Surviving the ‘wrong side of the river’

Near the beginning of his memoir, Wrong Side of the River, author Cliff Johnson tells a shocking story from early childhood.

Author Cliff Johnson
Author Cliff Johnson

In 1954, a week before Johnson was set to enter the first grade, his great-uncle invited him on a late-night alligator hunt. At the time Johnson was being raised by his great-grandmother. They lived near Cow Bayou not far from the Sabine River, in the far southeastern corner of Texas. Johnson’s mother was a fugitive from the law. His father was a mystery.

When they reached the water’s edge, Johnson’s great-uncle seized him and pulled him in. To Johnson’s horror, he realized his Uncle Rudy had no intention of hunting alligators that night. “Uncle Rudy grabbed me with his other hand and pushed my head under the cold water,” the author writes. “I struggled to pull free but his grip on my arm only tightened. With both hands he pushed me to the bottom and then attempted to stand on top of me. Pulling on his legs didn’t seem to make any difference. I was fighting for my life and it was obvious he was trying to drown me. There was nothing I could do but hold my breath and continue to struggle with all my strength.”

Johnson’s Uncle Rudy was an alcoholic merchant marine who wanted the young boy dead because he was tired of providing for him.

Incredibly, Johnson escaped, and the following morning his great-uncle apologized, claiming he had sought forgiveness from the Lord. The murder attempt was never mentioned again, Johnson writes, “buried like a lot of other family secrets … that were just as dark as the bayou itself.”

With so many wild stories to share, Johnson’s memoir hooked me early and didn’t let go till the final page. I could scarcely put the book down. That’s unusual for me, because memoir is not one of my favorite genres. In many tales of childhood trauma the author comes across as bitter or self-pitying. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t always make for the best reading.

If anybody has a right to express resentment, it’s Johnson. As a child he was repeatedly abandoned or put in harm’s way by a revolving cast of colorful but deeply flawed adult guardians who passed him around like a shared burden. However, Wrong Side of the River is no airing of grievances. It’s more of an adventure tale, fast-paced and full of good humor. I enjoyed it immensely.

Wrong Side of the River by Cliff Johnson
Wrong Side of the River by Cliff Johnson

Johnson responded to my questions via email.

You survived a tremendous amount of turmoil, neglect, abuse, upheaval and even a murder attempt (!) during your childhood. What was it like to relive those experiences while writing your memoir?

“Revisiting those memories that I would just as soon forget was the hardest part of writing my story.  My wife was the first to notice that I would take on the mood of whatever experience I was writing about. The emotions seemed to really come out and at times would physically drain me. I think it was by adding humor, I was able to get through those times, both back when I was experiencing those events, as well as writing about them.”

How did you come to the decision to share your story? Did you worry about airing some of your most personal family secrets?

“For years I wouldn’t have dreamed of telling anyone what my younger years were like. After all, I wanted to fit in … be an equal with those around me.  When I first decided to go into law enforcement and was interviewing for the position, the mayor ask me if I had any skeletons in my closet. Can you imagine my horror? My mother was in prison for most of my childhood, and we had been on the run all over the country. Skeletons in my closet? I think I was keeping the whole cemetery in there!

“The only person that wasn’t happy about me writing my story, was my Uncle Rudy. He had tried to drown me when I was a child. When he found out that was going to be in my book, he called one morning at 3 a.m. and wanted me to go fishing with him so we could talk about the event I was accusing him of. I told him that I’m a lot bigger now than I was back then, and it would probably turn out different than he expected. He died a couple years later. Health reasons … I had nothing to do with it.

“My mother and an uncle helped me with remembering the chain of events; however, my mother passed away before the book was published.”

As a reader I couldn’t help but compare your book to Mary Karr’s highly celebrated memoir, The Liar’s Club, which kind of launched a national memoir craze after it was published in 1995. Her book and yours are both coming-of-age stories largely set in Southeast Texas, featuring an eccentric cast of deeply flawed adult family members. Were you influenced by her work? What was it like following in the footsteps of such a successful book?

