Up Close and Texan
The Los Angeles Times
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 30, 2004
Visitors for the big ‘fooba’ game have their own ways. So listen up, all y’all.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the sudden appearance of 40,000 or so strange-looking tourists in Pasadena and nearby environs – the ones in burnt-orange golf outfits with big hats and big hair that block your views of the San Gabriels.
If you’ve leaned in close trying to decipher the language they’re speaking, you might have overheard phrases like “fooba” or “purtier’n Tyler.” And if you’ve followed them, you’ve noticed how they get excited about the prospect of horses clopping down Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day and go gaga about the Gap in Old Town Pasadena because it’s nothing like the Gap back home.
These visitors are called Texans, a breed apart from the usual out-of-towners from the Midwest who typically materialize around this time of year. But this particular group is hardly composed of your run-of-the-mill, boot-scooting, Wrangler-wearing, pickup-driving, yee-hawing Texans. Rather, they are devotees of the Longhorns of the University of Texas (a.k.a. “The University”) in a state where the only two sports that matter are football and spring football.
We Texans are by nature an exuberant, friendly and sometimes obnoxious lot. But this bunch is really over the top. Forgive them their arrogance (at least that which is not inherent), because they’ve never been to the Rose Bowl before and it’s been a long, long time since they’ve been to any big bowl game.
Like all Texans, they speak with a pronounced accent that is sometimes hard to understand, a point driven home a few weeks ago at a bookstore in Michigan where I was searching for a copy of Life magazine.
“Laugh magazine?” the clerk said, shooting a funny look. “Never heard of it.”
You might think you’re hearing “techsuhsfaht” repeatedly, but that’s really “Texas fight” with a severe drawl.
You will also notice their tendency to blurt out “Hook ’em!” and make odd little waving gestures whenever they encounter a fellow tourist.This arthritic expression of raised index and little fingers, with the middle and ring fingers held down with the thumb, is not a gang sign nor a heavy-metal rock-on signal. This is an affectionate shadow-puppet version of a Longhorn, the UT mascot, summoned to demonstrate faith that UT will gore the University of Michigan’s Wolverines on Saturday.
If they suddenly turn somber, as if they’re having a patriotic moment, it is advisable to give them plenty of space. The school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” is a celebration of paranoia. Of course, you’d be paranoid too if you went around singing, “Do not think you can escape them/ Rise up so early in the morn/ The Eyes of Texas are upon you/ Till Gabriel blows his horn.”
Although more than a few of these UT boosters are in the oil and gas “bidness,” which plays to the old Texas stereotype, many of the really serious fat cats reflect modern Texas’ diversity. Their numbers include a character who is really named Jim Bob, who owns the world’s biggest gold mine; the Dallas takeover artist who made George W. Bush a millionaire by paying him too much for his baseball team; a car dealer whose real name is Billy Joe but prefers to be called Red, who also happens to own an NFL team on the side; and the Houston lawyer who beat Pennzoil out of more than $1 billion in a lawsuit and has since spent so much of that loot on his alma mater that university officials have erected not one, but two statues in his likeness on campus. If you run into any of the above, there may be some benefit in placating them, like a really big tip.
To avoid offending the visitors, it’s best to avoid addressing them as “you guys.” Always refer to them as “y’all” except when referring to a group of them, when the proper reference is “all y’all.” When in doubt, just give a knowing wink and smile and say, “yewbet.”
Under no circumstances try to pander by suggesting the visitors sample the local Mexican food or barbecue – the California versions just don’t cut it with this crowd and never will, no matter how much sour cream and avocado you pile on. As far as Texas fans are concerned, California is all bean sprouts and tofu anyway. Better to offer a really big steak. A side of beef is hard to mess up.
And don’t talk politics or energy price gouging. If you must bring up a famous W. from Texas, better to discuss Willie (as in Nelson) than the president. The latter is embraced as a native son (even though he is in fact an Eastern blueblood born in Connecticut) mainly because he says “noo-cul-lar.”
Which is another great thing about Texans. Anyone can be one. Declaring yourself a Texan is all the roots you’ll ever need. It’s like the popular bumper sticker says: “I Wasn’t Born in Texas but I Got Here as Fast as I Could.”
And if Texcess seems a tad overbearing, remember, it could be Texas A&M playing in the Rose Bowl instead. The University of Texas is in Austin, a blue island in a red-state sea that is frequently described by the rest of Texas as the People’s Republic of Austin.
Aggies, by comparison, are the Lone Star bund, partial to military uniforms, knee-high leather boots and severe buzz cuts. Their “traditions” include spending the whole football game standing up with their hands on their knees, as if straining at stool. Fortunately, for UT fans and Californians alike, the Longhorns regularly whip the Aggies in football.
So all y’all make the best of this weekend. It could be worse. Honest.
Stay All Night – Buddy Holly’s Country Roots
West Texas Roots
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Buddy Holly took the world by storm when he broke out of Lubbock, Texas in 1957. His singing and playing was the freshest version of rock and roll to come down the line. It was as if his music had come out of a vacuum from somewhere in the middle of the proverbial nowhere. But locals knew better. Before there was Buddy Holly, the all-American rock and roll hero, there was Buddy Holly, the good ol’ boy from the Hub City of the south plains know for his style of Western Bop. That was a nice way of saying that the hormone-addled nitro-fueled teenager played western, honky tonk, and western swing music with way too much energy and enthusiasm to pigeonhole him as plain old country. Countless hours of picking and singing went into polishing, honing, and embellishing his sound that would later become an international sensation.
Stay All Night – Buddy Holly’s Country Roots is the first historical accounting of how Holly got where he did, performed by those who knew Holly best: Buddy’s bandmates; Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch, and Larry Welborn, and Buddy’s earliest professional collaborator Jack Neal. They are joined by the Texas Playboys, that swinging big band led by Bob Wills from down the road in Turkey, Texas. Adding to the account are Buddy’s brothers and mentors, Larry and Travis Holley, and his contemporaries Al Perkins and Billy Grammer. Featured also are a new generation of stars from Lubbock – the Flatlanders; Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock; and some Holly disciples from far beyond Lubbock including Robert Reynolds from the Mavericks, and blues masters Judy Luis-Watson and Paul Watson. Together these players weave the cultural heritage of West Texas through the thread of this music. Each and every song is an old familiar tune for those who grew up in Buddy Holly’s place and time. Some are jukebox standards, others dancehall favorites. A few drifted in on static airwaves from faraway radio stations in Shreveport and Nashville. Two are previously unreleased tracks by Buddy Holly and Jack Neal as performed for their radio show on Lubbock station KDAV. Each and every track tells a piece of the story about how the torch was passed to the kid with horn-rimmed glasses, and how that torch has been passed on to others.
Stay All Night is more than the name of a song. It’s more than an album title for a collection of soulful, heartfelt songs that could have been made nowhere but Texas.
Stay All Night is a celebration of a talent like no one before or since, the talent that nourished Buddy, and the talent he’s inspired since, from Lubbock, Texas to the entire planet.
The Ride – Los Lobos
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
When it comes to defining American music over the past quarter century, no band comes close to Los Lobos. It would be understandable, given their long track record, if they slacked off now and then, as The Ride’s lengthy lineup of guest artists including Cafe Tacuba, Bobby Womack, Ruben Blades, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Mavis Staples and Garth Hudson seems to suggest. (What? Rob Thomas wasn’t available?). But fears of sliding into complacency are alleviated from the first throaty honk of Steve Berlin’s bari sax on "La Venganza de Los Pelados," the opening track on which Los Lobos flash their Mexicanismo credentials all the way through the last note of "Chains of Love." Sure the guests gussy up the proceedings, particularly Elvis’ turn on "Matter of Time" and Mavis Staples’ soaring vocals on "Someday." But it’s tracks like "Rita"Ñall atmosphere, introspection, with no outside help whatsoever-that make this more than just another album from just another band from East L.A.. With Los Lobos in charge, music doesn’t get any better than this in these United States.
Sunday Evening Coming Down
The Resentments (left to right) Bruce Hughes, Stepen Bruton, Jon Dee Graham, Jud Newcomb. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
How the Resentments rose from under-the-radar lark to become a real band with a higher place and purpose.
LIKE NEARLY ALL significant events that contributed to making and defining Austin’s music community, the Resentments were unintended.
The original idea was just a cool deal on Sunday nights a casual little musical get together on the one night nobody was working. The rules were simple: no rehearsals, ever. As long as two players showed up, it was an official gig.
The idea was born five years ago, when Joe Ables, the owner of the semi-legendary South Austin music joint known as the Saxon Pub, was strategizing how to bring in a few warm bodies on the deadest night of the week. Somewhere along the way, Ables consulted Stephen Bruton, the guitarist, singer, composer, producer and Fort Worth cat with the Kristofferson/Raitt/Dylan pedigree, who off lived a couple miles farther south just South Lamar and had adopted the club as a home base.
Bruton had developed something of an affection for the room. It had all the basic necessities – a horseshoe bar, sixteen tables, three booths, a low, postage-stamp-sized stage in the corner where the big-screen TV usually is – and was far enough off the beaten path, yet close enough to home.
“Saxon Pub is the most unhip place to play,” Bruton says. “But the first time I went in, I fell in love with the place when this guy materialized through the haze of cigarette smoke and with this raspy voice, quoted from ‘Too Many Memories’ [a song from Bruton’s 1993 album What It Is], telling me I nailed the third verse.”
An early-evening Sunday show would give him a forum to test new songs, let others try theirs out, and play lots of acoustic guitar, something he hadn’t done with much regularity since his early days with Kris Kristofferson. Since Bruton had inherited the Doug Sahm chair as Local Wise Man Who’s Been There and Done That and didn’t mind sharing his experiences with his youngers, he quickly rounded up a quorum of like- minded old-school writers and players.
Sunday Night Line-Up: The Resentments onstage at the Saxon Pub, December 2003 Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.
The initial crew included well-known country singer Hal Ketehum, who also happened to be a frustrated drummer, on drums; Keith Carper, a veteran Austin bassist; David Holt, a gifted and notorious hotshot hired-gun guitarist; and Jon Dee Graham, an equally gifted and notorious guitarist who was becoming better known as a singer-songwriter with a gravel-road growl and a growing list of impressive solo albums.
Bruton picked the name the Resentments. “Geoff Muldaur’s daughter in New York had a band called the Resentments. I thought it was such a great name, what better way to honor it than to steal it?” he reasoned.
Over the course of the next year, everyone except Bruton and Graham dropped out because of work demands, other gigs, or relocating. Their shoes were more than ably filled.
Mambo John Treanor came first. His musical roots in Austin were planted deepest, going hack to his gig as freeform percussionist for Beto y los Fairlanes, whose weekly gigs at Liberty Lunch in the late 1970s set the stage for the making of a scene. Treanor was an Austin original, a devotee of the city’s famous Barton Springs swimming hole who fashioned hats out of roadkill, served time for growing pot, and played with just about everyone in town at one time or another (notably the Vanguards, Jazzmanian Devil, Marcia Ball, Abra Moore, Guy Forsyth and 47 Times Its Own Weight).
Next came Scrappy Jud Newcomb, the guitarist, singer-songwriter and producer (Beaver Nelson) who wears his undisputed championship belt as the Most Insatiable Gig Dawg in Austin with pride. Bruton entered Scrappy’s radar as producer of two albums by Loose Diamonds, the band that was Newcomb’s calling-card into the Austin scene.
They hit it off. Scrappy is Bruton twenty years younger, with a spare, muscular picking style and a curiosity for and appreciation of obscure traditional folk and blues as much as mainstream rock ‘n’ roll, plus movie-star good looks.
Last to sign on was Bruce Hughes, the utility bass player who rode into prominence with the stridently eclectic Poi Dog Pondering (who around 1990 were Austin’s best selling recording band), played and recorded with practically everybody, and knew Bruton from Lonelyland, one of two bands Hughes plays in that is fronted by Bob Schneider (who over the past five years has sold more CDs locally than any single Austin artist, including Willie).
Somewhere over the following couple years, between getting comfortable with one another, playing weekly rounds of songwriter show-and-tell, trying on a number of offbeat, oddball covers pulled out of the attic, and trading licks, the three guitarists, one bassist, and multidimensional percussionist gelled into a real band. Treanor’s death from cancer in 2001 sealed the deal, giving the Resentments motivation to continue and take it to the next level. Somewhere along the way, the casual gig has become something else.
YOU COULD DESCRIBE the Resentments as an Austin-scale version of the Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper/Steve Stills Supersession group hatched in the late ’60s, four decades later – a reason for three guitarists from varying backgrounds to get together, play, and show what they know.
But I sure won’t. To compare them to that diminishes the breadth and scope these guys cover. The bassist brings songs to the table too, and they’re pushed by an exceptional drummer, John Chipman, who used to set up Mambo’s kit and managed to replace the drummer who couldn’t be replaced, the guy who gave this weekly gathering meaning and purpose.
