Behold the Bounty of the Blanco, Texas Highways magazine

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/behold-the-bounty-of-the-blanco/

The July 2021 cover of Texas Highways Magazine, "Hill Country Oasis"

Behold the Bounty of the Blanco

The splendid and fragile beauty

of the Hill Country’s keystone river

 

Rivers in Texas run the gamut from bucolic babbling brooks to churning whitewater, from rocky dry channels to wide and muddy waterways. The Blanco River, which winds 87 miles through the eastern Hill Country, stands out for exhibiting all of those characteristics at one time or another. I should know. The Blanco is my river.

Twenty-eight years ago, our family moved to Wimberley to be near the Blanco. I’d been hooked on swimming at Barton Springs, Austin’s 68-degree spring-fed swimming pool. When it was time to move, we decided to jump ahead of the inevitable suburban sprawl while looking for another spring-fed place to swim.

I was sold on the house my wife had found the minute we drove over the Blanco on Bendigo Crossing, a low-water bridge also known as the Slime Bridge. Upstream, people were splashing around in the clear water, their laughs punctuated by shrieks of pure joy. Marco! Polo! Bright shafts of late afternoon sunlight shot through the branches of tall cypress trees hovering above the riverbank. Never mind what the house looked like.

An overhead view of the wide blue Blanco river with boats in the middle and trees on the side

Kayaking the Blanco near Wimberley
A watercolor illustration showing a map of the Blanco and San Marcos rivers between Austin and San Antonio

The vintage ’70s ranch-style home needed some love and care, but it would do just fine: It was a half-mile from the Blanco and gave us river access through a property owners’ park.

The first time I jumped in the Blanco, I was taken aback. The water tasted clean. The visibility underwater didn’t compare to Barton Springs’ clarity—the suspended limestone sediment in the Blanco clouds the water and gives the river its name, which translates to White River. But it tasted clean. Smelled clean too.

From April through October, I swim in the Blanco. It is one of the greatest pleasures I know. It’s a pleasure I share with growing crowds of both locals and visitors who converge on the river’s cypress-lined banks at places like Blanco State Park in Blanco; Blue Hole Regional Park on Cypress Creek, a tributary of the Blanco in Wimberley; and Five Mile Dam Park, a 34-acre Hays County park at the lower end of the river near San Marcos. On summer weekends, the parks routinely fill to capacity.

The crowds have grown as suburban sprawl has infiltrated Hays County. The county’s population grew nearly 50% from 2010 to 2019, making it the nation’s second fastest-growing county, according to the U.S. Census.

“The Blanco has always been a hidden gem with little access, fiercely hoarded and protected,” says Ryan McGillicuddy, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department conservation biologist who advises landowners on land management. “But the Hill Country continues to become carved up, and whether landowners like it or not, more people are coming to the river.”

Over the past year and a half of COVID-19, I’ve gotten to know my particular stretch of the Blanco even better. Swimming in the river almost every warm day has been a saving grace. Fallow season walks have opened my eyes to the subtle shift of the seasons. The bird and bat migrations, I now realize, aren’t a twice-a-year migration, but rather a constant, steady symphony of movement throughout the year.

When the wind kicks up, you can’t see the Blanco’s bottom for the chop. When the flow is high and fast following a flood, there’s enough whitewater to haul out the kayak, and as soon as the muddy current clears up, go paddling. The river is never the same. And no matter how stressed out it might appear to get, it always comes back. The Blanco has never let me down. The question is: Can we hold up our end of the bargain?

A lone kayaker paddles under green trees and blue sky

A young woman in swim goggles stands on a wooden dock on the edge of the blue Blanco river water

Blue Hole Regional Park on Cypress Creek in Wimberley

The Blanco—locally pronounced “Blank-o,” rather than the Spanish “Blahn-ko”—is the bellwether river of the Hill Country. It’s notorious for its frequent flash floods, treasured for its semi-pristine water quality and quantity, and fretted over because of threats posed by rapid population growth. While human development encroaches the river now, it wasn’t always this way. Few written accounts exist of early European explorers in Texas visiting the Blanco. The topography was too rugged, and the river valley too defended by Native Americans, particularly Lipan Apache and Comanche, who were hostile to incursions by outsiders.

The Blanco begins as a cluster of springs in Kendall County, running shallow as it enters Blanco County and growing as it courses beyond the town of Blanco into the Wimberley Valley and Hays County. It joins the San Marcos River just downstream of the city of San Marcos. Along the way, the Blanco traverses a landscape of cliffs, steppes, canyons, tributaries, waterfalls, springs, and rapids.

The Blanco River bottom is mostly hard limestone and absent natural vegetation. Its water quality remains close to unsullied. On numerous occasions, people have told me the Blanco is the second-cleanest river in Texas. The Devils, the Frio, and the upper Nueces rivers have all been cited as the cleanest, depending on whom you’re talking to. As the self-declared “King of Texas Swimming Holes,” I’ve swum in all of these, and written about them in these pages, including stories about the Frio in 2019 and the Nueces in 2020. I’m not sure which is the cleanest, but they’re all less polluted than other rivers in the state. The Blanco is hardly pristine, though. More than 100 dams and low-water crossings span the river, according to the Nature Conservancy of Texas. Riverbank and riparian habitat are increasingly fragmented as ranches are cut into subdivisions.

I’ve lived by the river long enough to see the Blanco go hog wild on uncontrolled rampages, swallowing trucks and trees, and killing livestock and people—most notably during the destructive and deadly Memorial Day flood of 2015. There’s a reason the Blanco is the heart of what’s known as “Flash Flood Alley.” During extended droughts, and practically almost every August, I’ve watched the river slow to a trickle. My rule of thumb is the earlier in the summer, the better the swimming—as long as the spring and summer rains come. Late in the summer, if it’s been dry and there’s no apparent flow, I’ll skip my swim and go back to the house wondering if I’ll outlive the river, what with all these external pressures it faces, most of them human-related. Is the Blanco a relict, a river at the end of its run? With the local climate trending drier and hotter, is the Blanco destined to be a huge dry wash of bleached rubble, like the thousands of once-upon-a-time drainages threading through the Big Bend and the Chihuahuan Desert farther west?

The Blanco is that delicate—and that marvelous.

Bright green ferns grow along the banks of the Blanco River

Proper Respects

Responsible River Recreation

The Blanco has the reputation of being a fenced-off, no-access river. Even today, trespassers can still have a gun pulled on them if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Respect “No Trespassing” signs and purple paint markers on fences, trees, posts, and walls. (A Texas law passed in 1997 allows landowners to use purple paint in lieu of “No Trespassing” signs, with the same consequences.) Ignoring those warnings can lead to being arrested, jailed, and/or fined, which can pretty much ruin your river experience. Don’t fret. There are numerous parks where the public can access the Blanco River for swimming (see below). Always be mindful of the local environment and practice “leave no trace” principles, such as proper trash disposal, respecting wildlife, and not collecting what you find, including rocks, plants, and arrowheads.

Above: A fern grotto on the Blanco near Wimberley

A man in a gray shirt stands on a rock above bright blue water

David Baker at Jacob’s Well

 

David Baker came to the Wimberley Valley in 1988 and bought property on Mount Sharp Road that included a piece of Jacob’s Well. Here he started the Dancing Waters Inn.

If there is a steward of the Blanco watershed, it’s Baker. If you’ve seen Jacob’s Well, you’ll understand.

Located about 5 miles from Wimberley, the deep, heart-shaped underwater cave is the source of Cypress Creek. The well begins as a crack on the limestone surface before tunneling deep into Trinity Aquifer. The mouth of the cave makes an incredible swimming hole, and the sweet sensation of diving off the rocks into the hole’s cold, clear water is a rare thrill, even among other spring-fed pools.

Baker founded the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association and led the campaign for Hays County to purchase the well and its surroundings, replacing a trailer park and tennis courts with an educational and research center.

“My first impetus was to erect a fence and keep people out,” Baker says. “But thinking long term, if we don’t share these special places with people, they won’t care if they’re destroyed. They won’t know. We’ve got to do better connecting the community to these local resources.”

As the protections increase, so have the external challenges. Baker was involved in the successful four-year fight to stop a private company’s plans to pump and ship groundwater out of the county, which was finally resolved earlier this year. In 2019, working with Hays County and other interested parties, Baker helped stop the City of Blanco’s discharge of 1.6 million gallons daily of treated wastewater into the river. The treated water triggered algae blooms on the Blanco that extended far downstream. The town is now using the wastewater to irrigate alfalfa fields.

“These are some of the few clean rivers left in Texas, and even the most thoroughly treated wastewater contributes to their degradation,” Baker says.

It’s a race between conservation awareness and unfettered development in a booming region. In 2000, Jacob’s Well, which provides about 10% to 20% of the Blanco River’s baseflow via Cypress Creek, stopped flowing for the first time in recorded history. In 2008 and 2009, due to drought and groundwater pumping, the well stopped flowing again, and then again in 2011, 2013, and January of this year.

Despite these threats, Baker is an optimist. Last November, 70% of Hays County voters approved a $75 million parks bond for the county to secure land to protect natural resources and increase river access. And Jacob’s Well, he likes to point out, has become an economic engine through tourism. In recent years, overnight lodging has contributed $70 million annually to the economy in Wimberley.

“Last year, 35,000 visitors from 28 different countries came and visited the well. Twice that many visited Blue Hole,” Baker says. “When people see this, they begin to understand how this all fits together.”

Groups of people sit under tents or in the sun along the banks of a blue-green river

Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos

I’ve grown to appreciate the Blanco’s nuances. Some mornings the surface is smooth as glass, sunlight painting shadowy ribbons on the rock bottom. Other mornings, wind ripples the surface, the wavelets sparkling like shimmering diamonds.

