Longform

The Bushwhacker's Guide to Exploring Dallas

For a long time, a central part of Dallas' self-concept was the idea that this city had no natural features. At all.

The idea was always dead wrong.

In fact, because large tracts of land had been neglected and ignored by developers from the city's earliest days, Dallas always had more truly untouched or lightly touched terrain than many American cities, maybe even most of them. The thing protecting that terrain from touch was always the powerful conviction that it did not exist — a strange notion that just would not die.

Historian Harvey J. Graff opens his 2008 book The Dallas Myth with a dissection of the city's stubbornly persistent "no reason to exist" creation myth. If you haven't heard it, it was the story that because there was no seaport here — no trail, no mountain peak or pass to explain why people built a city in the first place — Dallas was entirely the creation of the human mind and will. And that was supposed to be a good thing.

Robert Lee Thornton, mayor of Dallas in the 1950s, called the city "truly a man-made and woman-made city," with no ties to or origin in the natural world or, for that matter, history. Thornton said the people of Dallas knew all along they could find plenty of history in books and museums if they had time to kill. "What they wanted was progress," he said.

The late A.C Greene, a journalist and novelist, shot down all of that "no reason to exist," laying out all of the crucial natural factors that caused people to settle here and build a city, from ancient Indian trading trails to the Trinity River. But that didn't stop people from saying it. Dallas, it seemed, loved the idea that it was a glittering, glamorous, cryogenically air-conditioned space station whirling through a blazing void infested by ticks, chiggers, snakes and double-wide salesmen. If we could be here and still have really good bars and restaurants, we could do it on the moon.

The others? They could keep their mountains, their beaches, their ruins and their relics. We had our man-made shell to keep us cool.

But that era is over. Without fanfare or formal declaration, this region has turned away from the city's long love affair with artificiality and is now engaged in a vast exploration of our natural setting. Quietly and incrementally, the region has developed what is becoming a wealth of trails and parks designed around nature and the outdoors.

The suburbs, especially those north of the city, have led the way, with vast public investment in assets like the Campion Trails network along the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. Dallas is catching up. Two city council members, Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs, recently announced that they would using discretionary funds to create a paved bike path along the Trinity from upstream of downtown to the opening of the Great Trinity Forest downriver from the city center. And out ahead of this formal municipal activity, a hearty band of urban bushwhackers have been exploring the city's thousands of acres of lost and forgotten land. Their particular form of bushwhacking involves deliberately steering away from formal public parks — the places where everybody else goes — in search of the natural discoveries no one even knows are out there to be found.

Some of it is rough going — places where no one should wander alone or unawares. In some, you could get lost or injure yourself in wild and unforgiving terrain. In others you might stumble into criminal activity — never a welcome encounter on a Sunday-morning hike.

But the places the bushwhackers have uncovered in our urban midst also include some jewels, havens of true wonder, far wilder and closer to nature than anything a parks department could take responsibility for. The bushwhackers include people like Randy Johnson, who was up until recently director of horticulture at The Dallas Discovery Gardens in Fair Park; Charles Allen, the Trinity River Expeditions canoe outfitter; Master Naturalist Jim Flood; and archaeologist Tim Dalby. They all helped identify some whackable bush for this article.

In an urban environment, the work of finding these places sometimes must be followed by the even harder work of excavating them from decades of neglect. That labor often falls to corporate volunteers, like the employees of REI who helped create the treasure listed here as "Dimension Tract." Nonprofit foundations like Groundwork Dallas have accomplished similarly Herculean tasks: Groundwork director Peter Payton led armies of volunteers into the Tune Avenue site over a period of years to haul out vast mountains of dumped tires and appliances. Tune Avenue still isn't a good idea for Cub Scouts — too much danger of running into a marijuana farm — but it's a place where the bravest bushwhackers now can see deer, bobcat, coyote and mink flying through a forest that is rapidly reclaiming abandoned urban streets.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze