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The Rivers of Texas Hill Country

When I think of the Texas Hill Country, here's the picture in my head: I'm sitting on the veranda of a rock cabin about 50 yards from a narrow green river, which is just visible through the cypress trees lining the bank. It's August, about seven in the evening. The light is soft but still substantial, strong enough for a New England summer noon although a Texan can never quite get used to it before evening. Fresh from a shower, with body lotion in one hand, a cold beer in the other, I relish how the Hill Country breeze feels on my wet head, my clean skin; the beer going down could be liquid gratitude. Some days more than others, this confluence of simple pleasures goes a long distance toward making the world an inhabitable place. Every day I spend in the Hill Country seems to lead up to and falls away from this long moment.

I first saw the Hill Country at the age of 12, in 1962, when my school friend Martha Grundy invited me to join her family for two weeks in the little resort outpost of Hunt, on the Guadalupe River. We lived in Houston, these days about a five-hour drive away, and, a child of my time, I hadn't traveled much. The only familiar terrain was the flat, humid, hot coastal prairie over which my hometown sprawled willy-nilly. I had no idea we had hills in Texas, much less white cliffs and green valleys. Or that instead of the bath-temperature, chocolate-milk muddy waters of Houston's bayous and bays, there were rivers like the cool bottle-green Guadalupe, into which you could dive and see your way to the bottom and land on a velvety layer of silt. Instead of sweaty clouds of mosquitoes outside or roaring air-conditioning inside, there was sweet, dry night air that might even require a sweater—in Texas summer.

Hill Country was created by the Balcones Escarpment, the miles-wide crumbling edge of the vast Edwards Plateau, roughly a 31,000-square-mile limestone blob west of a diagonal line formed by the route between Austin and San Antonio. Beneath its surface is an astonishing system of aquifers, streams, rivers, and caves. In a landscape that is rocky, rough, and dry, springs burst forth all over the place. The loveliest Hill Country rivers—the Frio, the Medina, the Guadalupe, the Blanco, the Nueces—are fed by water that is filtered through a fretwork of pure limestone and comes out clear and cool, sometimes cold.

Once the farthest of getaways, the Hill Country has been encroached upon about as much as it can stand, from the point of view of one who still wants to get away to it rather than from it. In the past 20 years or so, struggling Hill Country ranchers have sold out to developers who have retirement enclaves in mind. For every two or three beautiful old river-rock cottages in Hunt, one of the most populous river-recreation areas, there's an out-of-scale mansion that belongs with its peers in a Houston subdivision. RV campgrounds and mobile-home parks on pretty stretches of countryside appear rather quaint by comparison.

Yet somehow, nature still overwhelms most of the Hill Country, and, civilization's mistakes aside, it is still possible to experience in relative solitude the beauty of the hills and canyons, and a swim in the beautiful rivers.

Swimming holes are not good enough for me; I want stretches of river where you don't have to look up or turn around until you need a break from a long crawl, breaststroke, or backstroke, and I've never searched beyond the Hill Country to find them. On the Blanco River, in the sweet town of Wimberley, I have stayed in rental houses where the effect is something like being in a city neighborhood where everyone has a little more property than usual and a river for a backyard. On the Medina River outside Bandera (the self-styled Cowboy Capital of the World), I like a rock house that has steep stone stairs leading down to the water, the river there narrow, shallow, clear, and swift, still swimmable but requiring a tougher than usual workout on the way back upstream; high overhead, tree branches meet, forming what the owners, while swimming on their backs, have named the Cypress Cathedral. On a private ranch on the Frio, I have swum in 68-degree spring-fed river water beneath 90-degree air, and climbed up an improbable bank of watercress.

But the place I return to most, year after year, is Hunt. At the various cabins I've rented for a few days over the years, as often as not with my friend John from Austin, the day starts late with a lazy breakfast on a porch. Then we read and doze until lunch—one in a hammock, the other wherever is second best. We'll have a sandwich thrown together in the cabin or some barbecue down the road or tacos at the taquería a little bit farther down the same road. All the lounging and dining is justified by the major activity of the afternoon: swimming. Not just splashing or paddling but really swimming. We divide our days between the South Fork and the North Fork of the Guadalupe. At a favorite cabin on the South Fork, the river is deep, and stays deep for at least a mile upstream. Although the water is pretty clear, in the swimmer's vision there is only green because of the silty bottom; imagine moving through liquid outer space.

Cypress trees shade most of the river here: tall, gray-brown, stately presences, with stringy bark, intricately gnarled roots. Between them you can see the summerhouses, most of which were built in the thirties, forties, and fifties (one of them by the romantically inclined residential Houston architect John Staub)—one- and two-story rock houses with sloping lawns of St. Augustine grass, a subtropical Houston touch in the semiarid Hill Country. Spending several hours in the river is the only good way to see these houses, which put their best faces to the water.

To get to the North Fork, you turn north from Hunt onto Highway 1340, one of the prettiest two-lane roads in the Hill Country. It has its oddities. Not far from the turnoff comes Stonehenge II, a scale model about half the size and an iota of the weight of the original. After Stonehenge, the scenery is mostly pastures and horses, hillsides; then comes the river for miles, bordered by golden-white cliffs, old stone houses, and vernacular summer camps. Both forks of the Upper Guadalupe around Hunt and Ingram together have 13 camps. The exclusive ones are Camp Stewart for boys and Camps Mystic and Waldemar for girls. In Houston, people say one has to register a child at birth in order to insure her admission to Waldemar.

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