My thing is jumping in and swimming about a quarter-mile upstream to the big boulder and beyond, following the contours of the riverbed as I work a steady alternating stroke, stretching, kicking, my body and mind getting locked in a rhythmic, meditative zone. The sight of a snapping turtle moving slowly across the bottom may startle, interrupting the repast. I’ve had the same reaction spotting gar and snakes close by underwater.

A man in a collard shirt and

Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell

As a native of San Marcos, Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell has long known about the Blanco’s beauty—and dangers. But still, he says, the growing demands on this local treasure have presented a learning curve for the community. “When we first opened Jacob’s Well as a county park in 2011, we didn’t understand that people from all over the country, and eventually the world, wanted to see it,” he says. “That lesson has been learned.”

Shell has made protection of natural resources a priority. Conserving land around the Blanco improves the river’s water quality and can also mitigate the severity of flooding, he says, by directing development and impervious cover away from the river and encouraging the restoration of riparian habitat that naturally absorbs floodwaters and mitigates erosion.

“There are a lot of people in western Hays County who haven’t been here that long,” he says. “They see the Blanco as a river, but I don’t think they respect or understand the river and its value as much as old-timers. The [2015] flood brought that to the forefront: the importance of managing the resource, conserving it, and potentially reducing the likelihood of flooding.”

Shell is proudest of the Sentinel Peak Preserve, a new 535-acre park. When Shell caught wind of the pending sale of the old El Rancho Cima Boy Scout ranch, he strategized with area officials and the Nature Conservancy to secure some of the land. Located just below the rocky ridge known as Devil’s Backbone, the preserve covers a milelong stretch of the Blanco River, protecting prime habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Officials hope to have the preserve ready to open to the public by late 2022 or early 2023.

“The importance of getting people on the land and seeing the river is immeasurable,” Shell says. “Signal Peak is iconic. It’s the perfect spot for us to do this.”

The new preserve brings hope for McGillicuddy, of Texas Parks and Wildlife. I recently caught up with the biologist as he met with science students from St. Edward’s University. “With a property like Sentinel Peak, there is a rare opportunity to start with a blank slate and shape how the land can be managed for both conservation and recreation,” he says.

Pulling up grasses from the bank, McGillicuddy demonstrated how they help prevent erosion and soil loss during floods. The group discussed the importance of landowner stewardship; the restoration of the Guadalupe bass, the state fish; how the Blanco is connected to Barton Springs and San Marcos Springs; the impact of the 2015 flood; and how to manage for future floods.

Such challenges are enough to turn a river lover like me into a worrywart. But the uncertainty of what’s to come is balanced by experiences like an afternoon this spring. Swimming in the river, I raised my head every now and then to gaze at the line of majestic cypresses looming above the bank and to check for red-eared slider turtles sunbathing on the rocks. At moments like these, I can’t imagine a more splendid place on earth.

Two men relax of the water of the blanco under a green tree

A swimming area by the dam on the Blanco River at Blanco State Park; Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos

Dive In

Recreating on the River

While private land borders the majority of the Blanco, there are numerous opportunities to swim and enjoy the river’s natural beauty.

Blanco

Blanco State Park: a mile of riverfront, campsites, and cabins. 830-833-4333; texasstateparks.org
Redbud Café: soups, salads, and sandwiches on the square. redbud-cafe.com

Wimberley

Blue Hole Regional Park: Online reservations are required for the swimming hole on Cypress Creek. cityofwimberley.com
Jacob’s Well Natural Area: Advance reservations are required for swimming, but not for the hiking trails. hayscountytx.com
Cypress Falls Swimming Hole: swimming and a hotel. thelodgeatcypressfalls.com
Creekside Cookers BBQ & Bar: great food and outdoor seating. creeksidecookers.com
Rio Bonito Resort: cabins and swimming on the Blanco. riobonito.com
7A Ranch Resort: cabins, a pioneer town, and swimming on the Blanco. 7Aranch.co

San Marcos

Five Mile Dam Park: riverfront with swimming and hiking. hayscountytx.com
Herbert’s Taco Hut: a longtime local Tex-Mex favorite, near the bank of the San Marcos River. 512-392-2993

From the July 2021 issue

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Tony Ramirez: A Healer in the South Texas Brush Country

https://texashighways.com/culture/people/traditional-healer-searches-texas-brush-country-medicinal-plants/

Herbalist Tony Ramirez uses herbal and natural medicine to combat injury and illness.

Herbalist Tony Ramirez uses his knowledge to collect medicinal plants in the Brush Country of the South Texas borderlands near his home in Laredo.

The Brush Country of the South Texas borderland is a harsh place. Part Chihuahuan Desert and part Tamaulipan thorn-scrub, it’s an impenetrable no man’s land where if something doesn’t stick, sting, or bite, it’s probably a rock. It might just be the roughest piece of Texas.

One morning early last March, an inquisitive woman from Laredo named Mari Vargas; my wife, Kris Cummings; and I convened in East Laredo. We gathered near the bamboo thicket outside the residence of Tony Ramirez in the Heights neighborhood, admiring fat grapefruit and brightly colored oranges hanging on trees in the garden. We had signed up for “Medicine in the Wild,” Ramirez’s walk-ing lecture in the brush about the plants within that have medicinal uses.

Tony Ramirez’s “Medicine in the Wild”
956-724-6877; commoncoyote.com

Tours by appointment only, starting at $80 per person.

Ramirez isn’t just a tour guide; he’s considered a médico tradicional, or traditional healer, among the Nahua/Chichimeca people. But unlike Mexican folk saints Don Pedro Jaramillo, El Niño Fidencio, and Teresita Urrea, he focuses strictly on the practical: identifying and collecting useful plants. Consider it the fieldwork for discovering increasingly popular herbal remedies.

We were dressed for our adventure in pants and long-sleeved shirts, and we carried a lot of water. Ramirez had a straw hat with feathers in the band, and a machete and pistol strapped to his side. We peppered him with questions as he drove us in his SUV 20 minutes east before stopping to open a ranch gate. Vargas was rapt.

For the past two years, she has studied alternative medicine, working with medical doctors from Monterrey, Mexico, who venture into the same brush in search of natural medicines. She’d registered for Ramirez’s workshop to learn how to better address her family’s and friends’ ailments. “My parents are from Mexico and lived in a place where medicinal plants were all they had to treat illness,” she said

The vehicle continued down a dirt path and came to a final stop beside a concrete slab with an aluminum roof that serves as a staging area for hunters and anglers dropping lines in a nearby stock tank. The brush beckoned, but before we entered, Ramirez gathered us around a mesquite with a canopy of fresh pale-green spring leaves. This is the signature tree of the Brush Country.

“The mesquite has a lot of uses beyond cooking,” Ramirez explained. “Its beans are a protein source. Its leaves are good in tea for gastrointestinal problems and as an astringent for topical infection prevention. If you have conjunctivitis, rinse and crush the fresh green leaves, mix them with a bit of clean water, and squeeze the antimicrobial liquid into the affected eye as eye drops.”

He knelt down and surveyed the stubby succulents covering the ground below the mesquite. He pointed to halophyte saladilla, a plant whose sap was a source of salt for Native Americans. Then guereque, a member of the melon family whose tuber contains monoglyceride compounds that can treat diabetes. Next, a pencil-thin cactus called sacasil, used to treat insect bites and bone fractures.

“You think this stuff out here is just brush,” Ramirez said with a smile. “Everything here has value.”

The Laredo native grew up in a family that practiced herbal medicine. His abuelo, proprietor of the Glorioso Medicine Company in Laredo, formulated liniments and poultices, which he sold town to town, ranch to ranch. And his abuela was a healer who cleansed people with medicine from her garden. “Growing up, whenever I’d get sick, I was taken to my grandmother,” Ramirez said. “If I didn’t get better taking whatever tea or herb she gave me, I’d go to a doctor.”

This old school method of dealing with illness or injury is still practiced in communities and rural parts of the Texas-Mexico borderland. It serves as inspiration for the increased usage of herbal and natural medicine among a population seeking alternatives to prescription drugs. But the inexperienced user should exercise extreme caution.

“It is hugely important, [for those teaching about] native plants in any capacity that might encourage someone to ingest anything, to use the botanical names,” said Lynn Marshall, research coordinator for Useful Wild Plants, an Austin-based organization devoted to Texas’ botanical domain. “Common names can be applied to multiple species, and a mistake has the potential to be fatal.”

“You think this stuff out here is just brush. Everything here has value.”

After a career with Texas Instruments and IBM, Ramirez returned to Laredo in the 1970s to study ethnobotany and folk medicine through college classes, books, and talking to elders. He authored numerous papers and learned the ways of heal-ers from Chichimeca, Huastec, Huichol, and Nahua natives in Central Mexico. Following a stint with the Texas Department of Agriculture, he has led students at the UT Health Science Center Regional Campus at Laredo into the brush since ’96.

He was also a columnist for LareDOS, a newspaper turned online news journal, in the late ’90s and early ’00s. “His writing bore the careful note of credibility that came from experience and research,” said Meg Guerra, LareDOS publisher and editor. “Each column was a gift of information, such that many consulted Tony for the herb and tree-bark remedies we once heard our grandmothers discuss.”

As we put on our backpacks to enter the brush, Ramirez produced a small bundle of dried native tobacco tied together for a limpia. “We do a cleansing before we enter the brush,” he said. Vargas went first, standing with her arms extended. Ramirez waved the bundle in all seven directions: east, south, west, north, above, middle, and below. After my cleansing, Ramirez let me cleanse him.

