When she put it in park, I ripped off my seatbelt and jumped out. I stepped onto a parking barrier and looked out across a barren, twisted greenbelt by Bouldin Creek. A copper stream flowed by in a sidewind making writhing turns on its way to Lady Bird Lake. I could see a staircase by the bank and a dirt trail that led our hopeful, little eyes into the woods. But right behind it were ragged blue tarps and ropes hanging from trees holding them up in front of an encampment.
We were here to see if we could use the trailhead as a parking spot and a route to a party we’re going to. I wanted to park here and hike to Auditorium Shores for tonight’s NYE celebration. It’s a straight shot to Butler Park right by the railroad tracks. I wanted to scout the woods and see if it was safe for my wife and I.
I’ve never seen more encampments in all of my hikes here in Austin. Rows and rows with tarps for privacy, generators coming on with a shudder and a low roar, and wet articles of clothing hanging over the trunks of trees left out to dry.
We hiked anyway. My wife wasn’t thrilled. Here, the camps are out in the open which probably means nobody hikes here anymore. All I could do was sigh. I am used to seeing camps but mostly with tents pitched in the shadows and a little out-of-view. These lined the main trail. We continued on our exploratory hike. I could tell my wife wanted to go back. Do I blame her? Does it feel like the woods here? Like nature? I saw a man to my left standing by his tent with his back to me, wearing a yellow shirt and baseball cap, carrying a backpack.
We hiked a little further in and made it to a big creek crossing.
“Hi!” said a woman in her thirties, a silhouette inside of a nearby tent. She greeted us right as we were about to cross to join the upland “D” trail, on the other side.
“Howdy,” I said. I didn’t look at her. I didn’t want to make her more uncomfortable than she already was.
“We’re just hiking,” I said. She made a gentle sound in the affirmative. We scanned the ravine and decided to cross to the other side. After we crossed, I looked back and saw the man I had seen earlier appear right where we had been standing right before we crossed. I gave him a nod and let him size me up which was exactly what he was doing. He nodded back and joined the silhouette of a woman waiting for him inside the tent.
We were obviously at the most beautiful part of the greenbelt here, but, alas, we couldn’t explore. It was too close to their home. There was a jagged limestone rock that jutted out of the creek bank with a thousand cuts from eons of water and sun that I wanted to touch and climb so badly, but how could I invade their space? In fact, I decided we would not do the hike to the NYE celebration by taking this route. Not at night. They wouldn’t like me here and I wouldn’t like being here, either, having to pass by a line of suspicious eyes tracing my every move. It makes me sad. That could easily be me out here in the cold, just like them. But I also know what these woods could look like if it were nurtured. If it was cultivated by someone like Rene Barrera. But are there any in Austin like him anymore? What are we to do?
We hiked back and I saw a blaze of color among the twisted and barren trees: some variety of oak leaves burning in the fiercest red. I’ve never witnessed a tree glow like that, almost fluorescent.
My wife left her purse in the car and told me she wanted to get back. We were right at the trailhead so I told her I’d catch up. I walked up to the railroad tracks and watched the quietest train go by. I waved like a kid held up by a father and watched it pass with wonder and a faint smile. I could only see a silhouette inside of the cab. I wondered about the engineman behind the glass.
We got in the car to leave and were driving down 7th Street, right before Monroe, when I saw something out of the corner of my eye: a stone cross lying against a tree. I saw an inscription and knew what it was. I had to get a closer look. I asked Vanessa to stop and park. We walked up to the cross, and I decided to pray. We read the name. I dusted off my hands and stood up and saw, down below, a lovely, bronze creek flowing, cutting through layers of shale and limestone. We hiked to the creek bottom and followed the water and every one of its tiny cascades. We found raccoon tracks. Vanessa took pictures, close-ups of fallen leaves and pools with oil-slicked water and rocks with oxidized stains.
We walked up to the cross again on our way out. The ground in front of it was rock-hard with packed dirt, the grass worn away from foot-traffic. I kneeled down again and read the name:
17 DE MAYO
As I was trying to make out one of the letters, I saw the shadow of a man come up behind us. I turned around in a jolt of fear, my eyes wide open. I wanted to cuss out loud in Spanish. The man, realizing he startled us, apologized profusely. He lived in the neighborhood and was only walking in, himself, to hike along the creek with his dog. He was wearing a camera for birding. Our type of guy.
“Do you know the story behind this tombstone?” I asked, dusting off my hands.
He reined in the dog’s leash. “I do.”
Mark went on to tell us that the tombstone was recovered years ago by the creek and was placed here for safekeeping. He believed the gravestone was for an infant. He said he would try to find the old neighborhood newsletter that featured an article on the marker and send it to me. We warmly bid each other goodbye.
By the time I got home, he had found it, and I opened up the newsletter he sent me. It read that a Bouldin resident, a man by the name of Frank Gonzales who had lived directly across the street since 1953, claimed someone had found the gravestone in a pile of debris near the creek, near where demolished houses were located when 7th Street was just a dirt road. They placed it by the tree. Mr. Gonzales and his family took it upon themselves to care for it ever since, treating it much like a gravesite. The newsletter went on to say they had since moved, leaving it without someone to watch over it. I sighed. “The grass withers and the flowers fall…”
When I’m in the woods, I often think about the passage of time. Today was no different. I think about the silhouettes of people I come across and those who once lived here, long ago.
It’s New Year’s Eve. Another year gone. A century since Paula Serna’s name was carved into that headstone.
And another year for all of us here to fight off the shadow casting itself on our short, short lives.