Best Texas rivers: Lavaca River

More Texas River Tracing, this one starting on the Navidad and ending on the Lavaca, August 2006. See posts and reposts here.

Now we know how it felt, in a small way, for explorers who misread incomplete maps.

This morning, on the third day of our Navidad river tracing, Joe and I retraced our steps through Point Comfort (a town with a difference of 200-residents on its population signs), past chemical and plastics plants, past snow-dappled cotton fields (“gotta get that cotton out before it rains,” one young woman told me), past Lolita to the confluence of what turns out to be the Lavaca and Navidad rivers, 10 miles or so above Lavaca Bay.

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Kreische Brewery Monument State Park. Photo courtesy of AustinExplorer.com.

There it was plain as day, but not marked clearly on our maps. So, in fact, the mouth of the phantom Navidad that we tried to spy from Point Comfort the day before is, instead, the disgorging of the Navidad/Lavaca river system. Later, we crisscrossed the Lavaca between this point and Hallettsville so many times, we can now say that we know both rivers in the sibling system.

Along the way, we dallied in the ghost town of Morales, formerly an outlaw nest, and witnessed a coyote chasing a doe (“our first mammal-on-mammal predation,” Joe pointed out.)

We also visited the Kreische Brewery Monument State Park, located high on a bluff above La Grange. Here lie the remains of Texans who fought as part of the Dawson Party in the 1840s (after Mexican troops retook San Antonio) and ill-fated members (the monument calls them “martyrs”) of the Meir Expedition, which aimed at capturing a Mexican city, but instead landed the Texans facing firing squads.

The brewery is a charismatic stone building, mostly in Roman-like ruins and half underground, yet the Kreische house, perched on a hill above the brewery, still looks in good condition.

We also stopped at every historical marker from the coast to the Hill Country, purchased a decaf at Latte on the Square, examined the superbly renovated Fayette County Courthouse and ate creamy chicken enchiladas at La Marina, housed in the former glory spot at the now-sad Cottonwood Inn.

All in all, a rewarding river tracing.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on this blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.

Best Texas rivers: Navidad River

We continue to repost Texas River Tracing posts, this one from August 2006.

See links to posts and reposts of other tracings here.

We hit the Navidad just west of Schulenburg. After tripping down the bank — no kidding — we found only shallow pools of water pocking the sandy riverbed. Giant swallowtails drfited overhead among the burr oaks.

Tomorrow, we will follow the river down to Lake Texana and, later, Lavaca Bay, during our second official River Tracing.

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Courtesy of RepublicRanches.com.

Earlier, we tried to pry our way into the Arnim and Lane dry goods store and opera house in Flatonia. If you’ve never seen it, this corner building is a perfectly preserved historic shop, and not preserved by curators or antiquarians, but rather by the owner, who had worked there for almost a century. Alas, he died three years ago, and the place is locked up. Just pray nobody tries to empty it out to modernize.

In Schulenburg, we ate at the hearty Oakridge — sweetish sauerbraten for me, plate-sized chicken fried steak for Joe — excellent, but way, way too much for one meal.

Then we partook of the only entertainment in town — the single movie showing at the Comfort Theatre, sculpted inside the four-story Von Minden Hotel. Luckily, it was “Talledega Nights,” just right for the NASCAR-loving audience. They completely bought into Will Farrell’s Ricky Bobby character, and groaned when his arch-enemy, an existentialist Frenchman, kissed his husband.

But the movie is so delightfully subversive, they cheered and laughed when, later, Ricky kissed the Frenchman. Once again, culture wins.

Schulenburg at dawn. Broad streets. Quaint old houses. A town of 2,600 where whites, blacks, Latinos and South Asians easily share public spaces, and where the town has inched from its railroad core, to old U.S. 90 to Interstate 10.

We broke our fast at Frank’s, a diner since 1934, where German or Czech sausage replaces patties with eggs and killer biscuits.

We then toured some “painted churches,” unable to break our way into St. John’s, but easily accessing the church in Praha with the ornate paintings from a wandering artist during the 19th century.

