Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge – the Wild Rio Grande Valley

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Explore the wilderness and wildlife of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

Creature Comforts

By Joe Nick Patoski

A sunrise view of Laguna Madre from the Plover Point observation deck. Photo by Erich Schlegel; Illustration by Lin Jesse

An illustration of a swimming duck with a bright red head moving through tall grassy reeds

A redhead duck. Illustration by Lin Jesse

Beyond Laguna Madre,

on the ocean side of South Padre Island, a bank of cumulus clouds looms over the Gulf of Mexico. Morning light casts a palette of radiant oranges, yellows, pinks, and blues, minutes before the sun makes its debut above the clouds.

Sunrise in January is prime time at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley. The tropical humidity and heat, the norm from late March until November, abates, and the winter residents move in. From the Plover Point observation deck, the Laguna Madre —one of only four shallow, hypersaline bays in the world—shimmers with sublime views.

Living creatures are everywhere—in the water, on the land, in the sky. Songbirds flit out of the impenetrable thornscrub brush called the monte, while a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers pirouette around a Spanish dagger yucca. A clutch of shockingly pink roseate spoonbills stands out among hundreds of white egrets, herons, and ducks congregating in a shallow pond. On the shore of the laguna, shorebirds gingerly step in the shallows in search of breakfast. Redfish, too, their tails extending above the water surface as they feed on shrimp. A brown pelican spies a tailing redfish and quickly scoops it up. On the road through the thornscrub, rabbits and roadrunners crisscross the path where a brilliantly dark indigo snake has just slithered. Coyotes, whitetail deer, and nilgai antelope roam undisturbed across the open savannah. Butterflies and dragonflies flutter around by the dozens.

A collection of palm trees and grasses with water and cloudy sky in the background

Redhead Ridge on the shore of Laguna Madre. Photo by Larry Ditto

Welcome to the wildest part of the wild Rio Grande Valley, which offers a glimpse into the natural world that flourished across deep South Texas before it was settled, farmed, and developed. Coastal, tropical, jungle, and desert all at once, the Valley is where the two major North American migratory bird flyways converge, and it’s a crucial wintering grounds for waterfowl. Laguna Atascosa is at the center of the action.

The rapidly developing region is also attractive to humans. From 2000 to 2020, the Rio Grande Valley population—including Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties—grew 41% to 1.37 million people. According to the Texas Demographic Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the number is projected to grow another 15% to 1.58 million by 2050, depending on migration rates. But while habitat loss is the usual story in the booming RGV, Laguna Atascosa is all about rewilding.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established the refuge in 1946, carving about 11,000 acres from a World War II gunnery range to protect wintering bird habitat, primarily the redhead duck on Laguna Atascosa. Over the past two decades, assistance from groups including The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, along with settlement funds from the 2010 BP Oil Spill, have allowed the refuge to add over 50,000 acres to expand to more than 120,000 acres across multiple units. The South Padre Island Unit protects land on the northern end of the island, and the Bahia Grande Unit protects wetlands between Laguna Vista and Brownsville. Ongoing purchases are creating a new coastal corridor for wildlife to travel between patches of their fragmented habitat, including via special highway underpasses.

“There’s not a more significant place for wildlife diversity in Texas, and maybe the country, than the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from songbirds to ocelots to waterfowl,” says Jeff Francell, director of land protection for The Nature Conservancy in Texas. “Most of the native brush in the Valley was converted to farmland decades ago, and so to enhance the native wildlife populations, it’s important to take some of that land and restore it for wildlife. For example, one of the pieces of property we were able to acquire was an old shrimp farm, and we were able to buy part of it to provide a corridor for ocelots between Laguna Atascosa and Bahia Grande.”

Laguna Atascosa astounds in its diversity: 417 bird species, 130 butterfly species, 45 mammal species, 44 reptile species, and 450 plant species. And the refuge is far enough from the border to avoid lighting, walls, and other disruptive issues that have negatively impacted some refuges along the Rio Grande. Outside of a visitor center, a couple of roads, and a handful of overlooks, the refuge has very little infrastructure. Wildlife conservation is the priority. This is by far the biggest chunk of wild in the Rio Grande Valley

Two people, one with binoculars and another with a camera, look for birds along a watery shore

Birding on the tidal flats at South Bay by the Brownsville Ship Channel. Photo by Larry Ditto

About 15 minutes before daybreak, I meet the refuge’s visitor services manager, Georgie Garcia, in the visitor center parking lot and jump into his high-clearance pickup. Garcia, a Brownsville native and Iraq War vet, drives the truck across Buena Vista Road and opens the gate at the trailhead to Granjeno Trail, the access to Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. We continue to Plover Point to take in the sunrise before touring the heart of the refuge via roads, trails, and barely visible dirt tracks.

Garcia, one of seven employees, also maintains the trails with a brush cutter to keep the monte from encroaching, stocks the feeders and water features, conducts educational outreach, and coordinates the seasonal volunteers. The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group runs the bookshop in the visitor center, and volunteers help cover for Garcia whenever he is away from the service counter, which is the source of permits and information. Luckily, the service counter has a picture window that looks over a bird feeding station.

“Every day I bet my paycheck I’ll see a green jay,” Garcia says of the Neotropical bird rarely seen elsewhere in the United States. “There will be 20 on a feeder sometimes.”

The visitor center reopened in May after being closed for two years due to the pandemic. In 2019, the refuge restored its main thoroughfare, Buena Vista Road, from a potholed country road to a two-lane boulevard with bicycle lanes on both sides, along with eight large speed bumps to keep traffic under the 25-mph speed limit. The “Ocelot Crossing” signs are for real.

