Red grapes and cheese cubes just hit different in the cool shade of a hidden cave after a midday hike through the prickly brush. I was as content as a toddler in a high chair, chewing in silence, examining the next morsel in my stubby fingers and repeating until we were done with the bag we were passing around. I flinched and squinted from sweat in my eye and the rhinestone shimmer of Lake Austin in the golden sun. We made our first attempt to find this cave last week but had to call it off due to slick rocks from a heavy mist, and not having any water on hand. The mold in the air didn’t help, either. My wife and I were breathing through straw airways, stranded in a fog on the side of Mount Bonnell. Oh yeah, and we didn’t know where the cave was. I only had a hunch.
People always say Mount Bonnell is a cakewalk, and not a ‘real hike,’ but I knew there was more to it than that. Had to be. And I was right. Looking online one day for caves in the Austin area, I read that Bigfoot Wallace, a famous Texas frontiersman and soldier, hid out in a cave here when the Austin area was very dangerous territory. Incidentally, we had bought an audiobook about the life of Wallace last year to listen to on our way to Fort Davis. It was such a humorous account of his ‘scapes and scrapes,’ I had to find out more. Legend has it that he fought an Indian, mano y mano to the death, on a ledge on the side of this mountain above the Colorado River. The story was full of pulp action, the two of them wrestling and rolling around on the ground, stopping to look at the same knife, trying to grab it before the other. Wallace got caught in a choke hold but reversed the maneuver, and foot swiped the back of his opponent’s leg, laying him out flat, the warrior’s head falling hard and fast onto a sharp rock. There was also another story about the frontiersman hiding out in a cave at the base of Mount Bonnell to recover from the ‘flux’(dysentery), and the subsequent loss of his hair. He would not return to his sweetheart who waited for him in Austin until it grew back. He rubbed bear grease on his scalp daily to no avail, only to be told that his fiancée could wait no longer, and married another man. Wallace fought in about every Texas scrape there was, including the Battles of Salado Creek, Hondo River, and Mier. He survived the Black Bean Massacre in Mexico, and is buried here in Austin, right by Stephen F. Austin in the Texas State Cemetery.
So this cave story was getting interesting. I did some research online and there wasn’t much, other than a Reddit thread about the cave being an old UT party hangout and make-out spot under the moonlight overlooking the water. There was also a yellow photograph of an early settler in a tailored suit sitting on a rock by a ‘cave.’ But where was it located? Since I’m fresh out of drones, I did the next best thing I could and opened Google Earth and flew around Mount Bonnell with my two stubby fingers on the screen. With imagination and a bulging, jeweler’s eye, I could make out a trail. But, at the end of the day, there’s only one way to find out. The best way.
As I mentioned before, my wife and I made an attempt last week, because we were in the area buying a used chair from a lady in a mansion on Lake Austin. I remember feeling like a hippie Shrek walking up to the garage, feeling more destitute with every step. Of course, my wife said we should stop by Mount Bonnell and try the route. But guess what, we had no water, no hiking staff, no warm-up or stretch, just ganas. We gave it our best effort, but the mist was not unlike a fog, and although we did find a rock trail going straight up the side of Mount Bonnell, we could not find a clear path to the caves. I attempted the rock climb up the staircase of boulders, but found myself out of gas after a hundred feet up. I heard some kids above me making bird calls and laughing, so I thought I was close. I called it off, with full regret, but knew it was the right call. I’ve been stupid before and actually decided not to be stupid this time. It was good for me, though. An unfinished climb gnaws in the belly until it becomes a fire that’s gotta be put out. My wife’s birthday was the following week, so that settled it. I would take my wife and boy up the steep slope of Mount Bonnell, and find Bigfoot Wallace’s cave for her birthday.
(Wallace’s biographer, John Duval, said Bigfoot hunted bears here on Mount Bonnell. Can you imagine? Said it was the best bear hunting ground he encountered in all of his travels. Hard to picture a bear and cubs grunting and scrambling up the hillsides, here, when all ll I see are the mansions on Rich Man’s Row, and wake boats zipping by on the water.)
When we arrived for the birthday cave search, it was a cloudless day on a Monday afternoon. After we prayed in the parking lot, we walked past a young group obviously preparing for a pow wow in the woods. Campfire stove, coolers, and giggles of excitement. I gave them a hearty hello, reminiscing my youth. We walked up the powdery rock trail on the South entrance, not the 102 step stairway to the top. I wanted us to warm up, not lunge. Right as we embarked, I looked back and saw one of the pow wow boys, who stopped, looked into my eyes, and slipped into the trees with a full bottle of Grey Goose, and what looked like a box of record albums. I thought to myself, damn, this place hasn’t changed since I came here in my twenties after long nights of fiestas. I remember my first time here. My friend Jay brought me just before sunrise and we watched red and yellow hot air balloons rise and float by like a psychedelic parade over the Balcones Escarpment.
We walked by a few families holding hands, and others sitting on stones by the rusted steel rope staring into the sky fixated on some oblivion. I hopped from boulder to boulder, and my boy followed. We made it to the top of what must be Instagram heaven, turned around, and
went straight back down to find the trapdoor trailhead by the picnic table at the bottom. (I felt like doing a catwalk turnaround for the camera, shutter clicks going off in rapid fire as I posed by the overlook.)
When we made it down, we slipped into the trees as well, and I damn near skated down a rockslide. From muddy and misty last week to slip and slide the next. I caught myself before I fell. Felt like the Ghost of Bigfoot Wallace tried that footswipe on me on the back of my leg. But not today. We find the caves today, Mr. Wallace.
Now while there are no bears, I immediately started to get peppered by my Dad conscience. Why did you bring your wife and boy out here? bushwhacking, climbing steep grades on all fours? What about the rattlesnakes? What if someone slips and falls? Well, at this point, it’s all assess as you go. It’s like that Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler.” Know when to hold’em, know when to fold. I was good with that, but my wife was convinced there was an easier route (there was), especially if you’ve got coolers, a record player, and a bottle of Goose.
We made it to the rocky staircase and I sent my boy up to the place I stopped at last week, and my wife and I followed. Unlike my greedy pace last week, I took my time and marveled at the availability of oxygen. Wow, I can breathe! I told my son to stay put when my wife arrived, and I went to the top to see, if there was in fact, a route, a hidden trail. When I got to the top, I could make out somewhat of a dirt path in between the chaparral, but when I saw the tree roots worn on the top, and a Corona bottle top, I knew we had found the bread crumbs. I yelled down for them to come on up and gave them about 55 warnings about snakes and slips and what to do if you find yourself rolling down the mountain like an action-movie stuntman.
My wife agreed. It was indeed a trail. It was noticeably cooler by the rock, and when I saw the first concave indentation in the limestone, I knew we had found it. Not to be outdone by our discovery, Mount Bonnell made us pay for it. We squeezed through the prickliest of brush, for initiation. Red scratches on the skin, we bear-crawled out of the bush with crazy legs and shouts of vexation.
We walked under the overhang, the cool air soothing the cuts on our arms, and marveled at the overlook from the underlook, directly beneath the top of Mount Bonnell.
We stopped to give the other group 40 yards away some privacy. I could see the Grey Goose Gang ahead, laughing and dancing, revelling in their beautiful youth.