Let's go back to hell first, see how things are going down there. Then we'll visit heaven. Promise.
We are trudging in together, you and I, one very hot recent afternoon. If you think back, we have actually visited hell several times. But today, for some reason, as we hike down this bed of coals they call a path, hell feels hotter than hell.
The gate to hell is just back behind us, in a rear corner of a little public parking lot across the street from the DART station at 8th and Corinth, near the Townview school campus in Oak Cliff. The gate was open, and a sign said we could come in to walk on the new "Santa Fe Trestle Trail." I am beginning to think it should be renamed the "Santa Fe Highway to Hell."
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This is a trail? Not any kind the Indians ever followed. The city of Dallas built this. It is a band of white-hot pavement broad enough to qualify as a freeway in much of the Third World, hot enough to burn the toes off of bare feet. They do have nature plaques along the way. But if this is some guy's version of nature, he must spend the rest of his time in a dust-free microchip factory.
Psst. We're going to take a little detour halfway down. Don't tell. It's against the law.
We leave the Mother Nature Toll Road now, slip beneath a DART rail bridge, slog down through some desiccated ruts, make another Lawrence of Arabia trek across a dusty bench and here we are, with a fine view of the Trinity River and the new $4.5 million man-made "Whitewater Feature," artificial rapids also built by the city.
Looks like a gigantic cement truck sneaked in here at two in the morning and took a dump in the river. What a mess. This so-called whitewater feature opened a year and a half ago and was supposed to transform this entire bleak stretch of river — really a man-made drainage canal between towering mud berms — into a little bit of Colorado-style canoe-and-kayak heaven.
Instead it's canoe hell. We are sneaking in because we're actually banned from being here. Everybody is. Turns out the White-Water Dump In the River was built all the wrong way, creating dangerous currents and eddies nobody planned on, making it so dangerous for canoeists that the city had to ban the public from even being here, let alone canoeing or kayaking.
The city is a year and a half into this. Not one damned thing has been done to fix it. Now we wander out onto the edge for a look-see. Nope. Nobody has touched it.
The city has denied all access to paddlers here, even if the paddlers promise not to go through the feature and swear all they want to do is launch their boats below it so they can paddle through the Great Trinity Forest. That's why we had to sneak in.
There's a road and a parking lot here, but they have it chained off. The hike we just did was half a mile, so carrying an 85-pound canoe and a bunch of gear on a day like this would pretty much kill you, and then, after you were dead, you might get arrested.
The city wants people to forget this is even here. But that is why you and I are here. We remember this hell of a mess, do we not? We must never forget.
The city has also banned paddlers from putting in at Sylvan Bridge, the nearest upriver launch site, because of construction there. So basically City Hall invested $4.5 million in a fake rapids and wound up utterly destroying canoeing and kayaking on the Trinity River all the way through the core of the city.
Hell and damn.
Back at my office, I check to make sure. Frank Librio, spokesman for the city, tells me by email: "The City remains concerned about the turbulence ... city is still negotiating with the designers ... city cannot move forward ..."
Nothing! Nothing has happened. The thing hasn't moved off the dime in 18 months. Hell!
Look, we can only take so much hell at one time, you and I, and I did promise I would take us in the other direction. So I call my friend and frequent source of river wisdom, canoe outfitter Charles Allen of Trinity River Expeditions, and tell him I just have to find even a little bit of good news about the river. Somewhere, somehow.
Well, sure, he says. Allen is a big man with droopy moustache, a weather-creased face and the loose rangy gait of a mountain man. I am to meet him at California Crossing Park at 8 a.m. a couple mornings from now.
So a few days later at a quarter to 8 here we are again, you and I, bumping down a mile of real bad road somewhere near Northwest Highway and Interstate 35E, dodging cement trucks and 18-wheelers. I see a sign, make a turn, and all of a sudden we're in California Crossing Park, a soft little patch of green embracing a century-old dam on the Elm Fork of the Trinity River.
Out on the weathered ramparts of the dam, a sun-stained old man and a barefoot Tom Sawyer of a kid are fishing with bobbers. Here comes Charles crunching down the gravel in his big battered van with the perennial two canoes on top. We walk the park for a little bit, and he tells me how this was where the 49ers crossed the river to go to California during the Gold Rush.
It's also probably where John Nealy Bryan, the father of Dallas, crossed when he abandoned his role as patriarch of our infant city and struck out for gold instead. While Charles talks, I'm thinking. Somebody should put up a plaque: "Here the moral traditions of Dallas began."
Ten minutes later we're cruising north into Farmers Branch. Charles is wheeling that big white schooner up ramps and around corners so fast I can't keep track of where we are. He smears both large hands smoothly over the wheel like he's finger-painting.
We are now parked beneath multiple fly-overs of the President George Bush Turnpike, less than half a mile northeast of its intersection with the leg of Interstate 635 that goes out to the airport. The address of this place on Google Maps is 1111 Valley View, Farmers Branch, but that's pretty approximate. The only precise directions I can give you would be coordinates: 32 55 01.03 N, 96 56 01.45 W.
This is the John F. Burke Nature Preserve on the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. It flows south from Lake Lewisville about 27 miles to its confluence with the main river in West Dallas, near Irving Boulevard and Loop 12.
And this is heaven.
You and Charles and I strike out on foot. Dense forest swallows us along with the shriek and roar of the freeway far above our heads. All we hear is looping birdsong and dry insect chatter.
This is one of a dozen beautiful little riverside parks and natural areas that Charles shows us on the Elm Fork today, tucked away in these suburbs north of Dallas. Along this stretch of the Elm Fork, when the water is not high, the Trinity is sinuous, wreathed in green and softly burbling.
Charles is especially high on the city of Farmers Branch. It's been able to leave some areas like this one in a truly natural or at least natural-like condition, avoiding the temptation to mow, pave and build. It makes him wish Dallas could get over its obsession with signature bridges and fake white water.
"Just leave it alone," he says. "Maybe put in a few nature trails, start encouraging some city of Dallas Boy Scouts to get involved."
No. He means that. John Burke, the guy for whom this place was named, was a Scout leader. The Scouts have been very important in the development of all of these suburban parks. Maybe that's why the scale is human and natural and nice instead of Park Cities FAAAAABULOUS!.
Pam Smith, landscape manager for the city of Farmers Branch, is partially responsible for keeping it that way. She says the city spent $40,000 on a base-line study of the John Burke Nature Preserve, 104 acres of trails and riverside open from dawn to dusk. The main trails were put in by city employees working their regular shifts. The rest has been up to volunteers.
So, for the price of one fake white-water feature that doesn't work, we could do more than 100 nature preserves like this one.
Let's try not to be bitter, OK?
There's a slight caveat: Eric Neilsen, of the Dallas Downriver Club, says inexperienced families with little kids can't just come out here and toss their new canoes in the river. They should practice first on White Rock Lake, he says, or maybe call Charles to outfit them.
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But the experienced canoer? "They will not have a problem," he says.
So now it's a week later, and I can't stop thinking about that wonderful little nature preserve under the freeway fly-overs in Farmers Branch. Something about the way Farmers Branch has approached it expresses the modesty and good taste you always hope nature will inspire. It's heaven.
I also can't stop thinking about hell. Dallas is trying to keep people from even seeing that wrecked white-water deal like the city is some coal mine in Kentucky trying to keep people fenced away from its slag ponds.
I was nice. I showed you heaven. So here's the deal: Don't forget hell. Please.