Saturday, March 24, 2012

Snake Trail

In the southeast corner of Travis County, across the highway from the high school where I used to teach, hidden in the back of a quiet metro park that is mostly used for its baseball fields, is a hiking trail.  I am a fan of this hiking trail, because it is quiet and hidden and a place that I discovered, not in a hiking book or by word of mouth, but simply by stumbling into it.  This trail is also on my short list of places to hike on the weekend because it is close to home, a twenty-minute drive from east Austin, it is about three miles long, a good length for a midday walk, and it is a loop where, if walked in the clockwise direction, the best part of the trail, the shady, hilly woodland section featuring several cedar-log wooden bridges, is the last part of the trail.

The "primitive trail" at Southeast Metropolitan Park is a young trail in a new park.  What this means in practical terms is that trail itself was recently cut into the landscape, creating an ecological disturbance.  So walking the trail is like walking through a demonstration of what secondary succession looks like in central Texas, and the sunny parts of the trail are flanked on either side by dense stands of annual plants, a mix of native wildflowers, non-native invasives, and enormous, weedy sunflower relatives – think of the B-movie version of the many mutant offspring of a dandelion and a thistle.  To me, this is a plant-viewing trail, a place where I have seen many fall wildflowers, where I hope to return to see many spring wildflowers, and where I don't mind wading through overgrown sections of trail to discover a new plant or two.

To Lee, who likes to hike in his Tevas and is along for the walk rather than the botany lesson, wading through the undergrowth is less charming.  There is a reason why this trail isn't overrun with people, he reminded me as we made our way down a muddy section of trail last Saturday.  In truth, many sections of the trail were muddy, still sticky from recent rains, and our shoes become caked with heavy clay that had to be scraped off periodically.  And the reason, to Lee's thinking, that the trail is not much used – because it is an east-side trail – actually refers to a few of the less-appealing features of the trail, like the outstanding views of industrial smokestacks along the new toll road, the stench of the upstream waste-water treatment plant that sometimes accompanies the hike, and the tendency for the trail to be overgrown with weeds of terrifying sizes.  So, when I suggested that we go for a walk at "the place by the school," Lee responded with, "You mean the stinky place?"

This time, I had a brilliant counter-argument:  lots of wildflowers and no hipsters.  Last Saturday was the last Saturday of spring break, which, in Austin, means the last Saturday of SXSW.  Leaving the house without running into annoying packs of hipsters was near impossible.  Crossing downtown and stepping foot onto the popular and famous Greenbelt Trail were out of the question.  But it was a sunny, warm day and I wasn't going to let 'South By' keep me from walking in the woods.  So we headed east, and I was right about both of my predictions.  We didn't run into any hipsters, in fact, we didn't pass anyone on the trail.  And the wildflowers were amazing, blooming in yellow and blue all along the trail.

The majority of yellow blooms were on huge stands of Annual Bastard Cabbage.  From the name alone, it is clear that Annual Bastard Cabbage (Rapistrum rugosum) is not a well-loved plant.  An introduced species from Eurasia and northern Africa, Bastard Cabbage is an aggressive weed that quickly colonizes sunny, disturbed soils along roads, fields, and waterways.  In Texas, Bastard Cabbage is classified as a "terrestrial noxious weed" because of its ability to outcompete the native wildflowers during their winter growth season, forming dense single-species stands.  Since learning to recognize Annual Bastard Cabbage – I didn't used to notice it much, thinking it was just a wild mustard – I've realized just how common this plant is around Austin, turning our roadsides lemon yellow.  From a distance, the blooms look like an Impressionist painting, so many dots of pastel yellow fading into the horizon.  Up close, the plant is a leggy, weedy looking mustard, with many cross-shaped, four petaled flowers and even more seed pods.

Annual Bastard Cabbage (Rapistrum rugosum)

The dominant blue-flowered plant along the trail was the Texas Bluebonnet, a wildflower that is both native and very well-loved.  Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) thrives in sunny places with disturbed soils, like abandoned fields, roadsides, or along a young trail.

Texas Bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis)

Texas Bluebonnet and Annual Bastard Cabbage were, by far, the most abundant wildflowers in bloom along the trail.  Both are winter annuals, or single-season plants that germinate in the fall, grow as leafy rosettes through the winter, and bolt and bloom in the spring.  Another native winter annual, Lindheimer Daisy (Lindheimera texana), was also in bloom, in bright, sunflower yellow.  Lindheimer Daisy grows in sunny, grassy areas and blooms in the spring, from March to May.

Lindheimer Daisy (Lindheimera texana)

The salmon-orange blooms of Scarlet Pimpernel, also a winter annual, were visible in the greenery at the side of the trail.  Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), a native to Canada that has expanded its range throughout the United States, grows low to the ground in moist areas.

Scarlet Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)

In addition to the winter annuals, a few perennial wildflowers were also beginning to bloom along the primitive trail.  Wild Garlic (Allium drummondii), a perennial that regrows from underground bulbs each spring, forms large colonies in open grassy areas.  Wild Garlic is a native, edible plant that blooms in white to pink wildflowers in the spring.

Wild Garlic (Allium drummondii)

Prairie Verbena is a native perennial that also grows in open grassy areas.  Prairie Verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida) is a long-season bloomer that brings purple to our roadsides and fields, rain permitting, from March through October.

Prairie Verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida)

So, despite the muddy trail, the outing was a success:
outside √
in the woods √
lots of wildflowers √
no hipsters √
no snakes ?

Well, it was a success until we encountered the snake.  Usually, snake encounters are cause for excitement of the Quick, grab the camera sort.  But as I came to a full stop in the trail and watched this snake slither into the undergrowth, I realized that there was something wrong with its tail, which was bent up perpendicular to the rest of its body.  Then I realized that the bent-up tail was actually a rattle, which meant that I was watching a rattlesnake cross the trail, and I lowered the camera and ceased to move.  The snake was short, only two or three feet long, and fat, looking like it just ate something.  Once the snake had crossed the trail and was hidden under a carpet of spring leaves, only visible from its rattle on one end and its darting black tongue on the other, it stopped moving.  Lee tried to take a picture from a distance then we hurried by the snake, making a respectful arc around its rattle end.

And then we continued down the overgrown trail, wading periodically through dense stands of grasses and enormous, leafy weeds.  In other words, we, the only humans on the trail, were wading through miles of prime snake habitat.  I kept my eyes peeled on the trail a few yards ahead while Lee began seriously regretting his decision to wear open-toed shoes.  What would we do if one of us did get bit by a snake? he began to wonder aloud.  I tried to be the rational one, pointing out how this was my first rattlesnake sighting in many years of hiking in central Texas and how the snake wasn't aggressive, in fact was simply trying to hide from us.  In truth, my legs were feeling very bare as I brushed through all that post-spring-rains growth.  Luckily, the most overgrown parts of the trail were soon behind us, and my focus returned to taking pictures of all the blue and yellow wildflowers that were around every corner.

The last part of the trail, which passed through a shady cedar woodland, was wide and clear, free of a leafy understory.  Soon we were back on the gravel trail leading to the car, relaxed and joking about our terrifying snake sighting.  If the rains continue, I want to return to the trail to see the next wave of wildflowers, the late-spring bloomers.  Lee swears he won't return without proper shoes and a good whacking stick.  My task, between now and then, is to figure out how to effectively counter-respond when Lee says, after I suggest that we go for a hike at the place by the school, You mean the snake place?

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