I’ve been thinking about a spot on the Brazos about a day and half below the dam at Possum Kingdom Reservoir, where a long, humped island narrows to a spit of sand. A couple of years ago I found myself camped there with three friends. We’d been paddling all day, and after catching and eating a few little crappies, we sat around a dwindling fire until one by one everybody went to sleep. I was the last to go by a couple of hours, unable to tear myself away from the cold air and the dome of stars and the sound of water slipping past. It’s a trinity I’ve enjoyed many times, but at that moment it seemed to add up to more—a sense of the past, a dim awareness of how this place might have seemed a hundred years ago, or even five hundred years ago. Few things are as timeless as a river at night.

The next morning, we reentered the current to begin our third day of happy escape from cities, jobs, etc. An old sense of freedom settled in. Nothing impeded our easy drift downstream; all that lay ahead of us was water. In Texas, rivers are still public domain, a point of distinction in our mostly privately owned and fenced state. When the water’s up, they’re one of the few remaining natural places where a person can travel for miles without ever needing to stop. Even if all you like to do is float down the Guadalupe in an inner tube, beer in hand, you know the feeling, some semblance of what it was like to move across this landscape before it was so thoroughly owned and parceled.

“Pieces of rivers can have meaning,” wrote John Graves, whose elegy for the Brazos, Goodbye to a River, had drawn my friends and me to that particular stretch below Possum Kingdom Dam, as it has drawn so many others over the past fifty years. “You can comprehend a piece of river. A whole river that is really a river is much to comprehend.” Taking a cue from Graves, this month’s cover story (“Go With the Flow,”) offers a list of the twenty best pieces of river in Texas, the short stretches of our nearly 200,000 miles of waterways where you’ll have the most fun and see the best country. It’s a great list, courageously compiled by the magazine’s resident canoeist, Charlie Llewellin, whose dedication to the project should be evident from the fact that, in order to meet his deadline, he made many of his trips in the middle of winter, wearing a wet suit and shivering like a soggy dog.

Rivers are best enjoyed in pieces, but if we’re going to keep them around for our kids to enjoy, we also need to see them in their entirety. Many of our waterways are now overcommitted, meaning that we’ve given permission for more water to be withdrawn from them than is actually in them. It’s only because many of these water rights are not actually used that our rivers flow at all. In 2007 the Legislature established the Environmental Flows Advisory Group, finally putting in place a process for determining how much water needs to stay in a river in order to support the delicate ecology that keeps it alive. Yet how we’ll comply with the recommendations this group comes up with remains as unclear as the Neches.

A summer in Texas that fails to include at least a few trips to a river (or better yet, down a river) cannot fairly be called a good Texas summer. The water, the sun, the chopped-beef sandwich at some little roadside joint, the comfy feel of a slowly drying swimsuit as you drive home in the early evening, sitting on a damp towel and listening to Red Headed Stranger—between now and Labor Day, these things must be experienced. But remember that without your support and involvement, there’s no guarantee that our rivers will be preserved for future generations. One easy way to chip in is to buy an annual State Parks Pass (only $60!). Another is to simply spend some time getting to know—really know—a piece of river in your vicinity. Go to it again and again, not just in summer but all through the year. Learn its secrets. Find its meaning. Comprehend it.

Next month

A special issue about growing up in Texas, featuring Norah Jones, T. Boone Pickens, David Lee Garza, John Phillip Santos, Rick Perry, Bill White, Keith Carter, Elizabeth Crook, Shelby Hearon, David Dorado Romo, contributing editor Stephen Harrigan, executive editor Skip Hollandsworth, and many more.