Garner all booked. Lost Maples, all taken. It was Sunday, and tired of crawling around our living room walls like fireflies in a jar, we ditched the city and headed for some real country. But where to go. My wife had an old colleague who moved to Leakey recently and whose mother happened to own a cabin lodge on the Frio. Forecasts looked grim with lightning and heavy rain for the evening, but I told my wife I’d rather be holed up in Leakey, Texas than trapped behind these dull, four walls at home. Someone had checked-out early and there was one cabin open, so we booked it. Packed the cooler with two days of grub, whiskey and some brew, and we were off.
When we rolled into Leakey from the North on Hwy 83, the hill crests in the valley brushed against waves of lavender and grey mists, as a heavy rain cloud from the west sailed through like a grand ship into harbor, slowly emptying itself with fat drops of heavy, intermittent rain. We checked-in from the car with a hand wave to the old man rocking in his chair on the porch of the mobile home. He said, “We’ll get even tomorrow.” We were able to unload the car and settle in before the 6 o’clock splatter and gushing rain passed over our camp and town. Thunder peals tumbled and knocked over themselves, startling us below with the sound of dull, colossal hoofbeats, like a horse rearing up, stepping to and fro.
After four games of some serious UNO with our host, we settled in for the night. The reverse card, skip card, and that Wild Card blue set up some ferocious backstabbing. We concentrated more on paying back the person sitting next to us for their treachery, than actually winning the game. The last game had so many failed UNOs, the game was called off. We all left the table like a hung jury in court, sleeves rolled up and shirts untucked, weary of the prosecutions, stalemates, and our little standoffs, as the baliff napped and snored by the door. That’s a good night of cards.
We retired for the evening and I had a little trouble sleeping as did my wife. I finally dozed off, but woke up abruptly in the middle of the night, at about 3 am. All I remember is hearing someone (or something) making a “Ppsst” sound in the cabin. I don’t know if it was a vocal tap or a sound of disdain, but I do know it was an utterance. As I tried to go to sleep, I remembered my wife’s friend telling us how old this place was, built in the 20s, and how old the woods felt here, the trees’ long boughs and leaves touching the ground like wispy beards. I didn’t feel anything evil, but my wife and son were out cold, and what I heard wasn’t the window unit or the refrigerator. I prayed, and fortunately was tired enough to drift back to sleep.
The next day, we were thankful the weather cleared, the bruised armada of clouds drifting west, blocking the sun and cooling the air. We walked the ¼ mile to the swimming hole and my son had to slowly step down the ladder into the cold Frio River, like Neil Armstrong, stopping, looking around, and stepping down again, one rung at a time. Unfortunately, we saw a few snakes by the lily pads but they seemed to keep to themselves. I stayed on watch by the bank as my son waded across the icy waters.
A local boy came by with his Grandpa and his dog. He jumped out of the truck and made a b-line for the rope swing. He stepped onto a large rock that was sitting inside a hollow tree trunk, grabbed the knotted rope and swung over the sapphire water, and let go with delight. Some more local boys came by and put on a trapeze show of moves they called ‘Around the World,’ ‘Taxi,’ and ‘Commit!’ with such strength and agility, I could hardly believe it. They were kind enough to include my son and they also taught us how to pronounce Leakey properly. It’s pronounced LAY-kee. I was a bit embarrassed, but glad I now knew how to say it. My wife’s friend stopped by to make sure we found the swimming hole and to say bye, as she was off to Austin. After she left, my wife told me she pointed to a tree nearby that she said was haunted by an Indian. Said if you stood by it, a cold air would rush over you. I gritted my teeth and kept my distance. After last night, I was in no mood for more ghost stories.
Still no cancellations or daypasses available at the state parks. Still the automated phone messages. I was willing to drive to a more remote park, but that would mean more time on the road for my family. I tossed around Kickapoo Caverns State park to my wife and she wasn’t sure. Added three more hours of driving. We kicked around the can and did some research. A day pass was available for today only, no time limit, and just about two hours away. There was hiking, and the weather looked good, too. We weren’t sure, so we walked around the property. I told her I was thankful the Lord had cleared up the weather for our boy to get in some swimming, and I was equally grateful we had an opportunity for some hiking when there wasn’t one before. I thought we should go.
