Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
— Bruce Springsteen, The River
Last Saturday morning was a beautiful, cold morning. Ben Sandifer and I decided to head down to the Trinity to see if there was dry land. I had been out of town the previous weekend, hiking in New Mexico’s Organ Mountains, so I was happy to hike with Ben again. There is something about our easy companionship that makes a walk in the woods even better. We barely need conversation to pick our way down a trail or decide when to take a break, to be quiet, slow down or speed up. I like the effortlessness of walking with a steady, familiar companion, especially one as knowledgeable and amiable as Ben. My buddy Scott usually is with us, and Scott and I have been hiking together for about 35 years.
We’ve added a few others to our escapades, and I very much enjoy introducing others to the beauty of our local natural wild places. It was great to have Jeff Whittington along with us. He’s an experienced hiker, a great companion, and he did a great job interviewing Ben, Dana Wilson, and me on Think.
I need these walks in the woods. My life is filled not just with traumatized immigrants, but also with the stress of fundraising and IT issues. I’m in the rarefied territory of being able to truthfully say that I love my work. It feels like work I was made to do, but it is stressful. For 15 years, we’ve been providing free legal services to immigrant survivors of violence and human rights abuses. Our waiting room is full of people fleeing the chaos around the world. On any given morning, I might start the day with offering a cup of tea to a torture survivor from the Congo, or opening the door for a 14-year-old girl fleeing sexual assault from the unrelenting gang violence in El Salvador. Just recently ICE has begun raiding families, even some of whom we are helping.
So I need the distraction of a walk in the woods. When I’m in the woods, budgets, strategic planning, and press releases fade into the back of my mind. I’m just trying not to trip over a log.
We decided to hit the Buckeye Trail. It is a great hike. I particularly like the walk down to the mouth of White Rock Creek. Typically this time of year, the winter wild rye creates a beautiful pastoral scene. I had not been on that trail in almost a year, so I was looking forward to seeing what it looked like after this year’s flooding. We drove to the trailhead, which is where Bexar dead-ends into the Trinity River levee. This area has had a transformation with the addition of the Bonton Farm, so there are now goats, chickens, greenhouses, and beehives where a vacant lot used to be. Bonton used to be a rough neighborhood, so it is heartening to see something this new and innovative. We parked our cars and ascended the levee, following the trail east, over to Home Simpson Lake. The lake was rimmed with ice, and we made our way around its edge, where we would head cross-country to the mouth of White Rock Creek.
Ben and I first did this hike about four years ago, and we had marked the route with red tape. We walked into the woods and found one string of the tape. We wouldn’t see another one for a while, all removed by floodwaters. We had hoped for sunshine, but the sky was overcast. Ben and Scott pulled out their phones and were utilizing the maps and GPS to pick our way down to the mouth of White Rock. This entire area had been inundated with the floods. This is not an ancient forest. The occasional giant Burr Oak or Elm sticks out among the younger Cedar Elms and Ash, which are not that old. However, this is a real forest, dotted with the occasional bois d’arc fence post from the era when this land served to graze dairy cows.
These woods had been filled with water just weeks before, and we were walking in deep mud and standing water for most of the time. It was worth it, though. We walked out on a sandbar where White Rock empties into the Trinity River. I thought of this site when I read comments Peter Simek recently made about the Trinity River: “But beneath all of this, what the Dallas Wave — and all the intrigue around it — reveals is a deep and profound lack of respect for the Trinity River itself.” This is an astute comment. The Trinity is much maligned. In part it is because it is a river that was abused, rechanneled, and polluted. However, here in the middle to the forest, it is a wild thing. It flows along its ancient meanders. We can hear the current as it courses through the willows that line the banks. It is, dare I say it, beautiful, marred only by the urban trash that thoughtless people cast aside, including the ubiquitous plastic water bottles. We stood, taking in the sound of White Rock Creek, almost out of the banks, swollen by the rains.
We started hiking back toward the Buckeye Grove. This is my favorite part of the hike. It’s remote, and I love the Virginia Wild Rye, which is green this time of year. There were no markers of the old trail, although the direction is not that challenging, as we basically followed the river to the west. Eventually we found the old Buckeye Trail and the grove of Buckeyes that grow on the higher ground, along bluffs of the Trinity. We soon discovered that that trail isn’t actually a trail any longer. Months of floodwaters have obliterated much of the path. That is a shame, because this was one of the most accessible spots to explore the Trinity River. It’s still possible to get down there, but you really do need to know where you are going and have some skill walking cross country with no clear path. There is literally tons of debris, and large logs litter the forest floor. While this makes it a challenge to walk, it’s not bad. There is something to be said for an area where there are no trails, where you really can get lost, where you have to use your wits to find your way. In addition, the downed trees nourish the soil and provide food and shelter for the animals and insects that live there. The Pileated Woodpeckers we see here need large, dead trees to make their homes. Flooding is simply part of the natural cycle of things, although the rate of flooding is modified by the dams upstream and the decisions of when to release water from the reservoirs. Some of the standing water even killed some of the trees, and so the forest canopy is thinner. This will also change the appearance of the Forest. Some of the Wild Rye has been scraped clean by rushing floodwaters, but the silt deposited by the river promises that the grasses may be even more verdant next year.
We slogged our way through mud and debris and eventually made it back to the levee. Although we had no Chevy, the levee, we were relieved to find, was dry. At one point, I hung back and let the others go on ahead. I wanted to enjoy the solitude of the woods for a bit, just the sound of wind in the tops of the Cottonwoods. I savored that moment.
We got back to our cars and went about our day. I went home to do the cooking for my wife Jill and myself this week. Ben headed over to our new neighborhood spot, Goodfriend Package Store. In one of those great serendipitous moments that seem to happen in East Dallas, Jill was picking us up lunch there and ran into Ben and his girlfriend Carrie, all covered with mud. Her first thought no doubt was, “I hope Bill has learned something in the last 31 years of marriage and leaves his clothes in the front yard.” Ben laughed and said, “We just left Bill at the end of the trail.” Jill came home, and we shared a chicken salad sandwich and some tomato soup. Yeah, two more reasons to love Dallas.