Section 10: Rio Grande Village to Langtry
In every direction songbirds were tuning up for the day. It’s gonna be a good one, because we made it! We’re ten miles from the take-out in Langtry. Of course this comes with a whole bunch of bittersweet feelings too. This has been our favorite part of the entire trip and in many ways we don't want it to end.
Amistad Reservoir is east of here and the management of the reservoir extends upstream past Langtry to our current location. We saw designated signs on the banks stating the rules and regulations for fellow boaters. It felt weird to be closely monitored again. We had heard that Border Patrol uses a skiff to patrol these last few miles before the reservoir. We haven’t seen Border Patrol since before Big Bend and are pretty sure they don’t ever come into the Lower Canyons so it’s strange to think about having to justify our presence again.
A road popped up next to the river and we gratefully took it, not bothering to check where it led. An unidentifiable rumbling sound scared us into hiding behind a bush, fearful that it might be a vehicle. We were still uncertain about whose land we were on and whether or not we were allowed to be on it and the last thing we wanted to do was startle a rancher. (Although we are still operating under the assumption that it’s legal to walk below the high water line). Turned out the disturbing sound was a train, miles away. Back to walking.
The air was hot and still out here, away from the river’s reach. Our road followed the path of the river, although our view was frequently obstructed by the vegetation. We were gradually rising as the canyon walls got deeper and after proceeding blindly for some time we realized we had been cliffed out. We checked the maps and the tight contour lines ahead made it obvious we needed to recalculate. Our road was about to veer to the north and reunite with the highway in three miles. Perfect we could leave the boaters, hike into Langtry and set up the shuttle down to the take-out where they needed to be picked up.
We didn’t like leaving the boaters without checking in first but we didn’t know exactly where they were and couldn’t get down to them anyway. Claire sent a message on her GPS explaining our new route and we kept moving, hoping that everything would go smoothly and they would check their messages. We had left all of our gear on the boats, thinking we’d rejoin them shortly, and didn’t have phones or water. Idiots. It was hot enough that we couldn’t afford to waste any time getting to town. We trudged forward along the dirt roads, climbing the rolling hills towards the sound of the highway.
The road joined the highway at a gated cattle corral. As we walked past we caught a glimmer of water in the troughs encircled in the middle.
Are we thirsty enough to brave cattle muck water? Yes.
We hopped the fence and approached the first trough, a giant rusty barrel filled with water and covered in a sludge of insect carcasses and floaties. After some experimentation we were able to get flowing water out of the pump. It came out in a gush of rust that ran thick and blood red for a good three minutes. Well we definitely need more iron in our diets. We took turns cupping the tepid water in our hands and quickly slurping it down until we returned to a less dehydrated state. Mmmm tasty stuff! And if we get giardia, at least it won’t kick in for another couple weeks.
A couple more miles of hiking along the highway brought us to our destination. Langtry was a small collection of buildings; a few houses, a museum/rest stop and a post office. The Visitors Center was surprisingly impressive and well maintained and we gave ourselves a quick moment to use their bathrooms and relax in the air conditioned indoors. As the hikers, our job was to find a local named Keith who had agreed to help the boaters disembark from the river. We asked the woman manning the front desk where to find him and she told us to look for the white house. Sure enough, we didn’t need further instruction, and were soon knocking on the screened-in door of the only white house in Langtry.
Keith was ready to put the plan into action the second we met him. Time to pick the boaters up. He had alerted half the town, the most important being one of his neighbors who donated his 4- wheel vehicle (and his driving) to the cause. Warren Billings! We drove Keith’s sedan to meet Warren, then drove to another friend’s place to borrow his truck. The road down to the take-out was the most insane road either of us had been on. Steep and narrow, with a drop to the side and all kinds of obstacles embedded in the ground. It would have been absolutely impossible without serious trucks (and gutsy drivers). Thank God for the kind people of Langtry, TX!
By the time we reached the river the boaters had arrived and had unloaded most of the gear. Everything ran smoothly as we loaded the trucks, and we were charmed by Warren’s stories about what childhood was like in these parts. He and his family would fish down here or go on extended hunting trips into Mexico. When the border was closed law enforcement told his family they had to stop crossing over. We enjoyed hearing the history. His dad even remembered when the riverbanks were lined with willow and mesquite rather than cane. Now you're talking.
Keith is a special kind of character. He’s so overflowing with information and stories that we haven’t a hope of capturing everything he shared with us. He’s floated the Lower Canyons almost 70 times and has the stories to prove it. Every nook and cranny of every riverbend is familiar to him, until the next trip when he discovers a whole new piece. We listened eagerly.
He knew many of the property owners on both sides of the river. Once he helped alert an owner in Mexico that the river rangers were writing tickets on his property if they caught someone lighting a campfire, which is unlawful since they don't have jurisdiction in Mexico. Keith's the unofficial river ranger who simply cares about his river and anyone who lives on it. He wrote a book about a trip he took down the Rio from El Paso to the Gulf by boat and bike. The Tecate Journals. He wasn’t going to write it but in a moment of emotion a Mexican student of his (he’s an English teacher) asked him too. The student told him that so few Mexicans living along the Rio were respected or understood, and that Keith was one of the only people he knew who would get it right for an American audience. We gotta read his book!
Since we had just gone down his section of river (and since we were about to continue along it) we had plenty to ask about his El Paso to the Gulf trip. He had plenty of fantastic stories but for now: a humorous one. While floating the section of river just past Langtry, he decided to go into town on the Mexican side to stock up on beer and food. His adventure to get there was a story in itself but finally he found a tiny convenience store run out of an old woman’s house. When she saw him coming she shook her head and said, “I never thought I’d see the day that we would have Americans trying to cross the river to get into Mexico. Instead of wetbacks now we’ve got whitebacks!” They had a good laugh at that one.
By now we had said goodbye to Warren (thank you Warren!) and unloaded the gear by Fed and Kim’s truck (which Zak and Corey had parked here several days ago). The town of Langtry allows visitors to camp at its community center, which neighbors Keith’s house. After taking several days out of their lives to hang with us on the river Zak and Corey had to start the 15 hour drive home. They filmed a few more videos and we let them go, with promises to meet up again in Brownsville at the end of the trip. We love these guys. They are absolute princes and added so, so much to our trip. We will miss you both!
Keith wandered in and out of his house as we organized our gear and cooked dinner. He had such a wealth of stories. The entire town of Langtry has only 14 residents. He used to live in Laredo, where he taught English in a public high school. He adjusted the curriculum to cover a variety of topics that he believes the kids needed to learn. He’s moved to Langtry since to be closer to the Lower Canyons. He was glad we were taking our own journey and told us to keep taking it slow, and let the trip come naturally out of who we are as people.
The most important piece of advice he had for us? It happens and that’s that.