The Rio Frio came by its name honestly. Spring-fed, shallow and clear, it’s a cold river: perhaps the coldest in Texas. It can slow to a trickle in summer heat, and, when in flood, puts roadways underwater in a flash. But if the Frio is flowing well, singing steadily over the rocks, its coursing is pure pleasure.
Other Texas rivers — particularly the Guadalupe, the Comal, and the San Marcos — are famed as venues for kayaking and tubing, but they flow through urban centers. When the season ends and river rats dry off for a final time, there still are dance halls and concerts, festivals, antique shops, and galleries to entertain the crowds.
Along the Frio, things are different. As the weather turns and school begins, provisioning companies shutter their doors until spring. Families continue to gather at Garner State Park for weekends of camping and fishing, and birders flock into the valley to track the autumn migration. Hunters fan out into ranchlands in pursuit of whitetail, while autumn bikers test themselves against the famous hairpin turns and steep grades of the “Twisted Sisters.” Still, the pace of life begins to slow. As it does, the Frio and her people show a different face to the world: a face filled with unexpected beauty and warmth.
I first met the Rio Frio at Concan, a community founded in the mid-1800s.
In 1965, Jean McNair McFadin, great grand-daughter of Charles Taylor and Almira Johnson McNair, explained the unusual name of the town in a paper for her history class at Sabinal High School:
Nestled where the stately cypresses grow tallest and the Frio River, true to it’s Spanish name, runs the deepest and coldest, is the small hill country community of Con Can. No one now living seems to remember how the name, Con Can, came into being, but old timers vaguely recall a Mexican card game, “Coon Con,” which might have been the derivative.
Concan always has been small, and never incorporated. In 1884, the population had swelled to about 150. By the late 1920s, only 20 remained, but as word spread about the natural beautfy of the area, tourists began to arrive. In 1939, Concan had grown to 75 residents. The same number populated the town when I first visited in the mid-1990s. Today, helped along by even more tourism, the community has grown, claiming 225 residents in 2000, and perhaps even more today.
Over the past decade, my home-away-from-home in Concan has been a small cabin tucked well away from human activity. Occasionally, the sound of a chainsaw carries on the air, or a snatch of conversation between hikers in the woods. Otherwise, there is only the land — ashe juniper and mountain laurel, live oak, sumac, agarita and prickly pear — and the creatures it supports — whitetail deer, raccoon, possum, and a variety of birds.
The cabin sits about two miles from the nearest primary road, but it’s only 20 feet to the nearest deer trail. The deer manage to move through the dense brush without a sound. They no doubt listen to my thrashing about and say, “City folk, again.”
Still, even with the deer keeping their distance, there are delights aplenty in the hills. Tasajillo is abundant. Also known as Christmas cactus, it differs substantially from the Schlumbergera cultivars we commonly call Christmas cactus. Equally colorful, it’s far more prickly, and its tiny glochids can take up to a week to work their way out of fingers.
Not everything I found was familiar. Some day, an enterprising botanist will publish a plant guide focused solely on seed cases, withered leaves and desiccated stalks. For now, this interesting plant will remain unidentified, until some hours with the books (or a savvy reader) provides a more accurate name.
Of course there wasn’t snow in the hills, but there was an unusual amount of white. Brush clearing had left some patches of prickly pear exposed, and it’s possible their unusual color is due to sunburn. Even some of the grasses had a wintry appearance, a beautiful contrast to the russet and golds of their companions.
Eventually, cactus and cedar give way to cypress: a sure sign that water is near. In a good year, the range of color among the trees can be extraordinary: from deep russet to a shimmering, golden orange.
Several crossings help to make the river accessible for those who left their kayaks at home. Near the Avant crossing, I found this stand of exceptionally tall cypress, whose already-falling needles allowed for lacy shadows, and a grove suffused with light.
Not far from Avant crossing lies the Concan cemetery, resting place of several members of the Avant family, including Susan, who lived from 1807 to 1889.
When the bridge at the Avant camp washed out, it was the Neal family who donated land for a new road and crossing.
Clara Neal’s gravestones make clear that “carved in stone” doesn’t necessarily guarantee reliability. What isn’t in question is the role some of her descendents played in the founding of Concan’s best-known lodge.
