Goodbye to a River Plot Summary and More

Goodbye to a River by John Graves

Goodbye to a River is of course required reading material for all incoming freshman at Texas State University this fall. And of course the administration picked an obscure book to make sure students would actually read for once. However thanks to Search engine optimizing firm Page Creations the truly lazy now have an out. So without further ado...

Plot Overview

So basically the author John Graves canoes down 150-200 miles of the upper-middle Brazos River where most of his childhood memories took place before 5 new dams where scheduled to go in. The Universities own Marc Speir wrote a much fancier and well better overview than I ever could. Enjoy.

The “Common Experience”

  • By Marc Speir
  • University News Service
  • July 6, 2007

As the 11th longest river in the United States from its headwaters in Curry County, New Mexico, to its mouth in the marshes of Freeport, the Brazos River’s 1,280 miles have seen tumultuous times in the struggle for its resources. The increased siphoning of the Brazos and its natural flow originally led John Graves to pen his 1960 book, Goodbye to a River. The 309-page narrative was selected in March as the core text for the 2007-2008 “Common Experience” at Texas State University-San Marcos.

The “Common Experience” is a yearlong initiative of the university designed to cultivate a common intellectual conversation, enhance student participation in meaningful discussion and foster a sense of community across the entire campus and beyond. This year’s theme is, “the water planet: a river runs through us.” As a theme for the “Common Experience,” the subject of water has particular relevance at Texas State. The spring-fed San Marcos River that runs through Sewell Park on campus is a constant reminder of the importance and role of water in the lives of the university community and of the subjects covered in Goodbye to a River. Graves intermixes personal experiences in the book, drawing back from his childhood and an extended farewell canoe trip on the Brazos he made as an adult during the fall of 1957. The book also contains snippets of history and illustrated sketches of Native Americans and pioneers.

The Brazos River, known as “Rio de los Brazos de Dios” by early Spanish conquistadores, is translated as “the river of the arms of God.” All accounts explain the name of the Brazos as coming about because it was the first water to be found by desperately thirsty Spanish parties. When not confused with the Colorado River, the Brazos found itself as an important route for early European explorers to use for navigation.

As time passed, the river was dammed in three places north of Waco for recreation and flood control, forming Possum Kingdom Lake, Lake Granbury and Lake Whitney. There is also a small municipal dam outside of Waco named Lake Brazos Dam. Graves argued against the dams, most notably the proposed construction of Lake Granbury in the mid-1950s, and the “drowning” effects he said they would have on the river. Although Lake Granbury was completed in 1969, the success of Goodbye to a River is believed to be a major reason that additional dams were not built on the Brazos, despite numerous proposals. Widely celebrated for Graves’ flowery language, naturalist philosophy and beautiful prose, the book is considered an American classic and heralded as a masterpiece of conservation and history, often compared to Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Thousands of freshmen at Texas State will read the novel this fall in English and University Seminar courses. For more information on the “Common Experience” and Goodbye to a River, visit here.

Part 1

Disclaimer: This is meant to be a supplemental study aid. Page Creations does in no way condone relying on this text instead of reading the source material.

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Chapters 1-3

The book opens up in October with graves trying to personify the river. He gives us some facts like since WWII the government has already put in two dams and 5 more are scheduled to begin construction soon. He then gives his two cents on how we should embrace the good old days but he then concedes progress in inevitable. He's a bit Taoist if you ask me.

Chapter two starts with him coming back to west Texas then after BSing with an old merchant Graves and his best childhood friend Hale drive up to the new Possum Kingdom dam where they take his canoe and all his gear down by the river. Hale heads back to the wife, kids, and work while Graves meanders down the river with his only companion a dachshund puppy. He stops for the night and camps along the bank reminiscing and worrying that all the rain will make the river too high.

The third chapter is a short stint all about history. The original Spanish explorers named it the "Arms of God". The Comanches were nomadic but roamed and owned the whole area. They were then compared to the Huns, Visigoths and others. You know the old outside nomads v. the Romans (this time whites and Spaniards v. Indians).

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Chapter 4

Chapter 4 is a longer one starting with a dreary rainy morning ending when Graves dawdles out to see if its okay to break camp. A bit of blue sky shows so he packs up and heads out. Then Graves gets out of the canoe again and more history. This time he talks about the original white settlers, mostly southerners and war veterans caught up in a war of sorts with the Comanches. He then drifts into environmentalism my talking about the old farmers practice of not letting the land go fallow until nothing but dust was left then moving to a new place. He also talks about the few remaining bald eagles and parallels them with himself, not many like him left, needs lots of space. Graves passes two D-bags who flew their turboprop onto the river bank and are trying to fish. Then even more history about this part of the river, that part... Graves then calls it quits early by setting up camp and killing a squirrel for squirrel stew. He dreams about Jesse Veale an original settler killed by Comanches and how when he was in WWII in the pacific he hated the Japanese just like the whites hated the Indians. Graves threatens to quit if the rain won't stop but it finally does so he heads out the next morning.

