Wednesday, November 16, 2011

West Texas rivers & wind-blown campfire tunes

(From November 2000)

By Peter Blackstock

Driving west on I-10 from Austin, the desert creeps up on you, gradually revealing itself mile after mile after mile until the entire landscape has changed. The winding rivers, lazy lakes, scrubby trees and colorful flowers of the Texas Hill Country finally give way to barren creekbeds, rocky outcroppings, desolate plains and various forms of cacti.

The transformation somehow seems as spiritual as it is physical. The world exists on a different plane: broader in scope, wider in space, deeper in soul. Here in the heart of West Texas, everything truly is bigger.

Biggest of all is the Rio Grande, and nowhere is it so grand as in Big Bend National Park, so named for the gargantuan turn the river takes as it winds through a series of deep canyons on the border of Texas and Mexico, a couple hundred miles southeast of El Paso and Juarez. Though Texas isn’t generally known for its mountains, several peaks in the park are quite impressive, rising to nearly 8,000 feet from a much lower base than, say, the Colorado Rockies, which sprout from a mile-high boost.

Hiking trails and campgrounds are plentiful throughout the park, but it’s the river that rules this region, providing a major recreational draw for adventure seekers in the Southwest and beyond. About a half-dozen companies operate raft trips on the Rio Grande, ranging from day or weekend trips through the three main canyons (Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas) to weeklong excursions through the Lower Canyons.

One company in particular has carved out a unique niche in the market by combining the rugged splendor of Texas geography with the ragged glory of Texas music. Far Flung Adventures, based in the tiny ghost town of Terlingua just outside the park, regularly offers three-day/two-night trips in which a renowned Texas singer-songwriter comes along for the ride and performs intimate campfire concerts for the rafters.

Those who have participated in Far Flung’s river music series over the past decade include such marquee names as Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Robert Earl Keen, Tish Hinojosa, Darden Smith and Peter Rowan. The unrivaled stars of the series, however, are Steven Fromholz and Butch Hancock, whose lives have been significantly redirected by the pull of the river.

Fromholz inaugurated the series in the late ’80s and was so taken by the experience that he eventually became a trained boatsman as well, and set up a part-time residence in Terlingua (his primary home is in Austin). Hancock followed suit shortly thereafter, becoming a music-trip regular in the late ’80s and earning his oarsman credentials in the early ’90s before finally heeding Big Bend’s call completely and relocating from Austin to Terlingua in 1996.

The move marks a full-circle evolution of sorts in Hancock’s life cycle. Raised in Lubbock and a member of the pioneering band the Flatlanders in the early ’70s (along with Ely and Gilmore), Hancock moved to Austin in the mid-’70s shortly after recording his first album, West Texas Waltzes And Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes. He released about a dozen records of varying textures and tones during his two decades in Austin, but 1997’s You Coulda Walked Around The World revisits the rustic simplicity of his debut, a solo recording of just guitar, vocal and harmonica.

Lyrically, Hancock has replanted himself firmly in West Texas soil as well, which is what makes his music so ideally suited to Far Flung’s river excursions. His words echo in seemingly every experience of the adventure. Driving the back roads of Lajitas to the put-in point, the chorus of “This Old Dirt Road” comes to mind; the border adventure tale of “Leo y Leona” practically provides a plot map to the area; “Barefoot Prints” ponders the reflections of moonlight, sunlight and starlight on the Rio Grande.

Starlight, coincidentally, is where our journey begins — at the Starlight Theatre, which sits next to Far Flung’s headquarters in the heart of “downtown Terlingua” (consisting only of those two facades and a gift shop). Having set out from Austin around dawn on a Thursday in mid-November, my father and I pull into Terlingua shortly after dusk (”You can drive all day and never leave Texas,” another of Hancock’s lyrics reminds) and drift into the Starlight, which functions as a restaurant and bar in addition to presenting occasional musical and theatrical events.

Across the room I happen to spot Joe Nick Patoski, a senior editor for Austin-based Texas Monthly magazine who’s in the area researching an article. Presently he’s joined by Fromholz, who informs us that our river trip with Hancock will be greatly enhanced by the ever-entertaining guidesmanship of Gary “Catfish” Callaway. We meet Callaway the next morning and instantly appreciate Fromholz’ assessment: “They call me Catfish because my mouth is bigger than my brain. And the fact that I just told you that proves that it’s true!”

