Goodbye to a River
We will be nearly finished, I think, when we stop understanding the old pull toward green things and living things, toward dirt and rain and heat and what they spawn.
It was to be the last canoe trip of uninterrupted waterway before thirteen proposed flood-control dams were constructed along the course of the Brazos River in north-central Texas. The proposed dams were to dot the river from its headwaters in the Llano Estacado to its delta at the Gulf of Mexico. In reality, only three dams were ever built. Some claim the change in plan was a result, at least in part, to the popularity of John Graves’s Goodbye to a River.
In the fall of 1957, when Graves slipped his canoe down a muddy bank below Possum Kingdom Lake he was a thirty-seven year old unknown English professor and writer. Within a few years of emerging above Lake Whitney from his three-week float down the river he would be hailed as a man of Texas letters and celebrated as the “Texas Thoreau.”
Goodbye to a River began as a proposed article for Sports Illustrated, who paid Graves five hundred dollars for it. The SI article never materialized. The editors rejected it, even after multiple revisions, because it wasn’t sporty enough. They let Graves keep the money, which had already been spent to offset expenses for the trip. Graves then shopped the article to the now defunct travel magazine Holiday and sold it. It was published in the November 1959 edition as “Drifting Down the Brazos.”
Except for the dachshund pup (Watty) he called the “Passenger,” Graves made the trip alone. But that didn’t mean he was alone on the river. All along the way he encountered river folk who mingled their stories with the ones he remembered about Comanches who raided and cowboys who rode the coves and creeks and crossings of the Brazos. His knowledge of the river, of its flora and fauna, feather and fin, which he honed as a boy in the 20s and 30s before joining the Marine Corps and sustaining a wound in the Pacific, is eloquently woven within the history of the place and people. To read Goodbye to a River (published in 1960) is to be reminded anew, or to learn for the first time, that life, now in the twenty-first century, is devoid of the slowness and silence and solace that comes with time spent on the water—or in the mountains or along the beach. Such time is necessary to contemplate the past and establish life-roots deeper than the topsoil of the present.
The river is there still. And you can run it still, though not unhindered as Graves did. But run it you can. The story of Comanche and cowboy linger still—the story of “cattle kings and horse thieves and half-breeds and whole sons of bitches and preachers in droves and sinners in swarms.” But those stories can only now be told in the faded memory of history for there is none to tell it in living memory.
Time ravages memory and man. But the river runs still, producing the greatest fright in my living memory. On a canoe trip with family and friends, now almost twenty years gone, the river ran swift. My oldest son, who at the time was perhaps ten or eleven years old, was in the bow of my canoe. I was in the stern and my daughter, who was six or seven years old, sat in the middle. Navigating a tricky rapid we needed to keep right of a large bolder to find smooth water. My wife and second son, along with friends in other canoes, made it through safely. We didn’t. Fearing we might lodge on the large rock I pulled Cierra into my lap and tried to maneuver my paddle around her head. I couldn’t bite the angry current quick enough and Derrick wasn’t strong enough to swing our canoe wide. We struck center rock and center canoe, and stuck tight as the Brazos capsized my little family. I held onto Cierra and found a footing on the river bottom and came up spitting river water. I placed her on top of the bolder, out of the ravages of the river’s swift stream. Derrick had disappeared.
That evening I didn’t sleep. I shuttered throughout the night, tears streaming my temples, as my mind replayed the events just before the watery darkness washed over us and the terror of not seeing my towheaded boy. “Night questions don’t have answers,” Grave wrote. But that night, for me, there were. I turned in the bed of my tent, my wife sleeping peacefully beside me, and praised the Lord of heaven and earth—the Lord of the Brazos—that my little boy, who had vanished from my sight and sound, was there sleeping next to his brother and sister.
We explore what’s outside to discover what’s inside. Juan Ramón Jiménez said it well, “In solitude one finds only what he carries there with him.” For Graves, the Brazos River and his three weeks of solitude upon it meant “aloneness and unchangingness.” For me, the Brazos River and my capsizing on it meant gratefulness and the refusal to take life for granted. For all its charms and beauty nature is wild and fraught with dangers. Both he and I found grace on the surface of the water. Goodbye to a River was a needful reminder.