10 things about this year's Fourth of July Picnic

1.      I got to be on stage at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. It was a small Picnic. It was the secondary stage. It was during soundcheck, not a performance. But it was damn cool. I took a few notes, chatted with a roadie, got a picture of Ray Wylie and Lucas Hubbard. The only other time I came close to the stage at a Picnic was in Luckenbach in 1995 or 1996. I went around the corner and there was the stairs to the stage. The only thing separating me from glory was a security guy who looked to be particularly upset that he had narrowly lost a Conan the Barbarian lookalike contest. I didn’t try it.

2.      Interviewing Willie was cool, of course. I mentioned that this was my 13th Picnic and that I had interviewed him before and he just said “Well, I’m glad we’re both still here.” A very polite way of saying “Yes, you and a thousand other assholes.” I was prepared, kept it businesslike and Willie was nice, but not inclined to elaborate in his answers. They had planned to pair my interview with some TV fellow, but he was late and I didn’t have to share. Good.

3.      I missed “Whispering Bill” Anderson. Damn. This is mostly because the laptop I was given to take to the event was pretty much shit dipped in molasses. Trying to file my blog reports, which I’m sure nobody read, took forever.

4.      I was told there were 4,000 people. I heard that it was 3,000, maybe 3,200 at best. This wasn’t really a Picnic in any sense but the marketing. It was just a very nice concert at Billy Bob’s.

5.      Why was it not a Picnic? It’s July 5th and I’m not sunburned. I’m not sore. I didn’t wake up exhausted. My feet don’t ache, my back doesn’t hurt. Hell, I think I had a seat in the shade for every outdoor set until Billy Joe Shaver took the stage late in the afternoon.

6.      If Lukas Nelson is going to keep whipping his head around like that, he needs to grow his hair longer or cut it short. Right now he looks like he’s trying to shake off an angry varmint that is attacking his head. The phrase epileptic muppet did occur to me. Also, I guess I’m supposed to be impressed that he can play his guitar with his teeth, but the only thing that goes through my head is “Jesus, that’s just asking for an emergency trip to the dentist.”

7.      Paul English walked right in front of me. Twice. Going from backstage to the T-shirt vendor. If you’ve read enough about Willie Nelson, you’ve read about what a badass Paul English was. After rain threatened to collapse the roof of the stage back in ’75 (or ’76, I don’t recall off the top of my head), Paul pulled out his pistol and shot a couple holes in it to allow for a little drainage. Even when I interviewed Willie in 1995, Paul was still a scary presence. Now, after a stroke, he appears every bit as old as he is. I wish him the best.

8.      In case you were wondering: $4 for a longneck inside, $6 for a 16-ounce can outside. And Willie’s merchandise folks were selling CDs for $25 a piece. Can you believe that shit? Who is going to buy a CD for $25?

9.      The folks at Billy Bob’s Texas were really cool to me. I got to sit at a table in an office to curse at my molasses-shit laptop and file reports. I constantly expected to get harangued by some security guard about “who are you? You can’t be here,” but I eventually came to recognize that my media pass was actually pretty valuable.

10.   Will there be a 40th Picnic? If Willie lives that long, it looks like it. Should there be a 40th Picnic? Yes, but it should be the last. Where should it be? It should be at Zilker Park. Am I going? Yes.

What would Davy Crockett think?

The boy can recognize Willie and Waylon, by voice and by sight. He knows all the words to “Pancho and Lefty” and sings “Whiskey River” by request. He knows armadillos and cowboys, farms and barns, old pickup trucks and “Go Spurs Go.”

As a 5-year-old, Buddy makes a pretty damn good Texan. But there’s always something overlooked.

I found it in the corner convenience store, while I was buying a bag of ice and a beer, Buddy in tow.

I’m approaching the register when he sidles up suspiciously close to me and says “Daddy, what’s that?”

Behind me is a display of children’s cheap pop guns and cheaper coonskin hats. I’m not sure why. The junction of Manchaca and Slaughter in far South Austin ain’t much of a tourist trap, unless you’re on a world tour of most annoying intersections.

Buddy doesn’t have much interest in guns yet. This is by design. Plenty of time for that. But the coonskin hats have his full attention.

“Why son, that’s a coonskin hat,” I say. “Do you want one?”

I couldn’t buy one, of course. His enormous noggin would require me to special-order an adult-size hat. But I can tell by the look in his eyes that I can get away with the question. “Do you want one?”


He puts his hand in mine.

“Does it bite?”

I’m laughing now, trying to pay for the ice and beer without having a full-on comic breakdown. It’s a legitimate question. To me the coonskin hat is Davy Crockett, the Alamo, Fess Parker, old books and childhood memories. To the boy, the rack of fur and tails is easily just so many varmints, huddled together, and full of unknown intent.

“No, son, it doesn’t bite.” I’m really having a good time with this now. “Are you sure you don’t want one?”

“No.” He’s extra sure.

The cashier is laughing now.

