When my friend David Williams called me at the end of last summer and suggested we do some urban hiking in Fort Worth, I said, "Yeah, that sounds great" without even being sure what the term meant.
I have since learned that though some details may differ, the most important elements of urban hiking are getting into the outdoors for pure enjoyment and exercise, exploring the city for new discoveries and finding where nature intersects with the city's surroundings.
One of the trailblazers of this practice is Dan Koeppel of Los Angeles. He stumbled onto the concept when he was preparing for a climb up Mount Whitney. He decided to use his neighborhood's many staircases as a training ground rather than drive miles away into nearby mountains. In the process something unexpected transpired. He was gripped by something more than physical fitness as he rediscovered his own community, Silverlake, and nearby Echo Park. He wrote about the experience for Backpacker magazine in 2004, and today there are groups across the country -- Seattle, Atlanta, Pittsburgh -- that meet regularly to hike their own cities.
The first hike
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So with one of the hottest summers on record barely behind us, we stepped down to the Trinity River that late September morning to start our first urban hike. After fueling up at Panera Bread on South University Drive, our plan was to travel the edge of the Trinity River that runs alongside the Colonial Country Club golf course.
We soon realized that there wasn't much edge there. The wild tangle of brambles and vines forced us to scramble through some thickets onto the actual golf course. It was a beautiful manicured sea of green, a stark contrast to the free flow of gnarled twisted trunks and branches that we had just crawled through. It wasn't long till we found a pathway back down to the riverbank and followed it around to Hulen Street. As we crossed the bridge at Vickery Boulevard, we were able to get a closer look at the construction work that was changing the face of the city. In the midst of the concrete forest of pillars being constructed for a new freeway were stacks of timber, fallen trees piled high and waiting to be hauled away, the price of progress.
We then headed north toward River Crest Country Club and the Crestline neighborhood. Still on Hulen, we noticed a miniature botanic garden displayed in the flowerbeds of one of the yards, scientific name labels and all. As further proof of the home owner's love for nature and commitment to the environment, we noticed a tree growing right through the side of their Spanish Mission-style house ... well, actually their courtyard, but impressive nonetheless.
The original plan was to spend some time in the "green" area of River Crest, but it proved to be urban hiker unfriendly so we continued on our way down Crestline Road. We stopped momentarily where Crestline intersects with Camp Bowie Boulevard for some reflection at the War Memorial dedicated to all veterans by the Veterans of World War I and to read the inscribed poem In Flanders Fields.
Harley Street led us to the edge of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. Cutting across the corner of the lot, we saw a relatively new building we had never been in before. Since discovery is key to the urban hiking experience, we opened the side door and walked right in. The smiling volunteers of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas were there to welcome us. They eagerly shared a little of BRIT's history, its present focus of re-creating the presence of native prairie grass in the area and some information about its extensive herbarium. One of the volunteers offered to give us a peek at the 1 million plus collection of pressed plant specimens housed there.
Walking into the herbarium was like entering a sanctuary. Row after row of vaults containing the million plus seed specimens completely surrounded us and towered over our heads. The sheer life contained within that place seemed to overwhelm, but the best part was yet to come. David, being a budding scholar on the subject, casually asked about the prized Arabica bean and how it entered this country from its place of origin. After some research and consultation, the volunteer was able to pull from one of the vault files information about the very bean that David was inquiring about. Here, right before him was history, not just any history, but the very history that connected him to his place and his passion.
We walked back to the spot where we had first parked our cars scarcely able to believe how the day came together in perfect synchronicity.
The second hike
In November, we focused on the downtown area and incorporated whatever pockets of nature we could find. Starting at Trinity Park we hiked through the less user-friendly areas, preferring untamed growth to maintenance. Some paths led to small shaded clearings in wooded areas that created a sense of being in a secluded forest rather than a public park, with fallen leaves underfoot and full branches shading us from the sun. Leaving the park, we climbed over the old bridge on Lancaster and took some time to notice its ornate details, wishing out loud that beauty still had the same place of priority in architecture.
As we headed toward downtown, we passed by the Ball-Eddleman-McFarland House, a Victorian relic that is now a historic landmark. Built in 1899, its turrets, gables and sandstone bricks pulled at our "historical" heartstrings, and I made a mental note to come back another time for the tour. (See the accompanying story for more information on the McFarland House.)
Construction seemed to be the overriding theme of the downtown portion of our hike that day, but the beauty of urban hiking is that one minute you are in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the rapidly changing city (bulldozers where the Tandy Center used to be, scaffolding and cranes literally changing the face of the Old Court House) and the next, you're slipping around the backside of a building, down a redbrick path, past the old ruins of a forgotten structure and strolling beside the tangle of branches and vines that frame the Trinity River. The serenity of that scene was the perfect ending to the day.
The third hike
In the early morning, I was fully geared for winter's cold weather. This day would prove to be the pièce de résistance of our hiking experience.
David programmed in our hiking route on his phone app, and we were off, up Seventh Street to University Drive. The first official focal point on this hike was a guaranteed treasure trove: Greenwood Cemetery.
We came into the cemetery from a side entrance and made our way to the older burial sites. Granite gravestones stretched out across a well-kept lawn, shaded by branches of old gnarled trees whose twisting roots encroached on hallowed ground. Some of these buried souls lived 150 years ago. Some served in the Civil War, others in World War I, others in World War II, some in the Korean War and some in the Vietnam War. One plot told the family's history in epitaph shorthand; members serving consecutively in succeeding generations from the Civil War through World Wars I and II.
Not far from there, we discovered a historical marker indicating the burial place of William J. Marsh, composer of Texas, Our Texas, our state song,
Leaving the cemetery we followed the Trinity Trail beside the riverbank as it looped around Rockwood Park and Kelly Park, back toward White Settlement. A long-legged white egret acted as our personal guide, always staying a short flight ahead of us as we wound our way along the grassy edge of the river.
On Carroll Street, the last leg of our journey, we spied a huge banner on the side of a building: "Voted Best Burger in DFW." We took a closer look. Although we saw the M&O Station Grill sign first, we opted to try the small door below the "Leonard's Department Store Museum" sign.
Stepping inside we entered a time warp. Memorabilia and a remarkably well-preserved historical record of Leonard's Department store and its legacy lined the walls. The displays included old photographs dating back to 1918, actual items that were at one time used and sold in the store and a summary of high watermark events, such as the creation of the world's largest private subway that would bring customers into downtown from remote parking.
Through the opening to the restaurant next door, we could hear the busy clacking of dishes and smell tantalizing aromas beckoning us. When we made our way into the restaurant I ordered, no exaggeration, the best hamburger I have ever had. The Toluca Burger, with chorizo, fried egg and grilled jalapeños, was a 10-napkin burger. After I figured out how to bite into this towering feast, juicy goodness just kept coming.
What a delicious and satisfying way to end our Urban Hiking Trilogy.
As we ate, we reflected how so much had changed since our first hike in September -- from summer heat to winter frosts, the city's actual structure had changed with the ongoing construction, while the natural landscape had changed with the seasons. We had changed as well. We had met new people, learned history we had previously been unaware of and found hidden treasures all over the city, all without ever straying far from the comforts of home.