So down to Halletsville through supremely tidy pasturelands, then back through county roads to the Navidad, the reason for our River Tracing. We finally met up with a real stream at Vienna. (Earlier contacts with the the Navidad and its rain-fed tributaries, as we traced the river from its source to its mouth, turned up only shallow pools of water.

We returned to the river several times via backroads, hiking down to its sandy, shallow bed as it fell from the gentle hills and oak forests of Central Texas to the green-green expanses of the Gulf Coastal Plain.

At Lake Texana — created mostly by the Navidad — we visited alligators, herons, egrets, bunnies and ever-present deer, which seemed smaller than the usual whitetails.

The dam that impounds the Navidad provided us with a view of what we belive was a bald eagle, then we tried to edge close to the mouth of the river at Lavaca Bay. The river widens here, almost to mock its meager origins just up the road.

We then tried to spy the mouth from Point Comfort, home to three enormous plastics and aluminum plants. (Don’t even want to consider how much pollution they generate.)

Across the bay in Port Lavaca, We ate at Gordon’s — a seafood mainstay since 1964 — which retains a sort of roadside glamour in decline. The rest of PC bustles, whether from the commercial and recreational fishing, the businesses along Texas 35, or simply catering to the workers at the plants across the water. Still, much of its historic core is in decay, looking like most older Gulf towns — weatherbeaten, rescued, then beaten back again by nature.

Then we headed down the bay to Indianola, a place of lasting romance. Here was the biggest port on the Texas gulf, the location of La Salle’s fort, the port of entry for thousands of Germans, Czechs and Austrians. Gone, all gone, wiped away in successive hurricanes, with only a few stilted bay houses of very recent vintage — and one bold statue — in their place.

A visit here as a chlld made a lasting impression about the relationship between hurricanes, climate and geography. Later I contemplated the relationships at our summer retreat, Surfside, which was destroyed by Carla. Surfside itself had replaced Velasco, previously the capital of Texas. It, too, was obliterated by a hurricane.

And we haven’t even brought up Galveston in 1900 or why the Spanish found no significant permanent Indian settlements on the coast, or why they learned not to raise any themselves.

The message: DON’T BUILD ON THE TEXAS GULF COAST. When will people ever learn?

Now we know how it felt, in a small way, for explorers who misread incomplete maps.

This morning, on the third day of our Navidad river tracing, Joe and I retraced our steps through Point Comfort (a town with a difference of 200-residents on its population signs), past chemical and plastics plants, past snow-dappled cotton fields (“gotta get that cotton out before it rains,” one young woman told me), past Lolita to the confluence of what turns out to be the Lavaca and Navidad rivers, 10 miles or so above Lavaca Bay.

There it was plain as day, but not marked clearly on our maps. So, in fact, the mouth of the phantom Navidad that we tried to spy from Point Comfort the day before is, instead, the disgorging of the Navidad/Lavaca river system. Later, we crisscrossed the Lavaca between this point and Hallettsville so many times, we can now say that we know both rivers in the sibling system.

Along the way, we dallied in the ghost town of Morales, formerly an outlaw nest, and witnessed a coyote chasing a doe (“our first mammal-on-mammal predation,” Joe pointed out.)

We also visited the Kreische Brewery Monument State Park, located high on a bluff above La Grange. Here lie the remains of Texans who fought as part of the Dawson Party in the 1840s (after Mexican troops retook San Antonio) and ill-fated members (the monument calls them “martyrs”) of the Meir Expedition, which aimed at capturing a Mexican city, but instead landed the Texans facing firing squads.

The brewery is a charismatic stone building, mostly in Roman-like ruins and half underground, yet the Kreische house, perched on a hill above the brewery, still looks in good condition.

We also stopped at every historical marker from the coast to the Hill Country, purchased a decaf at Latte on the Square, examined the superbly renovated Fayette County Courthouse and ate creamy chicken enchiladas at La Marina, housed in the former glory spot at the now-sad Cottonwood Inn.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on this blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.

Best Texas rivers: Little River

This was our first entry in our Texas River Tracing journals, dated March 25, 2006. Posts and reposts of other entries can be found on the Medina River post.

We’ve dubbed it “river tracing,” following a Texas watercourse from one end to the other by car and short hikes.

