The train across Texas

toilet waste

We were rolling away from the train station in Austin, Texas, where no one bothered to yell “All aboard,” when the intercom crackled and the disembodied voice of Big John announced his presence in the snack bar.

Passengers were fiddling with their carry-on luggage, steadying themselves as the train swayed and rumbled down the tracks. Through my window a young guy was leaning on the hood of a maroon Mustang, packing his cigarettes and waving goodbye.

“Good morning, good morning, food and beverage, food and beverage,” Big John said.

The conductor came on.

“Remember, friends don’t let friends fly,” he said.

As we approached our first stop in Taylor, one of those faded former cotton towns on the Texas prairie, the conductor began to regale us with trivia.

Austin is home to Lance Armstrong!

The Texas Capitol building is taller than the U.S. Capitol!

In 2004, the Taylor Cafe was ranked by USA Today for the No. 2 sliced-beef brisket sandwich in the state!

This was my second time to ride Amtrak’s Texas Eagle train. The first time I was in a train wreck. No, seriously. We didn’t jump the tracks or anything like that. We slowed to a stop, on a rail somewhere in the Piney Woods of Northeast Texas, and word trickled back that a car had tried to beat the train, and it had lost.

The passengers hadn’t even felt the impact of the collision. But when the crossing was cleared and we started rolling again, we saw the ambulances, emergency responders, and the vehicle crushed into the shape of a U. According to the next day’s newspapers, a mother and her child had been killed.

The next time a rode an Amtrak train was a spring morning in 2014, and I was heading home to the Longview area. My Jeep stays about half broken down, and I had left it at my brother’s auto shop for repairs.

We saw the backs of buildings, piles of industrial supplies and agricultural equipment, and outside of town the landscape stretched across flat disked fields of green. Near Granger the conductor pointed us to an enormous house in the middle of a field. The building was supported by five two-story concrete pillars.

That is the home that was used in the filming of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

The elderly woman sitting behind me was less than impressed.

“In Austin it was bats on the bridge. He’s going on and on and on,” she said.

“He’s trying to keep it interesting,” said the young man sitting beside her.

The woman spoke with a thick Texas twang. The young man had dropped out of welding school. He was going to visit his grandfather. I half-listened to the conversation and watched the landscape pass by. I am a sucker for Texas pastoral views, for verdant fields of waving winter wheat enclosed by fences of post oak and barbed wire. Old white two-story farm houses were set among wide-open acres of rich black soil plowed and ready for planting. Although the weather was fairly cool, in the mid-50s, two people were wading in the chest-deep water of the San Gabriel River.

Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Big John is down in the house waiting for you to come down and make that food or beverage purchase. We are also offering souvenir-related-type items.

Another attendant named Michael greeted the passengers who boarded in McGregor, a town I had never heard of.

You may be seated next to a stranger, so say hello, be nice, look at the cows, the cactus, the grass, make conversation, do something.

The land turned hilly and rocky, and the sotol, cactus and juniper crowded steep hills. Big John announced he was closing down to take a lunch break in fifteen minutes. Then he whispered the words “Fifteen minutes.”

Then he whispered again.

Then he whispered a third time.

We crossed the Brazos River.

The Brazos River was originally named the Brazos de Dios, as in the arms of God, the left arm, the right arm.

After Fort Worth I was getting stir-crazy so I got out of my chair, staggered up the aisle through a couple of coach cars and reached the Sightseer Lounge Car, where people were sitting at tables and a few young guys were debating the intricacies of the marijuana trade. My boy is doing a three-year bit over seven dollars. Chicago is rough, bro, like when you’re in the hood. I gotta get a few tattoos covered. I probably have fifteen or sixteen. I rolled with the Aryan Brotherhood for a few years.

By late afternoon a wall of impenetrable East Texas forest had constricted our pastoral views. The restless passengers were fidgeting in their seats, and a few were getting to know each other. We stopped for half an hour to yield to a Union Pacific train. A woman was talking loudly on her cell phone.

If you want to hang up on me I can play the same game. Well, you are also drunk too.

Freaking six dollars and twenty-one cents for a pack of Marlboro Blacks.

I saw a dun mare and her matching dun foal running side by side, their manes dancing on their necks. I saw pretty, blue lakes that cannot be glimpsed from highways. I saw two red-headed twerps flipping the bird at us. They looked to be in middle school. When one of them reached into his shorts and grabbed his crotch, I turned away.

It took nine or ten hours to reach the Longview station. The drive would have been half as long, but the train ticket was cheaper than the tank of gas my Jeep would have burned through. I got some work done, saw a few sights, and when I bought a sandwich and a Pepsi in the snack bar, I finally met Big John. He really was big.

Search for the spring

Yesterday afternoon Jacob and I walked and swam a 5-mile stretch of the Blanco River in search of Pleasant Valley Springs. It’s an interesting spot for two reasons: first, the spring provides most of the water flowing through Wimberley and the Balcones Fault, so it’s incredibly important to the people, plants and animals living in this region of the Hill Country; and second, because the spring was not even discovered until 2013.

This was the scene when we parked at Valley View Road and began the hike:


But soon we came to a narrow spot where the river began to flow:


Then it widened into a pretty pool:


A couple of guys from Wimberley joined us on the trip.


We saw one beautiful view after another.


We started the trip at about 3 p.m., and it took us longer to travel the river than we were expecting. We were taking our time and chatting with the people we occasionally met, and making photographs, and time slipped away from us. By 6 p.m. we had only covered about one third of the distance. We began to hurry, hoping to beat the dark, and we ended up going right past the spring. Jacob and I are heading back to the same stretch this afternoon, this time with the kayaks we borrowed from Austin Canoe & Kayak. We’ll get a better look this time.

