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Changing with the Seasons

Mother-son campout at Colorado Bend inspires reflections on life

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 Kathryn Hunter


In Native American cultures, the idea of life is often represented in four stages on the Medicine Wheel. One book that I read about Caddo culture described being “hooked” in life at four places — childhood, adolescence, middle age and old age. As each hook comes loose, we are ushered into the next inevitable season of our lives.

And yet how many times do we notice these moments of change when they occur? Often it takes looking back
over our shoulder to see them. Sometimes special places will show
us; they wait, patiently, like secret mirrors for our return.

Inspiration

The first time I visited Colorado Bend State Park was in 2002. My three friends and I, freshly graduated from high school, were chaperoned by my mother. We had the spirit for adventure, if not the knowledge, and hadn’t accounted for the remote, primitive nature of the park. Heavy rains meant the low-water crossing on the park’s road was impassable. By the time the water had gone down and we were at our campsite, it was dark and raining again, and we didn’t know how to set up our tent. In the end, an amused Good Samaritan lent his assistance.

The next morning, soggy and a little worse for wear, we hiked the Spicewood Springs Trail. Beyond the deep swimming hole at its start, the route crosses the typically shallow water of Spicewood Creek from one bank to the other, passing by quiet, clear pools and fern-lined waterfalls. That summer, however, the water was boiling in rough, muddy rapids.

My friends and I, with our mistaken ideas of youth and dotage, gallantly offered to help my then-40-year-old mother through the first crossing. She gave us a withering look, navigating the rocks quite capably on her own.

On the return hike to camp, I was given further, incontrovertible proof that age does not make one a “tortoise”: a woman at least two or three decades the senior of my mother hiked past our group at “hare” speed. Silver-haired but lean-muscled and fit, the woman was smiling from ear to ear and dressed in what looked like fancy hiking gear to me, given that my friends and I were wearing cheap sandals and T-shirts over our swimsuits. With my red face and tired legs, I felt soft and silly but also suddenly ambitious.

A new reflection

In August 2019, I returned to Colorado Bend with my 6-year-old son, Theo, for a just-mom-and-and-son camping trip. It didn’t escape me that I was five years shy of my mother’s age when she’d taken me to the park that long-ago summer as a teenager.

Theo and I had booked our stay for a Sunday and Monday night to avoid weekend crowds. I found the park little changed since my last visit, in its wildness and peaceful, gem-in-the-rough Hill Country beauty.

Billed as “back-to-nature” camping, overnight facilities at Colorado Bend include drive-up camping, walk-in tent sites, two backpacking areas and three group camp areas. The drive-up and walk-in sites have water and composting toilets within walking distance but no hookups or shower facilities unless you count the one cold, very-much-al-fresco rinse shower in the north campground.

Theo helped me set up the tent. Our campsite in the walk-in campground was bounded on one side by large, spreading willow trees, and on the other by the brown, gently flowing waters of the Colorado River. I eyed an animal burrow in the sand, speculating on the chances of an introduction to our closest neighbor after nightfall.

Was I crazy? In the late stages of planning, the idea of the trip had begun to seem a little grim. Theo and his 3-year-old sister had stretched my patience paper-thin over the summer months, every day a fierce battle of wills on the plastic-toy-strewn battleground of home. Tent-camping in the dog days of August at close quarters with my eldest tormentor hardly seemed like stress relief.

But the shade in the campground was surprisingly pleasant, and the air was filled with the music of chirring cicadas. I started to feel something in myself go quiet, settling like an autumn leaf.

Campsite

 Chase Fountain | TPWD

Theo began playing with two other children. I witnessed their combined elation at discovering an armadillo at the edge of the long grass, and I felt a pang of something — relief mixed with jealousy, I suppose. I wondered if that was how the weekend would go, if Theo wouldn’t need me, but then the other family packed up and left, and I got the bikes ready.

Motherhood is a strange thing. It’s an identity, a set of expectations, a lengthy subset of that “middle age” portion of a woman’s life. Before experiencing it myself, I’d imagined structure and organization, but I’ve come to know it as more of a “hold-on-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” kind of ride. What my children think of me is often a mystery.

Undeniable score for Mom, though, with our first activity. The bike ride, flat and easy along a grassy path, was about a half-mile to the swimming hole on Spicewood Creek. For a while Theo and I had this little oasis completely to ourselves. I put on his spare goggles and was a kid again, nose to nose with sun perch. Their bright green fins shone like jewels when the sun hit them, and I was buoyant, weightless in the water. When he wasn’t submerged, Theo was laughing, and I wasn’t sure about what, or if it mattered. I just found myself hoping, in a bittersweet sort of way, that he’d remember this.

Do you have any sharks?

Colorado Bend has 35 miles of trail, and my own affinity for hiking and mountain biking had me hoping that we’d spend most of our time exploring them.

Theo’s burning desire was to play Go Fish, however. Marathon sessions of Go Fish.

Part of it was the novelty of the tent. Even during the day, Theo wanted to spend time in it, but dusk was when his eyes went big as saucers as he listened to the frogs and night birds. After dark when a raccoon put her paw on the screen door — as if to say “Hey, anybody here?” — he sat up straight as a board and watched her amble slowly away.