We chose the Little River for our first foray, because, well, it’s short, and I am obliged to give a keynote speech to a conference in nearby Temple today.

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Sugarloaf Bridge over the Little River in Milam County.

The closest we could inch to the spot along a vast floodplain where the Little joins the Brazos were orange dirt Milam County roads and an old trestle bridge over the muddy, slow-moving tributary. Songbirds made a delirious din in the jungle of high-ridged banks. Nearby, we circled a conical tor that must be a volcanic outcropping (will check maps later).

Surely, ours is the only Chevy Malibu to have navigated these rocky rural roads. Most common birds sighted among the tender hay and alfalfa fields, besides larks and sparrows? Shrikes.

The land rose rapidly as we passed through post oak belts and well-tended pastures from Gause to Minerva, then Sharp and tiny Davilla, where we discovered an improvised corner store and two-table cafe. The Little here alternates between streamlike youthfulness and broad, lazy wetlands. From Bartlett, a tidy, prosperous farming community in the blackland prairies, we zoomed through Czech settlements in Holland and Sparks to Academy-Little River at the confluence of the Leon and Lampasas rivers.

Our Little River band of two was able to dip into the deeper, green Leon just past the site of the Little River Fort (renamed several times, once Fort Griffin) and to linger over the shoals of the smaller, shimmering Lampasas by way of Bell County roads.

At this point, we agreed to follow the longer Leon branch to the northwest. We cruised through the tranquil county seat of Belton up to Belton Lake and its impressive dam. Like other Hill Country reservoirs, it had shrunk below the vegetation line to its white limestone banks. We also nosed around Miller Spring Park below the dam, where we spied another band of buzzards. (Among the first sights of this trip was a flock feeding on a carcass outside of Tomball.) Lake Belton looked ideal for sailing — and it was perfect boating weather, but we spied not a single spinaker.

At that point, we backtracked to Temple for the evening.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on this blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.

Best Texas rivers: Llano River

We continue to retrieve old blog posts about Texas River Tracing. We’re linking them to a report on the Medina River, which we traced in December.

Checking into our Junction motel, we asked the desk clerk about fun things to do in town. She quipped, “When you find out, let me know.”

True, for a student at Texas Tech University-Junction like her, this old Edwards Plateau ranching town offers little social life. Yet for buddy Joe Starr of Houston and me, it served as an ideal base camp for our 13th river tracing. (Our goal: Trace 50 Texas rivers from source to mouth.)

Of all the constant-flow Hill Country rivers, the Llano remains the least altered. As John Graves observes in “Texas Rivers, ” it is dammed only intermittently between its headwaters in Edwards and Sutton counties and its happy meeting with the Colorado River at Lake LBJ. The Llano has yet to inspire a single fancy resort, and city folk have built only a fistful of second homes.

At the juncture of the South and North Llano rivers, Junction attracts mostly hunters and the occasional road-tripper netted off Interstate 10. As for other towns, Mason has been discovered by outdoor types, as well as history buffs; Llano by those two tribes, plus weekend ranchers who pack the coffee shops and courthouse-square eateries. Kingsland, long a vacation camp on the “Llanorado” peninsula, leads t

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Photo: Texas Parks and Wildlife

o Leviathan lake-side homes and quaint railroad-era inns but is marred by an eye-melting stretch of highway commercial culture. (Lady Bird Johnson would shudder.)

The lack of development upstream – cherished by river lovers – is rooted in historical isolation. The Llano River Valley has supported only traces of permanent civilization. Local Indians were prey for raiding Comanches and Apaches; the Spanish explored the area, but never planted a presidio or mission here.

Germans and Americans filtered into the valley by the mid-19th century, but the trans-Atlantic rails and highways generally passed it by. Even Interstate 10 has not dramatically changed the upper valley, where we spied unfamiliar birds at South Llano River State Park, surveyed limestone, sandstone and granite bluffs and clambered around courthouses, forts and parks.

Why the blessed development lag on the Llano? Catastrophic floods. The evidence is everywhere, from the strewn-by-giants boulders to the Inks Bridge plaque that records a 42-foot wall of water that roared down the canyon in 1935.