Off we went, following an animal path into the brush. “Be careful,” Ramirez said. “This area has a lot of jumping cactus. They’re really well-camouflaged.” Early on, he spotted fresh scat on the sandy path—mountain lion. He holstered his pistol and suggested we stay vigilant.

We stopped every 20 or so paces to investigate plants. Ramirez identified each and pointed out their uses. When the thicket grew impassable, he pulled out his machete and whacked out a path. Though our pace slowed, Ramirez’s talk continued apace as he pointed in every direction, settling on a junco plant. “It’s used for stomachaches and dizziness,” he said.

Eventually, we stopped at a tree in a small clearing, with colored twine wrapped around a few branches. At 8 feet high, it was tall enough to provide shade if we squatted down and didn’t perch in the nest of thorns thriving in the understory.

Mother Nature’s Natural Remedies

A sampling of healing plants from Tony Ramirez’s Brush Country tour. Consult a medical professional before using.

Bitter Goat Brush

“This plant can save your life. It will kill amoebas.”

Blackbrush Acacia

“It can be used as a topical antibacterial to treat sores that aren’t responding to medication.”

Gobernadora (Creosote)

“It’s a really versatile plant: antifungal, antibacterial, antibiotic, and antiviral.”

Palo Santo (Guayacán)

“This is where Mucinex comes from. It’s an expectorant and COX-2 inhibitor that fights inflammation.”

Pita (Yucca or Spanish Dagger)

“It’s flavorful, an anti-inflammatory, and a phytosteroid.”

“This is the medicine tree,” Ramirez explained, reaching into a small bag to fetch more colored twine. “Each color represents something: black for fear, white for compassion, green for healing, yellow for vision, red for strength and power, blue for protection.” He encouraged us to tie some twine to a branch, which we did.

After resting, we ventured back toward the day shelter. We’d been in the brush close to two hours, but we hadn’t walked much more than a mile. Ramirez checked his phone and said the high inside the brush had reached 108 degrees. Back at his place, Ramirez handed out certificates for completing his workshop. “These plants aren’t going to replace medicine,” he admitted. “What you learned is this is another tool for your toolbox.”

Driving back to Austin on Interstate 35, the Brush Country looked as harsh and forbidding as ever. This time, though, I knew that deep inside there was a whole other story.

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The Cajuns of the Golden Triangle

https://texashighways.com/culture/people/cajun-culture-flourishes-texas-golden-triangle/

from the. January 2021 issue of Texas Highways magazine

In Texas’ Golden Triangle, Cajun Culture Flourishes

A man plays an accordion in front of a sign reading 'Bon Temps Accordions Jude Moreau'Jude Moreau, a Cajun accordionist from Groves

Text: It's still dark

on a muggy August morning in southeast Texas. But inside the Neches River

Wheelhouse, a waterfront bar and restaurant in Port Neches, husband-and-wife duo Dana and Krissy Melancon are bright and chirpy as they settle in front of the microphones of their remote broadcasting studio. On cue, the airwaves crackle with the sound of a train whistle, followed by a loud accordion pushing a peppy rhythm with fiddle and guitar.

Every Sunday morning, The Cajun Express radio show mixes four hours of swamp pop, zydeco, and most of all, Cajun music with community news, dedications, and requests. Loose and familiar, the broadcast serves as a meeting point for Cajuns from across the Golden Triangle, that geographic zone in Texas’ southeast corner defined by Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange.

“This show is a responsibility,” Dana Melancon says. “I don’t want to let anybody down. The people listening are willing to share stories and make connections for you. It’s not anything I’m doing. I’m just putting the music out there.”

Accordionist Bridget D’Lane Roberts

“I don’t think southeast Texas Cajuns consider themselves separate, although it’s one of these pride things,” Melancon says, nodding toward the dozens of fans on hand for the live remote broadcast. “In southwest Louisiana, you might get, ‘You’re not really Cajun. You weren’t born here, you’re not living here.’ But it’s tongue-in-cheek teasing.”

As The Cajun Express opens its second hour, daylight reveals a waterfront setting by the Neches River where massive barges and oil tankers rumble past, headed upstream to refineries and the Port of Beaumont, or downstream to Sabine Lake and the Gulf of Mexico. The setting, adjacent to Riverfront Park, might not be confused for Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin. But for Golden Triangle Cajuns who show up for the broadcast, it’ll do just fine.

The tale of the Acadians, the French-Canadians who were exiled from Nova Scotia in the 18th century, has been much told, most famously by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie,” published in 1847. The epic poem recounts love lost during Le Grand Dérangement, when the British kicked French immigrants out of the Maritime Provinces of eastern Canada during the French and Indian War of 1754-63. Roughly 3,000 refugees found their way to southwestern Louisiana—present-day Acadiana.

The Acadians—or Cajuns, as they became known—were an insular bunch, isolated from the rest of the world by swamps and rivers until Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long’s bridge-building frenzy in the 1930s. Unlike most assimilated American cultures, Cajuns have been able to hold on to their customs, folkways, and, at least in the heart of Cajun country, their French dialect.

The story of the next Cajun diaspora, from southwest Louisiana to southeast Texas, is less celebrated. The first Cajuns began moving across the Sabine River in the early 19th century, among them the Hébert family who established a farm on Taylor Bayou in Jefferson County in 1842. The 1850 U.S. census documented 600 “Franco-Louisianans” in southeast Texas. Cajun relocation to Texas grew in the early 1900s with the expansion of the Southern Pacific railroad and then the rapid growth of petroleum and chemical refineries around Port Arthur. Faced with a choice between scraping by as a sharecropper or making a middle-class income at a refinery, many Cajuns headed west to Texas.

A blue sky over blue water and tall grass in a marsh

A Port Arthur marsh

The inside of a wood-paneled home with rocking chairs and a brick fireplace

La Maison Beausoleil in Port Neches

 

The easiest way to understand and appreciate a culture that isn’t your own is through its food and music. The Cajuns stand out on both fronts.

Cajun cuisine is everywhere and anywhere in southeast Texas, from crawfish farms to destination restaurants and boudin joints. The stalwarts of Cajun cuisine are well known: gumbo, étouffée, blackened redfish, and delicacies like boudin (spicy pork and rice sausage) and cracklins (crunchy fried chunks of pork skin, fat, and meat). At the Pine Tree Lodge in La Belle, just outside Beaumont, you can order alligator from the menu while watching their wild cousins in Taylor Bayou from the outside deck. In the Golden Triangle, you’ll find boudin balls alongside hot dogs at the concession stand of a high school football game—and gumbo on the menu of a Mexican restaurant.

Larry Judice, 71, is a third-generation Texas Cajun whose father and grandfather operated groceries and meat markets in the Golden Triangle. In 1978, he opened Larry’s French Market, a grocery and deli in Groves, just outside of Port Arthur, serving lunch plates to refinery workers.

“By trade I was a butcher, and we sold lots of seafood,” says Judice, now retired. “We were one of the first to sell crawfish live. We started getting rid of shelves and putting more tables in. Then we put in a dance floor. It just boomed after that.”

Larry’s evolved into a full-blown entertainment venue with an all-you-can-eat Cajun seafood buffet and live bands on weekends. In many respects, Larry’s functions like a community center. “There are so many Cajuns that live around here,” Judice says. “We love the music, the food, friendship, family getting together to have a fais do-do—a dance—having a good time.”

Stewart Gordon, manager of Larry’s French Market, insists there’s a method to les bon temps madness: “They eat till they’re stuffed, then they dance it off.”

A man throws a large net over a body of water

Netting bait fish near Groves

Indeed, music is perhaps the strongest cultural bond uniting Cajuns in the Golden Triangle, attracting the community for dances and parties.

“I’ve had this music in my heart since I was a little kid,” says Jude Moreau, a Groves bandleader who spent summers as a kid at the family farm near Opelousas, Louisiana, where he experienced rural Cajun life firsthand. Moreau learned to dance and play accordion after being immersed in Cajun music at the old Rodair Club, an influential but now-defunct Cajun institution on the outskirts of Port Arthur.

“I don’t know how to explain this—we’re huggers. OK?” Moreau says, reflecting on Cajun music’s infectious groove. “We love to be up close and personal. So even when we’re dancing a two-step, we’re close to each other, like we’re hugging; it’s the same way when we dance the waltz. What we play makes you want to dance—it moves you, it draws you in.”

Moreau has played stages in Texas and beyond with Ed Poullard, a Creole accordionist from Beaumont. In a workshop behind his home, Poullard repairs, tunes, and builds Cajun accordions from scratch—a craft he learned from Moreau. Pausing from his work on a single-row button accordion, Poullard unpacks the dynamic between Cajuns and Creoles, i.e. Cajuns with African, Caribbean, and/or American Indian ancestry.

Creoles play zydeco music, accordion-driven dance music infused with rhythm and blues and hip-hop elements, which is very different from contemporary Cajun music. But when Poullard, a Creole, and Moreau, a Cajun, play old-style music together, they’re “married,” Poullard says.

“Cajun and Creole are wedded together,” he says. “You can listen to somebody born in the early 1900s, and be they Creole or Cajun or beast, the sound of the accordion is very similar. As the years progressed, Cajun style became more intricate, more note-y, and the Creole style remained simple and pure. That’s it. That’s the only way to explain it.”

While Moreau and Poullard are in their 60s, younger Cajuns from the Golden Triangle are coninuing the musical
tradition. Donovan Bourque, a gregarious 19-year-old from Beaumont, is among those up-and-comers as the accordionist for the band Cajun Strong.

Bourque works at Big Doobie’s Boudin & Cracklins food truck in Port Arthur, where he sometimes leads multi-hour jams outside the shack. His playing precedes him. “Grown men have texted me asking for accordion tab sheets, if I could write it out for them, or send them a video,” Bourque says with a tinge of incredulity. “I try to help as much as I can because this is something you don’t want to let die.”

