It was like drifting from one waking dream to another.
I first encountered that certain fantastical aspect to the Waller Creek Conservancy, which plans a series of high-design parks along a neglected stretch of downtown waterway, at a large dinner party in the Four Seasons penthouse of Tom and Lynn Meredith. All sorts of important and influential Austinites were present on that fateful and whimsical night. Despite the mammoth scale of the proposed project, I sense that those gathered in the room high above the creek, which included fellow Conservancy visionaries, Melanie Barnes and Melba Whatley, could get it done.
Over the next few years, a series of magical benefit parties and concerts were staged with the help of Lonesome Dove chef Tim Love and C3 partner Charles Attal at the Stubb’s complex right on the banks of the creek. This time, there was something tangible to celebrate: The group had broken ground on its Waterloo Park segment with the generous help of a $15 million grant from Ross Moody and the Moody Foundation.
Well, this year’s dinner was like walking on a cloud. Everybody, including Conservancy CEO Peter Mullan and his gracious wife, Melanie Mullan, a strategic advisor, fairly glowed with felicity. Melanie led a group of her lively friends in a conversation at our table that could, from my perspective, have gone on all night. But there was a concert by alt-pop duo Oh Wonder waiting just outside the door of the events room.
Victor Emanuel Conservation Awards
Mickey Burleson wanted to set the record straight. She did not plant Blackland Prairie seeds by moonlight at her ranch with her late husband, BobBurleson, because of some nebulous spiritual reasons. The pair, credited with restoring some of the last remnants of a critical and highly endangered ecosystem, simply broadcast the carefully collected grains after the end of long days because the seeds would have turned too hot if stored with other remnants from their old-fashioned grass seed harvester.
In probably the most thoughtful charity swag ever, guests at the Victor Emanuel Conservation Award luncheon, which benefits Travis Audubon, each received a small “Ecosystem in a Bag” of more than 1,000 grains from Native American Seed company.Some of the seeds in the Blackland Prairie Mix were descendants of those collected by the Burlesons. Heaven.
Mickey Burleson accepted the award from titular award from Valerie Bristol, the chief warrior on the Balcones Canyonlands preservation. She was last year’s honoree. I’ve doted on everyone who has received this award, including its namesake, Victor Emanuel, the nature guide who set next to me during the luncheon. Consider the rest of the honor roll: Bob Ayres, Georgean Kyle, Paul Kyle, J. David Bamberger, Carter Smith and Andy Samson.
To borrow a phrase from frequent emcee Evan Smith at an earlier benefit, they all could be my spirit animals.
You’d need a heart of stone to turn away from the stories generated by American Gateways, the group that provides legal services to immigrants who can’t afford them. The staff in Austin, San Antonio and Waco, along with an army of pro bono attorneys, deal with heartbreaking cases every day. They don’t need to be told that our immigration system is broken. They are on the front lines.
The second annual Gateway Awards were distributed during a taco dinner at the new AFS event room at its complex in the Linc. (I saw the bedazzling movie musical, “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” there on my birthday last week.) The entertainment at the banquet was pretty amazing, too, starting with the New Generation Children’s Choir, made up of African refugees, and ending with San Antonio-based, all-female Mariachi Las Coronelas, who know how to get an audience going.
Juan Belman, a dreamer and the University of Texas graduate who famously confronted President Barack Obama at the Paramount Theatre, picked up the Social Justice Award. Lawyer Valerie Barker of Baker Botts, LLP, was named Pro Bono Attorney of the Year. Charismatic Jae Kim from Chi’Lantro Korean barbecue acclaim, won the Immigrant of Achievement Award.
Makes me proud that American Gatewaysis based right here in Austin.
Sherry Matthews knew exactly how to stage a fitting tribute to her late companion and leading Austin architect Dick Clark.
She and her team gathered almost 1,000 of Clark’s admirers at the Paramount Theatre. She drafted former University of Texas School of Architecture Dean Fritz Steiner to give the event extra dignity and stature. She spared a few minutes for leaders who graciously recognized Clark’s legacies to UT students, to cancer research and to what he called his family, his firm, which has produced some of the city’s best designers and buildings, especially in the realm of restaurants and bars, but also splendid modern residences.
Yet Matthews’ most powerful tool was a long, beautifully composed documentary film about Clark that should be seen by anyone who wants to understand our city. It also reminded me how much I wish my life was more like Clark’s. He embraced every moment and all the people around him. He didn’t sweat the small stuff and loved nothing better than to work out the infinite puzzles of design.