The park’s other road—Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive—closed to private motor vehicles in 2013 when a car hit and killed a lactating female ocelot. A 60-person tram operated on the loop seasonally in the 2010s until it broke down in 2018 and was declared beyond repair.

These days, hiking and cycling are the only ways to explore Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive and the 55 miles of other trails.

As we drive through two fallow fields lined with tree tubes containing seedlings and saplings of natives such as mesquite and hawthorn, Garcia says the refuge’s revegetation efforts have stepped up as more land has been added. “All that acquired property was ag fields,” he grins confidently. “Give it 10 years; it’ll be South Texas thornscrub.”

An illustration of a bird with dark brown wings, a white tuft, and small head with a beak sitting on a wooden branch

An Aplomado falcon. Illustration by Lin Jesse
A map of coastal Texas showing the Laguna Madre and Laguna Atacosa areas

Map illustration by Lin Jesse
A boat makes a wide white wake as it traverses a green channel

Boating the Stover Cove area on Laguna Madre. Photo by Erich Schlegel

The ocelot—a small, secretive spotted feline, about twice the size of a house cat—has become a symbol of the refuge. Laguna Atascosa is home to 30-35 ocelots, one of two breeding populations in the U.S.

In cooperation with the refuge, the Friends of LANWR group holds an annual Ocelot Conservation Day in March at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville—March 5 this year—with booths and presentations.

“We know the biggest problem is habitat loss,” Garcia says. “This past trapping season, they were able to trap six ocelots and put collars on them. The ocelot is an umbrella species; it’s at the top. If you restore their habitat, it’s going to help a lot of other South Texas species, some of them endangered or threatened.”

While making the rounds, Garcia chases off several cows that wandered in from a neighboring ranch, watches a gator snag an unsuspecting bird, and fetches the remnants of a mylar balloon snagged on a prickly pear.

We drive south to the 26,000-acre Bahia Grande Unit, an addition to the refuge that is west of State Highway 48 and the Brownsville Ship Channel.

An illustration of a large tortoise walking through green grasses and flowers

A Texas tortoise. Illustration by Lin Jesse

“This was a complete dust bowl,” Garcia says, gazing across rough vegetated lowlands spiked with yucca. “Now we’ve restored it to beautiful coastal prairie wetlands, with lomas, how it used to be.” Lomas are low vegetated hills that exist in only three places in the world. “We’re going to bring in some fresh water, which should balance out the salinity.” The Bahia Grande is hunting grounds for Aplomado falcons, which eat insects, lizards, birds, and small mammals.

We inspect a channel between two small inlets in the estuaries and watch a school of redfish forming a V as they move through. We stop near another small shallow lake, almost dry, and Garcia walks toward a sandy shelf, maybe 5 feet high. Beneath the shelf, dozens of perfectly circular beads no more than an eighth of an inch in diameter, each with a hole in the middle, are scattered in the sand around our feet.

“The thinking is this was on a trade route between the coast and the interior,” Garcia says. Once revegetation has taken hold and archeological work is complete in two to four years, Bahia Grande will have public access. For now, it is open to hunters on designated weekends in the winter.

A silhouette of a person riding a bicycle in front of a sunset

Cycling on Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. Photo by Eric Schlegel

Visiting Laguna Atascosa

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge offers a look at why the Rio Grande Valley was slow to be civilized for large-scale human population. What’s great for the creatures and critters translates to rough country for people—it’s hot, humid, windy, and buggy.

Park staff members recommend bringing a wide-brimmed hat, bug repellent, sunblock, long pants, high socks, and sturdy footwear to ward off ticks, chiggers, and snakes—regardless of the time of year.

The refuge doesn’t have food or drink for sale, and fuel is 15 miles away at the intersection of SH 100 and FM 510 west of Port Isabel. The nearest hospital is in Harlingen, 28 miles from the visitor center.

Admission costs $3 per vehicle. An annual pass is $10. The refuge trails are open daily, dawn to dusk. The visitor center opens Wed-Fri 7 a.m.-2 p.m. 22817 Buena Vista Boulevard, Los Fresnos. 956-748-3607; fws.gov/refuge/laguna-atascosa

The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group maintains a calendar of events and activities on its website, flanwr.org.

We don’t see a soul on our five-hour tour, except for a lone cyclist cruising along the back side of Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. He is clearly in the zone, steadily pedaling, lost in the rhythm and unaware of our truck inching up behind him. Garcia patiently keeps his distance for a few minutes, then gently taps his horn. The cyclist startles. He pulls over and grins as we pass.

The cyclist is Irv Downing, a 68-year-old former endurance racer who moved from South Padre to be closer to the refuge, which he cycles about “every other day.” Downing calls Laguna Atascosa his Serengeti. “The scenery, the setting, the laguna, it’s just spectacular,” he says. “My son was visiting from Seattle last week, and on our ride photographed 20 nilgai antelope.”

After talking to Downing, I figure I could bicycle this route too—if it wasn’t too windy, too hot, or too cold. “This is a difficult trail because of the distance and wind factor,” Garcia acknowledges. “The way to do this is on an electric bike.”

My ears perk up.

I couldn’t locate any e-bike rentals near the refuge, so I find one to borrow near my home in Wimberley and load it into my SUV. Back at the refuge, I meet photographer Erich Schlegel at the visitor center parking lot just before sunrise.

The narrow, paved route along Steve Thompson Scenic Drive is downright bucolic, especially with the rising sun casting a soft golden glow over the whole scene, straight out of a Van Gogh landscape. I pedal conventionally most of the way, twisting the accelerator handgrip whenever I lag behind Schlegel and whenever headwinds slow
my pace.

