A collage of a person on a bicycle in Palmetto State Park, surrounded by palmetto plants, asnake, and a sign reading "Watch for Snakes"
Photo illustration by Ashley Burch

Cycle of Strife

Two friends grease the wheels of their relationship on a bike ride through Palmetto State Park

by Katie Nickas

“Watch out for snakes,” Chuck whispered in a voice that sounded like an incantation.

I’d never had to worry about dangerous animals in the woods as a kid in Indiana—at least not like the venomous black, red, and yellow coral variety that slithered across the boardwalk’s slats. My friend and I paused and held our breaths, observing the banded pattern on the creature’s back from several feet away as its body coiled tightly. It was good preparation for the other snake Chuck and I would see a couple of hours later near the Slayden Bridge spanning the San Marcos River, its appearance culminating our daylong trek through Palmetto State Park.

This tropical getaway is located along the banks of the river, about 65 miles east of San Antonio near Gonzales, where the historic slogan “Come and Take It” originated. The State Parks Board acquired 198 acres of the Ottine Swamp in 1933, establishing a state park on the property near the Ottine Mineral Springs resort, where guests may once again bathe in the healing springs of the renovated facility. The neighboring town of Luling, about 20 miles northwest, was founded in 1874 as a gathering point and supply center for cattle drivers on the Chisholm Trail.

Nestled between Gonzales and Luling, Palmetto State Park melds the arid heat of West Texas with the dense canopies of the state’s eastern Piney Woods. Inlets of the Guadalupe River feed its marshy waters, causing them to rise and fall to different levels throughout the year and nourish the lush vegetation that grows in the peat bogs.

I put my skills to the test venturing to Palmetto with Chuck, a former category 1 racer who’d traded in his skinny tires for a long-distance cargo bike. I’d started riding a decade ago, touring my gravel bike all over San Antonio after moving to Texas from my hometown in the Midwest. I was intimidated at the sight of this human dynamo standing poised beside the 58-centimeter, olive steel frame equipped with braze-on pegs and mounts, his callipygian calves flexing in anticipation of sprinting up hills.

Luckily, we were both looking for wider spaces and sight lines that extended beyond our ambit. Palmetto seemed like the perfect chance to get out of town on our bikes for a major change of scenery.

Palmetto is small in terms of the state’s natural attractions. Growing up in Madison, Indiana, I’d spent my weekends and holidays hiking in Clifty Falls State Park, a gorgeous, 1,416-acre expanse of picturesque waterfalls and canyons carved into the Ohio River Valley. Only 270 acres by comparison, Palmetto is a hidden Texas gem that offers guests a range of activities, from fishing in the river and the 4-acre Oxbow Lake to swimming, tubing, kayaking, geocaching, or paddling the Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail.

We left for our destination one April morning before dawn. Chuck loaded our gear onto the rear rack of his white sedan and headed east on Interstate 10. The two of us occupied ourselves during the drive by weighing a stop for breakfast tacos and arguing over our divergent politics.

I’d known my riding companion for about three years and accepted our fractious relationship, overlooking the fact that we’d clashed on just about every topic, including bicycles. While I supported multimodal transportation, he told me, “You should woman up and take the lane; let the drivers know I’m serious.” On a typical day, Chuck would promise that we’d ride together if I commuted to his crosstown apartment. Then he’d talk me into playing board games beneath the shade of a palm when I arrived. I wondered if we went out of the way to annoy each other, or if our values were that incompatible. Our unlikely bond had an endearing quality, and we’d grown unexpectedly close.

After deciding not to stop for food, we took an exit ramp in Luling to refuel at a gas station before continuing another 5 miles south on US 183 and west on County Road 261 to Ottine. When the sign for Park Road 11 emerged from the blue mist, Chuck turned down the drive and crept through a tunnel of foliage at barely 30 mph, offering his trademark commentary as he directed my attention to an armadillo skittering across the roadway.

“Use your eyeballs,” Chuck said. “We’re about to drop into the swamp.”

A half-mile ahead, the road plateaued onto a broad, scenic vista abutted by red boulders. We rolled up to the gate, where a friendly teller greeted us. We paid the $3 admittance fee per adult and found a parking spot at one of the 19 available tent sites.

Palmetto happens to be a landmark on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. More than 240 species of birds have been observed within the park’s boundaries. Listen to a prothonotary warbler or crested caracara while resting on a park bench or sheltering in one of the stone structures built by workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s and interspersed throughout the area.

As we unloaded our bikes, I noticed the refectory, a cabin with sandstone walls and a roof draped in Spanish moss, blending in perfectly with the fauna. The legend on our paper map referred to something called extinct “mud boils”—depressions in the ground formed by water heating deep within the earth and bubbling to the surface. An artesian well served as a low-water crossing that was ideal for scouting wildlife. The trails had alluring names like Mossycup Spur and Canebrake Spur.

But it was the park’s namesake, the dwarf palmetto stands growing in quaggy forest bottomland, that intrigued me most. Known scientifically as Sabal minor, these 5- to 10-foot-tall perennial shrubs are native to the tropics. The sight of them rising out of the iridescent green waters of the ephemeral swamp makes the locale feel like another world.

