A Man and a River
Executive editor S. C. Gwynne talks about running the Brazos River just as legendary author John Graves did fifty years ago.
texasmonthly.com: This story took a lot of planning ahead. How did it all happen?
S. C. Gwynne: It was the result of some serious forward-looking thinking by my editor, Brian Sweany. He noticed that the fiftieth anniversary of John Graves’s trip was November 2007, and so he suggested that I run the river in November of 2006 so that I could write about it for publication in our November 2007 issue. Brian knew I loved the book. It was a dream assignment.
texasmonthly.com: When did you first read Goodbye to a River?
SG: I read it my first or second year in Texas, which would have been 1994 or1995.
texasmonthly.com: What impact did it have on you then?
SG: I felt I had come across an undiscovered masterpiece. I love this sort of naturalist writing and read a good deal of stuff from authors like Edward Abbey and Barry Lopez. I could not believe I had never heard of it.
texasmonthly.com: How has your perspective on the book changed over the years, especially after your trip?
SG: I have read the book three times over the years. It holds up beautifully, and when I reread it for my canoe trip, it was every bit as good as I remembered it. The trip just made me more impressed with the size of the country Graves was able to comprehend and describe.
texasmonthly.com: John Graves is often characterized as a regional writer. You even call the book the “definitive Texas book.” Still, in the story, you present some of the book’s universal themes. Why do you think this book has been so narrowly defined?
SG: I am not sure why it has the regional reputation it still clearly does. It shouldn’t. But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. It’s just something we Texans know about that other people don’t.
texasmonthly.com: What were the biggest challenges you faced on the trip?
SG: Not too many big challenges, since the river, though quite beautiful, is pretty tame. We wanted to catch our own food and eat it, like Graves. So we accomplished that when we landed a few bass. The logistics of the trip were pretty simple once we located Rochelle’s canoe outfitters on the river.
texasmonthly.com: Did you write as you traveled?
SG: I took notes several times a day.
texasmonthly.com: You took the trip in November 2006 and wrote the story for an issue released a year later. How challenging was it to keep the experience fresh in your mind?
SG: I had so many other stories to work on that I did not get back to it until this summer, which was a bit odd. But between Kenny Braun’s terrific photographs and about twenty pages of notes—and of course Graves’s book—it all came roaring back.
texasmonthly.com: How much did you know about John Graves before you started working on the story?
SG: I knew pretty much what you can learn from reading Graves himself in Goodbye to a River, Hard Scrabble, From a Limestone Ledge, and A John Graves Reader, all of which I had read. I had not read his memoir Myself and Strangers at that point.
texasmonthly.com: Did you learn anything about him that surprised you?
SG: It surprised me that he had gone through the same phase so many young writers do, flailing around and trying to find a vision and a way to write good, original stuff. I tend to think that writers like Graves spring fully fledged from their interesting childhoods.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide not to interview Graves for the story?
SG: I had always assumed that I would, and then I sat down this summer and confronted my material. Over the years, a number of reporters for various newspapers and magazines have made the pilgrimage to Glen Rose to interview Graves and wrote versions of the same profile of him. I realized that I did not want to write that sort of story. What I wanted to write was entirely in my own head. I wanted to write what I felt about his book after having run part of the Brazos myself. Talking to Graves is an entirely different story. Too bad, too, since I would love to have met the guy.
texasmonthly.com: This isn’t the first time you’ve been on a river with contributing photographer Kenny Braun. How did this trip compare with your previous trip on Devils River (“Run With the Devils,” June 2005)?
SG: The Devils is one of the wildest and most pristine rivers in the west, one that less than two hundred people run each year—and less than fifty of them do it unguided. We launched ourselves, unguided, into a swollen, roaring, white-water river, having no idea what was around each bend. It was a great, primitive trip and completely unlike the more sedate trip down the Brazos.
texasmonthly.com: How much river running experience did you have before these trips?
SG: I do a fair amount of white-water kayaking, mostly in central Texas though also in Oregon. I haven’t done that much canoeing, but Kenny (stern) and I (bow) seem to be getting better at it!