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Let’s Go Wild

No. 13 Little Lake Creek Wilderness

Sam Houston National Forest   

Photograph by Randal Ford

Here is absolutely nobody in the parking lot, nobody on the trail, despite it being a magnificent spring day: blue sky, mild morning sun, and dogwood blossoms floating ethereal beneath the big pines. I’m with my best friend from high school, Kirby—a Houston suburbanite—and his youngest son, Cade, age fifteen. The lady at the ranger’s station for Sam Houston National Forest, near New Waverly, had no recommendations for a trail to take, had never been in the Little Lake Creek Wilderness—3,855 acres without a road, a long and skinny piece of land the shape and size of the world’s most miniature Idaho—and seemed almost curious about why we would want to go, as if, shouldn’t the word wilderness serve as a precaution? Why not just ask her where we could find a good butt-whipping? We tried to get a rise out of her by asking about bears, but she just lifted her eyebrows and said, Officially, no bears. 

Was there anyone around who could recommend a trail for us to take?

No. We would be on our own. Into the wild. One of the first federally sanctioned wilds in Texas. 

Sweet. 

We park, and five or ten paces later, a sign announces we are in the wilderness. Wilderness with a capital W, designated by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1984, at the behest of Congressman Charlie Wilson and others. We decide to follow a seven-mile trail known, according to our map, as the South Wilderness Loop. There’s saw palmetto everywhere, reminding me of childhood Easter pageants in East Texas, where these were the fronds laid in church hallways for white-robed actors to walk across, scuffing and rattling. 

We’re not seeing much deer sign at all—the forest is too old, wonderfully old, so that the dense canopy screens out much of the sun and prevents the photosynthetic transfer of energy into low-lying forbs, on which the deer could feed. But about half an hour into our walk, we cross a creek between two higher pieces of land—mild swells, not unlike the bump in a bull snake that has swallowed a rodent—and in this low area, this hardwood bottom, there is a game trail speckled with the hoofprints of two or three small deer. 

There’s still not much sign, but this is where you might wait and watch, and I think for sure that if I worked in one of Houston’s glittering skyscrapers, evaluating the language of oil and gas leases or executing tax law, I would have to come to this spot frequently in the autumn with my rifle or bow and arrow and sit quietly and wait, and hope, or go stark-raving mad.

Cade asks Kirby how far he thinks we’ve walked. He’s not uncomfortable—not yet—he’s just not had a lot of practice walking so far in a place he’s never been before. We could be going anywhere, we could be going nowhere, and his senses are justifiably tingling. The sign said Wilderness

Wilderness. Consider the term for a moment. Free from tameness, busting loose. Lighting out for the territory. There was a time, maybe only a generation or two ago, when that was how we thought of ourselves as Texans. And yet, there’s no longer enough truly wild land—land where we will never build roads, never run saws. We’ve chopped and diced, subdivided and ranchette-ed, fenced and built, so that there are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of ranches in the state that are larger than this one little designated wilderness. 

Walking down the trail, I’m not yet in love. You do not just leave off from going 75 miles per hour on Interstate 45—that rolling howl of commerce for the frenzy of our hungers—and jump out of the Suburban to venture into the wilderness, ready to become in your first three paces a child of God. That’s not a graft that will take. The sun itself, glinting and sliding down off the shiny leaves of the canopy above, must come to rest upon you with a certain accumulated weight.

I don’t shake off this bit of road-husk until we take our first break, sitting on a big fallen log. Thank goodness for fallen logs, unexhumed, unharvested, resting and rotting in just the right place. 

Black-water ponds, Spanish moss, crawfish scuttling in clear-water sand creeks, and the filigree of raccoon tracks—I know this country. This is the country I grew up in, played and explored in, the country in which I first learned to love—and need—nature. My childhood home in the Houston suburbs, like those of so many others, chewed into the edges of this land back in the sixties. My God, how did so much time tumble past?

Kirby is looking all around, and up at the tops of trees, with the wonderment of a wallaby that has never touched the forest floor before. A small woodpecker is drumming in the forest below the trail, and it is Kirby who notices the sound; to me, it’s just background noise. I’m still lost in my busy brain, remembering the Forest Service lady who resisted our going into this nasty wilderness. I’m still remembering the traffic, remembering billboards, remembering airline schedules, fretting about money. You can’t go from 0 to 60 in these matters.

Kirby leaves the trail as if in a trance, summoned by the drumming; I follow. We crane our heads but can’t find the bird, though the drumming continues. I’m wandering around, fruitlessly, when Kirby motions me over; he’s found the correct tree by placing his hand on it and feeling the vibrations radiate down the trunk. He places his head against it and smiles, as if receiving some kind of deep medication. 

We travel on. A skink patters through the dry leaves—Kirby crouches, tries to catch it, but it’s gone, though we dig through the duff looking for it. I didn’t see it at all, and now I want to, with surprising intensity.

