In, Not On, the Bayou
Down—and up—on the bayou.
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ONE ADVANTAGE OF CANOEING Buffalo Bayou in early June is that the water isn’t cold when your canoe tips and you find yourself thrown overboard. My old friend Geoff Winningham and I had put in under the Shepherd Drive bridge, where the bayou makes one of its frequent long, slow arcs. We were just twenty feet below the top of the bank, but we were in a different world. The opposite bank was a steep slope thickly covered with vines and weeds and small, leafy trees hanging out over the water. But our side was flat and sandy, almost like a beach. Up under the bridge someone had laid out flattened cardboard boxes for a mattress, and nearby there were upturned plastic buckets around the cold ashes of a campfire. Geoff and I strapped on life vests, proving for all eternity that we are not as dumb as we look, and pushed off in his aluminum canoe into the bayou.
Geoff is a highly regarded photographer whose work is in the collections of major museums across the United States. He has published often in Texas Monthly and other publications and has six books of photographs to his credit as well. For the past couple of years he has been working on a book of photographs that will trace Buffalo Bayou from its source in Fort Bend County, west of Houston, through the city and down the Houston Ship Channel all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. As it happens, that’s a journey I’d always wanted to take myself, although today’s trip was just a little float from the bridge at Shepherd down to Allen’s Landing.
Houston has never made its peace with Buffalo Bayou despite being stuck with the historical fact that except for the bayou, which allowed ships to sail well inland from Galveston Bay, the city wouldn’t be there at all. While San Antonio has made its river a showplace for the city and Austin has made its river a popular area for recreation and Dallas recently passed bonds to develop its riverfront, Buffalo Bayou remains unused, unwanted, and to the greatest degree possible, unseen.
And, it must be said, the bayou does not make itself easy to love. Its constant twisting makes it seem evasive and sinister, a kindred spirit with the many dangerous snakes that live along its banks and sometimes dangle from tree limbs that jut out over the stream. The water beneath our canoe was dull brown and so thick it seemed to slide off our paddles like mud. Occasionally, a gar would splash, an ugly, prehistoric monster with rows of spiked teeth and hardly any brain. Geoff has seen water puppies, peculiar salamanders two to three feet long that swim in schools. And there are alligators still, perhaps not as many as legend would have, but a few joggers along the trails near the bayou swear one still lives near downtown and sometimes slithers out to snap up a small dog.
When tropical rains descend on Houston, which they can do at any time, the water runs in torrents through the storm drains and into Buffalo Bayou, which can rise more than twenty feet so quickly that it’s dangerous. The bayou overflows its banks, deep as they are, and the water rushes downstream, sweeping everything along with it. From my seat in the canoe, I could see far overhead on the bridges the black watermark left behind by some recent flood. Geoff has seen all sorts of clothes and trash and even an iron bed stranded high in the branches of a tree when the water resided. During normal times the trash accumulates behind tree limbs in the water and in the tiny bays of still water created by the meandering turns the bayou takes. This trash is white—white plastic bottles, white plastic bags, and white plastic boxes and cups. None of this ever disintegrates; not even the ravishing power of a flood, which can sweep away a strong swimmer and rip a tree up by its roots, can break them apart. As Geoff and I paddled along, alone except for an occasional buzzing insect or a turtle on a stump or a splashing gar, these plastic things floating in mucky ponds impressed me as the trashiest trash our civilization produces, bobbing just at the surface, sickly white, like the bellies of dead fish that will never rot.
Despite all that, I was really enjoying myself. I like the edges of things—the edge where the suburbs meet the countryside, the edge where the ocean meets the land. Buffalo Bayou, though it divides Houston in half, is the edge where the city meets raw nature, and on this sunny day raw nature was a very pleasant place to be. When we had loaded the canoe on Geoff’s Suburban, the heat and humidity had us both sweating, but down along the bayou, which I thought would be heavy and even hotter, there was some breeze and a pleasant coolness. We could hear the city—there was a consistent low growl of unseen traffic all around us—but for most of the trip, we couldn’t see it except for the pilings and bridges we passed under. The bayou wasn’t beautiful. The foliage is thick and tangled with big leaves and does not bloom. But it is wild and defiant. In the midst of Houston, we were in another world, one that even had its sentries. Solitary men, camped under the bridges, watched impassively as we passed. They did not respond to a nod or a wave but continued to stare at us, as remote as Buddhas.