We cycle through the monte, up and down a loma, past prairies and estuaries, and along the shores of shallow lakes, bogs, mudholes, and wetlands. Wildlife stirs all along the way. Because we’re on bikes, the wildlife is more active, less oblivious to our presence, than when we were driving the route in a truck. We see several white-tailed deer scamper up from a creek bottom, followed by a herd of nilgai antelope cows who stroll across a grass prairie to meet up with a herd of nilgai bulls.

We cycle 13 miles in two hours including stops at Plover Point and Renee’s Overlook along the shore of the Laguna Madre. It’s a good workout, even with electric assistance. But it is nothing like the exhilaration I feel being there, passing the morning in that part of the Rio Grande Valley where the wild things are.

There is one caveat. No ocelot sighting. I reach out to Hilary Swarts, one of the refuge’s two wildlife biologists. Swarts is an ocelot specialist who has trapped and collared the cats on the refuge; she also documented the first ocelot kitten discovered on the refuge in about two decades.

Swarts, who has worked at the refuge for nine years, has spotted ocelots in the wild twice, one in July 2020 and one this past June, both near the visitor center. “Whenever I feel pessimistic, I remind myself they’re all over this refuge,” she says. “They’ve seen me more often than I’ve seen them. They could be staring at us right now.”

That’s the spirit of Laguna Atascosa.

“It’s that wild, that alive,” Swarts says. “And you don’t have to hike or bike to appreciatethat. Just plant yourself somewhere and watch.”

Laguna
Atascosa Wildlife

Birders are as hip to Laguna Atascosa as the birds are. The late Roger Tory Peterson, a pioneer of modern American bird-watching from New York, made six trips to the refuge in the 20th century in search of uncommon sightings. More than 400 bird species have been spotted at the refuge, including South Texas specialties such as green jays, Altamira orioles, and plain chachalacas.

Popular bird-watching sites include the visitor center, which is home to blinds, feeders, and water features; Kiskadee Trail, a paved, wheelchair-accessible path; and the Mesquite Trail loop and the Prairie Island viewing area.

Osprey Overlook, a covered platform with a sweeping vista of the 3,500-acre Laguna Atascosa, is a magnet for pelicans, herons, egrets, and, during winter, 85% of the redhead ducks in North America.

Endangered Aplomado falcons were introduced on the refuge in 1993 after being eradicated in most of the Southwest. Twenty-six pairs presently reside on the refuge, most around the Bahia Grande Unit.

Near Osprey Overlook is the trailhead to Alligator Pond, where alligators wallow in their element. And while you won’t likely see them, wild cats are out there too—bobcats, cougars, and ocelots.

Hunts, which take place on designated days between November and February, are managed to cull invasive hogs and nilgai antelope.

From the January 2023 issue
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The President’s Ranch Trail Drive – cruisin’ with LBJ

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/for-a-quick-road-trip-the-presidents-ranch-trail-takes-you-all-the-way-with-lbj/

from TexasHighways.com

The exterior of a white house with a green lawn and mature trees

Way back in 1967, local boosters in Gillespie, Blanco, and Hays counties got together and devised the President’s Ranch Trail, a 100-mile drive from Stonewall to San Marcos, tracing the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was in the last years of his term as president of the United States.

There were ceremonies and a map, but the trail never gained traction until after Johnson left office, when most of the significant sites went under the oversight of the National Park Service and Texas State Parks. Significant infrastructure to accommodate tourists has since been added. And it’s all free.

I was intrigued by Johnson, the 36th president of the United States and the first president from Texas. That lofty position assured a legacy, much of which is enshrined at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin.

But to fully appreciate the person, you need to visit the place where he came from, where the land and water and structures vividly tell the story of Johnson’s life. More than any single person, LBJ transformed his beloved Hill Country, bringing electricity and dependable water to people who had neither, then putting the region on the map as president, spending so much time at his Stonewall ranch, it became known as the Texas White House.

Studying the original map and factoring in modern road conditions and population growth, I devise an amended President’s Ranch Trail, focusing on Stonewall and Johnson City, and leaving out the 38-mile leg from Blanco to San Marcos through Wimberley. The trail can be covered in a single day or broken up into a two-day adventure.

I start in Johnson City, just west of the junction of US 281 and US 290. At the corner of East Ladybird Lane and South Avenue G is the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Site Visitor Center, within eyesight of the family home Johnson lived in while growing up, and, nearby, the Johnson settlement, the root source of the LBJ saga.

At the visitor center, I watch the 15-minute introductory film LBJ The President, learn more about his legacy reading the exhibit panels, check out the Model T given to LBJ by the Henry Ford Museum, and visit with Joe Owens, the friendly host behind the counter.

“I was a social studies teacher and love history,” Owens tells me. “I get to meet people from all over the country, all over the world.”

The annual visitor count coming off pandemic closures is about 140,000, and would be higher, Owens says, if the Texas White House wasn’t closed for repairs. (After Ladybird Johnson died in 2007, the family home was given to the National Park Service and opened to visitors. Since 2018, however, structural and foundational issues plus needed improvements have forced its closure.)

When other folks drift into the visitor center, Owens pulls out three matching maps of the ranch district and the Johnson City district and goes into detail about what there is to see and do. I choose to begin at LBJ’s boyhood home—a white clapboard structure with green trim and high ceilings—the next block over.

A map of all the spots to visit on the President’s Ranch Trail.

The family moved into this house in 1913 and lived there until Lyndon left for college in San Marcos in 1927. The simple frame house on Elm Street is deceiving: The Johnsons were already well-connected, with cousin James Polk Johnson founding the town of Johnson City, and Lyndon’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson, serving five terms as a state legislator. Ten years after he left for college, Johnson stood on the home’s front porch to announce his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Across the street from the visitor center, at Elm and Avenue F, is the headquarters of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, which puts up Christmas lights that are as spectacular as those around the Blanco County courthouse four blocks north. The co-op, created through Johnson’s persistent lobbying as a congressman, brought electricity to the Hill Country.

