As I write this, I am sitting at the table in the beach house at Crystal Beach, near Galveston (just 15 miles to the ferry and then you’re on the island). A glass of chilled wine . . . and total relaxation.
It’s the first time I’ve been here since March, and it’s clearly full-on summer. The ceiling fans and the air-conditioning let me forget that even now, just after 8 pm, it’s in the 90s.
Once I had packed the car, and the dogs were settled, and I had a diet Coke and some water for the road, I plugged in my iPod and headed out on Interstate 10. By the time I’d crossed the border into Texas (halfway over the bridge over the Sabine River), I was in the road mode. Starting with the Dixie Chicks, I sang along with Natalie Maines. Texas music for the Texas road trip. Perfect.
My favorite route is to leave the interstate just past Orange, turning off onto state highway 62 South to Bridge City. It’s a two-lane road, but just perfect for avoiding the heavier traffic along the interstate. This route is much more rural, through small towns. Nine miles or so south and I turned right onto Highway 73 West, crossed over Rainbow Bridge, and took the 4-lane that skirts the Gulf and takes you through some of the scenic refineries of Port Arthur.
All along the road, though, you know you’re in a slower paced life. Cars and trucks are parked off the road. People and their fishing poles dot the various small bodies of water that are on either side of the road.
Even here the speed limit is 75 miles an hour (thanks, Texas!). The Dixie Chicks are through and it’s time for The Civil Wars for a while. As I sing, I travel in memory to childhood and later, scenes of the past triggered by the very places I travel through.
At one point, I cross by the turn to Taylor’s Bayou, and I am transported in time immediately. I am 5 years old, and my mother’s mother and stepfather have a camp on Taylor’s Bayou. It’s a real fishing camp, not a decorative one. Spiders co-habit with us. The camp is at the end of the road, and right by the bayou. Somewhere in a box, I’ve got photographs from that summer of 1956. In my so-stylish rubber swim cap, floating in an inner tube near my grandmother’s friends, I grin right at the camera. The water is dark, brownish, and now I don’t even want to think about what might have been near me. Regardless, I paddle and float without a second thought. Nearby, my grandmother sits in a lawn chair, wearing a bra and her peddle-pushers. My brother Phil, not quite 2, sits in her lap. His hair is bleached cotton white and he’s clearly suntanned. He’s laughing and happy as she teases him. My sister Kay isn’t around yet — she won’t be born for another 7 months or so.
I’m not quite sure when Mom and Poppa (my grandmother Ella and her husband, Glenn) bought the camp; nor do I know when they sold it. But the name of the camp? It may tell you a lot about their political leanings — and about the era. They named the camp Adair’s Hyannis Port. Not quite Kennedy headquarters, but wonderful nonetheless.
Soon I’ve passed that turnoff and continue on the highway that parallels the interstate, but south of it, and while there is certainly traffic on the 4 lanes, it’s nowhere near as packed as the interstate route. Another advantage: I avoid the Beaumont knot of traffic and interstate. If there’s going to be a traffic jam or an accident, it’s going to be on the stretch heading into Beaumont and curving toward Houston. Bypassing it, I don’t really cut any time off the journey, but I do avoid hassles and possible traffic snarls. I also get to travel through a very different landscape.
Highway 73 takes me through Port Arthur and Port Neches, near Groves, just skirting the south parts of those towns. For miles, though, what I see is grass. And water. And people fishing or crabbing. And birds.
Soon, I’ve followed Highway 73, curving right toward Winnie. That’s where I get off the highway (which continues on to Houston, and joins Interstate 10. Once at Winnie, I take a left and head south, through Seabreeze and lots of pastures. Soon, I’m crossing a bridge over the Intracoastal Canal, and then I’m in High Island. The high point of High Island allows you to look up and see the Gulf of Mexico, straight ahead. Slowing down past a fruit and vegetable stand that always has treats, I curve right, and then it’s the home stretch.
If I roll the window down, I can hear the Gulf, smell the salt air, and hear the seagulls that whirl overhead. Not too far out, there’s an oil platform. Just a few years ago, this area was devastated by Hurricane Ike. Now it looks so much better. The dunes are re-established, and while the beach road is closer to the Gulf than it was before, the road no longer appears in danger of washing out. Not now, not yet, anyway. There are trucks and cars on the beach, with canopies sheltering people who are there to swim and fish. Saltwater poles are stuck in the sand and the lines arc out into the surf.
Soon the houses appear to the left and right of the road. Bolivar Peninsula is rather narrow here, certainly narrower than it used to be. Visible to the left — the Gulf of Mexico. To the right is the Intracoastal Canal and then the bay. Single houses are on either side at first, but then the land widens and small communities of beach homes cluster off to the left and the right. Beachside and bayside homes, in summer colors, pastel and bright, announce that Hurricane Ike might have done a lot of damage, but it didn’t destroy this area.
