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The Grand Unified Theory of Camping


Sulphur Springs Camp
Bend, Tx.

It is 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning. I am sitting on the west bank of the Colorado River, about 15 miles above Lake Buchanan. It is 69 degrees with a light wind, which shakes and filters the morning sun through the oak leaves overhead, speckling the ground. Above the river a half dozen Mexican eagles are using that breeze to hover and wheel against the blue. They have a shrill piping cry. Keeee. Kee kee kee. Sort of a high squeal that turns up at the end.

I think that's coming from them. They may be fishing, though I have yet to see them claw up anything out of the water.

My neighbors are having more luck. They are an older couple, moving around below the low bluff, just out of sight. Their quiet talk comes sans sense, just a murmur, with only the tone to tell me they are content with each other and the place they're in. Coffee talk. They were down there with a lantern when I went to bed last night, and there again when I got up this morning. For all I know they sat out all night. Could be.

They are fishing. These things happen.

Absent the occasional passage of a pickup along the gravel road behind me, it is peaceful here. Not exactly quiet. I just got buzz-bombed by a bee, though it is not apparent I am sitting between him and anything he could want. There he goes again. The birds never quit their twittering calls, and the river endlessly adds a low burbling rumble from the rapids off to the right.

I took my coffee and binoculars down there a moment ago. The couple had a stringer of 4 or 5 fish already, flopping in the shallows next to them. I made some joke about how strict this camp must be about pets, since they had to put a leash on those fish before taking them for a swim this morning.

The woman was polite enough to laugh, but seemed to lose all sense of humor as something struck her line. She stood straight up and pulled her rod into a U. "That's a big one....durn, he's gone." She reeled in the line. A fat minnow was still on the end of it, so she cast again. She looked over her shoulder at me, and said "My daddy always said fishing is just one jerk waiting on another jerk." I took that in the best possible way. As a joke. But it was clear they had no time for talk.

Back in my chair. More coffee. Out on a flat rock in front of the rapids a huge turtle is sunning his shell. He must be 18 inches long. With the help of the binocs, across the river I can see a sort of dried mud condo complex of birdnests stuck to the sheer sandstone cliff. Maybe 50 nests, 60 feet or more up on the wall. Like mud-dauber's nests, but much larger entrances.

No one at home, though, that I can see.

Some of the "eagles" are lower now, and they have turned into turkey vultures. Redneck Buzzards. I don't know if they're fishing, but they do seem to be appraising me.

I guess I better get moving pretty soon. I fully intend to get out on the river with the kayak this morning, but I'm having sort of a philosophical start. Philosophical. That sounds so much better than "lazy".

I feel just like that river down there. It wants to go two ways at once. The surface is all windblown light superficial wavelets dancing upstream. The sound of rapids tells me, though, that down below there must be yet a darker and older desire, pushing south, south, south, relentlessly, to the Dam first, and then around and through and on to the sea. I'm going to try to ride that dark intent for five or six miles, at least to Gorman Falls. And then I'll try to get back against it.

Perhaps a few of you are wondering what all this has to do with the 'Grand Unified Field Theory of Camping'. Well, there's something there, and I'll get round to it later. But first I've got to fry up a couple of eggs, and maybe a half pound of bacon. All this goofing off can be hard work, and requires provender as well as providence. Would you settle for a new theory of toast?



When it comes to planning a camping trip, I'm a regular misanthrope. I don't want to see anybody, and if I do I don't want to hear them. I know it's hard to believe, but other campers generally don't act like they care what I want, and show up there right alongside me.


Over the years I've developed a few Thumb Rules for Misanthropic Camping, that I hope will get me where I want to be. These lead just lately, it turns out, to a Philosophical Breakthrough: The Rule of Rules, The One Great Universal Law, The Mother of All Insights.

Ahem. But I am ahead of myself. First, a little background. It all started when I had to dump my tanks. It is not the first time, I think, that waste management has led to philosophy. I am told that no less a worthy than Martin Luther got his start sitting on a dubious throne in Wurtemburg, cursing his bowels and contemplating Redemption.

Or maybe that's just a canard from the Counter-Reformation....

Anyway. It had been about 14 days since I returned from East Texas, and it was past time, so I headed on out to the Corps of Engineers Campground in Georgetown. As an ulterior motive, I was hoping to run into Kenn and Gail Smith again, but they had moved on.

Kenn had called me up earlier in the week to invite me to a meeting of the Libation Liberation Front. I believe he had some idea he could mix drinks faster than I could consume them, but I gave him a run for his money. I managed to hang in there past supper time, so they took pity on me and brought out some of Kenn's smoked ham and babyback ribs. Excellent. Very nice folks, in a very nice motorhome.

