The Old Man and the River

Fifty years ago a struggling writer named John Graves set off on a three-week-long canoe trip down the Brazos. He wrote about his experience in a book that has become a Texas classic— and one of my personal favorites. So what could I do to mark the anniversary? Try to follow in his wake.

November 2007By Comments

The fall foliage near Flint Bend.
Photograph by Kenny Braun

In 1957, that year of booming, metamorphic postwar American civilization, a writer from Massachusetts named Jack Kerouac published a smash best-seller called On the Road. Its startling premise was that the soul of the nation could somehow be glimpsed by a young man driving frantically back and forth across it at 90 miles an hour in various states of ecstatic inebriation. That same year, another young writer, a Texan named John Graves, set off on his own self-consciously literary journey: He put a canoe in the Brazos River, paddled it 175 miles, and wrote a history-and-memory-laced travelogue about the trip called Goodbye to a River. It too sought to understand what was happening to the American character at the mid-century. But while both books were, structurally speaking, standard nonfiction picaresques (On the Road is almost all nonfiction, with the names changed), Graves’s approach was radically different. Kerouac’s characters, having encountered “the end of America—no more land,” were reduced to watching the blur of American cities and towns in their rearview mirrors; Graves was moving so slowly that he could see fish jump and blades of grass go by. Kerouac was obsessed with the moment, the now; Graves was looking backward more than a hundred years to the days of the Spanish and Comanche.

Goodbye to a River never had On the Road’s financial success or its national reach. Though it was critically acclaimed and nominated for a National Book Award, Graves’s river tour was seen (and usually promoted) as a regional work, something of interest to Texans but not to readers in New York or California. That is still true. But if Goodbye to a River has been consigned to a sort of parochial twilight, it has also become one of the great, über-regional books in America, and one of Texas’ sacred texts. For many people, including me, it is the definitive Texas book, the one you give to all your friends, the one book about the place that you absolutely have to read. It has remained stubbornly in print for 47 years and is now such a key part of the state’s literary canon that it is required reading this fall at Texas State University for all freshmen and transfer students.

November marks the fiftieth anniversary of Graves’s trip. Such an interesting and obscure occasion (the book was published three years later, in 1960) called for some sort of observance, something to solemnize its passing. So photographer Kenny Braun and I decided to take our own run down the Brazos River, both as a tribute and as a kind of primitive attempt to understand what Graves did. Our journey was the equivalent of an executive summary: We ran only a fraction of what he ran, the scenic first section that thousands of Gravesians have traveled over the years in imitation of his art (along with many clueless non-Gravesians, no doubt). We camped three nights on the river last November, caught a few fish, drank a fair amount of beer, paddled till we got blisters, nosed around in Graves’s old haunts, and froze in our lightweight sleeping bags. There was no grand purpose in our trip except to try to see some of the things he saw and to understand, on some pure level of the senses, where all that gorgeous, looping, mandarin prose came from. I did it, in that sense, as an ordinary fan, someone who loves and admires the book and its Thoreauvian good sense and hardscrabble poetics. I did it as someone who wants to do what all Graves fans want to do—to see the world, if only briefly, through his eyes.

Just below Possum Kingdom dam.

In 2007 the author (top) started his trip just below Possum Kingdom dam, exactly where Graves (below) began in November 1957.

There is a famous photograph of John Graves taken at the moment of embarkation, on November 11, 1957. He is sitting in the stern of a canoe wearing a porkpie hat with his back to the camera, apparently alone though actually, on closer inspection, in the company of a dachshund, whose tail and hindquarters are visible along the gunwale. Around him swirls the Brazos, in what looks to be flood stage. The sky is leaden gray; before him loom dark headlands.

Half a century later, Kenny and I put in there too, by the same old bridge downriver from the dam at Possum Kingdom Reservoir, 75 miles west of Fort Worth, and pushed our rented canoe off into a cold, clear, slate-gray river that looked a lot like the one in the photograph. Our river was not quite as full, but those headlands were still there, very much as they were, the banks and river bottoms still largely empty of any sign of mankind. What is immediately interesting is the fact that the river exists at all. Graves’s original idea was to run a section of the Brazos he had fished and hunted since he was a child. His angle was that this stretch of the river was about to be drowned. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Brazos River Authority were planning to construct a series of lakes and dams from Possum Kingdom to Lake Whitney, thirty miles northwest of Waco, thus submerging Graves’s childhood world along with the ghosts of all the Indians, Texas Rangers, and other colorful characters who had made so much history there. His chronicle was thus both personal and elegiac: one last, lingering look at his grand old river.