Wes and Jacob’s Blanco River book project is being funded by the Burdine Johnson Foundation, sponsored by the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, and published by Texas A&M University Press.

An East Texas film festival?

Someday I’d love to attend screenings in Kilgore or Longview of documentaries about East Texas (and maybe films, if someone could afford it).  It’s an idea I’ve been tossing around for a few years, and I was reminded by the trailer for “Cold in July,” based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale, who grew up in Gladewater and lives in Nacogdoches.

billmoyersmarshallMarshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas

Bill Moyers returns to his home town to find that it is “a new town perched on the memory of one that’s gone.” Today, Marshall’s black and white citizens share the responsibilities of living and working in a small town, but there was a time not too long ago when there were two Marshalls–one black, one white–”Two worlds,” says Moyers, “waiting for an event.” The “time” was the 1960′s and the “event” was the Civil Rights Movement.

 Hands on a Hard Body

In S.R. Bindler’s 1997 cult classic, Hands On a Hardbody, two dozen small-town Texans compete for a brand-new “Hardbody” pickup truck at a local car dealership. The event is a contest of endurance and sleep-deprivation—whoever can remain standing the longest with one hand on the truck will get to drive it home.

Beauty Knows No Pain

In 1940, the Kilgore College Rangerettes became the first dancing drill team in the nation. They have been performing at half-time shows during college football games ever since.

Cold in July

In 1980s East Texas, two fathers pitted against each other in revenge must band together to uncover a darker truth.

Bernie, of course

Leave a comment if you want to recommend others!

Dawn on the Blanco

I tagged along on a bird survey May 15 near the banks of the Blanco River. I like birds as much as the next guy, but I don’t know a whole lot about them. For me, songbirds always provided the background music for whatever more important thing I was focusing on. Their songs mingle with urban noises like passing cars and barking dogs—stuff to tune out rather than contemplate.

But this was different. The cool morning air was filled with the melodies of chirps, trills, hoots and caws, each corresponding to a different species. My “bird nerd” companions helpfully identified each song, pointing out yellow-billed cuckoos, canyon wrens and several others, including canyon towhees (they sound like gatling guns) and the sweet, high music of the painted bunting.

We stood quietly in mature juniper forests or on limestone ledges and grassy fields, and we relied almost solely on our sense of hearing to identify one species from the other. Sound was far more important than sight. Other senses — smell, taste and touch — fell by the wayside. As I narrowed and clarified my focus, the sounds of the forest began to fill up my consciousness. It felt surprisingly like meditation, and I could see myself becoming a bird nerd.

Here are a few iPhone photos from our morning.

Surveying the ranch

Overlooking the river

Halifax Falls


Limestone gravel

Limestone gravel

Horse crippler cactus

Horse Crippler

Halifax Canyon


Walking the Blanco

This can be a pretty tough job sometimes, especially days like May 1, when I had to hit the Blanco River for a test run of my new GoPro camera.

It was a perfect spring day to hike, wade and swim in the Texas Hill Country. I parked at Slime Bridge near Wimberley and made my way upstream for about 3.2 miles, then turned around and waded back to the car—a round trip of nine hours. This short stretch seems to capture some of the Blanco’s most fetching scenery: riffling streams, waterfalls and deep green pools, all of it shaded by cypress trees and limestone bluffs. In one place, a series of cold and clear springs roared out of holes in the rocks and fell into the water. This really is a magical place, and I can’t wait to see the rest of it.

Despite the presence of several nice homes perched on the higher banks, I spent hours by myself in the wilderness, and during the upstream portion of the journey, I met just one other person on the water. Moments before I rounded the bend, he had hooked the biggest “monster bass” he’d ever seen. It leaped out of the water and wiggled off his line, escaping into a field of aquatic grass.

You wouldn’t call me a pro with the GoPro just yet. The footage is pretty shaky, and we’ll need to buy some stabilizing mounts and other accessories before we really get going in our efforts to explore and document the river. And I can’t wait to see what amazing video a real photographer (you know, that guy Jacob Botter) will capture using the GoPro HERO3 (which I purchased w/ assistance from Precision Camera & Video in Austin. Support your local camera shop!)

Jacob and I are nearly ready to set off on our first big trip down the Blanco. Just waiting on a few loose ends to tie themselves up so we can buy the necessary gear and acquire a couple of kayaks. If all goes according to plan, look for us to head out in late May!

Wes and Jacob’s Blanco River book project is being funded by the Burdine Johnson Foundation, sponsored by the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, and published by Texas A&M University Press.

Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine

cypress stump

The Sabine River’s namesake, a cypress stump. Photograph by Jacob Croft Botter

Check out my first book, Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine, at or Praise for the book:

“The Sabine River has been like an artery to my heart for many years, and I felt I knew it, but Wes Ferguson’s new book, which compares favorably to John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, is a shining example of travelogue, history, and a fine piece of Americana, and it taught me I know far less about the Sabine than I thought. I adored this book. It’s a good clean picture of a long, brown snake of a river. I heartily recommend it.” — Joe R. Lansdale, author, The Thicket

“Anybody can love a lovely river, but to love the muddy, sluggish, dangerous, corrupted Sabine you have to first understand it. In this highly engaging tribute to an underdog river, Wes Ferguson proves that the places we might not think merit a second glance are the very places that reward our attention the most.” — Stephen Harrigan, author, The Eye of the Mammoth