Is there a piece of river you know as well as you know yourself? Even better? Or have you sought to know a piece of river, or a piece of landscape, in such an intimate way?
If you have, you should hunt for a copy of Goodbye to a River by Texas writer John Graves. It might help you explore a piece of river, or a piece of yourself, in ways you never imagined.
Graves wrote the book after a three-week canoe trip down his favorite stretch of the Brazos River, prior to the expected construction of a series of dams that would flood much of what he knew and loved.
I received the book in December of 1982 as a Christmas gift from my brother Jim, back when my siblings and I and our families still had Christmas gift exchanges. Clearly, Jim drew my name, although the note “To Kevin from Jim, Christmas 1982” on the first page inside the cover was written in the clear, fluid hand of my sister-in-law, Penny, a retired librarian and former English teacher.
At that time, I was living in Sioux Falls, working for the Argus Leader and covering mostly outdoor recreation and natural resources. I was also trying to more deeply understand stretches of river — the Big Sioux, the Vermillion, the James and the Minnesota River near Olivia, my first wife, Jaciel’s, hometown — in the same way I had come to understand the dammed Missouri and free-flowing White River while growing up in central South Dakota.
Through his book, Graves helped me with that. He also helped me, I’d like to think, develop my own writing style, partly because studying the lyrical narrative allowed me to steal some of his. Style, that is. Stealing bits and pieces of other writers' style and substance has been a pattern for me over the last 35 years, and not something I intend to give up.
So this morning after a glance at the calendar in the kitchen — which proclaims today as Book Lovers Day — I went to the cluttered bookshelf in the den and dug around until I found my hardcover of Goodbye to a River. It was stuffed in-between a hardcover book of Ellen Goodman columns and a paperback version of Colin Fletcher’s The Man Who Walked Through Time.
Then I settled in with public radio talk as background "music" and re-read parts of the narrative in celebration of a day that, at least according to my calendar, should be dedicated to books and those who love them.
Near the beginning of the book, I found a passage underlined with 35-year-old pencil marking. It remains one of my favorites:
“…if you’re built like me, neither the certainty of change, nor the need for it, nor any wry philosophy will keep you from feeling a certain enraged awe when you hear that a river you’ve known always, and that all men of that place have known always back into the red dawn of men, will shortly not exist. A piece of river, anyhow, my piece …”
But even with that understandable “enraged awe,” this was not a rage-against-the-machine diatribe from Graves. Far from it. It was just what the title proclaims — a goodbye to the piece of river Graves knew and loved, a gracefully constructed floating farewell before it became something else.
In some ways, that something else could be lovable, as the Missouri River I know today, mostly dammed into reservoirs, is lovable.
But lovable or not, Graves knew that if dammed, the Brazos stretch would never be what it was. Never could be.
I love Lake Francis Case. And I know it pretty well. But I don’t know the old Missouri River stretch that it was, the one my dad and his brothers knew and loved when they clip-clopped by horse or puttered in one internal-combustion contraption or another on dirt trails from their farm in northeast Lyman County to the old Missouri River. The real Missouri River.
There and then the river still carried itself along with casual power, scouring deep pools here and shaping braided channels there. And there my dad and his brothers shed their clothes to swim from sandbar to sandbar. They picked plums and chokecherries in the thickets and set trot lines to catch catfish and drum.
I would come to know the essence of the real river later, first where the water released from Gavins Point at Yankton assumes a more natural, reservoir-free countenance, and second in the river's truly wild beginning near Three Forks in Montana.
But I never knew and will never know the stretch of Missouri River my dad waded across during drought years, or the one he watched swallow bottom-land pastures and fields and in some instances homes when the heavy snowmelt and furious rains returned. Some say that river still exists, hidden beneath the surface, harnessed but not really tamed by the massive earthen dams and concrete powerhouses on the Missouri.
Indigenous writer Lanniko Lee, a member of the Cheyenne River Tribe, said exactly that during an interview in 2001 for a book called “The Missouri” I did with gifted photographer Greg Latza.
“You can feel it. There’s a power there, an intelligence,” Lee said of current Lake Oahe, which covers essential portions of her ancestral home. “It still has the power to instruct, and the power to heal.”
That power lives and can be felt in the current that still moves, sluggish and relentless, through the Missouri River reservoirs, a palpable reminder of the river that lives within them.
Graves was preparing to accept that new reality for his favorite stretch of the Brazos on an autumn day in 1957, when he settled into his loaded canoe with essentials that included fishing gear, a shotgun and a 6-month-old dachshund pup he called The Passenger.
Those were different times for rivers, and for dams, as Graves points out in the book:
“When someone official dreams up a dam, it usually goes in,” he wrote. “Dams are ipso facto good all by themselves, like mothers and flags. Maybe you save a Dinosaur Monument from time to time, but in-between such salvations you lose 10 Brazos.”
He was expecting nothing else for his river as he drifted downstream in strong current and a chilly rain. He was prepared for a long goodbye to an irreplaceable piece of his history, the history of his long-time friend, Hale, and of many other Brazos River lovers before them.
“…what I wanted was to wrap it up, the river, before what I and Hale and Santana the White Bear and Mr. Charlie Goodnight had known ended up down yonder under all the Criss-Crafts and the tinkle of portable radios,” Graves wrote.
But that didn’t happen, that down-yonder diminishment, largely because of that goodbye canoe trip, and the graceful and influential narrative it produced.
The book would become a classic in Texas, a favored reading selection for Graves admirers ranging from river rats and history buffs to former First Lady Laura Bush. More than that, though, it helped change the plans of “somebody official,” on a number of the planned dams, and preserved that stretch of the Brazos much as Graves knew it in his youth.
He concludes the book with a half-page-long chapter describing a brief conversation at a dinner party after the trip, where a woman asked if Graves wasn’t lonesome along the way.
“Not exactly,” he said. “I had a dog.”
And a river — one that still flows.
Thanks largely to a book.