And, oh yes, one of Clark’s buddies, Willie Nelson, rounded out the tribute with a few songs. Going in, attendees received a clever napkin printed with the evening’s program; going out, a gorgeous little booklet about Clark’s work with words from the rumpled master: “Architecture is not just about a building. It’s about people. No matter how beautiful or functional the design, architecture’s true meaning is found in those who live their lives in the spaces we create.”
Celebration of Children in Nature
John Covert Watson must have had something to do with it. The visionary who purchased a trashed-out sinkhole above the Pedernales River and helped turn it into Westcave Preserve, a premier nature education site, must have also paved the way for the extraordinary partnerships that the nonprofit has forged with larger efforts such as the City of Austin’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature program.
That campaign won the E. Lee Walker Award for Collaboration during the Celebration of Children in Nature gala at the Four Seasons Hotel. Others included Bonnie Baskin of the Science Mill in Johnson City, who took home the John Covert Watson Award for Vision, and Jennifer L. Bristol, who accepted the Westcave Award for Enduring Dedication, and Keep Austin Beautiful, which snagged the John F. Ahrns Award for Environmental Education.
Each honor was accompanied by an adroit video and inspirational speeches. You couldn’t walk away without feeling the social tides were running in the right direction.
Party for the Parks
This event should make everyone who loves nature, communities and our modern city beam with pride. Brazos Hall was filled with mostly young, mostly fit, mostly fabulous fans of the Austin Parks Foundation, which picks up the tab for a lot of our underfunded parklands, including some of the total for the recently unveiled redo of Republic Square Park.
Everything about this group is admirable. And wandering among all the open, accessible guests, I couldn’t help thinking about the evolution of attitudes toward big challenges in Austin. When I arrived in the early 1980s, there were plenty of leaders who felt that big improvements should be done by the federal or state governments, the latter often through UT. As time when on — and city built more resources — people turned to city government.
But that’s not where the action is. No, the action is here among the people willing to roll up their sleeves and take care of our needs, among them our universally loved, but sadly sometimes neglected parks and natural areas. One last bravo to C3 and the Austin City Limits Music Festival for pumping millions into the Foundation every year. You’ve more than earned your permanent place in our little heaven.
The Angelina was the last of the larger Texas rivers traced during our 10-year program to follow 50 of them from their sources to their mouths, or vice versa. Actually, it was also the last river altogether.
It rises in an area with a lot of history in Rusk County not far from Nacogdoches, winds down into the giant Sam Rayburn Reservoir before wriggling down to join the Neches River at B.A. Steinhagen Lake.
We left civilized Nacogdoches early and found the river at Douglass, a not very wide spot in the road that was the location for several Spanish missions. A little collection of historical markers with their backs to the road gave a detailed history of the Spanish presence in this area.
We picked up the Angelina through some gentle bottomlands that glowed with late fall colors.
But pretty soon we hit the Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a vast lake that we had spied the day before at the mouth of the Attoyac. Once again, we found the perfect spot to view its expanses, an Army Corps of Engineers park laced with pines and brightly colored hardwoods high atop a bluff.
It’s easy to see why this stretch of lake would be a recreational magnet, especially during the summer. But why not in the winter? At every park during this December trip, we were typically the only guests. Couldn’t be a better time for camping, picnicking or boating, as far as we were concerned. The air was comfortably cool and dry, and — more to the point — there were no mosquitos.
Right below the dam, we found a river community that rightly hugs the shores of what must be an ideal stretch for fishing and exploring. The Angelina at this point is broad and slow-moving as it approaches the Neches.
Finally we ended up at B.A. Steinhagen Lake. We’d been here before on our Neches tracing, when a drought left it a meager patch of water. Now it’s full and clear and ready for visitors.
That’s it. We traced 50 Texas rivers in 10 years. We saw a lot of the state that very few people have seen. We took a lot of backroads and saw a lot of back country. The sense of accomplishment is, needless to say, mixed with nostalgia.
The question comes up now: What to do with all these experiences? Book? Digital guide? We honestly don’t know.
For 10 years, it was just about the roads and the rivers.
It rises in Rusk County and flows into the Angelina River in Nacogdoches County at top of the Sam Rayburn Reservoir. For much of its course, we found ourselves in what truly can be called backwoods Texas, including sandy, slurry roads on a rainy day.