Text: We love the music, the food, friendship, family getting toegher to have a fais do-do

A man in a red hat holds a rope of sausage

Joshua Rodrigues of Big Doobie’s Boudin & Cracklins in Port Arthur

A sign reads "No Swimming" next to a dock along brown water and tall trees

Alligators discourage swimming in Taylor Bayou.

With Cajuns residing in southeast Texas for more than a century, their culture is intertwined with the Golden Triangle mainstream, says Tom Neal, director of the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur.

“To us, the Cajun people and their culture is our culture,” Neal says. “It’s a standing joke that I hear from time to time that Port Arthur ought to be part of Louisiana. We’ve blended so much that we don’t hardly think about it.”

The museum explores Cajun heritage with artifacts including a vintage pirogue, the type of dugout canoe Cajuns used to navigate bayous and swamps. It also chronicles the history of the discovery of oil at Spindletop and the ensuing development of the Texaco and Gulf Oil refineries in Port Arthur, both magnets for Cajun workers.

Cajun and Creole musicians are also prominent in the museum’s Music Hall of Fame, among them Choates and Clifton Chenier, “the King of Zydeco,” who moved to Port Arthur in 1946 to work in the Gulf Oil Refinery.

The most visible landmark testifying to the Cajun presence in the Golden Triangle is La Maison Beausoleil in Port Neches’ Riverfront Park. The cypress house harkens to the Cajun settler lifestyle. The Broussard family built the house in Louisiana’s Vermilion Parish in 1810, and it was moved to Port Neches to serve as a museum in 1985, says Karen Mills, president of Les Acadiens du Texas, the group that maintains the home. Each year, on the second Sunday of October, La Maison Beausoleil hosts a Cajun French mass. Sweets, gumbo, and boudin sold at the event help fund the house’s upkeep.

“The Broussard family gave the house to us to open as a museum because of all the Cajuns who had moved from Louisiana when the men came to work in the refineries,” Mills explains.

The Museum of the Gulf Coast and La Maison Beausoleil have been part of tour schedules during Port Arthur’s annual Cajun Heritage Festival in April. Though festival plans have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, events like the Cajun Heritage Festival and Cajun Night at the Texas Rice Festival in Winnie offer visitors the immersive, full-tilt Cajun experience—down to the dance contests and crawfish races.

Gloria Pate, the promoter of the Cajun Heritage Festival, sees Cajun culture’s wide appeal through her work with the festival and her online radio show, which airs on Cajun Sounds Internet Radio.

“I got a message last week from a guy in Dubai,” she says. “It’s worldwide. They love the music. They become enthralled with the music, the energy, our joie de vivre. We see it time and time again with hurricanes and plant explosions. People think of the music and they think of the food, but it’s so much more. It’s hard to put into words, other than neighbors helping neighbors.”

Back at the Neches River Wheelhouse, Melancon says he’s noticed a surge of interest in Cajun culture, especially among young musicians like Bourque.

“Back when I was young, it was not cool,” he says. “I’m 61 now, and the Cajun stuff is cool to the younger people. They’re starting bands, getting together to learn Cajun language. It’s riding on their shoulders now. The culture and the feel for the Cajun way of life is as strong as it’s ever been. It’s second nature now, like wanting to learn to cook a gumbo.”

A man in a gray shirt and black hat stands next to an accordion

Accordionist Ed Poullard, in Beaumont

Texas-Cajun Touchpoints

As Cajun people have crossed the border to southeast Texas from Louisiana, they’ve brought their culture and customs along with them.

The Cajun Express radio show broadcasts 6-10 a.m. Sundays on Beaumont radio station 105.3 FM and online at thecajunexpress.com. On the second Sunday of the month, the Melancons broadcast live from the Neches River Wheelhouse in Port Neches.

Neches River Wheelhouse, 720 Lee Ave., Port Neches. 409-853-1249;
nechesriverwheelhouse.com

Larry’s French Market, 3701 Pure Atlantic Road, Groves. 409-962-3381;
larrysfrenchmarket.com

Big Doobie’s Boudin & Cracklins, 6247 W. Port Arthur Road, Port Arthur. 409-548-1335.
facebook.com/doobiescajunmeats

Museum of the Gulf Coast, 700 Procter St., Port Arthur. 409-982-7000;
museumofthegulfcoast.org

La Maison Beausoleil, Riverfront Park, 600 Grigsby Ave., Port Neches. 409-989-9211

The Cajun Heritage Festival is set for April 17 at Port Arthur’s Carl A. Parker Multipurpose Center.
For updates on the event’s schedule and status, visit cajunheritagefest.com.

Cajun Sounds Internet Radio streams music 24-7 at cajunsoundsinternetradio.com.

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This might be the prettiest body of water in Texas – from Texas Highways magazine

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/rivers/shhh-this-just-might-be-the-prettiest-body-of-water-in-texas/

Ranch Road 337 offers great views in the Hill Country

Ranch Road 337 leads to Camp Wood

View of the Nueces Canyon

Sweeping vistas of Nueces Canyon abound along RR 337

A young woman looks down into a swimming hole on the Nueces River

A swimming hole south of Camp Wood off Riverview Road.

Last summer, I drove into the Nueces Canyon
from Leakey on Ranch Road 337,

one of the storied Twisted Sisters drives favored by weekend motorcyclists. I was looking for what I suspected was one of the most pristine bodies of water in Texas, a Hill Country river hardly anyone ever talks about.

A map showing the roads and towns around the Nueces River in Texas

Illustration: Alan Kikuchi

I arrived in Camp Wood, population 736, a century-old town originally known as a hub for raising sheep and goats. Most of the storefronts along State Highway 55—the main drag dually known as Nueces Street—were occupied, but this did not feel like the Hill Country most tourists experience. None of the businesses were gussied up, and there wasn’t a winery or distillery for miles. The newest structure was a Family Dollar. The shuttered two-story hotel, the faded sign identifying the mohair business, the empty Lindbergh Park, and the mysterious point of interest with seven flagpoles on SH 55 just north of town serve as testaments to events that transpired here on the western edge of the Hill Country over the past 250 years or so.

These spots exist expressly because of the Nueces River and its adjoining creeks, springs, and tributaries. The river is why people settled in the remote Nueces Canyon and why they remain. It’s also why a growing number of intrepid travelers are passing on popular Hill Country destinations to play in Camp Wood, as well as Barksdale, Montell, and points in between.

I’m a spring-fed freshwater swimming nut. Rivers and creeks are my thing, as long as they’re unspoiled, untamed, and unchlorinated—the clearer, the better. The sweetest water I’ve ever seen was on a ranch near the headwaters of the West Fork of the Nueces, out in the middle of nowhere. The water, fresh and infused with ozone, even smelled amazing, like a crashing wave at the beach, minus the salt. I wanted to know if the main channel of the Nueces River, about 20 miles south of its headwaters, was as clear, clean, and dreamy to swim in as the neighboring Frio and Devils rivers.

My guide was Jim Holder, a chirpy, suspenders-wearing board member for the local volunteer group installing exhibits and signage for Mission San Lorenzo de La Santa Cruz, a public archeological site near the banks of the Nueces. Holder is a retired school teacher and businessman whose kinfolk go back to the 1880s around these parts. He attended elementary school here before moving away and returned as a retiree eight years ago. Holder enjoys life in Camp Wood.

Various people wade and swim into The Quince on the Nueces River

Chilling in The Quince

“The smaller the town, the more people want to visit,” he noted, as we headed north of town to Camp Wood Springs, aka Old Faithful Springs, a couple hundred yards from the river. “Until two years ago, this was the sole source of drinking water for the town,” Holder said of the gin-clear water in the small pond.

Holder guided me to Barksdale, four miles north of Camp Wood, to look at more springs. We took Ray McDonald Ranch Road off SH 55 past a low-water bridge and across a field of white rubble deposited by the October 2018 floods. The actual river was a thin channel maybe 20 feet wide in the rubble, wedged against a low limestone shelf. As the westernmost Hill Country river, constantly rechanneled by big floods that periodically tear through the basin, the Nueces’ riparian landscape is minimalist: white rocks of all sizes, with occasional stands of hackberry, sycamore, oak, and pecan. It reminded me of the Greek islands.

Holder told me this was one of his favorite places on the river to visit. We parked and I had a swim. The water was brisk for a Texas river in August and practically see-through with almost unlimited visibility. A few small bass and cichlids congregated around rare patches of vegetation.

If I lived here, I’d swim laps every day I could, I thought, as I chugged down and up the narrow channel. The water was that close to perfection. While I swam, Holder read Paul Horgan’s book Great River, about the Rio Grande. “I can spend two hours here every day, easy,” he said.

Compared to Hill Country rivers to the east, the Nueces is relatively unpeopled. The dearth of attractions beyond the water is no liability; it’s an asset.

The next stop was the former site of Mission San Lorenzo de La Santa Cruz, just north of the Camp Wood town limits on the west side of SH 55. Situated on a small ridge above the east bank of the Nueces River, the empty but overgrown grounds sandwiched between two rural residences would have been easy to miss if not for seven flagpoles by the highway. “Those are the six flags over Texas,” Holder said. “Plus, the Lipan Apache had their own flag.”

The water was brisk for a Texas river in August, and practically see-through with almost unlimited visibility. If I lived here, I’d swim laps every day I could, I thought, as I chugged down and up the narrow channel. The water was that close to perfection.