Soon enough, however, Catfish’s considerable wisdom of his domain becomes evident. An outdoorsman and river guide for three decades and a minority owner of Far Flung, he knows the Rio Grande intimately, from its habits to its habitat to its history. As he rows our boat of five — Catfish, my father and me, and another father-son pair from Houston — downstream with breezy deliberation, he identifies bird species and rock formations, recalls floods and other incidents that altered the form of the river’s banks and rapids, and continually curses the tamarisk trees whose byzantine root structures drain water from the river at an alarming rate.

Drifting along lazily behind us, barely visible amidst a barricade of supplies surrounding him on his raft, is Hancock, who’s serving as cargo crew as well as campfire balladeer for our journey. Occasionally Catfish will nod back in the direction of Butch, careful to be out of earshot so as not to embarrass him, and marvel about how that guy in the trailing boat happens to be one of the great songwriters of our time.

Soon enough we’re treated to firsthand evidence of that assessment. After pitching our tents at the Friday night campsite and devouring a hearty steak dinner (Far Flung feeds folks mighty well on these trips), we gather around the fire, hoping that a threatening sky will hold off long enough to allow Butch to play a few tunes. (The story’s often told of how, around ten years ago, Hancock played his song “Just One Thunderstorm” one evening at a Rio Grande campsite and, on cue, the heavens opened forth and poured.)

The rain mostly holds off on this night, though a light drizzle eventually prompts us to scoot a few feet under the tarp protecting the makeshift kitchen. Playing for an hour or so, Hancock treats us to classics from his past such as “If You Were A Bluebird”, Terlingua-inspired tunes from his most recent album including “Long Sunsets”, and even a couple new numbers he hasn’t yet recorded. Those who have caught Hancock in the cozy confines of the Cactus Cafe in Austin might assume they’ve heard him in the ideal environment, and they’d almost be right — but nothing could ever transcend the experience of Butch’s songs rambling along the river’s banks, rolling upon its rippling waters, reverberating off its colossal canyon walls.

We don’t actually enter the majestic Santa Elena Canyon until the following afternoon, having spent the first day following the river’s twists and turns through the mesa-pocked frontier of the Chihuahua desert. We stop for lunch at the entrance to the canyon, taking a relatively short but awe-inspiring hike up a fairly steep trail leading to the canyon’s precipice. Peering one direction, down into the chasm created by the sheer cliffs on both sides, ignites the nerves with dizzying wonder; gazing another direction, across the vast cactus-covered playas of Mexico, beckons the soul to the edge of eternity.

We spend Saturday night deep within the canyon, chilled and whipped by a whistling wind that quickly renders our nice hot dinner less than lukewarm. This is, after all, West Texas, a place where “the wind is gonna blow tomorrow, just like it blows today,” as Hancock sings on “Wind’s Gonna Blow You Away”. The natives have long since learned to weather the elements, and Butch has no problem keeping us up for quite awhile, regaling us with the misadventures of “Split & Slide” (”Well Split he slipped and started to slide/And Slide he slipped and split his side”) and the simple wisdom of “Chase” (”You might chase a tune/You might chase the muse/You might chase the moon/You might chase the blues”). Finally, and fittingly, Hancock leaves the music to be carried away on “The Wind’s Dominion”.

Sunday morning, only a short float remains through the rest of the canyon to our early-afternoon takeout point, though it’s probably the most scenically spectacular portion of the trip, the canyon’s walls towering ever higher and revealing formations such as Smuggler’s Cave, a giant hole in the wall on the Mexican side. Then it’s out of the long shadows and back into the bright sunlight, Santa Elena’s tight fortress receding abruptly and giving way once more to the desert’s endless horizon.

Driving back to Austin, watching the parched plains transmute back into rolling hills mile after mile after mile, I recall all those treks across I-10 I’d made in my younger days, and how hard it always was to readjust to urban civilization after spending a few days amid the soul-stirring nature of this country. As usual, another song of Hancock’s — this time it’s “Texas Air” — comes to mind, and captures the feeling exactly:

Leave my spirit on the prairie
Bury my bones in the sand
Toss my troubles to the western wind
Baby it’s a wide, wide land.

No comments:

Post a Comment