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The Rivers of Texas Hill Country

About 10 miles from Hunt on 1340 you come to Mo-Ranch, through which runs one of the finer pieces of the Guadalupe River. Since 1949, this former showplace of Conoco Oil Co. chairman Daniel J. Moran has been a Presbyterian enclave that rents houses, apartments, rooms, and swimming privileges to non-Presbyterians when there is room for them, which is pretty often. The river here has a large, deep, roped-off swimming area and a slide into the water. But I like to head downriver from the official swimming hole, where a little dam makes a waterfall, where the water is four to seven feet deep rather than bottomless, and where you can end up on the big round rocks that sit on the riverbed, some above water, some submerged.

If you swim upriver from Mo, under the bridge, you eventually reach good flats, with plenty of water-carved holes in the solid limestone riverbed filled with turquoise water: bath-sized tubs and long chutes that carry bodies swiftly to the deeper water. There are lots of creative recreational uses for such river flats. One day before sunset I drove by the flats above where Martha Grundy and I played, and to my astonishment saw a truck party in the middle of the river. Fourteen trucks, no cars. Coolers full of beer, lawn chairs full of men, women sitting in the tubs.

At around 5:30 of an evening, I'll drive over to the Hunt Store for provisions, and sometimes find my friend Roy, whom I met on that first trip to Hunt with the Grundys. The store and a post office, a couple of churches, a real estate office, and a little restaurant pretty much make up the "downtown" of Hunt. The store's current owner's business card claims, WE CARRY MOST THINGS A PERSON MIGHT WANT. That is not true, but it could be said that the store has all you might want if you shop well in Kerrville or Austin or San Antonio before you come. What it does provide is an indispensable meeting place, for locals and visitors alike. It sells convenience-store food and supplies at convenience-store prices, as well as wine; souvenirs; Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio newspapers; and, for the past several years anyway, the New York Times. But most of the store is taken up by indoor and outdoor tables and benches for sitting down with a hamburger or some pretty good barbecue. Sometimes I used to run into Roy and a couple of his friends playing horseshoes on the patio, where a giant painted-cement cowboy boot leered over the fence. In the past couple of years I've stumbled on a sublime pick-up country-music combo that plays Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers on the patio every other Sunday afternoon.

Nightfall on the river is time to cook and talk and eat dinner on the porch under a yellow bug light. Deer go by in the dark; every eruption of buck-snort sounds like the last puff of a steam train as it settles into a station. If the final night on the river is Saturday, the quiet evening routine must be broken for a trip to Crider's on the South Fork, where there's a rodeo followed by a dance under the stars, right next door. Since 1925 (except for a year or two in the nineties, when a family feud closed the place down), Crider's has held a rodeo and a dance every Saturday night of the summer. I remember my first such dance, when I was 12. A tame deer hung out at the gate to Crider's—a fat deer, which actually flipped any proffered beer can upside down and drained it.

The audience sits on a rickety set of bleachers. The riders are announced over a tinny P.A. system. Chutes crash open, and cowboys on broncs and bulls make the clowns scatter, but they reappear to distract the animals when riders are thrown. Women riders run the barrels, kids chase tiny calves, and when the last event concludes, at about 9:30, the crowd shuffles next door to the dance floor to join those who have been nursing their Buds or Lone Stars since the afternoon.

People of all ages from miles around two-step to a country-and-western band. Oak trees strung with twinkle lights border the cement-slab dance floor, which is separated from the river by a chain-link fence and a precipitous drop. Big picnic tables flank the two long sides of the floor. Whole families turn out, and the couple configurations on the dance floor include the regular man-woman as well as child-child, child-parent, child-grandparent, child–unrelated older person, woman-woman, and probably others. Tables of Houstonians and Dallasites sit next to tables of local cowboys who have that lean, lanky look, and their girlfriends, some of whom wear a lot of makeup and have big dyed hair. I've known some of these women in my life, and I have admired them for living their lives with a certain country dignity that might not serve them as well anywhere else. I'm pretty sure one of them took out an ad that ran a few years ago in the Cowboy Capital weekly of Bandera, some 30 miles away: "Single White Female, early thirties. Looking for someone special to help me balance my life. I don't hunt but love deer meat, so hunt all you like. I ride but don't own a horse, so I hope you have an extra. I am a little picky: I would prefer you have a full set of teeth and a job. I love to dance, take walks, cook, tube down the river, and just enjoy all the Texas Hill Country has to offer."

There's no way to know if she got what she was looking for. Still, I always imagine someone like her might be there, under the stars, by the river.

And I think, Best of luck to you, darlin'.

ALICE GORDON is the editor of Elements of Living magazine and a freelance writer on many subjects.

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