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If Not for The Butler Trail

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Eric and Maria Groten would not be sharing a last name, four kids, and their last 23 years together if not for the Butler Trail. Their first meeting happened in the wake of Eric’s loss of his twin brother, Kurt, who died along with his three young children in a fiery crash with an 18-wheeler. The wreck occurred on a Houston freeway, after Kurt’s family had driven to Hobby Airport to pick him up upon his return from Austin, where’d he’d spent the prior week at Eric’s side helping Eric through the latter stages of a challenging divorce. Kurt and Eric, in fact, had spent that very morning—of June 29, 1999—jogging the Trail (finishing up, of course, with breakfast at Magnolia Café). When word of the Grotens’ horrific loss reached back to Austin, to the church that Eric had been attending, Maria recalled that she’d met Kurt a few Sundays previously, while Kurt and his kids had been on another pilgrimage to be with Eric in Austin. Maria became one of hundreds of kind souls, often otherwise strangers, reaching out to Eric—who she had not yet met—with sympathies expressed in cards and letters. Not long after, Eric bumped into Maria at church, and thanked her for her note. Eric took seriously Maria’s offer to host him (as a single dad) and his two kids for dinner. And that lead to discovering they both were runners; in fact, for the preceding few years, Maria had been commuting to the Lake nearly every day from her home in Round Rock to nurture her athlete self.

Their shared passion for running and apparently for each other led them to meet regularly on the Trail. At the end of one run, on which Maria “bonked” for having ignored Eric’s advice to fuel up, an incidental touch released sparks that lit flames, and for tumultuous weeks they were engulfed in whether and how to maintain any relationship. One day, they decided that it needed to end, and so they went their separate ways. Fate—and the Trail—brought them back together: On a random spot just under the Lamar Bridge, they ran into each other, and the joy and relief each felt revealed to them that their parting was a mistake that would never again be repeated. Barely a year after their first encounter, Eric and Maria were married, joining together Eric’s little family (Andrew, then 10, and Grace, 5) and Maria’s (Ruel, then 5, and Emma, 3). For the last months of 2000 until Spring 2001, the Grotens lived in simple, tumultuous joy. This idyll shattered on Mothers’ Day 2001, when the light plane piloted by Andrew and Grace’s mom and step father crashed at an airstrip in Leakey, Texas, instantly killing all four. Lady Bird Lake retained its refuge quality for Eric and Maria, especially considering that the south shore had become home to Austin’s leading performing arts venues, especially ZACH. That theater became their church, its productions cathartic, allowing space for Eric and Maria to mourn, celebrate, worship, and give back.

Consolation came quickly and clearly with the birth of their first child together, Grayson, who appeared within an hour or two of the exact one year anniversary of the plane crash that had claimed the lives of the brother and sister Grayson never got to meet. Lily joined the family 18 months later, and the Grotens became complete again. All four kids are now successful young adults. Ruel is a singer-songwriter living the Austin dream. Emma is an aesthetician at a salon in town. Grayson is a mechanical engineering student in his third year at Virginia Tech. And Lily is leaving for CU in Boulder. Now that the nest is empty and Eric and Maria enter the fourth quarter in the game of life, they remain drawn to Austin’s circle of life, spending nearly every morning walking—not so much running any more—around the lake. Each time around, they stop and kiss under the Lamar Bridge, like the first time was yesterday.

Mandi Thomas

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