Law Man Walking: Nature Treks With Bill Holston

In this installment of every perambulator’s favorite FrontBurner feature, Brother Bill drinks directly from the Trinity River. Almost.

The Eyes of Texas Are Beneath You
By Bill Holston

I can’t remember when I enjoyed a walk in the woods as much as last weekend. My new hiking buddy Ben and I met at Devon Anderson Park. Ben has written a terrific account of our day.

I arrived a bit before the sun was up. There was a glorious red sunrise. In the Park were lovely shin oaks, as well as post oaks, mixed with a few Ashe Junipers. All were really starting to show fall color. We climbed up on top of the Escarpment and walked down to an area called the storytelling place, which is a natural rock amphitheater that could have served as a storytelling place for ancient native Americans. There’s a beautiful old Shumard oak, a hearty specimen growing out of a rock bluff. We turned and walked along the Escarpment. This is a terrific trail, with several of the best views of downtown Dallas, I know of. It’s a unique view of the city because from this direction you’re seeing the Dallas skyline across the expanse of the forest. It’s hard for me to really believe more people don’t hike this spot, as it truly is a lovely and accessible slice of hill country. It is about twenty five minutes from my house. The trail is a couple of miles and goes up and down and along the escarpment. It’s wooded with lots of shin oak, ashe juniper, cedar elm and bois d’arc and is a really pretty spot. If you can get across Bruton Road here, you can hike all the way to the Scyene Overlook, which is another amazing view.

This short walk was actually a preliminary to our primary planned exploration. Ben had been contacted by the Pemberton family to arrange a tour of land where the historic White Rock (or Big Spring) Spring is located. I’d read about this spring before, and had wanted to see it. It’s believed that Sam Houston camped at this spring on his way to meet with Native Americans at Birds Fort in 1843. That’s easy to believe as this would have been one of the best sources of fresh drinking water in the area. This land was originally owned by an early settler of the area, John Beeman. His daughter married John Neely Bryan, who is widely believed to be the founder of Dallas. Eventually this property was acquired by Case Pemberton, now operated a dairy. Case was related to an earlier settler, Gideon Pemberton, a wagon maker widely regarded for his craftsmanship. He’s believed to have built the cabin that was earlier credited to John Neely Bryan and now located in downtown Dallas. Case’s grandson Billy now lives at this property.

We arrived at the Pembertons’ property and were  warmly greeted by Billy Pemberton. He showed us some historic artifacts, such as his family’s anvil and a walnut sheller. Then he invited us in for a bite to eat. He and his lovely, Zada, fed us bacon, waffles, and coffee. It was an unexpected gracious and hospitable act, and we were both really touched by how warm these good people were. I’m not exaggerating when I say these are the sorts of people that made our country great. They are hardworking, generous, gracious people. After eating, we made our way across their pasture and fence and down a nice small hill. We were now on land owned by the city of Dallas, as part of the Trinity project.

We neared a large grove of trees, an oasis. The most prominent tree in the grove is an immense Black Walnut. It’s a gnarled and scarred ancient. Mr. Pemberton pointed out a railroad spike driven into the trunk, which marked the extent of the waters from the historic 1908 flood. That tree was big enough in 1908 to drive a railroad spike in, and it’s a towering old majestic tree still, although like me, showing some signs of age. We walked over to the historic spring. Springs were life to the early settlers, as well as to Native Americans. The water flows through gravel and rock, and produces fresh clear water. We had a number of great historic springs in Dallas: Browder Springs, Kidd Springs, and Buzzard Springs. All of these are dry or capped. It’s extremely rare to find one of these ancient springs still flowing. The water flows out of the bottom of a small dirt bank. There are several gravel filled holes in the bank and the water flows clear and cold to form a beautiful pool . The surface of the water was sprinkled with the yellowed fallen leaves of walnut, pecan and oak. The sound of a flowing spring has got to be one of the most restful sounds I know. The water creates a beautiful shaded pool, the surface broken by minnows. We walked over to a towering Bur Oak. The trunk was massive. It took three of us, to stretch our arms around the trunk. It must be well over 100 years old, growing when this was still a wilderness. Come to think of it, the area we were about to hike across is still pretty wild.

Our goal was where White Rock Creek enters the Trinity River. The Pembertons led us over to a trail that passes through some bottomland forest and then makes its way across a large pasture. We didn’t have any maps, but I’d printed out a satellite view from Google Maps so we made our way in the general direction of where we thought the creek was. Soon we were off of any trail, walking through a forest of cedar elm, bois d’arc and an occasional pecan. The forest was carpeted with Virginia Wild Rye, which is about knee high, making walking a bit slow. Finally we reached a small creek or slough, which we crossed over a downed log. We followed it as it appeared to head in the direction of White Rock Creek. We had to crisscross the woods quite a bit because of large downed trees and brambles, but it was a wonderful adventure. There was little trash or really any sign of people. We both had the idea that it had been a long time before any human had been walking where we were walking, which is a great feeling honestly.

