Big River

The Rio Grande has been a stage for explorers, revolutionaries, smugglers, and now canoeists and kayakers. Amid this procession the river remains immense, mysterious, immutable.

While rafting not long ago down part of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend, I learned with a shade of a disappointment that the blackish, dense, fluted, and sculptured material forming the superb high walls of Mariscal Canyon consists of Lower Cretaceous limestone partially metamorphosed toward marble by ancient heat and pressure. Not being a devout or even passably competent geological type, I don’t ordinarily get emotional about the composition of rocks. But a good many years before, I had canoed happily and ignorantly in that region with some others mainly as happy and ignorant as myself, along a stretch of the Conchos in Chihuahua to where it joins the Rio Grande at Presidio in the Big Bend, and when passing through other fine canyons sliced out of that same stone we had airily classed it as basalt. This was because it was dark and hard and sometimes shiny, but even more, I suspect, because “basalt” as a word rang richly in our ears, sounding igneous and exotically different from the prosaic limestones and sandstones and shales we were used to in our more easterly and sedimentary native habitat.

The friend who provided this mild disillusionment, Jim Bones, does not see the Lower Cretaceous as undramatic at all, and of course it isn’t, not in a haunting, otherwordly place like Mariscal Canyon. The Rio Grande, all 1885 miles of it plus some tributaries, is “his” river in a mental way that I understand, having felt thus myself in my time about a couple of other streams. The feeling comes not from deeds of title but from knowledge and caring, and it gives every stone and thorny bush and biting bug and cry in the night its full significance in the riverine scheme of things. Through informed awareness, friend Bones possesses the Rio Grande where it begins in the snowy Colorado Rockies, and where it courses clear and cold and copious through the mountain valleys and high cool deserts of the ancient Pueblo country of northern New Mexico, and in the hotter arid places south of there to El Paso and beyond, where it is often reduced to trickle or no flow at all by irrigation, evaporation, and absorption in the spongy desert soils and is replenished only when the Conchos, and later other tributaries, enter it far downstream. I think it’s most especially and belovedly his in the Big Bend, where we were taking that raft trip, a stark, lovely, forbidding jumble of deserts and canyons and crags in far West Texas. But his claim extends on past where the canyons end, or are drowned, in the upper waters of huge Lake Amistad near Del Rio, and includes the less scenic but powerfully historic final reaches where it runs through brushy rolling lands past old towns and battlefields to the tropically lush Lower Valley, discharging itself at the last into the blue Gulf just beyond the pale clean sands of Padre Island.

Insofar as most natives of this state feel propriety about the Rio Grande, it is probably in terms of this final stretch below Del Rio. Not only is that the part they see most often but it is also an international boundary imbued with the fascinated feeling that all such boundaries generate—a feeling, illusory perhaps, of distinct languages and distinct cultures and distinct breeds of people facing one another across a mere stream, or fence, or arbitrary line traversing hill and dale. Moreover, the South Texas part of the Rio Grande has had strong bearing on the flavor and directions of Texas’ past, as it still has on its present, and thus is “our” river in a basic way.

Myself, I first knew the Big River there when young, seeing it most often as a tawny flow beneath international bridges when I crossed them. Sometimes I was with college friends on feckless weekend or vacation forays that didn’t usually get past the grubby towns at the south ends of the bridges, with their promise of adventure that seldom materialized, though I guess we thought it did. Short of cash in those Depression times, we subsisted on things like street-stand goat tripe tacos at 3 cents a throw, found lodgings with corn shuck mattresses, haggled in markets over the price of straw sombreros and other gewgaws, emerged somehow unscathed late at night from side-street cantinas whose habitués sat around drinking very cheap firewater and thinking up new reasons for detesting gringos, scouted the Boys Town zona and on rare occasions did something about it but more often were scared off by impecuniousness or thoughts of disease and mayhem.

The Rio Grande was there, sluggish and turbid most of the time, but I don’t recall thinking about it as much as a river, as water, except when I envisioned, as I always did when first sighting it and often do to this day, little midnight groups of brown men wading through it up to their breasts or necks and holding bundles aloft. For wetbacks were very much with us even then, and I had worked with them on country jobs in summer and felt the pull of their language and of their grave, gentle ways. One midnight during those years in fact, I got a wet back and other parts myself when we waded out to an appointment in the river’s shallow channel near a ruined bridge somewhere, meeting a furtive fellow with an ocelot kitten in a box, unacceptable at customs, for which my college roommate handed over $6.

Just outside the more garish Gomorrahs’ commerce and fleshy joys, though, lay the real border country, a belt of dry, scrub-clad, thorny, and inhospitable land on both sides of the river, which had very little to do with fleeting weekend pleasures but held some fine, tough laconic ranch people white and brown, as well as a great deal of tangled history splattered with an astounding quantity of blood. Coahuiltecan indigenes, Spaniards, Mexicans, Comanches, Apaches, Anglo-Texans, Confederates, Yankees, and other breeds had overlapped and mingled

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