photograph by Christopher Hess
Did you see Butch? He was just here," said Zenna through the whiny strains of an acoustic guitar coming from the tape deck behind the bar and the blue haze of a hand-rolled cigarette. "You should meet him, he's a wonderful guy. A great guide, too." I hadn't seen him. That was the whole point. Having been introduced to Butch Hancock's music both through the much-mythologized Flatlanders (Hancock, Joe Ely, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore) and his solo work only within the past couple of years, my interest had grown quickly with each new tale. The peak of this fascination came when I heard that Hancock was quitting city life and heading for the hills - or the mountains and the desert, to be exact. He had decided to leave Austin, Wimberley, Lubbock - any town or city in the overly civilized and central portion of the Lone Star State - for the isolation and natural beauty of Terlingua, Texas, where he now guided the rafts of Far Flung Adventures down a lazy stretch of the Rio Grande. River guide by day and campfire sage by night.
The landscape of the Big Bend region, the part of Texas following the long, southward bend of the Rio Grande across the border from Coahuila and Chihuahua, is a dramatic juxtaposition of rocky mountain ranges and sprawling desert, with a shocking abundance of plant and animal life in both. Big Bend National Park is eight hours from Austin proper by car: west out 290 through the Hill Country and into I-10 to Fort Stockton, then south on 385 to the entrance. If you're planning on visiting the park, time your trip so that you reach the park gate, just over an hour south from Fort Stockton, during daylight to see the Sierra Del Carmen mountains, the Chisos mountains (the heart and soul of Big Bend), and the endless clusters of layered mesas and sudden peaks within the park's boundaries.
I was due in Terlingua on Tuesday morning for a three-day trip with Hancock, so I left a week prior to take advantage of the proximity of the park. It was five days well spent. Car trouble forced me out of the park prematurely, and I coasted into the Terlingua Ghost Town on a drained battery and a dead alternator a day early, past the half-fallen stone structures that housed many a laborer when this was a mining town. They mined cinnabar here, for the mercury, a boom that busted long ago.
Gaye Davidson, holder of the fort at the Far Flung Adventures office in Terlingua, offered solutions to all my problems in about 10 seconds. "Here's a dry bag for your stuff - the rest you can leave in your car, no one's gonna rip you off here. If you want to hike down to the boat house, you can pitch your tent out back for the night. There's a shower out behind the house, and in the morning we'll follow you to Archie's garage and drop your car off on the way to the river. Welcome to Terlingua."
It's not easy to come by an alternator for a late-Eighties Volkswagon in the middle of the desert, so I spent more time in Terlingua than I had originally bargained for. This, too, was time well spent, however; the locals are the kind of folk that you would expect in a place so beautiful, so under-traveled, and so singly dedicated to a slow-paced tourist industry. They reflect the land in their physicality: They're harder and leaner, having absorbed their environment.
I asked Zenna about Hancock, about his presence in these parts.
"I went back to England last year for six weeks," she said. "That's where I'm from. While I was there, Butch was playing this pub, and the place was packed. I mean packed. We were standing toward the back and we could barely see him, and it was so odd. I know him from here, you know, from living here in Terlingua, and there he was in an English pub in Islington, London, playing the "West Texas Waltz" and what have you, and these English folks were going nuts for it. It was the wildest thing."
It grew late, and the beer and the hospitality of the small group of regulars at the Starlight Inn matched with that of the Far Flung folks sent me the few hundred yards down the dark gravel road toward my tent, pitched behind a garage and an Airstream trailer, feeling lightheaded and content. The stars were dazzling in their multitude and the town dogs trotted and shuffled out in sleepy greeting.
"Nice town," I said aloud. The next morning, as gear was loaded and introductions were made, Michael Ryan, the head boatsman, said there would be a two-and-a-half hour van ride to Talley, the put-in point on the river. I recalled that Talley is a good distance downriver from the Santa Elena Canyon (about half the distance of the park), which was the destination for this trip.