Jim Holder stands by the water of the Nueces

Jim Holder knows the ways of the Nueces

The outside of Two Fat Boys BBQ

Two Fat Boys BBQ on State Highway 55

Lush growth near Old Faithful Springs, which feeds the Nueces

Old Faithful Springs feeds the Nueces and nurtures riparian habitat

The site was originally excavated in 1962 by Curtis Tunnell and a Texas Memorial Museum field crew from the University of Texas at Austin. Over the past two summers, it has been reexamined by Tamra Walter of Texas Tech University along with the Texas Archeological Society, which had 300 volunteers camping near the location while doing excavation work. Interpretive signage will be installed, Holder
promised, as a manner of explaining the site’s deep connection to the river.

Young men jump off of a rock cliff into the water of Lake Nueces

Jumping from a cliff into Lake Nueces

Back in Camp Wood, we turned west and followed a dirt road maybe a half-mile to The Quince. This is the town’s sparkling swimming hole, hollowed from a bed of gravel by the sycamore-shaded banks of the Nueces and named for its 15-foot depth. Heading south on SH 55, we hit water crossings for the next 19 miles. On the dirt path of County Road 416 South, the southern extension of Wes Cooksey Park Road, Holder suddenly cautioned, “Slow down, slow down. STOP!”

The road abruptly ended. A 50-foot-long low-water bridge, built five years ago, had both ends washed out by the October 2018 deluge. The route was impassable. The washed-out bridge is now a choice slab for river swimming.

Nine miles south of Camp Wood, we stopped at a clearing on the east side of the highway with four historical markers, three of them faded and tilted. The markers identified the second Spanish mission in Nueces Canyon, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón. Unlike Mission San Lorenzo, Señora de la Candelaria completely disappeared as the adobe eroded into the terrain.
Holder turned around and pointed across the highway. “That’s Montell,” he said.

Back when I conjured my first “Top Ten Swimming Holes in Texas” list, for the June 1985 issue of Texas Monthly, I had one major omission. Liz Rogers, then a hard-charging attorney in El Paso, told me I should have written about her family place on a creek that fed the Nueces in her hometown of Montell. It was the best swimming hole anywhere, she contended. I couldn’t include Montell, I told her, since it was on private property. More than 40 years later, making my way downriver from swimming hole to swimming hole, I appreciated Rogers’ passion for the water.

The heart of the settlement of Montell is a stout, rectangular old stucco building identified as the Montell Country Club. Built as a one-room schoolhouse in the early 1920s, the building was converted into a community center after the school closed. “That country club is the reason I had no idea that country clubs usually connote wealth,” Rogers told me. “The canyon can be insular,” she allowed. “But it was a beautiful place to grow up. We were surrounded by people that pushed us and cared about us.”

Holder and I drove 9 miles south to Nineteen Mile Crossing, where Nueces Canyon flattens. We then looped back to Camp Wood and Leon Klink Street, just west of Nueces Street. Leon Klink Street was named for the pilot and airplane owner who flew with 22-year-old Charles Lindbergh when their Canuck biplane accidentally landed in a field north of Camp Wood in 1924.

“This was where the plane landed, crashed, and took off,” Holder explained while slow-cruising Leon Klink Street. He pointed out the vacant site of Warren Puett’s hardware store, which the biplane crashed into while attempting takeoff. Lindbergh and Klink were forced to stick around and wait for a propeller replacement and materials for wing repair. “That was the two-story Fitzgerald Hotel where Klink and Lindbergh stayed,” Holder said, pointing to a one-story, blue-green house behind a white picket fence. Three years after the Camp Wood ordeal, Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

The past in Nueces Canyon remains shrouded in a tangle of overgrowth and mystery. But I didn’t spend too much time wondering about it. There was more swimming to do.

People lounge in shallow areas along the Nueces River

Lounging in the shallows

A view of the hills upstream from the Camp Wood Hills low-water bridge

Upstream view from the Camp Wood Hills low-water bridge

The Nueces River winds and snakes through the hills

The river as it emerges out of the hills

A young women snorkels in the clear blue water of the Nueces River

Snorkeling in glassy water

The naming of rivers, along with mountains, valleys, and other natural landmarks, is often a perk reserved for their conquerors. That’s why you never hear about the Chotilapacquen, as the Nueces was known to the Coahuiltecan-speaking locals. They were defeated by the Spanish, whose name prevailed.

The Spanish explorer Alonso de León named it “Nueces” for the abundant pecan groves he observed along the river’s banks. Other Spanish explorers mapped the river upstream from Corpus Christi Bay across the Brush Country of South Texas to the westernmost canyon of the Hill Country and its headwaters, 2,400 feet above sea level and 315 miles away. Along the journey upstream, the river disappeared for stretches. Around present-day Uvalde, the water was startlingly clear and surprisingly abundant. Upstream, the river frequently vanished under piles of gravel and rocks, again and again, only to reappear a few hundred yards later.

The early Spanish explorers chose a location 30 miles downstream from the headwaters, just downstream from Camp Wood Springs, which provided a constant source of water. There, in January 1762, Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz was founded by a Spanish commander with the help of a Franciscan missionary. The mission aimed to spread Christianity while offering shelter and protection to the Lipan Apache, who were being harassed by Comanche and other hostile tribes. The establishment of the mission—at least 14 adobe and limestone structures—came four years after Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá near present-day San Saba was destroyed by the Comanche. The Comanche were angered by the alliance the Lipan Apache, their enemy, made with the Spanish.

Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón, a companion mission 10 miles south, was established two weeks after San Lorenzo. Within seven years, both were abandoned. Two smallpox epidemics, Comanche attacks, and the realization that the Lipan Apache weren’t interested in converting to Christianity prompted the retreat. The closings in Nueces Canyon marked the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire’s expansion into Texas from Mexico.

Following the end of the Texas Revolution, in 1836, Mexico regarded the Nueces River as the southern border of the breakaway territory. That is, until the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, formalizing the southern boundary as the Rio Grande. In 1857, the U.S. Army established Camp Wood, near the site of Mission San Lorenzo, as a deterrent to Native American raids. But the camp was abandoned at the start of the Civil War. The town of Camp Wood was eventually founded in 1921 as the railhead for logging cedar.

The past in Nueces Canyon remains shrouded in a tangle of overgrowth and mystery. But I didn’t spend too much time wondering about it. There was more swimming to do.

A person in a floppy sun hat looks out over the still water at Lake Nueces

Kayaking on Lake Nueces, south of Camp Wood.

I returned to Nueces Canyon a few weeks after visiting with Holder. I wanted to drive from the headwaters down toward Camp Wood, a dramatic drop of 1,000 feet in elevation. I came this time to meet the River Whisperer.

Sky Jones-Lewey, a chestnut-haired 60-something whose steely eyes portray a no-nonsense demeanor, lives on a ranch at the south end of Nueces Canyon. I call her the River Whisperer because she has spent most of her life learning about the Nueces River and all things riparian. She shares that knowledge as resource protection and education director for the Nueces River Authority. Her publication Your Remarkable Riparian: A Field Guide to Riparian Plants Within the Nueces River Basin of Texas is a bible of information about Texas river sedges, grasses, ferns, woody plants, and trees.

The Nueces is Jones-Lewey’s river. She took me to its edge, just downstream from the low-water crossing in the Camp Wood Hills subdivision west of Camp Wood. We parked in a cleared lot she said used to be a dumping ground—“trash, animals, everything”—but is becoming a county park. I was surprised to find such a great spot to take a swim, which I promptly did after she offered her mask and snorkel. As I immersed, I thought back to the detailed explanation of the Nueces’ immaculate state Jones-Lewey emailed me in advance of my trip.

“Nueces basin headwater streams (Nueces, Frio, Sabinal, etc.) are so incredibly clear because they are naturally carrying almost no nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus,” she wrote, “and so far, no nutrient-rich wastewater has been allowed to be added to any of them.” According to Jones-Lewey, the towns and camps across the Nueces headwaters utilize the soil, via land application, for their wastewater disposal, with zero discharge into the river.

The clarity of the Nueces, she continued, has to do with the river’s unique underwater landscape. “The base of the aquatic food web in this desert is a delicate community of periphyton (algae, bacteria, and other microbes) that have found ways to prosper on bare rock. These plant-like organisms are harvested by teams of tiny specialized May and Caddis fly larvae, beetles, and snails that are in turn eaten by the Nueces plateau shiner, Spring salamanders, and other endemic species.”

Between dips in the river, we discussed water, riparian habitat, and humans’ relationship to and impact on the environment. The good news is, while some rivers and waterways in Texas are either polluted, compromised, or threatened, the rivers of the Nueces basin—the Sabinal, Frio, and Nueces—don’t attract near the number of visitors that the Guadalupe and Colorado river basins do, although prime swim spots get crowded on summer weekends.

“This is the last of the pristine rivers in Texas,” Jones-Lewey said during one swimming break. “It’s extremely clean.”

Robert Mace, a hydrologist who is executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos, agrees. “Due to its rural and remote locale, and the perpetual gnawing of water against the limestones of the Edwards Plateau,” he said, “the headwaters of the Nueces are among the most pleasing in the state.”

This is in large part due to the work of Jones-Lewey, who led the Nueces River Authority’s efforts to help persuade the Texas Legislature to ban driving in riverbeds. Sitting on the rocky beach at water’s edge, she illustrated why, scraping away large, dry rocks at our feet to reveal pebbles of wet gravel underneath. “The river’s here, too,” she said. “We just can’t see it with all these rocks in the way.”

The Nueces was all that I thought it would be: some of the best swimming around, with calm and cool waters, free of debris and with clear visibility. Hovering below the surface, rhythmically reaching one arm out after the other, steadily paddling my extended toes, I felt like I was floating in a state of suspended animation. Locals are cautiously optimistic the river will continue to allow a magical experience. Awareness about respecting and protecting it has been raised, slowly but surely.

