River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado

River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado

by Margie Crisp, Andrew Sansom

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Writer and artist Margie Crisp has traveled the length of Texas’ Colorado River, which rises in Dawson County, south of Lubbock, and flows 860 miles southeast across the state to its mouth on the Gulf of Mexico at Matagorda Bay. Echoing the truth of Heraclitus’s ancient dictum, the river’s character changes dramatically from its dusty headwaters on the High Plains to its meandering presence on the coastal prairie. The Colorado is the longest river with both its source and its mouth in Texas, and its water, from beginning to end, provides for the state’s agricultural, municipal, and recreational needs.

As Crisp notes, the Colorado River is perhaps most frequently associated with its middle reaches in the Hill Country, where it has been dammed to create the six reservoirs known as the Highland Lakes. Following Crisp as she explores the river, sometimes with her fisherman husband, readers meet the river’s denizens—animal, plant, and human—and learn something about the natural history, the politics, and those who influence the fate of the river and the water it carries.

Those who live intimately with the natural landscape inevitably formulate emotional responses to their surroundings, and the people living on or near the Colorado River are no exception. Crisp’s own loving tribute to the river and its inhabitants is enhanced by the exquisite art she has created for this book. Her photographs and maps round out the useful and beautiful accompaniments to this thoughtful portrait of one of Texas’ most beloved rivers.

Former first lady Laura Bush unveils this year's Texas Book Festival poster designed by artist Margie Crisp, author of River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado. The poster features cliff swallows flying over the Colorado River.
Photo by Grant Miller

To learn more about The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, sponsors of this book's series, please click here.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603447478
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 04/10/2012
Series: River Books, Sponsored by The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, Texas State University
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Margie Crisp, who lives and works near Elgin, Texas, is a writer and artist whose lithographs, hand-colored linocuts, drawings, and paintings are in private and public collections throughout Texas, the United States, and Mexico. She is a former writer in residence at the Thinking Like a Mountain Foundation in Fort Davis, Texas.

Read an Excerpt

River of Contrasts

The Texas Colorado

By Margie Crisp, Andrew Sansom

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2012 Margie Crisp
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-747-8


Early Spring on the High Plains


EARLY SPRING ON THE HIGH PLAINS in the Texas Panhandle is gray and brown. Dull clouds press down on the unrelenting span of plowed cotton fields. Gusts of wind blow yellow dust clouds that dissipate on the iron-gray horizon. Occasional farmhouses disrupt the monotony with brief flashes of trees, fences, yards, and the accumulated detritus of life scattered and revealed in the open. There is no place to hide.

I feel particularly small in this great expanse, the tail end of the Great Plains. Even though I am barreling along at ridiculously high speeds, this breadth of space gives me the hallucinatory effect of being stationary.

I am in search of a river. The first Spanish explorers named this area the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains; early Anglo explorers called it the Great American Desert or the Sahara of North America. In the midst of this arid terrain, I hope to find the headwaters of the Colorado River, more than 850 miles of wholly Texas waterway. Reportedly, it begins in the hidden canyons and seeps on the edge of the Llano Estacado just below the Caprock Escarpment.

This is not the river that carved the Grand Canyon; it is another Colorado River. The Texas Colorado runs southeast across the state from the High Plains, across the Rolling Plains, and into the Llano Uplift's granite heart where it is slowed by the dams of the Lower Colorado River Authority's Highland Lakes. The lakes extend through the city of Austin, and then the river, unencumbered by dams or reservoirs, pours across the Blackland Prairies and into the Gulf Prairies and Marshes to mix its fresh waters into the saltwater of Matagorda Bay and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.

Trace the river's course upstream from Matagorda Bay, and you follow the history of Anglo settlement. Settlers gradually penetrated the wilderness and established towns in the region stretching from Stephen F. Austin's original colony between the banks of the Colorado and the Brazos Rivers and upstream to the town of Waterloo—which became the city of Austin and the state capital. Moving through the Hill Country, across the Rolling Plains, and into the High Plains, the landscape gets drier and, as the river narrows, farms and ranches huddle in the river valleys to tap into the river's life-giving waters.