Following Owens’ directions, I head to the Johnson settlement, two blocks by foot, or easily accessed from the Johnson Settlement Event Center parking lot, four blocks west on US 290, just across from a gas station.

A half-mile gravel loop leads to the settlement’s event center, and a collection of 19th-century cabins, a barn, and corrals with longhorns over the fence line. Lyndon’s grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson Sr., and his great-uncle Tom Johnson based their cattle operation here from 1867 to 1872. Sending cattle to market up the Chisholm Trail, theirs was the biggest trail-driving outfit in Blanco and six adjoining counties.

From the settlement on the western edge of Johnson City, I continue west 10 miles on US 290 to the settlement in Hye, passing manicured estates of wineries, distilleries, meaderies, and cideries—the new ranches of the Hill Country. On the left, at the turnoff to Hye-Albert Road, is the storied Hye General Store and Post Office, where 4-year-old Lyndon mailed his first letter, according to the historical marker at the entrance. The storefront, built in 1904, was gussied up in a red, white, and blue motif for LBJ’s 1965 swearing-in of new U.S. postmaster general Lawrence O’Brien on the front steps. Today, the post office shares space with Farm Ale Brewing, which is opening a new tasting room soon.

Continue west 3 miles on US 290 to the visitor center for the LBJ State Park and Historical Site. Pick up a pass to drive the LBJ Ranch (no charge). The visitor center also features tchotchkes at the gift shop, a life-size Lyndon to pose next to for photos, and a theater showing films about LBJ.

Next stop is a few hundred feet east of the visitor center on Park Road 52: the living history homestead of Sauer-Beckmann Farm.

“We do everything as if it’s 1918,” says Mark Itz, a fifth-generation Fredericksburger dressed in buckskin who works at the farm as a state park ranger. He and volunteers guide visitors through the vegetable garden, canning room, blacksmith shop, and sewing room where Kathy Catlin shows off her seamstress skills. You can also watch demonstrations of how to feed the domestic stock, gather eggs, chop wood by hand, and keep the wagon wheels turning,

“We just cooked our lunch on the wood stove,” Itz says. “Ground meat, rice, onions, squash, sweet potato. We make our own blood sausage, liver sausage, and head cheese.”

Itz then answers a question about what he misses the most living in 1918. “Electricity would be the biggest thing,” he says. “We didn’t get that here until 1945.” He then explains how Congressman Johnson secured the largest loan for rural electrification ever to establish the Pedernales Electric Coop in 1942.

“And vehicles,” Itz adds to his answer, “although folks around here continued using wagons to haul stuff because the beds of early pickup trucks were so small.”

From the living history farm, it’s across the Pedernales River, the lifeline that nourishes this part of the Hill Country, to the LBJ Ranch, a 2,000-acre spread that Johnson purchased from his aunt in 1951 when he was a United States senator. LBJ’s message “All the world is welcome here” greets visitors beginning the loop around the ranch.

I glimpse inside the Junction School, the classic one-room school where little Lyndon first attended class, and where President Johnson initiated the Head Start education program for underprivileged children. This is followed by the small house marking LBJ’s birthplace (reconstructed in 1964), his grandparents’ house nearby, and the family cemetery.

Heading north, west, and south on the paved one-lane ranch loop (also popular with cyclists), you pass fallow fields, manicured grazing pastures, herds of whitetail deer, a massive irrigation pivot, the show barn with its pens and corrals where LBJ’s prized rust-colored Hereford cattle are housed (ranch hands will answer your questions), the airstrip, and other points of interest.

The drive leads to “Air Force One-Half,” as the small Lockheed jet was called by LBJ. Situated in the adjacent hangar is the National Historical Park Visitor Center for the Texas While House, the Johnson’s home away from Washington, D.C. An exhibit panel highlights the movie nights hosted at the Texas White House in this hangar, a Resistol hat and pair of Lucchese boots—signature presidential wear—a view of the storage room filled with gifts that LBJ bestowed on guests, and a Ladybird-centric room.

A brown old-timey car parked inside of a building next to a white vintage car

Historic Model T at the LBJ Ranch. Photo by Will van Overbeek.

A brown National Parks Service sign reading "Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park"

LBJ Ranch and Texas White House. Photo by Randall Maxwell

The star attraction, though, is the family home, which is currently off-limits. Lack of funds stalled repairs, but it is now on track to reopen within the next five years.

While that may have kept the visitor count down, according to Joe Owens, it’s still fun to check out the grounds where LBJ staged barbecues and walk past the small cottage identified as the United States Secret Service Command Post.

 

Trinity Lutheran Church across the Pedernales River from LBJ Ranch Trinity Lutheran Church, Stonewall. Photo by Will van Overbeek.

Side Trip: LBJ Museum of San Marcos

While the big LBJ Presidential Library in Austin is a destination unto itself, the little LBJ museum on the square in downtown San Marcos complements Johnson’s Hill Country. According to director Debby Butler, the small three-room museum is dedicated to Johnson’s time as a student seeking a history teacher’s certificate at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, now Texas State University, and the two years he spent teaching at the Welhausen School for Mexican children in the South Texas community of Cotulla.

The museum also functions as a small-scale version of the national and state park visitor centers’ exhibits, with the addition of text in Spanish as well as English. Listen to audio of LBJ speaking (and telling some pretty good jokes) while viewing panels that chronicle his initiatives including the Civil Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Wilderness Act, and the Space Race. You can also see Lyndon at leisure, including a photograph of the president dancing with his favorite actress, Carol Channing. Among the displays is an exhibit case featuring a colorful array of Johnson campaign buttons and a yellowed original front page of the San Marcos Record announcing Johnson’s death.

