Trail Seeking Through The Trash Heap
Dead Ends & Tire Dumps
The map labeled the green space “Big Walnut Creek Nature Preserve,” which held an expectation of ungroomed forested paths, free-roaming rambles, native grass bunches, and perhaps even a water crossing or two. Located just south of Highway 290 off Old Manor Road, the preserve is said, according to Google Maps, to be home to wooded hiking trails around the Ferguson Branch of Walnut Creek. We headed out there yesterday, despite the majority of available reviews noting an absence of parking or even a sign designating you’d arrived.
The morning weather was uninviting, with a slate gray sky masking the high humidity and the streets slick with a film of warm moisture. We found the preserve in a light industrial area pressured now with rapid population growth. Trucking company parking lots meld into new apartment complexes which open to highway underpasses and dead-end feeder roads. No trespassing signs flourish. We confirmed no obvious preserve entrances, trail heads, or parking areas. In an effort to salvage our planned exploration, we pulled onto the frontage of Ferguson Cutoff opposite the preserve and exited the car, eager to venture into the woods.
The dominant features here were multiple No Dumping signs, each originating from different agencies and time periods, posted along the street. In spite of these signs, or perhaps in their defiance, the woods’ edge is littered with piles of discarded tires, broken furniture, and plastic bags of trash, while the signs themselves are peppered with bullet holes from clandestine target practice. Stark and depressing, the ‘preserve’ presents confirmation of a breakdown of expected structures and behavior. Who routinely dumps tires into a ravine where there are multiple signs indicating to not do that? What governance structures have failed to keep this space free from such blatant abuse? How can public lands be cared for and explored without sacrificing their wildness?
And so while the space name creates the expectation of, if not tranquility, at least an area safeguarded from such defilement, the opposite is in fact the case. The space feels stressed and strained, battling a trash infection. Here, a shaky naturalness emerges. This is the space that illustrates a society untamed, perhaps misguided, and possibly ugly, treating commons as dumping grounds. As we ignore the degradation, we all suffer.
As we wandered past the trash heaps, we did notice some possible entrees to the deeper woods. We gingerly stepped over some long-abandoned barb wire, still affixed to its cedar post, and headed into a small clearing off the road. There was an animal trail leading east and we followed that for a short ways until the underbrush became impenetrable, so wild and thick with growth that movement was stalled and a strange sense of foreboding arose. Perhaps we were not meant to venture here today. We circled back and found our car, parked as if to awkwardly announce that someone actually was trying to go into “that place.”
Our initial interest in the preserve was sparked a week earlier when we headed to the much more developed Walnut Creek Trail, located a few miles south. This is a City of Austin project, a not-yet-completed trail linking Govalle Park off Bolm Road in East Austin with the Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park in far north Austin. The trail currently covers about seven miles with multiple entrance points along the route. We chose the trail head at the YMCA, arriving early on that Sunday to an empty parking lot and a well-paved path.
Heading south on the trail, enjoying the morning air, we spotted some botanical differences from our other hikes. Conceptualizing the hikes by ecological conditions has helped us learn how local forces influence what thrives in an area. It wasn’t much later, in fact, when conditions introduced us to a new life force. A herd of spandex-laden bicyclists approached rapidly from behind, heard before seen, warning us in unison “On the left,” as they scooted by. They were the first of many biking groups and the flow of two-wheeled weekend warriors was understandable (paved trails!) if less than ideal. When the trail was clear, it was a more pleasant walk, with some striking examples of forest stratification as ground cover and grasses gave way to rising shrubs and an under story, all capped with a canopy layer.
Crossing under FM 969, near the wastewater plant, there is evidence of the creek’s power during flood days, with a mass of branches, trunks, and rubbish locked in battle with the bridge’s concrete pillars.
About two miles into the walk, weary of dodging well-meaning cyclists, we paused at a right-of-way that opened towards the creek. We left the paved path and followed the clearing to the east. Soon we noticed a worn foot path heading deeper into the woods, an indication that we made a good choice. There was palpable relief as we were now alone in the woods. Or so we thought. As we wended our way on the edge of the creek, the geologic history of the area was on display. Beautifully exposed layers of alluvial sediment provided dramatic views not available from the paved path.
A few minutes later the trail split and off one spur we noticed a structure. We approached somewhat cautiously and were greeted with an unexpected welcoming note, complete with snacks in a small elevated shelving unit. Adjacent to this fairy-tale snack bar, behind a rattan fence, was a cabin and, to my surprise, a person looking out towards us through the front window. Startled, I raised my hand in a greeting and the person vanished.
We explored that area no further, returning to the path, curious about the ‘cabin in the woods,’ and the full scale of the trails and tributaries of Walnut Creek. Our friend Steve, who lives further north on the creek, suggested we “come up the creek” to visit. Once home, I turned to Google Earth to gain perspective on such a journey and that’s how I came to discover the Big Walnut Creek Nature Preserve.
Yesterday, as we returned somewhat dejected from our trip to the preserve, Kim suggested we invest in some rubber boots and explore the creek system more directly, roaming the riparian waterways as a way to connect our hiking sites, avoid the threat of trespassing violations, and even drop in on our buddies. It is a worthy vision and perhaps along the way we can discover the wildness tucked away from the trash heaps and discard piles of the ‘no dumping’ dump.
Have a safe and sound holiday week!