Finally we came up on the deep cut of White Rock Creek. It’s a wide creek here, but the water is pretty clear. We followed the creek downstream and soon were at the mouth where it empties into the Trinity River. Other than some trash, there’s no sign of people here. It’s really a pretty wild spot. We walked down and stood along the shoreline of the river, a huge flock of Cormorants were swimming downstream. After a bit we started walking back. We decided that we could make our way through the woods in the general direction of a power line right of way. The most difficult part of the walk was following these overgrown power line rights of way. The grass was well over my head and we soon lost sight of each other in the thick grass and brush. At one point Ben turned one way and I the other. He realized I was wandering off in the wrong direction, and shouted for me. We turned around and made our way back to an old jeep road. We found the area along old Elam Road and then started heading back in the direction of the Pemberton’s place and our cars. This area is where the Dallas Horse Park will be built and is great open pasture land, which would be ideal for riding bikes or horses.

Eventually, we crossed a couple fences back to where the spring was and our adventure had begun. We walked over and sat for a long time along this spring. We talked about how wonderful it was that no one had ‘improved’ this place. Everyone had fought the urge to channel, redirect, pave or modify this spot. We humans can’t seem to resist the urge to modify something that is already perfect, if simple. I feel so thankful that the people that owned this property were such good stewards of this spot. At one point the city was apparently contemplating putting a sewer line right there. Billy Pemberton went to the city council meeting, and they moved the line.

I sat up on the bank, and closed my eyes, just listening to the gentle sound of the water flow. On maps out west, springs are often called ojos, Spanish for eyes. I’m not sure why this is. It’s as if these spots are a connection between some deep spiritual idea of the earth and the essential function that springs have in providing life. The Psalmist celebrates this in one of my favorite Psalms.

Psalm 104
10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.
11 They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.
13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate–
bringing forth food from the earth:
15 wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts.

So, these springs seem like very special places, and they are. I didn’t want to leave this spot, but we did, making our way back to our cars. Zada had given us thick delicious slices of bread, made with the walnuts that came from that tree by the spring. That tree had slaked its thirst from those clear clean waters and passed on the favor with these flavorful nuts, we were now eating. We were enjoying everything the Psalmist celebrated, spring water, bread and it did make us glad.

I couldn’t resist the urge to drink this water, springing up from the earth, so I earlier took a sip directly from the source. Ben caught my eye and smiled, and took a nice cool drink of that water. He said, aptly and simply, “That’s good.” Later Mr. Pemberton called to check on us. Ben told him we’d drunk from that spring water. He hooped and said, “You’re honorary Pemberton’s now.” High praise. High praise indeed.


  • You took me there, brother. I could taste the water. I really want to go on one of hese with you one day. I feel like you could help me see things i normally don’t.

  • Helen Trent

    Lovely as usual. But it does bring to mind — what has become of the Horse Park and have they raised even 1/20th of the money they said they would and are we the citizens picking up the slack?????

  • Ben

    @ Helen Trent

    I was told that the bond money from the Texas Horse Park was diverted to build the “Dallas Wave”. The bond funding for the Horse Park will be available in the future. Currently, most of the plat for the Horse Park is being grazed on with livestock.

    Your guess is as good as mine on what the timeline might be for construction. If you are interested in horses, a non-profit called “Let’s Cowboy Up” on Elam road has a horse program in the Great Trinity Forest for youth in the neighborhood. If you are looking to get your feet wet in something like that, it would be your best bet. The Five Star Riding Club, Buffalo Soldiers, Happy Bottom Riding Club, Los Vaqueros Rio Trinidad and one other rodeo club type outfit have stables on the other side of the river(south side) on or around I-45 or Old Central Expressway.

    Don’t wait on the city to build some all encompassing mecca of a facility. The infrastructure they want to build has little to do with the actual forest. The trails and destinations have already been built. They are just a little rough around the edges.

  • Helen Trent

    I’m not waiting for the City to build anything — and in fact, hope they don’t until the Horse folks raise what they said they would raise. So far I think their total is close to nothing. I always understood that facility had nothing to do with the forest — things like Bill’s walks are what we need to be promoting. Get people out into the forest so they understand the gem that is in their own back yard.

    That said, I am pleased to know about all the programs that are underway.

  • thanks, and given all the great weather, this is a great time to explore.
    Try out Cedar Ridge, TRAC, Dogwood Canyon, for the cool Audubon sites.
    Try that Gateway trail off of Jim Miller, terrific hike.
    Can’t wait for my next adventure with Ben, who has explored that forest from one end to the other.