Except that they never did dam it up, not most of it anyway. They built only one dam, the one that brought Lake Granbury into existence. The rest was left undrowned, in part because the authorities did not need the electricity and in part because of the influence of Graves’s book. When you cross bridges on the upper-middle Brazos, markers testify to the book’s moral firepower. They read, “John Graves Scenic Riverway.”

As we paddled out into the bright, chilly November day, the first lesson of the river—and, by extension, the book—was how big this land is, how high, wide, and steep. We were in jagged, vertical country, the land of the Palo Pinto Mountains, a place of razor-sharp mesas and lofty, ocher-stained limestone cliffs. There is a vastness here that seems to preclude familiarity. The river bends and coils back upon itself, and in its winding complexity and in the opacity of its pecans, cottonwoods, elms, and post oaks, all shot now with gold and orange and the occasional brilliant splash of sumac red, it seems purely unknowable. And you realize, paddling hard into the river’s third or fourth bend, a breathless, yawing windward leg for every run downwind, that it is Graves’s genius that he is able to decode something so large, to assign meaning to it in a way that transcends the simple identification of creeks or farms or the telling of tales.

The author at dead-end shallows.

The author hauling his canoe out of a dead-end shallows.

You have to see this to understand it. Five river miles is a small eternity, a gaping volume of both vertical and horizontal geometric space. Somehow he inhabits it; he knows it in these early stages and he knows it one hundred river miles later. He is bursting with stories about it. He knows what is up the creeks and inside the bends, where the fishing holes are, who farmed what river bottom, and who got slaughtered by which hostile Indians. His book is about the meaning of the land; he envisioned it as “a string of beads, the string being the trip-narrative itself and the beads the various digressions in the form of anecdotes, tales, historical commentary, essays, etc.” That is a fair description of how his literary decoding machine works.

It was this particular ability, and his recognition of his possession of it at the age of 37, that transformed his career as a writer. Until that time, Graves had lived an interesting though largely unremarkable life. He was born in Fort Worth in 1920 and grew up solidly middle class; his father owned a men’s clothing store. He read Joseph Conrad and Sir Walter Scott, explored the Trinity River bottom, and spent summers out on the Brazos with relatives. He attended Rice Institute (later Rice University), graduated Phi Beta Kappa, then enlisted and fought with the Marines in the Pacific, where he was wounded and lost sight in one eye on Saipan. After the war, he lived for a time in Mexico, attended graduate school at Columbia University on the GI Bill, and wrote his master’s thesis on William Faulkner. He then accepted a job teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, where he spent the next two years, generally unhappy and unfulfilled.

What he really wanted was to be a writer, so he did what so many writers of his day were doing. He headed for Europe—or, to be specific, Hemingway’s Europe. “John set out to Spain to do all of the things that Hemingway did,” his friend and Princeton professor Sam Hynes said in a forum with Graves at Texas State in 2002. “He went fly-fishing in the Pyrenees, he watched bullfights—and knows quite a lot about bullfights, actually—and wrote and wrote and wrote and became the one, original John Graves.”

Well, not exactly. He did, in fact, write and write and write. But not very successfully, as his later book Myself and Strangers illustrates with painful clarity. He was living out Hemingway’s tired literary cliché, hanging with, as Graves describes them, people who were “aimless, upper class, usually charming, heavy drinkers. They are really nobodies.” Between 1951 and 1956 he spent much of his time abroad, traveling and living in France, Spain, and the Canary Islands. His diaries of the era, some of which are reprinted in the book, are hopelessly ordinary, depressingly predictable. They remind me of many writers I knew in my twenties—including me—who, lacking any new and interesting ideas of their own, ended up floundering around in someone else’s vision. It may have been fun and interesting to attend bullfights, but it was hardly an original subject to write about.

Meanwhile, Graves had been busy writing his first novel, A Speckled Horse, first in Spain and then back in the United States. His agent hated it, and it was never published. It was, by most accounts, not very good, and the short piece of it he later included in A John Graves Reader, featuring heavily Hemingway-influenced prose, does not argue strongly against this point of view. He returned home in 1957 because his father was ill, having failed rather completely at what he had set out to do. His novel was a bust; his four-year marriage had ended in divorce. He had published only sparsely in magazines and was now returning to do at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, what he had hated doing at UT seven years before: teach undergraduates.