Traffic slows from 60 MPH to 45 and then 40 as I approach and then cross Rollover Pass, the area cutting between the Gulf and the bay. Great for fishing, this cut-through effectively renders the rest of Boliver Peninsula a virtual island. Lots of people already line Rollover Pass, their fishing poles busily pulling in fish. It looks like a good day.
Once past the Pass, traffic speeds up again, and I pass through small communities like Caplen. The Peninsula’s water plant is on my right, and by the time I see the sign for Lafitte’s Landing and then Copacabana Beach, I know it’s almost time to turn off on the road to my destination.
Just to the right is Stingaree Road (North), and a flashing light, and I move to the center, come to a stop, and have my left blinker on. As soon as traffic allows, I turn left onto our road and then I slow down, take a sharp right, and park under my house.
Two hours, door to door, with no stops. I’ve sung along with the Dixie Chicks, The Civil Wars, and any number of different artists on The Return of the Grievous Angel, a tribute album for the late Gram Parsons.
I’ll be here for a week, probably. Right now my friend Donna is here for the weekend. We ate at a local place, the Tiki Bar and Grill. As I turned into its parking lot, a small plane was landing in the pasture just beyond. This is the place to be on a Friday night, clearly.
I love to drive, and this short two-hour drive has taken me into a different state — Texas, to be sure, but also just a different state of being. It’s Jimmy Buffet territory. Beach time. Summer music.
For years, after my grandmother and her husband sold Adair’s Hyannis Port, she rented beach houses here in Crystal Beach. Sometimes, she’d just come down from Beaumont for the day to go fishing or crabbing off one of the piers right after the turnoff from High Island onto Highway 87.
I’m not sure when it happened, but Highway 87, the actual beach road, is now named for Jane Long, a woman famous in Texas history. Sometimes, oldtimers in the mid-20th century said that if the surf rolled out far enough in the Gulf, it was possible to see the remains of old Indian settlements. Galveston Island once was home to Jean Lafitte for a while.
Like the other communities on Boliver Peninsula, Crystal Beach is a family-oriented area. Weekends, the beach is flooded with day-trippers from Beaumont and the Golden Triangle area. During the week, though, it’s just us locals and homeowners, and those who rent for a week. This is very laid-back, not very high-powered, though there are larger and far more expensive beach houses now. The post-Hurricane Ike building is surprising.
On Boliver, dotted between some communities and houses, you still see cattle. This is a bird sanctuary area, too, or used to be before Hurricane Ike.
For my week here, I have two pairs of shorts, a few tops, a swimming suit, and two pairs of cotton pants. Flip-flops. One pair of beach sandals. THere’s one big grocery store, known as Gulf Coast Market and now as The Big Store. You can get anything from gourmet cheeses to plumbing items. It’s one of my favorite places just to wander in. We’re also happy to have a Dollar Store now. We’re easy to satisfy. There’s a lumber yard. There are a variety of businesses. Also a number of bars and places to eat.
If you need more choices, you have to go onto the island. Krogers, Target, Home Depot, Walmart –those are in Galveston. Also Pier One.
Galveston is tourist territory. Moody Gardens, Schlitterbahn. The seawall along the Gulf. Or the Strand near the bay. Tourists wander everywhere. There might be a cruise ship docked, and those passengers might be wandering around too.
For people interested in history, this is the place to study the great storm of 1900, the hurricane that killed an estimated 5000-8000 people. No-one really knows how many died. Read Isaac’s Storm before you come; and when you’re here, take time to look for the film on the hurricane, shown on the bayside near the Strand. It’s chilling.
Along the Gulf Coast we mark our summers and falls by hurricanes, named ones. It’s just a fact of life here.
The beach house I’m sitting in is new. My sister and I rebuilt last year, on the land where there was a fishing camp. I bought it in 1997, and after Hurricane Ike, all I had left was a broken slab and one Christmas ornament, an angel. Its wing was chipped, but it survived where nothing else did. It’s not Christmas, of course, but that ornament sits on a table in the living room. It has meaning for me.
We rebuilt. Others did too. This is an area of survivors. And we know to enjoy what we have, while we have it.
Tomorrow, I think we’ll head to the ferry, get in line and take one of the ferries across to Galveston.
For now, though, I think I’ll finish my glass of wine and maybe sit on the deck for a while. If the mosquitoes let me.
I’ve traveled only two hours, but into a very different zone. It’s time to kick back and enjoy.
As Jimmy Buffet notes, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.” Absolutely.