The San Marcos Museum informs visitors that Johnson wasn’t just class president, but he was also on the debate team and president of the college’s press club. A black-and-white photo series from 1957 shows him physically cajoling another senator, speaking volumes of LBJ’s persuasive powers. Upstairs is a re-creation of Ladybird’s whistle-stop campaigns by train, along with exhibit panels about her life. Three panels feature her powerful conservation speeches at the Padre Island National Seashore, Big Bend National Park, and Fort Davis National Historical Site. I appreciated reading the reprint of a homesick letter he wrote to his mother, also a school teacher, when he was teaching in Cotulla, in which he writes “Babtist” for Baptist—written like a true Texan.

After a pause by Trinity Lutheran Church (where Lyndon and Ladybird attended Sunday services when they were on the ranch), I turn onto Lower Albert Road, crossing US 290 and continuing south 3 miles down a road past real farms that once dominated the area. Albert, a quick left on FM 1623, consists of a historic dance hall and adjacent icehouse/bar, surrounded by a spacious open picnic area with the Cowboy Cantina food truck.

Just beyond the dance hall is the turnoff to a gate and a sign identifying the building on the other side as the Williams Creek School House. This is where LBJ attended school for a year when he was 4 (clearly, a watershed year for the young fellow). The school is now the Albert Community Club and open for club events only.

Less than a half-mile farther east on Farm-to-Market Road 1623, take County Road 206 (Hye-Albert Road) 5 miles back to Hye, then go 5 miles back to 290. Johnson City, your starting point, is 10 miles east. Altogether the route is about 50 miles and can be done in a full day, or two-days if you prefer a more leisurely visit. There are plenty of quaint places in the area for an overnight stay.

The land, you will discover, shaped the man. And this particular man had enough prominence and clout to preserve and honor the places and people who made it that way. Everything’s OK on the LBJ.

LBJ served by BBQ caterer Walter Jetton
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a brief history of the rise and rise of Texas skyscrapers

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/a-brief-history-of-the-rise-and-rise-of-texas-skyscrapers/

An artist rendering of the Austin skyline with the Waterline on the right of the photo. Soaring to 1,022 feet, Waterline will become the tallest tower in Texas when it opens in 2026. Source: Atchain

Soaring to 1,022 feet, the Waterline will become the tallest tower in Texas when it opens in 2026. Photo courtesy of Atchain.

The recent announcement that construction will soon begin on Texas’ tallest skyscraper came as a surprise to many. Not necessarily for the structure itself, but where it would be built—in Austin, not Houston or Dallas. It’s a sure sign the capital city has joined the civic competition to erect the tallest building, and therefore claim the title of tallest city in the Lone Star State.

That urge to be tallest has played out among civilizations since the pyramids rose in Egypt and Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize in the Americas.

Cathedrals in Europe and the United States competed to be the tallest for several hundred years until the late 19th century, when structures like the 548-foot-tall Philadelphia City Hall, the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument, and the 984-foot-tall Eiffel Tower vied over who could be the tallest in the world.

A black and white picture of a tall building with carriages out front

The Praetorian Building, from a 1908 postcard.

Texas got into the skyscraper game relatively quick, in 1908, with the opening of the 15-story, 190-foot-tall Praetorian Building in Dallas (which was torn down in 2013). Houston could already brag about the eight-story First National Bank Building (completed in 1905). Designed by Sanguinet and Staats, the architectural firm responsible for many of Texas’ tall buildings in the early 20th century, the structure later became the Lomas and Nettleton Building. (Located at Main Street and Franklin Avenue, it houses residential lofts today.) By 1910, Houston also had the 10-story, 124-foot-tall 711 Main Building and the 23-story, 302-foot-high Carter Building, allowing Houston to claim the title of Texas’ Tallest City.

Two years later, the honorific returned to Dallas with the opening of the 25-story Adolphus Hotel, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month with a gala on Oct. 29. In 1925, the Adolphus gave way to the Magnolia Building, as Dallas’ (and Texas’) tallest with the Magnolia Oil Company’s neon flying horse logo atop the 399-foot, 27-floor edifice. (It was recently announced the building will undergo a major renovation, including the addition of three floors.)

Houston regained the tallest title in 1927 with the completion of the 410-foot, 31-story, Italian Renaissance-styled Niels-Esperson Building, followed two years later by the 37-story, 428-foot art deco Gulf Building. Houston managed to hold on until 1943, when the Mercantile National Bank Building, a 31-story, 523-foot-tower with a distinctive clock spire opened in Dallas.

The back-and-forth rivalry between Dallas and Houston continued for another 40 years:

Dallas – Republic National Bank (1954; 36 stories, 602 feet)
Houston – Humble Building (1963; 44 stories, 606 feet)
Dallas – First National Bank Tower (1965; 52 stories, 628 feet)
Houston – One Shell Plaza (1970; 50 stories, 714 feet)

One Shell was still a tad taller than Dallas’ new tallest, the 56-story, 710-foot-tall First International Building, built in 1974. But by the time the 74-story, 921-foot Bank of America Plaza was completed in 1985—the tallest skyscraper in Dallas—Houston had one-upped its main competitor again with the 1,002-foot, 75-floor Texas Commerce Building, now named the JP Morgan Chase Tower, which has held the Texas’ Tallest title since it was built in 1982. Whew!

That honorary is about to change, and this time neither Dallas nor Houston is in the race. Enter Austin.