“The river’s in good shape because there are miles and miles of undisturbed streambed,” Jones-Lewey said. “People have not done anything to it. So far.”

The love for the river is deep and wide, and lives on forever in Nueces Canyon High’s school song:

Down below the plains of Texas, /
where the hills arise, / there’s a land of
sparkling waters, / canyons and blue
skies. / Ring ye Nueces High with music, /
we praise your power and might. / Hail
to thee Nueces Panthers, / hail to Blue
and White. / FIGHT PANTHERS! / FIGHT
PANTHERS! / FIGHT! / FIGHT! / FIGHT!

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National Public Radio Music: How Austin Got Weird

NPR Music link

Music Features
How Austin Got Weird
March 15, 20199:26 AM ET

Joe Nick Patoski

Austin is a lot more than just the annual stampede of South By Southwest currently enveloping it, which the event has done with ever-increasing intensity since 1987. But how did this city, one that has such an ineffable but palpable personality and spirit, become what it is — for better and worse? Joe Nick Patoski’s recent book, Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers & Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas, answers the question both empirically and spiritually, tracing the many people and the many places they built along the way towards establishing this weird, idiosyncratic, flat little planet. Patoski’s book covers a lot of dusty ground — too much for a simple excerpt. Instead, we’ve put together a series of smaller pieces from the book that, taken together, help explain what went on, and is going on, down there. — Andrew Flanagan

Land, cattle, oil, and gas built Texas.

The creative mind and a strong sense of place made Austin Austin.

It was always an outsider’s city, contrarian and tolerant by nature, a refuge apart from the state surrounding it.

Physical location had everything to do with it. Austin was about as pleasant as Texas could be in its rugged, semiarid, sun-scorched splendor. A river ran through the heart of the city, several lakes spread out upstream, and the urban grid was laced with still-abundant creeks and springs winding through forested hills pocked with hidden valleys and canyons. Stunning overlooks tantalized the eyes. The natural beauty was obvious.

The landscape in and around Austin could be described as pretty, an adjective not often used to describe the natural surroundings of Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Midland, Lubbock, Port Arthur, or other Texas cities — even San Antonio.

Austin looked like nowhere else in this particular corner of the world because it was where five distinct eco-regions converged — the Edwards Plateau, South Texas Brush Country, Western Gulf Coastal Plain, Texas Blackland Prairie, and East Texas Woodlands. The Balcones Fault uplift, where the landmass rose abruptly out of the coastal plain, began less than a mile west of the capitol. Oaks flourished in the thin layer of soil that covered the limestone and granite subsurface of the region. The Hill Country’s Swiss-cheese-like karst topography harbored an abundance of caves and underground pools that emerged at the surface in the forms of artesian springs that fed the region’s extensive system of creeks and rivers. Whenever heavy rains fell on the rocky undulating hills west of Austin, the steep terrain transformed in a matter of minutes into Flash-Flood Alley, one of the most dangerous flood-prone areas of the United States.

Overall, the climate was tolerable enough — and the hills, woodlands, creeks, rivers, and lakes of Austin were inviting enough — that locals responded to the environment in a manner that seemingly escaped folks living elsewhere in Texas. People in Dallas and Houston worked harder, Austinites liked to reason, because those places were so butt-ugly; there was nothing worth looking at, much less playing in, so a person might just as well keep their nose to the grindstone. Compared to those places, Austin sometimes felt so downright idyllic that work could be distracting. Why slave and toil in the blazing July heat when you could be immersed in the clear, cool sixty-eight degree artesian waters of Barton Springs, the soul of Austin and its wellspring of cool?

Don Hyde traded mescaline for the last of the high-quality batch of White Lightning LSD that had been made for the Human Be-In in 1967, one of several events where crowds converged to hear live music and trip on hallucinatory acid. He decided to try to replicate what he saw going on in San Francisco by opening the Vulcan Gas Company in a former dry goods store at 316 Congress Avenue, the low-rent part of the grand avenue, in the fall of 1967. The Vulcan featured live music and psychedelic light shows with the unspoken understanding that the music and the lights were a whole lot more fun under the influence of LSD, which Hyde had plenty of — particularly the Clearlight, or Windowpane, variety. Joining Hyde in running the Vulcan were Houston White, Gary Maxwell-Scanlon, and Sandy Lockett. Doug Brown and George Majewski helped set up concessions.

The Vulcan became home to a wide array of bands, including the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the first psychedelic band anywhere, led by a Travis High School dropout named Roky Erickson and Tommy Hall, a UT philosophy major who played electric jug. Their slash-and-burn single “You’re Gonna Miss Me” actually snuck onto the Top 40 pop music chart, and they sold out the club three nights in a row before the band fell apart.

Touring bands such as Steve Miller and the Velvet Underground, and bands that rarely toured, like the Fugs, an obscenity-slinging New York street band led by poet Ed Sanders (who were barely known outside Greenwich Village), played the Vulcan in front of full houses. Hyde brought in blues players Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Big Joe Williams, and John Lee Hooker— who requested Mexican food when Hyde picked him up at the bus station. The Texas blues institutions Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb appeared so frequently they were regarded as family.

The Vulcan functioned as more than a music venue to the regulars who frequented the place. It was a touchstone of all the things they heard were going on in California and in a few other hip pockets of the country, a cool place to hang among like-minded people, maybe score some drugs, and have a good time. Authorities in Austin viewed the Vulcan as some kind of den of iniquity crawling with dirty hippies zonked out on dope. They were half right.

Willie Nelson planted roots in Austin after his house outside of Nashville had burned down. People were still leaving for various reasons, but just as many were filtering in. Only these weren’t the traditional instate malcontents for whom Austin was the only place in Texas tolerable enough to live in, but increasingly, interesting people from outside of Texas.

The rest of Texas would derisively refer to the People’s Republic of Austin, a label that locals wore as proudly as the Keep Austin Weird bumper sticker they later embraced. Those same detractors streamed into Austin to party whenever the occasion called for it, because even rednecks, peckerwoods, bulletheads, and reactionaries recognized that Austin people knew how to have a good time.
The Follow-Up
The Record
The Follow-Up

They were all cut from the same cloth: Jacob Harrell, Mirabeau Lamar, Angelina Eberly, Elizabet Ney, O. Henry, the Lomaxes; the academics and philosophers Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb; the yodeler Kenneth Threadgill; Hattie Valdes, whorehouse madam and friend of state legislators; Chano Cadena, Cowboy Donley, Lonnie Guerrero, and Johnny Degollado, the fathers of Austin mexicano music; Hemann Sweatt, the first black man to attend the university; professional football’s first black defensive star Dick “Night Train” Lane; Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the Houston orator and legislator who chose to spend her post-politics life in an Austin bungalow; the Negro Baseball League Hall of Famer Willie Wells; the blacklisted storyteller and humorist John Henry Faulk; the cartoonist Roy Crane; the jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham; bootmaker Charlie Dunn and saddlemaker Buck Steiner; the photographer Russell Lee; the sculptor Charles Umlauf; and B. L. Joyce, the L. C. Anderson High School marching band director and future arranger and writer for Motown Records. They were outsiders, even if they grew up in Austin, so set in their own peculiar ways that this was the only place where they could work out their ideas and put them into action. They were all part of the prequel of what was to come.

Music was considered a hobby. Musicians had day jobs. A cover charge higher than two dollars was considered excessive. Writing was a pursuit for the well-educated, highly refined, and sufficiently bankrolled. The mid-century-modern thousand-seat Americana Theater with a seventy-millimeter screen was the coolest thing going in film. H-E-B supermarkets did not sell beer or wine, and closed on Sundays. The Made-in-Austin IBM self-correcting Selectric typewriter was the latest technological innovation. The wave of change that swept through San Francisco in the late sixties didn’t reach Austin full on until the early seventies. In the tradition of the African-American celebration of Juneteenth, when news of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves reached Texas two-and-a-half years after the fact, at the end of the Civil War, change often came a little bit slower in Texas. But once that wave finally did crash ashore, it did so with dramatic flourish, spawning new, not-necessarily-obvious institutions, starting with the Armadillo World Headquarters that eventually reimagined Austin into the all-purpose Alternative City.

The peace and love experiment that started in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in 1966 didn’t turn out all that well, considering the violence that broke out at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont and insipid, indulgent rock bands such as Journey and Huey Lewis that came along after the Summer of Love. What began with the Cosmic Cowboy in Austin in 1970 was still playing out well into the twenty-first century in the forms of Americana and roots music, with an eternal constant named Willie Nelson. In Austin, everyone was either in a band or knew someone in one.
The Struggles Of Austin’s Music Scene Mirror A Widened World
The Record
The Struggles Of Austin’s Music Scene Mirror A Widened World

Music, not politics, defined Austin’s counterculture. After the hippies and pickers came the slackers, overeducated deadbeats who approached film and life in general with the same enthusiasm that music clubbers had for rock shows at 2:00 a.m. The geeks who arrived next overwhelmed and outnumbered them all, shapeshifting the culture, the economy, and the city. All these outsiders built their own alternative communities and institutions.

Their cumulative vision of Austin represented the Other Texas that was progressive, forward-thinking, innovative, and environmentally aware, with an abundant population of smart, creative minds, built upon a tradition of tolerance and openness to new ideas and new people, and a strong attachment to place.

The people and institutions here made an impact in spite of Texas, and in spite of the business and political establishment. Artists, creators, and entrepreneurs were by nature outsiders. The hippies, pickers, slackers, and geeks who made Austin Austin fit right in because they didn’t fit in anywhere else. Politicians, dealmakers, insiders, and bigwigs were beside the point; those were folks who largely resisted creative change, rather than fostered it. But they served a purpose by giving the creators something to rebel against, providing motivation and permission to paint outside the lines.

