Trails and rumors of water . . .
Strangely enough, the beginnings of my need to disappear into a non-urban landscape were born largely while I was living in, of all places, New Orleans. Now, if you want to go native with the flora and fauna of NOLA and surroundings, you're talking snakey wetlands. I wasn't. I mean, I did intentionally wander down some wetland trails to come to some rapprochement with my reptilian kin (I was, after all, born in the Year of the Snake), but what called to me, more than anything else at the time, were mountains and rivers, and where those two combined, all the better. Vermont and New Hampshire called, Arizona and New Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest. In late 1994, I left NOLA for good and moved to Moscow, Idaho, to scout out its outlying trails.
Ocean tumble notwithstanding, there is, for me, nothing like the murmuring sound of water that wells up out of the woods, while hiking a mountainous forest trail. You set out for the water, it is the blessed rapture that you're after, the yearning in your belly. I was first born to this experience while hiking on a New Hampshire trail that would take me to Thoreau Falls, hiking through mountain silence pierced only by the gorgeous flute of a hermit thrush, and then all of sudden, it was if the entire forest filled with an enormous sound of rushing water, still a hundred yards or so from seeing and - better yet - getting into it. You get that rumble when the Frio is full-tilting at The Loma and you get it when you're coming down into Austin's greenbelt canyon and Barton Creek's Three Falls are roaring down from a torrent of late winter rains.
Brother-in-law Dave and I slipped down into Austin's Barton greenbelt this past Saturday, in hopes of finding the murmur. It had been several years since I'd last wandered the belt; Dave assured me there were pools aplenty south of where we put in, pools filled with folks and dogs and music and the like. Not my idea of slipping into darkness fun: I wanted quiet and the murmur that might come up. Well, it didn't: not the way I took us, up the canyon towards Barton Springs. We finally decided to backtrack and head south from the rockclimbing shelf where we'd come into the canyon; about a half mile down, we came up on a nice rill, running jubilantly over some river stones. We pushed on a bit more to scope things out, but the still green pools, just hanging on in the heat to come just didn't call to us like that humble tumbling rill. Backtracked again, doffed socks, and soaked in the stillness and gurgling. Nice baptism to the New Austin that now claims sister Laura and Dave as some of its newer converts.
Back here in Tres Leches, I have been chronicling my growing affection for the Salado Creek Greenway trail which, though it pales in comparison to Austin's jewel, has still got me ensconced it at least a solid crush. She is a steady girlfriend for my need to get out and about. Like Barton and Terra Loma, she too rumors her waters. Come flash flooding, she is so wild as to knock out access to the trail entirely; she then steadies back into wonderful murmuring, but give her a three weeks stretch with no replenishing rains and she all but disappears, except for the pool above Egret Falls and the creekway further south. During last year's drought, the pool and the falls dried up completely themselves: this year, there's still a steady giggle down with the feeding egret.
One of my intentions this summer had been to hit all of the other sections of trails here in TL that will eventually be stitched together into an amazing hiking corridor that will encircle the entire city. For a fairly non-greenish urb, this is quite a wonderful project and quite a gift to those of us to need to disappear. Early on, I checked out three other sections that underwhelmed (by themselves; as part of the larger project, they are still essential), but then, for lots of different reasons, I got derailed from trekking down the other trails. My good times in the greenbelt this past weekend renewed my desire to check out at least one more trail before my summer sabbatical ends.
There is an 8-mile stretch of trail that has been laid out along the Medina River on the way-south side of town; it was this stretch that I'd long had my heart set on exploring, so this morning I set out about 7:15 - pretty darn early for this summer slug. As expected, I stopped off at a Global Coffee Vendor, got some gas and water at Yemaya's Shell Station across from the GCV, and then headed down Loop 410 South. Pretty quickly, I was in farm-ish country, feeling the way I used to feel 40 years ago, when driving the loop was a great way to prolong an evening, after dropping off a date for her curfew and then just making a complete circuit of the city. I took the Palo Alto College exit at Highway 16 South, and then shot further down south to the Medina River Natural Area trailhead.
Very fancy do it was: the architectural features - entrances, distance markers, wall sections for overlooks are very stylish, with a wide use of the darker limestones. As I have noted before, my one major complaint about the Tres Leches trails is that they are all paved. When I get snooty and all Austiny about this fact, I remind myself that the paving actually makes these trails accessible for folks of all physical capabilities, and then tell myself to shut up, hike on, and enjoy the gift.
There were two main trails to choose from at the trailhead: El Chaparral and Rio Medina. I usually go for distance, and since the EC was twice as long as the RM, I chose the former. The trail map indicated that the section of the EC that I was hiking would actually extend another 4 miles past my destination at the Old Applewhite Road trailhead. Making that trek and back would get me 6 miles of hiking, but I was leaving the possibility open of going on past Applewhite once I got there.
