I am a 10-year veteran, IBC Galvestonian and still eagerly exploring and bringing stories back to my chosen community to show us all how large, diverse, and exciting our own backyard can be. I am writing this from an adventure along the Texas Coast finding new stories and learning about the ways we help and hurt our environment along the way. But this is not a story of only beautiful scenery and luscious Texas vistas; this is a story of diesel exhaust, trashy highways, and polluting industry.
My daughter, dog, and truck (loaded with camping supplies) are all I have along the 832-mile, round-trip drive from Galveston to South Padre Island. We hit the highway and along the first few miles, I think about how Texas ranks #1 in road mileage of any state in the U.S. with 314,319 miles of roads crisscrossing our state. That’s a lot of asphalt, but it provides paths in almost any direction I want to go; and so through the marshes and coastal prairie we travel along with hordes of sedans and trucks that thin as we leave the Greater-Houston Area and wind our way into the wild coastline of the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS). I have memories of driving away from the South Houston area toward Galveston and watching the air becomes clear as we emerged from a fog of pollution; I am grateful for the coastal breeze creating about 20 miles of clear air between me and polluted air from industry and transportation.
We arrive in PINS and promptly lose cell phone reception as we travel just part of the 70 miles along the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. Idyllic warm beaches, clear waters, constant sea breezes, hyper-saline lagoons, sea turtle nests, and rolling prairies encourage us to think about how it felt to be an American Indian or Spanish explorer discovering this haven. It’s hard to not compare this beach with our own, and find ours lacking due to tourism, erosion, port industry, and particulates in the currents from the merging Gulf of Mexico with the Mississippi Delta flow past our beaches and muddy our waters. The Galveston Bay Report Card and the many scientists working to monitor our waters are doing a great job, but this water and beach further south on the Texas coast are breathtaking. I stand in knee-deep water along with a collection of other travelers, all of us marveling at our toes wiggling in the clear water below and find myself sharing this knowledge about particulates, report cards, and conservation efforts with Texans that only know Galveston as a “kind-of dirty city with a brown beach and nice downtown”. Feeling I have vindicated Galveston, we packed camp wishing other travelers well and head to South Padre Island to discover the vast differences human habitation can make from one island to another.
Driving the first four miles of South Padre reveal the tourism of parasailing, riding surreys, dolphin tours, and an explosion of hotels with garish neon lights every 30 feet but no beaches in sight. Undeterred by the gross advertisements and street trash, we make our way to Sea Turtle Inc. and are utterly impressed when we learn about their sea turtle rescue, rehabilitation, and education efforts.
On the road again, we head NE to Galveston travelling with a troop of work vans, 18-wheelers, and an army of pickup trucks - a cloud of exhaust trailing behind.
Our last leg took us straight through the largest chemical complex in the Western Hemisphere in Freeport which is rather soul crushing if you are looking to enjoy Texas nature and scenery. Before we could get one last glimpse of the coast traveling east toward the San Luis bridge and home to Galveston, we had to endure a teeming city of pipes, stacks, tanks, and the legion of plant workers keeping it all going. I wonder if this is one of the sources of the small, round, plastic balls (aka Nurdles) that we find by the thousands in our waters?
Our journey showed us the diversity of our coast from perfect isolation and natural environments to crushing tourism and industry. And that was just one path which makes me wonder what direction we should go next and where your path might take you. Would we be awed by a different type of natural beauty, meet travelers with insights and adventures, encounter wildlife? Would we also find trashy cities, ignorant people, rehabilitation centers, and crawling industrial complexes? I’d like to think that Galveston and our community is always working toward a sustainable balance with sanctuaries for all types of people. I hope you travel widely, explore wildly, and become an ambassador of Galveston to other Texans and the world.