It wasn’t too far from this area that my son and I experienced a nightmare bee attack, seven years ago. My son was six years old. We were on bicycles, riding around the stormwater drainage basin, when I decided we should explore and go off trail. We got off our bikes and started walking across the woods. I told him to follow. We hiked through the forest pushing our bikes at our sides. I remember stepping on very soft, mushy ground and stepping out of it with my bike. I turned around to make sure my son was still behind me. Time stopped. He looked at me, silently. Wide-eyed. He cupped one side of face with his hand like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, and I looked down. And up. Down and up. I had stepped on a rotted log which was also the home to a peaceful, busy beehive. A bee had just stung his cheek. I yelled, “RUN!!!” and he bolted out of the woods and onto the mounds of the stormwater basin behind our apartment complex. I chased after him. To my horror, I could see a skullcap of bees writhing together on the top of his head. I took off my shirt and started swinging at the bees as I ran behind my son.
Then they all came for me.
I ended up with 13 bee stings. But it was worth it. I still cringe thinking about what they could have done to him. He had a tiny little prick mark on his cheek, but it looked like the stinger didn’t set. He had a few stingers hanging inside the fabric of his shirt, but thank goodness, that’s all he had. Me, on the other hand? I was just waiting for the inevitable, praying we weren’t allergic. I called his mother, who’s a nurse, to pick him up, but all he did was cry for his orange bike. His sweet orange bike with the black streamers that flowed out of his handle grips. He told me he thought the bees were killing his bike. So I went back, and crouched down about twenty feet back from the opening, to see where our bikes were. A bee shot out of the treeline and hit me right on the forehead as I peeked in. Bounced right off. When I looked into the woods, our bikes were on their sides, and the bees were angrily circling my son’s orange bike like protons around an atom. What to do. I ended up pulling his bike out with a twelve foot pole I found by a maintenance man’s garage. But that’s another story. The rubber grips were full of bee stingers when I pulled it out.
I sat at Trudy’s South Star patio bar that night with my skin on fire. Not even the beer could help.
Today, my wife and I would be hiking right by where all of this happened. Not too far from the 13 Terrors and The Bike-Killing Bees.
We were entering the South Hills Conservation Area in Sunset Valley, and parked by a secret entrance: a cut-off cul de sac that surreptitiously backs up against the greenbelt. This one has a fence, with a board deliberately absent, and leads directly to the trail. We squeezed through and began our hike. I knew this area well. This part of the greenbelt is full of dead twisted trees that reach over each other and across the trail. An outer remnant of the cedar graveyard of Stephenson Preserve. It’s almost as if these trees died from a curse the way they are tangled up, like they died with one last movement, full of agitation and spite. Rebellion. We knew this would pass, so we hiked at a fast clip, knowing sundown wasn’t too far away. We didn’t want to miss anything.
We passed an impressive limestone wall that scaled up beside a dry Williamson Creek, and I told my wife I had not ventured much farther than this before. It’s always eye-opening to realize that you once considered short hikes long ones at the time, and how all of that changes, over the years. Little did I know that fifty yards ahead of us was a grand overlook of the Southwest Austin Greenbelt. You can see all the way to the Y from here, with a full sky and a blazing sun.
The trail turned to hard, sandy dirt and we came upon a fork in the trail. I noticed a stairway made of cedar. I took it all the way to the top and looked behind me. The liquid blaze of an orange sun was halfway down the horizon, and the plumes of a thousand trees in early Spring bloom spread out for miles. I told my wife to come up. The oak and grass allergies were getting to her real bad, but I told her the view was worth it. At the top, I was delighted to find a nook for the overlook with a fence and large stones for stools. I kicked myself again, realizing this was here the whole time, only fifty yards away from what was my max hiking range from my apartment all those years ago. Turns out they call this spot, “Crystal Mountain,” due to the abundance of gypsum crystals in the ground here. This town never ceases to impress me, even after all of this time.
We took some pictures and decided to hurry down to save daylight. We crossed into the Cherry Creek Greenbelt of Sunset Valley and its neighborhood of acre-plot-homes. I remember that just a few streets down from here, my son and I had one of the most majestic encounters with wildlife we’ve ever had. An eight-point deer crossed in front of us and three other full lanes of traffic on West Gate Blvd, like some Pegasus of Greek mythology. I’d never felt time stop like it did that day when that buck jumped onto the double yellow line before us. We were drivers bogged down by our commutes like old computers buffering, and in comes this supernatural interruption of our fast-paced lives. I’ll never forget it.
It was getting darker and the land in the Sunset Valley Nature area flattened out. The Oak trees were marvelous, and the area truly felt untouched. Conserved. I told my wife, better than any other place I’ve hiked in Austin, I felt like this place preserved what the region looked like a hundred years ago. The Live Oaks were stuffed with ball moss and fuzzy branches, and their trunks were colored with bushes of holly, bunched by patches of cactus. Untouched in every direction.
We did have one eerie experience. The temperature was dropping and getting quite chilly, but we passed an area of about 20 feet of trail that radiated hot air. Whether it was geological or paranormal, I do not know. But to go from cold to hot on flat land in the middle of the woods on a chilly night, was a little bizarre.
With the moonrise, the bunnies came out hopping by the stones, but quickly hid under the canopies of trees when they saw us. Their fur appeared almost silver in the moonlight. As it grew darker, I wondered what other wildlife was emerging from their dens. How many coyotes, known to roam this area, were watching us from the treeline, camouflaged? I tightened my grip on my hiking stick.
We passed through old ranchland and reached our turnaround point: the Brodie Lane underpass. It was pitch black under the bridge and I was not looking forward to turning on my flashlight. I didn’t know if a beam of light would be welcome there. Was there a homeless camp?
I turned it on and flashed my light under the bridge. Nothing. Nothing but a trail to Mopac and the radio tower, and some graffiti. The graffiti read DON'T LOSE YOUR WAYS. I agreed. Reminded me of a car bumper sticker that said REMEMBER WHO YOU WANTED TO BE. We put on our headlamps and hiked back, trying not to mind the creaks and rustling we heard behind the treeline. The red moon glowed across the boughs of the Live Oak trees, and we followed the trail back into the dark woods.
South Hills Conservation Area
Sunset Valley, Texas