Fear Factor

Ever wonder what's inside the Great Trinity Forest? Enter if you dare.

Before starting out on this adventure, I set some rules for myself. I know lots of people who could have directed me to the most poignant spots within the forest. I have gone on those hikes before, so I do know that there are instances of striking beauty scattered here and there across the 6,000 acres. But I wanted to test the Great Trinity Forest in a different way--not whether it's possible to find one pretty bluff above the river in the whole 6,000 acres but whether you can actually plunge into this place at any given point, as if it were a park, and expect to come out alive. The jury's still out.

Oh, great, and now a police helicopter is droning in lazy circles above my head like a vulture. I hope they'll tell me if I'm being slowly encircled by stalking house pets.

I must observe the forest. This road is of dirt mixed with gravel, raised up above the floor of the land around it. Through a dense growth of young trees I see stagnant brown water glowing in borrow pits that must have been dug to get dirt for the road.

Clockwise from top left: Strange soil near Lemmon Lake, made entirely of broken glass and rubble; on the banks of the Trinity River, where toaster ovens grow in trees; the entrance to Goat Island Nature Preserve; a lone fisherman goes after sand bass among the sunken vehicles.
Eva Watson
Clockwise from top left: Strange soil near Lemmon Lake, made entirely of broken glass and rubble; on the banks of the Trinity River, where toaster ovens grow in trees; the entrance to Goat Island Nature Preserve; a lone fisherman goes after sand bass among the sunken vehicles.
Un-earthly substances appear in the soil of the Great Trinity Forest like blobs from another planet.
Eva Watson
Un-earthly substances appear in the soil of the Great Trinity Forest like blobs from another planet.

The road traverses a series of ridges. Even though no rain has fallen here for weeks, the ground between the ridges is slippery wet. Black water trickles through steel culverts beneath the road. An impression is gathering slowly in the back of my mind.

OK, hold up, just hold up right here. We may have to say the MF word a whole bunch of times. What in the hell is that out there? In the near distance, partially obscured by brush, I observe what looks at first like a tangled mass of dead bodies squiggling out of a culvert pipe. I choke back the urge to heave my railroad tie at it and race back to my car squealing like a pig, and then I force myself to look more closely.

No, it's not a bunch of stiffs. It's some wretched soul's entire wardrobe and housekeeping, twisted and balled, knotted and wrapped, pants, sweaters, caps, pajamas, bath towels and bedspreads, all of it swept off the dirty plain above by a flood, probably after an eviction, and dragged down here to a soggy grave in the black ooze of the Great Trinity Forest. Lovely.

The impression gathering slowly in the back of my mind was this: The entire landscape here is all about floodplain, drainage, water rushing down fast and raw and heaving trash deep into the woods, ripping out trees, slinging up drifts of mud and junk, a vast storm sewer that receives the sloppiness of us all. I don't ever want to be out here if it starts raining suddenly.

Now, here we have come out into a long clearing. The ground beneath my boots is...how to put it? Odd. This is odd ground, squishy in a strange way, not as if softened by rain but more like loose earth not yet compacted. In the distance is a meander of the river I wish to see, so I hike along across this odd ground, and...what is that? An unpleasant odor on the breeze?

Yes! Quite unpleasant. And then I see a series of low solid concrete boxes on the ground, maybe 5 feet square, with fat rusty pipes rising from them, slitted at the top. This long clearing with the strange squishy earth, the pillboxes and the vent pipes is the right of way for a huge city sewer, a cloaca maxima carrying wastewater from much of Southeast Dallas to the Dallas Treatment Plant on the main course of the river a few miles due west of me. The fragrance engulfing me is Eau de doo-doo.

Sorry. I do not see the Eau de doo-doo district as a recreational experience. Ever. In summer the snakes and chiggers out here must be heart-stopping. In fact, far from a recreational site, I see this as exactly the kind of place I would expect to spend eternity if I had led an especially wicked life. I am hikin' for the car, folks, with a banjo on my knee and a clothespin on my nose.

See, here's a problem. Between my several forays into the forest, I go to my desk--long enough to clear my nostrils, anyway--and do some reporting. I want to know: OK, what is the plan here? For example, I ask the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife what it costs to run a big forested park like Ray Roberts Lake State Park in Pilot Point, which has a river greenbelt in it.

Randy Bell, regional director of state parks in Waco, tells me Ray Roberts has an annual operating budget of more than $1 million. But he cautions that Ray Roberts isn't a direct parallel for several reasons: It isn't urban, and Ray Roberts is really a complex of parks, each with its own unique needs and sub-budget. But he does tell me that Cedar Hill State Park, closer to Dallas, has a budget of almost $800,000 a year.

As far as I can tell, the Great Trinity Forest Park has a budget of zero. Zip. Nada. There is bond money in the till for the construction of projects on the borders of the forest--a nature interpretive center, an equestrian center and a series of trails, for example.

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