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 www.sabineriverbook.com or Amazon.com. 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

Exploring Big Bend

The Chisos Mountains practically erupt from the West Texas desert. The southernmost range in the United States, they rise from the heart of Big Bend National Park to form a natural amphitheater for some of the most breathtaking views in Texas.

On the first day of 2014, the sun was climbing beyond the Chisos’ eastern rim when I crawled from my tent in the shadows of the mountain basin. The sun’s golden rays struck the panorama of west-facing cliffs, and the fingerlike formations of volcanic rock gleamed red as the light swept across the ridge and banished the shadows.

It was the kind of view that stops you in your tracks. It distracts from the shivering cold, the need for coffee, and the fact that nature’s call is what drove you from your cozy tent in the first place. As the sun continued to climb through the cloudless blue sky, I marveled first at the awesome and immense beauty surrounding me, then at my own smallness in the face of it, and finally at my personal negligence: How was I just now seeing this place?

3 Chisos Mountains

The view from our campsite in the Chisos Basin.

Well, for one thing, Big Bend is in the middle of nowhere. It is situated on the American side of a “big bend” in the Rio Grande, a stone’s throw from Mexico but a full day’s drive from the eastern half of Texas, where most of the state’s residents live. A small minority of Texans has made the pilgrimage to Big Bend, which remains one of the largest, most remote, and least-visited national parks in the United States.

Forget the crowds jostling each other for a glimpse of Old Faithful, Yosemite Falls or the Grand Canyon. Big Bend offers vastness and solitude at even peak times, which are mostly the spring break months of March and April, and October, when the scorching summer is giving way to the more temperate fall season. Although the park boasts more than 800,000 acres of Chihuahuan Desert, mountain woodlands and river habitat, only 275,000 people visited in all of 2013. To put those numbers in perspective, if every visitor had shown up on the same exact day last year, each person would have had three acres to him or herself.

Travelers who are willing to brave the distance and desert are rewarded with an experience that can be found nowhere else in Texas. They can amble down shady trails through narrow canyons, including spectacular Santa Elena, where the Rio Grande chisels a narrow, 1,500-feet-deep gorge through layers of bedrock. They can trek to the highest peaks, take driving tours through weird desert badlands within view of majestic mountains, relax in natural hot springs along the Rio Grande, or cross the river and ride a horse into the rustic Mexican village of Boquillas.

4 Desert Panorama

Desert on the drive to Santa Elena.

And while Big Bend has a reputation for extremes, appealing to hardy backpackers and others searching for solitude in a severe environment, the park also accommodates the less adventurous among us, with 123 miles of paved roads and a recently renovated lodge that features comfortable rooms, hot showers and serene views. Getting to the park isn’t the haul it used to be, either. In 2012, the Texas Department of Transportation increased speed limits for many West Texas highways to 80 mph.

After a day of driving, consider a rest in Marathon, about an hour north of the park. The dust-blown town of 430 people owes its continued existence to the travelers heading into Big Bend, and its centerpiece is the Gage Hotel, a historic lodge outfitted in elegant Southwestern style. During my recent visit, the Gage was a little beyond our price range, so my girlfriend and I went down the street and dropped $10 on a lovely campsite behind the Marathon Motel. After setting up camp we headed back to the Gage and warmed up by the fire at the cozy White Buffalo Bar, and we split a buffalo burger under the watchful eyes of an enormous white bison whose wooly head was mounted to the brick wall.

Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit served up comfort food for breakfast. The only gas station in town was plumb out of fuel, but we had enough in the tank to get us into the park—the vehicle entrance fee is $20—and to the fuel pumps at Panther Junction near Big Bend’s northern end.

1 Cacti web

Santa Elena Canyon overlooking the Rio Grande.

We were surrounded by desert hills rolling in all directions, studded with spiky sotol, creosote bushes and 65 varieties of cactus, including beautiful purple pads that grew in clumps along the roadway. Then the road turned, and we began a winding ascent into the Chisos Mountains. The desert gave way to the magnificent red canyons and forest of piñon pines, oaks and other trees that thrive at the higher elevation. I had been expecting endless badlands, so the lushness of the mountain woodlands came as a pleasant surprise. Because the elevation there varies so extremely, from about 1,800 feet along the Rio Grande to 7,832 feet at Emory Peak, the mountains trap the passing clouds and receive enough rainfall to support a diverse range of trees, flowers, and critters such as black bear and deer. It is also about the only place in Texas to see the Mexican jay, a pretty blue bird that is native to mountain ranges of Mexico.