We packed up and headed to one of the Twisted Sisters, Hwy 337, to Camp Wood, and on to Bracketville, Texas. I knew my son was pretty tired from swimming, and to have him hike afterwards would be a tall order, but I also knew that these opportunities are few and far between, and I would regret it back home, in quarantined Austin, if we didn’t go.
When we made it to Hwy 674, we entered a desolate land, ranch land owned by the same families for generations. We were just outside of Mexico, and boy, could we feel it. U.S. Customs vehicles hid behind trees on the side of the road, and red-headed vultures scattered away from roadkill every time we came over a hill. I challenged my son to memorize a long poem by H.W. Longfellow to keep him from aimlessly toying with his cell phone, and I laughed to myself when I overheard him whispering such words as “bivouac,” and “forlorn” to himself, as he started over and over again with, “Tell me not, in mournful numbers…”
We drove into an unmanned park entrance, and I had to pee really bad which is nothing new with the amount of coffee I drink. We got out of the car and did a quick once-over of all the signs. We had paid for our day pass online, and had no access to a printer so we couldn’t tape anything to our windshield.
We found the caliche parking by the Barbado Ridge Trailhead and started our prep. We began spraying each other with sunscreen and bug spray, zipping up, tightening belts, snapping poles together, and fitting our caps where we like it. I laid down my pink blanket for my hip bridges and we were off. It was 80 degrees, but we’d been in the car for two hours, so that first mile, like always, is a baptism of fire. Especially in South Texas at 4pm, which is about the time we started. The sun tests you, hazes you, bumps into you hard, knocking the books out of your hands, to see if you’ll spend your hike dwelling on the risks, or on the reward. We made our ascent up the rocky path, and I noticed orange stains on rocks that looked like lava lamp bubbles. My wife was captivated by the happy bunches of pink wildflowers growing straight up out of the rock, like puppies waiting to be petted. My son walked drearily, heavily, the sun taking its toll. When we made it to the first ridge, we heard someone down on the road below honking their horn over and over again, like crazy. I thought it was just some work truck or something. We hiked on. We noticed all sorts of tracks, deer, raccoon, and other unidentified paws. We also came upon some very striking, dead trees. They looked like they died like monsters that were chasing you, somehow destroyed by fire from on high, right before they got to you.
When we hit our halfway mark, we turned around to a fierce sky ahead. We were refreshed by the cooler winds, emissaries of the oncoming storm, and we took pictures of the valley, the sunrays punching holes through the clouds like drowning arms, slowly smothered out. When I beheld the valley, all of the ashe juniper seemed to be scrambling over the hills in the same direction like a fleeing army, burning under the sun. Crazy to think half a million bats were hanging upside-down in caverns beneath us, stalactites dripping water onto limestone caves.
My son sat down on the rocks by the shade of a bush, and rested a bit before we made our final descent down Barbado Ridge, back to the trailhead and our car. We needed to get on the road for Austin. We were going to find a picnic area and have sandwiches and Mexican Colas, and chart our route back (if we had any cell service).
We got in the car and headed for the picnic area. We spotted a ranger in a John Deere ATV and he about cornered on two wheels towards us when he spotted us. He sped up to our car window, and sternly asked, “DO YOU HAVE A PASS?” I fumbled to find the screenshot of the pass on my phone, as he told us the park was closed, there were signs up front that said it closed at 5, he was worried we were hurt, and a storm was comin’. I spoke up and told him we saw no such sign and that I didn’t see anything online that said that either. But, it was 6:17pm and we had been hiking after hours, the only souls in the park. Shoot.
He told us to meet him at the park entrance since the gate was locked, and he peeled off to headquarters to get his truck. When he arrived, he apologized for getting on to us, and seemed to acknowledge that the sign was not visible, small as it was, being placed on an opened gate. I apologized myself, and said, “I feel bad. We want to keep you guys happy.” He unlocked the padlock, turned around, and replied, “We want to keep you guys SAFE .” I thanked him for taking care of us, and asked him, “Was that you we heard honking earlier?” He nodded that it was.
We were now on our way to Rocksprings, Texas, back to Hwy 674. Wild, rocky, hardscrabble land. Land that belongs to the line of the first settlers. Only ones tough enough to work it. I told my wife this is the most raw country I’ve ever seen.
Forty-five miles out of Mexico, thunderstorms arose behind us like genies out of a bottle, greatly disturbed, as we toiled down the road in our little car, worn out and hungry, but on our way home.