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Zamberlans Go to Windmill Hill

by Mark Stein

New boots motivated me to discover a trail near Dallas where I might break them in. I was going to the White Mountains of New Mexico in a week and I didn't want to arrive with boots fresh out of a box.

I loved my old boots, but the Vibram soles were approaching the texture of a snake's belly. That hadn't been a pleasant realization as I crab-walked down a slick rock ledge at Colorado Bend State Park weeks ago. I wore the old boots to an outings gear store, wherein my young saleswoman observed, "Your boots have some miles on them!" After I'd tried on almost every boot worthy of a serious backpacker, my patient young advisor urged me, "Try the Zamberlans." Why not?

"Yes!" I exhaled, mentally pumping my arms in the air as I laced them. They might be top-of-the-line boots, I thought, but they're perfect! I pictured a workshop in Vicenza where Italian craftsmen stitched boots like these to exacting standards. I read the sales pitch about Giuseppe Zamberlan and Vitale Bramani pioneering Vibram soles. I thought of my wife's collection of Ferragamo shoes and reasoned, "Well, why would she fault me for buying good Italian boots?"

Now the challenge was finding a dirt trail where I could give the Zamberlans a workout before next week end. Fortunately, the Patroness of Ferragamo had given me a book for Christmas called, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles. I flipped its pages and discovered the Windmill Hill Preserve in DeSoto. It was near, it had no admission fee and, most importantly, trails were dirt and rock-no sidewalk hiking as at White Rock, the Katy Trail or Arbor Hills.

Finding the trailhead was easy. Head south from Dallas on I-35, then take US 67 to the exit at South Main Street in Duncanville. Turn left (south) onto South Main. After a half mile, there-s the trailhead and a small parking lot at the southeast corner of South Main and Wintergreen. The Windmill Hills Preserve is in DeSoto, exactly where DeSoto, Duncanville and Cedar Hill come together. The City of Desoto has a long-term lease on the property from Dallas County, which owns it. The park was dedicated in 1993.

Trails lead in two directions from the corner parking lot. An aerial photo displayed in the lot shows numerous short trails that lace this preserve of 70+/-acres. Trails have names like Bluebonnet, Eagle and Cotton, but my advice is to forget the names and just walk. A zealous Scout troop has buried stone markers with trail names, but you might need to do crayon rubbings on paper to read some of the worn engravings. You can't get lost long here because the whole preserve is bounded by roads or alleys. If you follow the distant sounds of cars, you'll find your way out.

I pursued the trail on my right and continued turning right at every junction, knowing I'd bump the perimeters of the preserve, but ultimately cover a large double loop. Sometimes that strategy led me on short spur trails to gated yards of big homes backing up to the preserve, but my reward was always a discovery of somebody's private access. The outermost trail loops cover a total distance of about two miles, but one can wander on connecting loops to add miles.

The prevalent vegetation in the Windmill Hill preserve is cedar, but with abundant deciduous trees. Trails are mostly shaded, but there are small clearings perfect for pitching tents. But, no, you may not camp here overnight. Some of the clearings feature prickly pears (with bright yellow blooms in May). Parts of the preserve appear to have been cleared for farm roads or structures years ago, but if so, the land went back to nature long ago. The cedars, the cacti and the limestone outcrops make this landscape look more like the Texas Hill Country than the Blackland Prairie or the Cross Timbers.

Those limestone outcrops make parts of the trails downright rocky. You get to use your thighs and calves a bit to climb some real inclines. Other trail segments are packed dirt; gray-white stuff, unlike the black dirt at my house. I was here the day after a hard rain, yet there was no mud. The variety of trail cross-sections impressed me: wide trails in dense trees, narrow trails with grass swaths on both sides and roller-coaster segments for trail bikers. But on the weekday I was here, I saw not a soul on the trails.

The Dallas Observer pronounced Windmill Hill the "Best Urban Hiking Trail" in the Metroplex in 2001, so don't just accept my word that it's a cool trail network. A sign in the parking lot says the preserve is maintained by Paul Dryer. I don't know who Paul is, but he's doing a fine job maintaining these trails.

I never found a windmill or remnant of one, only a poem about Windmill Hill on a marker in the parking lot. Neither did I see a hill, although I walked a lot of inclines. The one landmark in the park is a footbridge with signs marking it as the Stevie Ray Vaughan Crossing. That bridge near the middle of the park, crossing the Stewart Branch of Ten-Mile Creek, funnels all trails to itself, pinching them into two looping systems. I like any kind of public work named for an entertainer. It's a refreshing break from features named for elected officials and highway engineers. This winter the Patroness of Ferragamos was sweet enough to humor me at walking to the Ray Charles Soul Center of the Universe Footbridge in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. So, duh, why wouldn't I love a trail network that looks and feels on a good day like the Hill Country and where all trails lead to a Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial bridge?

And the Zamberlans lived up to my hopes and they got to go to New Mexico with a little bit of dirt and sweat on them.

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