They sure didn’t hype it. Everyone has enough work to sustain their chosen career paths as musicians, thank you, and digs what they do for a living. Still, comparisons to everyone from Crosby, Stills & Nash to the Traveling Wilburys, the Texas Tornados, the official and unofficial versions of the Outlaws, and The Band can be justified. There’s more to this weekly little off-night get-together than meets the eye.
It starts with the genuine, authentic feel of the songs – collectively, this quintet carries more songwriters than any other collaborative venture in town. In this setup, their roles as sidemen are as crucial as their composing skills. Throwing a song into the ring every three or four turns that can stand up to the ones your compatriots are throwing in, and then reverting to backup role, is as hard as, if not harder than, fronting your own band for the night.
Once they get comfy on their stools, they demonstrate an exceptional grasp of the songwriting craft, a deep well of musical knowledge, and a mastery of the tricky ability to ply the tools of their trade in a listening environment and still manage to scorch the paint off any empty stools every now and then. It all wraps up neatly by 10 p.m., usually capped with a nice little fire-power drill by the three-guitar volunteer army, Graham embellishing the demonstration with searing shots of lap steel ricocheting around the room.
“People come up to me all the time and say this reminds them of Austin before there was a scene,” Bruton told me.
I know I can trace the off-night tradition as far back as 1971, when Freda & the Firedogs, the group fronted by Marcia Ball that is regarded as the first bunch of longhairs in Austin who could play authentic country, held forth at the Split Rail, a no-cover joint on South Lamar that would draw spillover crowds on Sunday nights.
It’s endured over the years in others forms and fashions: Blue Mondays with Storm at the One Knite, the Tuesday Night Cobra Club at Soap Creek, Tuesdays at Liberty Lunch with Beto y los Fairlanes, Blue Mondays with the Fabulous Thunderbirds at the Rome Inn, Tex Thomas’ Sunday night services at Hut’s, the Scabs at Antone’s on Tuesdays, Toni Price’s Tuesday early-evening Hippie Hours at the Continental. None, however, started quite so accidentally or blew up into something so substantial that it created a band, a real band.
There he is: Stephen Bruton. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.
I was already familiar with a lot of the Resentments’ individual histories. I’ve known Bruton since high school in Fort Worth. I actually worked with Graham when I was band manager of the True Believers, the mid-1980s rock band in which Graham, a border rat from Quemado down by the Rio Grande, played a crucial role. The True Believers’ road manager and sound technician, Mike Stewart, went on to manage and produce Poi Dog Pondering, the studiously eclectic ensemble where master of quirk Bruce Hughes fit right in; his local credentials went back to bands such as Iomega and the Shades from Raul’s Club punk era. The True Believers convinced a band from Ohio called the Highwaymen to move to Austin, where Troy Campbell met an eager local boy named Jud Newcomb and conspired to form Loose Diamonds. Newcomb, known locally simply as Scrappy Jud, also worked with Mambo John Treanor in Toni Price’s band. And you couldn’t claim to be a regular on the club circuit without Mambo having entered your life sooner or later.
But I didn’t understand how or why this informal group had blown up into either a) the best band in Austin, b) the coolest regular party in town, c) the best bar band in America (according to MSNBC.com’s John Schulian), or d) the Texas version of the Buena Vista Social Club.
So I paid them all a visit.
I tracked down Bruton, who at 55 is the elder of the band, to the studio/rehearsal hall/music museum behind his house, where he tried to explain it in terms we both understood. “You’re from Fort Worth,” he told me. “You know what it was like. You could do anything, like go from a fiddle convention with David Ferguson at the Round Up Inn to dirty blues at Mabel’s Eat Shop to going to see King Curtis and Cornell Dupree over in Stop Six and not blink an eye. It was completely natural to me to listen to the Kingston Trio, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Howlin’ Wolf back to back. We didn’t know any better. No one knew any better. It was making music on music’s terms, see what flies.”
Bruton left Fort Worth as the banjo flash of the Brazos Valley Ramblers bluegrass band (at one time, he auditioned for and was offered the banjo chair in the Dillards), and as a white-hot blues player who knew his way around the juke joints. He had (co-produced, with fellow Fort Worthian T Bone Burnett, the splendidly atmospheric Robert Ealey & the Five Careless lovers album Live At The New Bluebird Nite Club (Blue Royal) in 1973, still my favorite live performance recording of all time. And he knew more about music than just about anyone because his dad (a former jazz drummer) and mom ran Record Town, a retail shop known around Fort Worth for having the deepest catalogue of jazz, blues and race music in the city.
“You’d be able to quote from things you didn’t realize you knew, to cite the guitar solo on the second cut of the Seeds’ first album, or that hard sax sound on Ray Charles’ albums,” Bruton says. “You heard 0 Brother, Where Art Thou? That came out of Record Town.”
That sounds about right.
He’d started working Austin clubs in the early ’70s, with his band Little Whisper & the Rumors and with Delbert McClinton, while living in Los Angeles and working as Kristofferson’s guitarist. He moved permanently in 1983 after finishing his supporting role in the film A Star Is Born.
Marching Guitars: Jon Dee Graham (l), and Jud Newcomb, with John Chipman in the shadows. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.
“I realized I was making my money on the road,” Bruton recalls. “I wanted to be closer to my mother, my father and my brother in Fort Worth. It was easier getting around, because it was fuckin’ Texas. I loved L.A. and I still do, but I didn’t want to be sitting around thinking about when I was going to be making enough money to get back to Texas.”
He didn’t go back to his hometown, though. “There was more going on in Austin than in Fort Worth. Musicians seemed to have more drive and ambition. It all kinda added up.”
Since settling in, Bruton has built an impressive resume producing albums for Alejandro Escovedo (which earned him full credentials as a Local Hero), Chris Smither and Marcia Ball, while recording several albums of his own.
The Resentments gig was “a natural extension of what I’ve done for so long in sessions, gigs, playing for people big and small.”
I FOUND JON DEE Graham one chilly mid-morning five blocks from his house, sitting at a table under an awning at Jo’s Coffeehouse on South Congress Avenue chain-smoking American Spirits, taking contemplative sips from his latte, his pale blue eyes fixed on the traffic going by. He said he didn’t have a clue why the Resentments were happening. He was somewhat preoccupied since he was on his way to a house on Rebel Road where Charlie Sexton was waiting to finish the mix on his fourth solo album, due out later this year on New West.
But Graham, 44, a hardhead for as long as I’ve known him, let down his armor-plated badass exterior long enough to try and put the Resentments in perspective in a curriculum vitae that includes stretches with Austin’s proto-punk power trio the Skunks, several bad new wave bands, the True Believers, Lou Ann Barton, Kelly Willis, John Doe, Michelle Shocked, Simon Bonney, Ryan Hedgecock, and Calvin Russell, as well as producing Kacy Crowley and Steve Wedemeyer.
“As a musician, I’ve learned never to pass up an opportunity to play onstage, especially a situation where Bruton and I can jab insults back and forth,” he says. “And there’s some nights onstage with him that I realize at least once he is the best guitar player in America – it’s hard for me to say it, but it’s true. So how am I not going to play with these guys?”
It’s still a goof and afterthought, he adds, and for exactly those reasons, it works. “Because of the casual nature, it becomes all about the music and the songs. Mambo and Scrappy, the thing they’ve turned me on to, is that music is sacred. These songs are so good, how am I able to not do it?
“There’s no five-year plan. There’s no record contract at the end of the rainbow …. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t know which, it’s generating interest,” Graham continues, citing last year’s tour of Europe as a particular point of growth for the band’s profile. “The Germans are swapping bootlegs. By the end of the tour we were selling out places."
“We’ve built and rebuilt the most patient, willing audience possible. They’re prone to listen to the songs, even though sometimes we spend more time talking than playing. Everybody is so good, we play for each other. In some ways, it’s a serious head-cutting going on. Bruton makes me play outside myself. If Scrappy has a day off, he spends it learning an album like Big Pink. He’s this walking catalogue of songs. Bruce will uncork a funk song that I’ll play on lap steel. Bruton writes songs that have chords with numbers on them.”
EARLY ONE Saturday evening, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, the hardest-working Resentment of them all, and who Graham describes as the “sponge” of the band, was holed up in his South Austin apartment, the seven-days-a-week all-night worker without a gig. He wasn’t complaining. The rare night off allowed him to indulge in his second-most favorite activity, listening to records, which in this case meant analyzing an obscure ballad by Billy Stewart, whose stuttering interpretation of “Summertime” was a top-4O pop hit back in the ’60s.
Tall and strapping, rather than scrawny and scrappy, the 35-year-old tried to point out with some pride that he actually took enough time early in the day to put a coat of paint on one wall of his small kitchen. But the sloppy paint job might not be the best way to demonstrate to others that he has an outside life. In fact, he shouldn’t bother. The evidence around him, from the crates brimming with vinyl, CDs, tapes and books that are piled up around his living room, to the glass bottleneck on the coffee table, to the mandolin he cradled and plinked while conversing, suggest he’s all about music.
He didn’t like talking about his past too much, though he allowed his mother and father’s roots were in Mississippi, that he was mentored by Casper Rawls, Rich Brotherton and Champ Hood, and that he’s played with the Atlantics soul revue, Loose Diamonds, Walter Tragert, Beaver Nelson, Toni Price, and Ian McLagan.
“I’m kind of superstitious that way,” he says. At one point, he couldn’t listen to a National Public Radio program on the radio before a show, reasoning the even, measured voices were the antithesis of what he was trying to achieve when he played. Too much mellow would harsh his buzz.
He said he’s always been drawn to what he describes as trance music – Muddy Waters recordings from the 1950s, the Stones’ classic work in the ’70s around the time of Sticky Fingers, music from Jamaica since it was first made – music that could create “this tense atmosphere that could change the way the room looked.”
The Resentments do that to him, Newcomb says. “A lot of my education is playing every Sunday, having something click and realized by a melodic passage or a chord change. It’s everything I imagined a band could be after I saw The Last Waltz, never mind that I later learned from Levon Helm’s book that the movie wasn’t the way it was. For me, it’s like the Knights of the Round Table with the Resentments.”
BRUCE HUGHES opened the door to his brightly painted wood-frame home on a tree-shaded block of East Second Street,
Not Forgotton You: Mambo John Treanor. Photograph by Carlos San Miguel.
a stone’s throw from 1-35 and Austin’s central business district, long enough to hold it open before he headed back into the kitchen, stepping around and over recording equipment scattered about. He was grinding beans for a midday cup of a rare Kona blend coffee from Hawaii. He really didn’t need it because he was already chattering away at the speed of light. He just likes the taste.
As the bassist for Bob Schneider projects Lonelyland and the Scabs (and before that the Ugly Americans), Hughes tends to be absent more frequently than any other Resentment, but never so long to be considered a candidate for replacing. “It’s better to be too busy than not busy enough,” he reasoned.
Slight, curly haired and constantly animated, he was the last piece to the Resentments puzzle, “the fourth corner of the square” as Graham put it. An Austin native music animal if there ever was one, he grew up on the northeast side of the city, started performing at 13, and has never looked back. “I thought every town was like this,” he says. “When I first heard ‘Smoke On The Water’ coming out of a garage, I assumed Deep Purple lived on Corona Street.”
His resume includes “everybody for five minutes” from the punk/new-wave scene, a stretch with the punk-funk band Skank, and time with Arthur Brown and Jimmy Carl Black, Dr. John (for two weeks), Cracker (for nine and a half months), and True Believers, in addition to his aforementioned tenure in Poi Dog Pondering.
“Every bandleader has always given me grief – ‘Why aren’t you committed?’ I am committed,” he says. When Hughes, 42, finally got the “black feather we sent him in the mail,” as Graham describes it, he thought he was ready. “I had Sundays off, but it was daunting. There was
a lot of intensity. The players were high-caliber. But I’m a quick study. Everything about the Resentments was on the fly: no rehearsals, no charts. After a month, I knew all the material. Then I was hooked. It took me a year before I started to bring in songs of my own.”
The payoff is “getting to play with the best players in town who play for the sake of the song. I don’t want to shred. Being able to get that feeling of being in the right place at the right time in the right universe – that’s what I’m in it for. The feeling comes quick and goes quick.”
JOHN CHIPMAN has what would appear to be the toughest role in the band, sitting in Mambo John Treanor’s drum chair.
Outside Your Door: Newcomb, Hughes, Chipman, Bruton and Graham. Photograph by Carlos San Miguel.
“When you heard him playing, he had this unmistakable voice in his playing, “Chipman remembers. “You could literally cut his body in half. One half would be swinging and the other half would be playing straight time. The entire band had to follow his groove.
“It’s an honor being Mambo’s sub,” Chipman said on the phone from Houston, where he was visiting future in-laws and shopping for an engagement ring at a gem and mineral show. The 35-year-old San Angelo native with a music degree from the University of Oklahoma (specialty: marimba) moved to Austin in 1993 and started playing a number of $25-a-night pickup gigs while working days for Tommy Robertson of Tommy’s Drum Shop. “He taught me enough at his factory that I built my own drum kit,” Chipman says.
