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.

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,

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