Music mecca, film industry hangout, source point of the retail organic food movement, high-tech hub and game development hotbed, noncorporate tourist destination, and, for at least a fortnight every March, the Coolest Place in the World.

A bird’s-eye view of Austin, the new capital of Texas, circa 1840.
Historical/Corbis via Getty Images

Andy Langer arrived in 1990, during what he described as that brief window where old Austin and new Austin intertwined before high tech, money, and hubris overwhelmed everything.

“There was this three-year lull before the clubs in the Warehouse District started catering to the tech money,” said Langer, a native of New York’s Long Island, during a break in his KGSR radio program. In fact, there were no clubs in the Warehouse District south of Fourth Street and west of Congress Avenue at the time, except for Liberty Lunch. The blocks between Liberty Lunch on Second Street and Ruta Maya Coffee on Fifth Street were either dark or parking lots.

The fast money that accompanied high tech explained all the bars that had sprung up west of Congress and south of Sixth. Oilcan Harry’s, Waterloo Brewing Company, Lavaca Street Bar, and the Bitter End catered to this new high-tech crowd, followed by the openings of Fado, Speakeasy, Ringside at Sullivan’s, the B-Side, and Qua, with its translucent dance floor built on top of a shark tank. They were all chasing “the first wave of young people coming to Austin who didn’t give a sh** about music,” Andy Langer said. “These guys were working twenty hours a day and had four hours to party. They didn’t like music. Music got in the way. They just wanted to get laid.”

Spoon, Austin’s most popular band of the late nineties and early aughts, came out of the tech world. Lead singer, guitarist, and main composer Britt Daniel had been a sound designer and composer for Richard Garriott’s Origin Systems, creating sound effects and music for computer games. Daniel was BOI — Born on Galveston Island — and grew up in Temple, about an hour north of Austin. The son of a neurologist, Daniel came to Austin in 1989 as a freshman at the University of Texas. He worked as a DJ on the student radio station and played in bands. Lean, lanky, and laconic in a studiously detached, indie rock kind of way, Daniel packed an emotive, gritty voice that sometimes slipped into a falsetto that could effortlessly wrap itself around intelligent, kicky lyrics like a comfortable slipper.

Daniel met drummer Jim Eno, his principal collaborator, in a band called the Alien Beats. Eno had worked in microchip design for Compaq in Houston before hiring on with Motorola in Austin. Daniel and Eno started recording together as Spoon in 1992. They built a buzz that extended far beyond Austin with an EP and then with a full album Telefono, released in 1996 on Matador, a beloved New York–London rock indie label whose principal owner, Gerard Cosloy, would relocate to Austin in 2004. Nothing about Spoon adhered to Austin or Texas stereotypes (especially after Daniel moved to Portland, Oregon). No one wore cowboy hats or bothered to invoke Willie. Spoon preferred performing in suits.

The openings of Emo’s in 1992 at the corner of Red River and Sixth, with three separate stages among a warren of rooms, and Stubb’s, two blocks north, an outdoor concert facility with an inside music room and barbecue restaurant in the former location of the One Knite, fostered a vibrant scene of alternative bands, punk rockers, and a hodgepodge of fringe music, occasionally interspersed with touring acts, which usually played the big stage at Stubb’s. Within fifteen years, Stubb’s and other clubs would be shadowed by residential high-rises occupied by tenants including a few who did not enjoy hearing loud music at night, much less care about living in the Live Music Capital of the World.

The city embraced music as part of its civic image and made it a prime selling point by voting for a new official motto for Austin in 1991: The Live Music Capital of the World. Now the same City of Austin was kicking out one of Austin’s most popular music venues from city-owned property deemed too expensive for a music club.
Margaret Moser, Queen Of Austin, Is Dancing In The Light
The Record
Margaret Moser, Queen Of Austin, Is Dancing In The Light

The marginal economics of operating a club poorly reflected music’s impact on the city and its culture. Frequently cited as being one of the best places for jobs in the nation during the early twenty-first century, and as an urban environment with a high quality of life, Austin’s unlikely stature circled back to music. The first thing arrivals saw stepping off their flight at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was a sign identifying that official motto: “The Live Music Capital of the World.”

No city in the United States had so much music in its DNA. Local music played on the airport’s sound system, and bands played live at Ray Benson’s Roadhouse in the terminal. Musicians gigged at the H-E-B Central Markets, Whole Foods Markets, and city council meetings. While hardly anyone was making a full-time living from their craft, on any given day or night, hundreds of people were standing by, ready to break out instruments and play for the fun of it.

You could say Austin was primed for the arrival of the sandy-haired kid from Plano in 1989, as much as the kid was primed for Austin. At the suburban high school he attended north of Dallas, football was everything. A student competing in triathlons and bicycle races was considered, well, exotic, if not a freak. So he didn’t mind spending part of his senior year training in Colorado with the US Olympic development cycling team, preparing for the Sprint Triathlon National Championships, which he would win later that fall for his first national title, while planning his exit from Plano. “The day after I graduated, I had a U-Haul loaded up, and headed south,” [Lance] Armstrong said.

In 2015 Live Nation, the biggest concert promoters in the world, paid $125 million dollars to acquire a 51 percent share of C3 Presents, the promoters seeded by Lance Armstrong to create ACL Fest. The three Charlies would never have to work again, if they didn’t want to work.

Festivals were the thing now, not clubs, more evidence of Austin’s scaling up. ACL Fest expanded to two weekends in 2012. Residents living near the park complained of festival fatigue and demanded the city return the space to its original intended use as a park. But the crowds kept coming. A whole lot of them had seen Austin City Limits. Now they wanted to see for themselves.

The first South by Southwest Music and Media Conference almost didn’t happen. The registration system set up for the event failed, causing lines to back up. Instead of the anticipated 150 registrants showing up, 700 queued up to pay for credentials admitting them to 15 panel discussions, the clubs where bands were playing, a backyard day party at the residence of punk rocker Jean Caffeine, and the keynote address by Huey P. Meaux.

After Meaux spoke, a young man approached him in the hotel lobby to ask, “Is it true that payola is dead?” Meaux shot him a puzzled look. “Dead?” he said. “I didn’t even know it was sick, little bruddah.”

That night, the Tailgators, Doctors Mob, LeRoi Brothers, Wagoneers, Dino Lee, Lou Ann Barton, Walter Hyatt, Two Nice Girls, Leroy Parnell, Ray Campi, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Bobby Bridger, Vince Bell, and Angela Strehli, and half of the 177 acts booked for the festival performed in 13 clubs in and around downtown. The audience was a mix of locals familiar with the club scene, joined by music lovers from around the state and around the country, many of whom paid ten dollars for wristbands that would admit them into SXSW-sponsored clubs. Even the odd A&R record company person, has-been record producer, hustling publicist, and wan- nabe music industry executive could be spotted in the crowds. The music industry had come to Austin.
YouTube

All in all, the response was positive, considering it was spring break week, when the University of Texas usually emptied out and thousands of students headed to the Texas coast or to the mountains. Student-oriented businesses in Austin typically shuttered during spring break. Antone’s, the Continental Club, Liberty Lunch, Texas Tavern, and Steamboat would have otherwise cut back their schedules or closed for the week. Instead, almost every one of the sanctioned clubs was crowded, some at capacity.

Like just about everything else in alternative Austin, it started with music.

For several years, Roland Swenson attended the New Music Seminar, which started in 1980 in New York as a means of connecting indie bands with the music industry. He was part of an official delegation from Austin attending the New Music Seminar in the summer of 1986 that led to the announcement that a regional version of the NMS would be held in Austin in the spring of 1987. It would be called the New Music Seminar Southwest.

But the New Music Seminar organizers dropped the idea, citing internal organizational challenges, including, according to their critics, way too much partying. Roland Swenson, the Austin Chronicle, and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau picked up the ball and ran with it. Screw New York. They’d do their own music conference.

The Chronicle would sponsor the regional seminar. Publisher Nick Barbaro got on board when Swenson suggested ending the gathering on Sunday afternoon with a barbecue and softball game, two of Barbaro’s favorite activities. Black, a hardcore cinephile, came up with the name South by Southwest, a riff on the Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest. The Austin CVB kicked in funding to make the conference happen.

By the fifth year, when 2,833 registered for the music conference, South by Southwest hit its first ceiling. The Austin Fire Marshall strictly enforced capacity limits in clubs. Wristband holders, theoretically guaranteed admission to all participating music venues, couldn’t get in venues because capacity had been reached, and music conference registrants with their platinum badges were getting priority access.

Some bands got angry about where and when they were booked. One club, Abratto’s, charitably described as a “disco meat market” by writer Michael Corcoran and not a live music venue to begin with, withdrew from SXSW after its first night of showcasing bands. Abratto’s had been designated as the site for hardcore punk bands from Houston, per SXSW schedulers. The music and venue did not mix well. Acts scheduled to play Abratto’s on the following nights, including a hot female country ensemble known as the Dixie Chicks, ended up performing in hotel conference rooms instead. Somebody somewhere got so pissed off by something SXSW did that they set fire to a stack of copies of the Austin Chronicle at the entrance of South by Southwest offices on Fortieth Street, causing extensive smoke and water damage.

Backlash had been part and parcel of SXSW from the very beginning, per the SXSWsux and South by So What? epithets bandied about by the whiners.

SXSW 1995 marked the first year the event was acknowledged as the biggest alternative music gathering going. Its inspiration, the New Music Seminar in New York, folded. Still, for all the hype focused on Austin, its vibrant music scene, and the outsider spirit permeating South by Southwest, no significant acts had been discovered and signed to a big record contract at SXSW, which supposedly was what the conference was all about.