He eventually racked up road miles with George DeVore and Marcia Ball before taking stock of what he wanted to do. “After Marcia, I didn’t pick up sticks for four months,” he recalls. “One Saturday night, my phone rang. It was Stephen. I’d gone to Resentments shows over the previous weeks. Mambo used to bring his washboard to George’s gigs, and a couple times toward the end, I came to help set up his drums for him. He was too weak. A month after he died, Stephen asked if I’d come out. He’d tried two or three different guys and it wasn’t working out.
“I asked Stephen when he wanted to get together. He said, ‘Tomorrow night, Saxon Pub. You know the drill, no rehearsal, lots of ridicule. Show up at 7.’ I had nothing to hear. NO CDs to listen to. I was probably tentative. But you play what you play. Stephen said, ‘Don’t worry, if we don’t like what you’re doing, we’ll tell you.’ That was two years ago last December.”
For Chipman, the Resentments are therapy. “Once a week I get to have a three-hour session with these incredible songwriters who are also incredible players. I’m never shocked by what I hear coming off the stage from any one of these guys. We may play the same song a hundred times, but every time, it comes out different.”
He knows he’ll never fill Treanor’s shoes. “It was real tough at first [replacing Mambo]; I was one of his admirers. There will never be another John Treanor. If you sat down and took a tape of him to a professor of percussion pedagogy, they’d say, ‘What’s going on there?’ I had to listen to him for ages and ages to realize that this guy, when he plays time, he’d make certain limbs swing, then do a straight eighth-note pulse with other limbs, perfect timing, but with a pulse that would ebb and flow in synch with the soloist.
“I’ve never heard anyone do that in that fashion. Most of the time, that would sound choppy. With Mambo it’d just sound smooth. It’s insane. I spent hours trying to replicate what he did naturally and finally gave up. The first month or so, I was constantly second-guessing myself: Is this what Mambo would’ve done? I finally realized, they haven’t told me l stunk yet, and I keep coming back.”
TREANOR’S DEATH on August 20, 2001, was the wake-up call. Toward the end, he was tying his arm above the cymbal stand in order to be able to hold it over the drums and play because he was too weak to raise his arm. “I asked him, ‘Mambo, why are you doing that?” Graham recalls. “He said, ‘Because if I don’t do this, I can’t play.’ That is the lesson of the whole fuckin’ thing, right there.”
“He was profound,” Bruton agrees. “And not only his drumming. He personified the Resentments attitude.”
Graham and Newcomb visited him in the hospital the day before he died. “It was a Sunday,” Graham said. “His mom, Lucille, called and said it was pretty bad. Scrappy and I came down later that day. It was obvious Mambo wasn’t going to make it. He was passed out when Scrappy said to me, ‘Maybe we ought to call the Saxon and say it ain’t gonna happen tonight.’ Mambo came to life and said, ‘Nuh-uh. Go play the gig. I’m not scared.’ He made it clear that to not play would be a disservice to him. It’s still his chair. Chances are slim he’s coming back to claim it, but if he does, it’s his gig.”
Saxon Angle: Graham (lap steel), Newcomb (mandolin), Bruton (guitar), Hughes (bass), Chipman (drums). Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.
Things have been snowballing ever since.
Last year it began with their discovery by Germans on the last day of South By Southwest. “Someone got word of the Resentments on Sunday night,” Bruton says. “Not only is it not part of South By Southwest, it’s completely under the radar. How obscure can that be? These guys play one gig at one bar on one night of the week. So of course they loved it.”
An invitation to tour in the summer followed. Hughes got the wheels spinning, thinking it’d be great to have a new CD to sell overseas (they’d released a live recording, Sunday Night Line-Up, in 2002). He organized the session and the artwork. They booked engineer-producer Stuart Sullivan’s Wire Studios, and two days later, they had a self-titled album to sell on the tour. It was picked up by Austin indie Freedom Records for regional distribution last fall, followed by Freedom’s nationwide release on February 17.
“We’d be laughing, cutting up like little kids half the time,” Newcomb says. “We didn’t even know what songs we were doing. Every song was one or two takes, max. Nobody in the band had ever been in a recording situation like that.”
The tour took their collaborative efforts to a higher level. Maybe the covers had something to do with it, encompassing Dewey Redman’s racy “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” and the country spiritual “Long Journey” by Doc Watson’s wife, songs that normally would be judged as strange bedfellows. With the Resentments, they were pieces of Americana that went together hand in glove.
Since the band returned stateside, the new disc has developed legs. Hughes’ joyously loopy, self-referential stream-of-consciousness tune “People Ask Me” has been added to the playlist of influential Austin triple-A radio station KGSR – not bad for a song he wrote in fifteen minutes before he started laughing. “Fifteen minutes later, I had seven verses,” Hughes says. “There is no rhyme scheme.” But there sure is a great big sound backing up his words.
Another European tour is set for this summer. Another CD is being talked about. “The beauty of this band is you don’t have to write twenty songs every other year to make an album,” Bruton said. “With these guys, you can bring in three songs and have a new release on our own little humble situation and go to Europe and sell it.”
It has certainly energized Newcomb. “It’s becoming more of a prospect,” he marveled. “I think everyone woke up to what’s right under our noses. This could develop into a really great band, like The Band. If we had to go out all of a sudden for six months, I’d think it’d be the greatest thing that ever happened.”
For The Good Times: Hughes and Bruton share a smile. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.
ON A SUNDAY in January when most folks are at home watching pro football playoffs on television, the loyalists drift in until the Saxon is packed by the time 7:30 rolls around.
Bruton hasn’t returned from Delbert McClinton’s Blues Cruise. No Bonnie Raitt, Ray Wylie Hubbard,James McMurtry, Freddy Powers, or Al Anderson are standing by, eager to sit in (all have done so at various past Resentments gigs, most recently Raitt in early January).
While Bruton’s absence is noted with acerbic musings about whether he’s gambling in the Bahamas, laying low in Key West, or was simply driven crazy by playing the same four chords every night, “with a harmonica thrown in every now and then,” as Graham jabbed, it’s no less of a band.
“It leave more room for those who do show to show our stuff,” Hughes says about nights when colleagues are missing. “They’re all mike hogs, you know.” It’s a nice way of saying there is so much competitiveness that a prospective off-night can be just as sharp and edgy. With Graham hauling out a boatload of lap steel pyrotechnics to keep the proceedings interesting, it is.
Somewhere in the middle of Graham’s song “Big Sweet Life”, they manage to get to that special place Hughes talked about the reason they play. The instruments lock into a groove that choogles, then soars, launched by Chipman’s brushes. Five women and one guy respond by jumping up and dancing in the tight empty spaces between the tables in front of the stage, facing the band, urging them on, letting them know it feels all right. The room seems to levitate.
And though their fifth member is somewhere between Florida and Texas, his words ring true surveying the scene: “This is what happens when you let musicians do what they want to do when nobody’s looking.”
[visit No Depression]
It’s a Texas Thang – Or Is It?
The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 3, 2004
It was on a trip to my mothers native country of Greece that I realized there really is such a thing as Texas culture. My cousin had just introduced me to a teenage boy on a bicycle. He asked where I was from. As was my habit, I told him I was a Texan.
His face lit up with recognition.
Texas? Ah, yes! he said in broken, thickly accented English. Cowboys! Kennedy! Bang bang!
He hadnt gotten it exactly right (or so I thought at the time; these days Im not so sure), but at least he had an image in his mind.
Telling him I was from Iowa wouldnt have sparked a visual in his head. New York, maybe, but only if I was talking about the city, not the state. California might have triggered some form of recognition. But any Californian would know which California to specifynorthern or southernfrom the git-go. The two regions are very different from one another, as any northern or southern Californian will tell you.
Texans, on the other hand, think of themselves as pretty much one and the same, no matter if theyre born-again rednecks or flaming secular humanist libs, city folks or country folks, if they live in downtown Houston or suburban Plano, or come from Dalhart on the treeless Great Plains or from the Rio Grande Valley, 700 miles south on the edge of the tropics. For all those people from all those disparate places to think of themselves as a whole, some kind of culture has to exist.
Texas culture has been the conceit thats driven much of my writing career over the past four decades. I staked my point of view to the belief that Texas was a place unto itself, and that if I treated it as its own country, there was more than plenty to write about. New York or Los Angeles would no longer be necessary. Besides, Texas writer sounded a whole lot more respectable than minor regional writer. I found the subject matter I was looking for in music, the finest of all the fine arts in Texas, where regionalism flourished in the sounds of Texas country, Texas rock and roll, Texas blues, Tejano, conjunto, and Texas jazz. Two artists in particular, Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, proved consistent fodder since they shared the belief that you could do your art in Texas, carve out a comfortable existence, and still Be Somebody on the national stage. It worked for them and its worked for thousands of others since. I took to heart the observation of the accordionist Ponty Bone: Texas was an isolated pocket of good taste.
Over time I came to discover Texas culture expressed in the literature of McMurtry and Graves, the films of Horton Foote and Robert Rodriguez, sports (Dallas Cowboys, Texas Longhorns, Texas Aggies), food (you name it), and couture (hats, buckles, etc.). Besides Texas music in its various forms, I championed the three basic Texas food groups (BBQ, chicken-fried steak, and Tex-Mex), indigenous folkways such as rodeo, the Hidy sign, Big Red, Dublin Dr Pepper, dancehalls, jeans, and handmade bootsthe icons that make us stand out from everybody else.
Lately though, Ive been asking if there really is a Texas culture left. Did Wal-Mart culture subsume it and I just missed it in the papers? Or has Texas always been an amusing caricature to distract us from the reality that Texas is always and forever the minor leagues, a cute, charming, somewhat blustery place to stop that will never be confused for the Big Show? Marketing people love talking about branding concepts, people, and material goods. Well, Texans may have invented the branding iron, but it is that very marketing mentality that threatens to dilute those characteristics that make us Texan and create the dynamic of Texas culture. To which I say: Dont fence me in.
Geopolitics has a lot to do with this reassessment. Our president has jingofied Texas to the point that anyone else flaunting anything remotely smacking of Texan is subject to acts of overt revulsion as much as theyre likely to elicit a smile or a hug. When I travel out of the country, I dont take my boots with me anymore.
Its weird to admit that, since I bought into Texas culture from my very first taste of barbecue at the age of two. But it may be true. Twenty years ago, more blue jeans were manufactured in El Paso than any city in the world. Today, no one makes jeans in El Paso (or San Antonio, for that matter). Kids dont wear em much either. Joe Peters, whose family has been selling cowboy hats to the rich and famous for more than 75 years in Fort Worth, complains hats are out of style. Wheres the next McMurtry or Graves? Just what are those tepid box office receipts for the second filming of The Alamo trying to tell us?
Or, Texas culture may have morphed into something else, judging from the month of programming the Trio cable television network dedicated to the state last summer. Texas, America Supersized month featured a nice concert in California starring Willie and his heavy friends and several airings of Slacker, which defines modern alt.Texas culture. Three documentaries focusing on Texans and guns, obesity, and the unique way we mix bidness and politics pretty much nailed the modern version of the culture. The bidness/politics doc was from Germany. The other two were British. In their eyes, were a little scary, somewhat reactionary, and a tad crazy from the heat. But no matter how harsh the point of view may be, we still manage to come off radiating just enough charm to win them over. Sound familiar?
The documentaries viewed Texas as neither unique nor distinct but rather as the anti-California. The Texas wildcatter, the oil millionaire driving the big Cadillac, smoking the biggest cigars, and throwing around $100 bills is gone. He has been replaced by the fattest, least literate, dirtiest-dealing, back-slapping, Halliburton-whoring corporate citizen in these United States. Hell, were not even Mississippi with good roads anymore. Mississippis highways have been upgraded while were busy talking toll roads.
Which begs the question: Is Texas still Texas anymore? Or is it all hat, no cattle? Real cowboys are nigh impossible to find these days. As Alpine rancher Tom Beard told me a few years back, most so-called cowboys would prefer to admire themselves in the mirror than put in a hard days work. Then again, ranchers arent what they used to be either. Robert Halpern, the editor of the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, told me locals speak in code when they define people as either ranchers or ranch owners. Its a nice way of acknowledging ranch owners arent real ranchers. (Note to the White House press corps: Before the Bushes bought land in Crawford in 1999, the ranch was referred to by locals as the Englebrecht hog farm.)
Theres a conspiracy at work here. Blame it on interstate highways that have linked the nation together and made everywhere look like everywhere else, immigrants from elsewhere who bring their ways with themnot so much the Nigerians, Nicaraguans, or Oaxacans, but the New Yorkers and Angelenosclone restaurants, big box stores, and electronic media. Country music is no longer about music from the country or for country folks; its the pop music of the suburbs of America, lite rock in disguise. Valley Girl-speak is the lengua de preferencia in the Woodlands and Frisco, same as it is in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Wal-Mart is bigger than Texas even.
Worse, what little distinctive culture thats left has been pimped and whored to the point it isnt really Texan-ness thats being projected. Note to all yall: Some of us may still say warsh instead of wash even when we know better, but no one I know, even the last Bubba on earth, says noo-cu-lar like our President does.