The capital city came late to the tall skyscraper game. Until 1974, the Texas State Capitol (standing at 302.64 feet “from the south front ground level to the tip of the star of the Goddess of Liberty”) reigned as Austin’s tallest building, mainly because the city enacted an ordinance to keep it the predominant building in the city’s skyline. It was complemented by the 29-story, 307-foot-tall University of Texas Main Building (aka The Tower), followed in 1972 by the Dobie Center, also on the UT campus and 307 feet. By the mid ’80s, Austin had more than a dozen skyscrapers, with 600 Congress leading the pack for tallest for 20 years before the 515-foot Frost Bank Tower arrived in 2004.

Meanwhile, construction pretty much came to a halt in Dallas and Houston. Big D stopped aspiring for higher heights, settling for new towers in the 30- to 40-story range until the 42-story Museum Tower broke through in 2013. And, after reaching its zenith in the 1980s, Houston experienced fallout from the Savings and Loan economic meltdown, followed by the Federal Aviation Authority’s mandate prohibiting construction of buildings taller than 75 floors in the central business district because it is in the takeoff and landing flight patterns for Hobby Airport. Outside of downtown, no significant towers have been built since the 64-story, 901-foot Transco Tower near the Galleria opened in 1982.

Fast-forward to Austin around 2010, when residential and tech started dominating the local skyscraper boom. More than 20 steel-and-glass towers have been built, topped by the current city champ, the Independent (aka the “Jenga tower“), at 58 floors and 690 feet, and the 56-floor, 683-foot Austonion, with its distinctive crescent top.

Why the sudden high-rise boom? “I would suggest the reason why they are taller in Austin is because it is so physically small and so dense,” says Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News who teaches architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington and is a Loeb Fellow of architecture at Harvard. “That means the land is incredibly valuable, and that makes it financially desirable to build extremely tall.”

Also, skyscrapers in Houston and Dallas tend to focus more on style than height. “There isn’t an emphasis on being the ‘tallest’ because buildings are now developed by investment groups rather than individuals or companies, for whom the ‘tallest’ moniker might be appealing,” he says.

A black and glass building surrounded by other buildings in downtown Houston

Pennzoil Place. Photo by Agsftw, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lamster cites Pennzoil Place in Houston, still one of the state’s most revered skyscrapers, as an example of style over stature. “[Then Pennzoil CEO] Hugh Liedtke, who commissioned the building specifically, did not go for ‘tallest’ because he knew that there would always be some other building to eclipse it,” he says. “So Pennzoil Place focused on quality and distinction [rather than height]. That worked.”

So, in Austin, the rise to the top goes on. Both of the city’s tallest buildings will be eclipsed next year by a residential and office tower being built at Sixth and Guadalupe streets and listed at 66 floors and 875 feet high. The building will have a primary tenant, the tech company Meta, parent of Facebook and Instagram. That’s plenty tall, but in a few years it will still not be Texas’ tallest.

That accolade will pass to the Waterline, a 73-story, 1,022-foot-tall residential-hotel-office tower at 98 Red River. Its scheduled completion date is mid-2026. I know the location well. The site was formerly occupied by a funky two-story white clapboard boarding house where I rented a cheap office for $80 a month back in the 1980s. That was Old Austin. The future occupant is New Texas all the way—shiny, bright, and rising to the skies.

Will this be the apex for Texas skyscrapers? Given its history, odds are taller towers are coming. And the short answer as to why is “money,” Lamster says. “Or, as Carol Willis, the historian and founder of the Skyscraper Museum puts it, ‘form follows finance.’”

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The Wild and Urban Brazos River

 https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/the-wild-and-urban-brazos-is-a-river-full-of-contradictions

 

The Brazos

is a river of contradictions. Flowing more than 800 miles on a diagonal course across the breadth of Texas, the Brazos starts as a Western river coming off the High Plains and ends as a Southern river lazily looping its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

An overhead view of Waco, with Baylor stadium on the right and the Brazos river separating two sides of the city

A view of the Brazos running through Waco with Interstate 35 splitting the picture

Over the course of two centuries, engineers have dammed, channeled, diverted, and fragmented the Brazos, partly to control deadly floods. But while the river has been moderated, it has not been tamed. It still runs wild every now and then, thwarting even the mightiest barriers. As recently as 2016, Brazos River flooding damaged 1,400 homes and killed six people in southeast Texas.

Understanding the Brazos is no easy feat, no matter how many miles you’ve paddled, how many hours you’ve sat on its banks, or how many times you’ve jumped into it. In search of a new perspective, I asked my friend George Farris, owner of Above and Beyond Aviation in Austin, to fly me over the river. On a clear day last fall, Farris took me along as he piloted his Cessna 172 to Haskell, north of Abilene, where we began to trace the Brazos River down to the coast.

With its watershed extending into New Mexico, draws and drainages grow into forks until the Brazos finally becomes a river where the Double Mountain and Salt forks converge in northeast Stonewall County, about 18 miles northwest of Haskell. Here the river carves a ribbon through low, lightly vegetated canyons, its rusty color mirroring the iron oxide-rich red clay soil of the surrounding Rolling Plains.

Seventy air miles east of Haskell, near Graham, the Clear Fork joins the main stem, now a river of substance with distinct bands of dark green vegetation covering its banks and occasional bankside clearings identifying sand-mining operations and crop fields. To the east, wrinkles on the horizon signal the Palo Pinto Mountains and Possum Kingdom Lake, the first major impoundment on the Brazos, dammed in 1941. Covering 17,000 acres, the lake is home to a state park and draws boaters, anglers, skiers, and vacationers.

Below Morris Sheppard Dam, the Brazos courses through tall limestone bluffs and steep cedar-covered slopes. This was Comanche territory 150 years ago, later immortalized in author John Graves’ Goodbye to a River. The book details Graves’ canoe trip with his dog in November 1957, motivated by the coming Lake Granbury impoundment.

