Austin is for (Trail) Lovers

By Leah – December 30, 2011

There’s virtually no way to talk about Austin’s Lady Bird Lake and the recently christened Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail that encircles it without talking about love. Runners are passionate about their time on the trail, the quiet hours spent alone at the lake’s edge, the bonds formed among groups as they make endless loops. Words like “sanctuary” and “temple” are used as substitute nouns. You can’t miss the physical manifestations of love: memorial benches, tenderly maintained gardens, stones, plaques, and sculptures all along the path. Walkers, runners, and cyclists practically love the trail to death—two people died on the Lamar Street Bridge before the Pfluger extension was built. Annually more than 1.5 million enjoy the trail and, on any given day, 10 percent of the people out there are visitors from out of town.

Love for Austin created the trail. The story goes that Ann Butler, wife of former Mayor Roy Butler, and Lady Bird Johnson were on the balcony at the Savoy Hotel in London. As they looked out at the River Thames and the beautiful public green spaces, they commented on how wonderful it was and concluded, “We can do this in Austin.” At the time, Austin’s downtown lake and trail were “stinky and dirty,” according to long-time Austin businessman and trail runner Les Gage. People went to the lake primarily to fish, and the shores had been left bare and weedy to help with flood control. Back in Austin, Butler and Johnson acted on their vision, forming the Town Lake Beautification Committee and kicking off beautification projects in 1970. Along with Gage and other prominent Austinites, they worked to clean up the trail, bring in trees and plants, and make the area around the lake a source of civic pride.

Austin’s love affair with the trail then began in earnest. By 2000, the increasing level of foot and bike traffic was taking its toll. According to Susan Rankin, Executive Director of The Trail Foundation (TTF), Dan Garrison, a local runner, went to Mayor Will Wynn in 2003 describing the trail as crumbling and asked the City to do something about it. There were no City funds for such a project, so Garrison formed a nonprofit to raise the funds himself. Thus TTF was born, its role to “enhance and maintain” the trail beyond what the City can do. The City of Austin Parks Department performs basic maintenance (grading and erosion, bathrooms), while TTF takes on the “something extra.” It’s become an effective partnership.

With the City stretched to accomplish much beyond bare-bones maintenance in the early ‘00s, the newly-formed TTF undertook a pilot project to install lights on the trail at “trip and fall” areas—those troublesome spots where terrain changes or culverts and dips make travel in the dark dangerous. That pilot program was followed by a project to install stone mile markers placed every quarter mile along the 10.2 miles of the trail.

Love is literally at your feet at TTF’s first large-scale project: the renovation at Lou Neff Point. Mrs. Neff (Lou was a woman) was one of the founding members of the Beautification Committee. The gazebo won architectural awards in the ‘70s; forty years later, however, it urgently needed some attention. TTF raised funds to restore the site, working closely with the City Parks Department. One of the primary fundraisers for the project was the installation of commemorative bricks. If you take the time to stop, you will see more than 2,000 bricks under the metal gazebo, etched with names of people, pets, runners, families, and businesses. Rankin points out with a smile there’s even a brick with “OFC,” which stands for “Old Farts Club,” a group of runners. The erosion control and landscaping across from the Point were TTF projects as well. It’s hard to remember what that corner looked like without local icon and musician Woody playing his guitar, surrounded by lush, native plants amid the gorgeous blocks of the new retaining wall.

Many people have long, loving relationships with the trail, and those loving ties have led to many of the projects TTF has undertaken. Rankin describes how the North Shore Overlook came to be refurbished: “This was paid for by a really generous, loving couple, Jim and Betty Wilson, who wanted to give back to the trail and the Austin community…that area was crumbling into the lake, fenced off; you couldn’t get there, and it’s beautiful now.” Mrs. Wilson was another of the original friends of the trail—part of that first Beautification Committee—and the Overlook is now a peaceful respite with a bench, often full of couples or families enjoying the view.

