‘Our nature hikes have become grim death marches’
– Lisa Simpson
Amber and I found ourselves at Colorado Bend State Park last week, in the middle of a high pressure heat wave that had long since driven all sane people and animals into their air conditioned houses and subterranean shelters. But we were made of stronger stuff. True grit. or so we told ourselves upon setting out.
The original day’s plans had not included a hike at all. We had driven down to Lampasas to partake of some fine spinach enchiladas as can only be found at Alfredo’s Mexican Restaurant off Highway 281, after meeting Dr. Jesse Meiks at Tarleton State University to discuss rattlesnake research, a topic we are both equally passionate about. In all honesty I had a summer mycology class to attend at one o’clock, but the pull of those enchiladas was too strong, and it was only an eighty-five mile drive from Stephenville…
Needless to say, the myco class was a student short that day. I’m not sure what mycorrhizal fungi tastes like with beans and rice, but I highly doubt it compares to spinach enchiladas. As we pulled out of the parking lot of the restaurant, our hunger satiated once again at the expense of obligation and responsibility, I spied with my little eye a sign that beckoned me to turn left should I fancy a detour to the Colorado Bend State Park.
“You want to go hike Gorman Falls?” I mentioned to Amber, trying to sound casual, knowing we had no water canteens, no sunscreen, no bug spray…
“If you want,” she replied. And that was all it took. A mere forty-five minutes later and we turned off of the gravel entrance road to the park at another sign that directed us to the trailhead to the falls.
“Are you sure this is safe?” Amber questioned as we stepped out of the truck and into the sweltering afternoon sun. “You’re not supposed to be in direct sunlight between 2 and 5 you know.”
“That’s a myth,” I assured her.
“Especially without water,” she added.
“Well we’re already here,” I said. “Plus we just had two huge glasses of water at the restaurant, and some salty enchiladas for electrolyte replenishment. The hike is only 1.5 miles. That should hold us off for that long. See how I always think two steps ahead? I’m so good at it I do it subconsciously.”
Amber only rolled her eyes and headed for the porta-john. “Wait for me,” she instructed. “Don’t go chasing off some bug. I’ll be out in a second.”
As she entered the restroom I noticed a large, rotund orthopteran clinging to the wall in the shade. It was a beautiful leaf green, and its craftily concealed outer wings even mimicked a leaf to a tee, right down to the venation. It was a Central Texas leaf katydid, a species formerly considered to be a Lone Star endemic until a population turned up in Oklahoma (thanks, Brandon Woo @ inat for both the identification and the information). I had barely had time to snap a quick pic of this amazing insect when I heard a distinctive retching sound echoing from inside the restroom. A second later Amber came flying out shaking her head violently.
“No way,” she said, her face wrinkled in disgust. “That restroom is filthy. People are pigs. Pigs, I tell you. Let’s just get on with the hike.”
We should have taken the unkempt porta-potty as a bad omen, but I was eager to break in the last day of May in style with some hill country hiking, 100 degrees or not. As we left the parking lot behind, heat waves shimmered over the open prairie, above the withered heads of Mexican hat and coneflowers. Mesquite cicadas droned their shrill warning for us to take heed and turn back, or else abandon all hope. A sign placed along the trail warned travelers that rugged terrain lay ahead. ‘Bring Water’ it suggested. We passed it without a word between us. ‘Mountain Lions are known to inhabit this area’, the second sign read. ‘Use caution.’
“Mountain lions, great,” Amber muttered. “After we tire and weaken from thirst we’ll be hunted down like lame deer.”
“Nonsense,” I assured her. “Mountain lions are way too smart to be out in these conditions.”
And so we walked on, down the dusty trail devoid of shade and hope and potable water, with the cicadas singing our deathsong and the turkey vultures circling above us impatiently. Overhead, the cruel sun stared down at us with timeless indifference.
In the beginning everything seemed fine. The heat was nothing more than a minor discomfort; I began to sweat and could feel a slight burn on my exposed arms and the back of my neck, which I remedied by pulling my shirt up over my head through the hole and securing it over my forehead, like Beavis, whenever we crossed a patch of shadeless prairie, which was often. The trail to Gorman Falls consists of wide open spaces of prickly pear, Ashe juniper, honey mesquite, agarita, and various grasses growing from limestone-rich soil, with mottes of Texas live oak and scraggly elm trees that offer dappled relief all-too-sparingly. I insisted on checking every live oak tree with scarred bark, as this is the breeding medium for the large buprestid beetle Polycesta elata. Unlike Amber, buprestid beetles seem to enjoy the heat, the hotter the better, and can be found basking in full sunlight on exposed portions of the bark scars. There were plenty of these here, and in a surprisingly short time I spotted one. While many buprestids are quick to take flight upon approach, members of the genus Polycesta are not too wary, and can easily be caught by hand, as this one was.