What should have been a five-minute trip to the bathroom before bed took at least half an hour. Theo investigated every cricket and shining set of spider eyes in the grass, and I couldn’t help but stop and stare at the sky.

Campsite

 Haley Fountain

Colorado Bend, far from any light pollution, is an ideal place for stargazing. I showed Theo the Milky Way, explaining that it was the bands of our galaxy we were seeing, the wondrously muddled light of stars too numerous and too far away to see as individual points of light.

I got plenty of additional time to study these celestial bodies through the tent roof, since Theo sleeps with all the stillness of a gymnast on fire. When he woke up in the morning, cheerfully poking my shoulder, I couldn’t be cross with him, though.

“This was pretty fun,” he said. “It was pretty fun about the raccoon and all
the sounds.”

I cracked an eye open and smiled. I felt encouraged, reminded of the fact that all most of us really want to hear is that we’re doing a good job.

Below the surface

For our second day, we’d booked a “wild cave” tour (may not have resumed yet) with Nichols Outdoors Adventures, a private outfitter owned and operated by husband and wife Jeff and Heather Nichols. There are more than 250 caves within the park; guided tours are offered in three of them for different ages and crawling preferences. Our beginner Discovery Tour, for ages 4 and up, took place in Dynamite Cave.

As we entered the cave’s narrow entrance, daddy longlegs covered almost every square inch of rock. Massed together, they looked like one large, coarse-haired creature with thousands of eyes. They bobbed up and down in unison to scare us, a defensive tactic that’s harmless (though very effective on Theo).

Cave crickets peppered the ceiling a little further in, and as we passed underneath, they exploded downward like fat little balls of popcorn. Theo looked up at them, and Jeff gave him a friendly reminder not to have his mouth open.

The cave was one main room, with some stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone to marvel at, as well as some optional crawling. Theo seemed excited about this supplemental activity at first, but then his face changed.

“Wait, are there daddy longlegs?”

Score two for mom: I told him I’d go first, and we crawled through a U-shaped tunnel on our bellies and got really, really dirty.

Paddles and pedals

A swim after caving was a given. Theo asked about renting kayaks (also suspended), too, and I said, “Why not?”

Score three. I was killing it in the cool mom department.

The paddle up the river from the end of the boat ramp to Spicewood Creek was easy and quiet. We saw kingfishers flying over the water and a heron fishing for its lunch. Tying up our boat below the swimming hole, we swam in the creek again. Pre-virus, we let another family borrow our goggles, and they gave us a yellow melon from their home garden in Killeen.

The only way I lured Theo out of the water, at last, was with the promise of bats and a bike ride.

My idea was to bike back on the trails in a big loop, timing the last part of the ride for dusk. In an effort to leave the easiest section for last, I convinced Theo to try Spicewood Canyon Trail. Like the Spicewood Springs Trail, the canyon trail roughly follows the creek but from the high ridge above. Stopping at overlook points, we took in spectacular bird’s-eye views of the hills and sparkling water.

I discovered the trail is 3 miles of rock-garden soup, however, and it’s not just the challenge of big rocks and ledges and tree roots but also tackling these features on unpleasantly steep grades.

Theo is a very capable cyclist — he transitioned from balance bike to pedal bike (sans training wheels) before he was out of diapers. He was riding confidently on Spicewood Canyon, perhaps the best he’d ever ridden on such technical terrain. It was the end of a very busy day, though, and he was tired. He didn’t quite make it up a boulder, sliding backward into a jagged cedar stump.

The noise Theo made was equaled only by the howls later as I cleaned the scrape out with soap under the outdoor shower.

We ended the ride too early to see any bats, and Theo was disappointed. I silently subtracted most of the points I’d given myself earlier in the day.

Packing up

On our final morning, as the sun came up over the hill and through our willow tree, I made an effort to slow down. Even though we were packing to leave, this time I was the one to suggest playing Go Fish.

On the way out, we parked the car and biked the 2.3-mile Cedar Chopper Loop. Though somewhat technical riding for a kid on 20-inch wheels, it wasn’t the rock-garden soup we’d experienced the day before — I’d give Cedar Chopper a “hearty minestrone” compared to Spicewood Canyon’s “chunky vegetable.”

We stopped briefly at the intersection of the Tinaja (means “rock bowl”) Trail. Park ranger Jesse Carter had told me Tinaja was one of the most beautiful and least trafficked trails in the park, and I looked longingly down this (challenging) alternate route. But I smiled at Theo and told him not to worry, we’d save it for a future adventure.

We closed out the trip with a hike to Gorman Falls. The popular Gorman Falls trail is 3 miles round-trip in full sun, but Theo was a good sport again. We talked about everything from bike crashes to the order of the planets and my previous visit to the park 16 years before.

I wanted to tell my beautiful, curious, tough-as-nails son about the nature of time: how quickly it passes, how many ways he’ll change, and how he’ll feel satisfied but at the same time disappointed, happy but also sad.

I figured the two of us still had a long way to go, though. I knew he’d understand all of it for himself someday, many years from now, when he returns to this special place in the next season of his life.

Kathryn Hunter is an Austin freelance writer.

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