After dumping, I went out on 29 to get some propane, and got to talking to the owner about fishing. Actually, we exhausted my fund of knowledge pretty quickly, so he talked and I listened.

To hear him tell it, he grew up at Lemon's Fishing Camp on the Colorado, above Lake Buchanan, which about 10 years ago became Colorado Bend State Park. I had a park reference in the truck with me, so I looked it up: In the Middle of Nowhere. No hookups. No dump station. Ten miles down a dirt road. Hmmmm. Sounds like a good place to spend the weekend.

Now the 1st Thumb Rule for Misanthropic Campers is this: "Never try to camp out on a Weekend." But hope springs eternal, and this place sounds like a park your normal Yuppie in his Bulgemobile Condo on Wheels wouldn't want any part of. Even on a Friday, maybe, maybe, maybe there wouldn't be anyone there???!!?

So naturally, aging Romantic that I am, I set right out on the Quest, and pulled down the hill into the place just after 6 pm.

"Hello, Sir. Did you have a Reservation?" Uh oh. Bad sign.

"Uh, no, I didn't. Do I need one?"

"Let me see. Well, you're in luck. We have one space left." Nuts. But hey, it was getting dark in an hour. Arrrgh.

"I'll take it. How much?"


Actually the place looked pretty empty. Then, just as I got settled, here came the Caravan. A pack of Cub Scouts from College Station. An avalanche of yelling kids, parents putting up multiple tents, looking for lost poles, kids hollering they were hungry, or weren't hungry, and then more cars coming. At least 3 cars in each slot. In the end, I was told there were 56 people in the next 7 sites, at least half of them 8-10 year old boys.

Now when 8 year old boys are having fun, everyone in half a mile knows about it. Likewise when they're not having fun. The normal tone of voice is a scream, disputes are plentiful, and they seem to feed on each other.

"That's not fair!"

"You're OUT!!!"

"You never touched me!"


"Daaaaad! Com'ere, you gotta see this. DAAAAAD!"

"20-Mississippi, 21-Mississippi, 22-Mississippi......."

This, and more, went on till 11 pm. Then the grownups started yelling too, and finally everyone got to sleep. At 7 am, it started up again.

I like kids. I really do. But it would have been a lot quieter in my own driveway. Thumb Rule # 1 triumphs again. Never on a Weekend.

I pulled out at 9am, on my way back home. But halfway back up the washboard dirt road, I saw a sign: "Sulphur Springs Camp. Lookers free. 3 miles."

This brings up Thumb Rule #2: "Avoid Commercial Campgrounds."

Economics demands they always stuff too many people into narrow slots, with great views into your neighbor's slideout four feet away. Well, what the hell, I was already here. I broke one rule, maybe I should double up.

This is why I avoid Las Vegas. I like long odds. They just don't like me. But every now and then......

But that's a story for the next post.


4/14/03 Sulphur Springs

As I snaked cautiously down into Sulphur Springs Camp, there were already some good signs. The best one was the dearth of Signs.

Running a campground out in the boonies is something that attracts its share of loonies, or People With A Mission. Many is the time I've encountered a lengthy series of emphatic injunctions on the way to these places, complete with cryptic bible references. And then sometimes at the gate there'll be the One Big Sign:

4 Wheelin'
Pets, or
Foolin' around.


Know what I mean? Sometimes the list is crossed out, edited, and annotated, according to the current medications of the owners. It's depressing, after driving so far.

Such signs are not Good Signs.

Coming down into Sulphur Springs, I saw only 3 admonitions: "Welcome", "Slow", and "We don't tow". All sounds reasonable enough.

On top of the bluff, near the store/office, there are 4 furnished cabins. Below that there's the Springs, swimming pool, bath house, and a line of RV sites with water and electricity, right on the bank of the Colorado. 23 sites, only 6 occupied. On a weekend. All Riiiight. Then there's a gravel road that winds along the river for 3 miles. Tenters are directed toward the end of that. Fish cleaning tables, some with sinks, are scattered about.

There's a charming '50s aura about the place. No one seems to be worried about lawsuits. You can sit in the springs if you want. They are rapidly flowing, cold, and mildly sulphurous. They feed the swimming pool, which doesn't have a fence around it. It's 7 feet deep, and an unwatched child could just walk right in.

So why wurntcha watchin? He's your kid. The River is right there, you wanna fence that too?

