Best parties for this rapturous Austin weather

What could go better with this glorious late October weather than unfettered socializing with fellow Austinites?

Oct. 26-Nov. 3: Austin Film Festival. Various locations.

Oct. 26: Fall Fundraiser for Pease Park Conservancy. Ella Hotel.

Oct. 26: Future Luncheon for Austin Ed Fund. Fairmont Hotel.

Oct. 26: Amazon in Austin for Rainforest Partnership. 800 Congress Ave.

Oct. 27: Tito’s Prize Winner Zack Ingram show reception. Big Medium Gallery.

Oct. 27: Women of Distinction Awards Luncheon for TAMACC. Four Seasons Hotel.

Oct. 28: Spooktacular. Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Oct. 28: Bulltober Fest. Rodeo Austin HQ, 9100 Decker Lake Road.

Oct. 28: Viva La Vida for Day of the Dead. Mexic-Arte Museum.

Oct. 28: Eye Ball for Rude Mechs. Springdale Station.

Oct. 28: Austin Central Library Grand Opening. 710 West Cesar Chavez St.

Oct. 28: Zach Costume Bash. Bobbi Pavilion.

Oct. 28: Austin Sunshine Camps Carnival. Zilker Lodge & Pavilion.

Oct. 28: Barbecue on the Pedernales for Friends of the LBJ National Historical Park. LBJ Ranch

Oct. 29: All ATX for HAAM, SIMS, Black Fret and Austin Music Foundation. Auditorium Shores.

Oct. 29: Empty Bowls Project. Dripping Springs Ranch Park and Event Center.

Oct. 30: Andy Roddick Foundation Gala. ACL Live.


Taking social flight with Travis Audubon, Waller Creek Conservancy, American Gateways

It was like drifting from one waking dream to another.

Heading to the Waller Creek Conservancy benefit. Contributed by © David Brendan Hall /

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.

Two of the biggest guns: Gary Farmer and State Sen. Kirk Watson. Contributed by © David Brendan Hall /

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.

The Tim Love dinner was served family style. Contributed by © David Brendan Hall /

BACKGROUND: Grant to fund Waterlook Park makeover.

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.

Isn’t it great when the photography, including this shot of Oh Wonder, is done by a pro such as © David Brendan Hall /

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, Bob Burleson, 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.

The ideal swag at Travis Audubon event. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

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.

Nandini Chaturvedula and Brandi Clark Burton at Victor Emanuel Conservation Awards for Travis Audubon. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

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 AyresGeorgean KylePaul KyleJ. David BambergerCarter Smith and Andy Samson.

To borrow a phrase from frequent emcee Evan Smith at an earlier benefit, they all could be my spirit animals.

Gateway Awards

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.

Tiffany Carlson and Keenan Wilson at Gateway Awards for American Gateways. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

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.

Mariachi Las Coronelas at the Gateway Awards. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

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.

New Generation Children’s Choir at the Gateway Awards. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Makes me proud that American Gateways is based right here in Austin.

Alternative Austin social options during ACL

The second week of  ACL Music Festival doesn’t stand in the way of these other scintillating Austin social offerings.

Oct. 11: Waller Creek Conservancy Dinner and Concert featuring Oh Wonder with Jaymes Young. Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater.

Oct. 11: 4 x 4 for Nobelity Project. Gibson Guitar Austin Showroom.

Oct. 12: Gateway Awards for American Gateways. AFS Cinema.

Oct. 12: Touch the Stars Gala for Imagine a Way.
Stephen F. Austin Hotel.

Oct. 14: Victor Emanuel Conservation Award Luncheon for Travis Audubon. Austin Country Club.

Oct. 14: 60th Anniversary Celebration of Montopolis Friendship Community Center. 403 Vargas Road.

Oct. 14: The Mask of Limits for ME3LJ Center. Hyatt Regency Austin Hotel.

Oct. 15: Butcher’s Ball for Urban Harvest and Foodways Austin. Rockin’ Star Ranch.

Oct. 15: Fashion and Art Palooza 3.0. Lucas Event Center.


Crowds amass for Dick Clark, Westcave Preserve and Parks Foundation

Sherry Matthews knew exactly how to stage a fitting tribute to her late companion and leading Austin architect Dick Clark.