Then he had his idea. After years of traipsing around Europe and the United States, he would write about the place in Texas he knew best of all, now threatened by the prospect of a chain of lakes and dams. “Since I was a child I have been hunting and fishing and camping along [the Brazos],” he wrote his agent, John Schaffner, in September 1957, “but I guess what intensified my interest in it recently was the fact that progressive-minded souls are making plans to convert the whole thing into a necklace-string of lakes for electrical power, flood control, moisture conservation, and water skiing. . . . One can regret the whole affair personally and can make an effort to crystallize his feelings about that quite distinctive piece of river before it’s drowned deep down yonder under all the Chris-Crafts.”

His trip took place two months later; by early 1958 it had taken the form of a magazine story titled “A Piece of River,” for which he received a $500 advance from Sports Illustrated that was enough to subsidize the journey. That sounds like a neat, profitable outcome. It wasn’t. SI badgered him with revisions and made him remove a good deal of his well-researched historical material. And then his editors killed the story altogether. But by this point Graves had seen the light. Though he revised the story one more time and sold it to Holiday magazine, he now had a much bigger and better idea: He would write a book. The hell with editors and expectations. He would do it his way. He taught at TCU and worked on it, and by 1959 he’d finished the manuscript. It was utterly unlike anything Ernest Hemingway had ever done. His editor at Knopf immediately deemed it a “minor masterpiece” and published it the following year. Graves took the money he made from the book and bought four hundred acres of land near Glen Rose, where he built his own house, which he lives in to this day.

Meanwhile, he has attained near-mythic status, at least west of the Sabine River. He is now 87 years old, the author of three full-length books (including the excellent Hard Scrabble), a book of collected stories he wrote for Texas Monthly, and many shorter pieces, both fiction and nonfiction. He has won most of the Texas writing awards you can win; he is lionized by writers from Larry McMurtry and Jim Harrison to Dave Hickey and Thomas McGuane. Though his other works are generally good (with a few exceptions), his reputation as a writer rests overwhelmingly on Goodbye to a River.

Brazos River from FM 4

A view of the Brazos River from FM 4, where Graves considered ending his trip early because of bad weather.

The section of the Brazos that we ran last November was 19.5 miles long; it took two and a half days to do it, paddling six hours a day and camping on sandy islands. It had taken Graves, in bad weather, three and a half. The river seemed, astonishingly, relatively unchanged from the fifties. We encountered only one bridge—Farm-to-Market Road 4—the same one Graves passed on his fourth day on the river. We saw little except for the great sweep of rock-bottomed river and the rising color-splashed headlands above us. There were the same farms sunk into the bends; there were rotted fences and abandoned turtle traps and ancient motorboats decaying in the tamarisk and a general faint odor of ruin and neglect that permeates Graves’s own descriptions. The only sound of proximate civilization was the rhythmic chugging of a distant irrigation pump on our second night. We saw no other lights. We passed no boats of any kind. We saw no human beings. Graves had described the country in the fifties as “strewn with big sandstone boulders, less totally raped in a century’s exploitation because less had been there in the first place worth the raping.” It was still true; there were outcroppings of civilization here and there, but the human work around us was mostly silent, invisible.

Unlike Graves’s experience, however, our days were mostly sunny; in 1957 he had launched himself into what amounted to a four-day rainstorm. He struggled upwind, as did we, though it is far harder—in fact, quite difficult—to keep a canoe headed straight with just one paddler. He was so miserable that at one point he resolved to get out at the FM 4 bridge—our takeout—if it did not stop raining. Forced onto a sandbar his first night in the driving rain, he wrote:

Rain . . . Even in gray heaped cities it has a privacy and a sadness. Tented, cocooned in warmed quilted feathers (the pup lumped snug between your calves; you had sworn you wouldn’t but in the night he wheezed and shuddered on the chewed blanket brought for him), you come awake to its soft-drumming spatter and the curl of the river against a snag somewhere, and move your shoulder maybe against the warmth of the bag, and the shoulder prickles in separate knowledge of its wellbeing, and the still cold is against your face and that tiny blunt wedge of sheltered space is all that exists in a sensed universe of softly streaming, gently drumming gray sadness beyond the storm flaps.