“Most autumns, the water is low from the long dry summer, and you have to get out from time to time and wade, leading or dragging your boat through trickling shallows from one pool to the long channel-twisted pool below, hanging up occasionally on shuddering bars of quicksand, making 6 or 8 miles in a day’s lazy work,” Graves wrote, “but if you go to the river at all, you tend not to mind. You are not in a hurry there; you learned long since not to be.”

A man in a long-sleeve white shirt paddles a canoe

Canoeing the John Graves Scenic Riverway

After flying over the upper Brazos, I made plans to see it up-close with a return in late March to kayak a 19-mile section known as the John Graves Scenic Riverway. My paddling friend David Hollingsworth and I took a shuttle from Rochelle’s Canoe Rental in Graford to the put-in at the State Highway 16 bridge, where fishermen were also gearing up to hit the water, some by kayak and some in a shallow-drafting motorboat.

The land still wore its winter coat thanks to a late spring and extended drought. Amid the pools and riffles, I saw some huge carp and a teeny-tiny minnow. Perhaps it was one of two endangered shiner species that live in the Brazos—the sharpnose shiner and smalleye shiner.

A map showing major points on the Brazos river

.

Gene Wilde, a biologist who recently retired from Texas Tech University, compares the shiner’s reliance on free-flowing water to salmon of the Northwest. “They need 200 miles of free-flowing river to feed, grow, and spawn, completing their life cycle,” he said. “Dams on the Brazos prevent that.” The minnows were once so abundant that entrepreneurs seine-netted the river to scoop up schools of fish to sell for live bait. Now the little fish are hard to find.

Though the environment is changing, the scenery remains sublime. Long curving bends beneath cuesta slopes provide habitat for countless birds. I spotted over 100 great blue herons flapping their pterodactyl wings, white egrets and hawks by the dozens, and one juvenile golden eagle.

We camped on an island near Chick Bend, between SH 16 and Farm-to-Market Road 4. Hooting owls and howling coyotes serenaded us to sleep. At dawn, three Longhorn cattle awakened us as they lumbered across the island on their way to greener pastures.

Headwinds and low flow—water release from Sheppard Dam was a tepid 100 cubic feet per second—made it a difficult trip, one best saved for better conditions in the spring or fall. But the opportunity to see the same river embraced by Graves and Comanche chief Quanah Parker was worth the effort.

An overhead view of green fields and gravel roads

A reconstruction of Fort Velasco at the site where the Brazos met the coastline before the river was channelized

Back in Farris’ Cessna, we followed the Brazos as it wound through low hills before widening into its second major impoundment, Lake Granbury, and about 50 miles later, Lake Whitney. Below Whitney Dam, the Brazos takes on an orderly appearance with houses clustered close to its banks. On the outskirts of Waco, the Bosque River joins the Brazos at the top of the 416-acre Cameron Park, the crown jewel of Waco with its 100-foot limestone cliffs and outdoor recreational opportunities.

Waco is known for its bridges, most of all the Waco Suspension Bridge, the granddaddy of Texas bridges. Constructed with cables made by John Roebling Co., the same contractor who would later build the Brooklyn Bridge, it was the longest single-span bridge west of the Mississippi when it opened in 1870 as a toll bridge. In later decades, the cable system was replaced and the bridge reinforced with steel. The city closed the bridge to vehicles and converted it into a pedestrian bridge in 1971. The 1902 Washington Avenue Bridge, just upstream from the pedestrian bridge, connects downtown to Waco’s east side, a historically Black neighborhood.

Below Interstate 35, the Brazos serves as a scenic backdrop for Baylor University’s football stadium and baseball park, the Mayborn Museum Complex, and the boathouse for the school’s rowing team.

Waco built a new low-water dam in 2007 to mitigate flooding and stabilize Lake Brazos in the downtown area. Todd Nafe, outdoors writer for the Waco Tribune-Herald, said the river has since blossomed as a recreational destination. “The riverfront has become a significant economic resource, with restaurants, parks, food trucks, art festivals, triathlons, fishing tournaments, and fundraising events bringing folks back to the banks,” he said.

A man in a white hat and wearing a PFD holds a large paddle on the banks of the Brazos

Bruce Bodson, executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch

Two people stand holding fishing rods on the rocky banks of the Brazos river

Nicole Nation and John Valyan, of Bryan, fish the lower Brazos near Somerville.

A dark bluish black sky with bright stars peeks through vents in the roof of a tent

A starry night as seen from a sandbank campsite on the upper Brazos River

Below Waco, the Brazos River runs through the cotton plantation country that seeded the Republic of Texas in the 1800s. As we flew south to refuel in College Station, we watched the Brazos cut through lush woodlands and wide-open prairies. Settlers who were part of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred—the first colonists the empresario brought to Texas—developed farms in the Brazos bottomlands, some of them reliant on slave labor before the Civil War.

Robertson County towns like Hearne and Calvert remain primarily African American. Calvert was the hometown of Hall of Fame baseball player Rube Foster, who helped found and operate the National Negro League until his death in 1930. Another notable Foster, singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster—no relation to Rube—grew up in nearby Gause.

“Me and my cousins loved walking or riding in my Papa’s truck down to the river bank all summer long, with our fishing gear in tow,” recalled Foster, who now lives in Austin. “We smaller cousins always made too much noise for the older cousins to catch anything, but it was fun to just hang out, run around with our shoes off, and practice our fishing pole casting.”

To get a closer look at this section of the Brazos, I met six paddlers including Bruce Bodson, executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch, on a September morning for a 16-mile kayak trip starting at the SH 21 bridge, southwest of Bryan.