The appearance of Willie Nelson, Austin’s music icon, performing for Microsoft’s sponsored closing party spoke volumes of the merging sensibilities. Willie wasn’t interested in playing SXSW for $250 or six wristbands. But he was willing to play for Microsoft in exchange for a substantial five-figure fee.

SXSW directors made a conscious decision to allow corporate sponsors and record labels to present music showcases of their own choosing. That brought in bigger, established name acts, but it came at the expense of unknown music acts trying to get their foot in the door and stand out among the noise. SXSW critics pounced, accusing the indie music festival of selling out. Maybe so, but the move helped widen SXSW’s appeal. Foreign music delegations, sponsored by their countries, became draws unto themselves. Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Japan, and Australia all had their own showcase nights, as well as their own day parties.

South by Southwest Interactive, the stepchild afterthought to music and film when it had been rolled out in 1994, turned into SXSW’s driving force. Registration numbers blew past music and film. Like music and film, SXSW Interactive was the alternative to mainstream technology conventions and meet-ups such as the COMDEX Show in Las Vegas that big tech companies dominated. At SXSWi, an independent developer or a startup had a chance to network, be heard, learn something from a panel discussion, make an impact, and maybe even cut a deal. From an Austin perspective, high tech was the new punk rock: it bothered and sometimes upset people who didn’t understand it. Those who did understand dove in full-on without hesitation, like a stage-diving, mosh-pit tumblerocker.

Louis Black pinpointed 2008 as the year South by Southwest reached critical mass. Registration reached 12,651. Among them was Jeff Bezos, founder of online retail giant Amazon, who bought a walkup registration badge and grazed SXSW minus an entourage. Standstill traffic, over owing sidewalks, and venues filled to capacity were the new normal. The crowd counts were up everywhere, with even more events, more venues, more parties, and more everything, from TV food personality Rachael Ray’s day party to Airbnb’s launch with two customers — one being Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.

… a thin, well-tattooed German and a hulking Englishman with a shaved head and multiple piercings stood toe to toe. They both clutched cups of beer as they studied a small booklet while talking animatedly. They seemed to be having a good time, heads nodding in unison, a smile now and then, until the German suddenly stood back, shaking his head and waving his hands while muttering “No, no, no,” in thickly-accented English. The two weren’t arguing about music, their competing meet-ups and agendas, their countries, or which bands to see that night. They were arguing about the best breakfast tacos in Austin.

Back at the convention center, a passel of geeky kids kept their eyes on their smartphones, trying the new app that let them know where all the free food and booze parties were that afternoon, and which parties had good bands playing. Several raised their heads from staring at the devices in their hand long enough to nod in agreement over another’s comment about how a talk she’d just heard was life-changing, before eyes returned to phones and thumbs typed out a shorthand tweet.

Pop-up stores sponsored by Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, AT&T, Levi’s, and CNN appeared on vacant lots, in empty storefronts, and in leased restaurants. The global brands showcased their newest products to their target audience’s tastemakers, who had conveniently appeared from all over the world specifically to sample the latest in music, media, film, technology, and culture.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama in Austin during South by Southwest conference.
Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

The event had come a long way. The keynote speaker at the first South by Southwest in 1987 was the independent record producer/hustler Huey P. Meaux, a twice-convicted felon.

The keynote speaker for the thirtieth edition of South by Southwest in 2016 was the President of the United States Barack Obama, who addressed the Interactive conference. The First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama delivered the keynote for the music conference.

“How do you top that?” a friend asked Roland Swenson at the softball tournament that closed out every South by Southwest.

Swenson, who appeared less tired than he did at this juncture in previous years, smiled inscrutably.

“We were working on the Pope.”
Austin to Atx
Austin to Atx

The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers, & Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas

by Joe Nick Patoski

Hardcover, 367 pages

Agents of creative change in Austin were neither obvious nor conspicuous. They weren’t attached to an institution, and their influence and impact could be dismissed as minimal. But those little things and those unsung people added up to cumulatively define and distinguish alternative Austin, which had become a tourist attraction unto itself.

For a half-century, creative minds altered and reshaped a bucolic, semi-sleepy, laid-back state capital city in the middle of America into a dynamic city-state of global importance and appeal.

Accompanying Austin’s ascendance was a significant spike in population, traffic, rents, and housing prices — the usual stuff that comes with economic growth. More and more newcomers didn’t care where they happened to be. Austin’s unique qualities, amenities, and attractions had nothing to do with them being where they were. They just wanted work. The city that had the lowest cost of living of the one hundred largest cities in the United States in 1970 happened to be the hottest jobs market in the United States during the aughts and teens.

Could a creative ethos continue driving the culture in a boomtown where money was held in higher regard than ideas? Wasn’t Austin becoming just like everywhere else?

The 2016 departure of Alejandro Escovedo, a hometown music hero since his arrival in 1983, was neither unusual nor much noticed. Escovedo simply found a more welcoming housing situation in Dallas. Half a year in, he said North Oak Cliff, a historically blue-collar part of Dallas where he resided, seemed more interesting and diverse than Austin. The time had come to move on.

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AUSTIN TO ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers, and Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas

My latest book, Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers & Geeks Who Transformed The Capital of Texas, published by Texas A&M University Press

With cover art by Austin poster artist Kerry Awn, and origin stories about music, writing, food, television, independent film, technology, food trailers, incubators, women’s roller derby, and the Cathedral of Junk, Austin to ATX explains how Austin became Austin, profiling the people behind its transformation and the institutions they created.

I’ll be doing a reading and signing on Wednesday February 13 at 7 pm at the Austin Public Library’s Central Library, in conjunction with the Austin Library Foundation. Michael Barnes of the Austin American-Statesman will moderate, Jon Dee Graham will provide the music, Book People is bringing books to sell, and I’ll be signing books afterward.

This is the tenth book I have authored and maybe the most fulfilling, since it’s taken a lot longer than anticipated, thanks to a three year pause to make and promote the documentary film Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Groove.

Books and Kindle version are available via Amazon, and Book People, Texas’s leading independent bookseller.

If you purchase a book from Amazon, please post a review once you’ve read the book, whether you liked it or not.

And for a signed copy, send me an email   joenickp@yahoo.com

 

Listen to the conversation Kevin Connor and I had talking about the book on Sun Radio here

And here’s Andy Langer and I doing the Texas Monthly podcast

Here’s what Kirkus Reviews says: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/joe-nick-patoski/austin-to-atx/

A searching character study of the lively Texas capital city.

Patoski (The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America, 2012, etc.) arrived in Austin in the shiniest days of its golden era, a time when every bar hosted live music and the city was “loose, easy, and cheap.” As a former music journalist–turned–alt-Texas enthusiast, he writes about everything that makes Austin what it is, from the paradise of Barton Springs to the moon towers and Austin City Limits. His approach is celebratory without being cloying, albeit with an elegiac closing that laments the sad fact that with economic and demographic growth, “Austin had arrived at the maturation/saturation point of a Manhattan or a San Francisco. Limits had been reached.” Anyone who’s tried to drive I-35 or find an affordable home in the city will appreciate the author’s appeal to the good old days. Along the way from then until now, Patoski hits all the bases, including the city’s culinary culture, a blend of the trendy and the new with reverence for the old and hand-rolled (especially when it comes to barbecued meats); Austin’s underappreciated literary culture (Patoski ranks this magazine among the city’s lights, along with writers such as Gary Cartwright and James Michener); the movie scene, dominated by Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez; and, of course, the music, with legendary places like Antone’s and the Armadillo World Headquarters giving hippies and rednecks a place to party together. Patoski works with a wealth of material that sometimes overpowers the narrative; the long sections on Whole Foods could have been cut in half without harm, and there’s a touch too much repetition of the idea of Austin’s uniqueness and the tragedy that it couldn’t have been kept weird. Still, if there’s excess, it’s appropriately Texas-sized and easily forgivable.

Fans of the place where “anybody who’s a little different runs…as fast as they can” will find much to like here.

Pub Date: Jan. 22nd, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-62349-703-3
Page count: 376pp
Publisher: Texas A&M Univ.
Review Posted Online: Dec. 31st, 2018

 

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Let’s go to Valentine, Texas for Valentine’s Day

valentines

The semi-ghost town of Valentine, 39 miles west of Marfa, is gonna be wide open for bidness Saturday February 14 for the big Big Bend Brewing Company Valentine’s Day Party and Dance at Valentine Merchantile. The music lineup includes Tessy Lou and the Shotgun Stars, Mike and the Moonpies, the Crooks, and the Joe Ely Band. The Texas Music Hour of Power will be broadcasting live from the event and taking listener dedications and shoutouts online (texas@marfapublicradio.org), and the Image Wranglers will be doing Picture Radio in a show of force.

It’s gonna be nothing but a good time. For info: www.valentinemercantile.com
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valcitylimits

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Bracken Bat Cave webcam

bat

I don’t do links often on this website, but this one, the Bracken Webcam, bears linking to:
http://batcon.org/index.php/get-involved/visit-a-bat-location/bracken-bat-cave/bracken-webcam.html

Bat Conservation International stewards the Bracken cave, where during warm months the largest concentration of mammals in North America – twenty million Mexican-free tail bats – emerge from the cave every evening in search of an evening meal of mosquitoes, moths, and other insects, ranging more than one hundred miles at time.

Between the overwhelming smell of bat guano, the sight of thousands of creatures swirling out of the cave, observed and coveted by snakes and raptors, may be the most miraculous event in nature I’ve ever witnessed.

The cave is a few miles from Interstate 35 north of San Antonio almost next door to the Natural Bridge Caverns and is in real danger of being encroached upon or wholly engulfed by housing subdivisions.
It’ll be interesting to see how that “progress” vs. miracle of nature battle plays out.

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