Heck, even Texas music has been compromised. For all the good the Dixie Chicks and Lloyd Maines have wrought, Im wary of Pat Green, who pulls in crowds bigger than Willie by serving up a watered-down version of what Texas music once sounded like. No fool, Green built his career on injecting the word Texas into as many songs as he could write when he was a young pup striving to become the next Robert Earl Keen. He has matured considerably and has uncanny business sense. But if you take his artistry at face value, say on his recent single Wave Onan exceptionally well-constructed song that calls up images of water and the beach and if nothing else, the lakeit has no sense of place, in a Texas kind of way. At least Charlie Robison has the good sense of name-dropping the Dallas Cowboy transvestite bar in Nuevo Laredos Boystown, where most of the pretty waitresses have Adams apples. A real Texan understands these things without having to make a big deal out of it.
A similar debate is stirring up a stew in culinary circles. Board members and supporters of the Hill Country Food and Wine Fair are questioning whether affiliation with Saveur magazine and national food celebs has been beneficial or deleterious to showing the best of Texas foods and wines. If they think New Yorkers embrace of barbecue is off the mark, they shouldve been around when Hollywood discovered Gilleys back in the 1970s.
So just when Im ready to kiss it all off and start buying jeans at the Gap, my neighbors tell me about the foreign exchange student from Germany who came to live with them this summer. Wolfgang stepped off the plane wearing a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt. He got to suit up and practice with the local 3A high school football team. He bought a Seal of the State of Texas belt buckle. Before he left, he was fantasizing about buying his very own Dodge Ram pickup even though he admitted, My countrymen would not understand.
No, they wouldnt. But while Wolfies vision may be as skewed as that Greek boy all those years ago, he gives me hope. I can relate to his fantasy vision of Texas because in isolated pockets of good taste, that vision is more than just a fantasy. Yewbet, Texas culture still exists. Im betting the ranchette on it too.
Guad is Good; Guad is Great
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
It’s the finest recreational river in Texas, but how long can it last?
One late afternoon in mid-February, the day after the frst signifcant snowfall in 19 years, I launched a sit-on-top kayak from the low-water crossing near where I live onto my river, a tributary of the Guadalupe River. It was due for an inspection. It was early in the season for this kind of excursion, but I’ d been feeling the tug for weeks.
The calendar said winter, but spring was subtly stirring wherever I looked. A loud scree overhead identified the first pair of zone-tail hawks nesting in the top of a nearby cypress, none too happy with my presence. The first kingfisher flashed right in front of me, then skimmed above the water in full glide. A mockingbird hopped among the bare cypress branches, scouting for nest sites. A small turtle, its shell caked gray with mud, scooted atop a boulder to sun itself. A bass peeked out from under the base of the same boulder, submerged at the bottom of a deep hole.
With each dip of the paddle, I stirred up liquid diamonds that dazzled in the sunlight. The boat moved swiftly as I paddled through placid, deep pools, and scraped rock and fought currents. Where I could find them, I rode riffles and rapids, and whenever necessary, I sloshed through shallows, dragging the boat behind me.
While surfing the little rapids, I’ d occasionally get in a groove where I didn’ t have to paddle at all. Rather, I was suspended in the rapid, nose upstream, waves rushing downstream, motionless in the midst of perpetual motion, losing sense of time and even existence. In one of these trances, my meditative state was interrupted by a white-tailed doe stealthily sidling up to water’ s edge about 100 yards upstream to take a drink. She spied me about the same time I spied her. She took another quick drink, stepped gingerly on several flat rocks in the water before bounding into a pool and scampering up to cross over to the other side. Two larger whitetails followed, going through the same routine. Look, drink, scan again, step, step, plunge, step, step across. Negotiating around a particularly large limestone hazard, I glanced back to spot a great blue heron, the giant bird-queen of the river, moving upstream, flapping her pterodactyl-like wings just enough to keep her sizeable trunk above the surface of river.
None of the rapids were so much as class II-worthy. But on a mid-winter’ s day in Central Texas, I was more than satisfied. I couldn’ t imagine a better place to be on this earth. That thought stuck with me all the way back to the house even though my butt was numb and I couldn’ t feel my toes.
A River of Pleasure
Of the 15 major rivers in Texas, the Guadalupe is the Texas-most river, springing to life in the Hill Country, that sweet spot where east and west, north and south, coast and desert, tropics and prairie all converge, and diversity thrives and flourishes. The Guadalupe runs exceptionally cool, swift and clear until it reaches the fertile rolling plains, where it widens and muddies and roils through hardwood bottomlands and past the historic towns of Seguin, Gonzales, Cuero and Victoria before reaching the coastal prairie and its delta in San Antonio Bay.
The Guadalupe is the home of the state fish of Texas, the Guadalupe bass. It is the only river in the state that sustains a year-round trout population. Marked with dramatic stretches of limestone cliffs and tall bald cypresses on the upper half, and distinguished with water that begins gin-clear, evolves into an ethereal green-turquoise and ends an earth brown, it’ s the prettiest river in Texas. Fed by the state’ s two biggest springs – the Comal and San Marcos – and supporting abundant wildlife and several endangered species, the Guadalupe has attracted visitors for more than 12,000 years and today is probably enjoyed by more people than any other river in the Southwest.
But the water of this beautiful river is under pressure from growing urban demand. Whether the river will endure for another 50 years, much less 300, is not certain. For all its attributes and benefits – and in part because of them – the Guadalupe may be Texas’ most troubled river. Coveted by thirsty cities, tenaciously held on to by farmers and ranchers, exploited for new, competing uses as the population of Central Texas booms, the Guadalupe has a forbidding future, and that is a shame when you consider how many Texans take pleasure in it.
Back at the house, I estimated how many other people might have been on the Guadalupe and its main tributaries, the Blanco, San Marcos, and Comal rivers, that same February day. I figured at least several thousand. Fewer than 10 miles south of my little play spot, a flock of sailboats breezed across Canyon Lake, the sole significant lake on the Guadalupe, while several hundred people walked the dam over the course of the afternoon.
Downstream, several hundred more men, women, and children were spread out along the banks, tying flies to their lines, scanning the surface and casting into the fast-moving, chilly waters for elusive trout. A little farther down, a handful of hard-headed kayakers played in the waves around Hueco Springs and Slumber Falls, the most reliable whitewater in Texas. Up and down its length, even in winter, the river is a boon to recreationists. Canoeists and kayakers were paddling it, scuba divers were plying its transparent depths at Canyon Lake, duck hunters were sitting expectantly in blinds on its delta and birdwatchers were searching its forests and marshes.
Once the waters warm in the spring, the thousands enjoying the Guadalupe and its tributaries swell into millions. Each day, thousands of people head to Schlitterbahn on the banks of the Comal in New Braunfels and pay more than $25 to play in America’ s top-rated water park. On any hot day, some of the best river-swimming on earth is in the Guadalupe basin. The curious idyll of "toobing," as it is referred to around New Braunfels, Gruene and San Marcos, where the pastime is most popular, attracts tens of thousands of aficionados on Easter, Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends. The Tube Chute in Prince Solms Park in New Braunfels is a water flume that’ s been a tourist attraction for many decades. All told, no other river in Texas is so heavily used for recreation. Plain and simple, the Guadalupe is fun.
A Hill Country Playground
I have driven the length of the Guadalupe River in stages, exploring its multiple delights, tracing its geography. The river insinuates itself into the rocky oak-and-cedar scrub landscape of western Kerr Country very subtly. There are no specific headwaters, no gushing artesian spring. Dry washes and gullies gradually collect enough moisture from small springs to hold water in pools that stretch longer and longer until a steady, shallow stream trickles over a hard limestone bed and then tumbles out of the craggy hills towards the sea, more than 200 miles away.
At Boneyard Draw, on Farm-to-Market 1340, a sheer 60-foot limestone bluff in the distance marks a bend in the drainage, the first hint of canyons to come. A wooden sign identifies a "parking bird-viewing area" on the perimeter of Stuever’ s Ranch. Just below the crossing is the turnoff to the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been testing cedar (Ashe juniper) eradication, brush-clearing and other water-saving land management strategies. In addition to being a center of whitetailed deer research, this WMA holds one of the great concentrations of wild turkeys in the state.
Less than a mile down the road, I detour down a county road, towards Cherry Springs Ranch, Guadalupe Bluffs Ranch, and the Price’ s Joy Spring Ranch Bed & Breakfast. At a low-water crossing, I find the river, sparkling in the sun, the palest of greens with a slight tinge of blue, scooting over the hard rock bed.
A mile farther, the river is moving full-tilt and roaring to life, with a deeper blue tint, a ribbon of sustenance snaking along a narrow alley guarded by soaring cypress trees and flanked by high bluffs, some rising up 100 feet above the water surface. Turkey buzzards politely wait on a fence post while I pass before resuming clean-up duty on a mangled piece of road kill.
A slide leading directly into the water on the banks of Mo Ranch Camp marks the beginning of the "camp run," consisting of Camp Waldemar and Camp Stewart on the North Fork, and Camp Mystic, Heart O’ the Hills Camp and Camp Arrowhead on the South Fork. Crider’ s rodeo arena and dance patio is also on the south fork. There’ s not too many places in this world where a couple can two-step under the summer stars to the sounds of western swing fiddles and the steady rush of the river.
The Guadalupe widens, narrows, and spills from limestone shelf to limestone shelf as it moves past patios, swings and ornate rockwork of dream ranches owned by CEOs, corporations and churches. In one field by the river, scale replicas of Stonehenge and two 13-foot-high Easter Island statues have been erected.
The North Fork and South Fork join just below the Hunt Store, a community gathering spot for vacationers, hunters, fishermen, swimmers and visitors for more than 80 years. Several generations of the wealthiest, most influential Texans have spent the summers of their youth on this part of the river, learning the basics of life and being exposed to a wilder, more untamed version of the natural world than exists near the cities they come from. Small wonder riverfront property here has been the most coveted real estate in the Hill Country for decades.
Anyone can glean a semblance of that experience by passing a night at an old-fashioned resort such as the Waltonia Lodges on the Guadalupe River, or jumping in and cooling off at Schumacher’ s Crossing, the first significant swimming hole with easy public access on the river.
The bluffs fade farther into the background from the river as it flows between Hunt and Ingram. Ingram Dam creates large enough pools to support a bass boat or a one-man sailboat and offers younger river rats the pleasure of dam sliding.
Parks become more plentiful farther downstream: Louise Hays Park on the south bank through most of Kerrville and Kerrville-Schreiner Park east of town. In both parks, people are disc throwing, fishing and hanging out. The river gains stature but loses a little bit of its curb appeal as it flows past Kerrville, Center Point and Comfort, the bluffs considerably diminished, most of the cypress logged out long ago.
The magic returns just below Comfort and Interstate 10, as the Guadalupe narrows, snakes and curves through a verdant valley, parts of which have been cultivated by German farmers from the same families for more than 150 years. To stumble upon the hamlets of Welfare and Waring practically hiding under giant oak motts is like discovering a lost fairyland.
Though the entire 89-mile length of the Upper Guadalupe qualifies as a wilderness river experience – save for the dam in Ingram and all the low-water crossings – the 39-mile middle section between Seidensticker Crossing below Waring to the privately owned Bergheim Campgrounds at FM 3351 conveys the sensation of being somewhere Out There, with more heifers on the banks than humans, more fish in the water than folks.
Below Bergheim and Edge Falls, the 1,939-acre Guadalupe River State Park and the adjacent Honey Creek State Natural Area offer public access to four miles of unspoiled riverfront, more than any park on the Guadalupe and situated a mere 30 miles north of downtown San Antonio. The park attracts hikers and mountain bikers, as well as toobers, swimmers, and paddlers.
Every Saturday at 9 a.m., Honey Creek opens its gates for a walking tour of the ecologically fragile environment, which encompasses several native species of plants and animals, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
I keep looking for the right superlative to describe the upper Guadalupe’ s blend of wilderness and playground, and one remark sticks in my mind. At Kerr WMA I stumbled upon Anthony Glorioso, a fresh-faced, curly-headed college student from Poughkeepsie, New York, who was working as a field assistant on a study of wild turkeys by radiotelemetry. Glorioso had never been to this part of the world before, he said.
Asked about his first impressions, he lit up.
"It’ s like Africa!" he exclaimed.
The New Yorker got it. The Guadalupe is that special.
The most intense recreational use of the river is along the 40 miles of streambed from Highway 281 through Canyon Lake – one of the finest inland spots in Texas for sailing and windsurfing – and below Canyon Lake to Gruene and New Braunfels. In New Braunfels, the Comal – at three miles in length often called the country’ s shortest river – joins the Guadalupe, providing additional flow from Comal Springs. The crowds come for the natural beauty, the dependable flow, and, in summer, relief from the heat. Even in the middle of August, the water temperature remains brisk, rarely climbing over 70 degrees.
The 8,200-acre Canyon Lake was created by the construction of an earthen dam in the mid-1960s. Through managed releases, the dam tempers the wild swings between drought and flood that define the typical stream flow of Texas waterways; the Guad has water when other rivers may not. Since the release is from the bottom of the dam, chilled water is the norm and a boon to the stocking of trout. And since Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited reached a settlement with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the flow is supplemented through the hottest, driest months of the year.
