CROSSING THE BORDER IN AUSTIN
She took a deep breath and prepared herself. She opened the door and quickly shut it, her eyes getting big, cheeks filling with air like a trumpet player holding a note. She waved her hands back-and-forth frantically, trying to shoo off the disgust. She held her breath, again. She tried door number two (pun intended) of the Port-a-Pottie, and her eyes got even bigger as she ran off squealing to herself as flies flew out, buzzing by my ears before the door slammed shut. Opening those doors was like taking bong hits of dirty diapers right to the face.
But my wife had to pee. It felt like we were in a funhouse at a carnival trying to find a restroom. Running into walls and funny mirrors, stumbling inside of rotating barrels. The people we asked at the park laughed in our faces like evil clowns when we asked for directions to a real restroom. A clean restroom at a public park? They laughed with their scary clown make-up, heads tilted back, showing all of their teeth.
She held it for as long as she could. She will not pee in a Pottie. My wife will not pee in the woods. I had to find her a restroom. Rest and room emphasized. I noticed a building by the playground and we walked that way. Apparently, I stopped an entire lifeguard training class at the pool, whistles and everything, to ask permission for my wife to use their restroom. My wife stood behind me just like a child hiding behind a parent’s leg for protection, peeking out.
A lifeguard instructor in dark aviators asked someone behind the wall if it was o.k. He cleared his throat, spoke up, and asked again. Everyone got quiet. The other seven lifeguards stopped what they were doing to listen. I could hear the water lapping on the edge of the pool. We got the ok. The fence rattled as my wife opened the gate with shaking hands, trying to smile. All I could do was fold my arms together, turn around, and laugh.
For the second time this year, we were in a different part of Austin picking up a chair we bought on Facebook Marketplace, stopping in the area afterwards for a hike. Never know when you’re gonna be in that part of town again. We looked over satellite maps on our phones for the most green and the most trees and decided to hike Walnut Creek. We’ve heard alot about it, and now with a chance to go, we were chomping at the bit.
Now, I’m rarely up North. I always feel out of place when I cross Ben White. It’s like the Berlin Wall for me. The Demarcation Line of two vastly different Zones. North and South. I always feel like I am passing through demilitarized checkpoints with guards and K-9s who inspect our vehicle and check our passports. When I moved to Austin, the South was where it was at. Bars, restaurants, ACL, Zilker and Barton Springs. All the action was South. I stayed South. I used to joke that when I went up North, everything turned black and white, like a photograph. Please don’t get mad at me. I was wrong. It’s just different. And now, I think the tables have turned. The North is fabulous, and our Walnut Creek hike would prove no different. It would turn out to be a lovely, lovely outing.
Now, why didn’t anyone tell me about these woods? After those stinky Port-a-Potties, we found so much to explore. We started on the east side hiking the trail that hugged Wells Branch (the water not the road) and found so many trails down to the water. And with all of the rain, good flow. The dogs were dashing across the water like it was a beach, shaking off all of the rust of confinement, smelling and smiling with tongues hanging out, looking back for their masters.
It was easy to stop and get mesmerized by the shallow water running over the limestone. It was a wrinkled sheet of aqua green with a shimmer of silver when it hit sunlight. There were some really nice cliff edges, too. I peered down to the water and the blocks of rocks and boulders below. It was so much fun following the trails anticipating hidden coves and waterholes. And we did just that for the first half-mile of our hike. We met a couple in a lovely spot playing with their two Australian Shepherds. The dogs were 6 months old and stared me down with their yellow and blue-white eyes that looked like marbles. The girlfriend walked barefoot across the rocks in the riverbed with her pants rolled up, and her boyfriend watched over the dogs who circled over territory they had already marked to themselves in their doggie minds. He threw rocks that skipped across the water.
It was here that we started to notice a lot of debris on the bank. Clothing. Shopping baskets and trash washed up on tree limbs and rocks. It looked like a washing machine spilled out loads mid-cycle all across the creek. It was really hard to see. It must have been litter that got washed up with all the rain. I thought to myself, just like I did in one of my earlier write-ups, that without serious protection, these places aren’t going to last. How could they? The City of Austin website even describes the Walnut Creek Watershed as having “year round flow and generally high ecological health, although it is under intense development pressure currently, and water quality may suffer over the next few years.” The writing is on the wall.