For us, the Brazos was lovely and autumnal, though the temperature had hit 30 degrees on our first night, icing over our tent and freezing our water jugs as well as us in our summer bags. Warmer air soon followed, though it never lost the suggestion of oncoming winter. The river was as interesting as Graves had promised, half a century earlier: We saw cranes, herons, and belted kingfishers; we watched deer swimming in narrow channels between islands and chased a hundred wood ducks for four or five miles. We had raccoons in our camp, coyotes high on the riverbanks. We caught bass and ate them for lunch. (Graves fished and shot squirrels, ducks, and geese for his meals.) We explored up Ioni Creek, where the book tells the tale of Jesse Veale, the last man in the region killed by Indians. We found nothing much: a silted-up stream, an old irrigation pipe, and what looked like a failed attempt to fence off the creek itself. We found Graves’s old campsite on Eagle Creek, and it was exactly as he had described it, with the addition of a fairly recent pile of empty beer cans: “Rounded gray-stone cliffs stand beside the creek mouth; in the river itself massive, split-away, rhombic blocks twist and slow the green current of a long pool.” (Kenny caught a bass on two casts in that pool.)

Such naturalist writing pervades Goodbye to a River—anchors it, in fact. Whatever else is happening in the book, you are always moving in the river’s swirl, gazing up at flights of geese against bleached wintry skies or down into black-water catfish holes or hearing the songs of canyon wrens. But for Graves, the natural world is just the beginning. The Brazos is history too, and lots of it. His river journey, in fact, took place along one of the most important frontiers in American history. From the 1830’s through the 1860’s, the upper-middle Brazos was the actual line of the Indian frontier in America. Since there were few settlements north of Texas along the 98th meridian, it was the only human frontier of any significance in those days. The line of settlements extending roughly from present-day Fort Worth to San Antonio marked the point where the westward march of Anglo-European civilization ran up against the largest and most powerful Indian empire in history, a 300,000-square-mile chunk of the North American heartland that the Spanish, who had been abjectly driven from it, called Comanchería.

The Comanche were nomads but had their preferred wintering and watering grounds, and the Brazos, with its plentiful water and sheltered and timbered bottomlands, was one of their favorite haunts. Which in turn meant that the areas of present-day Hood, Parker, and Palo Pinto counties—where the entire book takes place—were the scenes of some of their worst depredations. Wrote Graves:

For two arrogant horseback centuries they were The People, steady winners, powerful beyond any reverie of power their foot-bound Shoshonean ancestors could ever have shaped in the smoke of northern campfires. Dominant in the world they had selected, rich in the goods they prized, dexterous, cruel, wild, joyful, unbearable, lousy, bowlegged, and magnificent.

There are many Comanche stories here, almost all involving the torture and slaughter of pioneers: They are an obvious way to explain not only the Brazos River valley but also the American West, since the tribe held up its advance and settlement for some two centuries and defined the way of life along the borderlands. There are Rangers here too, local legends like Charlie Goodnight. Goodnight—the model for Captain Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove—was both a ranger and a cattleman. He gave his name to the famous Goodnight-Loving Trail, over which thousands of head of cattle were driven in the days after the Civil War. Graves tells of a “scraggly bunch of reservation Comanches” who petitioned Goodnight to give them one buffalo from a small herd he had saved from extinction in the Panhandle. Goodnight said, “Hell, no.” They asked again, begging this time. Still, he said no. They responded by setting up camp on his front porch. Finally he relented and gave them the bull they wanted, “maybe deriving a sour satisfaction,” observed Graves, “from thinking about the trouble they’d have getting it back to Oklahoma.” But they did not want to take it back to the rez. Graves wrote, “They ran it before them and killed it with arrows and lances in the old way, the way of the arrogant centuries. They sat on their horses and looked down at it for a while, sadly and in silence, and then left it there dead and rode away, and Old Man Goodnight watched them go, sadly too.”

Graves is a literate naturalist, a belletrist who shoots squirrels, skins them, and eats them and knows how to birth cows and slaughter hogs and does his own stone masonry and can name, in order of efficiency, types of wood as fire fuel. In his writing, all of this blood and dirt and river water commingle with a meandering and occasionally ornate prose and with references, which seem casually apt, to the likes of John Milton, Laurence Sterne, William Butler Yeats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the Book of Job. He is like no one else I know. His closest literary cousins are probably political naturalists, writers like Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey, though he lacks the curmudgeonliness, preachiness, and stem-winding oratory of either one of them. In earnest simplicity—his desire to see the present clearly against the past and his obsession with the details of natural description—his nearest kinship is perhaps with Thoreau. Consider this passage: “Late in the evening I heard the distant rumbling of wagons over bridges,—a sound heard farther than almost any other at night,—the baying of dogs, and sometimes again the lowing of some disconsolate cow in a distant barnyard. In the meanwhile all the shore rang with the trump of bullfrogs . . .”