The trail winds, bends, curves. Something ancient feeds into us as our feet transcribe the shape of the land beneath us into our brains. Kirby stops at one of the little clear creeks that lace the woods with shimmering glitter. I’ve already leaped across, intent only on gaining the other side, but Kirby has paused on a tiny sandbar, pressing down on it with his foot, watching a trickle of bubbles come up at the far end of the spit. Bubbles of all sizes and shapes, as if some miniature spring resides there, and he stands looking at it a long time, while all around us, the leaves unfold wider and ever greener. 

High above us, a jet is passing, and whether coming or going, Jacksonville or Tokyo, Minneapolis or Johannesburg, I have no idea. If each of us, any of us, had but one more day, how would we spend it? Where would we spend it? What if we had seven more days, or ten, or even twenty? What if we had a thousand? 

The day is warming. Kirby is perspiring. At every rest stop, he and Cade drink water; my four airplane sample bottles are drained quickly, long before we reach the halfway point of the loop. I feel bad about this waterlessness—isn’t the humidity enough?—and I wish I could do some kind of Bible trick, some sweet magic, to conjure unending cool water for both of them. 

The loop bends out of the wilderness, travels through some nicely managed big pines—Kirby spies another skink, and again, I miss it—and we pass now through a stretch of cutover woods. Some big pines remain, but there are stumps too, and weeds and direct sun and—is this possible?—a big house, a regular old thing with a chimney and a driveway and kitchen windows and a basketball hoop.

Cade and Kirby, tired and thirsty, look long and hard at the house; I gaze into the woods below us. Our map shows we’re at the corner of private and public property. There is a county road just below this square of private land, and the map shows we could walk over to that driveway, follow it out to a farm-to-market road, then to a secondary road, and hitchhike our way back to the other side of the wilderness. No one says anything. I will do whatever they want; they will do whatever I want.

I urge us down the trail. Cade looks back at the house with undisguised longing, and Kirby, ever an adventurer, hesitates. I feel as cruel as if driving a pair of rented mules with a whip, but we continue, into the deeper forest. 

Kirby spies another skink, yet again unseen by me. Damn. 

We crest a ravine and see a goshawk leap from a branch. We look down on it as the goshawk itself must look down on voles, rabbits, small birds, mice. A swamp world, seething with bounty, just beyond the reach of the long arm of Houston. 

We stop to rest again. Something’s wrong with Kirby. His eyes are glassy and he’s sweating like crazy, even when he just sits on a log in the breeze. I sit next to him and show him on the map how we’re just about perfectly halfway, how the place where that hawk got up below us is where we’ve just about rounded the horn: the same distance yet to go, but with the trail still new, untraveled, unseen. 

I don’t know it yet, but Kirby is at that point where, medically, reason and good decision-making begin to flicker like the headlamps of an old Ford as it shudders down a washboard backcountry road. All I see is him studying the map and appearing to give it considered thought.

We could shortcut, I tell Kirby and Cade, leave the trail and go through the middle of the wilderness, but it’ll be mucky. It looks short and easy on the map, but once you’re in, it gets big quick. I’ve done this kind of thing a million times, and if we go in, I tell them, we’re going to get lost—deliciously, gloriously, ass-kickingly so. Not until it’s all over—late, late tonight or tomorrow or whenever we get out—will we be glad we did it. “I want y’all to hear me,” I tell them. “If we do this, we will wish we hadn’t.” I love the anguish and confusion of being lost; I’d rather claw and scrabble and stagger and stumble than go back, beaten, over trail I’ve already covered. But most folks do not share my enthusiasm.

Cade is listening; he hears me clearly and does not like what I am saying. But Kirby is not hearing, or is hearing something else. His eyes are so glassy. He looks like he’s listening to something far away, like when he was trying to find the drumming woodpecker.

“Let’s go,” he says.

For a little while, the going is easy. The light is softening; the sun seems heavier. We crest a long rise, wading through cutover young pines that are waist-high. We clutch our map—on it, a few tiny veins, pale blue as an old woman’s, course toward Little Lake Creek, at the center of the wilderness, and the plan we have is to find one of these threads, follow it perpendicular to the main creek, cross the creek, and then find the trail we started out on. 

We walk slowly, not like the high school kids we were, but like old gentlemen somehow lost. As if searching for the rest home we have fled.

The forest is still beautiful—the same dogwood blossoms hang like floating snowflakes—but we are lost. We don’t know what the path home will look like, but I cling to the idea that we will know it when we see it. Kirby is still sprouting water, and he keeps stopping after only a few steps.

He looks like he doesn’t know where he is—or even what he’s doing out here, which is, of course, a whole other scale of lost. I don’t know what to do. From time to time I glance at Cade, who looks so young, and I wonder how impossibly ancient his father and I must seem to him. I figure Kirby must just be having a bad day—tired from work, out of shape. I walk as slowly as I can, but still Kirby lags, and whenever I look back, more often than not he is leaning against a tree or clutching his quads. When he sees my look of concern, he smiles, straightens up, and pushes forward, as if embarrassed for my having witnessed his discomfort.

