I knew we’d be the only people there. At least I hoped so. The clouds were filling up with rain, grey and purple swirls tearing at each other in the sky. With tonight’s forecast, I knew most folks would stay home and call it the night, which meant less eyes on us. I wasn’t sure we were supposed to be here. But I was promised a glorious hike.
When I enter affluent neighborhoods in Austin, I can’t help but feel a little uneasy. Long driveways and lanterns on high walls. Homes with pointy roofs and big windows looking down on us like a couple of orphans from a Series of Unfortunate Events. Was there a Count Olaf peering down at us behind those curtains that just moved? No matter. We gotta hike. Prep was quick business. We prayed, got out of the car, and pulled out our gear from the hatchback. A Camelbak, a backpack, and a faux willow walking stick I bought from the Lost Maples State Park store two years ago.
And, oh yeah. We parked under the ‘tree.’ That’s where she said she parks when she comes here. The trailhead would be close by. We were in a hurry to get out of sight and jettison from our car like a couple of scuba divers falling backwards into the water, but when I stepped out and saw that magnificent tree, that great Live Oak, I just stood there, mouth wide open, rapt by wonder, the treehugger now wrapped himself, by the arms, the boughs, of this very tree. Some trees are just majestic, aren’t they? commanding a reverence as they stand there before you in a tremendous pose. The sunlight sifted across the ball moss, the leaves, and the bobbing branches with a soft, golden light. The tree was old, but vigorous, spreading its branches over the woods and half the street, festooned with vines like sashes with heart-shaped leaves. “Hey…psst,” my wife whispered. “We gotta go.”
We were trying out a new spot we’ve never been to before. A secret spot. I don’t like to throw that word around, but this hike would keep me tight-lipped, myself. In our world, ‘secret’ means a special place, a place to be protected, a kind of ‘speakeasy’ for hikers. “What’s the password?” I imagined a suspicious voice whispering behind the sightglass of a door. We gave her my word to keep it under wraps. A fellow Austin Hikes member had sent my wife a secret message, like a note slipped under her cell-phone-door, with a map. You could hear the paper crinkle as we opened it up and read. There was an address, coordinates, and a short description. ‘This happens on this trail when you go left, and here’s what you’ll see when you go right.’ Damn, this was exciting. I couldn’t wait to begin this hike. (I wish we all did this more. But heavy is the responsibility of letting someone in on a place who may not appreciate it the same way you do. Or protect it. I was filled with gratitude. Thank you, Mrs. P).
After my tree-trance wore off, we descended into the woods, a latter-day shire. I was waiting for some Robin Hood to step out, make a joke, and rob us. “Let them through,” he’d probably say, as he looked at his men. “They have nothing. Look at them! They’re poorer than us!” The bandits would laugh and drop their bows and arrows as I cracked my whip in the air for our horse and wagon to go forward, creaking and rocking back-and-forth over the rocky terrain.
As I am apt to do on some hikes, I stopped. I listened. Drip. Drip. Water trickled from every leaf and every plant around me onto the leaves below it like champagne towers at a cocktail party. And, as we all know so well living in Austin, the humidity just hung there, everywhere, like an invisible fog. I could have written my name in the air like it was a car door window. The moisture just seeped into every living thing. I could squoosh everything I touched. When I stepped, SQUISH. When I pressed my fingers to touch something, SQUISH. Wood, twigs, moss, and bark, bending in like rubber. But how vivid all of the green! which told us how healthy the flora was here. We were surrounded by the loveliest palettes of greens.
Skipping on rocks like a game of hopscotch at a creek crossing, I saw a Maidenhair fern pop out of the ground and lay like a green bracelet that had fallen off of someone’s wrist. Every shoot of fern on the ground looked like a lucky charm. But we were careful, everything was wet, and so were the rocks, waiting for my boxy dad-tennis-shoes to slide me right into a COVID-filled ER. I could just picture the aristocrats in the mansions nearby, dressed like the founding fathers in white wigs, coming down, with gold canes, to see me writhing in pain, grabbing my leg with clenched teeth, but sending the ambulance away. With a gesture of the hand that held a handkerchief, they would say, “Let him bleed…” And while looking down at me, say, “You didn’t think you’d get away with this, did you, peasant? These woods are private! Off-limits! Reserved for the High-born, you fool! Take him away…” And with his snuff-box open, he would sneeze arrogantly into the air, dusting off his fingers.
After my wife had crossed, she noted that this was the most water-crossings we’ve ever made. I agreed. We hiked further in, following the creek, and the sounds around us became more tropical. I was waiting to see toucans and parrots fly across the air in bright colors. The water purled like a train of small fountains and the leaves floated down, some crimson and some the color of white-wine, on their last trip down a flowing stream.
We made it to the lagoon. Two-thousand-pound rocks locked in small pools and held them in place. A rope swing hung on a tree on the other side, motionless. The water? A rink of glass, with solitary yellow and brown leaves floating about like gold flakes in a Sambuca glass. Minnows shot across like a birdshot blast, and a larger, almost translucent fish lazily wagged its back fin, hiding under a log. I looked up. Something was flying above the water. I couldn’t make out what it was. Too large to be a dragonfly. What was it?
We scrambled over the boulders to our left and had some close-calls, my wife slipping on mud, stomping hard to a stop onto the waterbank. We meandered back to the right to see more of the creek. Widow Skimmer dragonflies with their zebra stripes patrolled the water landing on stalks drooping at my feet. The frogs began to croak, only stopping their songs when I came near.
We left this oasis and walked toward the canyon, and I saw the buzzing wings flying in the air again. Two hummingbirds, flying in tandem, in a yin and yang, one upside-down and the other on top, beak-to-beak, zipped across the water above us, like two cherubim humming in flight, disappearing into the pristine forest.
Cool Facts about Hummingbirds:
● some migrate 4,000 miles from Mexico to Alaska every Spring
● some can travel 500 miles in 20 hours during migration without taking a break
● they migrate alone
● typically weigh less than an ounce
● ‘nests are made of lichens, moss, and spiderwebs’
● they take 150-250 breaths per minute
● only bird that can fly backwards
● wingbeat is 50-80 beats per second
● heartbeat is 1200 times per minute (20 beats per second)
● they are scrappers, and fight off other birds, even birds of prey, for territory
● their ‘tongue is a straw’ and pumps up nectar in 13 ‘drinks’ per second
● they cannot walk or smell
● visit 2-3000 flowers a day
● live for only 3-5 years on average
● sex between hummingbirds lasts 4 seconds