Geoff and I talked idly or paddled in silence in the sluggish current as we watched the bayou world pass by. Here and there he shot pictures. I had sunk deeply into a reverie where the bayou was some unknown and untamed tropical river whose very danger lured us forward. Then we made yet another turn, and through a clearing in the trees overhead, we could see the top few floors of downtown’s steel and glass skyscrapers.
“There it is,” Geoff said. “The fabled lost city of Houston.”
Holding his camera high in his left hand, Geoff turned around to his left to say something more to me just as I leaned left myself. Of course the canoe rolled left too. It seemed to teeter for a moment and then rolled on over, sending us both into the bayou. My first concern was not to swallow any of the water. Geoff’s was to protect his camera. We found ourselves floating in the life vests beside the upside-down canoe, Geoff holding his camera above his head and me with my mouth tightly clenched. Each paddling with one arm, we pushed the canoe ten long yards over to the nearest bank. It did cross my mind that an alligator might come along and chew off my leg or that a twenty-foot gar would sink its teeth into my belly and start ripping away flesh. But the moment I had assured myself that neither catastrophe was likely to happen, another internal alarm sounded—snakes!
Where was the bottom? We couldn’t stand up until we were next to the bank. Then we grabbed some exposed roots and pulled ourselves out of the water. We had to wrestle the canoe into the air and hold it upside-down for the water to pour out. Then we flipped it right-side up and gingerly got back in. The paddles were floating nearby. We picked them up and were soon back on our way, water seeping out of our shoes and clothes, me with my mouth dry and Geoff with his camera dry and safe through it all.
Now we were in downtown. We passed along a dark, shaded curve I knew was right at the edge of Sam Houston Park, a favorite spot of mine that is pleasant and old and always empty. It slopes down toward the bayou but stops well short at a row of trees and plants that keeps the water out of sight. A statue erected in 1908 called “Spirit of the Confederacy”—a naked male angel standing with a palm frond conveniently positioned to hide his genitals—turns its back on the bayou. And as if to show how consistent the city’s attitude has been, a statue of John Connally in a business suit, erected in 1995 in another corner of the park, faces away from the bayou as well. Even the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, to be built just a short walk away, is planned to have its least attractive side—its loading docks—facing the bayou.
Further downstream we passed Sesquicentennial Park, the only attempt at water’s edge to make the bayou presentable. Flanking the Wortham Theater Center, the park consists of a wide cement walkway with redbrick walls and staircases leading up to a wide promenade and to the street. An organization named the Buffalo Bayou Partnership has built and paid for pavilions, a boat launch, fountains, and gardens. They also have plans to create a four-mile greenbelt along the bayou with hike and bike trails, provisions for boating, and the like. That would be a spectacular addition to downtown, but the flooding makes it unlikely that the bayou will ever be lined with shops and restaurants like the Riverwalk in San Antonio. The walls and wide walkways that are there now are designed to allow the water to rise and recede without destroying anything.
Just a few moments later we reached the point where White Oak Bayou joins Buffalo Bayou. In 1836 this place, beyond which shipping vessels could not go, became Allen’s Landing, a muggy, muddy, slippery commercial outpost that was the seed that grew into Houston. Now Allen’s Landing, where Main Street ends at the bayou, is little more than an empty slab of concrete with a couple of steps leading into the water. A few yards past, we got out at a small park and, slipping in the mud as water squirted out of our shoes, we pulled the canoe onto land.
Now that I was clearly in Houston and not along some jungle river, I was surprised to find how easy the transition was or, to be precise, to find that going from the bayou to the city was no transition at all. Rowdy hustlers founded many of Houston’s wealthy families. Wild, unpredictable, refusing to follow the straight and narrow path, the bayou is nature’s version of those rowdy men. Without them and without the bayou, Houston would not exist. And like great-grandpop’s legacy, the bayou is still there, tolerated, undeniably the founder, even when it’s a pretty mean S.O.B.