West Texas rivers and wind-blown campfire tunes
Driving west on I-10 from Austin, the desert creeps up on you, gradually revealing itself mile after mile after mile until the entire landscape has changed. The winding rivers, lazy lakes, scrubby trees and colorful flowers of the Texas Hill Country finally give way to barren creekbeds, rocky outcroppings, desolate plains and various forms of cacti.
The transformation somehow seems as spiritual as it is physical. The world exists on a different plane: broader in scope, wider in space, deeper in soul. Here in the heart of West Texas, everything truly is bigger.
Biggest of all is the Rio Grande, and nowhere is it so grand as in Big Bend National Park, so named for the gargantuan turn the river takes as it winds through a series of deep canyons on the border of Texas and Mexico, a couple hundred miles southeast of El Paso and Juarez. Though Texas isn’t generally known for its mountains, several peaks in the park are quite impressive, rising to nearly 8,000 feet from a much lower base than, say, the Colorado Rockies, which sprout from a mile-high boost.
Hiking trails and campgrounds are plentiful throughout the park, but it’s the river that rules this region, providing a major recreational draw for adventure seekers in the Southwest and beyond. About a half-dozen companies operate raft trips on the Rio Grande, ranging from day or weekend trips through the three main canyons (Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas) to weeklong excursions through the Lower Canyons.
One company in particular has carved out a unique niche in the market by combining the rugged splendor of Texas geography with the ragged glory of Texas music. Far Flung Adventures, based in the tiny ghost town of Terlingua just outside the park, regularly offers three-day/two-night trips in which a renowned Texas singer-songwriter comes along for the ride and performs intimate campfire concerts for the rafters.
Those who have participated in Far Flung’s river music series over the past decade include such marquee names as Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Robert Earl Keen, Tish Hinojosa, Darden Smith and Peter Rowan. The unrivaled stars of the series, however, are Steven Fromholz and Butch Hancock, whose lives have been significantly redirected by the pull of the river.
Fromholz inaugurated the series in the late ’80s and was so taken by the experience that he eventually became a trained boatsman as well, and set up a part-time residence in Terlingua (his primary home is in Austin). Hancock followed suit shortly thereafter, becoming a music-trip regular in the late ’80s and earning his oarsman credentials in the early ’90s before finally heeding Big Bend’s call completely and relocating from Austin to Terlingua in 1996.
The move marks a full-circle evolution of sorts in Hancock’s life cycle. Raised in Lubbock and a member of the pioneering band the Flatlanders in the early ’70s (along with Ely and Gilmore), Hancock moved to Austin in the mid-’70s shortly after recording his first album, West Texas Waltzes And Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes. He released about a dozen records of varying textures and tones during his two decades in Austin, but 1997’s You Coulda Walked Around The World revisits the rustic simplicity of his debut, a solo recording of just guitar, vocal and harmonica.
Lyrically, Hancock has replanted himself firmly in West Texas soil as well, which is what makes his music so ideally suited to Far Flung’s river excursions. His words echo in seemingly every experience of the adventure. Driving the back roads of Lajitas to the put-in point, the chorus of “This Old Dirt Road” comes to mind; the border adventure tale of “Leo y Leona” practically provides a plot map to the area; “Barefoot Prints” ponders the reflections of moonlight, sunlight and starlight on the Rio Grande.
Starlight, coincidentally, is where our journey begins — at the Starlight Theatre, which sits next to Far Flung’s headquarters in the heart of “downtown Terlingua” (consisting only of those two facades and a gift shop). Having set out from Austin around dawn on a Thursday in mid-November, my father and I pull into Terlingua shortly after dusk (“You can drive all day and never leave Texas,” another of Hancock’s lyrics reminds) and drift into the Starlight, which functions as a restaurant and bar in addition to presenting occasional musical and theatrical events.
Across the room I happen to spot Joe Nick Patoski, a senior editor for Austin-based Texas Monthly magazine who’s in the area researching an article. Presently he’s joined by Fromholz, who informs us that our river trip with Hancock will be greatly enhanced by the ever-entertaining guidesmanship of Gary “Catfish” Callaway. We meet Callaway the next morning and instantly appreciate Fromholz’ assessment: “They call me Catfish because my mouth is bigger than my brain. And the fact that I just told you that proves that it’s true!”