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Down by the Trinity, Searching for Dallas' Enchanted Forest

Within the Trinity River greenbelt are acres of untapped forest.
Taryn Walker

It's so strange. This city is a pane of glass in which we see only our own reflections dancing on the surface, but behind and beyond that mirror, a magical realm eludes us.

I think I just stepped through the pane. It's a little after 7 a.m. I just drove a quarter mile on a dusty lane off Harry Hines Boulevard, and now I'm up on the flood-control levee looking down into the Trinity River bottoms. On the way here this morning, my entire thought process was devoted to two things: chiggers and heat.

I assume there are lots of people so new to Dallas, so fresh from the airport that they've never experienced chiggers. Think tiny bugs with itching bites like something you might read about in the Bible.

Heat I don't have to tell you about. Heat is heat. Just walking around downtown at this time of year puts me in mind of another biblical reference—the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the boys committed to the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar because they would not bow down to his 90-foot-high golden statue. That story might have ended differently had he threatened to send them to Dallas.

But the world I've found on the levee is nothing like what I expected. Go ahead and roll your eyes, tap your temple and wink, do the round and round thing with your finger next to your head, but I'm telling you: I'm looking down on an enchanted forest.

It's right there. Right now. Well, wait three months for the Shadrach part of the year to subside. But when the first whispers of cool air blow back down into Dallas next fall, you should pack your water and your bike or your poles or whatever and come see what I'm talking about. It's enchanting, and it's right in front of our eyes, if we only look past the city's glossy surface.

I recently wrote about an idea that Dallas city council members Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs have to create quick, cheap trails between the flood-control levees along the Trinity. Their idea is that Dallas shouldn't wait for billion-dollar public works programs to make the river accessible. People should just get on their bikes and go. Spending a billion bucks to make a natural area accessible sounds too much like wrecking it, anyway.

Depending on how new you are to Dallas, it's perfectly acceptable if you didn't even know we have a river. They keep it hidden. For years people only talked about the river in whispers behind their hands. It was considered a dirty, threatening place. It runs between high, earthen berms or levees built almost a century ago to protect the city from flooding. Unfortunately, the levees also protect the river from view. When you look down on it from a freeway bridge at sixty miles an hour, the river bottom tends to look like a large area of cracked mud and sticker burs, possibly populated by dingoes and zombies.

I didn't find this place on my own. When I was working on the story about the Hunt/Griggs proposal, I happened to chat with Steve Payton, director of a non-profit called Groundwork Dallas that is devoted to forging bonds between under-served urban kids and the out-of-doors. Payton is 43, with a shiny bald pate and a chest the size of a refrigerator. He told me he thought the idea of making trails along the river was great. But he said there are already wonderful trails out there that people could just go use. And I confess: When he started talking, over the phone, about beautiful forested trails along the Trinity, I was doing the round and round thing with my finger next to my head.

Forested trails? Out there now? Come on. I've been writing about the Trinity River for 150 years. If there were any beautiful forested trails out there, I believe I would have been notified.

Payton said he would be running a volunteer levee clean-up the following week, right next to an area of trails. He invited us out to see. So here we are, myself and a photographer. A major hotel chain has brought a big truck out here. They are unloading tables and chairs for a hospitality area for their employees, all of whom have "volunteered" to come do community service.

Strange thing. It doesn't feel hot out here. A nice breeze sweeps up off the river bottom and brushes over our brows. Just north we can see and hear the grinding, roaring lanes of Interstate 35E, where traffic is backed up with cars trying to get downtown for the Mavs' victory parade. It feels like we're looking down on Dallas from another planet.

Payton greets us with a bear-trap handshake and points the way toward the trails—down the other side of the levee toward the river. We leave him and hike.

 

We walk steeply downhill and toward the expressway, which is elevated on bridges—a fact you might never guess if you were driving on the freeway, because the land below is largely hidden by guardrails. In minutes we're beneath the expressway in a cavernous expanse where a little creek runs from Bachman Lake, east of us, to the river, just west.

The water in the creek is low, so we cross without getting our feet wet. We hike uphill some, and suddenly we are here at the mysterious opening of a deeply shaded trail beneath a dense canopy of trees. In this dry weather, the soil is hard-packed and flat, an open invitation for hikers and bikers.

This trail head is beautifully formed. It beckons. Payton says these trails extend for miles. The photographer has to get downtown for parade duty, so we can't go exploring right now. But this place is firmly fixed in my mental GPS for later adventuring.

Back on top of the levee, Payton gestures toward the long reach of river running to the southern horizon. "It's awesome," he says. "It's already here. We don't need to build anything else. Everybody is so wrapped up in the hype of being in the big city, in the gung-ho of the Stars and the Mavericks. People drive by here, and nobody stops to smell the roses."

He is, in many ways, the perfect pied piper. An Oak Cliff kid with a degree in children's theater, he roamed Alaska on a motorcycle for years, working with Methodist youth groups and trail-riding on a mountain bike. He came back home a married father of two with a third on the way. To recruit him, a local environmentalist took him out and showed him Great Trinity Forest.

"I was blown away," he says. "I grew up here, and I had no idea we had a 7,000-acre forest here."

His organization, Groundwork Dallas, is part of an international non-profit chain of local trusts, supported by federal grants and private donations. Today's clean-up is part of an effort to turn this expanse of the river into an outdoor environmental classroom for a nearby charter school.

"Summer is a bit ridiculous out here," he says, "because it's 150 kabillion degrees, but spring and fall are just spectacular, when the birds are all migrating. You come out in the morning with a cup of coffee, and it will blow your mind."

I know that Hunt and Griggs believe their proposal for trails along the river will be non-controversial. This is in spite of the 14-year history of mistrust and recrimination associated with the city's Trinity River Project, a stalled multi-billion-dollar public works campaign that was to have included man-made lakes, a superhighway, a series of decorative suspension bridges and other man-made what-have-you.

They say that's the point. Do something like simple trails that can be accomplished quickly for very little money. Provide people with an important resource they can use right now. Don't put this vast natural asset behind an insurmountable pay-wall of money and politics.

Their idea is great. Compared to waiting 10 years and spending half a billion dollars for make-believe suspension bridges, their idea may even be brilliant. But what about Payton's idea? Why wait for anything? Get on your mountain bike. Go now. Take it over. Seize this land by using it. Save it by loving it.

Let's not pay less. Let's pay nothing. Let's not do something that's a lot faster. Let's do something that's right now.

People who understand natural areas, who are not afraid of sweat and bugs, who know how to get knocked off a bike and take a roll, can make more difference out here than all the planners and lawyers in the world. They can make history happen by not waiting for history to happen.

Access to the enchanted forest is open and legal from Crow Park at the Sylvan Avenue river crossing. That doesn't include motorized all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes, which are strictly illegal on this sensitive flood-control soil. People who are out there regularly, like Payton, watch, listen and sniff for ATVs, and they do call the cops, code enforcement and the levee district.

It stays quiet that way, so being out here is like stepping through the looking glass, out of the city and into a kingdom of herons and foxes, soft breezes and wildflowers. Why aren't we here? What ever kept us away?

For years people only talked about the river in whispers behind their hands. It was considered a dirty, threatening place.

Let's not pay less. Let's pay nothing. Let's not do something that's a lot faster. Let's do something that's right now.


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