On the other side of the tree was a large section of bare bark that had been split by lightning, its surface pock-marked by the emergence holes of various borers, both the rounded ones made by Buprestids and the slanted, slightly ovate ones made by longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). A fine example of the latter of these was sitting in the middle of the scar, its two-inch long burnt orange elytra standing out in sharp contrast against the bonemeal grey-white of the dead bark. At first glance it resembled a tarantula hawk wasp (Pepsis) in both size and coloration; this was precisely the point. The creature was a tarantula hawk mimic, the black pronotum and head equipped with thin black slightly curled antennae and the elytral apices tapering to resemble the abdomen of its dangerous lookalike. This was Stenelytrana gigas, a common (though seldom seen) species. Normally a high flier in the crowns of various hardwoods, it typically only ventures in the lower canopy to either feed at sap flows or lay its eggs. This one may have just emerged, for it was simply sitting on the trunk of the tree above eye level. It certainly wasn’t laying eggs, for the antennae were long enough to identify it as a male, and there was no sap coming from the tree. Maybe it had been burned by the intense sun and fallen to Earth like Icarus.
Stenelytrana gigas male on live oak
The trail began to ascend, becoming steadily more rocky, with jagged, porous granite boulders rising up from the crumbling thin layer of topsoil. A lone Texas kidneywood tree was the only thing blooming. It stood in the middle of a grassy clearing in full sunshine, its tiny white clustered flowers attracting a multitude of pollinators. I had been introduced to this delightful leguminous plant last fall, on a trip to La Sal de Rey in the Rio Grande Valley with Michael, and had spent a good half hour perusing among the blooms looking at bees, butterflies, and beetles that had been drawn in by its pungent aroma. This plant had been growing by itself as well, with no others like it in sight.
While Amber moved on ahead in her usual restless, impatient manner, I stopped for a minute to once again see what invertebrates were doing their part in the pollination process. The air was alive with the buzzing of wasps and bees, and the distal tips of the blossoms were being kissed by many juniper hairstreak butterflies (Callophrys gryneus). Nearby, a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus), a member of the assassin bug family, waited for one to venture too closely. But the star of the show was a huge tarantula hawk wasp, its copper colored forewings glinting in the sunlight, the bright metallic body reflecting turquoise.
Tarantula hawk wasp on Texas kidneywood
The tarantula hawk’s name says enough. Most species of spiders must contend with some form of predatory wasp that hunts it, paralyzes it and drags it away to be stuffed in some underground catacomb for its larvae to feed on. It is only befitting that the tarantula have a nemesis large enough to balance the scales as well. Tarantula hawk wasps are known for possessing one of the most powerful stings in the insect world, and it ranks among the top painful stings a person can experience. Luckily the genus is quite placid unless physically handled, although I have only met one man with enough nerve and alcohol in him to attempt this, and the end result ensured he wasn’t foolish enough to repeat it.
I left the wasp to continue taking its pollen bath undisturbed, and by the time I had caught up with Amber she was nearly to the end of the trail. By this time over an hour had passed, and we were beginning to feel the effects of minor dehydration. My mouth had become dry, and I was sweating profusely. I could only imagine how my wife felt, in her black long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans she had donned in an attempt to thwart the sun and ticks. Beneath her wide-brimmed straw hat she gazed out at the Colorado River below us, where a shady grove of huge elm trees grew above the fern-skirted crystal clear pool formed at the base of the falls. The comforting, consistent rush of the falling water over moss-slick rocks whispered for us to descend into this lush utopia, situated less than fifty feet below the prairie. A handrail rope to our right aided us on our way down, preventing a nasty fall on the boulders worn slick from years of humidity and foot traffic. At the trail’s end we enjoyed a brief rest on a bench on the wooden platform, where the increased humidity and accompanying mosquitoes went largely unnoticed as we enjoyed our break from the oppressive afternoon sun. After resting we walked part of a small trail that ran parallel between the river and the cliff face from which we had descended. Amber noticed several more Stenelytrana gigas females ovipositing in a massive half-dead live oak, and we were able to approach these quite closely for some good shots.
