THE NOMAD AND THE DRAGONFLY
BULL CREEK PT 3
I chuckled to myself without him knowing. I followed behind, my flashlight going crazy with light beams bouncing around the ground as I skipped down the rocky terrain. When we made it to a flat section, he dragged his feet like he was in chains, shackles clinking on his feet. My son was spent, but we still had 2 miles to go. The moon was out. The red lights of the towers behind Cat Mountain flashed, and the lights were on in the mansions in the hills all around us. He mumbled to me, “Dad...” like he was in the dentist’s chair, after the gas, and made a joke. He kicked up dust sliding across the little white rocks on the trail. I couldn’t help but snicker. “Think of this as your first workout, son. Football’s next week.”
It was perhaps too late to start a hike, but what could we do? My wife had deadlines and was still on the clock. We looked out the window, eyeing the angle of the sun, doing our hiker-math, counting miles per daylight and decided to hit up another section of Bull Creek. We were going to start at the Falls this time and look for that crazy switchback section I saw on her GAIA map. And there was that sheer cliff off of 360 that I’ve always wanted to walk by and stand under like a boy looking up at a skyscraper. But plans change.
When we reached the caliche road to the parking lot, I noticed a rundown kiosk and a fence covered in vines on the opposite side of all the action. My eyebrow shot up like the Rock’s. On the other side, where we were headed, right by the spot we needed to go, I saw a car hitched to a popup trailer with some serious crime-show stalker vibes. The windows were blacked out and a window unit AC was somehow installed into one of the backseat windows. I decided to size up the scene before we walked over to the nomad’s space. I told my wife I’d check out the overgrown fence and the mystery kiosk first, before we headed out.
There were a bunch of signs with big lettering so I figured they’d be more about restrictions than access. And with the amount of weeds by the fence, I was sure it was a futile task. But can you imagine my joy when I realized there was a way in, through all of the weeds, and a sign that said this trail had just recently re-opened on July 31st? Because the waterfalls were on the other side, I knew this would be a lightly trafficked trail, full of surprises. I called over my family. I was busy moving around vegetation and debris like I was uncovering a classic car in a barn find.
I could barely fit through the narrow gate opening and had to turn myself sideways while I stepped over the tall weeds. The two kiosks were swallowed up by invasive plants themselves, but we could still make out the words: BALCONES CANYONLANDS PRESERVE, and see a map of trails. We made our way in and decided to hike up to the overlook first. About halfway up, we were startled by a whirring, mechanical buzz in the air. It sounded like an end-times locust, hovering just above us over the trees. I looked up. Now I was perturbed. A drone was flying right above us, filming. He flew off like a spy machine, and I cussed out the pilot in my mind, under my breath. We resumed our climb.
I was surprised the overlook was so close to the trailhead. Must have been just 50 yards from the start. There is a guardrail and cairns and a view of the valley where all of Austin’s Appalachia began. The trees are in the way but you can still see where the waterfalls start, and you can certainly hear them. This is a lovely spot and we took some pictures, but we needed a challenge, and exploration, so we headed back down.
When we made it down, we realized the trailhead for the other trails started right along the metal fence. We hiked up and could hear the traffic speeding on 360, the tires whirring over concrete, pelting the bridge lines. We made it to a clearing and everything opened up. Meadows. Ashe Junipers. A low ceiling of heavy, pink, and grey clouds ballooning and drifting above. I was pleasantly surprised.
We reached a fork in the trail, and I had to make a choice. There were no trails shown on our GAIA app, so we had to go by the picture we took at the kiosk. I thought about it for a bit and told my wife, “The Water Tanks. That’s our hike. Let’s take the long way, loop around to the tanks, and head back.” She checked our bearings and that was all I needed to say.
We reached our first ‘caliche-like’ trail on a hill and found a spot to enjoy a sky on fire at sunset. We took some selfies and ventured on. Little did I know I was about to find the longest climb I’ve ever faced in Austin. At over a half-mile long, I hiked and climbed the rocks, with no end in sight. The landscape was something out of an El Greco painting, dry and stark, the focal point always far off. And by this time, the humidity in the air felt like hot rags slowly sliding down my skin. I decided to challenge myself and climb without stopping, leaving my wife and son behind. After feeling guilty for blasting off, I stopped, faced back, and called her name. No answer. So I just kept on. I stopped again and yelled. Nothing. I got that feeling that the summit was nearby, even though there were no signs of the trail levelling off. I was shocked. Hill of Life? Nah, more like Camino de Santiago. Straight pilgrimage vibes.
Not used to being apart, I broke my own rule and called her from my phone at the top. “We’re fine,” she said.
“I’m gonna make a run for the tanks, babe. I’ll see you there.”
“Ok, we’re not far behind.”
When I made it to the top, I walked across a clearing on a gravel road and saw the white silo. A seven story water tower. A few minutes later, my wife and son came up over the hill. My son pretended to collapse in my arms, breathing heavily in my face. I had to push him off. We took a 5 minute break and headed back down. “Should be a four mile day,” she said.
My son was moving slowly, but never complained. I told him to pick up the pace at one point, and he said he had a blister. I told him to stop immediately and check his socks to make sure they were fully covering his heel. He sat there on the rock and grimaced, pulling his sock that he wore two sizes ago as high as they could go. “Son, you can’t wear socks from 5th grade. You’re in the 8th now.” We were all sweating and laughing in the middle of Bull Creek Preserve. The forest was dark and the boughs and the branches formed a hole for us to walk through under the moonlight. As I walked, I worried that the blister would come back to haunt him in football practice.
On the way down, my son performed a miracle. We were getting close to the trailhead. I was hiking behind him with my wife in the lead. My flashlight beam swayed side-to-side across his shadow. He said a dragonfly, visible in the light, disappearing in his shadow, kept flying around his face. I could just picture him moving his eyes side-to-side while he hiked, patiently waiting to strike. He grabbed the dragonfly in mid-air, in one move, as it crossed his shadow. He trapped it in-between his fingers like a coin tucked on top of a magician’s fist. The wings were free. The dragonfly unharmed. He stopped to show me his kung-fu-venus-fly trap, moving with the elegance of a falconer. We gave him praise like sophisticates, and clapped. His Miyagi chopstick move had our respect.
My son practices catch-and-release, so he let the dragonfly go. It flew away, busily, into the dark of the night.
When we made it to the fence, I told my wife to switch with me. I would go first. Parking lots can be seedy at night. There were only two cars when I got there. Ours and the nomad’s. The car and pop-up camper was still there, the window unit humming full blast.