In July 2002, Canyon Dam was put to the test by weeklong storms that dumped close to 30 inches of rain into the watershed. The dam functioned precisely as its engineers intended. When the water level in the lake reached near the top of the dam, overflow went over the spillway for the first time ever. The torrent from the spillway carved a dramatic gorge out of the countryside, accomplishing several thousand years of erosion in a matter of days. The result – a dramatic red-dirt gorge pocked with springs, pools and pouroffs – is being studied by geologists. But sometime in the near future, parts of the gorge will likely become another recreational opportunity.
I’ m disturbed to learn that recreational users have not been given a seat at the table in regional water planning, although permit amendments have been approved to draw more than twice as much out of Canyon Lake as has been historically allowed. While it is common knowledge that recreation is the major economic engine for Canyon Lake, the Lower Guadalupe, the village of Gruene, and the town of New Braunfels, no research has been done to calculate the total economic impact of having a bountiful, flowing Guadalupe.
Recreational opportunities do not stop at Interstate 35. Despite all the focus on the Upper Guadalupe, the river offers plenty of diversions and opportunities after exiting the Hill Country. Between New Braunfels and Seguin, the river widens into Lake McQueeney, a wider-than-normal part of the river. Still, it holds enough water to attract boaters, swimmers, and water-skiers, including the Ski Bees, the first water-ski gang I ever wanted to join.
Twenty miles north of Lake McQueeney is the starting point of the Texas Water Safari, which bills itself as the "World’ s Toughest Boat Race." Last summer I stood on the banks of San Marcos Springs, the second-largest spring in Texas and the headwaters of the San Marcos River, and watched a couple hundred crazies go through last-minute preparations before beginning the 260-mile test of physical and mental endurance. Staged every June since 1963, the race from San Marcos to Seadrift follows the San Marcos River to Gonzales, where it joins the Guadalupe, and down to the coast. While the Safari is technically a race, the challenge for most entrants is to finish the course in 100 hours, which earns racers a pin.
I heard racers’ tales of Hallucination Alley, a side effect of sleep deprivation that has been experienced by most of the contestants who’ ve done the race. I met Julie Basham and Ann Best, two 40-year-olds attempting the race for the first time, and Julie’ s dad, or his ashes in an urn, at least. "Before he died, he said he wanted to watch me finish," Basham explained. She was going to spread his ashes at the finish, if they made it that far (they did). John Bugge introduced me to his 9-year-old granddaughter, Jessica, who became the youngest paddler to complete the race. Ian Adamson, a 38-year-old professional adventure racer and four-time Eco-Challenge champion from Sydney, Australia, put the safari in perspective: "To me, this is the best boat race I’ ve ever run, starting in a clear, freshwater spring and a tight channel and winding up in swamps with alligators and the coast." Talking to them made me want to do the race, too.
But there are more leisurely ways to enjoy the pleasures of the lower Guadalupe that don’ t require a hundred hours of paddling. The "Guadalupe Loop" is a birding route sponsored by the towns of Victoria, Cuero and Gonzales that includes sites along the river. Situated between Luling and Gonzales, Palmetto State Park offers a birding trail that meanders through a lost swamp rife with palmetto palms. In winter, the park is home to large roosting flocks of caracaras. The Athey Nature Preserve and the adjacent Riverside Park in Victoria is one of the hotspots on the Loop, offering birds such as the river’ s specialty, the green kingfisher.
Near the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio Bay, the tidal marshes and riparian woodland of Guadalupe Delta below Victoria are a whole other world, where heat, moisture and fertile soil conspire to cook up a piquant stew of marine and terrestrial life. Birders flock here to spot anhinga, American bittern, glossy ibis, Ross’ s goose, bald eagle, Virginia rail, Couch’ s kingbird, golden-crowned kinglet, winter wren and late neotropicals.
The Guadalupe feeds them all.
Sustaining the Guad
Yes, the Guad is great, but for how much longer? In 2002, the nonprofit environmental group American Rivers designated the Guadalupe one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States because of demands placed on it from growing Central Texas cities.
Perhaps more than any other Texas river, the Guadalupe faces a diminishment of its flow in the coming years. The thirsty city of San Antonio is looking to the Guadalupe for more water. One plan under close consideration and considerable discussion involves taking water from near the mouth of the Guadalupe at the town of Tivoli and piping it 120 miles back to San Antonio. The project is estimated to cost from $683 million to $785 million, or more, depending on design. The flow of the Guadalupe is also potentially affected by pumping in unregulated parts of rapidly growing Comal and Hays counties, which are part of the Guadalupe basin. This explosive development includes more than 20 golf courses built in the last 20 years, each consuming from 500,000 to 1 million gallons a day.
The Guad is beset by a combustible mix of historic laws, traditions and a rapidly growing number of users and uses for the river whose collective demand could soon outstrip the existing supply. The "rule of capture" is still the building block of Texas water law. Under it, groundwater belongs to the owner of the property above it, and plans are in place for excessively pumping underground reservoirs that provide the Guadalupe its sustenance. Surface water, such as the river and its tributaries, belongs to the people of the state, and is managed under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine which says, "First in time, first in right." Surface water, too, is being coveted as a resource that can be moved and sold to the highest bidder.
The problem is that the real price of water, in terms of its effect on wildlife and recreation, have yet to be calculated. Thirty-five miles away from the mouth of the Guadalupe as the black-bellied whistling duck flies, I ran into Tom Stehn, the whooping crane coordinator of Aransas/Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge. Stehn had been a speaker at the eighth annual A Celebration of Whooping Cranes and Other Birds in Port Aransas, the town’ s end-of-winter birding and ecotourism festival. When I found him, he had finished hearing Norman Johns, the water research scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, lecture about freshwater inflow, a major unresolved issue in Texas water planning.
Without fresh water from the Guadalupe, the health of shrimp, oysters, fish and other marine life in San Antonio Bay and other nearby bays will be at risk, Johns explained. His PowerPoint presentation layered current water usage and projected water usage in 2050 onto historic data from the great drought of the 1950s. The numbers suggest the likelihood that in the next drought of record, the population of blue crab, the main food source for whooping cranes, will crash, jeopardizing the most successful recovery of an endangered species in Texas.
Stehn joined the long line of witnesses telling me how remarkable the Guadalupe is. After all, what other river nourishes 198 whoopers during the winter so they can fly up to near the Arctic Circle for the summer? Without the Guadalupe, thousands of visitors wouldn’ t be coming to the refuge to try to spot the tallest bird in North America.
The final stop on my tour of the Guadalupe River was at Austwell, a sleepy little community on the western bank of Hynes Bay, the northwestern thumb of San Antonio Bay, where the Guadalupe meets the sea.
"You carry it in. You carry it out," reads the hand-painted sign by water’ s edge. A single lighted dock juts out into the water. Two men lean on a rail, their fishing lines dipping down.
Wind is a constant, bending the sea oats and cattails northward and stirring up mud in the shallows to add a brown earth tone to the pallet of rich green slate and pale blue hues streaking the expansive bay. Ducks settle contently in salt marshes, shielded from the wind. A redbud blooms near a stack of crab traps, and a Texas lantana is showing all colors, the first clear signs of spring’ s arrival. Austwell is quiet and silent and like some of the stretches of the Upper Guadalupe, refreshingly remote and disconnected.
I start to approach the two fishermen on the dock, but think better of it.
Maybe they’ re in the same zone of solitude I was farther upstream that late February afternoon. If they’ re not, maybe if they’ re left alone long enough, they will get there. I walk away, leaving them be, shaking my head in amazement that the Guadalupe is the reason they are there. My river is a special river indeed.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
How growing demand, fuzzy legal rulings and plain old stubbornness have turned Kinney County into a hotbed of water politics.
Unless you frequently travel U.S. Highway 90 between San Antonio and Del Rio, you probably don’t know where Kinney County is. Depending who you talk with, the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District is either the poster child for how not to manage groundwater, or the last best defense for rural areas fighting big cities that covet their water.
The sparsely populated county is located in that transition zone between the Edwards Plateau and the South Texas Brush Country on the edge of the Chihuahuan desert. Brackettville, the county seat and largest town, with a population just shy of 2,000, is directly across the highway from one of Kinney County’s natural treasures, Las Moras Springs, the ninth-largest group of springs in Texas, which discharge about 160 gallons of water a second. Fort Clark, which was built around the springs by the U.S. Army in 1852, thrives today as a gated residential community.
In 1959, Brackettville became famous as the location where the major motion picture, The Alamo starring John Wayne, was filmed. The movie set was preserved by landowner Happy Shahan and promoted as a tourist attraction called Alamo Village. But a couple of years before the movie was filmed, something more significant happened in Kinney County. While drilling an exploratory well northwest of town in search of oil, drillers hit water. So much water that when Senate Bill 1 — the landmark water legislation mandating that all regions of Texas secure water supplies for the next 50 years — was passed in 1997, Kinney County came into play.
The abundance of groundwater, the county’s small population, the growing demands of thirsty cities and Texas water law have made Kinney County ground zero in Texas’ water wars, as water marketers, legislators, attorneys and lobbyists grapple with the new local groundwater district over how much, if any, water can be pumped and sold outside the county without impacting water supplies, springs, creeks and streams inside the county.
From all outward appearances, the February 22, 2005, meeting of the board of directors of the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District at the Kinney County Courthouse in Brackettville is perfunctorily bureaucratic — board members and the general manager gather around a table to discuss audits, groundwater availability models, recharge numbers, well violations, management zones and a newsletter. The language bandied about is as complex as the aquifers the board is charged with overseeing — the Kinney County portion of the Edwards Aquifer, the Edwards-Trinity zone and the Austin Chalk zone — all of which lack definite boundaries separating one aquifer from the other.
But that only partially explains the tension in the room, which emanates from 11 people sitting in the gallery separated from the board by a railing. They represent the interests of those in Kinney County who want to sell their water. One holds an audio recorder, another a video camera to record the proceedings. From the comments overheard in the hallway during a break, they are a frustrated bunch. They felt that the board was ignoring allocations recommended by Steve Walthour, the hydrologist hired by the board to advise them on pumping permits. Board member Christopher Ring’s family corporation got more water than Walthour recommended; almost everyone else got far less than what they asked for. Allocations were based on land acreage, not on hydrology. They said board members had spread fear among voters that the county’s water was going to be stolen, in order to assure election of five of six board members opposed to moving water out of the county. The board refused the offer by WaterTexas, which most of the folks in the gallery were aligned with, to pay for a study of available groundwater. They even alleged that General Manager Darlene Shahan was working with her husband, Tully Shahan, the county attorney, to thwart their interests.
After the meeting, I head east to Hugh and Dennette Coates’ place in the Anacacho Mountains, where Hugh Coates loads me up with legal briefs and talks about the Pinto Valley farmland he bought in 1988. “We have big water there, shoots straight to the ground. Never has been a pump that’s sucked air in that valley,” he says. And yet, the groundwater district just allotted him less than one third of what the board’s consultant recommended. “It’s like coming to your house and saying, ‘You can have one bath a month,’ ” Coates complains.
Some of the other folks attending the groundwater district board meeting show up at the Coates’, too: Jewel Robinson, the publisher of The Brackett News and a Pinto Valley landowner who has applied for a pumping permit not to sell water, she says, but to assure flow in the creek that “means so much to me”; her son Wesley; Beth Ann Smith, the groundwater district board member who typically casts the lone dissenting vote in board matters; her husband, Richard Smith; Tony Frerich, the co-owner of Kinney County Wool & Mohair; Jennifer McDaniel, who works at the wool house, and her husband, Jim McDaniel, the last cotton farmer in the county.
Over a sumptuous spread of real South Texas Mexican food, they detail the unpleasantness that’s been visited upon them since the city of Eagle Pass first approached several of them eight years ago to see if they’d be interested in selling their water. Their willingness to sell has run headfirst into a board that they say is unwilling to compromise but keeps changing the rules anyway. The pumping caps set by the board are arbitrary, they say. Allocation of such measly percentages amounts to a property rights “taking” (in a legal context, “taking” refers to a government action assuming ownership of real property by eminent domain). They believe that anyone on Pinto Creek downstream from the Shahans and the Rings is getting shorted. Jim McDaniel, the farmer, got 41 percent of what he asked for and will have to go back to the board in July for more water in order to finish his crop. Still, he admits, if he ever gets the permitted amount he seeks, he’s inclined to sell his water and get out of farming altogether. Things have gotten so ugly, Dennette Coates relates, “They’re telling us not to eat in a particular restaurant; they’ll spit in your food.”
I’d heard a whole other story earlier in the day in Tully Shahan’s law office across the street from the county courthouse. Tully Shahan is the county attorney. His wife, Darlene Shahan, is the general manager of the groundwater district. Both have been instrumental in forming the groundwater district and leading the fight against exporting water from the county. The way the Shahans tell it, approximately two-thirds of permit applicants were trying to thwart the will of the county’s voters who elected the groundwater district members. Every sitting board member was reelected despite opposition, they point out. By going to state legislators and lobbyists, filing lawsuits and seeking to have the district dissolved, a tyranny of the few was destroying the board’s good work, or at least bankrupting it through costly legal fees.
