TALK HIM THROUGH
I don’t know what was worse. The sound of the rattlesnake while I stood on the cliff looking down, or the moment I realized I had no idea where it was.
I was following a Cloudless Sulphur butterfly with my camera and stepped onto a ledge when I heard what I thought was a wild thrush or some bird going crazy with a mating call. That’s strange, I thought. That’s really loud. But the sound just grew louder like a drumroll on cymbals and I looked up horrified.
“GO! GO! GO!” I had my son and wife behind me, and I gestured by stabbing the air with my finger for them to step back and run. Of course, they hesitated, and pondered questions aloud. “GO NOW!” I shouted as we took off, the leafless branches scratching my skin like the wiry ends of coat hangers.
I was relieved we made it out, but soon felt the sting on my left shoulder where the branches broke skin. We continued on and just before reaching the main trail, we stopped, and I just had to laugh. I saw my fountain pen hanging onto a branch in front of us. The one I always clip to my front pocket. Must have snagged itself on the way in. “This pickpocket here don’t want me to write,” I said.
I could hear that rattle for the rest of my hike. I mean, I’ve seen plenty of snakes. Shoot, I almost stepped on one coiled on a rock at this very park. But I’ve never heard a rattle. A rattle custom made just for me. I was trespassing on real private property. And not knowing where it came from? I wasn’t the same hiker from that moment on. And never will be. Ain’t no denying it. A rattle is the moment right before a venomous strike.
It was our first 90 degree day this year and we went to an old spot. One of my old stand-bys: The Via Fortuna hike. I looked around and said, “I think the order in Spring is always like this: First the Mexican Plum, then the Redbud, and now the purple bloom of the Texas Mountain Laurel.” They were everywhere! Over and under and in-between, by the cacti and dead things, by everything. Like lavender carnations singing with color in spite of all of the withered brush. I liked how my plant App described them: ‘lavender flowers that produce a grape-soda-like fragrance.’
When we started at the trailhead, we noticed construction and an excavator, and something that made me scratch my head and laugh. I saw a blue Port-a-Potty with a preposterous name: The Honey Bucket. I don’t know if the manufacturer is into manifesting or New Age, but tell him, hey bud, those aren’t bees, they’re flies. Take it from me. That rattle I heard wasn’t a bird just because I was chasing butterflies.
We decided to take my son to go see some water. There’s gotta be water, I said. I knew a back way into Barton Creek. Or thought I did. I’ve been there a hundred times, but I still get lost at the bottom of the Via Fortuna hike. We ended up past the place I wanted to go. And the funny thing is, the ledge I found earlier was also not the ledge I was looking for. I thought I was on the right trail, but I ended up somewhere altogether new. That made twice now.
What I was looking for was a hidden spot. A beautiful Austin wading pool. A scene fit for tanned, chiseled models in a cologne ad. It’s somewhere near Gus Fruh. But there’s only one way in. On a trail through thick cedar branches along the creek. The pool is shallow and right by a cliff whose wall is flat and goes straight up without any crags. I wanted to take my son there and let him dip his feet and wade in. But I got lost. Again. We overshot it.
But what we found was a section we’ve never been to before. There was no water. What was once a wide creek was now a dry riverbed. But what we did find was a tree swing tied to a white sycamore. We all rested in the shade as my son walked around it, climbed up the rungs, and carefully considered the invitation rattling around in his head. He walked down the riverbank and stood below the rope, grabbed it, and walked with it as far as he could go. Before I knew it, I was coaching him while he made that serious face I’ve seen so many times. Just like he did when I talked him through his first jump off the cliff at Inks Lake. Just like we did on the way to Six Flags to ride the Titan. Is everything gonna be alright?
“But there’s no water.”
“I know. You’ll be fine.”
After a little back-and-forth, he took a deep breath. I let out a whoop as he swung over the riverbed, just like every other Texas boy before him, free from another fear.
But sadly, I also realized every year that goes by, they swing further and further away, don’t they?
Until the day they leave.
After several more swings, he was rubbing his hands in pain and showed me how red his palms were. I told him what I always tell him, after so many outings filled with scrapes and falls.
My wife looked up our path on the GAIA, because I was bereft of confidence. I could hear the crunch of small rocks as we walked, and panting a bit. My son, who is not fond of hiking, told me, “Dad, I liked what you said when I showed you my hands.”
“What’s that, son?”
“I’m living life,” he said. “I like that.”