Fear Factor

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

In The Wizard of Oz, the line about lions and tigers and bears is a refrain, repeated four times. Tin Man, Scarecrow and Dorothy say, "Lions and tigers and bears!" And then Dorothy punctuates with "Oh, my!"

So right now I'm Dorothy. I am standing here at a gateway to the Great Trinity Forest. Two fat pipes, crudely spray-painted gray, rise up out of the ground like haunted headstones on either side of a dirt lane beyond the dead end of Fairport Road, about a mile southwest of the intersection of Loop 12 and the C.F. Hawn Freeway. Graffiti on one pipe says "Tony."

The land ahead dips down into a dark and tangled void. My eyes are taking awhile to adjust, and then it's going to take longer for my mind.

A beautiful pond in the southern tip of the Great Trinity Forest
Eva Watson
A beautiful pond in the southern tip of the Great Trinity Forest
The combined forces of flood and human ingenuity have carried trash into the forest's deepest reaches.
Eva Watson
The combined forces of flood and human ingenuity have carried trash into the forest's deepest reaches.
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.
Regal trees and other gems of nature rise above the rubble. But can Dallas City Hall save them?
Eva Watson
Regal trees and other gems of nature rise above the rubble. But can Dallas City Hall save them?

Oh, my. I thought this was going to be easy. For years I've heard people talking about the "Great Trinity Forest." The Dallas Morning News always describes it as "the largest urban bottomland hardwood forest in the nation." What does that mean?

Whenever I drive south on Interstate 45 or on C.F. Hawn Freeway (175) across Southern Dallas, I see this area as a vast gray-green mush beyond my car window. The city's Trinity River Project Office promotes the idea that this 6,000-acre void along the lower reaches of the Trinity River is an amenity. We are to believe that this area is or will one day become a kind of park.

So I figured if it was a park, I'd go for a hike. I was in high spirits--this was a warm bright day toward the end of January--and I was up for it. I'm a very woodsy person. I hike in the woods a lot. I am not a sissy about being out in the wild. Or I wasn't a sissy until about 50 seconds ago when I encountered my first example of Great Trinity Forest wildlife.

As I walked from my parked car toward this entrance, just as I was stepping over a low barricade of bulldozed dirt, sewer pipe and building material fragments, I was set upon by a splendid specimen of the three-legged red chow dog species, with one milky eye and a ragged ear. He was extremely unfriendly. I pride myself on understanding dogs, and I believe that he was saying to me in dog language: "I am going to bite you in the neck and eat you for lunch."

I was able to talk him out of eating me for lunch by hurling at him a barrage of hastily grabbed-up rocks, broken brick-ends and wallboard fragments and by using an old wildlife trick I remembered from my Detroit years--shouting the MF word at him in a high-pitched shriek.

The MF word did the trick. He's gone. Now I'm supposed to walk down this dirt road into the Great Trinity Forest. And I'm thinking real hard about how maybe I don't get paid enough for this job.

Great Trinity Forest, indeed.

I'm not sure who is to blame for calling it that. The name is the product of fairly recent politics. When the city and the Corps of Engineers wanted to bulldoze a broad swath down the floodplain to reduce the danger of flooding, environmentalists and naturalists sent up a howl and rushed out to inventory priceless natural wonders that would be lost. My people, in other words. It will be their fault if I get eaten by a dingo today.

But then at some point in the political strife over the Trinity River project, a huge public works scheme to rebuild the river where it runs through the city, the city took up the name Great Trinity Forest and began touting the area as one of the many benefits of the project. Comparisons even have been drawn to New York's Central Park, which is only 843 acres.

But Central Park is nice.

I finally have nerved myself to walk on a little farther. I have so many rocks in my pockets I'm afraid I'll lose my pants, and I'm carrying a branch the size of a railroad tie. I have forced myself to stop muttering the MF word, because I think it's un-naturalistic, but I want you to know I am shakin' in my hiking boots. Every time a twig snaps I think it's that devil dog sneaking up on me again.

Another thing bothers me: In driving around with my maps and my little GPS thing looking for different ways into the forest, I observed instances of what I believed were illegal activities. In one area I saw woodland sprites flitting among the trees. On closer examination, I decided these were not sprites but prostitutes. I'm not afraid of prostitutes, especially, but I just don't normally associate them with nature hikes.

"MF! MF! MF!"

Oh, sorry. That was either an extremely large squirrel or an incredibly muscular house cat, but it seems to have flown away into the brush. So, no problemo. I just hope they're not gathering...

No, no, we're not going to think like that. We must not think bad thoughts, or we won't be able to go on.

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.

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.

But little thought has been given to the cost of operating the whole 6,000-acre expanse as a park. City council member Ed Oakley (District 3, west to far southwest), chairman of the council's Trinity River Committee and chief drummer for the project, says to me, "I think the whole idea is keeping the forest in its natural state...I don't think there's any plan to just go blaze trails through there and have a huge amount of operating costs to operate anything."

Rebecca Dugger, director of the Trinity River project, says she thinks the anticipated uses of the forest will be relatively low-cost. She mentions "eco-tourism, bird-watching and appreciating the big trees."

But she does not know where the operating funds will come from. "As far as operating and maintaining the Great Trinity Forest, I guess that would be a park department question."

The park department told me that various elements of the plan are "under negotiation," but a spokesman conceded that the forest itself has not yet been "designed" as a park and has no budget.