A tribute to Dick Clark at the Paramount Theatre. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

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.

READ: Renowned Austin architect Dick Clark dead at 72.

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.

Nancy Scanlan, Victor Emanuel and Brigid Shea at Celebration of Children in Nature for Westcave Preserve. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

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.

Nicholas Solorzano, Leah Bojo and Kelan Robinson at Party for the Parks to benefit Austin Parks Foundation. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

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.

MORE: Visiting with Parks Foundation’s Colin Wallis.

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.

Best Austin parties blasting out before ACL Music Fest

Austin society rushes to wrap up activity before the ACL Music Festival, which kicks off Oct. 6 at Zilker Park.


Sept. 29: Celebrate Children in Nature for Westcave Preserve. Four Seasons.

Sept. 29: American Indian Heritage Day. Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Sept. 30: Austin Area Urban League. JW Marriott.

Oct. 1: Far East Fest: Asian Food Festival. American-Statesman grounds.

Oct. 1: Lifetime Learning Institute turns 40. Red Oak Ball Room.

Oct. 1: Musical Salon for Austin Shakespeare with Jill Blackwood and Shelley Auer. Private Home.

Dick Clark. Contributed

Oct. 1: Dick Clark: A Tribute. Paramount Theatre.

Oct. 1: Austin Wine Experience for Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. AT&T Center.

Oct. 1: Big Co-Op Fair for Wheatsville Food Co-Op. 4001 S. Lamar Blvd.

Oct. 1: Rock for Relieve from Band Aid School of Music. 2309 Thornton Road.

Oct. 2: It takes 2 to Two-Step for Austin Book Arts Center. White Horse Bar.

Oct. 4: Party for the Parks to benefit Austin Parks Foundation. Brazos Hall.

Oct. 5: Chef Auction for Edible Austin. Allan House.

Oct 5: Beauty of Life for Hospice Austin. JW Marriott.

Oct. 5: Generosi-Tea for Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin Area. Hotel Ella.

Oct. 6: Celebration Luncheon for the Safe Alliance. JW Marriott.

Best Texas books: What the German Texans left us

Face facts, it’s still summer, weather-wise in Austin. So let’s look back at some recent Texas titles before rummaging through the fall books.


“The Material Culture of German Texans.” Kenneth Hafertepe. Texas A&M Press. This is a big, beautiful book on a subject that will delight antiquarians and collectors as well as the just plain curious. Heftertepe, who chairs the department of museum studies at Baylor University, has already provided two volumes essential to understanding our region, “Abner Cook: Master Builder on the Texas Frontier” and “A Guide to the Historic Buildings of Fredericksburg and Gillespie County.” Here, he delves into a rich variety of vernacular architecture, as well as covering cabinetmakers, interiors, public buildings, houses of worship and — smart to include — graveyards and grave markers. Hafertepe speaks on his book’s subject at the Neill-Cochran House, designed by Abner Cook, on Sept. 25.


“Haiku Austin: Vol 1.” Carlotta Eike Stankiewicz. Haiku Empire Press. Small gift books are all the rage. And we approve. Not every opus should double as a weapon. Stankiewicz’s slender volume brandishes its bright, quirky images and light, quirky words quite effectively. Don’t seek profundities here. Instead enjoy page after page of knowing smiles inspired by our town’s beloved singularities. Sample “Lucy in Disguise,” based on the costume shop on South Congress: “sequins and Spandex/drag queens flirt with evil clowns/grown-ups play dress-up.”


“We Come to Our Senses.” Odie Lindsey. Norton. I look forward to reading this book more carefully and interviewing the Nashville-based author, who has lived in Austin and sets some of his stories here. Lindsey will appear at the Texas Book Festival Nov. 5-6. I can tell you from what I’ve read so far: His dialogue and scene-setting ring absolutely true. His prose reminds me, to some extent, of the plays and the novel, “Rules for Werewolves,” by Austinite Kirk Lynn, which I understand is being considered for movie or TV treatment. Lindsey’s vets are characters of natural interest, given the generational involvement in what seem like endless wars fought for an American public that doesn’t much care.