Leaving Marshall, we didn’t easily find the Attoyac. We spent over an hour in dense thickets looking for the source our maps said was there. We we saw various rivulets, but without signage, we couldn’t be sure we were looking at the true source.
Eventually, much farther downstream, we found that it’s a lazy course with soft banks and hardwood overhead.
We kept getting the impression that this had been cotton country at some point, but it had played out long ago, leaving small, isolated country churches, some of them African-American. But not much else.
One of the near-ghost towns was Arcadia, a place that seemed trapped in a past life. We wouldn’t have run across it if we hadn’t been forced to take backroad after backroad to reach the river.
The Attoyac doesn’t get very big, even as it descends into the giant lake that is the Sam Rayburn Reservoir. The weather got cloudier and mistier as the day wore on.
You really get a sense of its wildness and isolation here. Very quiet, too, the bird song muffled by the gathing fog; nothing but the quiet muttering of the river.
We finally found Jackson Hill Park along the lake across from the confluence of the Attoyac and the Angelina. We lingered here trying to take pictures of dewy spider webs. No luck. So we got back in the car and headed for Nacadoches for a nice dinner with an old chum at Maklemore’s Ale House and Bistro.
After several days and nights in East Texas, it was relief to be in a town — or small city — that seemed a part of the 21st century.
Big Cypress Bayou is perhaps best known these days as the source of scenic Caddo Lake, often called the only natural lake in Texas. Yet, as the displays on the walls of Caddo Lake State Park demonstrate, its water level has been manipulated by man more than once, including the current Caddo Dam in Caddo Parish, La. So natural? Not really.
Before we got to Caddo Lake to begin the tracing, we couldn’t resist stopping at Lady Bird Johnson’s childhood home in Karnack. While a historical markers stands in the center of this scruffy town, it is nowhere near the house, and there was no indication of where it might be. We were not deterred! Once we found the stately manse on a highway to the south, we discovered that the current owners of the home did not take kindly to unannounced visitors, or so their signs screamed. Still, we pulled over to take a quick snap in Lady Bird’s memory.
Caddo Lake might be the best place to find archetypical East Texas swamp scenery. Stands of bald cypress line the shore and rise from the shallow lake. There are pleasant lakeside paths and boardwalks extending over the lake for unobstructed views. The main entry point, however, in the state park is an oxbow lake should make for a pretty tame, but beautiful boat ride.
The bayou also famously served the river port of Jefferson, which, before the arrival of the railroads, was the fulcrum for East Texas transportation and distribution. Now a tourist magnet, among its many improved, renovated or restored sites is a park at the turning basin on the bayou. In Jefferson’s historic district is Excelsior House, a hotel in continuous operation since the late 1850s where Oscar Wilde once stayed during one of his American tours.
To confuse matters at this point, three miles west of Jefferson, Big Cypress Bayou is met by Big Cypress Creek. Which to follow? We followed the creek to Lake Bob Sandlin. More on that later.
Upstream of Jefferson, we stopped by the gorgeous Lake o’ the Pines, which attracts anglers and recreational boaters and gave us the opportunity to do a little nature watching. Amazing how the river changes so quickly once a few hills begin to define the terrain.
Lake o’ the Pines on Big Cypress Bayou? Creek?
We remained uncertain — and there was a town, Uncertain, that echoed our concerns — about the bayou/creek designations at this point. But we ended up in Bob Sandlin State Park, a quiet place with, this December, an unusual number of large seasonal decorations. It also features an historic cemetery near a now-disappeared fort. We asked at the front desk, of course: Who was Bob Sandlin? Turns out he was a car dealer from the area who lobbied for years for the lovely lake that accompanies the park.
This day of river tracing was fairly short. After two nights in Texarkana, we took refuge in Marshall, which turns out is not a very welcoming place for tourists. Dry as a bone, it did offer a tiny barbecue place, Porky’s Smokehouse and Grill, which reminded us how far away we were from Central Texas.
For much of its course, the Sulphur tracks the more northerly and much larger Red River, running generally east from Lamar and Delta counties, while flowing into Wright Patman Lake in Titus County. Almost right away, it then wanders into the state of Arkansas and ultimately into the Red River.
At 183 miles, it’s not a particularly long stream, and, like several other East Texas rivers, it rises among hardwoods and prairies before cutting through pine forests and swampy lowlands.