(panorama of Gorman Falls)
S. gigas female in hollow live oak
“I’m getting low on energy,” Amber announced as my camera snapped away at the busy beetles. “My skin is dry in spite of the humidity. I think we had better leave now if we’re going to get out of here alive. We have a long hike back ahead of us.”
I couldn’t argue. My skin was dry as well, and the left side of my head had developed a serious pulsing ache, the telltale signs of dehydration. We left the beetles behind, with a large female buzzing around my head, looking even more like a tarantula hawk in flight, and we ascended the steep cliff face, pulling tightly on the rope-rail with the muscles in our legs groaning and cramping.
It was four o’clock, and the sun was beaming down so brightly and intensely that it obliterated the path in front of us. “Ten feet at a time,” Amber mumbled to herself ahead of me, amid my own exasperated sighs. As we broke forth from a crop of closely-growing junipers I felt my head began to swim. My vision grew suddenly hazy, and I stopped in what little patchwork shade was available.
“I can’t stop,” Amber said. “If I stop I don’t know if I will be able to start going again.”
I knew what she meant all too well. The ground looked suddenly tempting, soft and alluring beneath a bed of juniper needles. It would be easy to just lay down and sleep.
But that would prove deadly, a voice assured me in the back of my mind. No, my wife was right. We had to keep going. “Just ten feet,” I muttered, adopting her survival method as I roused myself from between the shaggy juniper trunks with some difficulty.
But the worst part was yet to come. We still had that wide open treeless savannah to trek across, with the radiant heat from the piping hot granite boulders baking our legs while the sun cooked us from above as if we were in a giant oven.
“I feel chills,” Amber said.
“We are on the verge of total collapse,” I replied. “Heat exhaustion. This was a dumb idea.”
“How far to the truck?”
“Just a few thousand more yards,” I replied, but my humor was lost in the fact that we were in the red zone of hyperthermia.
To my right the Texas kidneywood loomed, its blossoms still bustling with arthropod activity. For some stupid reason I stopped to see if there were any longhorn beetles in the bunch, but found it hard to focus in the blinding light, so I staggered over to the shade of a dying live oak tree. My breathing had become laborious, and when I looked up into the canopy a bout of vertigo engulfed me. Something buzzed loudly by my head, sounding very buprestidesque, but on the verge of total mental and physical shutdown I was past bug-hunting at last.
When I focused my attention back to the trail I found that my wife was nowhere in sight, but I could hear her cracked lips croaking out my name, presumably with her final dying gasps. I mustered up my last bit of strength and jogged around the bend, where I found her plodding onward across the last section of baking chapparal.
“The truck is just ahead,” I told her. We pushed forward on sheer fortitude and willpower, dredging up the last bits of our energy reserves, my mind reeling with thoughts of snowcones, iced tea, frosty mugs of Shiner drafts, and water…glorious water…
Eventually the high stone wall that marks the trailhead came into view, its substance shimmering as I subconsciously rooted through the pocket of my shorts with shaking hands, the fingers cramping from severe dehydration.
“Thank God,” I said aloud as our feet at last touched the gravel of the parking lot.
“We made it,” I stated. “That was a nice hike!”
“You’re insane,” Amber replied.
“So what, you’re saying you’re not down for a walk along the Cedar Chopper Loop after we find some water?”
“We’re leaving. Now.”
And without further ado we left the Colorado Bend State Park behind, to burn and dessicate in the hateful late spring drought. We had defied all odds, and came out alive and breathing (if barely) on the other side. We had lived to tell the tale, a tale of why one must NEVER go hiking in such conditions without being well-prepared.
“Don’t let me do that again,” I told Amber as we sat in the parking lot of a gas station back in Lampasas among bottles of Ozarka and Gatorade.
“In fact, I insist on your accompaniment in my future adventures afield, just to keep me from doing anything so dumb…or dumber, if that’s possible.”
“For bugs,” she mumbled, staring out of the window of the truck with glazed eyes. “We nearly died to find bugs.”
“Find bugs…good idea,” I said, my own stinging eyes falling on a dead post oak whose upper branches were
stretching upward above the roof of the Citgo.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. “But I’m taking my water with me.”
Needless to say, I went unaccompanied.
Ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus) photographed along the Gorman Falls Trail, just before dehydration made the transition to hyperthermia and coherence withered up and died