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Rafters on Rio Grande trip listening to musician Miles Zuniga during lunch break within walls of Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park. Photo: Sean Fitzgerald

Texas River Music, the occasional series of Rio Grande rafting trips in Big Bend National Park, is gearing up for fall excursions with musicians Butch Hancock and Patrice Pike. Along with catered meals and incredible borderland scenery, the trips feature nightly intimate performances around the campfire by the featured musician.

The Pike trip is scheduled for Oct. 18-20, and the Hancock trip for Oct. 25-27. Pike is a prolific Austin singer-songwriter who first garnered attention as the frontwoman of Sister 7 in the 1990s and then went on to a solo career. Hancock is a legendary troubadour originally from Lubbock, a member of the Flatlanders, and himself a Terlingua resident and certified river guide. He’s been doing these music trips for more than 30 years.

Last fall, I had the chance to tag along for a Texas River Music Trip with musician Miles Zuniga. The scenery, music, camaraderie, and great meals combined to make it an unforgettable experience. Here is my account of that trip, which originally ran in the February 2019 issue:

When you’re on a rafting trip on the Rio Grande, you’re absolutely nowhere else but on the Rio Grande.

As simple as that sounds, it comes as an awesome epiphany to wake up in a riverside campsite surrounded by desert mountains of the Big Bend and the sheer limestone cliffs of Santa Elena Canyon. It doesn’t feel like Texas, nor Mexico, nor even Big Bend National Park.

The nearest settlements are mere specks of civilization, and no roads span the miles to reach them. The only link to the rest of the world is the river, which courses by muddy and indifferent. With the river you have come, and with it you shall continue.

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Rafters on the Rio Grande traveling through Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park. Photo: Sean Fitzgerald

This is what veteran rafting guide Steve Harris, the proprietor of Far Flung Adventures, calls “the real world,” and it’s the canvas for Texas River Music, a semiregular series of rafting trips complete with freshly prepared meals and nightly campfire performances by musicians such as Miles Zuniga and Butch Hancock.

While a rafting trip may not qualify as luxury to some (tent-camping is involved), this version doesn’t feel like roughing it. Picture yourself seated on the river bank, watching an osprey soar overhead and dining on barbecued shrimp and filet mignon—all as a world-class songwriter picks out tunes and shares the quirky stories behind them.

“The combination of the carefree environment that the guides create, along with the music and the opportunity to sit around and visit in this incredible environment—it’s just refreshing, especially in today’s world,” says Roger Allen Polson, an Austinite who has helped produce Texas River Music trips since 1988.

The guides handle the heavy lifting throughout the 18-mile, three-day excursion—loading and unloading gear, captaining the rafts, setting up camp, and preparing the meals. Their outdoor kitchen turns out meals like chicken fajitas, salads, breakfast burritos, tuna-salad sandwiches, toasted bagels, and fresh fruit, along with plenty of hot coffee every morning.

“In this business, you really realize how disconnected people are from the natural world. … It’s my hope that people on this trip, when they’re back to their everyday work, will think back and remember that a little part of themselves is on this river.”

Throughout the float, the leathery river-runners share tall tales of past trips—Mick Jagger and Ann Richards have been down this route before—and note desert plants like the phragmites cane and palo verde trees that splash the banks in green.

The trip climaxes on Day 3, when the party breaks camp and enters the famed Santa Elena Canyon. Cliff swallows and great blue herons welcome the rafts as a calming light sweeps overhead, the effect of sun rays ricocheting off 1,000 feet of creamy limestone cliffs.

The next 8 miles pass as if in a psychedelic dream. The towering canyon shimmers in pastels of orange sherbet and butter with every ripple, dent, grotto, and sheen imaginable. Fossilized shells poke from the walls of ocean sediment, and ruddy stones rest on the bank after washing downstream for millennia. If you like jigsaw puzzles, it’s interesting to contemplate the angular townhome-sized boulders jutting from the riverside, trying to picture from where above they once toppled.

Harris, who has floated the canyon more than 100 times since the mid-1970s and even officiated weddings within its walls as a Universal Life Church pastor, says part of the fun of guiding canyon trips is reliving the thrill through the impressions of first-timers.

“In this business, you really realize how disconnected people are from the natural world, the world as we inherited it as opposed to how we made it,” Harris says. “It’s my hope that people on this trip, when they’re back to their everyday work, will think back and remember that a little part of themselves is on this river.”

Cover photo: Cerro Castellan at Big Bend National Park by Wayne Suggs


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November 2019 cover of Texas Highways Magazine


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November 2019 cover of Texas Highways Magazine


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