When Beyoncé — a Texan, by the way — released her “Renaissance” album this summer, she surprised fans and critics by not delivering heavy social commentary on the problems facing the country. Instead, she offered a nonstop flow of retro dance beats, explaining that the idea was “to feel free and adventurous in a time when little else was moving,” offering “a place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking.”
Floating down a slow-flowing river feels a lot like that. And so, in a hot Texas summer, with weeks of 108 or 109 degree temperatures and not a drop of rain, there was really only one option: Rent an inner tube and get into the water.
So I grabbed a friend and headed to the edge of Texas Hill Country, between San Antonio and Austin. It’s the kind of area where water towers identify the towns, and where the asphalt ends just blocks from Main Street. The region is known for its rolling vistas, wineries and antique stores. But perhaps its greatest attractions are the endless shady, emerald-green rivers to float down. The Guadalupe, the San Marcos, the Comal, the Medina: Each river offers a different vibe.
The San Marcos, which runs through the campus of Texas State University, can tend spring break-y, with packs of young people tying their tubes together, and delegating one tube to hold a massive cooler. The Comal is more family-oriented thanks to its proximity to the Schlitterbahn water park. For our adventure, we picked the Guadalupe, a versatile river that appeals to young and old, has a few rapid spots and lends itself to a fantastic, authentic Texas evening post-float.
After renting a tube from an outfit called Rockin’ R River Rides in New Braunfels, we found ourselves on a Friday afternoon in the presence of occasional groups of friends and families passing by — and just as many Guadalupe spiny soft-shell turtles, one of about 25 turtle species native to the state. The water was refreshing and clear. Bald cypress trees lined the banks, their canopy creating shaded bumper lanes along the sides of the route. Without looking too hard we spotted white-tailed deer behind the trees, bright red cardinals flitting about and even a gray fox skulking by. Just five minutes into our float, and we were completely absorbed by nature.
We caught sight of these creatures because we didn’t have much to do besides look around: The float was a very lazy one. With more rainfall, it would take two hours, maybe even less. But this year, after months without a drop, the route is taking more like three and a half, or, in our case, four hours because of the low level of the water.
Many Texans skipped a float this summer, fearing the dreaded, sobering scenario of having to stand up in the sizzling sun and drag your heavy tube over rocky dry patches. We never needed to do that, though we did occasionally engage in some awkward kicking and arm flapping in order to get a bit of momentum. Sometimes it felt more like we were in a pleasant but currentless pool than in a flowing river.
At first, this sense of stagnation agitated me. Without realizing it, I had started the float with a goal-oriented mind-set: My mission was to reach the end. But after about an hour, the heat of the summer made clear the futility of my efforts at propulsion. I was working, when I should be relaxing. With no screens to stare at or to-do lists to fret about, I was left with nothing to do but power down my brain and cruise, and listen to the distant guitar riff of ZZ Top’s “La Grange” playing somewhere downriver.
As we slowly drifted downstream, we passed groups of locals gathered along the sandbars under tents, offering us beers. A man with American flags embroidered on his blue swim trunks asked if we’d take a photo of his group. “I haven’t seen these guys in years, but we figured the best place to have a high school reunion was out here on the river, right?” he said as they posed around a Yeti cooler propped up in its own tube.
The river was lined with mansions with deep front lawns down to the banks, and families sat in their yards in beach chairs and baby pools and waved to the floating crowd, some even giving us a friendly refreshing spray from a hose while their speakers played Robert Earl Keen, the Texas troubadour.
Occasionally, the navigable part of the river narrowed, sending us down rapids that made it impossible not to squeal like a child as we spun and bounced our tubes through the chute, arms in the air. “Wait, why aren’t we out here doing this every weekend?” my friend, a recent transplant from Chicago, kept asking as she relished her first Texas float.
Four hours in, and we’d made friends with all kinds of people, from a group of high school girls to a grizzled Santa Claus-like figure lying down in the rocks in the shallows as if in a chaise longue. Something about the Guadalupe spurred a sense of camaraderie and neighborliness, as these different strokes of people all found themselves in the same slow-moving flow, unworried about time.
With the sun lowering in the sky we spotted the sign telling us we’d reached the pullout. A young Rockin’ R employee helped us out and shuttled us back to the starting point and our parked car in a van. For most float operators like Rockin’ R, a ride back to your car is included in the rental price, making it especially attractive to go with an outfitter rather than with your own tube. The whole float is only about a mile and a half, but you don’t want to fret about logistics. For that reason, and the distinct possibility of imbibing alcohol on the river, some companies offer packages that include round-trip door-to-door shuttle service from New Braunfels, San Antonio or Austin.
After a quick washup at the hotel, we pulled on our boots and headed into the historic district of Gruene for a strut about town. After some shopping for everything from Christmas ornaments to turkey-feather-adorned cowboy hats, we settled into a table under the trees at the Gristmill restaurant to eat fried chicken.
Then, as the sun set through the cypress branches, we sauntered next door to Gruene Hall, a whitewashed building recalling a small town church, which declares itself the oldest continuously operating dance hall in Texas. It’s got an outlaw vibe about it, thanks to both its notoriety for staying open throughout Prohibition and the cast of characters that have graced its stage over the generations: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker to name a few.
On this night, The Wilder Blue & John Baumann performed a blend of classics and originals that recalled Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, or the Doobie Brothers. Under the spell of their perfectly tuned consonance, accentuated by banjo, dobro and accordion, we were transported to another time, and another way of living, where appreciation for the music is shown with yips and yahoos, boot stomps on the floor, or a wave of a Stetson hat.
When the darkest shade of blue finally faded from the sky behind the Gruene water tower, I felt myself still floating, peacefully still just drifting through the day.
If You Go
We rented our tubes ($25 each) from Rockin’ R River Rides, in New Braunfels. Each river has its own rules that visitors should know or risk getting fined. In the case of the Guadalupe, New Braunfels has instituted a “can ban” outlawing disposable containers and beer cans, plastic baggies, Styrofoam and glass on the river.
Where to Stay
Gruene River Inn, Queen rooms with a balcony start at $190 a night, without breakfast. On weekends prices are higher and there may be a two-night minimum.
Airbnb rentals within striking distance of Gruene start at about $200 per night for a one-bedroom.
Where to Eat
Gruene Coffee Haus: The go-to espresso stop in Gruene features a roastery and interesting blends like blueberry or Texas pecan drip coffee.
Uwe’s Bakery and Deli: Taste the region’s German and Czech heritage via authentic, made-from-scratch pastries like pudding pretzel, peach streusel, or sausage, cheese and jalapeño klobasneks.
Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar: Housed in the ruins of a 19th-century cotton gin, the restaurant features treetop views, chicken-fried steak and margaritas. Dinner for two without drinks, around $40.
Where to Drink and Dance
Gruene Hall: The region’s country music mecca since 1878 has hosted Garth Brooks, George Strait and many more acts, and features side panels that fold down and turn the hall into a big screened-in porch with a sprawling outside yard. Cover charge varies.
Goodwins Speakeasy: Located down the block from Gruene Hall in a biergarten-like space called the Gruene Grove, this underground hideaway serves strong whiskey and tequila cocktails in a cozy few rooms.
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