"We're going to Mariscal Canyon," he said, "down at the south end of the park. The water's too low to run the Santa Elena, we'd be carrying the rafts for most of the time. Mariscal is beautiful, it's by no means a lesser canyon. I like it better, in fact."
Ryan was an amicable guy, tall, tan, and solid in a wiry way. He had me convinced. Besides, I was here to float down the Rio Grande and listen to Butch Hancock sing "My Mind's Got a Mind of Its Own" and "Hidin' in the Hills," so what difference did a little geographic discrepancy make?
"Where's Butch? What do you mean, Mariscal Canyon?"
Two groups of fellow passengers unloaded from rental cars, and their concern was evident. Ryan went over to explain and console, and as the worry died down, the van was loaded up for a long, bumpy, slightly crowded, and absolutely beautiful drive through Big Bend National Park to the put-in point. The rough River Road wandered across the flat desert and around the south end of Talley Mountain, bouncing its way past the abandoned and weathered Mariscal Mine and further south to the river's edge.
Obviously, up until this point, Hancock was nowhere to be found, and it was probably foremost on everyone's mind; there were 15 people on this trip, eight middle-aged guys from California who came together on a group outing organized by one Sleepy John Sandidge, a deejay and promoter in Santa Cruz, California who is immortalized in a Robert Earl Keen song and was also a friend of Hancock's; David, a journalist from New York; myself; and five guides, who had headed out to the put-in point well ahead of us to get everything ready.
One of Far Flung's many boasts is the quality of their food. "Feast on the Flood Cuisine" is what they call it, and that's no lie. Though the first lunch, eaten on the bank at Talley, was simple, it was delicious and plentiful; ham and turkey, different cheeses, many jars of pickled stuff, breads and rolls, oysters, all fresh and laid out on cloth-covered tables. And it was here, on the river's edge, that Butch Hancock made his first appearance.
The call of "Hi Butch" went up from all as we spilled out of the van and made our way to the guides and the food. He was standing near a tiny patch of shade offered by a small willow tree, chatting with the other guides, wearing the standard shorts, cut-off T-shirt, straw hat, and sandals. Friendly greetings were exchanged, there were introductions all around, lunch was eaten, and we were off.
There would be five rafts, 15- and 18-foot inflated polyvinyl boats. Two were filled entirely with gear: personal belongings in dry bags, tables, chairs, coolers, cookware, stoves, tents, piled high and bound down. These were rowed by John, a long-haired burly guy from Queens, and Nacho, thin as a rail but powerful at the oars, a marathon runner from Vera Cruz. Butch would row a smaller craft with two passengers, Michael rowed a longer one carrying four of us, Jeff, a fisheries biologist, rowed two passengers and a mound of gear, and two of us took the Fun-Yak, a short, inflatable canoe.
Once we hit the water, it took all of two-and-a-half minutes for the caravan to come to a halt. Out ahead of our boat, I could see John and Nacho, standing in the middle of the mighty Rio Grande, water just above their ankles, pulling at the rope attached to the front of their rafts. They dragged the boats about 15 feet, got back in, and floated for a minute, walking back out into the shallow, brown water to pull again. We soon did the same.
photograph by Christopher Hess
For the first stretch of about a half-mile or so, there was a lot of walking across the big, awkward rocks that make up the riverbed, pulling and pushing at the rafts to keep them moving. The river was low. Barely interested groups of goats and their canine guardians glanced up from the other side of the river. Coahuilan dogs, and Coahuilan goats - that was Mexico over there. It was not too hot, and the water felt good. Dragging the raft, even through the still good-natured grumbling of the other passengers, seemed preferable to just sitting there watching it go by. We were not yet in the canyon, and the sky was wider than anything Montana can offer, an intense blue that mocked the mud-dung tint of the silty water.
