Do you ever hike those slim and shady woods, quasi-greenbelts nestled behind neighborhoods? Yeah, me too. Greenbelts with homeless camps, half-buried barbed wire, and sewer-slime pools? Yeah, me too. Hiking by dogs barking from backyards, noses pressed hard against the chain link, snarling and showing their teeth? Uh-huh, us too. And like today, chance meetings with, say, a young couple smoking something so strong they don’t look at you, but through you, like Bigfoot and his bride looking back once before slipping out of sight, smoke hanging in the air like floating sheets of ice over the riverbed? Well, our hike went a little like that today, too.
We parked and suited up at the trailhead of the Indian Grass Prairie Preserve in Sunset Valley. The entrance is not an easy find and is literally the length of a ⅓ of your house’s driveway, and ends with a chain-gate by the grass. Right by the parking post lies a menacing boulder that looks like the helmet of a Nazgul king, one of the Nine Ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings. But the real landmark is the red and white radio tower blinking and tickling the sky in the middle of a mowed field around the bend. We were right by Brodie Lane, headed west for the MoPac underbelly, sights set on the Brush Country Rd Bridge, a 3.3 mile out-and-back.
I’ll always remember this preserve because I hiked here after spotting the kiosk and driveway out of the corner of my eye, years ago, while driving. And, as is very important if I wanted to call myself a hiker, I stopped. But then came the self-talk. I entertained all of those fears that immediately flood the mind like flying bats …Will I be towed? What about ancy Sunset Valley P.D.? Western Diamondbacks? Mentally unstable people living in the woods shouting and griping behind the treeline, drinking tallboys in brown paper sacks?
My eyes bounced around like atoms. I was too afraid to blink. But, I waited for those chirping bats to fly past, and I stepped in and didn’t stop.
But it was also here that my son and I came upon the largest tent city I’ve ever seen. Just shy of MoPac, on trail, in a corridor lined by yellow wildflowers on each side, we noticed a footpath to our left that led to a tent camp that looked like the aftermath of a travelling carnival that had just left town. Abandoned, slipshod, and colorfully tattered tents flapped in the wind. The ground was littered with trash tossed and smashed flat across the camp. I didn‘t blink. Would they be coming back? When? I told my son to keep close. I was ready for anything. I do not exaggerate when I say that I thought 50 people could have been living there. But where did they go? I don’t know. But I will tell you this. The underground in Austin does not reside below. It resides behind the greenbelt treeline. We kept on hiking, my son right by my side, but I was not looking forward to hiking back.
So when my wife and I walked by that same spot today, I was apprehensive. But ready. Same feeling I get every time. Same uneasy, Book of Eli, Denzel looking-out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye vibe. I told her to switch spots with me so I could lead. When we made it to the footpath into the clearing, I couldn’t believe it. The camp area was cleared. Clean. Just a few signs of people passing through. Maybe a few water bottle caps on the ground. I smiled like someone opening and closing a fist after a cast is taken off and then a squirrel scurried along a bough above me, scratching bark, and scared the wits out of me. Vanessa laughed.
“I remember this place being much bigger,” I said as I spun around in a circle, looking everything over. But maybe the number and size of flying bats I see is proportional to the fear I carried back then.
We continued on the hike and saw the dry bones of what was once a Hill Country oasis: The dry swath and rocky riverbed of Williamson Creek. I always get bummed out when I see this. It’s either been cut off of its water supply, or it’s drought. Will rushing freshwater ever come back? Will our creeks ever be full again?
“Look, babe.” I pointed to a massive corporate office in the field ahead of us where there was once a homestead with cattle, and shook my head.
“This used to be a lovely pasture with the greenest, swaying grass,” I told her. I looked upon the field with dread. Sold off. “Progress,” I said. “The machine progressing ahead. And for what? A better P&L?”
We hiked ahead and found a beautiful rockbed and a path to another trail that was blocked by an iron fence. The bars were bent apart like Superman had broken out of jail. Alas, this rotund tumtum would not fit. That’s when we saw Bigfoot and his bride and their short-hair dog walking the riverbed. I could have used a K95, or a K1000 mask (if they have one), the smell was so bad. Damn, I’m a hippie, too, and that stinky-icky-icky smelled like skunk-dookie and could probably fell trees. I don’t know if that dude was on a vision quest or what but he successfully landed on the moon. In the ether. He looked at me like I was a hologram and then his dog barked at me.
My wife, the navigator, showed us what lay ahead and I suggested the Brush Country Rd Bridge as a stopping point. Daylight was fading to a darker gold and it was a nice spot to start the turn around.
My wife found a tree with Keep Austin Weird ornaments hanging from its branches. Always a charming discovery when you find little trinkets of ATX creativity. On it hung crochet dolls, doll-heads, ribbons, and keys. But it was now just an hour from sunset, so we took a selfie, and headed back into the slim and shady greenbelt back to our car.
We crossed underneath both Mopac bridges and saw another hiker, decked in neon-orange camo. Yes, neon-orange. Head-to-toe. Orange cane. Orange pants, shirt, and shoelaces. A walking popsicle leaving a rave? I could tell he wanted to talk so it was ‘Cool story, bro,’ and we were off. I was still alert and on-guard when I passed the old campsite, but it was all good. No sign of any bats. We were on the homestretch. I could see the Toothleaf Goldeneye bushes in full bloom and our Great Radio Tower.
We hiked what I noticed were new trails and encountered some of the same oddities we find at the nearby Stephenson Preserve. Old rusted cans were hanging on tree knubs everywhere. Dozens of them. While counting the cans, I noticed the boughs of trees branched out from their trunks curling and reaching out like toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube. I stopped. We heard the low hoot of an owl and I looked up. In a chasm between the trees I could see the blinking, red light of the radio tower, and for some reason, felt at ease.
“Take us home, love.” She dialed up our location and we headed to the Brodie bridge. A few minutes later, she stopped, turned around, and got behind me. A homeless camp lay just ahead of us with smoke rising from the tent like some cottage from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. I spoke up to let them know we were passing through but also spoke with a peaceful tone, “I’m-just-a-hiker-I’m-cool.” I know that they have their own flying bats to deal with out here, too.
We crossed the creek up a hill out into the open prairie. The tower was to our right. We drank water and rested while a violet horizon changed moods and colors, and the sky, like a hand cupped around a candle, cupped itself around the tower, and around the red blips of light.