Texas Traveler hadn't been to the Texas Coast since last summer, a month or two before Ike hit. We'd seen the footage and heard the stories -- it was just too depressing to imagine our favorite beaches covered with debris. So we waited. We waited nine months, and then we couldn't wait any more. The beach was calling, like a Siren, and the only thing to do was listen.
Bolivar Peninsula beaches are a kinder, gentler version of Galveston. The towns are quieter, and there are l laws about driving on the beach, bringing pets or building campfires.
The ride to Bolivar is boring, no matter which way you go. But if you head east on I-10, exit on FM-562 and head south, you'll drive right by a large national park, the Anahauc National Wildlife Refuge, 34,000 acres of marshland along the Texas Coastal Birding Trail. The park features various boardwalks where birders can catch a view of the species who nest there. There are also boat ramps and hunting in some area of the park. During our visit, a family of five was fishing for blue crab.
Like much of the area, Anahuac NWR was hit hard by Ike. Piles of debris line the road leading into the park, not just tree limbs, but building materials and bits of metal crumpled like scrap paper. The visitor's center at the entrance to the park seemed oddly quiet for a Sunday. We soon realized why. The entire back half, the side that faces the coast, was shorn away by the storm's winds. Park volunteers now work out of a small portable building.
Stacey Stegall has been a volunteer at the park for two years. She's a herpetologist, and she's been taking pictures of gator tracks at the refuge. The city of Anahuac, just a few miles north of the park, is the Alligator Capitol of Texas, the site of Gatorfest each fall.
"The gators are just starting to come back," Stegall said. "They're small, but they're coming back."
She tells us other animals call the park home too. Bobcats, river otters, lots of different snakes. On a whiteboard outside the portable there is a list of unusual bird sightings and dates. Underneath the last entry a jokester has written "Mexican bottom -- 5-31-09".
From Anahuac it's a short drive to High Island, gateway to the Bolivar. If Galveston complains about media neglect in the wake of the storm, smaller communities like High Island and Crystal Beach must feel virtually invisible. High Island was home to only 450 people before Ike, but now there are almost no buildings. The only remnants of former beach homes are plywood signs spray-painted with addresses along the coastal road.
But plenty of people line the beach, donning Confederate flag bikinis and riding 4-wheelers through the sand. We have a friend who calls the Bolivar the Redneck Riviera. On this day the water looks decidedly less brown, and the closer we get to Crystal Beach, where rebuilding had begun in earnest, the more we want to go swimming.
We find a nice place to park in the sand, and as we're setting up our beach chairs we notice a hissing sound. A LOUD hissing sound. A quick walk around the car reveals a huge nail sticking out of one of the tires. And the sand is no place to change a flat.
By the time we find a still-closed Chevron, switch out the spare and make it back to the beach, the sun is beginning to set. Swimming in the water no longer sounds like fun. If nails and glass and broken bits of lives are scattered all over the sand, who knows what's hiding in the water.
The stilt houses may be gone, but the entire area is home to Texas history that the 1900 storm, Hurricane Carla, and even Ike couldn't wash away. The El Orcoquisac Archeological District, a Spanish outpost built in the 1700s, is just north of Anahuac on I-10. And on the western end of the peninsula is Fort Travis, birth place of the first gringa in Texas. You can fish from the rocks and camp on the beach, or rent a cabana for $25, but you should call ahead to make sure the park is open (409-934-8100).
For dinner we head to the one place we know will make us feel better, Stingaree. It's the weekend of the Stingaree Music Festival and Texas Crab Festival, so they don't have much crab left, but we order fried softshell, and devour it while watching barges pass by in the inter-coastal waterway. A couple of Stingaritas (rocks with salt) and soon the flat tire is a distant memory.
What's for dinner?