If my heart was really intent on the river, I should have paid more attention to the EC's trail name. I figured, wrongly, that the name was more evocative than descriptive. No: it was entirely descriptive. The first mile and a half was all upland flats, through mesquite scrubland the stretched between farmland to the north and the "rumored" river to the south. I will say, though, that the chaparral was quite pretty in its early morning incarnation. The air was still cool enough, with just enough sun to elicit a refreshingly baked and herbaceous scent in the air: almost piney and eucalyptus, though neither were around. It was a nice tonic to the senses.
Finally, about a mile and a half in, the trail switchbacked down to riparian forest: oaks, elms, pecans, and cypress. Plenty of shade and cool and, oh my god, silence. I realized, about at this point, how much sound is still in your ears on the Tobin Trail down the Salado, as you disappear, but still trek under the major thoroughfares of Austin Highway, Eisenhauer Road, and Rittiman Road. Still a wonderful trail, but the silence on the Medina just filled me up.
Still, just rumors of water, though, even as you descend into the riparian shade. And then, at long last, at about one and three-quarters of a mile, an "overlook." Elegant stone wall to sit on under a loud and splashy sign forbidding any "Water Contact." I had to laugh as I walked up to the ledge and saw a long water swing hung from a very high cypress branch across the stream.
I use the word "stream" intentionally. A good longjumper could easily have leaped from one bank to the other. And this stream brought out yet another of my terrible bigotries against Mother Nature: the Medina "River" is what I call a mud-bottomed river, unlike all my favorite waterways, which are limestone-bottomed. The water is a lazier green, unlike the pristine emerald greens of the limestoned rivers. Mudbottoms just do not do to my soul what a rock bottomed river will do: often the sounds, too, are more hushed, as was this particular view: there was no water sound at all. Tiniest of current was evident.
As for the width of the Rio Medina (apparently earlier indigenous people referred to it as the Penapay), I reminded myself that, like most central Texas rivers, the Medina is dammed far upriver, north of San Antonio: who knows what she would look like in her original and undammed state?
Another half mile through the woodlands, to my chagrin, the trail climbed back up to chaparral, but then did drop down once more, to another "overlook" (overlooking the river, say, six feet below the "look"), but this time the river was running across a shoal of stones and into a river bend, so there was plenty of playful gurgling and giggling.
I spent a fair amount of time mulling over the name Applewhite as I headed for the eponymous trailhead. UT fans will recall the gridiron heroics of one Major Applewhite, quarterback for some of Mack Brown's early Longhorn teams. It's a cool and distinctive name, and I wondered about his possible relation to the tribe for whom the Old Applewhite Road was named. On a more personal level, it took me back to an old tennis crush from my home-from-college summers in Jackson, Mississippi. Mena Zouboukos, lithe and mirthful Greek beauty, Millsaps college coed and daughter of one of the owners of Jackson's downtown old skool eatery, the Elite. Not a Greek restaurant per se. There were several Greek restaurateurs who catered to local tastes, rather than importing their own awesome cuisine. Anyway, Mena and I hooked up for some tennis one summer, playing over on her old Provine High School courts, on the west side of town. This was a spare, dainty looking queen, but she ripped some forehands that whipped me every bit as much as I may have been able to sneak a few sets past her. Relevance to Applewhite Road, you say? Years later, I saw her again at a Greek Festival in Jackson; she had married an Applewhite who was indeed related to Major's family.
I misread the map once I got to the trailhead. To have continued further on, I would have to do some backtracking, something I was not interested in doing. Something for next time. I could even start at the Applewhite trailhead, if so inclined. My plan on the return route was to take the Olmos Spur and hook up with the Rio Medina trail, which turned out to be the cherry on top for a number of reasons: deep forest shade, plenty of views right along the river (duh), and, lo and behold, the entire trail was packed dirt and caliche - molto bene. Lots of green understory, punctuated with a fair amount of Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. Drummondii): nice bits of red breaking up the green.
The river widened down this stretch of trail, with some very pretty views, and plenty of river noise to boot. Knowing what I know now, I would still have started with the Chaparral, and then finished off with the wonderful treat of the Rio Medina trail.
Lots of jive-hopping grasshoppers up on the EC; they were fun to watch, shucking and jiving all around me: only one bopped me in the middle of my forehead: I took it as a blessing.
7 humans briefly seen the entire time: 4 park employees; one country gentleman riding his bike, with a big white straw Stetson; two brown beauties out for a long morning run. As I came up out of the trees, back to the headquarters trailhead, an interesting sign that might have been a bit more timely going INTO the trails, and not coming OUT of the them: a big warning sign for possible wildlife: snakes, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and, of course, the royalty of south Texas ecosystems: feral hogs.
They didn't mention the grasshoppers.
My favorite sign driving back into town on the Pleasanton Road (which morphed into Moursound Boulevard: a church called the "Fresh Oil Fellowship." You know I'll be scouting that out. Or using it.
Labels: Castrol Cathedral