Sixty miles from Lubbock and south of the town of Lamesa, I turn east onto gridded section roads to look for the edge of the Caprock Escarpment. The landscape is so vast that ranches are described in square miles, called sections, not acres. The roads surrounding Lamesa form such perfect right angles and parallel lines that a map of the area looks like graph paper. Driving the dirt and gravel section roads is easy (though no one has wasted money on road signs), but my truck erases all behind me in an enormous plume of dust. When I stop to check the map, the cloud envelopes me so that I am blind and blanketed with a layer of fine grit. With my finger firmly planted on the map at my presumed location, I creep across the county map along the ruler-straight roads. Every inch of land is plowed except the road base, bar ditches, and oil pump sites. Bales of harvested cotton squat at the edge of roads. Dirty fluff is drifting like old snow in the ditches and catches in the weeds straggling at the verges. The late afternoon light breaks through the flannel of the clouds to lie long and bright against the fingerprint whorls of plowing. At a slower pace, the area becomes surprisingly beautiful. The hypnotic rhythm of the contour plowing becomes a fugue—graceful sweeps of converging lines dissolving and reappearing as I move over the subtly rolling swells. The patterns merge and repeat in variation until I feel like I am in the midst of a giant tapestry of dark wools and silks, a subtle but infinitely varied design in umber, sepia, and gold.

With no more warning than a barely perceptible curve in the road, I am at the top of the Caprock Escarpment. I feel like I have discovered the quintessential Texas landscape: hidden in plain sight, a breathtaking geological formation of such magnitude that it is impossible to comprehend until I am standing at the edge of its palisaded cliffs and looking over land both wildly beautiful and devastated. The earth falls away and reveals itself in eroded ridges of bright red Triassic clay bluffs and secretive draws where the waters collect to form the small beginnings of powerful rivers. The springs and seeps at the edge of the Caprock Escarpment not only give rise to the Colorado River but also other Texas rivers including the Concho, the Brazos, and the Red River. The slopes below me are clothed in mesquite, cedar, prickly pear, yucca, bunch grasses, and broom weed. The scrubby vegetation is a relief after the endless miles of raw soil. Cattle graze between the oil pump jacks that are mindlessly diligent, pivoting up and down, creaking and groaning. Calves step delicately over the pipelines crisscrossing the land between pump jacks and tank batteries that perch on slopes sliced, smoothed, and leveled. Roads overlay the basin with a net of white gravel that binds oil, land, and water together into an uneasy alliance.

A small road curves over the rim of the Caprock, and I follow the gravel track down into the heart of the basin. In through the open window drift the commingled perfumes of dry earth, honey-sweet blooming agarita shrubs, and the purple-grape smell of lilac-flowered buffalo clover. Occasional whiffs of hydrogen sulfide gas from the oil wells give the landscape a peculiar overtone of burnt matches and scrambled eggs.

The road twists and turns with no regard for compass points or my desires. The oil field roads, well maintained and official looking, meander from pump jack to tank and are not on my maps. The Caprock is behind me, then in front of me, to one side, then the other. I bump along in a cloud of dust and increasing frustration looking for signs, picking the roads that seem most traveled, always heading toward where I think the river should be. I chant a mantra: "Better lost in a new place than bored at home." A gnawing sense of doubt is sprouting and sending tendrils of anxiety curling through my limbs. "Just what the heck am I doing out here?" I ask aloud and try to unclench my hands from the steering wheel as one more road dead ends at yet another laboring pump jack.

The plan that led me to this moment was hatched in a haze of panic. A family crisis had catapulted me into the unfamiliar role of nurse, then, almost as rapidly, spun me back into the suddenly alien territory of my life. As the cancer that nearly took my mother's life subsided into remission, I struggled to extricate my psyche from the twin ruts of worry and fear. Watching helplessly as someone I loved came so close to death caused a seismic shift in the comfortable landscape of my life. I became antsy, itchy, and out-of-sorts. The crisis was over but I couldn't settle down. In my art studio, I spent hours sitting at the drawing table staring at blank sheets of paper while my panic level increased. About that time, my husband, Bill, bought me a kayak to match his. One morning I found myself paddling down the Colorado River in a bright mango-colored kayak in a dense fog. On the belly of the great warm beast of the river, I drifted into memory and back.

In 1976, my free-spirited mother uprooted my siblings and me from an air-conditioned New Orleans house with multiple bathrooms and hardwood floors and planted us in the Texas countryside. The succession of rural farmhouses we lived in was unremarkable except for the uniformly primitive state of the indoor plumbing (if even present) and a general state of disintegration. We finally settled onto a piece of sandy land forested with thick stands of blackjack and post oak in Bastrop County. Copperheads were abundant, air conditioning a distant memory, and we spent months exploring the surrounding countryside. Someone took my mom and me on a canoe trip down the nearby Colorado River from Utley, around the loop of Wilbarger Bend to the FM 969 Bridge. Unbeknownst to me, on that early summer day filled with sun, the river's gentle murmuring, and the splash of wooden paddles dipping into the slow green current, the Colorado River slipped under my skin.

