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.