“Finding Dorothy Scott: Letters of a WASP Pilot.” Sarah Byrn Rickman. Texas Tech University Press. The author is one of the key keepers of the flame regarding the nearly lost history of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, who trained in West Texas and ferried planes from base to base during World War II. (We recently wrote about one of the WASP flier, Susie Winston Bain, pegged to an excellent exhibit at the Bullock Texas History Museum.) Here, Rickman presents the letters of Scott, preserved by her twin brother, which reveal the flier’s inner life, but also the day-to-day routines of the WASP forces. Incredibly ambitious, Scott died in a mid-air crash at age 23.


“The Mammals of Texas.” (Seventh Edition). David J. Schimdly and Robert D. Bradley. University of Texas Press. I love this book. And I’ve used it in the field for years. I can’t tell you what has been improved in this, the Seventh Edition, but what will likely open the eyes of first-timers are the number of whales, porpoises and dolphins that live just off our coast, as well as the numerous introduced species, such as eastern Thompson’s gazelles, Barbary sheep and Sika deer. There are even Japanese macaques loose in Central Texas. The authors have not left out domesticated mammals, which fewer Texans could identify these days as the state urbanizes and suburbanizes. One thing: The range maps, organized by county reports, seem pretty primitive for such a image-conscious publisher like UT Press.91pymvgiw7l

“A Kineñero’s Journey: On Family, Learning and Public Service.” Lauro F. Cavazos and Gene B. Preuss. Texas Tech University Press. A Kineñero is a descendant of Mexicans who worked on the King Ranch in the 1800s. Former Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos — appointed by President Ronald Reagan — counts himself as one. His father served as ranch foreman. A longtime educator, Cavazos also was president of Texas Tech University. He is assisted here in recalling his journey by Preuss, a professor of history at University of Houston-Downtown. The father of 10 children with Peggy Ann Murdoch, Cavazos was blessed with a wide-ranging interest in learning and, especially in interactions among cultures.


“Texas Land Grants, 1750-1900: A Documentary History.” John Martin Davis, Jr. McFarland. Despite the cover art, this is a serious book about serious history. What could be more important to a country than the claim to the land and its resources? Especially in Texas, where, until the modern era, much of what happened here happened because of land grants. Davis, a retired tax attorney who lives in Fort Davis, is an authority on maps. He patiently takes the reader through the history of Spanish and Mexican grants, military and emigrant headrights, Republic of Texas practices, grants among disputed territories in the Trans-Nueces and Trans-Pecos regions, as well as homestead, education and internal improvement grants. He also provides lots of images of sample grants.

UPDATES: References to Lauro Cavazos, Kenneth Hafertepe and Sarah Byrn Rickman have been corrected.



Best Texas rivers: Red River, Part 2

This report on the Lower Red River — we should probably call it the “Middle” — was originally posted on May 25, 2012. It is the last of the rescued Texas River Tracing posts.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to


Of Texas’ big streams, I probably knew the Red River the least. I crossed it a lot. And I even lived not far from it in Shreveport, La. as a child. Until recently, however, I’d spent no more than a few seconds in its immediate vicinity.


That changed this week when Joe Starr and I traced it from Amarillo to Texarkana. (See previous entries about the North and Prairie Dog Town forks of the Red.) We began our serious look at the Red proper near Vernon, where it already carves out a wide, soft, sandy floodplain.


That would not change much during the journey from Wichita Falls to Texarkana, using US 82 as our base line. We’d jump up to the river on the Oklahoma border, nose around, then head back into a series of micropolises and metropolises, all along an unexpectedly gorgeous post oak belt. The only time the beauty abated was on the ragged edges of populated areas, where insidious freeway culture — ugly old and new junk — ruled.

DSCF1240Tuesday was filled with surprises, however. It began with a German Catholic church in Lindsay, Texas, which poked its tower over the horizon as if a reminder of European landscapes. We discovered it occupied an elaborate and well-tended enclave that included two shrines, a rectory and a school. Inside, the plain brick church burst with visual activity. The colors were rococo, but the lines and forms were heavier. Every mural, stained glass and gilded surface glowed in prisitine condition.


Another jolt came in Gainesville, a largish micropolis on the border. Located directly on Interstate 35, it and its Oklahoma sibling compete to attract tourists. We noticed a large, colorful and brightly signed outlet mall on the Texas side and decided to pick up a few things. Seeing only a few cars in the lot, we chalked up the emptiness to the early time of day.


