Prior to the time I moved back from Los Angeles, I found a weekend free to visit the Dallas area. I made advance arrangements to rent a car and take my three nephews to the Dinosaur Valley State Park, which I have always called Dinosaur Feet State Park. This state park is down by Glen Rose, perhaps two hours' drive from Dallas. The park features the bed of the Paluxy River, which is laced with the imprints of actual dinosaur feet. There are round prints from large planteaters, and smaller three toed prints from carnivorous dinos. Elvis Presley wrote a song called "The Willows" after a night in Glen Rose along the Paluxy. Needless to say, a state park offering such a compelling proof of evolutionary progress is rivalled by the creation science museum, which provides one more set of detailed proof that dinosaurs somehow do not contradict the reckoning of some literalists that the earth was made some 6,000 years ago, in a literal Genesis sort of way. Although I am usually attracted to such mildly kitschy extravanganzas, I have always by passed this alternative tourist attraction. I have always wondered, though, just where the dinosaurs "fit". Perhaps they became extinct when the Garden of Eden became less hospitable, one apple past heaven. I always liked that English bishop who explained, quite rationally, how Satan planted those bones to lead people astray. I worry that much of modernity is comprised of bones planted to lead me astray.
I discovered this park just after I took the Texas bar examination in July 1984. The bar exam was a three day ordeal. Because drives to rural places and times in nature are very restorative for me, I decided to try the park out. I found that in addition to the dinosaur tracks, the place was laced with scrub trees, easy hiking trails, and large rocks in the shade. I remember that first weekend, stretched out by myself on a giant rock in the deep shade, looking overhead with that mind-set that one acquires only in the moments after life-changing events. I looked up at a sky which was filled with all the same clouds and blue, only I knew that my life had somehow moved from the academic pleasures of law school to the "real world" in which the carnivores thrive and the plant eaters tread lightly. I was so weary, what with being tired and all, and yet so aware. My own cretaceous era, filled with stylish dinosaurs and lush, warm jungles, was receding into a new Ice Age.
This latter-day weekend, though, more than a decade had eclipsed my symbolism, and my intentions were entirely recreational. To me, dinosaurs are one of the chief consolations of childhood. Dinosaurs, to state it simply, rock. They are big, they are elusive, they existed but seem like magic, and they leave cool bones behind. I knew my nephews would enjoy them. Each of my nephews was a delightful age--old enough to be dinosaur savvy, but not so old (i.e., less than 99) to be dinosaur-jaded.
We drove the couple of hours, as nephews worked game boys and discussed incredibly impressive things they imagined they'd done, and waited patiently as I managed to take my customary four or five wrong turns on the way. God blessed me with no natural navigational skills whatsoever, and, as compensation for this lack, coupled this shortfall with the grace of a natural sense of denial that I should ever need to use a map. Altho I had driven this way roughly a dozen times before, during dino-soul-restorative trips throughout my 20s, it had been years since I had driven to the park. Still, we made it down in good order, notwithstanding taking a route I'll self-forgivingly call scenic.
When we arrived at the park, it was a glorious October day--warm, but not hot, dry, as that part of central Texas tends to be in usual years. We began to walk among the river bed, and explore the dinosaur prints. The gravel and low trickle of the river made a convenient and fun setting in which to see many, many prints, so it was a perfect weekend for dinosaur feet track watching. So far, so good.
I was at that moment in which any uncle wishes to be. We had come to a naturally beautiful place. We had seen a wonder of the world. We were adjacent to easy and enjoyable hiking trails. I used to wander in or near those trails for hours. I could guide my nephews among life's finest things.
We set off down the well-marked trail. After an hour or so, though, we had a hankering for a barbecue lunch. The trail looped around, but it was still a mile or two to go. Meanwhile, I was certain I could get us back to my car faster.
"Let's get off the trail", I said, "I think I know a shortcut".
Off the trail we went, into a semi-cleared woodland of stubby cedar trees and prickly pear cacti. We did not have a compass, but I was sure my natural sense of things would help us find the way. After a few moments, we had wandered into dense growth. One of the nephews posited the theory that we were lost. After an initial denial or two, I had to agree.
We were within a half an hour's walk or so of my car, "as the crow flies", no matter what happened. I did not have any concern about this point. I am sad to say, though, that my nephews, staunch young men though they be, took a rather dim view of the situation. It was lunch time, we had left the trail, the brush was not altogether pleasant, and they were in the middle of nowhere with an eccentric uncle.
Still, I think that we managed relatively nicely, until a fateful question was asked: "Uncle Bob,", one inquired, with a sort of appealing scientific/historical research tone of voice, "have you ever gotten lost before?".
I was eager to reassure. "Why yes," I said, "this is not unusual at all. In fact, I get lost virtually every time I hike. I then wander around until I find myself again". I am sad to report that rather than sparking admiration for my nonchalance at being lost, this only caused the sound of three lost souls, weeping and wailing and gnashing teeth. When one managed to ram an ankle against a cactus, inducing miniature cactus spines to lodge in that ankle, matters did not improve.
I felt more than the lashing of the unfriendly brush as we tried to discover hide or hair of trail or river. Finally, the eldest nephew and I sorted out which direction must be the river, and within moments we were scaling a pleasant ravine back to civilization. Altogether, we had lost only an hour and 40 minutes to this detour, and to my way of thinking, an hour and 40 minutes lost to the stress of life is not a bad thing at all. We had an incredible lunch of bbq brisket sandwiches, served at a bbq cafe where they listened sympathetically to my nephews' just lament.
I believe this entire tale illustrates the incredible bonding effect of nature and of family. I remember that day fondly, albeit with a moment or three of silent reproaches for trails from which I've strayed without an entirely clear reason to do so. Meanwhile, this entire thing helped my nephews to bond with one another. To this day, some three or four years later, if I mention the words "go hiking" in their collective presence, the
slightly exasperated cry "Uncle Bob, no!" emits from them in a unified chorus, a harmonious reminder that wandering aimlessly is the glue which holds us together, even if it only holds some of us together in a fervent wish to never wander aimlessly again. Even the nephew who still hikes with me sometimes will join in the chorus fervently when in the company of his cousins. My nephews remain fine fellows. I now wander alone, from time to time, as my wife is a fervent believer in maps and destinations when we hike together.
Personally, though, I find myself encouraged when I miss a turn,
see a corner I'd long forgotten, and then drift in circles until I am trail-ward again. I don't know why, but somehow, when I am lost, I am certain I will be found, just as the fellow in the old hymn was blind, but now he sees.