Law Man Walking: Nature Treks With Bill Holston

Photo of historical marker at Big Spring by Ben Sandifer
Photo of historical marker at Big Spring by Ben Sandifer

Last weekend, my hiking buddies Ben Sandifer, Scott Hudson, and I decided to go hiking in the Great Trinity Forest. The rains over the last week have thankfully delivered us from drought for the time being. According to the incomparable Robert Wilonsky, “[I]n just five months, the city has topped the total rainfall for all of 2014. Last year, 21.32 inches of rain fell in the area. So far in 2015, 26.12 inches have been recorded.”

The impact on us was we needed to find a place to hike where we could walk and not swim. We elected to head to the paved trails by the Trinity River Audubon. We parked at the parking area just off of Loop 12. We hadn’t walked far when we were greeted by the lovely, unmistakable song of the male Painted Bunting. We spied one flying into some brush and then hanging on a flower stalk. Soon Ben spotted a female close by. The male flew down on the ground and began the intricate dance of its mating ritual. As a recovering Baptist, I had no mad dance moves when I was seeking to woo my lovely spouse in the mid-1980s. I had to rely on 1970-vintage Bodegas Olarra, a Rioja. It lacked the charm of dance but was somewhat effective, given the fact Jill and I just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.

After watching these two birds for a while, we walked over to cross the bridge over the Trinity. Once again, we paused on the bridge and listened and watched the floodwaters flow underneath us. It was really a beautiful sight. We then headed down the trail toward Simpson Stuart Road. We crossed two places where we had to wade ankle deep floodwaters. The day was a perfect walk, as it was cool and overcast, but not raining. We had special plans after our hike, so we turned around after walking for about an hour. We made our way back to our cars. As we crossed a large, grassy field, we heard the beautiful song of Dicksissels. This beautiful bird roams as far south as South America. It sings to attract a mate. This is yet another mating skill I lacked. I’m beginning to wonder how I attracted a mate at all. Sorry, Jill, why did you marry me? It must have been the prospect of marrying a lawyer destined to pursue a lucrative career in the nonprofit sector.

We sat and watched these beautiful birds in the field, as well as a solitary Western Bluebird. We then made our way over to Big Spring for a special event. Ben and I have been hiking at Big Spring for over three years. It’s a special place, probably the last pristine natural spring in our region. I’ve had the great pleasure of drinking water directly from the source here. I’ve sat for many pleasant hours in the shade of an ancient, historic Bur Oak, as well as a towering Walnut Tree. The Walnut bears a railroad spike in its trunk, marking the extent of the 1908 historic Trinity River flood. Ben, along with a number of local naturalists, historians, and citizen activists, has spent hours preserving this unique place. Today, we were going to watch local historian MC Toyer unveil a State Historic Marker. This place was once owned by John Beeman, one of MC’s ancestors. John left the land to his daughter Margaret, who was married to Dallas pioneer John Neely Bryan. The land was subsequently purchased by Edward Case Pemberton, who was a great caretaker of this land.

Gathered together was as fine a crowd of Dallasites as you could imagine: Billy Ray and Zada Pemberton, who were also caretakers of this land. You could not possibly meet a more gracious couple. Standing close by was Richard Grayson, a Master Naturalist and head of the Stream Team that monitors this spring. There was fellow Master Naturalist Becky Rader, who is so knowledgeable of local flora, and Dr. Tim Dalbey, talented archeologist. Jim Flood, a Master Naturalist and steward of the Buckeye Trail, was there. And right there were of course Hal and Ted Barker, who are such fierce advocates for preservation. Richard Hill was there. His forebear is rumored to have paid money to have prevented this site from being subjected to gravel mining. Sean Fitzgerald, one of the most talented nature photographers in the area, was there. And, of course, MC Toyer and his lovely mother were there. MC did a great job of describing the history of this place. He pointed out that the early settlers here must have chosen this place because of this convenient source of fresh water. And he told us the story of how Sam Houston as President of the Republic of Texas was supposed to have camped here as he made his way to negotiate a peace treaty with Native Americans at Bent’s Fort. Those traveling with President Houston wrote of the occasion:

“We encamped that night at White Rock Springs, so called from the calcareous nature of the rocks abundant here about one mile from the White Rock Fork of the Trinity. In the morning some settlers from the infant colony opened about the Forks of the Trinity River visited us, accompanied by some travelers examining the country, they brought us no news of the expected Indians and were on foot, stating that some little time previous the wild Indians had stolen all the horses but one or two belonging to the settlement.”

MC had hung the flags of Texas and the United States, as well as the state flags of Illinois, Tennessee, and North Carolina, representing the home states of the families who settled this area. And, of course, Ben had changed into a jacket and tie and a courtly straw cowboy hat. Man, he cleans up great.

We then headed down to the spring. The place is lush and green. I walked over and washed my face with the cool waters. The water is a constant 68 degrees year round. No doubt old Sam Houston had knelt close by and washed the grime of travel off of his face, just as I was doing now. This is the perfect occasion to reflect on why preservation is so important. I am quite aware as I stand here that I can feel my blood pressure lower as I listen to the sound of the cold water flowing by. And the fact that this place is such a huge part of our history just makes it all the more special. I’m thankful that this place has been preserved. But the threats are not passed. While we stood and talked, we discussed the fact that springs are fragile things. Placing parking lots close by can affect the amount of water being absorbed into the aquifer, which in turn could affect the flow of this Spring. The Spring was there for the Native Americans and for settlers. It was preserved by the private land owners. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we were the generation who let that special place be spoiled?

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