Why build when water will reclaim the land?

Best Texas rivers: San Antonio River

We continue in our quest to retrieve the lost blog posts about our Texas River Tracings. Go to this report on the Medina River for links to the ones we have retrieved so far.

We reversed course to follow the San Antonio River from its mouth to its source. We started by exploring the coast below San Antonio Bay. That included a stroll around the fishing harbor at Rockport, a pilgrimage to the Big Tree at Goose Island and a few hours at the Aransas National Wildlife Preserve.

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Rockport is about as twee as Texas gets. At once a working fishing town and a haven for artists and retired folks, it brims with quaint shops, galleries and eateries. We intended to check out the small aquarium, which has been around since my childhood, and the newer maritime museum, but neither was open.

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Similarly, boat tours dedicated to spying on whooping crane nesting sites were not available on that day. No problem. We simply wandered around, purchased a couple of books from the Texana shelf at a used bookstore and headed north to Goose Island where we reverently circled a 500-year-old oak tree amid a coastal grove that has survived numerous hurricanes.

IMG_1710-thumbThe oak stands near the historic site of Lamar, a town dating back to the Republic. Hey, I had no idea that a Union ship bombarded it during the Civil War. There seemed to be little trace of the old town, not unusual for Texas coastal sites. Hurricanes take care of that.

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We hiked about three miles at Aransas National Wildlife Preserve. Saw alligators, herons, pelicans and, eventually, whooping cranes. That blurry pair of white and black was spied from a car. Meanwhile, we met a couple who live on a preserve in Norfolk, U.K. They had been to the San Antonio Riverwalk and were now headed back to Houston, which they rather fancied. They cheerfully misidentified several Texas species.

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After that, we headed up the San Antonio River, which meets the previously traced Guadalupe River near the tidy farming burg of Tivoli. You don’t really get access to the river itself — we had discovered this before — until several miles upstream at U.S. 77. Here the river is wide and calm, bordered by oaks, willows and pecans. U.S. 77 is wide and new here, so somebody upstairs is paying attention.

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Our next full contact with the river would be at Goliad, the site of two missions, a Texas Revolutionary battle, a subsequent mass execution and the birthplace of Mexican Gen. Zaragosa, hero of the Battle of Puebla and therefore patron general of Cinco de Mayo.

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Mission La Bahia,, perched high above the San Antonio, is beautifully restored. As often is the case, the rebuilding took place over time, as generations became curious as to the ruins that formerly were home a vibrant community of colonials and Indians. We didn’t visit the Fannin Battlefield this day. Anyway, there was much more history to come.

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The San Antonio River retains some of its silvery glory even as its cuts through the Gulf Coastal Plain and into the first series of low hills. As we heade to Panna Maria, the oldest Polish Catholic community in Texas, perhaps North America, we witnessed more evidence of the oil and gas fracking boom — and its toll on the roads. The traffic turns a bit dangerous near any of the boom camps.

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The church at Panna Maria has been meticulously tended. We had visited it before and nosed around the handsome buildings that cluster around the spire. Pope John Paul II expressed interest in the Polish town during his visit to San Antonio. It still looks proud about that attention.

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We caught the river once more before we hit the outskirts of the big city, where we settled into of third fauxtel of the trip, then zipped down to the Riverwalk for some Mexican food. This is the best time of year for the fabled tourist attraction, as the giant cypress trees are draped in colored holiday lights. Not the LED ones, which our waiter told us the squirrels chewed through, but the old-fashioned type.

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The next day, we set out along the urban stretch of the San Antonio River. That took us to five more missions, including the elaborately restored Mission San Jose and, of course, the Alamo. The three smaller missions attract only sporadic tourist attention and the attendants are very eager to talk to the rare visitor. We learned as much about them and their families as we did about the 18th-century Spanish project to erect a buffer in Texas to repel the French.

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Despite the giant museum store, the Alamo complex is less commercial than I had remembered. Actually, it serves the historical moment pretty well, especially the large outdoor placards that provide a helpful timeline for the shrine. We skirted the tours and headed back down to the Riverwalk for a blessed repast.