It could easily be Graves, right down to the punctuation and the archaism, but it’s not; it’s Thoreau, from Walden, in a section titled “Sounds.” Like Thoreau—to whom Graves refers frequently and with mock reverence as Saint Henry—Graves is obsessed with nature’s noises; both can identify the songs of all the birds they see.

Like Thoreau, too, Graves was something of a proto-environmentalist, though less sure of himself and nothing like the bomb thrower Abbey would become a decade later. (Abbey’s suggested solution to the building of dams was to blow them up, the subject of his most famous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang.) On the river, one of the first things I realized was the sheer size and violence of the damming and lake building that was being planned in the fifties and which was completely real to Graves when he wrote his book. The canyons we paddled through were immense, deep, and breathtakingly beautiful; one could only imagine the wanton destruction of living memory if the water were to come in fifty, one hundred, two hundred feet above our heads.

For him, though, the damming was just an extension of the destruction of land already under way—not a point of view commonly expressed in the America of that time. Though he doesn’t sell this idea hard, it throbs quietly through the book. It is, after all, his reason for writing it: Something loved was being destroyed in the name of progress. Gazing at a herd of goats, he admires their “self-sufficiency” and their “yellow, wise, evil eyes”; he also sees them as emblems of abused land:

They symbolize a further degeneration of the country; there is about them the smell of the burnt Near East where their breed began. . . . This region raised antelope and buffalo with rich fat on their ribs once, and later its longhorns were the sturdiest that went up the trails. Now the cedar has spread its sterile shade in the flats where grass no longer grows, and though some of the upland ranches with sentient owners still show thick carpets of curly mesquite and grama and buffalo and blue-stem grasses, and some even of the damaged parts can be brought back, most of the earth’s surface there will never again be what it was.

And later:

There is a pessimism about land which, after it has been with you for a long time, becomes merely factual. Men increase; country suffers.

Like many avid hunters and fishermen, Graves is an ardent conservationist. Unlike them, he admits to second thoughts and even regrets about killing things. He does this a good deal. Early in his trip, he sees an eagle and confesses to an itch to shoot it, saying, “What hurt was knowing that when I was younger I would have shot this one.” Later he writes of hunting doves:

It knifes through you, for instance, after waiting through a long golden evening for doves beside a stock tank in someone’s pasture, watching your first bird coming in high and swift on the north wind, laying down knowing before you fire that you are on him, watching him contract raggedly and fall in a long parabola to baked hard earth and then going to pick him up—it knifes to feel suddenly in his warmth against your palm, in the silk touch of the feathers at his throat, all the pity of that perished gentle wildness. . . . No fiercely nature-loving female could ever have felt it stronger than I have, at times, and those people I care about hunting with feel it too. It goes away if you keep shooting and is replaced by a stone-hard exultation that is just as real . . .

This doesn’t mean that he decides to stop killing doves or squirrels or ducks or anything else he wants to eat. He goes right ahead, but it is his thoughtful consideration of the act that makes him interesting to read, a circumspection that Larry McMurtry says is a stylistic trademark. “One of his most frequent rhetorical devices is to undercut himself: questioning a story he has just retold, doubting an observation he has just made, twisting out from under a position,” McMurtry wrote in 1981. Graves, who in his life has killed everything from robins to frogs, armadillos, and snapping turtles, hunts throughout the book. Most of the time he seems perfectly happy to do it.

On our third night following the ancient trace of John Graves upon the river, we made camp at a sandy, grass-covered island by the right bank that was nested in with three or four other islands, all cut by dark, rocky channels through which passed swift currents. When we first nosed the canoe in, we came upon a wolf spider the size of a tarantula, carrying her young on her back; then we saw more wolf spiders, hundreds of them. The place was otherwise one of those ideal campsites you dream of finding. We named it Spider Island. We hauled mesquite and pecan wood in the canoe, built a roaring fire, cooked dinner, and watched a perfect windless sunset, a sky with gray clouds sailing in a pink sea. We were surrounded, for some reason, by thousands of robins and thousands of frogs. The moon rose; we saw deer in the water, heard cows lowing behind the high-bank island across our little stream.

We did not know exactly where we were, but it didn’t matter—on the river somewhere, on an island somewhere, a certain unknown distance downstream from the rocky cliffs at Eagle Creek, where Graves put in for the night. Then it occurred to me that I knew exactly where we were. We were inside a book, near the bottom of page 42, just at the part where he is about to pass under the east face of the Chick Bend mountain, then muscle into the sweeping turn of Dalton Bend and onward into the wild, tumultuous, legendary river beyond.

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