byTurk Pipkin - Originally appeared in Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
Deep in the heart of the Hill Country, I turn onto a rain-slick Highway 377 out of Junction. I'm planning to explore the South Llano River State Park, recently opened only a few miles from my childhood stomping grounds on the headwaters of the river. I'm hoping to get a look at the wild turkeys that roost in the giant pecans along the riverbanks, the deer in the fields, and maybe to cast a few lures to the bass in the fast, clear waters. No phone, no work, no friends, no family; just one day alone.
The early cold front rains of the night before have given way to a chilling drizzle and the happy notion that I might be the only person foolish enough to venture out into park's five hundred acres in such weather. Four miles south of town – the South Llano is the only river in Texas that flows north – I find the gates to the park barricaded and locked due to high water. In all likelihood, the park will remain closed for hours. So much for my one day alone.
Plan B. I turn back onto the highway and head further south, hoping to make it across the two low water crossings farther upstream and drive the twenty miles and twenty years back into my childhood. I get out at the first crossing and watch the swift, muddy water rush across the pavement. They told me at Buck's Store that someone washed off the road here last night. Almost drowned and almost froze to death before they found him sitting on his over-turned Suburban.
Now the water is lower – at least I hope it is. I think back to the many times that my heart was in my throat when my Dad drove across this same flooded crossing. But this time it is me behind the wheel, driving fast enough for momentum but not so fast as to drown out the brakes or the alternator. It's only axle deep but still I feel the pressure of the water shoving laterally on my tires. I figure as long as the water doesn't come up onto the body of the truck, I'll get across; and I do. Another driver watches me cross safely, then turns his car around and heads back to town. He must not have liked what he saw.
The River Ranch, headwaters of the South Llano and the childhood paradise that – when I was sixteen years old – my family lost to the usual Texas assortment of drought and banks and lawyers and wills but which to me will always remain the most beautiful place on earth.
I remember how my father, waiting to drive away for the last time, called for me and honked the horn and called again. It didn't seem fair; the dream had ended but the water still bubbled from the springs. Was it possible that this spot would now belong to someone else? Certain that I would die without it, I silently swore that someday I'd return.
The spring still bubbles up from under the water and the squirrels and kingfishers chatter at my intrusion. My lunch is made of fresh watercress and mint from the seeping banks and small native pecans that take too long to crack with cold fingers. A great blue heron, gliding low on drafts of visible steam from the warm waters of the Blue Hole, settles nearby and begins to fish. Seeing me he rises back up like a phoenix, beating the air noisily with his immense wings as he hurries away.
It feels as if this place springs from the innermost regions of my soul. It nourishes like a warm mix of Mother's milk and Old Bushmill's and somehow I have always known that it will wash me clean. It is filled with Indian paintings and arrowheads and the lore of a hundred outlaws who made these remote canyons their own "hole in the wall." It took three companies of Texas Rangers to roust them from their lairs. Led by Major John B. Jones, the men assembled here at Paint Rock water hole and moved downstream to Junction, arresting forty wanted men. That was 1877, one of the last vestiges of lawlessness in a much coveted land. Taken from the rustlers and bank robbers just as it was taken from the Indians in the thirty years preceding, so would it be later wrested from homesteaders and cedar choppers and finally fenced but not tamed by men who were dreamers and inventors and schemers and drunks. To me they seemed huge; big men on a hard land, men like Governor Coke Stevenson – "Mr. Texas" – defeated in the 1948 U.S. Senate race by Lyndon and the mysterious ballot boxes of Duval County, but whose hand built country mansion still stands a few miles downstream from my grandmother's rock house.
It was 1944 when my parents moved into that rock house to take over operation of the ranch from Uncle Marvin who would not return from World War II. My father, who had never been on a horse before, spent fourteen hours in the saddle the very first day on the job. Electricity was provided by a wind generator (hopefully), the nearest town was an hours drive on unpaved roads and the nearest neighbor two miles. Today he only says that running the ranch was hard.
The old rock house is now occupied by a hired foreman who gladly gives me permission to look around and matter of factly tells me how his wife recently tried to kill him. As I walk out it's hard not to notice the two bullet holes in the screen door.
But his tale of cabin fever is soon forgottoen, replaced by a flood of my own recollections: magical happenings in an old and mystic place; the high strutting, tail-spread, scent-spewing mating dance of skunks, a fleeting glimpse of a snow-white albino bobcat, the deep tracks of a mountain lion; an old man's stories of bear and buffalo and Comanche, Apache, and Kickapoo raiding parties; of giant family reunions with roast cabrito and hominy casserole; of five young siblings riding my grandmother's old mare; of a mother grabbing a .22 rifle and from a hundred feet shooting the eyes out of a rattlesnake that threatened her child.
The memories cascade upon me like the water rushing from a hundred crevices in the rock walls. And then, more wondrous, they wash away into a hole in the bottom of the riverbed. Right thru the rock, the water going around and around and down like a giant bathtub drain. Don't wade too close or it'll suck you down too.
And watching over it all are low-ceilinged caves, protected by bristling porcupines and filled with the bones of animals and ancient tools and rotting tin cans and visited by the mis-matched footprints of a man, walking all the way from Mexico in search of work and wearing one tennis shoe and one cowboy boot.
A little ways upstream I sit shivering among a thousand mist-covered blue salvia, waiting in vain for the beaver to emerge from their lodge and when I stand a deer just ten yards away springs straight into the air, as if she could fly to safety. Which of us receives the greater shock to the heart is impossible to judge.
My one day alone settles into dusk and I shiver with cold and excitement as a hundred wild Rio Grande Turkeys – the two scouts first, followed by the entire flock – beat their magnificent wings and fly across the water to their age old roost in the big trees on the bluff above me. I stand up slowly, stretching cold bones and heading back to the truck for a long drive home. Two decades after my childhood vow, I once again silently swear that someday I'll return. A secret spot will make you whole.