All along this first stretch of water, Butch would call out over his shoulder bits of encouragement like "Hold on - white water ahead!" and "She's a mighty river, yes she is." It was obvious that not everyone was pleased with the tortoise-like progress we were making, but before long we came to the mouth of the canyon and spirits were eased with higher water and a breathtaking view of the sheer walls of Mariscal Canyon rising up to over 800-900 feet on either side of us. The temperature cooled considerably and the sun lit up the strata of the cliffs, limestone pushed up by tectonic movement into slopes ranging from 30 degrees to directly perpendicular to the bedrock. Cave holes dotted the steep walls, and cliff and bank swallows fluttered by continuously, their sharp wings cutting the air in streaks of white and brown.
The trip down offered a number of diversions, from the hermit's cave (which is now uninhabited) to the Tight Squeeze, a quick section of the canyon so-named for obvious reasons that gave us a chance to see what it would be like to fit a tractor tire through the neck of a Coke bottle. Late that afternoon we hit camp, a bend in the river called Cross Canyon.
"This spot sits where two canyons meet," explained Butch later. "It's a very accessible crossing point, relatively speaking. Comanches used to pass through here on their way to raids in Mexico."
Before long, our tents were pitched and the guides busied themselves getting dinner ready. Efficient, happy, they worked constantly. And while they were a controlled and steady constant motion, it was Butch who was the center of attention. He could talk about anything and everything - music, economics, astronomy, geology, cars, whatever - and he seemed to bask in the glow of simply being one of the guides, pitching in whenever he could break from playing host.
Dinner that first day was surf & turf: salmon fillets and steaks, both grilled over charcoal, with a potato-cheese-vegetable combo cooked in an alloy pot set on coals. Salad, broccoli, tequila sunrise, this was better than I eat at home. Daylight faded as we ate and drank. Before long, John had built a fire in the steel pan of the charcoal grill out of mesquite wood gathered from the banks. At the same time, our main attraction was opening a sturdy white guitar case, pulling out a shiny Guild guitar. He took a seat near the fire. This was what we had come to see.
Seated with a guitar on his knee, singing his songs to the river, the canyon, and the stars, Butch quickly entranced us all. He played river songs, he played Flatlanders songs, he played covers, and he played songs from his most recent album, You Coulda Walked Around the World. The last of these, written in and around Terlingua, draw their inspiration from this land, something that's evident in every phrase and note: "Bare footprints on the desert sand/Blue moonlight on the Rio Grande." Released last fall on Hancock's own Rainlight Records imprint, You Coulda Walked Around the World weaves a smooth tapestry of river sounds and those of the surrounding terrain, a challenging and beautiful landscape set to acoustic guitar. Wordplay, semantic tricks, and the inherent necessity for ambiguity in the use of the language set to rhythms and cadences that meander, as seemingly oblivious but determinedly logical as the Rio Grande itself. "You could'a leaned into the face of four strong winds/instead of drivin' round town collectin' useless odds and ends." His songs speak of how good life can be if only you do what comes natural.
After Butch's set, people drifted off one by one, everyone tired and quiet, settling in for the windy night. The next day, there would be no rafting. The water was so low that to break camp and float for a couple hours to make camp elsewhere seemed ridiculous. This was not Disneyland. We had to abide by the circumstances dictated by the river.
On trips like these, the people you end up with can make all the difference in the world. Everyone brings their own presence to the group, for better or worse, and everyone has an impact on how well things go.
Gary, a white-haired man who seemed on the periphery more than a part of the group of eight, had a profound effect on us. He had a geological map of the Big Bend area and pointed out that Cross Canyon sat directly on a fault line that ran across the river and along a deep arroyo on the other side. He was formerly with the United States Geological Survey, but had recently left the desk life to return to teaching and field work.
"It's a thrust fault," he said excitedly. "The Laramide Orageny. We're sitting right in the middle of it - a major tectonic event. Sediments in the area were compressed in a huge collision between the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate, the same type of collision that yielded the Rocky Mountains."