Oh my no. Row after row of shops were completely empty. In a back corner we found a Van Huesen outlet where men’s clothing was discounted 60, 70, 80, 90 percent. I purchased a V-neck sweater that would go for $90 retail for $4.99. We went a little crazy there and at the Reebok store, among the few others open in this mall that is either dying or awaiting a comeback.


Meanwhile, along the river, the Red grew wider and stronger. Cliff swallows were our constant companions. Joe witnessed a crow chasing down a young swallow and scooping it up in its fearsome beak. Below the dam at Lake Texoma, we encountered all sorts of wildlife. In the shallows lingered huge catfish and carp. Joe counted 9 great blue herons, along with other wading birds.


In a hackberry tree nearby, I spent some time trying to identify a very small, slender bird two shades of olive gray. After listening to recorded songs and looking at photos on, I’m almost certain it was an Eastern Wood-Peewee. Not at all rare, but just rarely seen by me. (I am not a birder, but rather a bird lover.)


We didn’t swim in Lake Texoma. We had heard reports of flesh-eating bacteria there. We didn’t need a fresh warning and noticed almost no boats on this sizable lake. I was more tempted to dip into a little, clear lake we discovered in the Caddo National Grasslands, which we had all to ourselves.


I love Paris (Texas) in the springtime! Of the old railroad towns in this region, Paris showed the most character. A fountain rather than a courthouse occupies its main square. There, we ate at the excellent Jaxx Gourmet Burgers, which would have a been welcome a sight anywhere in the world with its enormous, inventive sandwiches and hearty ales.


Our last glimpses of the river were caught at dusk from a mown hayfield north of Texarkana. Here, the Red is split by islands and rimmed by tall banks. It’s still red from soils that tumble down from as a far as the Panhandle. Thanks to this trip, I know it a little better now.


We spent the night in piney Atlanta, Texas. We had tried one of Texarkana’s many faux-tels, only to find it full on a weeknight. Of course, it sat near a medical center. Any place in Texas that can support an oncology clinic, a radiology complex and more than one hospital is going to attract regular visitors.


Our trip from West to East took us across the midrift of the Bible Belt. Every city, town, village or hamlet hosted multiple churches, mostly from the more conservative sects. I imagined visiting services at all these houses of God to find out how the congregants viewed the world and if we could establish common ground.


While almost everyone we encountered on this trip was unfailingly friendly, I also sensed an undercurrent of boredom, desperation and resentment. Every once in a while, amid the glories of the Texas plains, hills, forests and valleys, I’d glimpse some of the darker sides of rural life: Shambling poverty, meth culture, and more evidence of our country’s obesity epidemic. But we were fleeting tourists. I did not dig deeply.

As mentioned in the previous post, rural Texas looks good these days, in part because of the oil and gas boom, which has helped owners to become better stewards of the land. This gladdened my heart and gave me hope.


Three things — a Holy Trinity of sorts — can be found in any Texas town with a population of three digits or more: A doughnut shop, a Mexican food restaurant and, increasingly, a faux-tel. What formula convinces hotel chain executives to plant these comparatively tall structures in such small towns? I’d love to know the business model. They seem to do well.

Anyway, it was a rewarding trip. After tracing 25 Texas rivers, we’ve slowed down, spacing out the journeys over years rather than months. To do the rest before retirement, we are considering combining three or four remaining rivers per trip, not rushing but taking more time each outing.

Best Texas rivers: Red River, Part 1

This record of our adventures on the Upper Red River was first posted in 2012.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to

It starts out as a small green depression in a flat Panhandle field. It leaves Texas a mighty river — broad, swift, reddish brown and lined with sandy bluffs, fertile fields and thick trees.


The upper forks of the Red River, the wriggling border between Texas and Oklahoma, rise in the Llano Estacado, as do those of the Colorado and Brazos rivers. In a previous tracing, Joe Starr Kip Keller and I followed the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River from above the town of Canyon though Palo Duro Canyon and across the Osage Prairies to the Oklahoma border.


