If Stephenson Preserve is my sandbox, and Mary Moore Searight my grade school, then the Violet Crown Trail is my university. I cut my teeth and scraped both knees in these woods. When it first opened, no one knew about it. And no one went. The tractor beam of Twin Falls, the Mothership, and its stampede trailhead was too strong for many to break orbit. It’s like the 6th Street of trails. Why would you want to try the little known trail with the butterfly garden down the street when you’ve got it all at Twin Falls? For a short time, I meandered across these canopied woods like a Juan Muir, gazing all around me, the forest to myself and my eight-year-old boy, right in the heart of the city. I didn’t know how to dress, navigate, or prep for hikes. I just walked around starry-eyed in these woods, in boots and jeans. I think that was 2016. Every now and then, the good folks at the VCT would come around and surprise you with new trails, nice ones, too, with all sorts of offshoots and detours that hid new groves of trees, caves and cliffs, and better yet, connections to the entire Greenbelt system. They do it the best and no one does it better. That purple and green logo with the trail on the mile markers? That’s like the NBA logo to me. Best in the game.
Well, my son wanted to go swimming, and my wife and I wanted to hike, so like peanut butter and jelly, we put’em together so everyone could eat. I suggested the Violet Crown with a possible stop at Sculpture Falls to go catch some fast water, followed by a late night dip at the Springs to cool our toes. Everyone was on board, so we headed to 290 in rush hour, and surprisingly, made good time. To cut down distance, I suggested a trail behind a department store that would shorten the hike to the MoPac bridge, and cut maybe a mile from our total out-and-back. I hadn’t been there in about a year and a half, but I knew the area well from the other side. We prayed, hi-fived, and set off behind these big stores anxious to get off of concrete. I stopped to admire the graffiti on the storm drain walls and voltage breakers, and chuckled to myself. If the Power Rangers tagged walls, this is what it would look like. I can just see them doing their karate forms and power moves, reciting their powers, pointing and spraying their cans of paint across the wall.
I didn’t remember the exact point of entry to this backdoor trail, so I went down the first footpath I saw. There were two shopping baskets parked on the side of the trail, and I knew what could lie ahead. When I walked in, I was slack-jawed. I’ve stumbled into many camps before, but I wasn’t prepared for this. I felt like I was in a madman’s laundromat, walking down a row of washing machines whose see-through doors simultaneously exploded open with full washloads that spewed onto the ground. The entire hillside was covered with abandoned clothing and charred trash. It looked like a cargo jet crash. The last time I was here, I was in the woods. Today, I was in a dump site. An abject dump site.
It’s my custom to hike through these camping areas if I come across them, regardless of what I might encounter. I do make every effort to show respect, and I try to stick to the trails. But I will hike the woods, even if it’s an area that’s been destroyed.
I tried to find a proper trail, but I could not, so we headed back out. Now, I did stick around long enough to let my son see. He was born and raised in this town, and I wanted him to know. I wanted him to see. No rose-tinted glasses here. No deer-in-the-headlights, either, because he will come across these things in the future on his own. He must know. But I would rather that he takes this all in, by his father’s side.
We hiked out of the camp and found the trailhead I was looking for, 50 yards away, behind a Sam’s and a trash compactor. Gnats guarded the trail in hives, and we swatted, and no doubt swallowed, a few away. We hiked down and I knew exactly where we were, but the gang was tired. It had been a hell of a week. Last week, my son accidentally poured diesel into our gas tank, and we were stranded at a gas station for hours. Then the tow company lost our car. Then the dealership said they lost the key to our car. Later that night, an Australian Shepherd bit my son on the hamstring leaving a blue-cheese green bruise and four vampire marks on his leg. So after the stress and a nice little $1000 bill for the car, my wife and I needed some forest bathing, if you will.
I looked at them closely, and I knew they were done. I wanted to ruck, but I also didn’t want them to hike any further if they were over it. I was a little bummed, but no biggie. I made it to the woods today, where I belong. We trekked up to make a shortcut to our car, and found another cluster of camps. I counted at least 5 more. It wasn’t like this a year and a half ago. I’ve never seen this large of a footprint. It’s bad. The dumping is really, really bad. It’s just a matter of time until the ecosystem here suffocates, hikers avoid the area, and then nothing will grow. I guided my family out and we made it back to the car. We only did two miles, but now it was time to pay up. I hiked with you, Dad, now it’s time to take a dip in some natural springs. I had forgotten my trunks, but this spared the public from having to look away. Next time.