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The river below downtown is undergoing a huge improvement project. Although the the flow is contained in what looks like a big ditch, the banks are lined with new trails and recreational attractions, much of it still under construction. The part of the greenbelt above downtown, however, is pretty much complete through the museum district to the parks.

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We picked up the river at its reputed source, a lovely spot near the Witte Museum where the stream enters a stone-lined channel. There we discovered the ruins of a mini-colosseum, which was later identified by locals and emigrants as a herpetarium or perhaps an alligator theater.

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On that note, we spent our last several hours in San Antonio at the city’s fine zoo, which uses the San Antonio River and its limestone canyon to marvelous effect. There’s a new African exhibit, but a good third of the zoo was under construction due to the winter season.

I can remember being more impressed with this zoo when my main comparisons were to those in Houston and Dallas. I’d have to visit them all again, but my most recent impression of the zoo in Fort Worth was the most favorable. Fewest cages. Most creative enclosures. But memory fades …

Best Texas rivers: Sabinal River

Readers have asked for access to past reports of Texas River Tracings that are no longer online.

Travel companion and co-author Joe Starr and I are trying to compile links to the 40 or so preliminary reports, which requires reposting some of them. This process will likely take weeks.

We’ve rescued this one about the lovely Sabinal River from an RSS feed.

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The Sabinal River is a rare and exquisite jewel that rises in the steep, narrow canyons of Lost Maples State Natural Preserve northwest of San Antonio.

Here among big tooth maples and red oaks, the stream pools in clefts among the scattered boulders, evidence of raging floods that were no danger on this warm, cloudy December day. The preserve has been one of our favorite hiking and camping spots for decades. Even though the fall colors had faded, a steady trickle of hikers followed its trails.

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Just below the preserve is tiny Vanderpool, which guards two of the state’s most scenic drives on RR 337 — westward to Leakey and eastward to Bandera. These winding branches of 337 overlook craggy, green valleys. Stop at the vista points, but try not to notice the abundant litter — one of the ways Texans mistreat Texas.

(And before you blame out-of-state tourists, they don’t perch at these remote spots late at night drinking beer. That’s a local thing.)

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Back in the Sabinal Canyon, the water flows freely from a series of springs and backs up behind short weirs. Fish wriggle through the crystal depths. Flycatchers, mockingbirds and a raven or two keep them company.

IMG_1671-thumbThere’s little evidence of a tourist industry here, unlike the Frio River Valley just to the west. There’s no lake or tubing. Still, a few tourist cottages dot the Sabinal’s banks. Just beware flood season if you decide to get away here. My friends who have been rescued from rooftops will tell you a story or two of this sometimes angry river.

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As the canyon widens into a proper valley, cypress trees line the river, almost as if they were planted with an architectural eye. Depending on the flora, the Sabinal shimmers green or blue, picks up speed then fades away for a while.

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Ranching is an option here. We talked to one man who moved here from Colorado whose family’s ranches stretched well into the foothills of the Edwards Plateau. He told us about a “Black Hole” on the next ranch downstream where the Sabinal disappears altogether.

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We discovered that this is true for other rivers coming down off the plateau to the south. They enter an arcing recharge zone and just go away. They pop up again below Uvalde, but don’t really gain strength until they reach the coastal plains — if they get that far.

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Our acquaintance — one of two who warned us about deer hunters in the area — said that hydrologists had dyed the water that entered the Black Hole and said they found remnants in a bigger river below the town of Sabinal (probably the Frio, which eventually joins the Nueces River below Choke Canyon Reservoir).

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Anyway, the valley remains lovely as far as Utopia, site of Kinky Friedman’s animal rescue ranch. Here, too, the farming begins. Irrigation from those aquifers that swallow up the rivers allows for some surprisingly intense agriculture around Uvalde.

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The town of Sabinal, by the way, was once a railroad stop and it still sits along U.S. 90, formerly the main southern route to the Pacific Ocean. It appears rather dusty and abandoned now in comparison to Uvalde, where we spent the night. The county seat has the appearance of a boom town, with almost every national franchise fighting for a place along U.S. 90.

It’s north of the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas frenzy, but Uvalde might have benefited from its economic reverberations.

