Little Blanco River, 2009
During my recent trip to Texas I had the chance to spend a day driving around the Hill Country south and west of Austin. It was extremely hot, and I knew the region was experiencing a drought. Still, I was shocked by just how brown and dry everything was.
Between Luckenbach and Blanco, I crossed a bridge over the Little Blanco River and noticed a picnic shelter on the western bank. It isn’t one of those dreary highway department structures that makes you feel like you’re picnicking at the state penitentiary. Rather, out in the open at the edge of a field, it's a welcoming wooden structure big enough to be a small home. About a third of the space is devoted to a storeroom and a makeshift kitchen. The rest is a covered cement patio furnished with old metal lawn chairs and rusty charcoal grills. I have no idea who built it or owns it. It looks like it might have originally been a produce stand. The only sign of life is a handmade sign asking that those who picnic here clean up after themselves before leaving.
The patio overlooks a wooded glade beside the river. I could easily envision families and couples stretched out on blankets under the trees on lazy afternoons, playing with the kids, playing cards, listening to music or just listening to the rustle of the river rolling by. A rural Texan version of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.
Only the day I was there the only sound I heard was cicadas. The river was dry. We’re not talking "running low," or even "muddy." We’re talking so dry that when I shoved my foot well down into the sandy river bottom the sole of my boot came back not even a bit damp. There was no sign of moisture in the riverbed as far as I could see, nor any grasses growing nor signs of marine life.
I walked down the riverbed about a quarter mile, more mindful of snakes than rushing torrents. Every now and then I kicked a stone over, curious to see whether I’d find anything live hunkered down underneath it. But all I found was more deep, loose sand. The trees along the river looked healthy. Maybe they’ve adapted to the heat, or maybe they’ll show stress later in the year.
The people who farm or raise cattle hereabouts must have learned to live with cycles of rain and drought. But that probably doesn’t make times like this any easier. The Little Blanco was just one of many rivers and lakes I saw that were dry. About ten miles away, the larger Blanco River, which I gather is a big part of the local drinking water supply, was reduced to little more than a trickle, if that, the only visible flow a volume so small that it could have passed through a ring formed by my thumb and index finger with space to spare.
 All I know about picnicking at a state penitentiary comes from movies. For a short while in the early 1970s, though, I delivered newspapers to Richmond, Virginia’s old Spring Street State Penitentiary. Just having to get locked and unlocked through the first few sally ports to drop off my bundle of papers each afternoon was dreary enough for me.