“I didn’t read The Liar’s Club until after my book was published. In fact I hadn’t heard of it until my sister told me I needed to read it, as a lot of her story took place in Southeast Texas. We grew up just across the river from each other. Strange that she would end up in New York and me in Idaho. As for following in her footsteps, she didn’t leave me a very clear path to success. I’ve had to find my own way.”

Seriously, though, why are there so many crazy people where y’all are from?

“Doggone it, just because some of my distant relatives fire shots at you when you are floating down the Sabine River, doesn’t make us all crazy. After all, he thought you were his brother … not some stranger passing through.

“Seriously, it could be a number of factors. Southeast Texas, Southwest Louisiana, the Piney Woods and the bottomland along the Sabine River have always been a place like no other. They say Alaska is the last frontier, but I’m not so sure that that’s true. Change comes slow to this region of Texas and Louisiana, and one of the first questions a stranger my be asked is, “Who are you kin too.” If you’re not kin to anyone, you may not feel very welcome. Johnson is a common enough name that I never really had that problem.”

How is work coming on your sequel, Right Side of the River? Has the writing process been any different this time around? I’m dying to know how your various family members ended up, especially whether your mom and Big Mama turned their lives around, and whether you ever found out who your dad was. Do you plan to answer these questions in the next book?

“Right Side of the River is over halfway finished. What makes writing it different is, on the Wrong Side of the River I was a juvenile. On the Right Side, I’m an adult, so I have to consider the statute of limitations.

“During the process of researching and writing I did find out who my dad was and discovered I had siblings that knew nothing of me. If nothing else ever came out of writing, that made it all worthwhile.

“My next book will start where Wrong Side of the River ends and come up to my retirement, as Chief of Police. It’s been a long journey and one that I look forward to sharing with my readers. I guess the one message that I really want to express is that regardless of your beginning in life, we each have the power to control the outcome. Life is all about choices.”

Author Cliff Johnson left Southeast Texas as a young man. He recently retired as the chief of police for a small town in Idaho. Buy his book from Amazon or directly from his website, Misty Peak Publishing.

Hand-pulled ferries across the Sabine and Rio Grande

At certain places on the Sabine River, I try to keep an eye out for evidence of the ferries that once allowed people (and wagons and livestock) to cross the river before bridges became an option.

If the water in the Sabine wasn’t so brown and murky, you could probably locate some of the old ferries decaying on the riverbed, where they sank after being abandoned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I heard about them from my friend and collaborator Jacob Botter, whose ancestors operated a ferry at the end of what is now Waldons Ferry Road, a dirt trail in rural Harrison County. His great-great-great-great-grandpa (give or take a great or two) ran a rope from one side of the river to the other and used the rope to pull himself across whenever a paying customer wanted passage.

I’m not sure when that ferry ceased to exist, but Gaines Ferry, the last ferry on the Sabine River, operated until 1937. It transported travelers along the old Camino Real, where Texas Highway 21 meets Louisiana Highway 6. The ferry was replaced by a bridge, which was inundated by the creation of Toledo Bend Reservoir a little more than half a century ago.

I was reminded of the Sabine River ferries when my friend Sean Kimmons shared photos from his recent crossing of the Rio Grande. Sean and his parents loaded their car onto a ferry in Los Ebanos, Texas, and were pulled across the river by a team of men tugging a rope stretched from one bank to the other.

Photo by Sean Kimmons
Photo by Sean Kimmons
Photo by Sean Kimmons


According to the Texas Department of Transportation, the Los Ebanos Ferry is the only remaining hand-pulled ferry on the Texas-Mexico border.

The Los Ebanos Ferry is a popular tourist attraction since it is the only remaining hand-pulled ferry on the U.S.-Mexico border. It can accommodate only three cars and 12 pedestrians at one time.

The crossing is also known locally as Los Ebanos-San Miguel Camargo, Ferry Gustavo Díaz Ordaz and Ferry Díaz Ordaz-Los Ebanos.

Although the crossing has been in operation since the 1950s, the current ferry has been operating since 1979. It was recognized with a state historical marker in 1975.

And here’s a photo of a Sabine River ferry taken in 1916.



Here’s a random video that shows how the Los Ebanos Ferry works.