We stayed, as is our new custom, in a new “fauxtel.” These are the three or four-story hotels that can be found in any Texas town of 1,000 or more people. They are clean, convenient and comfortable, if they lack the character of the old roadside motels and the miraculous historic hotels.

Since we are only there at night during these river tracings, who needs character? Give me WiFi and access to local cooking if at all possible. I’ll be fine.

Best Texas Rivers: Canadian River

Our plans changed quickly. Jagged winter rain cut off our initial contacts with the Pease River, the first of 11 West Texas waterways that we had intended to trace on this 8-day trip. By the time we reached our evening retreat, Amarillo, it was snowing hard. We huddled, instead, over a Trader Joe’s picnic in our room.

12373306_10156286794985316_4962384951045955964_n.jpgUnblinking sun melted most of the snow and ice the next day, so we embarked on the course of the Canadian River, which rises in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, slices across the Texas Panhandle, then descends into Oklahoma to join the Arkansas River.

We headed to what we thought was San Jon, Texas, which turned out to be San Jon, N.M. There, we turned north to Ute Lake, which stores the Canadian’s clear water behind a mesa and a dam. No boaters on the lake this day and only a few hardy coots — the feathered variety — on the water. But we could examine the iron-rich rocks that would give the Canadian its rusty colors downstream.

12341091_10156286822985316_5114918200112485740_n.jpgIn Texas, the river cuts through a wide, rugged canyon that offered us few points of entry. We wound through beautiful badlands, then griddle-flat cotton fields, then rolling ranch land.

12390949_10156286920260316_2715981160561045827_nVirtually not a soul on the horizon. A lot more varied terrain than we expected, with plenty of wildlife. Our next contact with the river was at Boys Ranch, Tex., where the Canadian is shallow, red and sandy.

12391302_10156287096560316_4734815947942198957_nThe trip to our third stop took us all the way back into Amarillo’s gravitational field. It was then we realized that the city of 200,000 or so stood on a fairly narrow plateau between two steep canyons, the other being the more spectacular Palo Duro, formed by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, previously explored. The rough territory of the more northerly Canadian nudges right into Amarillo proper.

12369089_10156287223105316_3199484546127636372_nWe explored a grassy haunted area on the river’s banks just off U.S. 87 not near any settled town. Riven with off-road tracks and careless litter, it was the type of place where you’d hear the ominous sounds of target practice — and we did. So we hurried north, then east to the verges of Lake Meredith, which lies in a magnificent, broad-shouldered canyon.

12366396_10156287391825316_7760454892793608918_nBut first we stopped at Blue Creek to photograph the place where it enters the Canadian’s big lake. Here, seen from above, the tracks in the sand formed arabesques in the creek sand.

12346480_10156287426815316_1538655353335002138_nReached on a narrow road atop a high, curving dam, our next look-out was perched near the water authority’s inevitable headquarters on a watchful hill. Although the light was fading, our adventure was far from over. After steering through Stinnett, we spied a sign for “Adobe Walls,” the famed fort and trading post founded in the 1840s and the site for two major battles during the Indian Wars of the 1860s and ’70s. How many times would we be in this remote spot — two guys who read every historical marker — so we journeyed down poorly marked county roads, past little canyons cut into the cap rock. Yet once we hit a stretch slushy, slippery gravel, we turned around.

11202652_10156287568315316_8064440695692147688_nWe chased the light across skinny roads and snowy fields along the rim of the Canadian Canyon to reach — where else? — Canadian, Tex.

10583914_10156287661690316_961508717626219238_n.jpgThis railroad town sits on a wide gorge and, at dusk, we walked quite a distance across its historic wagon bridge to catch the last glimmers on our river before it headed off to Oklahoma.

12373415_10156287690960316_778663740355945849_nNight enveloped the two-hour trip back to our room. The irregular, tree-lined lanes along U.S. 60 — formerly part of the famed Route 66 — followed Red Deer Creek, until we ascended back onto the Llano Estacado near Pampa. That site is also very near one source of the Red River, we had learned on an earlier trip. Soon enough, we were back in Amarillo for our second night of sound sleep.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.