The North Fork is a lesser tributary but no less impressive for variety of character. First we headed from Austin to Amarillo, crossing fields of wheat and marveling at the spring-wet greenery. We stopped in railroad towns along US 183, including the slowly reviving Rising Star, where Joe posed with a poster that recalls the days of tent circuits and rail-transported vaudeville, when those towns were full of energy and promise.


We noticed right away that many of the towns were trim and thriving, just as the farms and ranches were tidy and prospering. Credit the first to the oil and gas boom, which has flushed rural Texas with cash. These areas are also bouncing back from the worst of the drought. Not that anyone cares, but I predict that hay has been over-planted and livestock populations will not return to normal levels quickly, despite the ready feed and full stock ponds.


During the nine-hour drive, Joe perfected his method for photographing and identifying wildflowers. Some of his scientific methods are based on which plants came with the most flamboyant names. It’s still spring in North Texas, and Amarillo even turned chilly. We didn’t complain.


After passing through the religiously ambitious Panhandle burg of Clarendon, we snuck a peek at the Salt Fork of the Red River. A small reservoir waits near its source, southeast of Amarillo. We explored an area of sandy hills, little oxbow lakes and bird-filled grasslands below the dam. I found the landscape, haunted by aimless recreation seekers, a bit creepy. Not quite “No Country for Old Men,” but it gave me the creeps.


Our first order of business once in downtown Amarillo was to check into the amazingly cheap ($45) and convenient Civic Center Motor Inn. The grounds came with the usual odd characters that might have made less experienced Texas road-trippers uneasy. Undeterred, Joe surveyed places to photograph the annular eclipse, settling on a bank building’s parking garage with some shutterbugging locals.


I tell you what: Downtown Amarillo, despite its broad and pristine streets, is deader than dead on a Sunday night. Not a soul on the streets. Not a single restaurant open. So much for the convenient motor inn. We wandered by car through the suburbs and along the freeway — cursing inaccurate Internet reports — for something, anything that was open at 7 p.m. and stumbled on Kushi Yama, a high-end Asian fusion spot on the interstate. Its decor, including a long, pebbled waterfull, was lavish and the food was well spiced. But only one other table was in service.


The next morning, we broke our fast at an institution: the Nu-Castle Diner on the edge of downtown. Crammed with Coca-Cola mementos, the resolutely old-fashioned spot comes with bright service, hearty food and tables of old-timers catching up on dedades of gossip. The procession out of town, however, was marred by detritus on US 60, formerly on Route 66, where tourist traps from many decades ago now compete to see which can rust away completely. On the upside, the buildings were occupied by reps of every culture imaginable in Amarillo.


The precise geographic source of the North Fork is about a mile southeast of White Deer (high school teams: Bucks and Does). Amid the stubble of winter wheat and aside workers erecting power lines to transmit energy from nearby wind farms, we found the damp circle credited with originating the fork. Of course, the river’s watershed extends as far as New Mexico, but that’s evident only during major floods.


A mile directly east, the flat plains fall off into Caprock cliffs. Below, we found the first bridge over the dry riverbed, amidst the clutter of oilfield equipment. We swiftly moved on to the village of Lefors, where the North Fork is suddenly very wet, and marshy sandbanks lead to giant trees, including thirsty cottonwoods and willows. Here we encountered our first contingent of cliff swallows, who nest under Texas bridges. Not pleased, they swarmed around our heads. Thank goodness they don’t actually attack.


Further stops on the rolling prairies — where mesquite seems under control — introduced all sorts of birds — great white herons, night herons, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, spotted sandpipers, red-winged blackbirds, horned larks, western kingbirds, phoebes, various hawks, buzzards and falcons, some unidentifiable ducks, along with the usual crowds of mockingbirds, grackles, starlings, sparrows and such near the towns.


The North Fork is red by the time it reaches the Oklahoma border, near Interstate 40. We jumped up to the town of Sayre, where the floodplain broadens impressively. But the real treat in southwestern Oklahoma — a complete surprise — was Quartz Mountain State Park. On a Comanche-Apache-Kiowa reservation, a granite uplift has created a tiny chain of rugged mountains, graced by a man-made lake as striking as any in Central Texas. It’s beautiful.

Swollen by storms, the North Fork becomes insistent below the park’s dam. For the first time, I felt the river’s power and danger. For all our time on Texas rivers, I’m respectful unto reverent about the destructive potential of flowing water, not to mention snakes, quicksand and unstable banks.