“Eight tenths of one percent of county property is irrigated,” Tully Shahan says, “and the irrigators are trying to tell us what to do with 100 percent of the water.”
The water purveyors have lobbyists, they say. The district can’t afford one. “We have the highest tax rate and lowest budget of anyone out there,” says Darlene Shahan. “We are very limited in what we can do as a district. More than two-thirds of the current budget is being absorbed by legal and consulting fees.”
Tully Shahan produces an interim report by Senator Ken Armbrister, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Water Policy, issued before the Legislature convened last January. It proposes dissolving the Kinney County Groundwater District and bringing the county under the jurisdiction of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. the legislation introduced to accomplish this goal is HB 3571 (sponsored by Rep. Robert Puente) and SB 1857 (sponsored by Sen. Frank Madla). The move would leave the county without representation and cost the town of Brackettville at least $24,000 a year for water it is now getting for free, Tully Shahan contends. He pulls out another newspaper clipping that quotes Armbrister as saying the 1904 State Supreme Court decision on Rule of Capture is not in the Texas Constitution.
Darlene Shahan insists the district is doing what the Legislature intended — protecting existing water supplies and users before allocating pumping permits. “Why did we enter into hearings in August, spend money on technical studies, give people an open forum and due process?” she asks. “One hearing was 13 hours. [Water sellers are] saying that we were going to rubber stamp the hydrologist’s findings. If that was the case, the board wouldn’t have sat through those hearings. The water sellers just don’t like how the board is interpreting the rules. The board is doing their best to protect the water according to Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code and the local rules. We’re being as conservative as we can.”
To illustrate why the board is taking the cautious approach, Tully Shahan drives me out of town to the family ranch, a 16,000-acre spread just north of Brackettville, where the headwaters of Pinto Creek are located. He takes a modified golf cart through a pasture down to the rough creek bottom where the creek emerges out of a rocky outcropping and runs pure and shallow through the oak scrub. The cart scoots up over and around limestone gravel shoals to a perch overlooking a small tributary of the creek. A few stone skips away, bubbles float to the surface marking the main spring. The creek bottom, fully visible, shimmers with a pale blue tinge of purity.
Shahan then drives to another spot near a fence line. On the other side are wells that were drilled in the early 1960s that immediately dried up six wells on his family’s land, forcing him to drill new wells at considerable expense. The direct cause-and-effect have given him pause ever since, he says.
A little after eight the next morning, I meet Zack Davis at the Davis Hardware Store and Ranch Supply in downtown Brackettville. Davis, a tall, jut-jawed Kinney County native like Tully Shahan, is taking me to his farm in the Pinto Valley, about 5 miles northwest of town and about 20 creek miles upstream of the Rio Grande. Like most folks in the county, Davis wears many hats — veterinarian, farmer, rancher, former small businessman (after 26 years, he sold his store), husband of a pharmacist, father to six kids.
Pinto Valley is a small 4-mile-by-1-mile basin along Pinto Creek that is locally known as the “honey hole,” Davis explains, an exceptionally abundant source of recharged groundwater where most of the county’s irrigated farming occurs, marked by an almost straight line of artesian wells that run down the valley. Land within a mile yields no water at all. “I had a hydrologist out here once who’d studied this area,” he says. “He told me this solved a mystery — now he knew where all the runoff in Edwards and Real counties up on the Edwards Plateau went.”
After the bounty of water below was discovered in 1957, the Pinto Valley was intensively farmed for vegetables over the next 25 years. Buildings that once housed packing sheds and loading docks speak of that brief period when one-third of the nation’s cabbage and a good chunk of America’s onions were raised in Pinto Valley. But by the 1980s, economics prompted farmers to switch to livestock feed crops such as sorghum, oats, millet, Bermuda grass and alfalfa.
Even with more than enough water, farming and ranching are dicey propositions, acknowledges Davis. “There’s five to 10 percent of the livestock that there was in 1978. If we didn’t have hunting in this county, you could turn the lights out.” In fact, the hunting economy in Kinney County generates more dollars today than farming and ranching combined.
He drives his truck over a fresh field of oats, scanning the sheep and cattle grazing on the bright green cover to spot any legs sticking out of the furrows. Some sheep fall asleep while grazing and fall into a furrow and can’t get up, Davis explains. He finds several and puts them upright.
He stops to demonstrate just how much water there is in the honey hole. Using a large wrench to open a valve in a tangle of pipes, he unleashes a torrent of cool, clear water that shoots out of the pipe with enough force to knock a person down. That sort of abundance, along with queries from Eagle Pass, then Laredo, prompted Davis to organize farmers interested in selling water rather than using it to farm. His search eventually led to WaterTexas, an Austin-based company hired to represent the sellers’ interests. Ironically, one of the first things WaterTexas’ Dan Pearson told Davis was that Kinney County needed a groundwater district before exportation could begin.
Selling water is a higher, better use of the resource, Davis says. “If City X comes in and says they’ll pay me more than what I’m making on this, what am I going to do?” Davis asks. “Over in Uvalde, they built a Wal-Mart on prime farmland. This water is no different. It’s taking a different value than if we farm it. This water getting valuable isn’t my idea. It’s something that happened. It still has to be a managed, regulated resource.”
He still believes in the concept of groundwater districts, just as he believes in the Rule of Capture. “The Edwards Aquifer Authority scares me like it did 12 years ago [when the county successfully petitioned to be left out of the EAA’s jurisdiction]. At the same time, it can’t be any worse than what we have now.”
Davis sat on the groundwater district board until he resigned out of frustration and still sits on the board of the Plateau Region J regional water planning group along with Tully Shahan; the group oversees water planning in a zone that runs roughly between Del Rio and Kerrville. He views the Shahans and the Rings as co-conspirators bent on pressuring smaller landowners downstream like himself. “We feel like they’re trying to choke us out financially. They want to make it so we’ll have to go to them for their allotment if we want to sell water. But we’re fortunate. We don’t have to depend on the farm as our sole source of income. They’re not going to get my farm.”
Davis pulls his vehicle over by the banks of Pinto Creek. “I’ve seen it go bone-dry while the artesian wells are flowing,” he says, gazing over the spread of low oaks and mesquite and blindingly green, lush fields of oats and alfalfa that are fed by the artesian wells. He drives back to Brackettville, heads north to the other side of the Shahan and Ring properties all the way to Nueces Canyon, a stunning sliver of lost Hill Country scenery on the west fork of the Nueces River. Davis grew up on this land and has maintained the family homestead here. He gazes proudly over the rugged hills and fertile bottomland and says, “There’s not enough money in this world to dry up springs. You’ve lost touch with reality if money means more to you than something like this.”
Despite the effect of artesian well pumping on Pinto Creek, Zack Davis believes there’s plenty of water to give and relates the story about when Las Moras Springs went dry in 1964 (due to drought and heavy pumping for irrigated farming, according to many accounts), Brown & Root, which had bought Fort Clark after it was decommissioned, sent tanker trucks to fill up on water from an artesian well in the valley and drove the water to Brackettville.
The prospect of the groundwater district being dissolved and water speculators taking over groundwater in the next county prompted Jay J. Johnson, the owner of a bed & breakfast in Del Rio, to organize the West Texas Springs Alliance in March 2005, joining other groups throughout central Texas in the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance who are fighting water marketers. “Kinney County is a test case. If a fast one can be pulled on the naive citizens here, the same fast one can be pulled on any other board in any other county that is rich with water,” says Johnson. “I maintain that the true farmer or rancher should be allotted and receive the water that they need to conduct the agricultural business on their land. On the other hand, I’m totally opposed to anyone who would exploit and siphon from our aquifers so that water can be exported to the metro areas,” he says.
Kinney County Judge Herb Senne points out that the commissioners court, as well as the city councils of Brackettville and Spofford, passed resolutions supporting the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District and opposing its dissolution by the Texas Legislature.
“The voters of their county were given a choice whether to put a district in place. Seventy-eight percent of the people who voted in the elections said yes. That same ballot had the option of how to fund the district and 65 percent of those who voted chose to fund it with an ad valorem tax. If that doesn’t show the district is clearly the choice of the voters in Kinney County, I’ll eat my hat.”
Anecdotal evidence on both sides of the issue fails to address other lingering questions: Exactly what constitutes a private property taking? What constitutes degradation of a natural resource like a spring? Who pays for the degradation? Is there a right of guaranteed stream flow? How connected are the headwaters of Pinto Creek to the artesian wells in Pinto Valley? If the Legislature dissolves the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District, what does that say about groundwater districts being the state’s preferred means of locally controlling groundwater use, and what does it say about preserving the Rule of Capture?
No matter what legislators, lawyers, lobbyists, judges, entrepreneurs or bureaucrats say or do, springs are vital to the environmental and economic health of Kinney County, just as they are everywhere else in Texas.
Though the feuding has spilled over into churches, schools, businesses and all over the county, each and every one of the folks I visited with has more in common with each other than they’d care to admit: They are passionate about protecting their land, guided by a deep and abiding love for its beauty, which in the respective cases of the Shahans, Coates and Davises is directly tied to the water.
Politics aside, Kinney County has some of the best water anywhere in Texas. The riparian corridor along Las Moras Creek below the headwaters was as alive with wildlife as anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley river brush just after sunrise one morning. The sight of artesian water gushing out of well pipes, pure, clean, cool, pushed as high as 20 feet in the air by underground pressure, is downright miraculous.
Some of the hows and whys of that miracle are answered by Gary Garrett at the Heart of the Hills Fisheries Science Center near Ingram. Garrett is a TPWD biologist who has studied the springs and creeks of Kinney County extensively. He wastes no time explaining their delicate condition.
“The headwaters of Pinto Creek are biologically unique. It’s one of only four places on earth where the Devils River minnow exists. It’s a natural lab scientists hardly ever see. Pinto is really two creeks. North of Highway 90, it’s quite a healthy system. That’s where the Devils River minnow thrives. South of the highway, the level of sulphur in the water is higher [writer’s note: and emits quite an odor], salinity goes up, ammonia goes up, turbidity goes up. The Devils River minnow is no longer found. Instead it’s the red shiner, which does well in a polluted environment.
“The value of rare, unique species is that they are biological indicators,” Garrett explains. “If there’s no value other than that, it is extremely important. I don’t mind water leaving the county if it doesn’t affect the flow of the springs and streams. The question is, how much? When they irrigate, some of the springs stop flowing. Those springs need to flow, that creek needs to flow. The death of an aquatic system ultimately affects humans. Keeping them healthy is healthy for all of us.”
A century after the Texas Supreme Court decision upheld the Rule of Capture by declaring groundwater too “mysterious and occult” to regulate, the mystery remains, in Kinney County at least.
- blog Kinney Water Wars
- Top 10 Swimming Holes A springs fanatic picks his 10 favorites (plus a few honorable mentions). [Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, July 2005]
The Ultimate Big Bend Hike
Texas Parks and Wildlfe magazine
By Joe Nick Patoski
Photography by Laurence Parent
Six days and 70 miles of aching backs, oozing blisters, lost toenails, lightning storms and unimaginable beauty.
There are hikes, and there are blister-popping, back-breaking, toe-throbbing, mind-bending hikes. Hiking across the Big Bend falls into the latter category. That became clear once five other reasonably sane, able and physically fit adults and I set a course across 70 miles of empty desert, rugged mountains and steep canyons, carrying our tents, sleeping bags, food and water on our backs for six days and five nights.
Only a handful of people have attempted to transect the bend where the Rio Grande makes its grand detour through three majestic canyons in extreme Southwest Texas on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. One of those people, Craig Pedersen, told me about his solo trek. When Laurence Parent, the photographer with whom I collaborated on the book Texas Mountains, proposed it, I couldn’t resist. We both thought we knew Big Bend pretty well, having hiked the South Rim and the desert and floated its canyons.
But walk across it?
That was a new one. Maybe that’s because the Chihuahuan desert isn’t the most user-friendly terrain on earth, limiting long hikes to winter months, and only with considerable planning, support and desire.
With a combined million and a half acres of public lands among Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, the Big Bend is the only region of Texas where you can actually contemplate a journey like this. I’d witnessed as Laurence scaled Mount Livermore and scooted around the Chinatis like a mountain goat while carrying 60 pounds of equipment on his back, so I knew he could do it. I figured I could, too. Six years ago I completed an eight-day, three-canyon crossing in Mexico’s Copper Canyon complex, though Tarahumara Indian porters and several burros accompanied us on that hike.
Laurence plotted a 70-mile route from Rio Grande Village, near the terminus of the paved road in the southeastern part of the national park, to Lajitas, the gated resort at the national park’s western boundary. We each rounded up two friends to accompany us, and hired Desert Sports, the Terlingua outfitter, to provide shuttles and water drops.
