By Greg Tonian, 2016
We came together at the river bend, To witness flowing milky blue green water, Laden with Llano Estacado dust, pulsing its lode toward the Matagorda Bay. Meeting half way between the angry clouds that enveloped us this morning and the vast, star-filled skies that would expand above us later that evening, We laced up our hiking boots for an exploration of time and space. I had squeezed between semis and sheets of rain in the dark leaving Dallas, While you evaded slowdowns in Austin only to arrive here a few minutes behind me. Somewhere past Lampasas, we both witnessed a parting dark curtain of clouds Pushed eastward, by a crisp and urgent, High Plains breeze , Suddenly we were confronted by a bright and clear horizon, a bold blue sky full hope and promise hinted that this particular Saturday, marking the end of another January, might put a pause on winter.
- We were just two of a select group of pilgrims congregating today at Colorado Bend State Park, praying for some healing sunshine and crisp clean hill country air. All of us here, “first come first served”, reservation only, Vying for that coveted State Park space; Looking for a connection to nature and our kin, A place to worship and meditate, to socialize at a distance and cure our COVID cabin fevers.
- We found ourselves in a parched, wild scrub of Ashe cedars and prickly pears, Gnarled live oaks, encrusted with lichens, Yellowed grasses, a confluence of prairie and scrubland, Spike-tipped yuccas, All clinging to the Cretaceous bedrock of limestone and mudstone. The vegetation here hangs on for dear life, Poking and probing the cracks and crevices for a secure toehold, Seeking out moisture, Hoping to catch it before it evaporates or slips away, Replenishing an aquifer or spring below. Colorado Bend is a place of springs, Gorman and Spicewood being two notable ones.
- Eric and I, like many others headed straight to its signature attraction, The place where the Gorman Springs gushes from clefts in the bedrock below and above and forms its namesake falls. Ankles and knees were at risk on the rock strewn path leading steadily downward to the confluence of Gorman creek and its wall of water from the cliff above The slippery, rock face, weathered by countless boots and tennis shoes at the final descent made clinging to the cable railing a must. We joined others to marvel at the handiwork of water, rock and plant on the cliff wall in front of us. To the right was a slaloming rivulet of frothy water with multiple mini falls. From above, but mostly from the left rim of the canyon wall, Wispy tendrils of water plummeted 35 feet to the boulders below, forming a thin, transparent curtain. A number of trees had anchored themselves in this tumultuous, damp grotto. The canyon wall comprised of a sort of melting limestone, tufa, was Gaudi-like, and encrusted by an ashy gray, mossy coat. Delicate ferns reached for water droplets from countless rocky perches. The falls were subdued during our visit and I wondered if even a trickle would remain in August or what gushing flows would occur during the monsoons of Spring. The Colorado river was still 100 yards away from the falls catch basin viewing area and the connection a shallow, parched trough in the dust.
- After leaving Gorman Falls, we explored the Gorman Springs trail which was a delightful waterscape as well, if less dramatic. It provided a pleasing oasis in an otherwise hostile landscape and bird life and plant life flourished in this cool pocket of repose between the rocky walls on either side, hidden in the trees. We ascended through the layer of rock and explored the Tie Slide Trail which led us to an overlook giving us a good view of a sharp 90 degree bend in the Colorado. Looking over the landscape, there were few signs of human habitation or development. Despite, the warm bright glare that had us wearing t-shirts during our hike, the reptiles that certainly flourish in this rocky terrain remained in hiding. I can imagine that by spring, hikers would need to be wary of sunbathing diamondback rattlesnakes emerging after a long winter’s nap.
- The last hike of the day was a 1.5 mile backpack to our campsite by an old abandoned windmill on a rise looking out over a gently rolling landscape. We walked silently towards the setting sun, passing seed heads of a variety of grasses, silvery Eryngo and other spent flowers shimmering in the golden glow. The prickly pears in all directions tricked the eye, looking like the ears of partially obscured deer or coyotes, perhaps even a solitary cougar lurking in the thatch. I ruled out lions, though it was an “Out of Africa” scene, The thought perhaps triggered, by an earlier encounter with galloping ostriches on the commute. These alien livestock along with the locally-cultivated, But European, vitis vinifera vines, Testimonials of adaptation, ingenuity and resilience, Or perhaps stubborn Texas determination!