Thirty years later, I'm paddling the same section of river again. Birdsong pierces the fog, and ghostly shapes of trees swell and break along the bank as I drift downstream. Egrets seem to condense out of the haze, taking flight before me and melting into the white mist. In the milky quiet, a sense of recognition surrounds me; a certainty infuses my limbs as I gently rock in the plastic cradle of the kayak. I see the threads of rivers that run through my life, binding me to place and memory: from the willow-laced and rubble-strewn banks of the muscular Mississippi River hidden behind the levees in New Orleans, to the tea-colored bayous and sugar sand creeks of Louisiana, to the revelation of icy whitewater streams tumbling down Appalachian slopes, and back to the slow green dignity of the Colorado River in Bastrop County, Texas. Yet I knew almost nothing about this river, where it began, the course of its stream across the state, who and what lived along its banks, or where it went after leaving my territory. I found myself paddling into my future, linked to the past, and determined to learn all I could about this river that I'd taken for granted.

Now I am driving in circles in Dawson County looking for a river. I brazenly wave down a dusty pickup. Squelching paranoid fantasies about murderers, I ask the driver for directions to the river. He seems deeply amused and equally perplexed by a middle-aged woman wandering the Jo-Mills Oil Field in search of a line marked "river" on a map. An oil field engineer, he has worked in the area for years. I convince him I am not a common trespasser, and he, suddenly loquacious, recites a string of directions, landmarks, property lines, and names. Overwhelmed, my pencil skids to a stop on my notepad. With a grin, the engineer gets out of the truck, takes me by the shoulders, physically turns me, and points to the Colorado River a few hundred yards away. As we part, he sweeps his gimme cap off his head and shakes my hand, warmly wishing me luck. His forehead and shining pate are as pink and smooth as a baby's bottom—a shock compared to the brown, weathered texture of his face and neck. I stare at the shockingly pale and naked skin. It is a moment of intimacy that leaves me surprised and somehow embarrassed.

I drive a short distance and turn off onto a small road I had bypassed earlier. The road slips down to ford the river in a muddy bottom. A scrawny Western diamondback rattlesnake surges onto the track next to the river. Yanking the emergency brake on and grabbing my camera, I eagerly jump out to chronicle my first wildlife encounter on the river. The skinny, irascible snake has no interest in my literary endeavors or artistic aspirations and immediately rears up and back into a hard "S"-curve of ill-tempered, buzzing defensiveness. As I circle, the snake's head follows, its tongue slowly flicks forward, then curls back over the rostrum, the tips of the forks lightly touching the head scales to collect scent molecules from the air. Assessing danger, the rattler is threatened—and stunningly, venomously, beautiful. The snake uncurls and begins to back away. Intent on blocking its path, I follow. But then, with only a vague image of a diamond-patterned sickle curving toward me, I unexpectedly find myself transported three feet away. I turn back and see that the snake's chin now rests in the muddy ridge of my boot print where I'd been standing. After a few tongue flicks, however, it slowly eases off the road to wind its way through silver winter grasses and disappear beneath the sheltering pads of a low-growing prickly pear cactus. My adrenaline-spurred heart races, and I'm grinning and then laughing at myself, embarrassed by my foolishness and pleased with my self-preservation instincts.

A few feet away, the river hardly seems worthy of the name: under 2 feet in width and just inches deep, the water is silted; heavy mineral encrustations bracket the mud banks, and fine crystals feather the stems of grass and saltcedar. Although the United States Geological Service (USGS) has designated this small stream as the headwaters of the Colorado River, most of the local people, including the oil field engineer, argue that both Gold Creek and Tobacco Creek—because they run stronger and carry more water during all seasons—would be better choices. Perhaps historically, more water seeped from springs and drained from the watershed to flow down the small channel, and that is why it is labeled the Colorado River.

I walk along the sections of the river closest to the road. The light is fading, and the rattlesnake still irritably buzzes nearby, so I return to the truck. Peering at my scribbled notes, I take the first road that looks promisingly well used. I meander along the oil field roads, making brief forays off the main track onto the small lanes that twist and turn between tank batteries, pumps, pipelines, and abandoned sites.