A runner’s love and love for a runner combined to form the Pfluger Circle Garden. Barry Gillingwater was a huge fan of the trail; Rankin describes him as “running when running wasn’t cool.” After Gillingwater died tragically, his family approached TTF about a memorial bench, but there were no more spaces to be had. Norma Gillingwater and their family and friends, including the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, funded the Circle Garden, which incorporates a gutter system using run-off water, graded levels, native plants, and seating. If you see a lady pruning at the Circle, it may be Mrs. Gillingwater, who often works side-by-side with landscape architect Christy Ten Eyck (Ten Eyck Landscape Architects) the designer. Rankin smiles, saying, “People often stop and comment (to Ten Eyck) about how beautiful it is, and they have no idea she’s the master creative mind behind what they’re looking at.”

Much of what happens on the trail is motivated by an individual’s love and interest. Projects like pruning the hundreds of crepe myrtles along the path, culling the invasive grapevines from the tree branches, diversifying the tree groves by planting new native seedlings, creating gardens to “buffer the urban effect” along the parking lot and roadway at Riverside—are created by the partnership between TTF, donors, and volunteers.

TTF’s biggest project, and the one most in need of funding, involves completing the hike and bike trail. If you stick to the shorter loops between MoPac and Congress Avenue, you may not have realized that the trail is unfinished. Currently, the trail breaks near the Austin American-Statesman building, forcing runners out onto the road. Runners must wind along Riverside, crossing all lanes of I-35, and meander down sidewalks to patch together a loop that resumes on the trail near Longhorn Dam. It’s an ugly, dangerous stretch, and in 2007, TTF pushed for completion. Mayor Will Wynn pushed back, asking the foundation for a study. TTF returned with the 2007 Investment Study, and the City of Austin agreed to fund the design and engineering in advance of budgeting specifics.

According to Rankin, this was the first such partnership in Austin, and everything was “shovel ready” when the mobility bond project came up in 2010. Rankin explains that TTF will provide $3 million for hard construction costs of the structure, which hugs the shoreline and juts out over the water for the 1.1 mile segment. The total cost of the project is $16 million.

The project should start in February and Rankin estimates up to 24 months for completion. Rankin’s passion for the project is infectious. She describes the publicly owned—and currently inaccessible—parkland behind Joe’s Crab Shack as “beautiful.” “You’re going to see large trees. Out over the water on the boardwalk, you can look back at the city and see the skyline; you can see water birds. That’s the route the bats fly over.”

Austinite, photographer, mom, runner, and philanthropist Lynne Dobson is every bit as passionate as Rankin when she talks about the boardwalk project and her role in it. Dobson attended The University of Texas in the 1970s. During that time, she became a runner and found the trail. Running has remained a constant for her, as have her running friends. When she turned 50, she heard about a tree-planting project TTF was organizing and instead of gifts, she asked her friends to donate. They raised $3,400 dollars for TTF and saw “the power of one transformed into the power of 50.” A few years later, the design of the boardwalk spoke deeply to her. She’d always felt a “disconnect” getting onto Riverside and donating toward the trail’s completion satisfied her desire to “give something that will last long after I’m gone.” Dobson chose to make a sizeable donation to the boardwalk project with the idea that her action might inspire others, a “C’mon, everybody, join us” gesture that she hopes exemplifies her “give to live” approach to both life and the trail.

People who love the trail find ways to make it their own. As Rankin walked on a weekday morning, regulars waved hellos, asked about projects, stopped to admire plantings, and chatted about what’s new and what needs help. Roger Beasley, a regular walker, donor, and Austin businessman, asked about the status of the new Johnson Creek Trailhead project. Rankin described the “indoor-outdoor” bathrooms that will be added, the new landscaping design inclusion of the iconic “Rock,” and waxed poetic about the ten new water fountains, geo-cooled with pipes snaking under the ground, for relief on hot summer days. With 31 percent of trail users entering at this point, these improvements will have a huge impact. Beasley, along with his morning walking buddy Gage, has long been a friend to the trail. He listened to the updates, smiled and said, “Let me know how I can help.”

Here are a few of the ways you can help The Trail Foundation raise funds for the boardwalk completion project and Johnson Creek Trailhead project:

• Become a member of The Trail Foundation Be a part of the Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge (TTF is this year’s beneficiary)
• Run in the Moonlight Margarita 5K Run coming in June 2012
• Sponsor one of the projects
• Donate your old car
• Buy a commemorative brick

For information on The Trail Foundation and how to help (with money or your time), go to


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