We enter the thick forest; we find a creek, an artery of living water. It’s reddish-black, algae-rimmed but seething with life: minnows and water striders. Kirby looks at it but does not drink. The creek meanders in a beguiling series of S’s, and we creep and wobble through the forest’s rotting leaf-black bottom. We find an old flood-swept whiskey bottle and open it—there’s a quarter inch of amber in the bottom, smelling the same as it ever did—and Kirby, with a flash of mirth, swallows it. 

How bad can he be, really? 

Still, he’s walking so incredibly slow, and stumbling, just as I said we would. He plows through the great arbors of poison ivy, tumbles down sand embankments and into the creek, the damp banks of which are limned with coyote prints and deer tracks—a veritable highway through the wilderness, six feet below the forest floor. The underground railroad. 

The sun drops lower. At one point Kirby leans his full weight against what is surely the world-champion holly tree, its girth thick enough to mill for lumber. We move on, come to a swamp, into which the tannin-bronze vein of the creek disappears; we have no more guidance. We make our best guess, press forward, and, on the other side of the swamp, find it again. 

The light has gone to olden tintype, coppery and blood-infused, making it seem as if we’re somehow augering back into time. It feels like we’re making about fifty feet an hour—as if we’re drilling down through stone, rather than gliding through the here and now. I find myself remembering that hawk; how, when we saw it fly away, it dislodged some ripe dogwood blossoms so that they fell, drifting in the heat. If this is to be a last day, it has been a good one.

Sometimes our way in the creek is blocked by a fallen tree, so that we have to climb out of the deep channel, back up to the forest floor, and follow a game trail, stumbling again through thorny greenbrier and poison ivy, with its Adam and Eve fig-like leaves. At one such portage, Kirby can go no farther. He does not fall but kneels, like a football player on the sidelines with his helmet off, and stares into the forest. 

Then he lies down.

“My heart hurts,” he says. “My quads are cramping.” He clutches his legs. Then he closes his eyes and either goes to sleep or enters a coma. His breathing is shallow, like that of an injured horse.

Cade—so accustomed to bedeviling, and being bedeviled by, his father, with whom he often gets into hijinks—doesn’t know how serious this is, and neither do I; instead, Cade circles his recumbent father with his camera, snapping away. Facebook fodder, the prone paterfamilias like a giant tree felled. 

Kirby naps. The daguerreotype light makes him look like some mortally wounded Civil War soldier. Is he napping or is he dying? Cade and I continue to think he is merely out of shape, just more so than I would ever have guessed a person his age could be.

He has finally stopped sweating so profusely—is not sweating at all—but that may be because we long ago ran out of water. Cade and I sit next to him like hounds and shoo the mosquitoes away and watch him, willing him to get better. Waiting.

After about half an hour—blue twilight now—Kirby rises, unsteadily, and we resume our long creep through the darkened forest. We reach Little Lake Creek in true darkness, splash across it, scramble through brush and up a steep slope, guessing and hoping, until almost miraculously we intersect the trail that the map assured us would be there—the same trail we strode on earlier in the day, with so much power and vigor and confidence.

We hobble an hour back to the car, where Cade has a tiny bit of Dr Pepper left, nothing else. A heated half sip, max.

We drive to town, delirious. 

And leaving the grocery store—carrying out armloads of Vitaminwater and bananas—we try to tell various people where we’ve been, but no one has heard of the wilderness, or even the large national forest in which it is located, half an hour up the road.

We get rooms for the night in the next town. One of those exurbs of Houston. The long arm, the ever-extending tentacle. Malls, each one a battlefield of the soul, are hard to even look at, after swimming amid the dogwood blossoms. Hydrated, Kirby is starting to feel better. We sleep again, dreaming swamp dreams. 

In the morning, Kirby knocks on my door. He says his doctor had him on some new blood pressure medicine, and he only this morning read the instructions for it. The label warned to avoid getting hot and to avoid exertion; such activities could result in abnormal sweating and heart arrhythmia, followed by death. 

It’s more than sobering, and we marvel at our fortune—at how, by all rights, we should have gotten in far more trouble than we did. We marvel at how instead we had so much grace bestowed upon our little passage, our little hike. 

What must it have been like, I wonder, when all the land was once this way?

We eat breakfast quietly at some nondescript waffle place, not saying much, just remembering the day before and listening, through the plate glass of the restaurant, to the roar of traffic out on the highway. Then we go outside, into the rising heat, and get in our Suburban, and join the great hurried flow, heading back into the city, farther and farther away from where we have briefly been.

Getting There: Little Lake Creek Wilderness is in the southwestern corner of Sam Houston National Forest, which is off I-45 and U.S. 59 about 50 miles north of Houston. Stop for maps and trail information at the ranger’s station, 3 miles west of New Waverly on FM 1375. Continue west on FM 1375 until you reach FM 149, then turn left and drive until you reach the first parking lot for Little Lake Creek Wilderness. (Open daily, free. 936-344-6205.)

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