Thursday afternoon under the frontage road
I didn’t think about Eno’s ambient epic Thursday Afternoon until Friday morning, as I remembered my weird walk the day before down there in the creek below the interstate highway that runs from Duluth to Laredo. That “discreet music” is an effort at song that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, and the emotional resonance of it has a lot in common with what it feels like when you successfully get lost in the wild negative space of the metroplex.
I had to take my car in to the dealership for something they said would only take an hour, so rather than wait in the little TV lounge with the other customers and their respiratory droplets, I decided to take a walk and see what nature I could find there in that corridor so completely devoted to its erasure. The Motor Mile! A stretch along the highway like they have in every city, where the automobile dealerships line up next to each other, filled with acre after acre of new and used cars for sale.
I don’t know what stubborn seed it is that makes me always want to be a pedestrian in the places that have been actively designed to exclude pedestrians, but I have been that way since I was a kid. So Thursday after lunch I found myself hiking along the sidewalk-free right of way of the southbound frontage road, past Hyundais, Audis, Toyotas, Chryslers, Nissans, Fords and Kias, thinking about how few models of cars are named after animals. Our family Volkswagen is named after nomadic pastoralists of the Sahara whose name is thought to derive from their preference for inhabiting drainage channels. And it was a drainage channel I followed as my compass to where the nearest creek was likely to be:
I’ve driven through that stretch hundreds of times, but never paid much attention to the way all the topography around it gently slopes towards an area just short of the overpass that offloads traffic to a Lowe’s hardware store and one of the world’s weirdest sushi bars. Navigating on foot without really knowing where you’re going has a way of tuning you into the land, even if it’s land that has been radically terraformed by bulldozers. And sure enough, the drainage channels led straight to an urban creek.
There was no trailhead to get to the creek from the road, not even a desire path. Just a big gabion layered over the lip of the embankment where the roadside ditch finally arrived at the drop into the real channel. The right of way ended there—the only way to cross the bridge on foot would be to run in traffic. So I stepped down toward the shadows, looking for a portal into green.
You can’t really appreciate how noisy freeways are until you get underneath them. That was what I found, a narrow platform at the base of four bridges carrying a dozen lanes of north-south interstate and feeder roads over a skanky looking little canal full of trash and algal bloom, accessible only by a steeply graded concrete retaining wall beneath the bridge supports.
I could see it was more accessible from the other side, but had already concluded there was no safe way to get over there without playing Frogger. I tried crab-walking along underneath the freeway, but only found even steeper engineered precipices. So I stepped into the thorny brush along the fence behind the Kia dealership, and clambered around until I found a more natural spot with enough terraced rock and scrubby trees to monkey climb my way down.
At the base, I found myself in a dense patch of Johnson grass and ragweed, but far enough into late season dormancy to be penetrable, and with a faint animal trail that led me to the water. And within minutes, I was down there in real wild, in a corridor that has been there longer than us, and is still occupied mostly by wildlife, even as it bears the scars of our efforts to re-engineer the elements.
Williamson Creek cuts through limestone, the stretch I walked a big bend as it winds through South Austin working its way toward Onion Creek and then the Colorado. After I walked a few hundred yards in, the south bank became a high wall of rock, while the north side opened up into a wide, thickly vegetated floodplain above which rose tall trees. The creek was wet, just barely, the water alive with insects but not much sign of fish or frog. As I walked along the muddy edge and pushed through some branches, a hawk about to alight in a tall dead tree diverted at the sight of this trespassing human.
I heard its cry as it evaded my gaze, while through the trees I heard the sounds of builders hammering nails into lumber at an apartment building behind the trees. A flock of some speckled little sparrows settled in the bare branches of a small tree with one big fat dove, backlit in the weird afternoon light. The ground hosted more native plants than I expected—inland sea oats and switch grass maintaining a stalemate with the Johnson grass. Lots of deer sign, and evidence of a very dense population of raccoons tracking along the creek’s edge, back there where the paths lead up the hill to the dumpsters behind the frontage road restaurants. I wonder if the trash pandas have found the leftover sushi.
I thought I had fully escaped the city through its concrete heart, when I heard and then saw another man walking through, crossing my path. A generic white guy in shorts and a T-shirt, coming down out of the dark woods behind the Lowe’s. I moved into shadow behind the trees, figuring this was not the ideal place for encounters with strangers, and watched him cross the creek with a much clearer sense of destination than I had, and then listened to the crunch of dry grass and leaf litter as he disappeared into the foliage.
I walked a little further until I got the text telling me my car would be ready in 20, and I realized it was time to find my way out. I crossed back over to the north side, looking for whatever path that dude had followed, but instead having to intuit my own. There were houses all back along there, with gates that opened up onto the gently sloping floodplain of the creek, but no evident routes out that didn’t involve sneaking through someone’s backyard and risking getting shot.
I walked through that low plain of old oaks and wild grass until I finally found a path, and followed that to where a collapsing concrete staircase ran in a narrow corridor between two houses.
As I exited, I noted the sign that had been tacked up by agents of the municipality in February, right before the pandemic hit, warning of increased coyote activity in the area. Right there in that block, a report of two family pets being attacked and killed. “Coyotes are wild animals and can be dangerous… Be aware of possible coyote den sites when in parks or other natural areas. Coyotes are protective of pups and may view people or dogs (even larger dogs) as interlopers. Coyotes den, mate and birth pups are generally most territorial from January to July.”
