular recreational rivers, all of which are fed by artesian springs bubbling out of rocky Hill Country limestone and run relatively swift and clear. The Trinity is wide and muddy for most of its 710-mile journey from the northern prairie to the Gulf of Mexico northeast of Houston. By the time the Clear and West Forks reach Fort Worth, dams, channels and levees give the river an industrial look even when there is no industry nearby.

The Trinity wasn’t always this way, and for the first time, both Dallas and Fort Worth are making efforts to revitalize it and make it a destination for recreation.

A $4 million kayak park, called the Dallas Wave whitewater park, below the confluence of the Elm and West Forks, is one element of Dallas’s Trinity River Corridor Project, a $2.5 billion undertaking approved by the city’s voters in 1998 to transform the historically neglected Trinity flood plain into the nation’s largest urban park. So far, the most visible signs of the makeover, the largest urban development in Big D’s history, are the 400-foot-tall arched tower of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and the $37 million Trinity River Audubon Center, the gateway to the 6,000-acre Great Trinity Forest, the largest urban hardwood forest in the United States.

In Fort Worth, the $909 million Trinity Vision venture is centered on the creation of a Trinity Uptown addition to downtown, with residential and commercial developments clustered around a San Antonio-inspired river walk.

Both cities’ efforts have come with criticism and stumbles. Cost overruns and expensive add-ons like a toll road inside the levees in Dallas — now all but dead — have bogged down the Trinity River Corridor Project, while Trinity Vision has been attacked for its use of eminent domain to the benefit of private developers.

The planned opening of the Dallas Wave was delayed in May because of public safety concerns about its design, although some paddlers appear more concerned about pollution in the river. It’s cleaner 30 miles upstream in Fort Worth but still urbanized enough that worries persist about the fecal coliform count in the water and elevated levels of highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls that have led to a ban on fish consumption.

Still, the Trinity project has forward momentum. A low dam constructed west of downtown Fort Worth has created a standing wave for kayakers and surfers since 2006, and there’s a new wakeboard park, Cowtown Wakepark, with cable tow lines built on a five-acre, artificial lake adjacent to the Trinity on Fort Worth’s north side.

Tubing is the latest recreation option added to the mix. Last Thursday’s event was the first of six Rockin’ the River tube floats scheduled for this summer by Trinity Vision, featuring live music, lifeguards and discounts at nearby bars in the newly hopping West Seventh district just west of downtown.

Judging from the photographs that Wendy Stane of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram posted on Facebook, most of the participants enjoyed themselves — and the stereotypical urban river experience was nowhere in sight

“We never encountered any bloated bodies or trash or other weirdness in the area we floated,” said Ms. Stane, a veteran tuber. “Other than sticks, leaves and mud, we had no problems.”

While she wishes for more sand in the launching area and portable showers so floaters can rinse off when they leave the river, Ms. Stane’s critique is one that city officials will be glad to hear. “I would definitely do it again,” she said.

Joe Nick Patoski is a frequent contributor to these pages. His first swimming hole experience was on the Clear Fork of the Trinity River in Fort Worth.

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