The rock formations surrounding us at camp and along the hike up an easy arroyo were fascinating, to be sure, and that much more so once we knew what we were climbing on. Since not everyone was as fascinated by the natural phenomena, Gary, Jeff the guide, and I continued on after the first mile or so of the hike. The rest returned to camp to laze in the shade. It was hot, and I asked Jeff about the coming summer.
"It's not so bad, really," he said. "Summers here are both the most beautiful and the most brutal time. If we get a good monsoon season, the river is at its best. Waterfalls pour into the canyon, white water, it's amazing."
The hike offered views of an endless variety of cactus and shrub, the abandoned shack and gardening plots of marijuana growers moved on, petroglyphs displayed on slabs of limestone positioned as a natural signboard, and a fault line that, by the time we followed it up a side canyon as far as we could scramble and climb over boulders and dried-out tinajas, stretched much further than was originally thought. We were satisfied with having added some important information to the map.
Along the way, Gary traced the location of a huge recumbent fold, a spot where two slabs of rock meet and push at each other until one goes over and one goes under, the ends curling around as they catch the surrounding mass. In cross-section, it looks like a wave on the ocean.
"Rock moves just like water, only in slow motion," Butch said later.
"Over millions of years, yes," Gary replied.
"Talk about riding a wave, huh?" whistled Butch. He punctuates his speech with the recurring phrase, "What a planet." When he says it, both context and expression suggest the befuddling infinitude of possibilities, much like Kurt Vonnegut's So It Goes.
After a huge dinner of spinach lasagna, cooked up again in the magical alloy pots, Butch grabbed his guitar, a chair, and began playing as we unconsciously encircled him. He swept us off to Mexico with the tale of "Gallo del Cielo," the fighting rooster, and had everyone present singing along to beautiful renditions of "Pancho and Lefty" and "Bluebird."
The air was calm this night, and the sound curled off the water and the opposing canyon wall, surrounding us and adding a depth and resonance that can't be found in any venue. He lulled me into throat-clenched recollection with "Long Sunsets" and blew my mind with an inspired version of Bruce Springsteen's "Racing in the Streets." As he finished his last song, a meteor crossed the sky in a fiery trail from canyon wall to canyon wall, the tail spreading the distance between the two. It glowed for so long it looked like God's own clothesline.
Before retiring for the evening, Gary, Chuck, Butch, and I had a lengthy discussion by the dying fire light about the nature of communication. We all had a nice, wobbly-legged buzz by this point - all except Butch, who claims, "My brain works in strange enough ways for me to be adding any mind-altering substances. I'm just naturally a bit off." The main point in this discourse was made by the sober one, then, who offered that the most essential quality of language is its ambiguity; the most meaning exists in the spaces between the words. That night, as I drifted off under the thick blanket of stars, I could hear the low strum of a guitar reflecting off the water, the meaning between the notes moving through the air in my tent and into the huge silence beyond.
A river trip will change you. Your body adjusts to the flow of the water and the passing of a day, and these natural processes take over where a wristwatch leaves off. The rhythm of the river becomes your rhythm. On the third and last day of our short trek, we floated through the remainder of Mariscal Canyon accompanied by numerous wren and turkey vulture, passing under rock towers that rose up from the surrounding walls like the spires of Gaudi's Barcelona.
For this leg, I grabbed a spot in Butch's raft, and found him completely at home with the oars. Our raft was lighter than the others, so he managed to find the channels over the shallow parts and we shot through a number of spots where the others bailed and pushed. Butch talked about Far Flung's annual New Year's Eve rafting trips, which are guided by Hancock and Steven Fromholz, another seminal Austin singer-songwriter fallen under the spell of this corner of the world. He talked about the places in New Mexico, Arizona, Mexico, and Santa Cruz where he also guides tours for Far Flung. He talked about clearing himself out of his Wimberley home and eventually Alpine as well, where he has a house and darkroom.