Tom Neal and his wife, Vida, founded Neal’s in 1926, and succeeded for the same reason they continue to thrive today:
As city folk looked for getaways, Concan drew the attention of those looking for the quiet life of the “olden days” – no phones, no radios, no newspapers, no outside world worries. Often guests would stay a week, a month, or a whole summer. Some would bring their maids, butlers, and nannies to assist in the pursuit of a carefree holiday.
By 1954, tbe year Tom Neal died, there were 21 cabins. In the 1970’s, thanks in part to publicity about their great swimming hole, traffic picked up, and the number of cabins increased to 61.
Today, Neal’s store is as well-known for their wifi connection as for camping equipment. While I chose to forego the pleasures of computing on this trip, I’ve spent my own share of time there, drinking coffee and browsing the web or returning emails.
Never Mind the Dates ~ Some Men Know What’s Important
One of the more intriguing stones in the Concan cemetery belongs to Lynn Davis. Born October 26, 1897, on the Bob Thompson Ranch north of Utopia, he died in Uvalde in 1977. Married to Sarah Ruth Stitts in 1920, he raised a family,but above all else, he was a trapper.
His stone no doubt says all that needs saying, except for this: he was buried in a panther hide vest made from a creature he tracked, killed, and skinned himself.
I’m convinced that every Texas cemetery has its Germans, and Concan is no exception. Ida and Fritz Rimkus chose a German translation of the familiar, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” for each of their stones.
A number of Rimkus family tales were recorded during a Concan and Bear Creek School reunion some years ago:
The Caddel family had moved to Con Can from Tarpley, Texas in 1901 and two of the older sons, Jim and Henry, bought seven acres of land from Jim Robinson at $25 an acre, and established a general store to serve the growing community.
The store also served the area as post office and was located just west of the school house. Charlie Moody, the teacher, with his knowledge of mathematics, assisted the Caddel brothers in determining pitch and cutting the rafters for the new store.
Fritz Rimkus volunteered to buy the old school building and moved it to his home place, where it was added to his house as a bedroom. Will Robinson bought the wood heater.
The progressive spirit was evident in many ways in the canyon. The Fritz Rimkus family proudly displayed their new 1910 Willys Overland Touring Car, complete with canvas top and isinglass side curtain…
It was hard to believe that only a year before a black bear was killed on the very trails that cars were then whizzing along. They reached the dangerous speed of seventeen miles an hour on a straight stretch of road, with a downhill slant and strong tail wind.
The same Will Robinson who bought the wood stove from the old school building also served as School Trustee. A member of the famous Texas Frontier Battalion during the late 1800s, he no doubt had learned a thing or two about serving.
The double markers at his grave bookend an interesting chapter in Texas history. In 1870, the Texas Ranger Frontier Forces were formed: companies of 25-75 men authorized to deal with “marauding or thieving parties.” After a series of consolidations, the Frontier Forces were replaced in 1874 by the Frontier Battalion (Frontier BN). The Batallion had 21 fights with Indians. Then, from September, 1875 to February, 1876, no new threats appeared along the border guarded by the Battalion.
In 1901, the Frontier Battalion was reorganized as the Ranger Force and then, in 1935, the Ranger Force was transferred to the Texas Department of Public Safety: a move which eventually gave rise to Walker, Texas Ranger.
As I leave the cemetery ahead of the lowering sun, every path seems connected to the river. A few miles south of Neal’s Lodge, the Frio seeps down into the limestone, flows beneath the surface, then emerges, disappears, and surfaces again near Uvalde. Upstream from Avant crossing, patches of sunlight bloom like lilies above the tumbled riverbed, and I wonder: might Susan Avant or Clara Neal have seen it as I do, a perfect complement to Monet’s Le bateau-atelier?
Like the generations it has sustained, the river and its land present a variety of faces to the world. From place to place and season to season, change is constant: the variety breathtaking.
Among the dusky cypress, a bit of lingering green goes its determined way.
Amid late afternoon shadows, a few free-spirited cypress seem to have waded out into the water.
Finally, at the river’s edge, I find the unceasing tumble and flow of the water that quenches my thirst carrying on its current words capable of eliciting a deeper thirst, for insight and for thought: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Is Heraclitus right? Perhaps. Surely, I’m far from the same person who first stepped into the Rio Frio. When next I meet this river, which of us will have changed the more?
Only time will tell.