Best rivers in Texas: Red River, Part 2

This report on the Lower Red River — we should probably call it the “Middle” — was originally posted on May 25, 2012. It is the last of the rescued Texas River Tracing posts.

(For a more complete account of “Texas River Tracing: 50 Trips by Car and on Foot,” go to TexasRiverTracing.com.)

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Of Texas’ big streams, I probably knew the Red River the least. I crossed it a lot. And I even lived not far from it in Shreveport, La. as a child. Until recently, however, I’d spent no more than a few seconds in its immediate vicinity.

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That changed this week when Joe Starr and I traced it from Amarillo to Texarkana. (See previous entries about the North and Prairie Dog Town forks of the Red.) We began our serious look at the Red proper near Vernon, where it already carves out a wide, soft, sandy floodplain.

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That would not change much during the journey from Wichita Falls to Texarkana, using US 82 as our base line. We’d jump up to the river on the Oklahoma border, nose around, then head back into a series of micropolises and metropolises, all along an unexpectedly gorgeous post oak belt. The only time the beauty abated was on the ragged edges of populated areas, where insidious freeway culture — ugly old and new junk — ruled.

DSCF1240Tuesday was filled with surprises, however. It began with a German Catholic church in Lindsay, Texas, which poked its tower over the horizon as if a reminder of European landscapes. We discovered it occupied an elaborate and well-tended enclave that included two shrines, a rectory and a school. Inside, the plain brick church burst with visual activity. The colors were rococo, but the lines and forms were heavier. Every mural, stained glass and gilded surface glowed in prisitine condition.

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Another jolt came in Gainesville, a largish micropolis on the border. Located directly on Interstate 35, it and its Oklahoma sibling compete to attract tourists. We noticed a large, colorful and brightly signed outlet mall on the Texas side and decided to pick up a few things. Seeing only a few cars in the lot, we chalked up the emptiness to the early time of day.

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Oh my no. Row after row of shops were completely empty. In a back corner we found a Van Huesen outlet where men’s clothing was discounted 60, 70, 80, 90 percent. I purchased a V-neck sweater that would go for $90 retail for $4.99. We went a little crazy there and at the Reebok store, among the few others open in this mall that is either dying or awaiting a comeback.

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Meanwhile, along the river, the Red grew wider and stronger. Cliff swallows were our constant companions. Joe witnessed a crow chasing down a young swallow and scooping it up in its fearsome beak. Below the dam at Lake Texoma, we encountered all sorts of wildlife. In the shallows lingered huge catfish and carp. Joe counted 9 great blue herons, along with other wading birds.

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In a hackberry tree nearby, I spent some time trying to identify a very small, slender bird two shades of olive gray. After listening to recorded songs and looking at photos on AllBirds.com, I’m almost certain it was an Eastern Wood-Peewee. Not at all rare, but just rarely seen by me. (I am not a birder, but rather a bird lover.)

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We didn’t swim in Lake Texoma. We had heard reports of flesh-eating bacteria there. We didn’t need a fresh warning and noticed almost no boats on this sizable lake. I was more tempted to dip into a little, clear lake we discovered in the Caddo National Grasslands, which we had all to ourselves.

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I love Paris (Texas) in the springtime! Of the old railroad towns in this region, Paris showed the most character. A fountain rather than a courthouse occupies its main square. There, we ate at the excellent Jaxx Gourmet Burgers, which would have a been welcome a sight anywhere in the world with its enormous, inventive sandwiches and hearty ales.

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Our last glimpses of the river were caught at dusk from a mown hayfield north of Texarkana. Here, the Red is split by islands and rimmed by tall banks. It’s still red from soils that tumble down from as a far as the Panhandle. Thanks to this trip, I know it a little better now.

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We spent the night in piney Atlanta, Texas. We had tried one of Texarkana’s many faux-tels, only to find it full on a weeknight. Of course, it sat near a medical center. Any place in Texas that can support an oncology clinic, a radiology complex and more than one hospital is going to attract regular visitors.

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Our trip from West to East took us across the midrift of the Bible Belt. Every city, town, village or hamlet hosted multiple churches, mostly from the more conservative sects. I imagined visiting services at all these houses of God to find out how the congregants viewed the world and if we could establish common ground.

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While almost everyone we encountered on this trip was unfailingly friendly, I also sensed an undercurrent of boredom, desperation and resentment. Every once in a while, amid the glories of the Texas plains, hills, forests and valleys, I’d glimpse some of the darker sides of rural life: Shambling poverty, meth culture, and more evidence of our country’s obesity epidemic. But we were fleeting tourists. I did not dig deeply.

As mentioned in the previous post, rural Texas looks good these days, in part because of the oil and gas boom, which has helped owners to become better stewards of the land. This gladdened my heart and gave me hope.

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Three things — a Holy Trinity of sorts — can be found in any Texas town with a population of three digits or more: A doughnut shop, a Mexican food restaurant and, increasingly, a faux-tel. What formula convinces hotel chain executives to plant these comparatively tall structures in such small towns? I’d love to know the business model. They seem to do well.

Anyway, it was a rewarding trip. After tracing 25 Texas rivers, we’ve slowed down, spacing out the journeys over years rather than months. To do the rest before retirement, we are considering combining three or four remaining rivers per trip, not rushing but taking more time each outing.


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