As I stepped onto the street named Battle Bend, I looked back to see how hidden in plain sight the official trailhead was. And I wondered what battle the street had been named for. Maybe for a different conflict over territory and the springs that feed this creek, between us and the people we displaced.
I found myself in one of those Austin neighborhoods where you can tell hipsters with toddlers are taking over suburbia. I only saw one other person, a tattooed blonde woman walking her pit bull, but you could tell everyone was home, living lockdown life. I took more notice of the smaller feeder creeks and the old trees managing to persist in the interstices of the subdivision—indeed, I realized that the streets had been platted around their contours. And then I tracked one of those little creeks up behind the dealerships, following the line of sight to a gigantic flag bearing the logo of a Japanese corporation, where my car as waiting behind a lonely old oak tree locked in asphalt. I wonder if its connection to the network has been fully severed.
The morning before I had walked my own dogs along a different freeway—up the hill between two onramps that wedge the deserted traffic island near our home. I was looking for the hawks that nest back in there. Instead I spotted a blue tent hidden under the hackberrys. As I stood there for a moment I could see the guy open his eyes to morning’s first light. An involuntary nomad, I suppose, navigating his way through the human and natural wreckage this society leaves along the side of the road.
Speaking of coyotes
Dog owners know how our domestic canines love to rub themselves in things that smell bad. Especially in the moist putrefaction of a rotting carcass. The below clip shows one of our wild canine neighbors doing the same thing—a coyote interacting Friday morning with the spot where an armadillo carcass had been left until a passel of opossums pigged out on it and then dragged it into the ravine earlier the same night. The first couple of minutes are of a female coyote, then there’s a 90-minute gap, after which it appears to be the same animal coming back through one more time to mark the spot—note the distinctive kink in the tip of her tail. The timestamp is off in these videos—should be a.m. rather than p.m., and 2020 rather than 2019 (unless the footage is coming in from a mirror world, which is also possible in these weird woods).
Thanks to my friend the landscape architect and photographer Adam Barbe for tipping me off to the presence of what lured the visitors to this trailcam spot.
Here’s a beautiful short video of what may be the same coyote on Tuesday morning, watching our Kishu-ken spaz out at the fence:
I was delighted to read that my friend the British author M. John Harrison won this year’s Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction that “opens up new possibilities for the novel form.” I had the good fortune to meet and get to know Mike in 2009, when we were both guests at the Festival de Mexico in Mexico City, in a year when the books program focused on Bolaño’s idea of science fiction as the literary avant-garde. Mike is perhaps the leading living exemplar of that possibility, a writer who broke out as part of the late 60s/early 70s SF New Wave, and who only gets better as he keeps cranking ever more masterful novels now five decades on. He is also a mountaineer and trail runner who writes beautifully about nature, and about ancient kings buried under parking garages. I have not yet cracked my copy of his latest novel, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, which was the one that won the prize, but it is at the top of the pile—along with his new collection, Settling the World, the amazing stories in which I have been devouring on a daily basis the past couple of weeks.
We don’t own a television, and mostly manage to entertain our energetic and occasionally rampaging toddler with direct interaction indoors and out. But I have started exploring snippets of putatively healthy video, with a focus on wildlife. I found some beautiful National Geographic program on owls, but worried even those would be too intense. And then I got the idea to search for old episodes of my favorite childhood wildlife show.
Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was a family-friendly Sunday evening broadcast all through the 60s and 70s hosted by Marlin Perkins, director of the Omaha Zoo an an exemplar of a peculiarly Nebraskan suavity, who famously would always send his animal handler buddy Jim Fowler in to get bitten or mauled when things got really wild. Turns out all the episodes are now available for free on YouTube, and without commercials they are nice little bite-sized narratives, around 20 minutes. Here’s a pretty great one about coyotes. I had no idea badgers were so good at fending off predators.
In less family-friendly fare, Thursday night my wife and I watched last year’s folk horror hit Midsommar—kind of a millennial take on The Wicker Man, as a group of contemporary American college kids join their exchange student buddy for a summer festival at the commune he grew up on, and find themselves drawn into a smorgasbord of pagan rituals. It’s a great addition to a sub-genre I love, with beautiful and smart art direction, a compelling story that takes its time, and strong performances (even if some are portraying the most unlikable bros around). Here’s the trailer:
I was delighted to get to talk with my friend Elena Stokes and her colleagues at The Reading Lists for their series of interviews with writers during quarantine, with diversions into Latin American eco-horror, Wandervogel music, and this newsletter: Authors at Home: 5 Questions for Christopher Brown.
I was also delighted to be part of this live-streamed conversation the Thursday after Election Day with fellow SF writer Malka Older and the futurists Jake Dunagan and Scott Smith for a conversation that started with some long view perspectives on current events, but managed to find its way into rewilding—complete with a howl for those who make it to the end:
And speaking of rewilding, the e-book of my latest novel Failed State is currently available for less than the price of a good cup of coffee. This is a common promotion after a book has been out six months or so, and won’t last more than a few weeks.
Stag of the Week
For those of you who made it to the end, here’s a beautiful urban stag coming up out of the woods toward the door factory two weeks ago tonight, and lingering there as it looks into the edge of the city:
Have a wild week. Maybe even take a walk where you’re not supposed to.