The idea that a river has a character distinct from all other rivers seems impossibly provincial. If someone had said it to me before yesterday, I may well have laughed at the quaint half-truth the way I do when reading Mark Twain. That was before the arms of the Brazos wrapped back around me.
John Graves bid the Brazos farewell in 1960, when he published Goodbye to a River. He wasn’t leaving, but it was. Two dams had already been built; thirteen more were proposed. He started his trip in the very tailwaters that formed my childhood affinity for fishing and thorns and paddled the same waters that I did some forty years later. He knew things were changing around him and took the chance to see them as they once were one more time, with a writer’s eye and a pre-nostalgic heart. We are rarely given the same complicated gift of a pre-planned farewell.
When I left Texas I was so sure it would be for good, so positive that the metaphysical and physical were correlated that a departure meant more than just a lack of Whataburgers and whitewashed Wranglers. That shortsightedness is quite typical of a teenager, but it’s also quite a strange way to move on. To regard your home with a cold eye and a shuttered heart, thinking that you can escape your personal problems with a change in location is to bid goodbye to nothing. There’s no good in this bye. Good riddance, then.
To be homesick is not simply to wish somebody would do your laundry or make your favorite family recipe. It’s to be removed from the smells of dust and honeysuckle and creosote and the sights of dip can rings and sports team shirts that match your own. It’s a general specific that says no matter how well I master this recipe and how many maids I hire, this is not home. All my revulsions are being replaced by new ones, and I liked the old ones better. John’s were usurped by a time, mine by a place. Would you rather be branded a pussy for not hunting or a provincial proletariat for having faith and saying ya’ll? Have space to shoot cans and catch bass or a new movie theater and fashionable next door neighbors? Much depends on your perspective.
The way most authors do, Mr. Graves offered a profoundly personal, timelessly universal take on the state of affairs in 1960s Texas:
“I would be annoyed if I were any more in tune with modern sensibilities. I was shaped differently. The world in which I grew up was Texan and Southern, and it had many, many failings. I think I’ve gotten rid of most of the bad things in myself from that earlier age, but I don’t adjust to the way things are progressing now.”
This same progressive curmudgeonliness colors many of my favorite works. From Travels with Charley to No Country for Old Men, we see narrators who have a healthy case of Things-Used-to-be-Better Syndrome but know it. We all fear change. We don’t all possess a tortuous self-awareness that accompanies our preference for the known. But we all grow weary when the things we know are replaced by things we don’t. “Things were better then,” we’ll always say. Except for those of us who love new things. The disappointment of watching the new become old is certainly more constant and empty than the wistful twinges of rose-colored hindsight.
So when I found myself on the Brazos River again, amid my first real spring in four years, I was taken aback by the way it had waited. Though nothing was the same, everything was. The colors, the currents, and the vegetation were all just as I left them. The weather was abysmal by most standards, but the flowers were ecstatic. The latent moisture in the ground and air lent everything a high-contrast look. Greens were greener, plant cells turbid with water. Darks were darker, trunks and soil soaked full of moisture. Only the strongest smells could muscle through the thick, damp air. The cow patties and sagebrush were turned up to eleven, freed from the mingling of weaker scents. When I landed the first largemouth bass of the day, a singular, purposeful joy superseded all of my long overwrought vegetarian conundrums.
When I landed the largest sand bass I’ve ever caught, it dawned on me that these were not the cliché fish that everyone said we should dream of catching. These were my fish, in my backyard. And if nobody ever writes a narrative in which redneck trappings like bass and sunfish are highbrow rewards for heady pursuits, all the better. When Graves floated the Brazos, his keen eye soaked in the hidden beauty nestled up and down the river. Nothing so obvious as a pre-labelled SCENIC OVERLOOK along a road with countless tourist maps and guides would do. If someone tells you something is good, can you ever really decide for yourself?
To notice red tail hawks silently presiding over their territory is to truly interact with nature. They’re always there, but only a keen and willing eye will routinely spot their mottled plumage so perfectly matching the branches on which they perch. To realize that Great Blue Herons are as exotic as anything at the zoo is, again, to reject the fairy tale notion of some beauties being better than others. There is nothing pretentious or prescriptive about the beauty of sandy red cliffs and golden ochre cedars reflecting in dark green water. Everything waits patiently for its visitors to understand that, sometimes, beauty educates beholders. This place was not designed by Someone who thought Big Sur was inherently better than Big Bend, so why should we?
Texas is wrought with thorned vegetation. Cacti are the most obvious and easily avoided. It’s the insidious vines that intertwine with the innocuous bushes that’ll get you when you least expect it. The process of avoiding these painful plants is part of the meditative whole that is the pursuit of fish. To access the Brazos River, you must circumnavigate nature’s booby traps. Thorns and holes and slick shores do their darndest to protect the ultimate prize. Perhaps by writing off places that are difficult, we’re missing the point.
The Brazos’ distinct character was most clear to me because it stood in high relief against the other rivers I’d visited the week prior. The Colorado, The Guadelupe, The San Gabriel, The Pedernales. What a difference a few hundred miles make. What’s in a name. These rivers are all so profoundly different I could identify The One out of a lineup.
As I stood in the chilly knee-deep water, focus and reverie duked it out while I stood by gladly. My fishing buddy and I were the only two people on the river that day, because we could see beyond the thorns and the grey skies. In the mist it became clear that this was home.
I should add that only two of those proposed dams were ever built, thanks in large part to the awareness Graves raised with his poetic take on a unique place. And the lakes they built are drying up. My nostalgia is for a time when one could waterski without fear of impalement and lakehouses were actually close to lakes. Before I was away, before the droughts and fires came. That was a better time.