We easily found a $14 campsite in the first-come, first-serve Chisos Basin campground, and although we were apprehensive about sleeping in a tent with low temperatures dropping into the mid-20s, we burrowed into two blankets and four sleeping bags and were just fine. Daytime temperatures climbed into the upper 60s, perfect for a long stroll along the Window Trail, where water from the basin funnels through a narrow gap in the mountains and spills over a cliff to the desert far, far below.

Later, as evening approached on a peaceful New Year’s Eve, the patio of the Chisos Mountains Lodge offered the best view of the sun descending through the Window, and revelers celebrated with drinks and dinner inside the lodge restaurant. The volcanic canyons gleamed red in the setting sun, and soon all was dark, the night filled with stars.

First published in Texas Farm and Home.

2 Casa Grande peak

Casa Grande viewed from our campsite.

Fresh pizza and old teachers

The Friday before our book came out, Jake and I met up with our friends Richard and Danea for dinner at Pizza King in Longview.

Pizza King is a ’50s-style, mom-and-pop diner that holds a tight grip on the hearts of many people who grew up in the area. You step inside, and it’s like you’re a kid again: the smiling cartoon logo dude, the wholesome red and white interior, the epic wait before you can stuff your faces with hot, delicious pepperoni, cheese and crust.

(To give you an idea of this place’s pull, when I thanked my buddy Todd for driving four hours from Austin to attend our book launch on Aug. 3, he just shrugged and said, “Well, it’s an excuse to eat at Pizza King.”)

So there we were, sitting in our booth, sharing a King’s Delight and riding the nostalgia vibes, when Jake asked a simple question: who was the first teacher who inspired us to pursue the path we ended up taking?

I realized then that I had not thought about my teachers in years. They had all been overshadowed by my newspaper adviser at Kilgore College, whom I owe for everything. But as I pondered Jake’s question, a long-forgotten name popped into my head.

In high school in the mid-’90s, I was a weird kid masquerading as a normal one. I played football, rode four-wheelers and worked in the oilfield to keep gasoline in my Chevy Silverado. I reckoned someday I would take a full-time job in the petroleum industry, like real men do.

English was by far the most boring subject in school. We trudged through never-ending grammar worksheets, and the way I remember it, most of the writing assignments involved formulas designed to pass standardized tests. As a younger child, I had written a lot of short stories and comics, and my teachers in elementary and junior high school had nurtured my interest in reading and writing. By high school, however, I had completely submerged that side of myself.

Then I met Mrs. Kerby, our junior English teacher. Mrs. Kerby’s enthusiasm was contagious. We spent the beginning of each period writing in a journal that no one else would ever read, let alone grade or judge, and I warmed to this newfound opportunity for creative freedom. When she assigned a “descriptive writing” essay, for example, I turned in an outlandish story filled with over-the-top and grotesque misfits. One of the characters was obviously based on my teacher.

My story deviated significantly from the prompt, but Mrs. Kerby didn’t scold me or give me a bad grade. Instead, she delighted in my quirky vision. With her encouragement, over the course of my junior year, I gained the confidence to consider myself a writer. (She also made us read The Scarlet Letter, but hey, no one said this is a perfect world).

As I contemplated my education, other great teachers came to mind. I was also reminded of an assignment in my third-grade class, when I first learned the power of the written word. Mrs. Wilson asked every student to write a paper explaining how to make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, and when we came back from recess, she had made everyone a snack according to our specifications. My friend Emmett Shankle III ended his paper with the directive to “Eat up!” Instead of a sandwich on his desk, he now found a napkin sprinkled with bread crumbs. Oh no! Someone had followed his instructions too closely! There was a moment of panic. Would Emmett not get a sandwich? Then Mrs. Wilson retrieved another PB&J from her desk, and we all laughed with relief.

Many years later, on a Friday night at Pizza King, my friends offered variations of the same answer to Jake’s question. We each had teachers who fostered our talents, nurtured our interests and sent us on a path to becoming an artist, photographer, microbiologist or writer. These people played an essential role in shaping our lives, and I hope their contributions will not fade from memory so easily this time.