"By the end of the summer I expect that I'll have bought land here, in Terlingua, and will be building a house," said the songsmith, pulling slowly and thoughtfully at the oars. "There's something about this place."
Though Mariscal Canyon is possibly less spectacular than Santa Elena, it is also far less traveled. We didn't see another soul during the entirety of this trip. The land is harsh and the temperatures extreme (desert ground temperatures in the summer can hit 180[[ordmasculine]]F), and the beauty of the Rio Grande comes suddenly and unexpectedly in the odd occurrence of pink wildflowers bursting on a shady spot on the bank under the folds of the frontmost rows of river cane, or the surprising red tufts at the end of the long, dry branches of the ocotillo.
Dave, a loud, funny, and abrasive accountant, announced from his raft, "I'm moving to Terlingua and I'm bringing a bunch of guys just like me. I've always wanted to own a town. `Terra Lingua, a Gated Community.' Armed guards. No Texans allowed."
"It's a fine line between telling people about this place and not telling them," he replied. "You've got to be careful."
Unlike many of the party, my spirits were not high when we beached the rafts at Solis, the take-out point where we would load onto a school bus for the 90-minute ride back to Terlingua. Three days was not enough. It didn't seem fair that the river kept on going and we had to get off. I had found what I was looking for, and then some. The trip began as a working vacation, but left me feeling a strange attachment to this place - to the pristine isolation of camping alone in the mountains, the unchanging flow of the Rio Grande moving east toward the distant Boquillas Canyon, the placid dignity of the Terlingua locals.
That night, I stayed in Terlingua again. After signing my life away for a new alternator, belts, and a tow, I got a tent site at an RV park along the highway headed out of town. After dinner, I headed back to the Starlight Inn. It was skirt night, and all the local men would be out on the town in full drag glory. It was a tradition, explained Cindy the bartender.
"Every spring and usually every fall someone decides it's time for a skirt night and these guys go nuts."
And go nuts they did. Long flowered saris and tight minidresses clashed with wide shoulders and full beards. Fromholz was playing that night, decked out in a denim shirt and a long, striped skirt. From my seat at the bar, I heard a long whoop go up from the crowd that had gathered on the porch, so I went out to investigate.
There he was, Butch Hancock, the man whose wisdom had affected me so profoundly only hours before, in the guise of Babushka Spice - a long red-printed sari, an embroidered and sequined shirt tied up above the belly, and a long black makeshift babushka covering his head. He was on a bench, posing for pictures with a few others who were dressed similarly, and sparing no dramatic flair.
Later, a young guide walked up and introduced himself to Butch, saying that he was an instrumentalist. He had a scraggly, black beard, and was dressed in a long floral skirt with a flower in his hair. He claimed to be Polynesian Spice. He told Butch he was a big fan of his music and asked about his songwriting processes. In response, Butch explained that songwriting is like a binary star system.
"There are these two stars going around and around each other, and it's good to explore the stars themselves, but they only point to what's going on. What's really happening is that invisible force in the middle that's holding it all together. Townes Van Zandt said, `Don't worry about the meaning, go for the tone.' That's what I try to do."
We talked at length in the bar that night. "People come here for a reason," said Butch. "This place isn't really on the way anywhere, you have to want to come here. These people," he said with a small sweep of his hand, "they come here to be alone, to get away from it all. But it's more than that. Look at them. They're looking for a community just like this. And while you can be isolated out here, this is a tight group of people. Everyone helps everyone. It's truly amazing."
Even here, leaning on the bar, decked out in sequins and headdress, it was obvious that Butch Hancock was home.
On my way out of the bar that night, Zenna hailed me from her table. She introduced me to Ron, a young, bearded man she was chatting with.
"This is Ron," she said, "He's from Austin, and he says he's been leaving in the morning for three days now."
Ron nodded and smiled.
"I can see why," I said, walking out into the wide West Texas night.
Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.