The sky is turning scarlet, and clouds sketch calligraphic figures that glow deep orange, salmon-pink, and hot vermilion as the sun slips through the haze of airborne soil along the horizon. The road twists one direction and then the other. I reach the top of the Caprock, and all the roads look the same—plowed earth to the edge of the barrow ditch, humped loaves of cotton, and pump jacks glowing with small electric lights. The red of the setting sun flashes off my rearview mirror and in a growing alarm I realize I am heading in the opposite direction from the town of Lamesa, dinner, and a bed. I turn the truck around and drive past a drilling rig with lights glowing bright in the dusk. My cell phone rings shrilly and I jump. My seatbelt decides I require protection from an imminent impact and tightens like a boa constrictor around dinner. I snag the phone off the passenger seat; it is my husband Bill, calling to see how the trip is progressing. Between useless tugs at the seatbelt, I tell him in a rising voice that I'm lost; all the roads look the same and keep going the wrong direction. By this point, I am pinned to the seat, holding the cell phone with one hand and trying to steer with my fingertips. "Well," he says in his deep East Texas drawl, "Don't stay out on those oil field roads after dark. You don't want to spend the night out there." "Really?" I reply, my budding hysteria squashed by a sudden wave of irritation. We have a moment of marital silence while we both review the possible directions the conversation could take. Luckily, we are saved from my smart-aleck retort (or a tearful outburst) by the miraculous appearance of an intersection with road signs. After confirming with Bill that the sun does indeed set in the west and that if I want to go north, the sun should be on my left side, I turn the truck toward Lamesa and follow the track to a thin ribbon of asphalt that leads me into the heart of town.

Stewart Ranch

In order to avoid the possibility of having my butt peppered with buckshot—or worse, being called to task by some sort of authority figure—I decide I should call the landowners along the river headwaters before making any more visits. Frank Beaver was not interested in talking to me until he learned I lived in Bastrop County near Camp Swift where he had trained for the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division. He agreed to meet me the following morning. Rich and Barbara Anderson invited me out to their ranch for the following afternoon. Don and Martha Stewart, the owners of the tract of land designated as the geographical headwaters of the Colorado River, cheerfully insisted that I drop by their home in Lamesa that morning for a cup of coffee and a chat.

I step outside the motel to discover that a "Norther" had moved in during the night. The wall thermometer reads 38° F, and the wind whips across the Great Plains with nothing to break its stride or slow it down. I retreat into the room to squeeze myself—in successively tighter layers—into every article of clothing in my suitcase. The result is a swaddled figure reminiscent of an uncoordinated, obese penguin, not an intrepid artist planning to spend the day exploring a river.

The Stewarts' home is full of family photos, Harley Davidson motorcycle models, and the engaging smell of a wood fire. Sitting around the kitchen table with never-empty coffee cups, Don and Martha cheerfully endure my questions about living on the river.

Don has a big droopy mustache, gray and white hair, and blue eyes in a weathered and kind face. He is laconic but assured when he does speak. More loquacious than Don, Martha is open, generous, and confiding, but I get glimpses of a core of harder, sterner stuff. Their exchanges are affectionate and tolerant—years of working together have streamlined their conversations. I can only guess at the depths that we skim over as I pry into their lives.

With central heat purring in the background and a coffee pot gurgling on the counter sending up periodic spouts of steam—comforts I tend to take for granted—they tell me about their courtship and marriage. Don tells me, his eyes twinkling, "Martha grew up in the mountains of central Arizona in the town of Crown King. I was working up there for the Forest Service and we met at a Saturday night dance in the summer of '49 and married in the fall. We packed up the car in January and drove here across northern New Mexico then turned south out of the mountains onto the plains. The farther we drove into Texas and the flatter it got, the longer Martha's face got. By the time we got to Lubbock she looked downright miserable." Martha breaks in, "I'd never seen anything so flat! Growing up in the mountains, I never imagined such a place existed!" Don raises an eyebrow at the interruption but continues, "She didn't say a peep, but I could tell she was wondering how she could live in such a bleak place with no trees, no creeks, no up and down." Martha nods her head in agreement. "Then we came over the edge of the Caprock and drove down into the basin here." Martha whispers to me, "It is still a thrill to drive off the Caprock." Don finishes up, "By the time we got to the house, she was smiling. She said to me, 'I can live here.' Up to that point, I'd been afraid she was going to turn around and run home to Crown King."


Excerpted from River of Contrasts by Margie Crisp, Andrew Sansom. Copyright © 2012 Margie Crisp. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Andrew Sansom,
1. Early Spring on the High Plains: Headwaters,
2. Impounded on the Rolling Plains,
3. River Revealed: Cross Timbers and into the Llano Uplift,
4. Another Colorado: The Highland Lakes and Lady Bird Lake,
5. Living Downstream: East Austin through the Blackland Prairies,
6. Into the Gulf (almost): Gulf Prairies and Matagorda Bay,
Further Reading,


 Fort Davis, Texas

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