Chapter 5

The rain stops just enough periodically for Graves to talk himself into continuing. As he floats down the river he briefly discusses what each the bends are named for. Mostly old important white ranchers (Slaughter, Goodnight, etc.) He then hits some pretty hard rapids in an area called Dark Valley and interrupts a couple fly fishing. Graves then gives more insight into the Indians of yesteryear citing there were good Indians everyone liked: the Ionies, Wichitas, Kichais, and Caddos and the bad Indians: the Comanches and the Kiowas. Graves next discusses the reservation system and why the Indians were so pissed off and scalpy all the time. Next and story about poor Chotcaw Tom and his merry men and how they were slaughtered by the white man led by a guy named Captain Garland. This first killing eventually leads to most Indians being eradicated or fleeing from Texas in 1859 by a General Neighbors. Finally Graves gets back to the present and moans about how he's not living off the land enough and eating mostly store bought food. After quoting Veblen and Thoreau a bit he calls it quits.

Chapter 6

Graves sees the first deer of the trip then goes into detail about how most of the old game, esp. buffalo, has been hunted out of existence leaving only domesticated animals. He states "men increase; country suffers" (pg. 58) which sums up his general conservation attitude pretty well. Then he goes on and on about "Big Keechi" a super historic area of the Brazos. Charlie Goodnight a big cattle guy lived there, Mr. Goodnight ends up being a recurring thing Graves brings up all the time. Around mid-afternoon Graves stops at a picnic area littered with all kinds of trash and goes into the history and topography of the whole campground before pitching his tent and calling it a night.

Chapter 7

Graves wakes up and sees another deer, maybe its a recurring motif or something. After exploring the banks some more he finds an abandoned house and goes on to describe damn near every object in there to build up an atmosphere. As Graves walks around the rusty, musty, dusty house he wants to know what the people that lived there were like and their relationship with the river, the Indians, and other crap like that. Graves goes on about Buffalo Soldiers and more about Charlie Goodnight and says some pretty nihilistic shit like "an economy in which the planned obsolescence of both man and machine is basic... (pg. 75) He stops off at a dude ranch along the river to make a telephone call but turns around because he doesn't feel welcome so he waits until he gets to the white trash town nearby. Once there he walks into a shit-n-get and discuses the parlance of our times with an old shop keep before going to a gas station to call his family then Hale. After heading back to the river Graves brings up Chaucer and Twain while talking about the difference between loneliness and aloneness. While on the loneliness subject he gives the biography of a hermit named Sam Sowell and his sad exploits until his eventual death. The chapter ends with the story of another loner that went to jail because he killed game out of season but Graves justifies killing anytime for survival is morally superior to killing in season for sport.

Chapter 8

The chapter starts with some trucks driving near pissing him off and forcing him to start out early. He regains his composure and meets back up with his friend Hale for some hetero shoot stuff and reminisce guy time. He leaves his buddy and paddles down river listening to nature and watching the clouds turn ominous. After paddling for a while Graves goes hunting in a nearby forest and stumbles upon a kindly farmer, McKee, and uses their campground for the night. Graves lounges around the next morning just talking then eats lunch with McKee's family and leaves for the river. He catches a few bass over the faint sounds of deer rifle and admires nature some more. Then its ruined by two chicks in a pickup truck that get out on the other side of the river and start fishing. Graves remembers a similar situation with Hale years ago that ends in embarrassment. He continues up river with more Indian history and details their downfall (I.E. smallpox and machine guns) The chapter concludes with a high brow internal conversation about mans relationship with storms quoting a little Shelley of course.

Chapter 9

Some Canadian air is making it really freakin' cold though Graves is pretty content, He prefers places with 4 seasons instead of just one and welcomes the "melancholy of autumn". Then he gets all philosophical with "green is not so green without brown and gray" (pg. 119) Graves can't sleep very well as he hears a highway in the background so he quotes some Graham Green to soothe himself. The next morning a hunter runs into his campsite so of course the next 4 pages are Graves retelling the guys life story. After the guy leaves Graves climbs up to the top of a bluff to look down at the river and lay down historical nuance after nuance after nuance. Bigfoot Wallace, Goliad, Palo Pinto, the civil war Chelsey Dobbs scalped by Indians... The book is written well I just stopped caring after a while.

Back to things --- Graves details the history of the Sherman family and their run in with the local Indians. This guy named two-feathers and his band of Comanche brothers heckles these Irish people then rapes, tortures, and kills them except for one which turns out to be the mother of Quanah Parker. Graves finishes by bitching about historical inaccuracies and the Hollywood fictionalized version of the old west. At the end of the chapter Graves tells us how he is a world traveler and compared to world history the settling of the old west isn't a very big deal yet it is extremely important to him and makes up an important part of his being.

Part 2

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