We wheeled over the walking platforms twisting throughout the 1-mile Ottine Swamp Trail and 0.26-mile Palmetto Interpretive Trail and were soon immersed in an exotic biosphere of spiny, prehistoric plants reminiscent of the age of dinosaurs. I stopped before the stemless crowns of leaves with their fan-shaped blades piercing the mire. Some were as tall as elm trees and up to 4 feet wide. I marveled at how self-contained the setting felt—a microcosm that was crystallized in the past, yet extant today. It was like watching an elegant mathematical formula unfold in real time, the palmettos spinning off infinite fractals. Interpretive signs gave information about the history of the park, the trees, and the local birds, along with warnings about predators.

Once completing the 1-mile scenic loop, we returned to the campsite for water and snacks. We settled at a picnic table in the clearing and chatted with a female park ranger and a man in a cowboy hat. We told them about the birds we’d spotted: a heron on the Oxbow Lake Trail, a hawk peering from its eyrie in the crooked arm of an oak. Also: white-tailed deer, more armadillos, squirrels. The pair looked at our bikes curiously.

Chuck removed a baize from the red pannier strapped to his rear rack and laid it over the table. Then he opened a velvet pouch and tipped it upside down to spill a mix of black and white hexagon pieces engraved with insect glyphs across the felt spread. The goal of the game, called Hive, was to trap the opponent’s Queen Bee, he said. We started to play a round, trading witty remarks as we settled into the park’s quietude.

But I quickly grew impatient with the game’s tactical aspects. As we began to spar again, I decided to take a hike. I left my bike hitched next to his and trudged into the swampland that we’d begun exploring that morning.

The air was different at 11 a.m. The cool temperatures and fog had lifted. Fervid heat rose, as the sun grinned through the leaves and fell in crescent-shaped shadows across the understory. I meandered past the horizontal rock pools spanning the picnic area and came to a stone and wood water tower that was indiscernible, at first, from the dense mesquite. I stood beneath it and gazed skyward, trying to convince myself that after living in Texas for almost a decade, I’d finally begun to fathom the state’s wild, untouched nature.

At the same time, I felt the sinking realization that I was far from the sweet grass and clover meadows I’d sprawled in as a child—another transplant trying to find a home in a most alien terrain. Suspended in thought, I felt a sharp sting on my right calf. An army of red ants was marching up my leg.

Despite our disagreement, I was glad to get back to the campground to find Chuck folding up the game accessories and packing them into his saddlebag. When he’d finished, we mounted our bikes and left the park. We set south on Farm-to-Market Road 2091 for the 7.5-mile jog to Slayden, hewing to the right side of the 2-lane blacktop as we climbed the moderate gradients and freewheeled into the valleys.

Chuck rode a few yards ahead, glancing over his left shoulder as if to check that I was still there, though he could see me in his side mirror. It was mid-afternoon by then, and the weather was hot, with the coruscating sun dialing across the azure sky. When the breeze blew, Chuck would drift back several feet, showing me how to draft and ride in a slipstream to save energy. I’d tuck in, and we’d take turns rotating like cyclists in a pace line, pulling each other to the front. He’d try stealth moves, pretending to be out of breath as he chugged behind—just enough that I’d let my guard down—before releasing a burst of energy to tear past and ratchet up the incline. His figure disappeared at the top of the camber, his bike’s taillight flashing redder in the distance.

As we alternated between bursts of intensity and less strenuous effort, I began to reminisce about carefree days, when a younger me traveled on country roads in Indiana to visit friends, go camping, swim in the limestone creekbeds, and hunt for arrowheads in fossil spoil heaps. The farther Chuck and I went, the closer we came to blissful cadence. I felt my mood lifting, until I was completely centered in the present moment.

I was struck by the sense that all the eras of my existence interposing youth and adulthood were an illusion, and that no actual time had passed between them. Maybe it was my episodic memory filling in the gaps with lasting images, but I reimagined suddenly what it meant for days, months, and years to elapse.

My travels along Palmetto’s peaks and troughs had warped my perception of the flattened dimensions of an ordinary map into a geodesic curve, shortening the path between me and Chuck. The sidelong glance he gave me as we closed ranks and pedaled two abreast made me think he also sensed the echoes of youth the park conjured.

We arrived breathlessly to the truss bridge and leaned our bikes against the black steel balustrade, then craned our heads over the spiked palings to watch for movement in the water below. My eye caught another coral snake’s tail pirouetting down to the depths. Had the first snake we saw followed us there to mark the end of our trip?

As we navigated a bridle way back to the main road to retrace our route to the park, I remembered the strange botanicals that had guided us into their clade, the veils of leaves and woody vines parting to allow us to enter the marsh and wonder at the plants that whispered secrets of how subtle, gradual changes could add up to monumental shifts.

“Where does it lead?” I asked, glancing down at the stretch of pavement ahead. Chuck’s skin had taken on a ruddy hue, as if he were a natural extension of the windswept earth scrawling out beneath his tires. Palmetto had extended its hand and introduced us to its denizens. We’d been the only two cyclists on the road that day, recognizing the need to forego our conflict and stick together. The road led forward, but we’d have to put our wheels down again to find out where that took us.

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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