West Texas rivers and wind-blown campfire tunes
Soon enough, however, Catfish’s considerable wisdom of his domain becomes evident. An outdoorsman and river guide for three decades and a minority owner of Far Flung, he knows the Rio Grande intimately, from its habits to its habitat to its history. As he rows our boat of five — Catfish, my father and me, and another father-son pair from Houston — downstream with breezy deliberation, he identifies bird species and rock formations, recalls floods and other incidents that altered the form of the river’s banks and rapids, and continually curses the tamarisk trees whose byzantine root structures drain water from the river at an alarming rate.
Drifting along lazily behind us, barely visible amidst a barricade of supplies surrounding him on his raft, is Hancock, who’s serving as cargo crew as well as campfire balladeer for our journey. Occasionally Catfish will nod back in the direction of Butch, careful to be out of earshot so as not to embarrass him, and marvel about how that guy in the trailing boat happens to be one of the great songwriters of our time.
Soon enough we’re treated to firsthand evidence of that assessment. After pitching our tents at the Friday night campsite and devouring a hearty steak dinner (Far Flung feeds folks mighty well on these trips), we gather around the fire, hoping that a threatening sky will hold off long enough to allow Butch to play a few tunes. (The story’s often told of how, around ten years ago, Hancock played his song “Just One Thunderstorm” one evening at a Rio Grande campsite and, on cue, the heavens opened forth and poured.)
The rain mostly holds off on this night, though a light drizzle eventually prompts us to scoot a few feet under the tarp protecting the makeshift kitchen. Playing for an hour or so, Hancock treats us to classics from his past such as “If You Were A Bluebird”, Terlingua-inspired tunes from his most recent album including “Long Sunsets”, and even a couple new numbers he hasn’t yet recorded. Those who have caught Hancock in the cozy confines of the Cactus Cafe in Austin might assume they’ve heard him in the ideal environment, and they’d almost be right — but nothing could ever transcend the experience of Butch’s songs rambling along the river’s banks, rolling upon its rippling waters, reverberating off its colossal canyon walls.
We don’t actually enter the majestic Santa Elena Canyon until the following afternoon, having spent the first day following the river’s twists and turns through the mesa-pocked frontier of the Chihuahua desert. We stop for lunch at the entrance to the canyon, taking a relatively short but awe-inspiring hike up a fairly steep trail leading to the canyon’s precipice. Peering one direction, down into the chasm created by the sheer cliffs on both sides, ignites the nerves with dizzying wonder; gazing another direction, across the vast cactus-covered playas of Mexico, beckons the soul to the edge of eternity.
We spend Saturday night deep within the canyon, chilled and whipped by a whistling wind that quickly renders our nice hot dinner less than lukewarm. This is, after all, West Texas, a place where “the wind is gonna blow tomorrow, just like it blows today,” as Hancock sings on “Wind’s Gonna Blow You Away”. The natives have long since learned to weather the elements, and Butch has no problem keeping us up for quite awhile, regaling us with the misadventures of “Split & Slide” (“Well Split he slipped and started to slide/And Slide he slipped and split his side”) and the simple wisdom of “Chase” (“You might chase a tune/You might chase the muse/You might chase the moon/You might chase the blues”). Finally, and fittingly, Hancock leaves the music to be carried away on “The Wind’s Dominion”.
Sunday morning, only a short float remains through the rest of the canyon to our early-afternoon takeout point, though it’s probably the most scenically spectacular portion of the trip, the canyon’s walls towering ever higher and revealing formations such as Smuggler’s Cave, a giant hole in the wall on the Mexican side. Then it’s out of the long shadows and back into the bright sunlight, Santa Elena’s tight fortress receding abruptly and giving way once more to the desert’s endless horizon.
Driving back to Austin, watching the parched plains transmute back into rolling hills mile after mile after mile, I recall all those treks across I-10 I’d made in my younger days, and how hard it always was to readjust to urban civilization after spending a few days amid the soul-stirring nature of this country. As usual, another song of Hancock’s — this time it’s “Texas Air” — comes to mind, and captures the feeling exactly:
Leave my spirit on the prairie
Bury my bones in the sand
Toss my troubles to the western wind
Baby it’s a wide, wide land.