Review: ‘Rolling on the River’

I’ve got to write fast before the Benadryl kicks and leaves me slumped over a puddle of my own drool, but I wanted to share this amazing review from Southwestern American Literature. In existence since 1971, SWAL is a scholarly journal that publishes literary criticism of works that relate to the greater Southwestern United States.

If you’ve read my book, you know it wasn’t written with scholars in mind. The intended audience of Running the River is friends and family and other people who enjoy a good adventure story, and who would like to know more about a river flowing through their backyard. I never considered authoring a ponderous tome that would significantly advance the research and scholarship of Texas rivers.

As a regular reader of Southwestern American Literature, which has published its share of critical reviews, I thought my approach might not go over too well with the scholarly set. Well, I was wrong! This is one of the best reviews Running the River has received.

The first paragraph:

Running the River comes across as an excellent addition to the emerging literature of bioregionalism. Knowing and loving a place on a native level may be the best way to make the most difference in our emerging ecological crisis, one locality at a time. Traditional river running narratives trend mostly to the experience of the sublime. From the first page, however, Ferguson lets us know that the Sabine will not give you that kind of excursion. Ferguson does not want a safe journey. Indeed, in the book’s opening section, someone shoots at the author and photographer shortly after they get into the water. Growing up on the river, Ferguson knew no one who had ever fully explored the Sabine, in part because of its bad reputation—for drownings, crystal meth production, and its use as a murder repository. In spite of the dangers, he observes one of bioregionalism’s central tenets: “It’s our river, and we should celebrate it. We should know it.”

Click “View Fullscreen” to read the article.

On the death of one man

I met Bob Shimeld only once, several years ago, on a bus. We chatted for all of 15 minutes, if that, but the conversation stuck with me. I never forgot him.

It was a summer morning in Longview, Texas, and the bus picked up Shimeld in front of a Walmart store on the north side. Boarding took longer than usual because the driver had to get up and help Shimeld with his electric wheelchair. The back of his chair, I noticed, had been decorated with a Massachusetts novelty license plate that read B-O-B, for Bob.

Shimeld said he moved from the Northeast about five years earlier to escape the winters in his home state. “If you stay still too long, your wheelchair will freeze to the ground,” he joked. “No snow tires for a wheelchair.”

He claimed to have thrown a dart at a map of Texas. The dart hit Longview, so that’s where he went. He liked the place. The people were friendly. He was a 72-year-old military veteran who described his days as “a lot of sitting around,” which was easy enough to do in a wheelchair.

I got off the bus a few stops after Shimeld boarded, and I never saw him again. After that day, I also never got back on the bus. When I am in East Texas and need to make a grocery run, or want to go to a restaurant or anywhere else, I hop in my Jeep or ride with someone else. Our cities are built for getting around with a car. My only reason for riding the bus on that day was to visit with the passengers of Longview Transit for a story that appeared in the newspaper.

The passengers I met included elderly retirees who could no longer drive safely. Other passengers worked the kinds of low-paying jobs that help keep the rest of our lives running smoothly: a grocery store cashier, for example, and a hairdresser with epilepsy. One man named John Solomon had just finished his shift scrubbing dishes at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants. His hands, wrists and forearms were peeling badly from the soapy water, but he hadn’t noticed. He was traveling home to spend the evening with his young son and daughter.

Most of the people I met that day were dealing with less-than-ideal circumstances, but they were upbeat and optimistic about their futures. They had jobs and homes, and they talked about their determination to better their lives. They seemed to make Longview a richer place. Somehow they managed to do it all without a vehicle, a complication that most of us would never consider.

That was in 2009. Shimeld died on Dec. 16. I read about his death in the newspaper. He was trying to cross McCann Road near a busy intersection not far from K-Mart when a pickup turned onto the road and struck him.

The News-Journal reported that Shimeld was the sixth pedestrian killed in the city in 2014. That’s three times the average death rate for pedestrians in Texas, the paper also reported. A subsequent editorial described the “grim realities of the danger while walking” and noted that municipal officials are aware of the problem and are planning to address it in the city’s next comprehensive plan. Well, good.

Where Shimeld died, the intersection does not have a crosswalk. Lots of the city’s intersections don’t, because so few people need them. But some do. People like Shimeld. I’ll try not to forget that.

The train across Texas

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.