It had been a couple of years since I’d been in a kayak, and I was rusty with a paddle. As I made my first wobbly strokes into the Colorado River near historic downtown Bastrop, I tried to remember the finer points of proper blade angle and torso rotation and to recall that rescue technique that has something or other to do with the hand of God. And then I looked downriver and forgot about all of that. The wide, green waters, cocooned by high walls of ash and live oak and cypress trees, were moving at a cloud’s pace. This was going to be as undemanding as lolling about in a hammock.
And so I paddled, imperfectly, for two lazy hours, alongside turtles, ducks, snowy egrets, and a great blue heron. Aside from my guide, Lee Harle, the owner of the Bastrop River Company, who was gliding next to me on a stand-up paddleboard, the only other humans I encountered were two fishermen who’d just hooked a flopping alligator gar while casting for bass. When we veered off course to check out a narrow creek shrouded by droopy trees and draped with primeval-looking patches of aquatic flora, I thought I was going to be overcome with tranquility. The only conceivable scenario that would be more relaxing involved an inner tube and a cold can of beer; since Harle rents out the former and welcomes the latter (as long as you don’t litter), I was already hatching plans for the following weekend.
My affection for languid rivers like the Colorado and my fondness for small towns like Bastrop (population 7,218) spring from the same headwaters: that yearning to not always feel like a small fish in a big pond. The squiggly stretch of river that runs through Bastrop County is just far enough from the more crowded sections in booming Austin, thirty miles away, to feel as if it’s your own private waterway. But these forty miles are to Bastrop what the entire six-hundred-mile-long Colorado is to Texas: its “living heart,” as Verne Huser wrote in Rivers of Texas.
Stephen F. Austin thought so too when he made his first scouting trip through Texas, in 1821. Surveying this particular bend in the river, he noted, “Bottom and banks gravelly, water very clear and well tasted, current brisk.” It was an ideal spot, in other words, to put down roots. By 1832, he’d established the Mexican settlement of Bastrop.
The town’s name is likely a tip of the hat to the Baron de Bastrop, who skipped out on embezzlement charges back in Holland, declared himself a nobleman upon arrival in Louisiana, and used his “title” to help his pal Austin curry favor with the Mexican government in Texas. I half expected to find a plaque at the excellent Bastrop Museum and Visitor Center commemorating his sweeping self-reinvention, that timeworn Texas tradition.
The river has undergone an extensive rejigging since the baron’s time. After a number of catastrophic floods—it crested to a record 60.3 feet in Bastrop in the summer of 1869—the state created the Lower Colorado River Authority in 1934 to rein in the waters. By 1951, they had completed six sizable dams, effectively taming the river’s surges and transforming it into the bucolic, even-tempered ride that it is today.
Even though the portion I was floating hovers at about two and a half feet deep, a heavy rain can still cause the river to rise alarmingly close to evacuation levels—it got up to 27 feet after a deluge hit Austin last October. But the absence of rain is no less nerve-racking. The drought-fueled wildfire that sparked in September 2011 and incinerated more than 32,000 acres and close to 1,700 homes—and left two people dead—was the most devastating in state history. The rebuilding efforts have been costly and challenging; nevertheless, the area’s civic pride has helped put the town back on an accelerated blooming schedule these past two and a half years.
A lot of things have been sprouting, horticultural and otherwise. Among them, thousands of loblolly pine seedlings (marked by tiny, victorious orange flags) in the heavily damaged Bastrop State Park; plans to turn a hundred-year-old cottonseed mill into a community art center and sculpture garden; and a contingent of new (or old but improved) shops and restaurants, many occupying the historic buildings along Main Street.
Hungry for a post-paddling meal, I walked over to Paw-Paw’s Catfish House with Harle, who’d asked if I was game to try the fried deviled eggs (oh, was I). As we dived into platters of shrimp and catfish, he told me how he’d shucked off the banker’s life a couple of years back and moved to Bastrop expressly to buy the river outfitter. He now spends his days proselytizing for stand-up paddleboarding and serving as an unofficial ambassador for all the out-of-towners who come to get on the Colorado (or hike through nearby Bastrop or Buescher State Parks) and inevitably trickle over afterward to Maxine’s Cafe for a chicken-fried steak or to Lock Drugs for a chocolate malt.
I spent the afternoon nosing around the century-old storefronts downtown and wound up meeting a lot of other Bastropians, many newly minted, who’ve been drawn here by the subdued pace of small-town life and the freedoms it affords. At Lost Pines Art Bazaar, Naseem Khonsari, a Houston transplant, showed me a trove of Persian carpets hand-knotted in her father’s native Iran; the family’s exquisite showroom, which also specializes in bronze cowboy sculptures and European antiques, is her dad’s idea of a retirement project. Joe and Danny Oviedo, brothers from Del Rio, relocated here last year to launch the restaurant empire they’d been dreaming about; their first venture, Viejo’s Tacos y Tequila, has already built up a fan club devoted to its fresh-fruit margaritas and smoked-cashew salsa. I heard Larry Wilson before I saw him, picking on a ukulele on the porch of his eponymous music store, LarryLand, an enterprise he took on with his wife after spending years on the road as a guitarist for musicians like Jimmy LaFave and Lavelle White. There are some interesting fish in this pond.
At some point, a local asked me if I was an “SOB.” He quickly—and smartly—followed his query up with another: Was I yet a member of the International Society of Bridge Spitters, who proudly refer to themselves as SOBs? The group, founded in the eighties, was inspired by a 1961 episode of the Andy Griffith Show, in which launching loogies from a bridge was depicted as the Mayberrian cure for small-town boredom. I wasn’t an SOB, but the idea stuck. So, before I headed for home, I walked over to the Old Iron Bridge, built in 1923, which has been converted into a pedestrian walkway. I conjured up the nerve, waited till the cars on Loop 150 behind me had moved along, and did the deed, watching as my singular spit, as distinctive as a fingerprint, did a swan dive into the Colorado, flowing, as it were, with the DNA of Texas.
The Wanderer’s To-Do List
Rent a kayak, canoe, tube, or stand-up paddleboard at the Bastrop River Company to cruise the Colorado; 601 Chestnut, 512-321-4661.
Peruse handwoven Persian rugs at Lost Pines Art Bazaar; 603 Chestnut, 512-985-6403.
Fuel up on griddle cakes or chicken-fried steak (or both) at Maxine’s Cafe; 905 Main, 512-303-0919.
Venture over to the Old Iron Bridge to induct yourself into the International Society of Bridge Spitters; Chestnut Street at the Colorado River.
Toast to your health at Viejo’s Tacos y Tequila with a fresh-fruit margarita; 811 Main, 512-988-7544.
More tips on what to do, where to eat, and where to stay are available in the Wanderer’s curated Bastrop trip guide.