In this installment, our man reminds us how history and hiking are intertwined. Then there’s the matter of leading 40 kids from the African American Museum Summer Camp on a hike through the woods.
Hiking Through History
By Bill Holston
Yesterday was Henry David Thoreau’s Birthday. [Ed: I failed Bill by not getting this post up sooner. My bad.] He wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I find that true every time I hit the trail.
No offense to Plano, but I’m reconsidering whether we have more hiking in Dallas. Someone pointed out in the comments to the last Law Man Walking that we have the Great Trinity Forest. The claim has been made that the Trinity Forest is the largest urban, bottomland hardwood forest, at 6,000 acres, in the United States. Jim Flood tells me this claim originated with Ned Fritz, who was trying to get this land preserved. It’s a great resource, but we’ve really just begun to penetrate this forest with trails. Most of the great dirt trails have been built by volunteers, and I’d love to see these resources expanded. (But not too much.) I like our local hike and bike trails like Santa Fe Trail, Katy Trail, Turtle Creek Trail, and White Rock. I don’t’ write as much about those, because I really prefer my nature adventures to be a little wilder. I prefer unpaved trails. In fact it’s one of the things I liked about Oak Point; it was not overdeveloped. There is a reason for paved trails. They are ADA compliant, and it’s important for nature to be accessible to people with disabilities. These paved trails provide places for exercise for bike riders, skaters and joggers. But it’s the dirt trails that really get my interest. I like the fact that there are fewer people on these simple trails and that you are more likely to see wildlife. I like the feeling of being in a wilderness in the midst of a city. Honestly, I think that’s critical. I can’t exaggerate how important it is for my mental and spiritual well being to have undeveloped places to encounter real nature, away from crowds of people. I’m not the only one that needs that.
I got a chance to explore some of that urban wilderness last weekend. First, I returned to the Buckeye Trail for my first experience of leading a hike. We North Texas Master Naturalists volunteered to lead about 40 kids from the African American Museum Summer Camp on a hike on the Buckeye Trail. These were great kids and they braved the heat, mostly without complaint. They got to see lots of what our local bottomland forest has to offer. They were sharp kids and could by the end of the hike tell the difference between poison ivy (leaves of three, let it be) and Virginia Creeper. We saw towering Cottonwood Trees, our native Maple, the Ash Leaf Maple, Red Mulberry, and Pecans. I thought about Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder and how children are really losing their comfort and familiarity with nature and how this is related to the childhood obesity epidemic.
When I was a kid, I spent hours in the woods around my house in Mobile, Alabama. We left in the morning and explored creeks, swamps, piney woods, and gullies from dawn to dusk. My mom was once aghast as I poured out a sack of snakes in the front yard. Leaving wild places to be explored by kids is one of the reasons why it’s actually critical that we spend resources to provide access to local nature areas. It’s also part of the mission of Master Naturalists, to be an army of trained volunteers who are prepared to teach about our North Texas ecosystems.
I had a great two hours leading these kids through these woods. Some of the adults were astonished at how pretty these woods were, even on a sweltering July day. They saw the endless expanse of Virginia Wild Rye full of seeds and new growth. Crossing that levee, you enter an entirely different world.
My favorite hike of the weekend, however, was a new one, the Gateway Trails. The trails are roughly located off of Jim Miller, north of Bruton Road. This is a great part of Dallas, featuring the White Rock Escarpment of Southern Dallas County and the lower reaches of White Rock Creek, before it enters the Trinity River, close to the Buckeye Trail. To reach the trail, I parked in the Park and followed an unmarked trail running north. The trail crossed over the top of a very steep hill, with loose footing. I was happy to have my eastern red cedar walking stick as I made my way down the side of the hill. I followed the trail to where it crossed a large meadow. The meadow was filled with Johnson Grass. Johnson Grass is an invasive plant that was imported from Turkey in the 1830s as a forage and was widely distributed in Texas. It is now a pest. The meadow was also filled with blooming Ironweed, and past blooming milkweed and horsemint. I stood and watched a scissortail flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) and a western kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) on the phone lines that intersect the meadow. The Kingbird has a lovely yellow underside, and is spectacular to watch as it earns that verticalis name, by flying to catch insects. The trail eventually passes the Dart Green Line, where you catch the first signage. The trail to the left is called the JJ Beeman Trail, named after John Neely Bryan’s in-laws, who settled in the area around lower White Rock Creek. The area abounded in wildlife:
According to John Beeman’s son, William Beeman: “We lived principally on honey, venison, wild turkey, bear, and Buffalo meat, all of which was abundant. I have killed Buffalo right around the Fair Grounds over there and lots of bear in Whiterock and Trinity bottoms. Deer and turkey could be seen any time all around here. Every morning we could hear turkey gobblers along the creek.”
