Confession is healthy — good for the soul (but sometimes hard on the reputation), they say. Still, it’s tough to admit that I never knew about the other Colorado River. The big one in the West, of course, the one that makes Grand Canyon, I know well. The other one is here in Texas. It rises in the northwestern part of the state, near the New Mexico line, and flows 894 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Like the Colorado of the West that flows 1,450 miles in or around five states, the Texas Colorado is also restrained with a series of six dams. Operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority, the dams produce electric power, provide water storage and seek to achieve a balance between floods and droughts. With the completion of the first one in 1939 (the two-mile long Buchanan Dam) this Hill Country of central Texas took on new economic life. A rocky mound here once called “Poverty Hill,” for example, is now called “Paradise Mountain.”
With every dam comes a lake. And with every lake comes birds, animals and the likes of us. Interestingly, the focus here is not on us, at least not in a commercial, exploitive way. It’s on the environment — the topography, nature and wildlife. It’s also on the seasons and the striking changes they bring to the Hill Country. Soon it will be spring, and wildflowers will be digging their way up through their ancestors. They’ll bloom, not just here and there, but in profusion everywhere.
They’ll line the roads — bluebonnets and primrose, even the prickly pear cactus, which is crowned with a yellow flower.
Unprocessed nature is the draw here, not a cultivated fabrication of it. Although the lakes are man-made, their makers stepped back, their work done, and let nature take over. Bustling resorts and indiscriminate commercialism are not on this lake; you can’t even rent a houseboat. The largest and northernmost of the Highland Lakes, as they’re called, is Lake Buchanan. It’s 31 miles long with 124 miles of shoreline, wooded and rocky. By rocky, I mean huge granite boulders and high cliffs, many with mature greenery sprouting from crevasses. Some RV parks are right at water’s edge, while others
are set back in the shade among the oaks and cedars. I am at a place called Canyon of the Eagles that is actually a 940-acre wilderness preserve.
Deer wander the edge of the campground, as do wild turkey and armadillo. I had never seen an armadillo. They’re slow and clumsy, and don’t mind making a rumpus as they waddle through the brush. It was dusk when I saw my first one; it was like watching a tiptoeing army helmet. Texans call them “diggers,” because they scratch up larvae and worms. Some call them “Texas turkeys” and eat them, but I’ll pass on that notion. Armadillos don’t look to me like they have changed much since their Cenozoic ancestors. Texas law now protects them from commercial use, so you are not likely to see a handbag or a lamp made from the hard shell of the armadillo. They frequent highways at night, I’m told, looking for bugs popped by cars.
During warm summer nights, many get pressed like fossils into the soft asphalt. Canyon of the Eagles is best described as a hands-on nature park and learning center where wildlife thrives in its normal surroundings, but in a people-friendly way. Those into water recreation do it mostly in kayaks and canoes. Power boats are around, but this is not a lake of water skiers and noisy boat traffic. Miles of paths have names such as “Butterfly Trail” and “Beebrush Loop.” I wandered the gravel walkways of the lodge area. Cabins are available for those who must unpack a suitcase to get a toothbrush or change cloths.
I noticed that none of the cabins have televisions, but they all have wide porches with wicker rocking chairs, which says it all. I drove into nearby Marble Falls, a small, tidy town with a four-block main street. It’s so wide, cars park right down the middle of it. The new library is at one end of it and the old library at the other. When they opened the new library in 1996 or ’97 (it doesn’t really matter), they moved books by hand — thousands of books using roughly 600 hands. They set up a line of adults and kids, like a bucket brigade, that ran the length of Main Street. At one end, at the old library, a book was taken from the shelf and was passed hand-to-hand, out the door and down the street. Minutes later it arrived at the new library and was placed on the new shelf, lined up exactly as it was at the old library.
Later, I visited nearby Burnet, population 4,735. I was straight away lectured that Burnet is not pronounced around here like it looks. “It’s Burnit, dirn it, learn it,” was drilled into me when I said the name wrong. Oh well, it’s their town. Tom and Peggy Hansen run a store just off the town square called “Hill Country Christmas.” Since Christmas was last month, I went in to see how holiday shopping had gone. After offering me some fresh strawberries that someone had just brought in, Tom said that people buy Christmas decorations year-round. “If you have something truly different, people want it.” That’s the way I feel about this piece of Texas and why people like us come here — it’s truly different.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected].