Until I sobered up, I had no idea that I didn’t sleep. Apparently two and a half bottles of Bushmills a day will mask such a problem. So, much of my bike riding is done in the wee hours of the morning, after the drunks have made it home and before they wake up, hung over. I’m talking about between 3 and 6 a.m., the time when many of the beasties that live in and around White Rock Lake least expect to see some halogen-headlamped moron on a bike, sweating like a fat girl at her sister’s wedding, occasionally expelling a weapons-grade fart. I know I’m not welcome, but I do come alone.
I found the lake when I started riding a bike to my AA meeting. After several months of pumping a 45-pound mountain bike, I went to see Marcia at Bicycles Plus in Snider Plaza and bought the same Trek Madone on which Lance had been hammering the French for years. The following day, grinning like an imbecile, I rode past my meeting and kept going. I stayed on Walnut Hill, took a right on White Rock Trail, following it over Northwest Highway and onto Lawther, around the corner, under Mockingbird, and there it was. It’s a lake, I thought. I’ll ride around it.
I don’t know how many thousands of times I’ve been around it since, but every loop seems different. When I think of some of the things I’ve seen, it makes me realize what a treasure this brown urban puddle is.
I’ve confused packs of coyotes, bewildered bobcats, frightened foxes, and once, believe it or not, on the trail by the bridge over Skillman Road, in the middle of the city of Dallas, I rode right through a flock of wild turkeys, a sight that briefly made me yearn for a bottle of the same. I’ve seen marauding gangs of trash-bandit coons, the occasional polecat, and possums aplenty. One of the latter once played out a death scene for me with a Shakespearean skill not seen since Richard Burton did Hamlet, back in the days when Elizabeth Taylor could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. I was spinning along the flat stretch beside the Dallas Arboretum when he appeared in my headlamp’s beam about 50 yards in front of me. He thought about making a run for it, but as I bore down on him, he did what possums do, and suddenly he was playing dead in the middle of the path, his tongue lolling out of his toothy little gob. Close enough to see his eyes glaze over, I was about to swerve around the heroic little rodent when, from nowhere, the ghost of a great horned owl flashed across the path, white as snow in the glare, and without as much as a wing beat, my tiny thespian was gone. The dramatic irony that the Bard had been looking for in his final act was, ironically, my little friend’s final act. This was not lost on me, the only member of his audience. Alas, poor possum, I knew him—well, I didn’t really, but you know what I mean. Work with me here.
And then there are the trees, my first love in nature. Some of the city’s finest remaining American elms line the path near the Corinthian Sailing Club. In winter, they’re like something out of Disney’s Snow White, their gnarled bark and flailing arms shimmering in the moonlight. The American elm’s true glory is in the spring, when in the daytime its serrated lime green leaves spread out, covering the flares of its massive trunk where it plunges into the earth in shadow. Siberian elms are as common as weeds and, like the lowly hackberries, are not particularly well cared for, which is unfortunate, as both can be lovely trees if pruned into shape early. Pity the unwary driver who parks his car under a hackberry, unless his car’s paint color is hackberry, and what are the odds of that? The Chinese elms on the Arboretum side are such pretty trees, with their bark glistening reddish gold under silver flakes early in the year, and at Halloween the whole tree will be more orange than any pumpkin. The pecans and the walnuts are among the last to get leafy, and the red oaks will sometimes hold onto last year’s leaves until the new ones push the old codgers down, where they will eventually contribute to the smelly underwater mulch that is apparent only to the unwise wading fly fisherman who was once me.
The cottonwoods toss out their snowy spores right around the Byron Nelson time. Massive but short-lived, they are in fact a poplar, and a popular poplar at that, at least with the anhingas, who in February roost in the tall ones just past the long wooden bridge near the dog park at the north end of the lake. The anhingas turn the trees a ghostly gray, slowly crapping them to death. In the spring, the bike path underneath turns into an ice rink of fishy excrement that assaults the olfactory nerves with an unholy stench. Not long after the anhingas, the white pelicans return from wherever white pelicans go.
I once donned waders to take my daughter searching for red-winged blackbird nests in the reeds. The expedition taught me several things. One, my daughter is a lot smarter than I am, as she stayed on the bank. Two, there is more trash in those reeds than you can possibly imagine. From the outside, the stalks look like a lush haven for all sorts of creatures, but inside, the water is a festering cauldron of Styrofoam, plastics of all sorts, beer and soda cans, syringes, diapers, and every other thing that goes into our storm drains. And, three, I learned that red-winged blackbirds do not nest in reeds. I did find one bird, though, and it scared the hell out of me. The American bittern is a magnificent creature. When alarmed, it will stretch its long, graceful neck upward as far as it can, its fabulous gold, yellow, black, and green plumage mimicking the reeds in which it hangs out, waiting to frighten Irishmen who are stupid enough to wade around in the floating garbage. I didn’t see the bittern until I was about 2 feet from it. As it took off, it beat the bejaysus out of me with a wingspan like Dirk Nowitzki’s. A couple of hours later, as I looked it up in my Audubon field guide, I was still shaking.
But my most harrowing avian encounter at White Rock was with a common coot. Whenever I see a flock of these hapless duck-sized birds, I instinctively curl my fingers around the brake levers and prepare to take evasive action. On this occasion, about a dozen of them were on the other side of the path from the lake and in no danger from me, so I relaxed—just as they made a collective panic-stricken dash for the safety of the water.
All of the suicidal idiots made it past me, but one slowpoke found its way into the spokes of my front wheel. With a sickening flunk, he whirled upward and, in a cloud of black feathers, jammed against my fork, sending me sailing over the handlebars. I bounced 20 yards down the path like something thrown from the bed of a pickup on its way back from a yard sale. The marks for technical merit were low, but for artistic impression I got a perfect 10 from the Irish judge. A few cuts and bruises and several new spokes are a small price to pay for the opportunity to exaggerate such a story.
There are signs posted around the lake proclaiming that it belongs to the residents of Dallas, who should keep it beautiful. I agree. It is my favorite thing about Dallas, a huge asset to the city, and a gift to nature lovers, runners, walkers, cyclists, and even worthless loafers who need a place to escape the drudgery of the office or the irritations of spouses and children, perhaps even their own. I recommend visiting White Rock Lake any time except very early in the morning, because that’s when it belongs to me. I own those hours. It would be a dangerous time for anyone else, as I never look for humans and have a history of riding into the unexpected. You have been warned.
David Feherty is a golf analyst for CBS and the author of four books, including An Idiot for All Seasons.