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"Don’t ever trust a man that doesn’t walk with a limp”—unknown preacher


After he whistled, we waited. I counted three long echoes pulsing back to us from the hills on the other side.

He slowly took his fingers out of his mouth and dropped them to his side.

I really couldn’t make out his face. Or his friend’s. It was dusk when I saw them come out of the brush to the overhang where I was. The first thing he asked me was how I heard about the place.

Vanessa had ditched me for a leadership conference. I was hiking alone, which is a rarity. For some reason, I decided on Dawson Park, or “The 15-minute Forest,” as I call it. It sits across El Mercado on S. 1st and hides a grimy, double-lagoon fed by a narrow, water-carved channel in the creek bed. The water is dark like tinted glass and braids itself all the way down until it pours itself into the pools. The whole park hides itself from the city so well, I’ll forget where I am, until done, 15 minutes later, brought back to reality–a deep diver coming back up to modern life with traffic speeding by and neon signs flashing gumdrop colors in gas-filled tubes.

I still had time for the sunset, I told myself. I got in my car and raced across the S. 1st bridge to Cesar Chavez and headed for Mount Bonnell. I caught the red light by the City Library and could see the train passing by over the Lamar bridge. Rusted boxcars with graffiti blocked the glow of an orange sun. Two cops on ATVs passed by in front of me.

Covert Park was packed–of course. I passed a DPS vehicle parked at the entrance and waited for my opportunity. I could tell a family walking out was leaving so I timed my drive-by with their departure and got the parking spot. I sat there in my car and smiled. I could sense a bright light shining in my heart. When I get this way, it comes out of my face and eyes and out of my skin. I must have said hello to every person on the way to the trail. I made cheesy jokes to people walking their dogs. And the funny thing is, when the goodwill is real, everyone eats it up.

I looked for my opportunity. As soon as the coast was clear, I made my way to the right and dipped into the hidden trail by the picnic table. I was finally away from the crowds and on the cliffside of Mount Bonnell. It was like hiding in a room at a house party.

I had to pee and I was hiking fast—with a limp.

The first ‘staircase’ up was a false lead, slick with loose dirt. I had to go back down. I was taking chances I shouldn’t have. It was past 8 o’clock. I could feel beads of sweat form on my face as I tried not to think about the rattlers out of hibernation. The second staircase, though, did the trick. At a cost. The branches cut at me like tangled, sharp wires, but got me where I needed to go.

I followed the wall and watched as the overhang started small but grew and grew until it became a barrel wave of rock that covered me.

I stepped into the cave and took one video of Lake Austin and the horizon. I was there alone for five seconds when the whistler and his friend walked in, out of the brush.

After some walking around, sizing up all of the views, he asked me, “How did you hear about this place?” He shook his long blonde hair away from his face. He had a golden mustache. I told them the story about ‘Bigfoot’ Wallace, and how that started it all.

They sat down and we talked. I smiled and told them I struggle with whether I should ever share how to find this spot. The word “Gatekeeping,” came up. I told them I had just taught my 15 year old son what that means. I had taken him to another hidden cave in Austin and told him to practice good judgment with sharing its location. I watched a movie with him to explain.

I asked if they had ever watched “The Beach,” with Leonardo DiCaprio.

The whistler and his friend were students from a college out of town. The friend sat down on a ledge, looking out. The whistler sat as well, hugging his knees like a ceramic sombrero statue, gazing out and taking all of it in.

The sun burned out like coals on the horizon. The stars came out sparkling. The whistler pointed to the radio towers and told me that he climbed that one once, all the way up to the first, red flashing light. We then talked about the area and how special it was. I told them about the daredevil Hazel Keyes who flew a balloon with a monkey out here on July 4th, 1898. The whistler told me about a spring on Lake Austin that bubbled right out of the riverbed. He couldn’t remember the name.

“Cold Springs?” I said.

“That’s it!”

After whistling for echoes, he walked to the cliff face and laid back against the rock wall and told me you can feel the magnesium rock radiate heat. Told me to look up Balcones Escarpment on Wikipedia. “There’s a picture…”

The young man on the ledge asked me if I spoke any other languages and began to riff about his own love of dialects. “You ever heard the quote that says, ‘To have another language is to possess a second soul?’” He smiled wide when he said this. I could tell he was deep in his own thoughts. Deep inside the beautiful collisions of a youthful mind crossing into another sense of self.

We all watched the stars together, wondering which were planets instead. Then out of nowhere, we saw the spark of a single firefly. The linguist had never seen one before. This wonderful event made it his night. He was awestruck. They flew all around us the remainder of the night.

The whistler told me when he was a kid growing up in Cedar Park, he would take the train, by himself, here, and explore. Sounded about right. He was a searcher. A soul who needed big spaces and vistas to feel right. He told me about his love for meteorology. Tornadoes. Storms. Asked me if I saw the mammatus clouds the previous day. I showed him a picture I took before the storm.

Being next to these young men and all of their energy and hope touched me.

“If you could go back, what would you tell your 21-year-old self,” the lover of language asked me.

After a long pause, I offered them a few things. I encouraged them to talk to everyone–and look people in the eyes. And I also talked about the power of sincerity.

They asked me how I felt about religion. Asked if I believed in a Higher Power. “I do,” I said. We kept going on with questions and answers we passed around to each other like a ceremonial pipe.

I told the linguist about my first time here at Mount Bonnell, 26 years ago. My friend brought me out early one morning where I saw a red and yellow hot air balloon fly closely by.

It was getting late and we all needed to go. On our way out, I told them that as an older man, I felt good about our future with young men like them. I put on my headlamp and led them out, an old man walking with a limp from a worn life, with two young searchers behind me with the most beautiful bounce in their steps.

On the way out, the whistler stopped me. I turned around. “There’s an easier way out, man : this way. Just step up and follow me.”


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