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Take Me to the (Lazy) River

Published Wednesday, September 7, 2022 10:00am

Float enthusiasts take to the river on a recent weekend, some with drinks tubes in tow. Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times

By Shannon Sims
Sept. 7, 2022

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.

A group of young women in bathing suits wearing matching pink baseball caps carry inner tubes. At the center of the group is a woman whose hat says “Bride” who is dressed in a white skirted two-piece suit.
A bachelorette party picks up tubes from the Rockin’ R River Rides. They’ll get picked up at the other end and driven back to the put-in. Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times
A man wearing a black baseball cap, a gray T-shirt with a Rockin' R logo on the breast and jeans shorts stands in front of piled-up blue and black inner tubes.
At the end of the float, a Rockin’ R River employee waits to pick up tubes.Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times
A man wearing dark trunks and a straw cowboy hat is seen from behind standing in the water. Around him are three red, white and blue inner tubes.
Straw cowboy hats are popular accessories on the river. Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times

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.

From an overhead perspective people in inner tubes and inflatable kayaks are seen in the river, while a group of four people sits in beach chairs in the water talking.
In addition to floating the river, people will spend the day sitting in beach chairs in it to stay cool. Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times
Many people bring along a tube for their cooler; the rules now prohibit bringing disposable containers and glasses on a float.
Many people bring along a tube for their cooler; the rules now prohibit bringing disposable containers and glasses on a float.Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times
Groups of people in inner tubes, many wearing baseball caps, are seen from behind grass growing along the riverbank.
Given the summer’s lack of rain, a float can be a slow and lazy day.Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times

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.

A woman floats on her back in the middle of the river. She’s wearing navy blue shorts and a bright blue patterned long-sleeve rashguard, with sunglasses over her eyes.
Who needs a tube? Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times

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.

A group of four people in blue tubes with a black gear tube are seen in the river. One man is using a bungee cord to connect the tubes together. In the foreground a man is trying to balance in his tube.
Groups of friends connect their tubes, and the gear tube, using bungee cords. Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times
A man and a woman, both wearing sun hats, sit on either side of a blue double tube. Between them is a round canister built into the tube.
A double tube comes with a built-in gear compartment.Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times
A beer keg sits in a blue plastic bin inside a black inner tube. A woman can partially be seen behind it in a tube wearing grey sandals and a black and white checked top, with bare legs. Her hand holds a cord connected to the keg's tube.
A keg gets its own flotation device. The rules prohibit beer bottles, but not beer.Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times

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.

People walk across a street between parked cars. In the background is a water tower bearing the town’s name, Gruene. To the right is a brick building that says H.D. Gruene on it.
Post-float, an evening in Gruene’s downtown offers food, shopping and music. Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times
An interior shot shows groups of people at restaurant tables with big open windows looking out to trees beyond. Overhead are ceiling fans.
The Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar sits under the trees and offers specialties like chicken-fried steak.Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times
Plates of food sit atop a table showing, from left, a chicken Caesar salad, ribs, onion rings and chicken fried steak with a side dish of yellow and green squash. A glass of iced tea with lemon and a bottle of ketchup are also on the table.
Favorites at the Gristmill include, from left, chicken Caesar salad, ribs, onion rings and chicken-fried steak with yellow and green squash.Credit...Eli Durst for The New York Times

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.

Tube rentals

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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