Baby, It's Muggy Outside: An Ode to the Gulf Coast and Its Weather in the Dead of Winter
Toward the end of last summer, I was standing in the Atlantic waters off New Jersey. I was cold. The temperature outside was hovering in the upper 70s and the water was colder than that. The coastline of New Jersey, with its long, raised boardwalks and bell-ringing ice cream vendors, was pleasant and I enjoyed bobbing up and down in the chilly water, but it wasn't home. In the movie Scrooged, Bill Murray's Scrooge character, Frank Cross, in the final climactic scene, kisses a scantily clad dancer under a tuft of mistletoe. Afterward, he says it was good but not great. "There's only been one great," he mused, describing his long lost first love.
For a kid like me who grew up in the silty waters of Galveston Bay, the cool breezes of the Jersey Shore and the waters of the Atlantic were good, not great. There is still only one great and it's the Gulf of Mexico.
For years, I've tried to explain the pull of the briny, murky waters off the coast of Texas, never mind the heat and humidity of Houston, to little avail. But during the last week of sub-freezing overnight temperatures in Houston, something so foreign to us it hasn't happened to this degree (pun intended) in three years, I began to pine away for that dusky bathwater down Interstate 45.
Growing up, I spent many summer days swimming in the sun in Galveston and along the Texas coast. But, more significant, my father and I, up well before dawn, would trek to those same waters to fish for redfish, trout, flounder and all manner of Gulf fish I now eat far more often than I catch. Sometimes, particularly during flounder season, we would be a bit cold sitting there at Seawolf Park with the other diehards, but we never had to shovel snow or cut holes in the ice. We never had to deal with a "polar vortex" or wear layers of clothes to make certain we didn't die from hypothermia.
That's the thing about our brand of heat. You can live with it. Sure, it's uncomfortable. No one likes to begin sweating the moment he opens a door to the outside. But unless you're stuck out in the middle of nowhere without water, it's not going to kill you. Not like the cold. Not like the snow. Not even like the desert.
Yes, even the humidity feels like a friend to me. When I was in Wyoming in 2012 for a wedding, I hiked along a beautiful crater lake. The guide explained to me that the humidity at that altitude -- around 8,000 feet -- was 7 percent. I asked him to repeat that for me because I was unaware such a thing existed. When I got back to the hotel, I took a hot shower and let the steam build up in the room, hoping to approximate my hometown climate, where the humidity is routinely 10 times that of Wyoming.
In these climates, you have to be prepared. Don't drink a LOT of water and you'll get dehydrated quickly, even if you are acclimated. The only thing that might kill you along the Gulf Coast is not drinking enough margaritas, the only frozen thing I really want near me on a regular basis.
I was once told that in northern and some midwestern states, it wasn't just advisable to carry an emergency winter kit in your car, it was life saving. From blankets to flares to extra gasoline, it could keep you alive if your car broke down out on a wintry farm road during a blizzard. Just recently, I was looking through photos taken by my wife's uncle on a trip he and his wife took across Africa in the 1970s, their Range Rover loaded down with metal cans of gasoline. For them, the threat was death by lion, but somehow, I find that preferable to the cold.
Maybe my blood is too thin, done in by my life in the balmy humidity of the Gulf Coast. Maybe, unlike when I was a child and fantasized about playing in the snow, I just don't have the energy I once had for cold, wintry weather. Maybe it's the swimming pool that sits idle in my back yard while I wait for it to warm up. But, I'm already tired of whatever it is that passes for winter in Houston, nevermind the mid 20-degree weather we saw this week.
I'm ready to roll down the windows, drive towards the coast and breathe in that thick, salty air. I'm ready for days when the temperature and relative humidity numbers are remarkably similar. I'm sure by late August, I'll be dreaming of temperatures in the '60s, but for now, give me and 85. I'm ready...and it's only January.
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