Have you heard of the river writer, Wes Ferguson? Do you live near a river?… I did.

Another gentle read by Michael Johnson, introducing us to a new writer, Wes Ferguson.  This article speaks to me because I lived on a river (The Willamette in Oregon) for 16 years.  It was its own being.  It was so alive, like a friend – a very mercurial, but beautiful friend.

Michael Johnson

The Texas Writer Wes Ferguson

I was always a reader. Such an odd behavior for someone who made such poor grades in my younger years. Read everything I could get my hands on and took a private pride in doing so. Yet there was something that troubled me, and something I would never admit to any grown-up. I couldn’t get the famous people.

If any teacher assigned someone like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Thomas Wolfe, all the air went out of me. Just couldn’t get them. When I read their words, I only felt endless boredom…and embarrassment because I probably wasn’t “smart enough to understand them.” Then something happened. Somewhere along junior high, I began to find people I could “hear.” The first was the rough, tough detective novel scribe, Mickey Spillane. The ultimate tough guy, he was born in Brooklyn (naturally), became a fighter pilot (naturally), and as you might expect, his father was an Irish bartender. He wrote about Mike Hammer, the hard-boiled, cynical private eye who only had two friends when he faced the bad guys…his .45 and the half-pint of Jack Daniels inside his jacket. I never had to read a line of Spillane’s twice. His writing, it was said, was “clean and to the bone.” Then just out of high school, I found James Kirkwood…
Kirkwood wrote There Must Be a Pony, Some Kind of Hero, P. S. Your Cat is Dead,
and A Chorus Line among others. Never had to read a line twice. His words were sticky. I still have them in my mind. And there were others. Especially the writer of Western novels, Elmer Kelton, a man who became my mentor and friend who still helps me to this day, even though he died in 2009. I felt some sadness in the last few years due to the fact it has been so long since I felt that way about any writer – and doubted I ever would again but…I found one – the Texas writer named Wes Ferguson.

Click image to go to his website

Reading a story on my porch one day about an old trot-line fisherman on the Sabine
River. First of all, I didn’t know there were any fish in the Sabine. It’s just a pitiful little slough where I live. But as I read on, I learned there was so much I didn’t know.
Then the author says, “If the Rio Grande was a river out of Lonesome Dove, the Sabine seems a river out of Deliverance.” As I read on about the old fisherman, I began to hear the distinct sound of wind chimes. Since we don’t have any on that side of the house, I was puzzled until I realized the sounds of chimes were coming from me – from my memory of an old man I knew as a child. The old trot-liner who fished on the mighty Red. The one who had wind chimes on his front porch. That was when I looked for the author’s name and found it to be Wes Ferguson. Later I would read more stories by Wes Ferguson and I could hear him. Then I read Angels in East Texas. I really heard him then.

In that story, Ferguson tells the tale of a time – some twenty years ago now – when he was a reporter for the student newspaper at Kilgore Community College in East Texas. That young reporter covered a story about the decision to produce a controversial play at the college. This self-described former “high school football player from the oil fields of East Texas,” – gently causes us to ask where would we have stood in the fray? Would we dare commit what the Greeks considered the greatest sin – hubrism – to question the Gods? Would we actually question some of the more “rigid rules” we are raised with in the places where we live? Ferguson helps us to see such actions on our part must surely be one of the most unsettling experiences of our lives. To risk being ostracized and banished by family and friends or to chance becoming a better human being – which would you choose? When I finished that story, I felt myself feeling shaky – like I had been unloading feed most of the day. My goodness, what a piece – and the good times weren’t over.

Next I read two books by Ferguson about rivers in Texas. One being the aforementioned Sabine and the other the Blanco, in the Hill country of Texas.

click image to go to book overview

In Running the River, Ferguson shares a trip he took with friend and photographer, Jacob Botter down the Sabine beginning at the headwaters of the river near Lake Tawakoni in East Texas near where I live, and ending some 550 miles later in the Gulf of Mexico. (I do wish my seventh-grade Texas History teacher had a copy back then.) The journey is full of fascinating facts, and even more enjoyable are the stories and lives of the people Ferguson encounters along the way. He says, “There is just something about rivers that attract people who have an aversion to authority.” He tells us about those “river rats” who live off the grid, floating on 55 gallon drums tied together with a few boards on top, complete with a rope tied to the big cypress on the bank. The ones who trot-line, and “telephone,” and might kill sixteen squirrels in one day – the ones my daddy knew and the same ones I knew. Of course, Ferguson was talking about the Sabine, and I was talking about the mighty Red, the Sulphur River in East Texas, and the Little River in southeast Oklahoma, but they were all the same people. And the author made me aware of something else…

click to go to book overview

When Ferguson asks his friend, Jacob Botter to accompany him on the river excursion, Botter replies, “The Sabine? Why? It’s just mosquitoes, snakes, and a few alligators.”
Ferguson says, “Because we are from Sabine, Texas. We went to Sabine High School. That’s our river. We should celebrate it.” After reading those words, my mind returned to someone else who had that same wisdom.

My friend, mentor, and second father, Dr. Jerry Lytle, felt that way about the Bois D’arc tree where we live. “It’s our tree,” he said. “It doesn’t grow in too many places
on the earth.” For much of his adult life, Jerry would find a particularly gnarled and twisted small limb from the “Maclura Pomifera” or “Osage Orange” as the bois d’arc is also known – the tree Indians made their bows from due to its strength – and after hours of scraping, sanding, and polishing, Jerry would present the piece of wood, that now seemed almost alive, to his friends and loved ones with a card that read…
“The bois d’arc has strength and beauty like the friendship I share with you.”
Thanks to both Dr. Lytle and Wes Ferguson for reminding me to treasure
the blessings we take for granted.

Ferguson’s winding and twisted journey on the Sabine generated a number of feelings. Sometimes I felt gritty and grimy after reading about his struggle with a low muddy spot or sometimes sore and afraid, after experiencing his frightening encounter with a dangerous log jam. But when he and photographer friend, Jacob, reached the Gulf, I was there with them. Here are his words at that moment…

“A journey that had begun in the blackland prairie outside Dallas, drifting through the pine hills of northeastern Texas, nourished by muddy creeks, slipping through the land where we grew up, had come to end in the blue expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. The hot Gulf sun warmed the surface of the sea. Clouds formed. Rain would fall: the river’s endless cycle. Jacob and I fished for a spell, and then we went home.”

And sitting in my study – just like I did in the sixth-grade at the Saturday afternoon movie when the cavalry came charging over the hill… I stood up and cheered.

? – Michael Johnson

Wes Ferguson is a Senior Editor at Texas Monthly Magazine
In 2019, he was inducted into The Texas Institute of Letters.
His books, Running the River – Secrets of the Sabine, and The Blanco River,
can be purchased at Amazon or at his website.

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