The Brazos River that John Graves said goodbye to is gone.
Goodbye to a River, the 1960 account of Graves’ canoe trip is said to have helped trim back a plan to dam the river an absurd 13 times to a mere three, but, nonetheless, no man canoes down the same river twice. These days, multi-million dollar river cabins are landmarks along the river that spawned Graves’ tales of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, Quanah Parker, The Comanches and Fuller Millsaps. They all live in the book now. The banks of the river are real estate.
Graves grew up in Arlington Heights and seemed to know the river quite well. He was, at the time, a struggling writer turned TCU professor reeling from personal tragedy: His first marriage had failed, and his father, who owned a clothing shop on Camp Bowie Boulevard (did anyone know John growing up or go to his father’s store?) and was also named John, was diagnosed with cancer.
Interestingly enough, it was Sports Illustrated that commissioned and paid for the canoe trip that would secure Graves place among the great writers of Texas (the magazine turned the article down and cut their losses at the $500 advance Graves received). It’s hard to imagine SI assigning anything so slow and wise as a canoe trip down an obscure river in West Texas today. Then again, Sports Illustrated isn’t as popular as it used to be, either.
I first read Goodbye to a River when I was a roving reporter about 10 years ago. I was covering rural Texas for a couple of feature-length magazines, and a few of us were debating the greatest Texas books of all time. River came highly recommended. Another, All The Pretty Horses, was a quantifiable dud of such gravitational self-importance that it once fell off the shelf and onto my big toe, bruising the nail black-and blue. I sold it back at Half Price Books not long after.
I instantly loved River and its detailed-but-informal storyteller style, which reminded me of another early environmental classic, The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, itself full of old American Indian tales, legends and other bits of history too good to fact-check. I always wanted to go out and see it like Graves saw it, and, as part of my friend Philip’s birthday celebration, Pauly and I took the one-hour drive West of Fort Worth for a short kayak trip. October was, after all, when Graves recommended to go.
The boom in ecotourism has turned many simple pleasures into yuppie events, but I can assure you that Rochelle’s Canoe and Kayak Rental, located off Farm Road 4 in Graford, is nothing of that sort. It’s an old trailer, quite frankly, with a bunch of shaggy-looking river dudes smoking cigarettes outside and t-shirts for sale depicting a swimming donkey and the text I GOT MY ASS WET AT ROCHELLE’S.
It would be quite odd if everyone wasn’t so jovial and friendly. You pay your money, cash only, and one of the River Dudes shoves you off down the river in a kayak, but not, of course, before giving you a list of unidentifiable landmarks, culminating in “look for a canoe stuck in a tree and get out there.” Safety lectures are held to a minimum. There are no selfie stations.
(I should note that I mean no disrespect to River Dude, who I found to be a smart, friendly and likable guy. He lived in Dallas-Fort Worth for decades until he couldn’t take it anymore, at which time he hauled off for Graford and moved into a little place across from Rochelle’s. He recently celebrated the birth of his first child. River Dude has a lot more figured out than a lot of us).
I don’t know what literary significance the other revelers placed on a trip down the Brazos, but business was good. It didn’t hurt that it was a nice, cool morning for the day-long, 10-mile trek. An older couple brought their two dogs, which I secretly considered a tip of the hat to Graves’ four-legged companion, Watty. A married couple with gym-ready physiques launched off at the same time and seemed to relish the core workout a kayak provides. A husband and wife with two little girls rented a canoe and filled it with a Coleman cooler and a few bottles of water. The young father could be heard telling his daughters to “paddle, paddle!” in politely exasperated tones a few minutes after we shoved off the bank. They were never heard from (by us) again. They may still be out there.
The river is full right now, in part because of the nice rainfall we’ve received through the last year, and in part because of dam discharges (or so River Dude told me). Our kayaks scraped bottom a time or two, but we were never forced to get out and walk like Graves often did on his trip. The river ebbs and flows from a shallow, rock-covered bottom, to a deep canyon and back again. The water was cool and even clear in parts.
I can only imagine what it must have looked like in Graves’ day. At times, the river was totally silent, and at others, it bubbled and gurgled as it slipped by smooth rocks that Pauly and Philip occasionally fished out and skipped. We switched kayaks, walked on islands in the river and paddled from one bank to the other. Even at age 31 I couldn’t help but feel a little like Huck Finn.
Philip is an experienced kayaker with his own boat and gear. I know some strokes I picked up at a kayak lesson Philip brought me to for moral support. Pauly is cheerfully novice. As time goes, we put in to the river during the morning and pulled back out around 3 p.m., with a stop midway for a sandwich, Gatorade and even a few contraband Oreos Philip stowed in his bag. The gym-ready couple caught up with us in time for lunch, where they reported the older couple had pulled ashore a mile or so back looking for one of their dogs.
I’m not an outdoorsman — a day was plenty of time in the kayak for me — but, if you so desire, you can stretch this trip out over 20 miles and camp overnight. By mile eight, both Pauly and I hit a wall. Only a spare sandwich in our cooler saved us, giving us just enough strength to finish the trip. By the time we pulled our kayaks out of the river, I was wet, muddy, and ready to go home. Philip and Pauly looked no better. We opted to spare River Dude the unpleasantness of riding back with us in the cab and opted to air out in the bed of the truck. The older couple, with both dogs recovered, rode up front.
Most of us city-types don’t get out much, and oftentimes, I feel like the concrete blues set in. Anxiety takes over, especially in North Texas where “outdoor activities” usually means shopping at an open-air outlet mall. But all three of us left Graford relaxed, mellow and content. Water has a way of smoothing things out.
I never met John Graves when I was a reporter. The closest I got to the man was editing a long essay about River penned by the former Star-Telegram journalists Chris Evans and Dave Ferman for a magazine I was working at right after I graduated from TCU. By the late 2000s, Graves was an old man living near the Paluxy River near Glen Rose. He didn’t do interviews anymore, he told Chris, because he was “tired of seeing [his] name in print.” He was a bit of a hermit, and like another former Rice graduate, novelist Larry McMurtry, Graves gained a reputation as a bit of a grouch, however earned or unearned that reputation might have been. I think he just liked the simple life. He died at age 92 in 2013.
Nonetheless, Goodbye to a River is easily the best book written about any area in or near Fort Worth, if not one of the best nonfiction books written about Texas, period. It’s the type of book that I hope The Last Word Bookstore, which opened a few months ago just south of downtown Fort Worth, carries in bulk. Every true Fort Worthian should read it. It is a part of our literary birthright.
I think Chris summed it up pretty well in the magazine article he wrote.
“Graves overarching or underlying message in Goodbye to a River has to do with a creeping, population-induced encroachment upon his ability to shut out life’s clatter as well as his own struggle to deal with the complexities, ethical or otherwise, of even life’s most simple or tedious endeavors.”
And once you read it, you should do it. Graves can speak for himself.
“Most autumns, the water is low from the long dry summer, and you have to get out from time to time and wade, leading or dragging your boat through the trickling shallows from one pool to the long channel-twisted below, hanging up occasionally on shuddering bars of quicksand, making six or eight miles in a day’s lazy work, but if you go to the river at all, you tend not to mind, You are not in a hurry there; you learned long since not to be.”