Well, one day one of my regulars at my restaurant told me that there were 400lb wild pigs roaming around Stephenson Nature Preserve. I didn’t know if this was true, but it sure made my skin crawl because I hiked there. A lot. My son and I used to live across the street from this scary fairy tale greenbelt, but we liked to call it “Coyote Forest.” Gave my son the creeps. When we lived in our apartment we could hear packs of these wild dogs howl to each other in the night, filling our minds with fears of being surrounded by their footsteps, twigs snapping but seeing nothing in the shadows behind the treeline. Afterwards, silence, and a lone deer would step out into the meadow, beneath my balcony, and nuzzle on fresh blades of grass.
Years later, my wife, son, and I decided to explore some of the outer reaches of Stephenson Preserve here in South Austin, and hopefully make some new discoveries. The weather called for rain, but getting caught in the rain was better than getting tangled in the web of the sofa, and bloodletting our boredom to Netflix and social media. We found a good access point and made that wonderful first step into the woods behind the green curtain. Creatures scurried into the bush, the tall grasses swayed in waves, and redbirds darted across hidden groves of trees whose boughs reached with tremendous poses to the sky.
We hiked the straight dirt path that split the woods until we could hear the whoosh of traffic passing by on MoPac just ahead. We continued on the rocky, winding terrain and made our way under the bridge and checked out the graffitti of ‘PINKY’ and others who fled dreary and dreadful places to this hideout to pour out their hearts with neon spray paint. Such combustion erupts from teenage hearts onto concrete walls. The tires of speeding sedans pelted the highway above us and we made our way back to the trail.
We noticed a strange rusty box next to a sign just ahead. Turns out this rusty box was a cage covering a real rabbit hole. A hole with a ladder that descended down into a cave system. My wife turned to me and smiled, “if you stay still and wait, cold air will come up out of the cave and wash over you.” I waited and felt cool gusts swirl around my face and escape into the air. How did I not know about this place? I love urban hikes; you never know what you’re gonna get. Turns out this place is called Whirlpool Cave Preserve. There are dens in the cave with cool names like the “Red Room,” “Ant Lion Den,” “Birth Canal,” “Surprise Room,” and my favorite, “unexplored.”
We nosed our way around this pretty clearing of land, hoping to encounter another find, and boy, did we. If you follow the path of fresh grass behind the cage, you will find a granite sculpture all by itself in the meadow. It appears to be a bench sculpture sitting on a glassy slab of granite in the middle of nowhere, with no inscriptions or explanation, left by the sculptor mysteriously. This hike was getting weird. But we like that. After a few pictures by the slab, we followed the dried-out creek bed east and passed numerous manicured backyards, being careful not to snap our ankles on the slimy, wet rocks.
As we came around a bend, we came across a shanty treehouse sitting in a tree. My son got serious real quick and began to climb up the rungs to every boy’s dream: a tree hideout with a view. I asked him what it looked like inside and asked him to read some of the graffitti to me: I remember him saying “Welcome to the Carnival of Carnage,” and some other ‘poetic phrases.’ He sat aloft, regally, and I was so happy he had his own little discovery.
We hiked a bit further down and came upon a young father and his two daughters, and their puppy. The puppy had the whitest coat of hair, and silver-blue eyes. Didn’t make a peep. Just pranced around the girls, slowing all of us down from our preoccupations, the way only a good dog can. The young man lived nearby and gave us some background info on the caves and the granite bench sculpture. He says there were legends about its origin, one being that it was hidden in the woods due to an inheritance dispute. I guess if you hide the artwork, they can’t sell it.
I knew we were getting close to a hideout for the homeless, and closer to “Coyote Forest,” so I asked the man if he had had any encounters near the bridge. He said he met one lady living down there who was simply down on her luck, but had some words with a man who considered this part of the greenbelt “his.” Really. I was impressed with the young father when he told me that he told the man, “No, it’s everybody’s.”
We bid farewell and started towards the bridge. The sun began to set. I could see a shopping basket under the bridge filled with junk and debris, parked like a blown-out car. I snapped a picture and walked by. We heard a raspy caw and cackle as we passed. Were the man and lady watching us?
The branches of the dead trees seemed to hollow out a path for us as we entered Stephenson Preserve. We passed a pond of green sludge at nightfall, and I started to think about those wild pigs, listening for snorts and belches, looking for boars sharpening their tusks on trees. I started to see shadows flit past me. Were these the coyotes I used to hear at night after the fire engines passed? I told my wife to put on a headlamp. We joked about being spooked. The vines of trees seemed to stand over us like predators waiting to pounce on us. My mind was filled with all these fantasies painted across the darkness. We noticed ribbons tied to trees, markers the homeless use to make their way back to camp. It’s true, these woods do belong to everyone, and it was unnerving.
At 7 o’clock, it was pitch black but we could hear cars swish by on William Cannon. We seemed to be going in circles. We didn’t want to pull out our GPS, but we had overshot the exit. We doubled-back, found the clearing, and passed another capsized shopping basket by some bundles of wood. I could see my old apartment complex across the street, and the silhouettes of my wife and son walking ahead of me. We stepped back into the world, the streetlights buzzing with their orange-yellow glow. The cars zoomed by us, the rain drizzling in the air.