We must have taken at least seven drop-in trails to the creek hoping for better and better views, and we were not disappointed. We stopped at one spot and saw, on the other side, a rusted bucket on a cliff-face attached to a string tied up to a sack of rocks on top of the bluff. Right beside it was a jug of water. We wondered what was going on. Was there a two-man team? or was the bucket launched over the cliff down to the water and gently pulled back up? Had to be a tag team. Had to be for a camp on the other side.
We decided to go cold turkey from our creek-view-addiction so we could finally get some miles in and see more of the park. We talked to a couple of mountain bikers and asked where we could find some hills for climbing. He told me we had already overshot it. (We will definitely try the Windy Loop Trail next time.) Right after our chat we came across some of the trail markers. I had a good laugh. I read the first one: “SEVERE CONSEQUENCES LOOP,” and saw some other great names on our GAIA map : “HILL OF DESPAIR” (Sign me up.), “MARK’S ART,” “SKI HILL FLOW TRAIL,” and “TANGLE OF TRAILS LOOP.” As a writer, I could appreciate the imagination. Now, let’s see if any of these trails live up to their names.
The Tangle is true. We got a little lost, and found the Hill but no Despair. Just the chocolate milk of mud. Mud. Mud. But that’s ok. We’re hiking. We kept passing the nicest of mountain bikers. I was pleasantly surprised for the second time this year with courteous, hand-waving cyclists. Wow. No Cyborg Mountain Bikers who don’t smile and almost take out small families riding full speed to beat their last lap time. No, these were the Martha Stewarts and Mister Rogers of Mountain Bikers, casually pedaling by. I wanted to stop and have tea with them, they were so nice.
We made it to the Walnut Creek crossing with all of its clay soil and toppled rocks. It looked like a sinkhole where a highway collapsed and a river rose to the surface. I couldn’t believe there weren’t more people there. This is an oasis. Sharp, flat stones lined the banks like shark teeth and bikers and hikers crossed over the four large boulders in the middle of the branch. Reminded me of the Pedernales. The roots of the trees on the bank exposed, the clay soil crumbled off bit by bit. We hopped the rocks like they were stone ferries and we made it safely across.
We got caught up on the Powerline Trail looking for springs. Ross Springs. Shady Springs. We found one. The water just seeps out everywhere here. I’ve never seen that before. You hear the trickle of water behind the treeline on any trail you hike. It’s wonderful. But there isn’t much shade on the Powerline Trail so we started to head back to the direction of our car. Once we got to the main bridge, I saw a dark trail underneath it, so I told my wife we had to go explore it. We checked back on the map and I saw a spot called the WATERFALL X-ING. That would be the prize. I wanted to see the cascading water and have a sit.
We followed Ski Hill Trail and found a hidden spot where a family had beat us to the punch. Their black Lab puppy barked at us like we were intruders, losing his footing on a ledge. Mom was on a lawn chair on the rockbed, gazing at the water, her hand under her chin. Dad and his 5 year-old son were splashing in a pool. They got quiet when I hiked to the edge of the hill above them, and said hello. I smiled wide and waved goodbye. This reminded me of a line from the Louis L’Amour book I’m reading right now: “It was a nice, cozy spot, and like all other such spots, somebody else thought so, too.” We let them enjoy their private waterhole in the woods and continued to search for our own.
We made a tight turn on a BMX trail and found the marker we were looking for. We dropped in and found our very own lagoon, the water cascading over a big rock. We took off our shoes and let the cold water soothe our achy feet and cool us down. The sound of the purling water soothed us, too, with a growing stillness that cleared our heads.
It was good to stop charging ahead for once. To sit down and listen to the rushing water and the plop of my wife’s feet as she balanced herself over the rocks all by herself. I stepped around myself, pensively, looking down at the water flowing around my feet, and I thought, it sure is nice up here in North Austin, and I hope to be back again.