Let me go back to my adventure for a moment, if I may. I'm noodling around on the map, and I find my way down to the end of Riverwood Road in the triangle formed by Loop 12, C.F. Hawn and Interstate 20. Here, I get out of the car and stand on the cornice of a high bluff above the river. The view to the west is broad, green and magnificent. The ground at my feet is a solid carpet of roofing material, and when I lean out over the edge, I can see a mound of roofing material far below. Brave roofer, he was, backing up to a bluff like this.

While I am here, a gentleman in a white city of Dallas pickup truck appears. I am unable to get his name. He is curious about me, I think, but otherwise friendly enough. He says that he knows the Great Trinity Forest like the back of his hand. I ask him what I may hope to see if I venture out into the verdant expanse I see beyond the bluff to the west.

"Drug labs," he says.

Oh. That's actually worse than three-legged chow dogs. And, by the way, now there are two police helicopters looping expectantly above me.

Back at my desk again, I conduct a study of the crime-reporting districts that make up the Great Trinity Forest. By my count, 1,418 crimes were reported in that area last year, including 133 aggravated assaults, 86 individual robberies, 10 rapes and five murders.

Kind of makes you see things more from the Sheriff of Nottingham's point of view, eh?

Now I know that my good friends, the defenders of the forest, will argue that almost all of these crimes probably occurred in the neighborhoods around the forest and not in the forest itself. Since the forest has no legal or formal boundaries yet--as far as I can tell, it really doesn't have a legal existence--it would be hard if not impossible to make that calculation. But I must say this: Even if every single one of the 133 agg assaults, 86 stick-ups, 10 rapes and five murders took place in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the forest, that news would not put me in a big bird-watching or eco-tourism frame of mind.

I can be ordered to do things like poke around in the Great Trinity Forest because of my unfortunate choice of professions many years ago. But before the city could even suggest that everyday people begin to view this area as any kind of park, the city will have to pony up an enormous annual budget--let's take Cedar Hill State Park and double it to at least $1.6 million a year for the Great Trinity Forest--in order to solve the security problem alone.

I also feel strongly that they will have to do something about the automobile, truck and tractor tires, unless the eco-tourists of tomorrow are especially interested in steel-belted radials. In several days of poking around, I did get a little less chickensy and a bit more adventurous, and I did forage my way out into the forest about as deep as you can go. Wherever I was, if I stopped, stayed very still, held my mouth a certain way and peered into the forest ahead of me, I could spot tires. It's amazing that people have even been able to get tires into some of those locations. Substantial trees are growing through tires.

And roofing material! Now, I have to be careful here, because some of my best friends are roofers, and I know that some of the smartest, most independent thinkers in the world go into roofing. But I gotta tell you. There are roofers in this city who must have worked all day long and totally destroyed their pickup trucks in order to dump their loads in the farthest depths of this area and avoid a $15-a-ton dumping fee at the McCommas Bluff landfill. That is definitely an IQ thing.

In some areas of the forest, decades of dumping have produced an otherworldly terrain evocative of nuclear holocaust. I am thrashing through wiry brambles, trying to find my way to Lemmon Lake, when my boots scrunch against another odd soil type. I bend down and scoop up a handful of dirt to sift and sniff. Quick little daggers of pain like bites make me throw it down. A tiny red balloon of blood bubbles up from my palm.

The "dirt" is a kind of urban sand made entirely of broken glass, ceramic shards, concrete dust, gypsum and who knows what the hell. I've cut myself on the soil.

I find Lemmon Lake eventually, ripples glittering behind a wall of reeds--a scene fit for the Baby Moses story except for the fluttering plastic bags. Helicopters rumble far above. A bleak loneliness stills the air, different from the solitude of wilderness. This is more moon than forest.

But moments later I round a bend in my car, and look at that, will you! Almost the entire City Hall press corps is assembled here in the forest today, milling and grinning like amiable islanders beneath a grove of dish trucks. I pop out of my car and go over to chat with Gary Reaves from WFAA-Channel 8. I'm so happy to see everybody. They're searching for a body.

I wish them well in the forest today and go on my way. That must be what the helicopters are about. One's heart is always warmed when one comes across one's fellow hunter-gatherers in the forest.

Bryan Kilburn is a city employee who has been mapping the most valuable resources within the Great Trinity Forest. He was kind enough to e-mail me a list, and on this last morning of my adventure, I am striking out to see the one everybody talks about--the Buckeye Trail. Of course, this is not at all the season to see it. The trees are bare; this morning a cold rain has begun to fall; as I climb the huge flood-control berm at the end of Bexar Street, just south of Turner Courts public housing, the ground is already slipping beneath my boots.

A fairy-tale wall of thorns bars my way at the edge of the levee, but then I see a portal, and from that opening a delicate footpath beckons. I step from the city into an enormous room of forest--silent, dark, romantic. I do have to make my way through a few drifts of trash, and I can still do my trick of standing still and sniffing out automobile tires.

But this is an ancient and primordial place, not cut by roads, without concrete pillboxes. The air is fresh and muddy in a good way, not like Eau de doo-doo. I have to pause and say softly to myself, "Oh, my."

This and other jewels within the so-called Great Trinity Forest are well worth protecting. I wonder if City Hall is capable. I wonder if anyone at City Hall has the slightest inkling what the phrase "Great Trinity Forest" does and does not mean. I am intrigued by what else could be out here. But do you think, if I was going to do a whole lot more exploring, I could hire a couple of Pinkertons to go with me?

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