I’ve been playing ‘handslap chicken’ with the sunset ever since Thanksgiving. I’ve lost every round. Every time I think I’ve got enough daylight, I turn my back to do something, and SLAP! Early sundown smacks me again on top of my red hand. Gotcha! It's Daylight Savings Time, sucka! Right at traffic hour, too. And I’m just left there like a child with sad eyes, off to bed, on Christmas Eve. My hands still sting. Early sundown’s got me depressed, man! So, today, I made sure I got myself out to the woods, early, right at 4 o’clock. Short day, you ain't taking me by surprise no more.
I parked by the secret spot right by Persimmon Hollow, a row of teal condos that back up to the edge of the preserve. Ten years ago, a bartender from Trudy’s, polishing my beer glass, told me about a park and a hidden entrance, and I’ve been hiking it ever since. But I”ll never figure this place out. It’s never made sense. It’s like a movie set, for the Austin outdoors. Every facet and characteristic of Austin, all in one spot. Urban myths, metal art, scenic overlooks, bad history, and a few sightings of endangered hippies like me. And once you step in, you never know what you’re going to get. At first, you might see the most barren, zebra-striped, cedar trees you’ve ever seen. Graveyards of junipers that look like stacks of discarded antlers licked clean of meat. And homeless camps? Just wait. Oh, just wait. You’re going to step where you don’t want to step, and accidentally come face-to-face with an inhabited residence like I did today, tip-toeing with every step. I looked up and saw an orange tent shaking around like a dressing room, and a woman’s voice yelling, “Roy!!!” I backed up. I stopped, turned around, and heard what sounded like someone whacking a tree or chopping wood. I was gone.
You can get lost here, too. EASY. Do not hike here at night. Unless you want to star in your own horror movie that you get to narrate, panting, live streamed, as you frantically pull up your map, waiting for the damn blue dot and blue circle to come together and tell you where the hell you are at. Then your eyes scroll to the side at the sound of the rustle in the bush. And remember, there are packs of mangy coyotes running through the woods, scavenging, and going back to their boneyard dens for the night. I’ve never heard more upsetting howls than from the packs that run around here and across the street by Williamson Creek. Shrill howls from a scruffy lot. I’ve heard what sounded like thirty at one time before. With the firetrucks. Thinking about it makes me shudder.
And it’s happened to me. Getting stuck in Stephenson at night. The barren branches of juniper trees spiraling round and round into a black hole as you hike forward, holding out a measly, scared, lantern light.
Well, after I turned around, I looked for my favorite, low-key South Austin lookout. But every trail felt like something from a video game. Like PAC-MAN. Hiker ghosts were coming towards me from every trail path, from all sides, all at one time. Weird! I tried to let one hiker pass, but he just turned around like I was the OMICRON, itself, and disappeared.
I hiked to my favorite spot, a beautiful grassy lawn by the church on the hill with the blue neon cross that lights up at night on Wm Cannon. From there you can see a smoky haze like a see-through curtain covering the hills of the rolling burbs, and Loop 1. Great place to see the Violet Crown. If you didn’t know, Austin is called the City of the Violet Crown. There are two or three theories on the origin of the name. The first, of course, describes the purple halo effect on the horizon, just after sunset. Look closer next time you’re hiking. The best is seeing it for the first time and realizing it was there all along. The others involve a reference in a story by O. Henry (a famous short story writer who lived here in Austin in the early 1900s). A character described Austin as the ‘City of the Violet Crown,’ like a city of Greece, the center of all refinement in Texas and the surrounding region at the time.
I climbed the short incline and stepped onto the lawn, gazing at the far-off hills on every side.
I re-entered the woods and began to look for what I came to the preserve to look for. I was searching for a Cedar Elm, my favorite tree, and one that still might have its green leaves. But first, I needed to stop and say hello to the baby-blue robot and the other art installations, another quirky feature of this South Austin park. I don’t know why, I’ve seen them a million times, but I always feel like I have to stop and photograph them, like an overly amazed senior citizen. (If you want to know a secret, there used to be much older metal dinosaur art on the opposite side of Stephenson. But sadly, they have vanished.)
Light was fading, so I went hunting for that tree. I wanted to do some research for a book I’m writing. The short branches grow out horizontally, and the eye-shaped leaves have always appeared to float to me. I could look at them all day.
I looked down at the rocky trail and saw that it was covered with purple polka dots. Will you look at that? Juniper berries covered the loam and the color popped. Stopping to take a picture made me notice more and more things all around me so I stopped and really started to take in the woods. I found my tree, stood alongside the trunk, and looked up at it like it was a flagpole, the leaves floating like they were trapped, inside the clear gel of a transparent toy ball, the branches invisible, suspended in the air before me.
I decided to head for the other steep climb by the dog park, but wanted to get a picture for my readers of one more place. The other crazy part of Stephenson Preserve. There are two cemeteries by the basketball courts. I've read there are 14 souls buried here. I know. One is from the 1870s, the other from the turn of the century. The latter, I’ve read, is the grave of victims from a tornado here. A twin tornado in May of 1922. The two sisters scarred the city of Austin from Longview Park all the way to St. Edwards. The tornado killed six and they are buried here.
I walked by the dog park and felt like a hobo walking across the lawn. I’m used to cover. I felt like the bookworm NERD walking into the hallway of a dorm where everyone stops slamming beer bongs and doing cartwheels to watch the uptight R.A. walk through.
I walked back into the comfort of the woods and looked for the one other scenic spot. The trail to it is now hidden, covered with overgrown grass that looks like dead straw. I hiked to the top and took pictures of the sunset, BAM! I slapped the top of its hands. Take that!
Then my phone died. Just at the onset of last light and neon watermelon clouds. Damn. But the Violet Crown still gave a glow and I looked ahead to Kincheonville, the ghost town with bad, bad history. The white steeple of the church is where it stands. Go read the marker sometime and see what the City of Austin did in 1928.
What the heck was that? I heard dirt bikes revving like chainsaws revved by someone downing a Monster Energy drink. The new thing going on in parks now. Pisses me off. Made me want to build clothesline boobie-traps and pitfalls covered with grass. Don’t Dallas my Austin, dude. Is that what I’m supposed to say? It was now 5:45. Sundown. I headed back to the car. A coyote passed right in front of me.
Well, I'll be. A coyote. The the first one I’ve ever seen.