I try not to notice omens, but as I put my backpack over my shoulder and tightened the straps, I saw a tree with a jet black grackle perched on a branch like the raven from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. No scratchy croak or puffing up of feathers on its chest. No. The blackbird just waited there as we suited up, looking at me, staring me down with his yellow eyes. I shook it off. We made our way across the gravel path with the crunch of marching steps, and I looked up. Another sign? This time, a message in bright red: WRONG WAY.
Should we go? I think so…Of course we’ll go! The drop-in at the start of the Violet Crown Trail trumps any omen or poet’s raven, casting a natural magic of its own. I would drive here just to hike that part alone.
We made our way a mile-and-a-half down to the Barton Creek rock bed but didn’t cross. We went right and hiked to the stacks of Jenga cliffs and to one of my favorite overlooks. We stood by the heavy chain nailed into the rock of the cliff face, and turned around. I gazed, loving how two hills dominoed behind each other in front of a sunset glow.
We continued ahead, and I thought, “I wonder if I‘ll be able to find it again. “It’s been a year now, since I’ve been on this stretch. I called it Stairway to Heaven back then. A hidden ‘staircase’ lay behind a rock face that’s hard to make out looking at it straight on. It’s a perfect optical illusion. Don’t take my word for it. Go look for it for yourself. It’s like a bookcase that looks like it’s flush against a wall. But it’s not. There’s a stairway in the narrow space behind it leading to the top of a bluff.
I climbed up, and stood on top of one of the ledges, as a couple walked by. They stopped to watch me go up. I invited them to join me, but the lady hemmed and hawed, and ultimately declined. “I already cleared the path for snakes,” I pleaded. “Come on!” She nodded her head and looked down, smiling. The guy was clearly bummed, but it was evident, he had to stick by her side. No matter. I carried on.
I climbed to the top and hiked up to the private property sign. This had to be the back trail to the homes on Stearns Ln. I finally found it!
I mulled it over. How do I know this sign is legit? I felt like the skydiver on a plane that’s up next, having second-thoughts. I turned around.
After I came down, we crossed the sturdiest bridge I know of in all of Barton Creek. “Damn. That’s well-made,” I said, hopping up and down. I looked to my right and smiled. I knew there was a “hot tub” lagoon on the other side. Just jump down from the bridge and climb over the rocks to the empty pools on the other side. What a great little playground for alley cats like me.
We made it to the 360 bridge and walked around looking at graffiti and ruffled vines growing on concrete. We inspected the random debris that lay scattered on the rocks: a purse with the pockets pulled out, and a stuffed panda.
It was getting late. Maybe we should have turned back. I don’t know. But we were in the zone. I took a gulp from my Camelbak. I suggested hiking up the rock bed some more. She repeated my suggestion in the form of a question, and breathed-out, looking around.
(Let’s go further, like freedivers, going as far down as we can, until the pressure’s too much and we have to reach for the rope with our hands, kicking up, kicking up with finned-feet, tugging at the rope to pull ourselves along, until we make it up to the shining light above the surface, our mouths gasping for air.)
She agreed, but she was coughing. I could see the yellow dust of oak seed blowing in the air.
We walked by Seismic Wall and saw a man gripping the rock with hands and feet like he had on suction pads.
We continued our trek down the creek and saw tree-swing after tree-swing hanging from the limbs of trees. But I felt an absence. The absence of water and every swimmer that’s ever been here to Barton Creek. I grabbed one of the crudely-fashioned handles and looked up. I shook the tree. I wondered who the squirrelly youth were who could climb to the very top and tie these knots. O fearless youth! I tip my hat.
Beyond the dark hills, the sky bloomed with purple and the rocks looked like smashed chalk. And if you looked closer, the ground sparkled with the sapphire and emerald dazzle of a thousand spiders’ eyes in the play of light. They were everywhere.
My wife’s lungs were burning from the oak. Time to turn back. The light from our beams crossed over each other and lit up charcoal-stained cliffs and wicked trees. I saw the glow of two orange eyes above us. I pointed my light. The long-striped tail of a ringtail lemur moving like a boa came into sight and watched us from a cave.
We sprinted up the drop for one last workout and made our way back to the parking lot and the broken neon signs of the liquor store. That’s when they caught my eye. Two e-scooters parked side-by-side in the empty parking lot.
A dump truck shuddered as it raced across the 290 bridge above us. We let out cheers, trying not to wobble, as we carved out figure-eights on our scooters in the empty parking lot.