On a lonely stretch of FM 624 southeast of Cotulla, the Nueces River doesn’t merit a sign. It doesn’t even merit a dry bed. One of the state’s major rivers — once the disputed border between Texas and Mexico — is completely invisible here.
It takes a lot of imagination to visualize this low stretch of thorn brush country filling up with any amount of water. It, however, must. GPS markings and satellite imagery don’t lie. The Nueces passes through here — at some time or another.
As did we on our 26th official Texas river tracing.
During this drive-and-hike trip in late 2012, my buddy Joe Starr and I first followed the pristine Sabinal River from its source in Los Maples Natural Preserve to the place where it sinks underground at a “Black Hole” on a ranch near the town named after the river.
After the Nueces, we traced the gushing San Antonio River backward from its mouth not far from Victoria, past missions in Goliad and San Antonio, past the River Walk, until we reached a limestone channel behind the Witte Museum near where the stream begins.
Despite their beauties, the Sabinal and San Antonio didn’t produce the surprises of the Nueces, long associated in my mind with an unlovely, underpopulated stretch of South Texas brushland. At its source and near its mouth, however, the Nueces turns quite lovely.
We started our Nueces day early in Uvalde, heading up Texas 55 through flat fields toward Camp Wood. We stopped by the sites of two Spanish missions, abandoned despite the promise of the valley lush with pecan trees that give the river its name (“nuts” in Spanish).
Camp Wood is a former U.S. fort, now a droopy, isolated town of 822 souls, the type that young people leave as soon as they are able.
Higher and higher we climbed up a crease in the lower Edwards Plateau. At one point, I spotted a flat, white upright expanse on a canyon wall. Turned out to be a wall protecting a rather large white stuccoed house on a ledge. In the otherwise vacant valley below, we encountered an even more impressive wall — topped with broken glass and guarded by thick wooden gates — that looked like something out of the wilds of Colombia or at least Mexico.
No signs indicated who owned such a high-security compound, but we didn’t linger to find out.
We were almost to Kerrville when we came to the source of the eastern prong of the Upper Nueces. As often is the case when a clear stream spills through rugged, semi-arid land, the air was full of birdsong and butterflies.
The day was clear and crisp as we headed back down the river, intending, as we did, to follow it to the mouth. One particularly pleasant discovery along the way: Lake Nueces, a small reservoir that provides year-round recreation just below Camp Wood. Fisherman dotted the dam as we explored the low-water crossing below it.
“Stay out of the pipes” read the signs. It was not until I watched the clear water rushing through plastic tubes beneath the road that I realized the improbable danger.
Below Uvalde, the river dries up. We knew this would happen.
First, because all our maps showed the thin blue line disappearing as it curled to the south and east, then a little north before joining the Frio River near Three Rivers. We had already watched the Sabinal and, on an earlier trip, the Frio disappear into the same arcing recharge zone.
As its riverbed crosses dry under U.S. 83 above La Pryor, there’s evidence of regular flooding among the spectacular piles of whitened stone.
On the other side of Crystal City — a tattered agricultural town somewhat uplifted by the nearby oil and gas fracking boom — we found the wet version of the Nueces briefly and with great difficulty. A short channel waited dark and oily behind a low dam at Presidio Park. Rarely has a Texas river looked more abused.
Then we set out across the great thorny brush of South Texas.
Nothing. No sign of the Nueces. Lots of crested caracaras, the national bird of Mexico, but very few people.
Every few miles, we passed another fracking camp. Oil workers clear a square of land and bank it with red earth. Tanks hold fracking water and the resultant oil or gas. Flares burn off excess gas. Always, a decorated camper stands guard at the entrance to the site, checking in giant trucks, but also smoking barbecue or otherwise entertaining visitors out back.
The roads here are in terrible condition. Potholes could easily wreck a normal sedan. Ours seems to be the only one, though, on the road. It’s all trucks otherwise.
Due to the boom, tiny villages are packed with RVs, trailers and portable cottages. City and county buildings, including schools, look freshly tended, but boom economies come with winners and losers, and the infrastructure won’t support all this activity.
The Nueces magically becomes a river again after the Frio spills down from Choke Canyon Reservoir and into the bigger course. We cross it irregularly before encountering the informal lake communities along Lake Corpus Christi, just a few miles from the city itself.
Like the bigger Highland Lakes, this one has shrunken to a ghost of its glories in the drought. Truth be told, this water source for Corpus Christi often ends this way. South Texas is drier than the rest of the Gulf Coast.
As we navigate the port city’s western suburbs, we find that the river is nicely lined with recreational options. We follow it alongside the newer channels that form the port of Corpus Christi. Wading birds flock here, as do fishing humans of all ages.
The Nueces flows into Nueces Bay, a fat arm of Corpus Christi Bay. We can easily see the juncture and rejoice at the luck. It’s one of the few spots where a Texas river reaches its destination within sight of accessible land.
We soak that in, then head to our inevitable “fauxtel” — one of those ubiquitous three-or-four-story hotel-motel hybrids — before scouting some local foodstuff. We end up at the Texas A-1 Steaks and Seafood in Calallan. Not bad. Pert staff. Odd decor. Could have done much worse.
We really didn’t expect to trace three significant rivers — of our intended Texas 50— in just four days. But we have gotten more efficient at this odd game and it helps for our purposes when the rivers just disappear for miles and miles, as does the Nueces.
Michael Barnes and Joe Starr have resolved to trace 50 Texas rivers — mostly by car and on foot — from their sources to their mouths