From here, the river heads due south to the Texas border, where it joins the Prairie Dog Town Fork to become the Red. One fact I had missed previously: The Oklahoma border starts not in the middle of the river, but on the south bank. Two Supreme Court cases confirmed that our neighbor owns the riverbed and, thus, its mineral riches.


We ate crispy catfish in Vernon, Texas, a classic micropolis. This was a new word for us, taken from a historical atlas of Texas. Apprarently, the government classifies towns and surrounding areas with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 as micropolitan areas. Our other new word: “distributary,” referring to a river that siphons off water from the main stem.


Now following the Red River proper, we headed to Wichita Falls, which was our destination when we traced the Wichita River. This perplexing metropolitan area — rating more than 100,000 souls — snared us again in its confusing freeway system. We found snacks, however, at Aldi’s, a steeply discounted British grocery chain that sells moslty European brands. Our entire evening meal cost us $14.


We pressed on to Henrietta, where we stayed in a palatial, three-story faux-tel with a curving lobby staircase and a room the size of our house, still a bargain at less than $90. Some clever writer someday will explain the spread of these two-, three- and four-story hybrids between a roadside motel and an urban hotel. Some are amazingly comfortable and classy. But why in towns like Henrietta, population little more than 3,000?

Best Texas rivers: Onion Creek

There’s a reason why they call the town Dripping Springs.

As we recently discovered, Barton Creek rises from springs just northwest of this Hill Country town. Onion Creek emerges from the limestone strata not far southwest. Barton remains a Hill Country stream — bright, fast and narrow within the dramatic confines of its canyon — for most of its journey, Onion feeds a wider valley almost immediately. By the time it reaches Interstate 35, after passing by Driftwood and Buda, its canyon is wide enough to cause major damage during heavy rains.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to

2012_1118OnionCreek0035The Onion makes it all the way past volcanic Pilot Knob to carve its last miles into the Blackland Prairie.

Reputedly the longest creek in Texas, the 60-mile-long Onion, whose true origins lie in Blanco County, is perhaps best known for flooding communities built in the 1960s and ’70s after it emerges from the Hill Country.

We caught up with it on RM 12, not far south of U.S. 290. For a good ways, we followed in along RM 150. The fields, some of them vineyards, are lush and green from all the rain. Here, the stream is clear and rushing. We turned left at FM 1826 to catch the Onion and its cypress-guarded banks again where wine and barbecue rule.

13226732_10156893419080316_4193266699937644854_nThere in Driftwood, we pulled over into Camp Ben McCullough, a Confederate reunion grounds that continues as private campsite. Here, the slower water turns turquoise at inviting swimming holes beneath titanic cypresses.

2012_1118OnionCreek0023.JPGRight after Fall Creek Vineyards, we switched over to FM 967, which tracks the creek from a distance until it boldly crosses the stream near Garlic Creek in western Buda.

2012_1118OnionCreek0025That’s where we found one of the most secure pedestrian walkways to span a Texas waterway. Two high, concrete balustrades enclose the walker in utter safety from whizzing cars on one side and a watery fall on the other.

2012_1118OnionCreek0026Nearby, we climbed a hillside that once was home to the Antioch Colony, a freedmen’s community founded in the 1880s that remained a farm center well into the 1940s. We often run into references to it and its communications upstream with Manchaca (originally Menchaca), another home to freed slaves.

We stopped at a tributary of the Onion in Buda’s Stagecoach Park, where the visitors’ center welcomes one in an 1887 stagecoach inn. Next, we encountered the Onion at a familiar low-water crossing along the Old San Antonio Road, a narrow stretch of former highway that feels lost to time. Hard to believe it is still served by a one-lane bridge.

2012_1118OnionCreek0027We picked up Onion again on Slaughter Lane amid a jumble of new apartment complexes, mobile home parks and older golf-course subdivisions. We headed up Bluff Springs Road to another freedmen’s community, but not before documenting the creek’s growth at a high bridge near Brandt Road.

