Over the recent holiday season I got to spend some time with my older brother Robert at his home in San Marcos, Texas.
Robert, who at 70 is seven years my senior, recently had an outdoor stone fire pit built behind his house. Naturally, we wound up spending a good bit of time there, smoking cigars, talking or just sitting quietly, as brothers are wont to do.
At one point he broke the silence by saying, “We’ve sat beside a lot of campfires together.”
The statement threw me into a trance. As I tried to recall some of our trips, my mind went blank — not from a lack of journeys to recall, but rather too many. Trying to zero in on some was like trying to single out stars in the Texas night sky.
Starting in childhood
I guess our first campout was when I was 2 or 3, a family campout at Reelfoot Lake, Tenn. You can just imagine how many there’s been since then.
When I was a teen, Robert got into backpacking and started taking me along. Truth be told, we didn’t have a lot of campfires in those days. Robert and his cronies subscribed to the “leave no trace” philosophy and rarely built fires.
There were times I wished we had, like a winter night at Fall Creek Falls, Tenn., that was so bitter we had to climb into our sleeping bags just to get warm.
Later, though, fires became an essential part of the experience.
My first backpacking trip was in the Smoky Mountains in December. I think it was the next year that Robert, our dad and I went to Big Bend, Texas, in November.
Around 1979 we went backpacking in the North Woods of Canada’s Algon-quin Provincial Park.
In 1981 Robert moved to California and I rode with him on an epic road trip in a long-wheel-base Ford pickup truck with a camper top. We tent-camped along the way, including the snowy heights west of Truth or Consequences, N.M.
We had one campground all to ourselves and sat out by a fire sipping Southern Comfort and listening to Jimmie Rodgers on a cassette tape: “I’m just as blue as I can be, since Susie said goodbye to me. My life is a failure, I see, and I won’t be home no mo’, no mo’, no mo’ ” (“Never No Mo’ Blues”).
Alaska to Honduras
I wish I had kept a journal, or at least a list, of every trip we’ve been on. To assist my overly cluttered brain, I looked back through Enterprise-Journal files, since I wrote about most of our adventures.
However, the computer library only goes back to the mid-1980s. And, computers being what they are, some articles didn’t make it into the system.
Canoeing Arkansas’ Ouachita River and backpacking in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness and California’s Desolation Wilderness were among several I couldn’t find in the files.
Even so, I ran across a mother lode of other trips.
• In 1989, Robert, our pal Dan Banks and I spent three weeks exploring Alaska: salmon-fishing in the Kenai River, backpacking Denali State Park, truck camping and day hiking elsewhere.
Fast-forward to 2001: We returned to Alaska with Rob’s son Forest and my son Andy to explore the Swanson River Canoe System, camping, portaging and trout fishing.
• In 1992, Rob and I canoed the Neches River in the Big Thicket of East Texas — 54 miles over six days, which gave us plenty of time for fishing, exploring and lazing.
In a cypress swamp backwater we hit a sweet spot of hungry bass. We caught seven for supper and on the way out the next morning I caught my biggest bass ever. We had neither scales nor ice so I released it after a photo. I estimated 7 pounds but when my son saw the photo he said 10.
• In 1993, I wrote a series of articles on the rivers of southwest Mississippi — tough assignment, I know — and Robert joined me and a couple of friends for a float down the Homochitto River. We put in at Eddiceton and paddled over 60 miles to the last takeout at Highway 61.
At our last camp we found bear tracks as big as my outstretched hand, and the next morning saw where a big gator had crawled out of the water, up to my brother’s tent, then back down. Fortunately it didn’t take Robert with it.
• In 1994, Robert, Scott Williams and I floated 70 miles down the Colorado River of central Texas. A few miles into the trip Robert got snagged in the palm with a treble hook and, lo and behold, no one had thought to bring needle-nose pliers.
After unsuccessful attempts to remove the hook, we paddled upstream to a boat ramp where, miraculously, someone volunteered to take us to a small-town hospital just a few miles away. A doctor standing around with nothing to do was glad for the action. We were back on the river in no time.
• 1995 was a big year as we canoed Boundary Waters, Minn., then went on a quasi-mission trip to Honduras.
In Boundary Waters we paddled from lake to lake and caught smallmouth bass.
In Honduras we helped work on damming a creek in a remote village and roamed the hills in our spare time.
• In 1999, we tackled the wilds of Oregon at Olallie Lakes Scenic Area in the 10,798-acre Mount Hood National Forest, where even in the summertime we camped amid snow drifts.
Since Robert lives in south Texas and I live in south Mississippi, many of our trips have involved meeting in the middle in east Texas or western Louisiana.
In 1998, it was Ratcliff Lake in Davy Crockett National Forest, Texas.
In 2000, Sabine Island Wildlife Management Area northwest of Lake Charles, La.
In 2001, we paddled 50 miles down the Sabine River, then another 50 miles in 2005.
In 2002, we tackled Louisiana’s only true whitewater river, Bayou Toro near Toledo Bend.
In 2003, we floated Village Creek in the Big Thicket — and again in 2017.
In spring 2011, it was Sea Rim State Park on the Texas coast, and in December of that year it was back to the Big Thicket at Martin Dies Jr. State Park.
That’s not to mention several trips to the Angelina National Forest of east Texas.
We took our kids on numerous occasions.
Robert’s son Forest was 8 when we went to Alaska in 1989. He just turned 30.
Robert’s daughter Maude was 7 when we first floated the Sabine River in 2001. She’s 27 now.
My son Andy was around 14 when he joined Robert, me and others on a backpacking trip in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness.
Andy now has children of his own, ages 17 and 21.