The other night, I was sitting on the screened porch and complaining to my partner about the fact that the days just seemed to offer nothing new. Maybe we should hit the road, I said to him. Learn some new lessons, find some new adventures, hear some new stories.
He—seeing into a realm I had lost sight of—reminded me of important truths I had learned from earlier travels, of much of the good I could no longer see, of the places I had been and the lessons I had learned. He reminded me of people I had met along the way.
There are those people that you meet along the way…
You’re not sure why you meet them. You’re not sure what it is that they have to offer to your life. But, somehow, you know that they are important. They mean something. And they change you in subtle ways. Sometimes in profound ways.
Wilton Crider was one of those people.
My wayfaring partner and I, who often travel without reason or destination in mind, had at one time been looking to buy some land in the Texas Hill Country. We couldn’t afford most—well, truthfully—any of the places that we wanted. If you’ve ever been to the hill country, you know that it is graced with winding spring-fed, limestone-bottomed creeks. Cypress trees line the banks, and Live Oaks checkerboard the fields all around. At the base of rocky cliffs, deep blue-green pools beckon one to dive into their depths.
We spent many a weekend camping along these river banks. Rivers with mellifluous Spanish names like Medina, Frio, Sabinal, and Guadalupe.
The Sabinal River in Utopia, Texas is one I am most fond of. Road To Utopia is a movie with Robert Duvall that recently aired in major cinemas but that received relatively little screen time for reasons of political correctness. Hollywood doesn’t publicize any film that harbors even a hint of Christian content or intent.
The setting of the film is real, a setting that my partner and I discovered eighteen years ago and that signifies, for us, the quintessential utopia.
We discovered Utopia one weekend in the early 90s, and we were never the same afterward. The county was one of those dry ones, we quickly discovered when we went in search of a bottle of wine to no avail. Small sacrifice, it turns out. This was a place, we soon realized, that was drunk with fireflies and catfish and cypress and a peace that could be found nowhere else. We found a campsite…remote and clean and lovely. Instinctively, we felt that we could spend the rest of our lives right there in that spot. It offered a life connected to God and to the Earth and to all that was sacred.
Of course, the campground wasn’t for sale, so we had to satisfy ourselves with using it as a vacation spot. A few years later, we heard that someone had bought the land where the campground sat. We could no longer walk along the banks of that blue-green water or under those magnificent cypress trees. We had been cast from the garden and our way back in was barred.
Some years passed, and we spotted an ad in the newspaper for a piece of property along the Medina River that was for sale. A hundred acres or so near Bandera. We headed out one weekend to take a gander at the land.
The man who owned the property was Wilton Crider, a tall-drink-of-water with the bowed legs of one who had been born, nursed, weaned, and reared on a horse in the heart of the Texas landscape. At six years old, he’d followed some cowboys on an all-day cattle drive. He made it home by himself just before dark.
Wilton had taken up guitar playing when he was in his mid-sixties, and in the years following he was a feature player at the San Antonio Folk Life Festival. He showed us an article from Texas Monthly magazine that claimed him—along with his wife Bobbie Nell, whom he met over a dead mountain lion he’d shot—the best Cotton-eyed-Joe dancer in the state. As the magazine put it, “For forty years the Criders have executed the old-style-flat-footed technique better than anyone.”
The Bandera Hall of Fame holds Wilton Crider’s boots.
We sat with Wilton on the banks of his river and listened to him talk. “Isn’t this a romantic spot?” he said. “It’s a fine place for courting.” We agreed it was a grand place for courting. Later, he also told us that if he hadn’t of liked us, he wouldn’t have agreed to show us the place. A good trait in a man. He says what he thinks, and he lives by it. After showing us around, we sat down at their kitchen table to a lunch that Bobbie Nell prepared, and that evening they took us to Bandera for some dancin’. I’m not much of a country-western dancer but, in Wilton’s arms, I was the Ginger Rogers of the two-step.
Turns out, there were some problems with that romantic spot on the Medina River. A disease had been moving through the hill country attacking Live Oaks, a disease that had afflicted many a tree on Wilton’s place and could in time have wiped out the entire woodland paradise. We talked about it, and he admitted he just didn’t know what was going to happen.
A few years after this visit to Wilton’s spread, my partner arrived at one of those major milestone markers in life. “Okay,” I asked him, “so what do you want for your birthday?”
“I want to go see Wilton.” And so, we did.
The day in September 2006 that Wilton left his river and this life, he was 86 years old.
I picture him teaching others in some hill country realm beyond what he taught here in this place—that there is purpose in hard work, that there is a value in duty and honor and dignity to one’s heritage and one’s country. That commitment to a life partner is a worthwhile endeavor.
That there is utter joy in dancing the Cotton-eyed Joe with a worthy partner.