“I call this the free Brazos,” said Bodson, who founded the nonprofit Riverwatch in 2018 to protect the environment of the river’s 425 miles from Waco to the Gulf of Mexico. This is the least appreciated and most industrialized section of the river. “No dams exist below Waco,” he continued. “It is very much a Southern river—slow moving, looping and bending, with a gradient of less than 1%. The water quality is good, just silt-laden. There’s more variability than people realize.”

The river ran wide and muddy along our route, its sandy banks rising 10 to 20 feet high. Black willow, cottonwoods, and sycamores grew along the shorelines, where kingfishers alighted and skimmed the water. We saw three wild hogs swim across the river and a cottonmouth snake futilely chase a large frog out of the water and onto a beach. Along the way, we stopped to examine petrified wood and look for fossilized shark’s teeth and mussel shells.

Lower Brazos Riverwatch reports exposed pipelines and abandoned wells to state authorities, and their stewardship is getting results. “We’ve got legislative committees and landowners paying attention to the river as a potential asset now,” Bodson said.

We finished at the SH 60 bridge, 3 miles southwest of College Station, surrounded by rows of white cotton in every direction. “It’s wilderness down there,” Bodson said. “You get on that river, and there is nobody down there. You are absolutely alone.”

History of the Brazos

By the time 18th-century Spanish explorers gave it the name Los Brazos de Dios (The Arms of God), the Brazos River had been home to creatures and humans for tens of thousands of years. Learn more about this natural and cultural history at museums along the river’s course.

Waco Mammoth National Monument, Waco: About 15,000 years ago, the Brazos was prime habitat for the extinct Columbian mammoth. At this archeological site near the confluence of the Bosque and Brazos rivers, see the fossils of a nursery herd of Ice Age Columbian mammoths, along with fossils of a camel and juvenile saber-toothed cat. nps.gov/waco

Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History, Bryan: This museum features exhibits covering the Brazos Valley’s history back to the Ice Age, including exhibits on Native American artifacts, great Brazos floods, and cotton farming. brazosvalleymuseum.org

San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site, San Felipe: Founded in 1824 on a Brazos River bluff, San Felipe served as Empresario Stephen F. Austin’s colonial capital until it was burned in 1836 during the Runaway Scrape. The historic site includes a museum and replicas of some of the town’s original buildings. thc.texas.gov/historic-sites/san-felipe-de-austin-state-historic-site

Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, Washington: Along with a living history farm and a museum covering the Texas Republic, this complex contains a replica of Independence Hall—where delegates signed the Texas Declaration of Independence—a riverside exhibit about the historic Robinson Ferry crossing, and exhibits mentioning various 19th-century efforts to navigate the Brazos in steamboats. thc.texas.gov/historic-sites/washington-brazos-state-historic-site

Brazos Bend State Park, Needville: Located 45 miles southwest of Houston, this park has 37 miles of trails to explore wetland lakes and sloughs in the Brazos River bottomlands. The park is known for its alligators and waterfowl. tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/brazos-bend

A man in a long-sleeved white shirt paddles between two rock outcroppings on a river

Canoeing through bluffs on a stretch of the upper Brazos known as the John Graves Scenic Riverway.

From my bird’s-eye view at 5,000 feet, I watched the landscape flatten as the Brazos cruised under US 290 and I-10 and through the Katy Prairie. This landscape looked similar to the Llano Estacado of the Panhandle, except everything was coated a verdant green. About 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the Brazos’ graceful curves and loops straighten into a channel as the river enters Freeport, an industrial maze thick with refineries and tanker ships.

Unlike most Texas rivers, the Brazos empties directly into the Gulf, rather than filtering through bays or estuaries. But it doesn’t meet the ocean where it originally did at Surfside. In 1929, the Army Corps of Engineers diverted the Brazos just upstream by dredging a new channel that empties into the Gulf about 5 miles down the beach.

There, the Brazos ends undramatically. I later drove along the levee road that traces the channel for almost 4 miles, where locals fished for red drum, black drum, trout, and channel cat. After passing a cluster of storage tanks and buildings, I reached a gate with a “No Trespassing” sign. The waves of the Gulf were barely visible in the distance, but I couldn’t go any further.

A mile high up in the air offered a different perspective. Every man-made object I could see—from Possum Kingdom Lake to cotton fields, sand mines, historic bridges, the Houston skyline, and tankers in the Gulf—was tied to that green-brown ribbon I’d been following. As Farris banked his airplane west, I could see the mighty Brazos was really the most Texas river of them all.

Paddle the Brazos

There’s no better way to experience the natural qualities of the Brazos River than from the seat of a kayak or canoe. Outfitters operate at numerous locations on the Brazos, a river that offers a variety of paddling experiences throughout its course.

Rochelle’s Canoe Rental, Graford: provides rentals and shuttles for trips on the upper Brazos’ John Graves Scenic Riverway. rochellescanoeandkayakrental.com

Brazos Outdoor Center, Rainbow: the nearest wild river experience to DFW, includes campsites, equipment rentals, and shuttles. brazosoutdoorcenter.com

Dick’s Canoes, Aquilla: provides rentals and shuttles for trips on the Brazos below Whitney Dam. dickscanoe.com

Pura Vida Paddle, Waco: find kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, as well as classes, across the Brazos from Cameron Park and on Lake Waco. puravidapaddle.com

Waco Paddle Company, Waco: canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard rentals in downtown Waco on the bank of the Brazos. wacopaddlecompany.com

Hidalgo Falls, Navasota: The closest whitewater to Houston, this private paddlers park is owned by the Texas Rivers Protection Association. txrivers.org/discover-texas-rivers/brazos-river

From the July 2022 issue
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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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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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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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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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