“Hear that?” said the little prince. “We’ve awakened this well and it’s singing.”
(from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943)
I had my eye open. You never know. I’ll drive around in my little compact if I have to, like I did today, looking around for any telltale signs of a hidden trail to the woods. I knew there were other ones around. Maybe there was one I’ve missed. It’s happened before, so why not now? That’s what a hiker does. That’s how a hiker hunts. That’s why I love this town.
I was having a stressful day after a misunderstanding with my rose, stuck in my ‘fee-fees,’ with my go-to songs playing full blast…and my hip hurt. Bad. (Maybe Fatboys shouldn't jump rope?) So I hobbled to and fro, wincing, like some old wagon with two square wheels forging ahead. Not pretty, I know, but I made it. Didn’t keep me from diving in and nerding out, opening my nature app for some plant identification like a Ghetto Green Thumb. And I still managed to crouch under branches, grunting like a hind catcher, following flute music coming from all of the game trails I saw.
When I walked up to the entrance, it looked just like a run-of-the-mill neighborhood trail. Nothing to see, really, more of just a place to walk your dog and wait for the squat to bag up poop. But as soon as I saw the K-word I knew I’d hit paydirt. I read the brightly painted teal letters: KARST PRESERVE AT WESTERN OAKS. Karst rocks mean only one thing, I thought. But the ‘Western Oaks’ part still sounded apartment-y, so I wasn’t sure. But when I saw the kiosks, with illustrations of cross sections of earth and rooms filled with mushroom-like formations, I knew. Bobby had found himself some caves.
Made sense. Goat Cave is just down the road, but I didn’t know the caves stretched all the way here. Whoa. When your mind gets blown like this, it’s like listening to a song again, but with headphones on. With this little bit of information my mind grew thoughts like invasive vines, like a beanstalk, my imagination connecting dots, lighting up scenes in my head. It felt as if I was walking atop a hidden volcano, with lava churning and glowing below.
Looked perfectly Hill Country to the naked eye, but just below our feet are damp, drippy caves filled with stalactites and ‘soda straws’ in chambers filled with echoes of ticking drops, as polka-dotted salamanders sit still, blinking, feet suction-cupped to the walls.
And to understand that these caves and fissures filter water for the 60,000 strong drinking out of Barton Springs on the other side of town is amazing. All of those signs for “EDWARDS AQUIFER RECHARGE ZONE” finally made sense.
As I left the signs and walked into the preserve, my hip shot with pain and I realized Karst stone happens to look like rock made up of hip bones, white, brittle, and full of holes. Oh, I sighed, how the pain goes wherever you go.
It was a very short trail. But let me tell you, the birds were chirping like happy cherubs and there was a peace transfixed the likes of which I haven’t felt in all of my hikes here in Austin. And once I entered the grove of Live Oaks, their boughs spiraling like corkscrews, old and half-broken, my mind just filled with a paisley of wonder and awe. There are benches everywhere and it is a lovely place for a sit. I could see myself seated, smacking an unlit pipe of cherry tobacco like a sailor on watch on a ship.
I continued to walk around like I was standing on a giant amethyst stone, the surface of which appeared to be gray rock with tufts of grass and fallen leaves smashed and ground into stone. But inside? A rock full of quartz and crystals, wells whistling songs with each cool draft of air. I smiled, stepping gingerly on the grass.
The cave area was fenced but you could still see their entrances under mounds, like rock huts in the ground, sealed with iron bars. It all looked like a Shire, the sealed caves in the grove like wooden front doors to Hobbits’ homes. The Oaks above them reached for the daylight stars with roots and branches coated with the loveliest beads of moss. Maybe that’s why the kiosk said the trees here were called “Green-robed Senators.” Yes. This was a grove for old Senators dressed in flowing, emerald robes.
Alas, my hip was still hurting, but the stress was gone. My body, now, is much too heavy, and ever so, with all of the miles. I looked to the sky. Time to go back to my rose.
I walked back to my car on the street. Across Davis Lane I could see a lady walking her dog on a trail that led to Dick Nichols park. I knew that from there you could walk under Highway 1, join another trail and, if you look hard enough, find another cave system that starts at Whirlpool Cave. I met two cave scientists there once as I peeked into a sinkhole. We talked as I stood over them like I was chanting cherished wishes into a well.
I felt grateful, as I sat in my car, buckling up. I felt like the Little Prince, yellow scarf flowing from around my neck, and I thought, am I just a starstruck boy, a boy sitting under green-robed trees, dreaming of all of the wonders hidden outside, waiting for me?