He said: "If there's any salvation she's in this book."
I said it was a fine book.
He said: "Crap! Hit's the only book they is!"
Goodbye to a River, p. 178.
Old Man Willet was talking about a different kind of scripture, but for us Goodbye to a River is the only book they is. It's our reference, inspiration and final authority on the way you're supposed to do this. We actually didn't set out to do it just like John Graves, and I like to think most of it comes naturally, but he lays out our purpose and our style perfectly, in a way we never could.
The characters in the book serve as examples to us, or - more often - as cautionary tales. The places and things are part of Club vocabulary. Hale, Jesse Veale, ser sta gros, the old man from Weatherford, Choctaw Tom, Robert Neighbors, ready-rolls, blue Northers, Charlie Goodnight, Bose Ikard (colored), philosophers in bib overalls, Sam Sowell, Bigfoot Wallace, Port Smythe, M.D., Martha Sherman, Old Man Willet, Hale, Big Bill Briggs, "jessies," catfish grabblers, Epp and Ira, Cooney Mitchell, the parent Potts, Davis Birdsong, M. Ratineau the French ambassador, The People, the Red Gods.
His genuinely humble approach and open-mindedness about hard issues like hunting, Indians (good ones and bad ones), Anglo Ams (good ones and bad ones), the building of dams and other kinds of "progress," lifestyles different from his own, respect for history and land and personal origin should be models for everyone, not just the RRCC. But since it's all set on a river, in a canoe, with a dog, while camping on gravel bars with old but treasured camping gear....we get to claim him as our own.
Personally I have honored Graves with a respectful obsession. I bought the same model antique wood and canvas Old Town canoe he used. I went to Texas and paddled his section of the Brazos. People give me copies of G.T.A.R. like neckties. I have a signed copy and a book called "The Making of Goodbye to a River" and I have the original paperback that Frances Niarhos gave me in 1995 bound, appropriately, with duct tap along the spine. I'll probably have a wiener dog like the Passenger someday.
The book has been quoted often here. It's just so easy. Every time we do something there's a passage that's on point. Trust me, it's in there you just have to go find it. What is not easy...is choosing just one passage that captures the essence of the Club and the book and why it is so important to us.
I'll go with this one:
A quick sweeping shower wetted us. Chilled, we passed under the east face of the Chick Bend mountain, where they once bushwhacked an old warrior at dawn while he stood guard for his companions, and to the right around the Dalton Bend, named for Marcus Dalton, who settled there. Once after the War, not for the first time, Marcus Dalton took a herd to Kansas and sold it. When he was back in his own county again, headed home (home for him now was up the river a way) in a wagon with two friends, the Comanches killed them and scalped them and looted their baggage, but overlooked $11,000 in cash in the toe of a boot. Dalton's little dog that had gone all the way to Kansas and back with him (sleeping in his bed roll as they camped?) was still alive to yap at the whites who found the mess.
It showered yet again. I knew that around the next curve, a mile and a half below, I'd be able to see the Dark Valley bridge, and knew too that that was the place to quit. But the river was pretty where I was - wide and clean and even-flowing, with curious, arching, limestone overhangs along the right shore** - and after the rain had stopped I dawdled, reluctant, only steering in the current, wondering if a house I remembered near the bridge would have a telephone, or if I'd have to hitch to Palo Pinto. On those country roads the first car along usually give you a lift.
Except that just then, with the abrupt autumn changefulness that I'd just about quit believing in, a big wind blew up out of the southwest and cleaned the clouds from the sky in a scudding line, and all of a sudden everything was the way it was supposed to be. The pale green of the willows came alive; big frost-golden cottonwoods flared where I hadn't noticed them . . . A cardinal flew dipping and rising across the river, read as a paint splash in the washed sunlit air, and five feet under the canoe I could see stone by stone the texture of the bottom as it slid past. The passenger came out of his hide-hole to climb up onto the tarp and growl at a Hereford cow and her calf, dubious-eyed, who watched us move by.
There was no guarantee the weather would stay good; I doubted that it intended to. . . . We rounded the curve. The new bridge was there beside the creek, skinny and tall on its concrete piers.
(It was up Dark Valley that settlers saw the last of 600 good stolen horses in one bunch, pointed north to the Territory ahead of the big band of Indians who had hit the Landmans and the Gages and the Browns and the Shermans, cruelly hard. But that story goes later, if it goes at all. You can't get them all in.)
I said: "Hell, bridge."
The Bridge said nothing.
I said: "Passenger, are we going to quit?"
The passenger construed it as an invitation to play, and came scrambling back to gnaw on my pants cuff. There is a big rapids under the bridge, an ugly one. It has old rusty car bodies sticking out of it, and crashes straight in against a rock bank before veering left into a long shallow chute. Smart boatmen don't run it when the river's high, but walk the gravel bar on its inner curve, letting the boat down gently by a line.
But I had the feeling that if I stopped there, I might be obliged to quit, and dawdled still until the sucking funnel at the head of the rapids caught me. Because my stupidity didn't deserve good luck, I had it. We flicked the jagged remains of a Ford and then I was pulling deep and hard on the right, the paddle spring-bending in my hands, to bring the bow left and clear of the stone bank at the turn, and did bring it left, and rammed the paddle head-on against the rock to keep the stern from hitting, and yelled aloud as we straightened into the long run.
Then I was ashamed in the way that you're ashamed when someone else hears you talking to yourself. A man and a woman were fishing at the lower end of the chute; those are the places the countrymen drop their lines, the places where the big catfish feed. They watched me slide down toward them, and as I passed the man tossed his head in resentful greeting. They were alone and liked being alone, and hadn't liked my crazy shout. I resented their being there, too, and so respected his right. . . .
Hungry, I stopped on a gravel bar and made bouillon on the little alcohol stove, and with it ate crackers and cheese and slices of onion. The sun bit warm into the knotted muscles of my back as I ate, and relaxed them. The sky and the water and multicolored chert gravel of the bar shone with a brightness that I'd forgotten, and made me a little sleepy. It was payment for three bad days and I took it so, and lay down for a while, and threw pebbles up into the air and heard them fall in the current, and drank coffee and smoked.
Goodbye to a River, pp. 43-46.
** One of the few existing photos from Graves' trip (before he dropped his borrowed camera in a pool of water while looking for an Indian rock shelter up a canyon creek) is of those "curious, arching limestone overhangs."
Here's a picture I took of them when I took the same trip 50 years later.