“Why son, what would Davy Crockett think?” I’m playing to the audience.

“Can we go home?” Buddy is a pro at the diversionary question.

I’m laughing so hard the cashier is starting to look at me strangely. Buddy finally steps out from beneath the counter – in the direction of the door.

“Aw, he’s so cute,” she says. Her own diversionary statement, it seems, against this barrel of monkeys I have become.

We get back in the car.

“Son, we’re going to have to go to the Alamo.”


“And learn about Davy Crockett.”


“And get a coonskin hat.”


We’ll get there. I’ll try not to traumatize him on the way.

Guadalupe Peak

Bret's proposal 2 years ago was simple enough: We need to hike to the top of the highest point in Texas and drink a beer. I was so out of shape at the time it was purely hypothetical.
Then, last December, after finding out the she was pregnant, Shannon had a great idea for a Christmas present for me: "I'm going to buy you an airplane ticket to El Paso so you can go visit Bret."

I had a better idea. With 4 months of preparation, we would follow through on Bret's plan.

After 8 weeks of progress and 8 weeks of regress in my 16-week preparations for hiking to the top of Guadalupe Peak, the only real question left was: Would I stay sober enough in El Paso on Friday to make my best effort at it on Saturday?

That question was answered before I even hit the Mountain Time Zone. Sitting on the plane with two large mugs of airport beer in my belly and another beer in my hand, I was looking down on the clouds, hardly thinking of the pain it would take to reach a (natural) high the next day.

We didn't go nuts of course. I am 40 years old. I drank conservatively enough considering it was a Dave and Bret reunion and we both turned in by 10:30 p.m.

I awoke Saturday morning at 6:30, took a shower. Bret himself even cooked breakfast, which was fine and we were headed east into the rising sun.

After our arrival at Guadalupe Mountains State Park, I threw on my pack (snapped this self-portrait) and threw myself on the trail. I did not apply any sunscreen which I had purchased for the trip and I did not stretch my old muscles, not even my particularly cranky calves.

I am an idiot.

I hadn't gone 200 yards of my 4.2-mile uphill trek before I was out of breath. At 400 yards my calves were as flexible as lumps of rock. I hadn't gone a quarter-mile and I was sure enough that I would never make it a mile, much less to the top.

It was only because I did not want to disappoint Bret (I was already sorely disappointed in myself) that I pushed on. Hiking sometimes as few as 3 or 4 steps at a time before pausing to regroup, I moved uphill bit by bit.

(Bret, I will point out, was very patient and encouraging, but never condescending. After 18 years, he knows me well enough. He would hike ahead and wait, knowing that I had to sort this through for myself.)

After we reached the top of the first mile, things evened out a bit. There were flat spots, small inclines and still the occasional steep part, but miles 2 and 3 were much easier. After awhile I finally caught my breath, just in time for my legs to start cramping up. This is the price I would pay for drinking the day before. And not stretching.

I had read on the Internet that the bridge marked mile 3 and the beginning of the last mile. Someone else had pointed out that it's the first mile and the last mile that's the hardest part of the ascent (which is, you know, 50 percent of it).

It is also from the bridge that you can finally see the true summit and that the people on the Internet are right on this one. It looks hard and looks are not deceiving.
I recall looking at my watch at some point and thinking that I should easily finish my ascent within 3 hours of starting. But it took 3.5 hours.

But I made it. Somehow I hauled my 250-pound carcass to the peak. In the picture above, I am the highest man in Texas, with the possible exception of Willie Nelson.

That beer was among the best I ever had. Followed by some of the best beef jerky and one of the finest granola bars I ever had.

The view from the top was pretty good. And it was all downhill from here right? I mean, we should make it down in like 2 hours.

The first mile down offered some rough terrain, and I was a bit stove up after 30 minutes at the top, but I was in good spirits. We hit the bridge relatively quickly and mile 2 went pretty fast as well. By mile 3, however, my legs were getting tired. This is something I did not expect. I'm overweight, but have solid muscle under there. I knew I was in for a long day, aerobically, given my complete lack of preparation, but I expected for my strength to help me endure the long hike.

By the last mile, which featured plenty of loose rock and (for me), knee-high steps down, my leg muscles had pretty much turned to jelly. I was whipped and I could not trust my legs to keep my upright if I were to slip or stumble. I had to slow down much to my chagrin and to Bret's.

I finally stumbled into the parking lot 2.5 hours after I left the peak. The roundtrip was 6.5 hours, on the bottom side of the 6-8 hours that many say the hike will take.

Personally I don't see how anyone could do it any slower than I did, unless they are botanists or birdwatchers. On the other hand, I never once stopped on the way up or down. I did, however, pause to catch my breath or give myself a pep talk about 10,000 times.
All in all, it was a really groovy excursion, even given my shame at failing to prepare in any way whatsoever. I'm pretty sure that I'm going to do it again at some point.

And now, of course, I have a very firm grasp of what not to do.