- We slaked our post hike thirst with IPA tall boys, Nibbled on trail mix, gorged on andouille sausage gumbo, sipped some single malt out of a flask, talked of other trails and treks, watched the sunset and marveled as the starry dome revealed itself. Then we retired to a long night of sleep interrupted: Tent fly flapping like a sail, Bands of coyotes laughing like lunatics, The struggle to stay warm, Squirming to find a comfortable position in my mummy bag, Wondering where the other half of the too short Thermarest was!
- In the golden morn, we walked in peace to our cars, Cacti and seed heads ignited on every side, Sun rays slowly penetrating the chill. The incessant northerly breeze did not have a chance. My son and I parted, He chose his To Do list back in Austin, I chose another trail.
- I headed toward the southern border of the Park, Seeking a less known and likely overlooked area of the Park, Spicewood Canyon and the trails which allowed access to this area. I was rewarded. For nearly 3 hours, I walked in solitude. Encountering no one, Inhaling clean canyon air, Scents of cedar and stone, Listening to birdsong, Creaking branches, rustling grasses and quaking leaves; Embraced by my surroundings and finding myself in a state of peaceful exaltation. I walked along a ridge above a split in the Dagwood sandwich layers of rock, Passing stands of ghostly grey Ashe Junipers, Multi-trunked, Surrounding me on all sides. Beneath my boots, Layers of limestone, mudstone, shale, Marine and swamp deposition zones, In order from youngest to oldest, 66 to 145 Million Years Ago old, Top of the plateau to underneath the river: Lower Pennsylvanian-Marble Falls Formation/Smithwick shale; Mississippian/Ordovician-Ellenburger Group/Barnett shale.
- The creatures of the forest were secretive or dormant despite the promise of a warm day. Perhaps they knew what it would be like in just 14 days, When all of Texas would be caught in an icy grip for over a week. During my descent to the Colorado River, I encountered two nonplussed fox squirrels noisily nibbling trailside, and a deer waved its white handkerchief at me, as it crashed through the thick undergrowth, fleeing in surrender at my approach. At an overlook I could see the Spicewood watershed below, Flowing eastward, Juniper-covered cliffs on the south wall of the canyon, Only several hundred yards away, and catch a glimpse of the blue green waters of the Colorado River heading southward. Soon I descended to the river itself, Interrupting small foraging flocks of songbirds, Identifying American goldfinches in the flitting traffic. Large trees grew along the riverbank, Including several sycamores, With white, flaky bark, A few rusty, crinkled leaves And truffle-sized seed balls. Various vines and green briars, Were draped about. I found myself at the confluence of the spring and the river. A catch basin of tufa collected water before its final descent into the Colorado. Now I began my journey upstream, Savoring the beauty of my riparian surroundings. My walk would lead me beside small cascades from all directions, Tranquil, crystalline pools, And moss and fern-covered rocks. Above the stream and watercourses, Rocky walls, encrusted with lichens, And a variety of plants ranging from ferns to cacti and yucca. The air was fresh and intoxicating. The feeling of connection and immersion in nature was uplifting. After crossing the spring one last time I encountered a hermit thrush making its rounds and watched a ladder back woodpecker tap, tap on a tree above me, oblivious of my intrusion. Back at my car, the sun smiling down on a deserted parking lot, I basked in the silence for a moment, Still surprised that no other hikers had ventured to this area. I changed out of my hiking gear and sipped some water Then eased out of the parking lot, For the 4 hour journey home.
- Even now, I continue to reflect on our weekend getaway, The beauty of nature revealed, the special fellowship of father and son, exploration and discovery, a magical hike in Spicewood Canyon, on a glorious Sunday morning in January, May we always remember, That time we met, at a bend in the river.