The pizza, well, it was as good as we remembered.

The Sabine River book is here!

Texas A&M University Press has published my book, Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine! More information at www.sabineriverbook.com. Here’s the book jacket text:

The Sabine River by photographer Danea Males.

Ask Texans about their favorite rivers and most will mention the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Guadalupe, or perhaps the Brazos. These hold special meaning in the lives of those who inhabit their banks, paddle their waters, or ply the lakes compounded in their runs. But the Sabine River is different.Flowing on the eastern boundary of the state, where it is hard to see whereTexas ends and Louisiana begins, the Sabine holds the mystery and roughness of territory not claimed by river outfitters, visited by weekend kayakers, or profiled in travel magazines. If the Rio Grande is a river out of Lonesome Dove, the Sabine is a river out of Deliverance.Growing up near the Sabine, journalist Wes Ferguson, like most East Texans, steered clear of its murky, debris-filled waters, where alligators lived in the backwater sloughs and an occasional body was pulled from some out-of-the-way crossing. The Sabine held a reputation as a haunt for a handful of hunters and loggers, more than a few water moccasins, swarms of mosquitoes, and the occasional black bear lumbering through swamp oak and cypress knees.

But when Ferguson set out to do a series of newspaper stories on the upper portion of the river, he and photographer Jacob Croft Botter were entranced by the river’s subtle beauty and the solitude they found there. They came to admire the self-described “river rats” who hunted, fished, and swapped stories along the muddy water—plain folk who love the Sabine as much as Hill Country vacationers love the clear waters of the Guadalupe. Determined to travel the rest of the river, Ferguson and Botter loaded their gear and launched into the stretch of river that charts the line between the states and ends at the Gulf of Mexico.

Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine invites readers to join Ferguson and Botter for an adventure on the Sabine, “a brown run of water” that winds a twisting path through the places “where Texas blends into the forests and swamps of Louisiana.”

Click the button to pre-order Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine.

Why San Marcos loved Rob Robinson

A photo of popular tobacco shopkeeper Rob Robinson is on display at the Hill Country Humidor, which his family and friends are trying to continue operating in his tradition following his death earlier this year. Photo by Jamie Maldonado

When he died in the spring, at age 59, the body of downtown shopkeeper Rob Robinson was transported to a laboratory in Lockhart so a medical examiner could determine his cause of death.

The physician observed Robinson’s bushy eyebrows, the bushier mustache, and his mountain man-style beard, a gray tangle of facial hair that would have been familiar to any customer of the Hill Country Humidor. Robinson had been selling tobacco and swapping stories there for more than a quarter century.

The medical examiner measured Robinson’s beard, because that’s what medical examiners do. It was 10 inches long. She sized up his hair — 28 inches — and noted the six colored bands that held his ponytail in place. She also noticed his white Kinky Friedman campaign T-shirt and the message scrawled on it in red ink.

“Rob — See you in Hell!” the note read. It was signed, “Kinky.”

Click to read the rest of the story.

Fake gambling hits real jackpot in Texas town

Joe Hernandez put down $20 to play the video slots at the new sweepstakes hall in Kyle on Tuesday afternoon. He hit the button on a casino game called Silver Stash, and the reel began to spin. It clicked and whirred. Bells whistled, and a row of red cherries fell into alignment. Ding-ding-ding.

“It’s fun,” said Hernandez, who lives in Kyle. “You don’t win much, but you enjoy yourself.”

Because he’s retired, Hernandez says he has all the time in the world to play in the popular gaming rooms that are popping up around Central Texas. At JB Adams Sweepstakes, which opened at a downtown storefront in Kyle last week, people can choose from 24 games at some three-dozen video terminals, and they win cash prizes.

“I was playing in Martindale yesterday,” Hernandez said. “Practically got down to my last dollar and came out winning $120. So I did pretty good yesterday.”

As Hernandez pushed buttons at the video terminal, however, he technically wasn’t gambling. He wasn’t even playing a game. The winnings — or, for that matter, the losings — had been determined when he handed over the $20 a couple of hours earlier. The spinning wheels and bells and whistles were designed to simulate a gambling experience, slowly revealing how much he had already won.

It’s not gambling. It’s a sweepstakes.

Read the complete story at the Hays Free Press’ website.