Gene and I loved to ramble through Dinosaur Valley State Park near Glen Rose. Hiking trails climb the wooded uplands above the Paluxy River, leading to quiet groves of live oaks dotted with fragrant junipers.
This morning early, I headed for Glen Rose with a picnic lunch in my backpack and a plan to spend the day hiking those trails that we loved so much. Gene died 26 weeks ago—half a year, but for me more like half a lifetime. Walking alone along those trails was how I meant to honor my husband, my soul-mate, the love of my life.
Fifty miles and an hour later, I was turned away at the gate. The park is closed from Sunday, January 6, at 10 p.m., until 2 p.m. on Friday, January 11. The State of Texas, in its infinite wisdom, closed the park to hikers so that hunters can conduct what they euphemistically call “wildlife management activities.” To phrase it more succinctly, they’re killing Bambi.
“It’s on the website,” the woman at the gate told me, rather defensively. I replied that I’d checked the website and didn’t see it. “Well,” she admitted, “they didn’t post it until late last night.”
With my plans bollixed, I backed up and headed for a county road, Somervell CR 1007, which I knew skirted the edge of the park property. I intended to leave my car at the side of the road, jump the fence, and sneak into the park by the back way. But the only good place I found for my car was next to a bull pasture, and the way the bull was eyeing me, I figured he’d charge if I dared to climb his fence. There would also be trigger-happy hunters on the park side of the barbed wire, and I was wearing muted earth-tones. Getting mistaken for a deer and shot with a high-powered rifle would have further marred my plans for the day.
So next I decided to head for Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, also near Glen Rose. Years ago I had read about a nature trail crossing the plant’s property. Gene and I had often talked about checking it out, but we always ended up at Dinosaur Valley instead.
My trouble today was, I couldn’t remember which backroad went to Comanche Peak, and I hadn’t brought a road map. I hadn’t brought my GPS either, not wanting to leave valuables in my car while I disappeared into the juniper brakes above the Paluxy River. I could see the Comanche Peak cooling towers but I never found the correct road to get me there. Also as I drove around, I thought about the terrorist threat since 9/11, and how nuclear plants have (supposedly) tightened their security. If there ever was a public hiking trail on the grounds of Comanche Peak, I realized it’s probably not there now.
Unwilling, however, to abandon my quest entirely, I backtracked 25 miles to a Corps of Engineers lake that Gene and I had occasionally visited. Scattered around the lakeshore are a few picnic areas. I chose Mustang Park, which doesn’t deserve the name “park” because it’s only two picnic tables and a boat ramp. The boat ramp’s not in service on account of the severe Texas drought that has shrunk the lake to about half its normal size.
No one was there: I had my pick of the two picnic tables. A few crows kept me company as I emptied my backpack and ate my lunch. Off in the trees, I heard a woodpecker rapping and tapping; farther off still, another woodpecker answered the first one. A fish jumped from the water. I didn’t see the jump, only heard the splash and turned my head in time to see the expanding ripples. A dove fluttered past, to perch on a limb above the water, its wings showing flashes of white.
My sandwich and coffee were delicious. Food always tastes best when eaten in the freshness of the outdoors. I lingered over my potato chips, listening to the cawing of the crows, enjoying the tepid warmth of the low-arcing winter sun.
After I’d eaten, I walked along the water, following a path that showed fresh deer prints and cattle tracks beside the long-faded boot-prints of other humans: I was the only two-legged animal to have passed that way recently. Where the water level was down because of the drought, cockleburs had invaded. I passed acres of prickly cockleburs and picked up a few in my bootlaces.
Further on, I scared up some overwintering ducks and found a half-dried mudflat that was dotted with clamshells. Most were singles, like me, but I kept looking until I found four mated pairs. I put the mated ones in my jacket pockets to bring home, thinking I’d clean and paint them to make little treasure boxes for the children in my life.
On the way back to my car, I saw a deer. More precisely, I saw the flash of white as a white-tailed deer turned tail and bounded off through the brush.
The picnic area was crowded now: a pickup had joined my car. They were the only two vehicles in sight. A long, lanky fellow in jeans and boots—pretty much what you picture when you picture a Texan—was rummaging around in the back of his pickup. He came up with a rod and reel. We nodded to each other as I stepped from the path into the parking area. Then the man started talking, and kept talking, about the great Texas State Bass Tournament. Said he’d won it last year, and his wife had won the year before. Somehow managing to not drop his fishing pole, he dug into his pocket and produced a business card on which was printed the web address, www.texasstatebass.com. I took the card and thanked him, and promised to check it out.
He went down to the water to fish. I returned to my car to pack my clamshells in the trunk beside my backpack and coffee thermos. Then I headed for home. As I meandered my way out of Mustang Park, I passed a buzzard who was enjoying fresh roadkill. The hungry old bird hardly got out of my way. He refused to take wing, but only shuffled off into the dry grass beside the blacktop. As soon as I passed by, he trotted back to his meal. I hadn’t realized before that a trotting buzzard is a comical sight. His stiff-legged gait was waddley like a duck.
As I drove home, I thought of the adaptability I’d witnessed in the natural world. The deer, hard-pressed by drought, were coming to drink at a manmade lake, crossing blacktopped roads and dodging fishermen (hunters, too) to get to the water. The buzzards were eating anything the cars killed on those paved roads. The cockleburs were colonizing land that, pre-drought, had been underwater.
I realized that I, too, was adapting. I was learning to live without my husband.
I have been on my own for six months now, and gradually I’ve found ways to work around the gaping hole in my life. The hole is always there, and will be there until I die, but I’ve made a few paths to carry me around it.
One simple adaptation is the soap caddy that now hangs beside my shower door. When I had Gene, if I got in the shower and forgot the soap, I only had to call out, “Are you free?” and he’d reply “I’m free!” in pitch-perfect imitation of one of our favorite British comedies, Are You Being Served? As he said it, he’d look in to see what I needed, and hand me the bar of soap I’d forgotten. But now he’s not there to help me, and so I hung a caddy to hold a spare bar of soap where I could reach it from the shower. A small thing, but illustrative of the many adaptations I’ve had to make in the last six months.
Today was another exercise in adapting. The hunters forced me to adjust my plans to honor Gene. Instead of hiking our favorite trails above the Paluxy River, I picked up clamshells on the shores of a shrinking lake. Part of me thinks the beachcombing was a poor substitute for the hiking. All of me, every fiber of my being, knows that the soap caddy is an utterly inadequate substitute for my husband’s presence in my home and in my life.
Yet if Gene were here, he would have enjoyed the beachcombing. He wouldn’t have cared where we went, so long as we got to spend the day together in the outdoors, listening to woodpeckers, glimpsing deer, laughing at buzzards, and trading fish stories with a Texas Bass Tournament champ.
Gene would also be proud of me for adapting, for figuring out what to do when the gates close in my face and cut me off from where I want to be. More than anything, I want to be with him. But those gates are shut, and I’m forced to move on. Though I have no road map and no clear idea of where I’m going, I must move on.