The night before departing, we met Raymond Skiles, a national park wildlife biologist, who’d hiked from Adams Ranch, east of the national park, to Lajitas solo, only he hiked over the Chisos Mountains instead of skirting the range, as we were planning. He offered advice on where to camp on the Dodson Trail and climb the Mesa de Anguila and plenty of encouragement. At least he didn’t think we were crazy like everyone else seemed to.
On March 2, Laurence, Shelly Seymour and Jeff Whittington, my two friends from Dallas, and I hit the trail under the cottonwoods of Rio Grande Village around 11 a.m., carrying small day packs for 3 miles to the Hot Springs, where our shuttle driver, Rick Willing, met us with our big backpacks. From there we bushwhacked across the desert towards Glenn Springs. Everyone was able; conditions were perfect, though Laurence complained he was coming down with a cold. The sun stayed behind a cover of high clouds most of the day, keeping daytime temperatures in the 70s, and it didn’t rain.
No rain was important. Several long miles were through bentonite, a spongy, absorbent clay formed from volcanic ash that turns to mush when wet. It hadn’t rained in a couple weeks, but I was certain if it had rained one day more recently than it actually had, we would have gotten bogged down in the soil.
We didn’t see another soul after Hot Springs, though we did cross a well-worn path of footprints northbound from San Vicente, Mexico. But there was still plenty to see. The low desert was in early spring bloom, awash with tiny white and pink bicolor mustard, yellow composites among the prickly pear, ocotillo, dagger, pitaya and candelilla, with bursts of Big Bend bluebonnets that perfumed the air.
The foothills of the Chisos and familiar landmarks such as Mule Ears Peak and Elephant Tusk appeared to be another world away.
Geographic weirdness was everywhere. Grasslands alternated with expanses of nothing but rock, sand and gravel. Fist-chunks of burnt wood littered one quarter-mile, as if a pit cooker had just tumped over, only this wood was petrified. Some ridges were so devoid of vegetation and so violently uplifted by geological forces that their tilted layers resembled marble swirls. Wildlife sighting was limited to Jeff spooking a giant jackrabbit, Laurence spotting a coyote, Shelly tracking a hawk and a swarm of bees buzzing past. No black bear or mountain lion. I kept focusing on Rick’s advice: “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. A gallon a day, minimum.” I kept drinking even when I wasn’t thirsty.
We finally reached Glenn Springs just after sunset, almost making camp in a cemetery until Shelly recognized the crude wooden crosses and cairns – remnants from the early 20th-century village that was raided by bandits in 1916. We ate and talked, Jeff admitting he almost “bonked” that afternoon. “I would’ve thrown up while we were resting on that big rock, but all I had in my stomach was Starbursts.” That prompted me to eat all my freeze-dried dinner to carb up, even if I wasn’t that hungry. Falling asleep was easy.
The second day’s hike was 12 miles with a 2,000-foot gain in elevation. After following the Glenn Springs and Juniper Canyon Trail dirt roads into the grasslands, we met Rick, who delivered water, and Keri Thomas and Elizabeth Comer, two friends of Laurence’s. Keri had climbed Pico de Orizaba, the 18,000-foot volcano in Mexico, with Laurence the previous year. Elizabeth ran marathons. Like Jeff, they were both 34. Unlike Jeff and the rest of us, neither had been to Big Bend.
Progress slowed on the Dodson Trail, part of the Outer Mountain Loop, due to the steep ascent. By late afternoon, we passed behind Elephant Tusk, the landmark peak that appeared so achingly distant the day before.
We stumbled into camp by Fresno Creek in Fresno Canyon, a tiny trickle in a tight crevice in the sparse woodlands beneath the South Rim of the Chisos, less than an hour before sunset. We enjoyed supper within earshot of running water and gazed upon stars like nowhere else. Elizabeth lost one of her big toenails. Laurence complained of blisters. Carrying all that photo gear was having an effect. I developed saddle sores on my hipbones. My clothes were getting funky and my hair matted, but I slept so well that I was busted the next morning, along with Shelly, for snoring.
Day Three began with sunlight playing off the South Rim and the dulcet tones of Elizabeth’s voice, “Yea, it’s fresh underwear day.”
We started late in the morning with a steep, 500-foot ascent to the highest point of our trip, a mile above sea level. Jeff sprinted ahead of the rest of us so he could pause in solitude and get what he calls “epiphanies.” So far, he’d had one and a half, he reported.
At the saddle of the Chisos, we could see where we’d been and where we were going, from the Del Carmens to the Mesa de Anguila. It was difficult comprehending how far we’d already walked. Near its end, we veered off Blue Creek Trail and bushwhacked through high desert. We were an hour late to Ross Maxwell Drive, the paved road where Rick Willing waited with another water, food and underwear swap, and the weather forecast – 20 percent chance of rain today, 50 percent tomorrow, which explained the overcast skies and refreshingly cool breezes.
Fresno Creek had been a camper’s delight. The lunar surface beneath the Chimneys, the landmark cluster of small pointed pinnacles where we made camp on day three, was creepy. No breeze, an impenetrable darkness brought on by thick cloud cover, the way wolf spiders’ eyes glowed when a flashlight shined their way, the story Jeff told during dinner about camel spiders in the Sahara that ate their victims’ flesh and the sounds of little things scurrying around my sleeping bag prompted me to crawl into Shelly’s tent, until I crawled out again minutes later because my nose was so stuffed up from a lingering cold. Somewhere near dawn, I crawled back in after the rain started.
The flesh on two of Laurence’s toes had become infected and oozed pus. My lower back and right hip throbbed. Elizabeth’s toes were getting torn up too. Jeff said he had picked up my lingering head cold. Now it was raining. Did we dare go back? No way. We donned rain ponchos and pressed on. The rain was enough to draw the fresh scent from creosote – the perfume of the Chihuahuan desert – but ceased within the hour.
As we left camp, Laurence pointed out some petroglyphs near the base of the southernmost pinnacle. The first 5 miles below the Chimneys was a pleasant stroll through low desert, including several washes thick with Big Bend bluebonnets. The last 5 miles were mostly along Old Maverick Road, the dirt road shortcut to Santa Elena Canyon from the park’s west entrance.
We made a final water/food/underwear/socks/trash exchange at Shelly’s SUV parked by Terlingua Abaja, and made camp on a grassy bank of Terlingua Creek. Santa Elena Canyon was behind us, less than 2 miles away. Its 1,500-foot vertical west wall was the one we were supposed to climb the next day.
Day Five: The flesh on the bottom of three of Laurence’s toes had been rubbed raw. There was a 30 percent chance of rain. I wondered about Keri and Elizabeth’s resolve, especially after observing Keri shave her legs the night before. We could declare victory, celebrate what we achieved, and ride back to Terlingua in Shelly’s SUV.
“What’s the prognosis?” I asked Laurence, who was staring at his feet.
“Go for it.”
He was hurting, but he was too proud to bag it now.
We skirted the base of the mesa for 3 miles, picking our way through grassy plains and around ridges of bentonite, looking for an old, unused pack route up the canyon wall that Raymond Skiles told us about. Keri was nearing heat exhaustion to the point that Laurence proposed blowing off climbing the mesa and cutting across the flats towards Terlingua until Shelly spotted a cairn that marked the way up.
It took a little under an hour to scale the front wall, with considerable difficulty. On top, we discovered several more walls beyond. It was a terribly long slog. Almost every day of the trip someone would ask late in the afternoon, “How much farther?” The reply was always, “Oh, ’bout a mile, mile and a half.” This time it wasn’t funny.
“Today’s been a bitch, y’all,” Laurence declared as we finally dropped backpacks on a rolling plain near Tinaja Lujan. We’d covered 8 miles in seven and a half hours.
“I was getting demoralized,” Shelly admitted. “I’m freaking exhausted and want to get it over with,” Jeff said. Elizabeth was busy applying moleskin to her feet. Keri was exhausted. I didn’t move for 30 minutes after I dropped my pack, I was so tired.
Thunderstorms lit up the night sky as I fell asleep. When I heard a loud clap, I dragged my sleeping bag into Shelly’s tent. Lightning flashed, thunder cracked and rain came down hard for close to an hour.
At daybreak, the air had a pristine scent. “I’m glad we’re alive,” Laurence muttered as he emerged from his tent. “That lightning was less than a mile away. We’d pitched our tents close enough to each other that if one had been hit, all of us would have fried, with no one left to do CPR.” Elizabeth said she had a dream that we’d taken too much water from the tinaja and were being punished by the storms.
We were exhilarated. The views from the top were stunning. We could see the Sentinel marking the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, the Rio Grande, the village of San Carlos 12 miles into Mexico, mountains in every direction. The walk down the mesa was positively chatty.
We paused at the last, great sweeping vista before our final 1,000-foot descent to Lajitas. The end of the trail was a golf course. The unnatural green of heavily irrigated grasses prompted grumbles and proposals to turn around. A golf course resort was no place to end a rugged adventure. “I’m feeling post-partum,” Shelly said on our final few hundred yards towards the course maintenance building. I saw a Coke can tossed among the creosote. This time I didn’t bother picking it up.
Jim Carrico, the former superintendent of Big Bend National Park and project manager of planning for Big Bend Ranch State Park, picked us up. In his four and a half years as national park super, he said he knew of only two parties who’d hiked across the Big Bend like we did. As for the golf course, he laughed. “People like you and me just don’t understand golf and jets.”
Somewhere on the drive back to Desert Sports, I saw myself in a mirror for the first time. The greasy hair and stubbly beard were not a pretty sight.
I fetched my car and drove Jeff back to his vehicle at Rio Grande Village, our starting point. The hour drive gave us time to ruminate on what we’d done, punctuated with several “We did that?” epiphanies, along with a full view of Santa Elena and the Mesa de Anguila sloping towards Lajitas. From the road, it looked as flat and smooth as a baby’s bottom. We knew better.
The shower back in Terlingua was delicious. For the rest of the evening, I took great pleasure in answering Terlingua friends and acquaintances when they inevitably asked, “What are you doing out here?”
Laurence’s feet finally healed, though he had a head cold for two more weeks. Jeff said he had flu-like symptoms for three weeks once he got home. Elizabeth, Keri and Shelly had their complaints. My lower back required some manipulation to get right and still acts up now and then. Despite all that, we’ve all said we’d do it again. Walking across the Big Bend will do that, to a few souls at least.
- Have you been to Big Bend Ranch State Park? Blog Joe Nick about your adventures.
- Did you hear Joe Nick talk about his hike on the Glenn Mitchell Radio Show?
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas. Buy Now from UT PRESS
Top 10 Swimming Holes
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
A springs fanatic picks his 10 favorites (plus a few honorable mentions).
Of all the features that define natural Texas, nothing speaks to the soul quite like springs do. As the source of water in its purest, most pristine form, springs are the basic building block of life. They present themselves in a manner as miraculous as birth itself, gestating in the womblike darkness of an aquifer deep underground until pressure percolates, pushes, and forces the water up through cracks, fissures, and faults in the limestone cap until it bubbles, seeps or sometimes even gushes, to the surface, magically turning everything around it lush and green. Springs feed creeks, streams and rivers, and nourish plant and animal life. Springs are why Texas has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years.
As far as I’m concerned, though, the greatest thing about springs is that they create swimming holes, which are the very best place to be in Texas in the summer. The greatest concentration are clustered in the Hill Country, where human activity around San Marcos Springs, the second largest springs in Texas, has been traced back more than 12,000 years. Like me, the ancients must have figured out that immersing in cool artesian spring water was a pretty smart way to survive a hot day in August.
I endure the heat gladly when I’m close to a spring-fed swimming hole. The endless string of broiling days and sweltering nights that wear down the spirit and sap the want-to and can-do in even the hardiest of souls — that’s my favorite time of the year. Springs are why.
The great spring-fed swimming holes of Texas run the gamut from wild and unsullied to tamed and civilized. All of them promise a shady place to cool off, cool down and cultivate the lazy streak that resides within us all. The swimming hole is my church, a holy place to splash in water clean and clear enough not to have to worry, with at least one big rock to lie out on and jump off of, and ideally a rope swing hanging from a tree limb. Settings like that are compelling evidence there is a higher power.
I have written about swimming holes on numerous occasions for several publications. I live where I live for the swimming hole, which all of my family enjoys in the summer. I plan road trips around swimming holes. I’m always on the prowl to find new ones.
There are literally hundreds of these liquid jewels scattered across Texas, many of them known, some secret, all defying the logic of geography, geology, climate and progress. Without springs, I would not be here. Without springs, I don’t think Texas would be here, either.
Having to select my 10 favorite swimming holes is not unlike having to choose among your children, knowing I’m leaving out sweet spots like Mankin’s Crossing on the San Gabriel, Tonkawa Falls in Crawford, the state parks at Colorado Bend, McKinney Falls, and on the Guadalupe River near Boerne, the entire Medina River, Burger’s Lake in Fort Worth, the Paluxy River in Glen Rose, Possum Kingdom Lake west of Mineral Wells, Tule Canyon Lake near Silverton, Chain-O-Lakes near Cleveland, Hancock Springs in Lampasas, Las Moras Springs at Fort Clark in Brackettville, the Slab in Llano and the 7A Crossing in Wimberley, just to name a few. The following 10 are chosen at my own personal peril and risk, because they’re just my opinion. You likely have your own top 10. Either way, we should all quit arguing and jump in, feet first, eyes closed. Biggest cannonball splash wins.