It's hard to approach some of the sites, as there are overhead limbs and electric lines in the way. No one is bustling about telling you what to do. If you get into trouble, you just get yourself right back out, and what were you thinking, anyway? There's plenty of other places. You just back onto the grass, which is neatly mowed, and doesn't show a lot of wear.

RVs with two people are $20/night, with water and electric. The State Park costs the same, with no amenities. Monthly rate: $250. Between the transient RV sites and the isolated tenters is half a mile or so of semi-permanent yearly rentals at $1250/year. These all have some sort of septic system. They pay their own electric, and most have built up modest shelters and roofed decks around their trailers.

"But we don't allow them in here during Deer Season. That's Our Law."

So forget about October and November. I wonder about floods. These sites are right on the bank, and many would require a good bit of deck demolition to get them outa here. In at least one case you'd need a welder. Still and all, it's a regular little piece of paradise, 10 months out of the year, for the price some pay for cable TV. Two hours from Austin. You could do worse.

There's lots and lots of fishing here, mostly for white bass, or sand bass as they're called. They spawn up here. There's also catfish, carp, stripers, crappie, you name it. I even overheard someone talking about a "Chuckle-headed Catfish", whatever that is. I shudder to think.

The best looking catfish I ever saw was none too suave, so this guy must be one ugly ________ ________. Thank you Arnold.

More later. We're almost there. Can anybody think of any more Thumb Rules for Misanthropic Camping? I can use all the help I can get.


Back in Georgetown

Saturday was a lazy, quiet day on the river in Sulphur Springs. I read Tony Hillerman's latest mystery, and most of Michael Connelly's. In the afternoon, somebody stopped on the road behind me and brought down the Austin and Dallas papers. "You look like a reader. Want these? I'm through with them. The next nearest paper is in Lampasas."

I thanked him, and caught up a bit on the war. Then I took a walk to the end of the road and back.

Sunday I finally got out in the Kayak. The Colorado is like most rivers here in limestone country: deep pools followed by rapids and shallows, followed by deeper pools. A few bumps and scrapes in 6 inches of water. The wind was against me going down to Gorman Falls. It was about 5 or 6 miles, and took about 30 minutes. On the way down a huge flock of cattle egrets swooped low over my head, coming fast from behind. They were bank to bank, headed downstream like a low white cloud. I was startled, delighted, and frustrated. I carry a disposable camera in the boat, inside a ziplock bag, but it's hard to get out in a hurry.

Then 5 minutes later here they come again, upstream this time. Whoda thought it? I scrambled for the camera, but it was too late. They came back a third time, but high, and not so much of a picture.

I chased a blue heron from perch to perch all the way down the river. Poor thing couldn't fish for worrying about me.

Gorman Falls is more a seep than a falls right now, a wide tangle of ferns and dripping water down a high bluff above the river. It's in the state park, and posted, but some guy was up there with a party, and they invited me up. He was wearing a pistol, and I took him to be a non-uniformed park ranger giving a tour.

The ride back was a real effort, and an extended experiment. No problem in the deep parts, where I could get a bite with the paddle, but in the rapids there was often only one way through, and that where the current was swiftest. Tried a variety of things, like hugging the bank, or paddling fast and shallow, or even poling (gasp) with this $150 graphite paddle. Hate that. There's always the chance you'll break it off in a crack.

"Up a creek without a paddle" has always been just an old saying to me, and I'd like to keep it that way.

Finally I got to a place where nothing worked but to get out and pull. You do what you gotta do, even if it seems against the rules of the game. When I got back, I was bowlegged and sore. Felt a little like riding a horse all day. There's muscles high in your inner thighs you seldom use.

It was a solid hour coming back up, and I probably could have slogged along the bank faster. I was happy to hobble up to the camper and wrap myself around a couple of beers.

Well that's about it. O yeah, the Grand Unified thing. The Lesson of Life. The Epiphany of Pfun. The Way to Contented Camping. The Rule of Rules, which no doubt you've been waiting for. Here it is:

"There are no rules." That's it. Enjoy.

Okay, okay. I can hear you grumbling from here. "That's all? That's the Grand Unified Whatchamacallit?"

You were expecting Yoda, maybe? If I was small, green, and enigmatic, maybe I could do better. Even Kermit has that advantage.

There's other ways to put it: "Rules are made to be broken." "Anything can happen." "Fine days are where you find'em."

Please don't make me turn this into a Country and Western song.

If I'd followed my Trusty Thumb Rules, I'd have gone on home, and lost these 2 days on the river. The wildlife. The peace and quiet. Even the friendly people.

If I'd thought I knew everything, I'd have missed out.

Y'all have a good day, y'hear?


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