I am not making this up…In 1898, a lady daredevil performed a stunt for the public from the top of Mount Bonnell. No motorcycles, no ramps. No rockets or explosions. Nothing remotely Evel Knievel. Just a crazy idea, and a rope. So she and her team ran a seven thread metal cable down from the top of the mountain to the south bank of Lake Austin. She was going to slide down the cable, 775 feet high, all the way down for the waiting crowd. But here’s the kicker. She wasn’t alone. And she didn’t use a hand-trolley.
Miss Hazel Keyes ‘ziplined’ down from the top of Mount Bonnell hanging by nothing but the locks of her hair. Her hair. And accompanying her, sitting faithfully on her shoulder, was her pet monkey, Miss Jennie Yan Yan. Jennie Yan Yan…And although it looked like a cape, the monkey was actually wearing a parachute.
Miss Keyes jumped off and slid down the metal rope, and she and Miss Jennie were on their way, wind blowing in their, uh…hair. But because there was too much slack on the line, she slowly came to a stop. Right over the lake. The cable shook, and they bobbed up and down. And there she was, hanging by her hair, her pet monkey fidgeting and standing on her shoulder, looking down. I can just see the rope twitch, and hear the cable creak, as Miss Hazel Keyes whispered to her friend not to worry while keeping steady, keeping still…her neck stiff, stretched tight, in pain, but secure. Jennie Yan Yan obeyed and parachuted down to one of the assistants waiting in a skiff on the water. The crowd gasped as the monkey rocked gently down on a cradle of air into the arms of the sailor man waiting below. Jennie Yan Yan was safe, but circling frantically in place, round and round, looking up at her master dangling in the air. Miss Hazel Keyes was eventually helped down.
Success. She was the talk of the town, I’m sure, and as it so happens, she is, again, right now. This was Austin, Mount Bonnell, 1898.
I had awakened from one of those evening naps that never should have happened in the first place. One of those 2020 pandemic-naps that feel like a science fiction dream. Like waking up on an examination table during an alien abduction. I was covered with sleep-in-the-eyes, nap breath, and a shoelace of dried saliva crackling on the side of my face. I was groggy. Heavy with guilt for wasting the day. We should have been hiking! but we fell asleep! spooning the lazy, orange haze of an early sunset away.
My wife thought I was crazy when I asked her if we could still go. “NO! I’m not going hiking at this time of night. It’s 11 o’clock! Are you crazy? It’s cold, too! Man!” She scoffed and laughed at me with that are-you-crazy-laugh. Yeah, she was right. When we checked the temps from the top of Mount Bonnell later that night, it was 44 degrees. Chilly. But sometimes, living in the fog of a pandemic just pulls the strings. During a surge, the house can feel the same way it feels when you’re wearing too many layers of uncomfortable clothing and you gotta get out of them quickly because you can’t move right or breathe. Same thing here.
When we drove up to Mt Bonnell Rd, I could tell my wife was nervous about parking her car in the lot late at night. There were signs about break-ins…which means…there are break-ins. Oh well, “hide your husband, hide your wife,” as the viral saying goes.
“I don’t wanna do the stairs,” I said. I like the rocky side. The ascent. I did my warm-up squats, and we prayed. (Remind me to change the order of that so I’m not out-of-breath while I pray.) I was so happy! I was bundled up and warm, anticipating the summit and the upcoming views. Just elated, taking in all of the dark mystique that permeates the night.
The juniper trees were black blots of ink and the powdery rocks gave off a dead glow from the dim moonlight. I jumped from rock to rock by the steel guard rope and slipped. Check thyself, hiker. I had to dial the frolicking back. 200 lbs, plus, dashed on rock, is not a good time. We were going too fast, so we took our time.
My wife gave me the look. I stopped. There was rustling in the bush, off to the side. A couple I couldn’t quite see was just passing smoke from the peace pipe into the breeze. We gently walked by like we were wearing moccasins with turquoise beads, and hiked until we reached the top and the shade arbor. I stopped to read the historical notes, and read about Mr. Bonnell, who wrote a book about Texas topography and fought in the War for Texas Independence. I also read about George Custer, legendary George Custer, who led the 6th Cavalry that was stationed here in Austin, and who picnicked here with his wife, Libby, to the sound of the Army Marching Band. Talk about ‘Pomp and Circumstance.’
I also read about the legend of the wounded soldier who fell in love with his caretaker nearby in the 1800s, and who proposed and married her here, giving birth to the legend that the same fate will fall on you, if you fall in love at Mount Bonnell.
And then I read about ‘Antoinette’s Leap.’ The legend of the woman who leapt from the top of Mount Bonnell to her death after she learned of her fiancé's death by warring Indians who were now coming after her. She walked to the edge, looked to her right, Indians fast approaching, yelling, and plunged herself to the Other Side.
“Hey, psst. Come here!” My wife loud-whispered to me. I snapped out of my trance and followed her. “Have you been over here?”
“Where?” I said.
“Yeah, I have. The picnic area?”
“Yeah, but come and look at this.”
I stepped into an area hidden by the bush and laid my eyes on the best panorama of the city I’ve ever seen. I had to get a better look. I stepped onto the bench and onto the picnic table and took it all in. The Austin skyline looked like a shimmering, digital city from TRON. I went quiet. The radio towers blinked their red blips of light, and helicopters and planes crossed over the sky like ornaments of floating lights.
“Get the whiskey, babe,” I said. This was the moment. Yes. Time for a toast.
We took a swig from a tiny little stocking stuffer bottle of booze. It was terrible. But the moment made it taste better, and the moment made it matter. I wiped my mouth and smiled like a forty-niner that just struck gold. I was dazzled by the lights and the quiet stir of the wind. We were standing on top of the jagged precipice of Texas, the Balcones Escarpment, the line between the Blackland Prairies and the Hill Country. I looked down. Libby Custer once said that the fields of cotton that were planted by the sandy shore below looked like waves of foam. Waves of foam. Instantly, I thought about how many eyes have scanned these very vistas… same as I was. How many couples here have held hands. How many have made promises. It gave me chills.
Time to go. It was getting late. I headed back the way we came up but Vanessa stopped me, and suggested we take an offshoot trail. I led the way with my bicycle flashlight, damn near a lightsaber cutting through the night.
We stepped through the brush and found the parking lot. I helped Vanessa down. Puddles of broken glass from break-ins covered the street, sparkling under the light. We walked by the motion detectors, setting off the cameras, and stopped by to read the history plaque.
“Babe! Babe! You gotta read this!” I said. “There was this lady in 1898, a daredevil. Her name was Hazel Keyes…”
“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”
-Vincent Van Gogh
(Photos of Miss Hazel Keyes and Jennie Yan Yan courtesy of Oregon Historical Society)