Deep South Texas in the summertime is hot. The humidity is high and the constant Southeast wind is dry and full of dust. The ground cracks and the grass turns brown. Even the native plants droop and shrivel in the extraordinary heat. People hide inside with their air conditioners on full blast.
During one long hot summer, all I wanted was to escape to a cold Hill Country river. I dreamed of the water like cool green glass welling up deep from the earth and the banks thick with trees, dappling the light. That year a hard drought had taken hold of Central Texas. The dryland farmers had lost hope in their dusty farms, the cities were under sever water restrictions, and even my beloved Central Texas rivers were barely flowing. I was discouraged; my dream to float in spring-fed currents seemed to be evaporating in the dry waterless summer.
My boyfriend Sean and I planned to head to the Hill Country anyway hoping to find some relief from the heat. Days before we were to leave, my dad gave us an article that he had clipped from a local Texas paper. The headline read ‘South Llano river still flowing” with a picture of a green river and a smiling family playing in the water.
With article in hand, we gathered our swimsuits, our tent, our sandals. We took our dog to stay at his dad’s and packed the cooler with sandwiches and beer. And then we left the dry Rio Grande Valley behind in search of flowing waters.
The nearest town to South Llano River is Junction, Texas, a place of geographical distinction. It sits right on the boundary of the Edwards Plateau and the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas. It is neither East nor West, but the beginning and end of both.
We arrived in the evening and paid our camping fees in the little park headquarters building. The building used to be the house of Walter F. Buck, Jr. The park was his family’s land and when he died, he left it to the state in an agreement that it be protected and left wild.
It was mid-week at the end of August so we had our pick of the campsites. We set up our tent by moonlight and walked down a little trail to Buck’s Pond. We could smell the water as we looked at the stars and read plaques about wild turkeys. We fell asleep listening for owls.
The next morning was deliciously cool. We drank coffee and watched summer tanagers land on our tent and picnic table. I took a shower while Sean went down to park headquarters to rent tubes and buy ice.
“Toobing” is a quintessential part of Hill Country summer life. Every summer loads of people gather inflatable tubes, coolers, and river shoes and escape from cities to spend a few hours floating on a cool river. The float on South Llano begins by a low water bridge crossing where there is a deep calm swimming hole and families gather for barbeques. We soon passed the families and the river opened up wide. The tree-lined banks and the blue cloudless sky enveloped us as we floated. It seemed to be just us two with the herons and the turtles and calm flowing water.
We ate lunch on a little beach covered with flat sun-bleached limestone rocks and dozed beneath shady pecan trees in the midday stillness. Eventually, we climbed back in the tubes and floated on. The river grew fast and shallow and then wider and deeper and intensely green. Slowly, we arrived at the take out point, another limestone beach. Reluctant to leave the river, we stood beside it quiet and still until the sky grew dusky with twilight. I thought of Mr. Buck and his wish to see this land protected. Eventually, we trudged to the path that would take us back to the beginning.
We ate dinner outside beneath the stars and listened to the animals in the brush. We fell asleep contented, at peace with the world. The next few days, we floated the river again and again. Finally, we had to pack up the camp and drive home. The morning we left was sunny and clear and the river shone brightly between the pecan and juniper trees. The air felt full of water.
About the Author: Charlotte Hardwicke is a native Texan. She lives with her boyfriend and their blue heeler in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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