1. Balmorhea State Park, Toyahvale
Back in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps lined the banks of San Solomon Springs, the biggest springs in West Texas, with native stone and built a classic bathhouse to provide easier access to 78-degree water that is Caribbean-clear and brimming with pupfish, tetras, catfish and turtles. Those features and its picturesque location in the Chihuahuan Desert with the Davis Mountains on the horizon conspire to create the finest natural swimming experience on earth.
2. Barton Springs, Austin
As development has sprawled beyond the pool and the creek upstream all the way to its headwaters some 30 miles away in Hays County, Barton Springs is more remarkable than ever. There are times when the water is so clear it’s as if nothing has changed in the last 100 years. I derive a great deal of pleasure watching friends get hooked the same way I did at Barton’s more than 30 years ago. Two recent converts I know begin their day at 5 a.m. in the springs, with downtown skyscrapers and the moon providing all the illumination they need to navigate the dark waters. That’s a little too extreme for me, but they know like I know there is no better urban swimming hole on Earth. Period.
(512) 476-9044 www.ci.austin.tx.us/parks/bartonsprings.htm
3. Landa Park, New Braunfels
The 1.5 million-gallon, spring-fed pool at the Landa Park Aquatic Complex on the Comal River in New Braunfels is a compact version of Barton Springs without the crowds, fed by the biggest springs in Texas. A few hundred yards downstream on the Comal River is the Prince Solms Tube Chute, a cheap thrill ride that inspired the nearby Schlitterbahn, consistently rated as the best waterpark in America. Thanks to the constant 73-degree water temperature, snorkelers and divers can do the entire mile-long stretch of the river year-round.
(830) 608-2160; www.ci.new-braunfels.tx.us/parks/Landa%20Park.htm
4. Krause Springs, Spicewood
This sublimely picturesque natural swimming environment consists of several pools on Little Cypress Creek, fed by a small waterfall tumbling from springs on the exquisitely manicured bluff above. Krause Springs is privately owned, but overnight camping is permitted. (830) 693-4181.
5. Sewell Park, City Park, Rio Vista Park,
San Marcos River, San Marcos
The San Marcos River begins at the bottom of Spring Lake, an impoundment where the second biggest complex of springs in Texas pumps out thousands of gallons of pure water, spilling over two small dams before winding swift, crystal-clear and cool (70 degrees year-round) on a short, two-mile run as a semi-tropical waterway ideal for tubing, snorkeling or wading. The flow in some spots is so strong, you can point upstream and swim in place, getting a good workout among the turtles and fishes in the wild rice without going anywhere. There’s even a small dam to slide down to keep things interesting.
Sewell Park (on Texas State University Campus): (512) 245-2004.
City Park, Rio Vista Park: (512) 393-8400. www.ci.san-marcos.tx.us/departments/parks/ParksFacilities.html
6. Schumacher’s Crossing, Guadalupe River, Hunt
This storied hole on Highway 39 was popular long before Hunt became a favorite Hill Country destination for wealthy families from Houston and San Antonio in the early 20th century.
Contact West Kerr County Chamber of Commerce (830) 367-4322 www.wkcc.com
7. Neal’s Lodges, Concan/Garner State Park,
Rio Frio, Leakey
The whole stretch of the Rio Frio between Leakey and Concan is made for tubing and splashing. But these two historic spots dating back to the 1920s on the banks of turquoise-tinted Frio, one of the most gin-clear bodies of water in the Southwest, are a cut above the rest when it comes to swimming and floating among the cypresses. (830) 232-6118
8. Hamilton Pool, Hamilton Pool Nature Preserve,
Thirty miles southwest of downtown Austin, Hamilton Creek transforms into a 50-foot waterfall that tumbles into a steep canyon shaded by a near-perfect cave overhang with a nice sandy beach at the opposite end of the natural pool. Access to this idyllic grotto is limited.
(512) 264-2740 www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr/parks/hamilton_pool.asp
Blanco River State Park, Blanco (tie)
A sentimental pick, mainly for the sweet pleasure of pulling off the highway just after sunset at the end of Labor Day weekend last year for a swim in the gathering darkness, the park’s hole is created by a low dam spanning the river with a small pool area below the dam for that cement-pond swimming experience. (830) 833-4333; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/blanco/
9. Devil’s Water Hole,
Inks Lake State Park, Burnet (tie)
The red granite cliff, a Highland Lakes landmark, is rife with small falls fed by Spring Creek following heavy rains and offers a 25-foot promontory from which to jump (feet first, of course) into this dammed portion of the Colorado River.
(512) 793-2223; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/blanco/
10. San Felipe Springs, Del Rio
This swimming hole on San Felipe Creek in the small city-owned Horseshoe Park is a welcome oasis on the edge of the desert, even though busy Highway 90 crosses nearby. Flanked by improved banks of native stone, shaded by stately pecan, elm, maple and mulberry trees, lined with a hard limestone bottom, and fed by the fourth largest springs in Texas, the pool is shallow enough near the banks for kids to stand in and long enough to swim short laps.
Horseshoe Park: (830) 774-8454.
Blue Hole, Wimberley
This storied hole should bust back into the Top Ten next year when it reopens as a city park. The hole is in the process of being purchased by the Village of Wimberley, aided in no small part by a $1.9 million grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department after being saved from development by local resident Peter Way.
See Also: Water Wars How growing demand, fuzzy legal rulings and plain old stubbornness have turned Kinney County into a hotbed of water politics. [Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, July 2005]
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
November 4, 2005
“Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight For Seadrift, Texas"
By Diane Wilson
Chelsea Green Publishing Company
400 pages, $27.50
While working on an oral history project called “The Voices of Civil Rights,” I spent a year traveling around the country, collecting dozens of personal stories about a critical period in our nation’s history. The stories I heard were both uplifting and heartbreaking. But they also made me wonder whatever happened to activism and activists, to people who were willing to put their lives on the line to change the world. The movement, it seemed, was a distant subject, something that had happened a long, long time ago before everyone settled into more comfortable lives.
Then I met Diane Wilson. My friend Michael Berryhill was a neighbor of hers in Seadrift, the small fishing community on San Antonio Bay where she grew up. She may have not faced the fire hoses on the Selma bridge or locked arms with nonviolent protestors in Memphis, he told me, but Wilson was a fighter willing to give up everything to fight for her bay and her way of life.
He wasn’t kidding.
Over the course of an afternoon on the front porch of a small purple house fronting the bay, Wilson reeled off the story of her life, how she grew up in a family of outlaw fisherman, worked as a shrimper as her father and her father’s father did before her, ran a fish house (a rarity for a woman on the coast), and came of age in her forties when she learned that she was living in the most toxic county in the United States and decided to take on the largest employer in the county, a Taiwanese-based corporation with friends in Austin and Washington.
She brought the saga into the present, how she’s banned from the Texas Legislature following a series of arrests for demonstrating in front of that august body, how she’s protested the Iraq War in Congress where she and activist Medea Benjamin unfurled a banner in the gallery while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified before a congressional committee. How she kept going back to New York for a hearing that had to do with civil disobedience actions at the United Nations, where she had handcuffed herself to the building in an effort to bring attention to an international campaign for justice for the victims of the 1984 chemical disaster that killed thousands in Bhopal, India. And how, despite arrests and harassment, despite setbacks and disappointment, despite the overwhelming odds she faced in tackling corporate power and its political patrons, she took pride in being what she called an “Unreasonable Woman.”
Later I would learn that the phrase has a special meaning for Wilson. It comes from a favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw: “A reasonable woman adapts to the world. An unreasonable woman makes the world adapt to her.” Wilson, in fact, helped to found an organization called Unreasonable Women for the Earth, a precursor to Code Pink: Women for Peace.
Fittingly, her memoir is titled An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas. It’s the story of Wilson’s transformation from an inherently shy mother of five who preferred the solitude of the shrimpboat into an international environmental activist. She has also written an elegy to the endangered Texas Gulf Coast and an indictment of the chemical-political-industrial complex that has done so much to harm it.
Wilson evokes a visceral love for the water, the Gulf and the bays that define her sense of place. She never hesitates to invoke the ethereal, the mystic, and the spiritual to explain it all. At the same time, she makes clear that fishing, shrimping, crabbing, and living off the water is a way of life fast-disappearing from this part of the world for a number of reasons. No one has done a better job of capturing the challenges that this small, declining subculture deal with day to day. The shrimper, she writes
…was in the wrong century on the wrong path at the wrong place, and his addiction to the water was either gonna drive him crazy or kill him outright. One desperate shrimper lay facedown on the back deck of his boat in the shrimp and the muck and the hardheads and begged the dying shrimp to tell him their secret. Where they went. What they were doing. But that pile of shrimp said nothing and kept their silence to their slow gray breath.
Her own transformation began in 1989, when a shrimper named Bill Bailey, who was suffering from three kinds of cancer, handed Wilson a newspaper and told her to read an article from the Associated Press, a story about a first-ever report on the federal Toxic Release Inventory, which ranked the states on the emissions pouring from their industries. Texas, Wilson learned, was first in most emissions “with Louisiana breathing hard down our necks.”
“Four times our little Calhoun County was mentioned,” she writes. “A piddlin’ little county on the Gulf Coast that was lucky when fifteen thousand people lived and stayed overnight… Besides that first-place prize, Calhoun was third for shipping toxins out, sixth for sticking them down wells, then twenty-first for flinging them in the air.”
Soon after she read the article, Wilson called Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney in Houston, who told her to call a meeting–the first of a seemingly endless series of meetings that turned into a series of one-woman hunger strikes and other “actions.” Wilson taught herself how to navigate the complex bureaucracy of state and federal environmental regulations and how to investigate the byzantine organization of a far-flung global corporation. Those skills, along with the chemistry that she picked up along the way, enabled her to expose the hypocrisy in the law, as she compared the heavy hand that metes justice to gill-net fishermen with the apologetic slap on the wrist delivered to industries that were dumping tons of toxic material into the air and water. Following the paper trail, Wilson outed a sweetheart deal between Formosa and its security firm, which happened to be owned by a Texas state senator (Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria)).
She also traced the fingerprints of former Senator Phil Gramm to the decision to locate Formosa Plastics’ vinyl chloride plant in Calhoun County. After environmental protesters in Taiwan forced the company to forgo construction of the plant on the island, it was Gramm who recruited the plant to the Texas Gulf. He then had his former campaign manager appointed regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency in Dallas, where he regulated Formosa in the manner that Formosa wished to be regulated, i.e., discharging without a permit with the full knowledge of the EPA. As Wilson makes clear, fulltime environmental activism came with a price: Her marriage ended. Her brother went to work for Formosa. And in a bitter break, she parted with Blackburn. After everyone shunned her (somewhere after her first hunger strike), she found support among the Vietnamese shrimpers and crabbers in Seadrift.
Along the way, there are enough metaphors and homilies jammed into the telling to make me wonder if her editors didn’t make her busier’n a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest to come up with yet more homilies in order to burnish her Erin Brockovich credentials. Although Wilson makes a pretty good case for ecofeminism, the references to goddesses, spirits, and dreams are not always easy to grasp, especially if one reads this as a policy book, which it definitely is. No writer has ever explained the tangled web that is Texas politics and its dealings with environmental issues so succinctly as Diane Wilson.
An Unreasonable Woman ends with Wilson’s attempt to blow up her beloved shrimp boat in the bay–a desperate effort to change, if not the world, then at least her part of the Texas coast. That effort led to some measure of success, as several chemical plants began to take seriously her campaign for zero-discharge.
Zero discharge is doable. So that’s what I say to every nonbelieving chemical plant and what I haven’t gained in sophistication or professional etiquette, I make up for in unreasonable behavior. I am not so well behaved anymore.
Indeed she’s not. In 2002, Wilson was arrested in Calhoun County after she scaled a fence and chained herself to a tower belonging to a Union Carbide plant, an action she undertook on behalf of the victims of Bhopal. For her, this was more than a symbolic act of solidarity: The Toxic Release Inventory–the subject of that long ago AP story that set her down the path of environmental activism–was written into the law by Congress in the wake of the Bhopal disaster. For Wilson, a vision of civil rights that includes global environmental rights is no stretch at all. Of course, that’s not the way local officials–nor officials from Carbide and Dow Chemical, its parent company–see things. Today Wilson is facing a four-month jail sentence as a result of that 2002 Carbide arrest. Currently she’s on book tour and in no hurry to come back to Texas and serve that sentence. As she explains in interviews and talks throughout the country, Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide, has never gone to India to serve time, despite that nation’s repeated efforts to have him extradited from the United States. So why should she go first?
Unreasonable? Maybe. But consider the decades-long tale of environmental destruction that Wilson relates in her book. And consider everything that has happened along the Gulf Coast in the past few months, we can only hope that it starts raining unreasonable women–and men–in this state. Soon.