Before hitting the river, we made a base camp at the Hampton Inn in Texarkana. There, we had the good luck of finding two local eateries — Cattleman’s, a traditional steak house with a traditional clientele and satisfying food, and La Fogata Bar & Grill, a family spot on highway on the Arkansas side of the border.
At our first stop in the morning, Cooper Lake, we ask the state park warden about water levels. She told us that they had been low for a long time and that the lake was vulnerable to yo-yo-ing supply. Now, however, the water line was pretty high and we lingered at a high point by the lake.
As we headed downstream, the only access to the Sulphur was usually along lonely county roads and bridges of dubious integrity. At places, it looked like recent floods had inextricably tangled the trees and brush along the shore. Slowly the hardwoods turned to pines as we reached Wright Patman Lake, a lovely spot, if empty on this winter day. We did encounter a flock of pelicans on an arm of the lake, an exciting turn of events.
We made sure to stop at a little park just below the dam that impounds Wright Patman. It was there that we were reminded that the spillways enrich the water with oxygen, which attracts fish and, thus, fishing humans. This is a weird little park off a busy highway, but that didn’t stop us from exploring.
We never really saw Lake Texarkana — couldn’t even find it on maps –but rather we stopped at a location downstream of Wright Patman just this side of the Arkansas border.
We’d wager that 95 percent of our state’s citizens have never heard of the Sulphur River, but in the world of far northeast Texas, it’s a pretty significant waterway, our 47th to trace.
UPDATE: A reference to Lake Texarkana could not be confirmed.
Texas A&M University Press, teamed with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, noticed our progress. And the good folks at the Press now send us their latest releases related — sometimes tangentially — to Texas rivers.
“Neches River User Guide.” Gina Donovan. Texas A&M University Press. Oh, how we wish there was one of these guides for every Texas river. This is the gold standard. Handy in size and format. Clearly delineated maps. Carefully notated river access points. Helpful nature samples with color photographs of many of the mammals, birds, reptiles and the trees you’re likely to see. Now, the Neches is an East Texas river that cuts through the Big Thicket and its bottomlands are periodically at risk. Getting to know the river through this guide should help the general public make a case for its preservation.
“Of Texas Rivers & Texas Art.” Andrew Sansom and William E. Reaves. Texas A&M University Press. Virtually an exhibit catalogue, this volume is a handsome collection of representations of Texas rivers — paintings, lithographs, pastels and linocuts. Aspects of Texas’s history and culture are tied together with a riverine theme. It is particularly gratifying to see how artists saw some of the exact same views we enjoyed during our 10 years of Texas river tracing. We are also pleased to see some of our favorite artists — Margie Crisp, Fidencio Duran, Robb Kendrick — represented here. Essays by Sansom and Reaves serve as natural introductions to the subject of Texas rivers.
“The Blanco River.” Wes Ferguson. Texas A&M University Press. While much of the book is a survey of the history and geography of the Blanco River, the final chapters are a very personal recounting of the devastating Memorial Day Flood of 2015. It bears a family resemblance to Jim Kimmel’s fine “The San Marcos: A River’s Story,” also published in the Texas A&M Nature Guides series. It tracks the trajectory of observations we made of this Hill Country river — so rugged and beautiful for much of its run — and how its final stretch onto the plains around San Marcos is not a thing of beauty.
“Why the Raven Calls the Canyon.” E. Dan Klepper. Texas A&M University Press. Less focused on the nearby Rio Grande River than on the Fresno Ranch, this collection of photographs can still be grouped with these other books, for the river’s presence is never far offstage. Divided into chapters such as “Labors,” “Dogs,” “Horses” and “Haircuts,” each introduced by a brief commentary, the book’s images nearly form a narrative of the years that the author and the ranch’s caretaker spent “Off the Grid in Big Bend Country.” It’s a gorgeous book that will be appreciated by anyone who savors travel in West Texas.
“Discovering Westcave: The Natural and Human History of a Hill Country Nature Preserve.” S. Christopher Caran and Elaine Davenport. Texas A&M University Press. With everything from caretaker families’ photos to highly technical geological and topographical charts, this book should satisfy your various curiosities about this stunning seventy-six acre preserve on the Pedernales River. We’ve visited at various stages of the rescue of this box canyon, once trashed out by casual visitors and campers. It’s now a paragon of natural education.