MoPac’s Seamy Underbelly

David Piper - Austin, TX

MoPac’s Seamy Underbelly

I was trying to think up a kick-ass ending for a novel, and decided that I needed an exploratory bike trek to clear my mind. After ten years of living in my neighborhood, I just discovered there was a system of hike/bike trails that weaved through a nearby tangle of freeways and arterial streets. In my defense, I thought I had once ridden my bike through this no-man’s land, but I must have had it confused with another unsavory urban transit corridor.

I am amazed at the short distance between Austin’s beloved Lady Bird Lake and the start of my newly-discovered, nasty trail heading north along the Mopac freeway. Look one way and see joggers, kayakers, and stand-up paddle-boarders. Look the other way and see slabs of concrete laid unevenly, curving into weedy obscurity. I felt compelled to enter.

I started the short climb on my bike and then swept downward into the weeds along a mostly dry, rocky creek bed spotted with pools of stagnant water. Empty plastic bottles and shredded grocery bags on the rocks attested to how fast this creek could flash flood in a heavy rain. Tires whined and clacked as unseen cars, their drivers oblivious to the lone figure on the bike beneath them, flew over me on layers of stacked, curving bridges. The trail hugged the side of the creek embankment, and I moved to the inside. If I went over the edge I might not be found anytime soon. Broken bottles and filthy, crumpled blankets were evidence that the less fortunate sometimes slept here.

This place repulsed, yet I was fascinated. That a world so foreign to my everyday experience existed not more than a mile from my quiet home propelled my imagination. God only knew what happened down here in the wee hours!

Side trails split off from the creek and worked their way outward like veins in a decomposing body. I booked on ahead, through a couple of dark, urine-smelling, concrete culverts and then popped out of the trees into a grassy median between an access road and the freeway. Even though the sun was low, it still had to be close to a hundred degrees, and I wilted from the temperature change.

Abruptly, the trail dumped me into a quaint little park across the street from some high-dollar homes. How fast things change! I rested under a tree in the park and watched some pretty good b-ball players go four-on-four on a court that actually had straight rims. When the arriving Amtrak rumbled by, I waved at a kid in a window.

On the way back through the netherworld, I took every side trail out of the creek bed. I crossed footbridges with peeling paint and splintered deck planks as each trail ended at a different cross street, above. I guess that’s what exploration is all about. But I still haven’t thought of an ending for the novel.

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