William Beeman was the son of John Beeman, friend of John Neely Bryan and one of the first settlers of this area. It’s fascinating to read what this area was like back when it was still wilderness. Well, there are no more turkey gobblers in these woods or bear, but they are still awfully pretty woods. At this trail split, the woods are filled with very old and large Walnut Trees. I’ve read that these were planted by Mr. Beeman in the 19th century, when he was miles from the nearest neighbor.
I took the trail to the right, which is the Scyene Overlook Trail. The trail crosses through a nice eastern red cedar break, before climbing up a hill, which is a high point on the Escarpment. The hill is covered with Shumard Oak and is one of the nicest views in the entire city. I imagine there would actually be Fall colors here. I’ll try to be here on the Friday afternoon that constitutes Fall in Dallas. It’s hard to really describe in a believable fashion. From this hill you can see forest stretching as far as you can see. There are some nice rough-hewn log benches on this spot. I sat drinking cold water and eating some Empanadas I bought at a small pasteleria on Ferguson Road. I pulled out my journal, and as I do each morning, recited the Sh’ma, the ancient Hebrew recitation of the oneness of God. I looked over the broad expanse of Forest and imagined I was no longer in an urban setting. See what I mean about dirt trails? It’s a very tranquil spot. I followed the trail back to the area around Keeton Golf Course on Jim Miller. Actually, I found that there was a more direct route, which cut across a large soccer field.
There I found the kiosk and trail marker for the Piedmont Ridge Trail. This is one of the prettiest short walks I’ve found in the city. The trail climbs quite a bit and follows a knife-like ridge along the top of the escarpment. Once I’d climbed on top of the escarpment, there were a number of nice meadows. I walked across one, watching a hummingbird perched in the top of a dead tree. (I’m still learning hummingbirds and I didn’t get a good look at this one.) The Meadow was filled with past blooming wildflowers. There was a nice breeze on top of the escarpment. As I walked along, I noticed that the entire ridge is covered with Shumard Oaks (Quercus shumardii), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and my favorite, the Shin Oaks (Quercus sinuata var. breviloba).
The Shin Oaks are White Oaks, and have lovely what bark trunks. They seem to favor the top of the Escarpment. There is a nice rough log bench on the Escarpment, in the shade of the Junipers. I sat, drank cold water, and wrote in my journal, taking the huge expanse of the White Rock Creek Bottoms stretching in front of me. I heard a Carolina Chickadee chirping nearby, and watched as a woodpecker began tapping in a Juniper. I pulled out my binoculars and finally saw that it was a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). It was pretty unafraid and set posing on a tree limb as I watched it.
I left this quiet spot and walked to the end of the Trail, overlooking Bruton Road. There’s an old fence line there, with barbed wire hanging on old cedar posts. The Trail continues on the other side of Bruton Road and ends at Devon Park. I haven’t explored that far, but I will.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this hike was being connected with the history of the area. I’d never thought about the Beeman family, for instance. They settled this area, when it was still dangerous. I’ve always loved history. I’m sad that it isn’t taught well in school. Like Sam Cooke once sang, most of us don’t know much about history. Honestly, why is it important to study history? Well, there’s George Santayana’s famous quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think more importantly, it gives us a sense of perspective. When we talk about how difficult these times are, it’s important to remember the stuff of the people who settled this area. They faced hardships and privations we can barely imagine. Dallas does not seem to have a sense of history. We seem more defined by the television show Dallas than the fact that people traveled across a sea of grass to settle by our waters. It also should give us pause in how we treat our environment. These Creeks and Rivers were once pristine. I hope that knowing that history leads us toward a sense of reverence as we develop these trails and access to this forest. I hope we fight the urge to leave too much of a human footprint on these spots. The simple dirt Buckeye Trail is a great example of simple signage, a clear trail and removal of invasive species which is what our model should be. I hope our leaders pay attention to that balance, and fight the urge to lay concrete where buckskin clad settlers once roamed.