13240757_10156893797400316_2824028856207350879_nWe couldn’t resist zooming up past William Cannon Drive to see what’s happened to the Sneed Plantation House, another Confederate remnant which continues to deteriorate behind a bent fence. Choosing among the many parks and greenbelts that now take the place of less appropriate uses for bottomlands (don’t build homes here), we steered into McKinney Falls State Park.

2012_1118OnionCreek0028Now this park is best known as a grand swimming and picnicking spot, but not today, with the creek still at flood stage and quite dangerous.

2012_1118OnionCreek0030That and park warnings didn’t keep everyone out of the water, but you can’t stop the human comedy.

2012_1118OnionCreek0032We instead examined wagon wheel tracks from El Camino Real and later crossings, then took snaps of the upper and lower falls.

It’s not far from here to Richard Moya Park in old Moore’s Crossing. Alas, this lovely park, which hosts the former Congress Avenue Bridge, is closed and in complete disarray.

13241160_10156894086940316_7036938343422864467_nNot so the next one downstream, Barkley Meadows Park, a very modern but underpopulated addition with a big picnic area and a greenbelt trail that embraces both sides of Texas 130.

How did this come to be? We followed a concrete trail to a point that turned very muddy and jungle-like to observe the Onion, post-flood, but still quite powerful. There’s one last possible point of entry that we skipped near Fallwell Lane, quite near the Onion’s confluence with the Colorado River, but, hey, we’ll will seek that out another day.

Best Texas rivers: The Blanco River

At times, it seemed as if the Blanco River — ravaged a year ago in the Memorial Day and All Saints Day floods — didn’t want to be traced.


On the first day’s attempt at a tracing, we easily reached the trim town of Blanco via U.S. Highways 291 and 281. At the city limits, we sensed trouble. As we headed south, a straggly but intrepid stream of bike riders headed north. We would not lose sight of them for the next 25 miles. The Real Ale Ride took up much of the narrow river and hillside roads between Blanco and Luckenbach. The idea of trailing them for the 25-mile return trip was ludicrous. So we bopped up to Fredericksburg and circled back to Johnson City and Marble Falls before tracing the San Gabriel River.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to

On the second day’s try, we found ourselves stuck behind both sides of a transported doublewide on U.S. 290, which threatened to slow our early pursuit of the Blanco to a crawl. The eventual appearance of wide shoulders on the highway saved the day.


Once we prevailed — and after documenting the Old Blanco County Courthouse — we luxuriated along one of the most easily accessed rivers in the state (the ultra-short Comal probably ranks No. 1).


Accessible, at least, along its upper strands. Along the River Road and its cross-river offshoots, we caught the already strong, clear, white Blanco repeatedly at low-water crossings, weirs and green spaces.


There were few signs of the big flood here, except for high limbs of tall cypress trees askew. No wonder this stretch of the river, with its rock houses, striated limestone cliffs and crystalline pools near Blanco State Park, is so popular with tourists.


Below the town of Blanco, however, the river falls into a steep canyon below the Devil’s Backbone, one of the most jagged uplands in Central Texas. Access to the river here is limited.


Along FM 32, however, we chanced upon the exquisite Little Blanco River, where cypress boughs hung over a fairyland of tumbling rills and dappled banks.


We headed back to the river at Fischer and the sadly storied Fischer Store Road. Here, last year’s flood had taken out an old bridge, while wiping out houses along the wide canyon.


We walked in silence out to the middle of the new bridge, amid the wreckage of former holiday homes and giant trees.

From here, we headed to Wimberley, flocked, as one would expect on a Sunday, by day trippers, who meandered around the town square. Cypress Creek looked lovely, in contrast to the washed-out Blanco.

Then on to San Marcos, we played hide and seek with our river as we descended into suburbs and then historic districts in town. After a break in the Hays County Courthouse Square, we found our iPhone footing and finally made solid contact with the river again on the Post Road.


This is an ancient crossing that goes back at least to the Camino Real. Amazingly, it is served by only a one-lane bridge. This, in one of the fastest-growing communities in the country.


In the lazy canyon — unlovely after the floods — families went happily about their riverine pursuits in the shallows. Just downstream, across a strip of the fertile Blackland Prairie, the Blanco meets up with the San Marcos River. The Blanco, thus, is among the only Texas rivers to start and — almost — end in the Hill Country, which might help explain its Spanish name.