LADDER OF BONES
An empty parking lot this size feels like an abandoned theme park. I could feel the expanse. A disappearance. Maybe it was just too much space to process for a brain in quarantine this long. Who knows. We took our gear out of the car, charted our course, and crossed over fields of swaying grass, trying to hold our hair down as the weather came in flooding the sky with color. Pink, azure, peach, and indigoes. Rain clouds floated over us like great hulls and I stopped to look up, leaning on my staff. I watched a pack of winds skim across the fields with agitation, snaking across the grass like sand blasting over dunes. I looked at my wife who felt lost as well, and she pointed to where she thought the trailhead might be. It could be anywhere. Good thing the nice man that helped us earlier was watching us the whole time. He was heading toward us in his Kubota four-wheeler, cap on backwards, his long silver hair blowing in the wind. He came by and did a drive-by-hand-wave, pointing us in the right direction, and turned around. I looked down and laughed.
We walked across an empty picnic area, the winds growing stronger, and more irritable. We spotted the trailhead and the little kiosk with a shingled roof, and made our way in. I could see gravel. I can’t stand gravel. It’s like listening to someone eat cereal with their mouth open right by my ear. Hurts my feet and it doesn’t give me a workout at all. But like usual, everytime I underestimate a hike, I get schooled.
The nice man told us we had to be out by 6:40 so we had to time the out-and-back to keep our word. Eight minutes to the kiosk, eight minutes back, left us about an hour to hike. Should give us 2 miles of exploring. We made the 38 marker our goal. That left us with a five minute breather at the top, and a 30 minute mush-mush back. The first scenic overlook was very close by. We entered a viewing area with a bench and wooden enclosure facing the Austin skyline 10 miles away. I didn’t want this reward just yet, but I got a little entranced. The vista was beautiful, and that’s what it’s supposed to do. I had to shake my head out of deep space after gazing momentarily, and we quickly got back on the trail.
I noticed the wind stopped. We were dropping down into a canyon whose trees enveloped us from all around. Leafless cedar trees trapped in motion like pillars of salt, twisted forth like a fleeing army caught looking back, as withering elms sprouted with green buds of a late Spring. It was like coming into a house, struggling to close a door that was being sucked out by the wind, and everything going quiet. I told my wife that I felt a calm down here. She said she could sense the tranquility as well. The trail was wide and snaked down, winding its way down to the canyon floor.
I looked around and noticed another absence. Live Oaks. Where on earth are they? There were none that I could see. That was a first. Strange, but I welcomed everything new. The more we hiked, the more I was delighted to see more of my favorite tree, the Cedar Elm. The elm is my bonsai. The trunk goes high, but the branches jut out like rungs, and display the most delicate paintbrush-splatter of leaves in lime-green, and appear to be suspended in the air. I can stand under these trees like stars, and gaze at their leaves all day.
Now this is a Travis County park and I can tell. Just different. Every two hundred feet there is a numerical marker. We started at 60 and were headed for the overlook at 38, but first we had to climb down the Ladder of Bones, a staircase going up and down the hills, made of cedar posts. I crossed them like stepping stones and made a great workout out of it, too. Shaolin-style.
We passed several bridges that were missing planks, but that was ok. We don’t want everything accessible. Glad I had my hiking stick, though. I had a slip there on loose dirt that sent me back like Neo, but I planted my stick down as I was falling, stopping short of some very unwanted gymnastics. With a pitter-patter heart and some nervous mumbling, I got back on trail and we carried on to marker 38, up a verdant hill. We could see a wooden deck ahead and knew we had arrived at the scenic overlook. We were out of breath, but excited. We stood with our hands on our hips, huffing air, as I tried to ask my wife, “Is this it?” We let the breeze cool down the sweat on our faces as we waited to catch our breaths.
We could see downtown Austin in the distance, the mirage of a city, under a sky in a tug of war between a sun and a fleeting storm. We took some pictures and I noticed a dog collar hanging on a tree branch just in front of me. The name on the collar read “ROBBIE.”( R.I.P.) When we looked down, my wife noticed white seashells spread on the ground like dashed porcelain. She picked one up that looked like a little ice cream cone, and put it on her palm.
We had thirty minutes to make it back. We hiked at a fast clip and didn’t talk all the way back, pacing our breathing and footsteps over the hills and the Ladder of Bones, airplanes flying overhead, under a sky of purple and indigo.