When we drove into the soccer field parking lot, I noticed a man fussing with something on the top of his minivan. It looked like a Tupperware box that he had upside down. He was trying to move something loose inside. With a closer look, I saw rows of Monarch butterflies inside that he was shaking loose from whatever they were attached to. They opened and closed their wings like batting eyelashes, and he gently pried them loose. I tried not to stare. When we got out, he looked at me with a look that told me he didn’t like to be watched while he’s doing God’s work.
We walked up to the booth, had our temps taken, and enjoyed the free admission. Just ahead, I noticed the historical plaque (erected in 1936) with letters corroded with that sea-green rust, at the entry, and read the inscription: “Approximate location of the Missions San Francisco de los Neches Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion San Jose de los azonis” circa 1719. 1719? I’ve walked by this plaque many times, but I guess today was going to be the day that it fried my brain. I love it when I truly take in how old a place really is. It blows me away.
My son, in flip-flops, flopped his way down the ramp and into Barton Springs, like every kid does, bracing for the cold dip that awaited, and looking for the action at the diving board. The great Cottonwood tree of Barton Springs hovered above the scene, as sunset burned its last beams of light through its large, teardrop leaves.
My son walked down the steps into the water like a Gregorian monk, holding his goggles in his hand like a bowl of incense. For water this cold, you gotta go deep within the recesses of your mind for calm. And with my boy, it’s a 10 minute process. First, walk down till the ankles are under the water. Then the knees. Then the thighs. Grunt. The waist. Squeal. Wheeze. Then the chest. Ouch! Gasp. The shoulders. Blow air out of your mouth like you’re cooling off a burn. At this point it feels like you’ve been given licks with an ice paddle across your back and your chest. But once you nod to your inner spirit animal, the white wolf, you dunk your head and soak your face in the icy fire until it goes numb and feels cool.
The Gregorian chant worked, and I sat back and watched my beautiful boy lie on his back, spit out water like a fountain angel, and dive down to the bottom.
After sitting awhile on the grassy knoll, I was getting stiff. I asked my wife if she’d like to walk around the pool. We could go see the overflow area on the other side of the fence. It has become just as famous as Barton Springs. It’s like an outdoor college dorm room. Green smoke hovers over the water, dogs fetch toys, and someone with a guitar and a poncho plays music on the rock while someone walks like a robot across the rushing water shooting out of the drains.
We stopped by a ladder to check on our boy, then walked up to the Cottonwood tree. I wanted to read the names carved in the concrete by the diving board, and I wanted to see if I could find a date. As soon as I began reading the names, an old-timer walked up, and said, “1923. About to be the 100th anniversary of the concrete laid here. There were only 30,000 people living in Austin at that time. Check out the name there,” he pointed where I was looking down. “‘Kid’ Gatlin. I used to know one of the guys who ran Austin Parks many years ago, and asked him, did you know a ‘Kid’ Gatlin? He laughed, and said,” Yeah, I knew him. I knew so-and-so, too.”” The waves of time were rolling over me, and I could almost feel all of these people passing through me. Now, I call this man an old-timer, but he has a far better physique than I do. I will say, though, I’m not used to talking to a 73 year-old man in a speedo for this long, so it was high-time for me to skedaddle. I found out later that this man had been attacked by an alligator a few years ago. He was swimming in alligator-infested waters and had his entire head in its mouth. I also read that this guy had discovered an unknown species of plant in a marsh off the East Colorado River. Stories. Like usual. They’re all around.
We completed our lap without getting wet, and signaled to our boy to bring it in. I chatted with the lifeguard by the railing, and remarked to her that she might have the best view in Austin, right here, the skyline shimmering in silver and purple in the distance. She agreed but said she hated that Jenga building. I laughed, “Oh yeah?”. “But I love working here,” she said, smiling behind her mask.
We walked out to the parking lot and the tiredness hit us hard. I looked to my right, and there he was. Busy, busy. The Butterfly man was walking to his car. He looked at me again to see if I was looking at him, and I couldn’t resist. I wanted to see if he had those Monarch butterflies. I wanted to see them fly like broken, orange stained-glass. He didn’t take any out, but I asked him, ”What were you doing earlier?”
“Releasing butterflies. I raise them. I have host plants,” he said with a heavy Spanish accent. He slid his minivan door closed, nodded at me, and got inside.
We drove off ourselves, and didn’t talk much. My son nodded off, and my wife held the steering wheel weakly, like she was in a trance. I thought about our day, and all of the hard questions rolling around my head. I thought about ‘Kid’ Gatlin playing here under the Cottonwood tree 100 years ago, and my son, tonight, doing the same thing. Will my boy still have these places when he’s older? Will he still have a Violet Crown Trail? I learned at Barton Springs today it takes protection, and custodians, just like that lifeguard and that Butterfly Man. Host plants, protected places, where all manner of butterflies can grow.