A cosmic hippo bounds unhurried and deliberate throughout air-conditioned inner space, dancing to sliding passages of fretless bass and well-timed banjo. It keeps us amused while I guide our packed-to-the-ceiling van the last twenty-five miles of the trip. Individual beachfront houses slowly give way to the rolling dunes of Padre Island as we crest the viaduct over Laguna Madre. Ali notes a lack of colorful windsurfers that typically dot the shallow bay. Only white-capped ripplets carpet the stretch of open water as a stiff warm breeze buffets our progress.
It’s too early for the tourist season. At the entrance to the national seashore, a deserted booth greets us. Set in the center of a winding two-lane blacktop, it echoes this lonesome truth, so we sail pass by the hut unchallenged.
Covering the next few miles of curves as solitary travelers, all noses but mine press tight against glass windows, searching for the first glimpse of cresting waves. Most of the dunes on the barrier island lay hidden under thick grasses, bent hard toward the mainland by constant caresses of off-shore currents of air. In spots, little rivulets of sand blow across the roadway in front of us, snaking over the black surface as they scurry to the landward side.
“Just up ahead. Keep an eye out, kids.”
“Look over there! I want to go climb that one, dad.”
Ali leans forward in her seat.
“There’s the entrance, right around that curve. I see the ocean! I saw it first!”
Bumping through a rough cut in the dunes, we stop the van to view our surroundings. Not a car in sight. No people anywhere. Farther down the beach a slight haze envelopes the southern vanishing point . To the north some distance away a lone pavilion glistens in the sun. A few gulls stand watch close to the water. Far out to sea, a long strip of dark clouds hug the horizon. Above our heads, the sky looks empty and clear.
“This is perfect! What do you say we go find us a campsite?”
Cheers go up, so the van inches forward while the Flecktones continue to play jazz.
To our right lay low hills of the ever-changing dunes. Ahead of us, a hard-packed road leads to the south end of the island, some eighty miles away. Ever an eye to explore, I set us in that direction.
“You just passed a good spot. Isn’t that about where we camped before?”
“I don’t think so. These dunes look way too small here. Let’s keep going awhile.”
Joel with his eagle vision then informs me from the back seat,
“Look, dad. More seaweed.”
Piled almost a foot high, a familiar yellow-brown tangle of gulfweed lays in a continual band between us and the surf.
“Now, that’s pretty odd. It looks like the same stuff we saw up at Galveston.”
David laments from the way-back seat.
“I want to get out.”
A mile later we spy a pickup with a camper off in the distance. Several miles past we see another, parked close to the small hills of over-grown dunes. Eight miles beyond we count three more such vehicles before turning around to head back. No giant dunes are sighted. The piled seaweed goes on unending, and I voice my disappointment.
“This is so different.”
Alicia reminds me,
“It’s been a few years, dear.”
Choosing a clean site nearer the pavilion, we stop in the evening shade of a scrub-covered dune to set up our tents. A dome for us and a dome for the boys won’t take long, but corralling them to help can wait while they do some quick exploring. The wind yanks hard at my door as I get out. Loose papers fly out of Ali’s door and the fun begins. For the next thirty minutes she and I manhandle our tent while I curse the incessant wind.
“This is ridiculous! Hold that edge while I dig deeper holes for sand anchors.”
Before the kids get too far I yell to them.
“Joel! Get over here and help you mother hold the tent. Eli, hand me some empty soda cans. David, you take this bucket down to the beach and fill it half-way with water. All you can carry. And hurry! Go!”
Eli holds on to his hat.
“Eli, you and Joel sit on the edge over there. Where is that ball of cord? And the scissors -- find the scissors!”
Burying soda cans packed with wet sand works as efficient anchors to keep the tent from blowing away. This baby is going nowhere, I think. The end result looks suspicious, though.
“What is with this damn wind anyway? I don’t remember it ever being this strong.”
I stand back to catch my breath, and then we all stand huddled close to the leeward side of the van and stare. Our dome tent pulls hard against heavy nylon tie-downs that disappear into the sand. The relentless wind suddenly caves in one side of the tent. The strain is just too much, but yet the tent refuses to fly off.
David pipes up next.
“It looks like a banana, dad.”
The nylon siding snaps and pops, but the tent maintains its preposterously concave shape. Ali moans.
“We can’t sleep in that. What are we going to do?”
I go to close the rear hatch on the van.
“One thing we are going to do is find a shovel. Will you look at the sand that has piled up in here!”
Rolled sleeping bags and loose shoes are hastily removed and shook, and then just as hurriedly thrown back in. I slam the lid to announce,
“We are getting a motel for tonight. Tomorrow will be a better day.”
“What about the tent? Won’t somebody steal it? What if the wind rips it up?”
I glare at wind-whipped old banana.
“I don’t care. Let’s get out of here.”
Back toward town and right at dusk we find the first place with a vacancy sign lit up, so we take it.
Seedy and run-down, the motel is at least close to the beach plus it’s windless inside. A hot shower sounds promising too. Ali runs in to fie the paperwork while the boys and I sit silent in the rocking van to wait.
She returns with bad news.
“I got bad news.”
“What? No rooms?”
“No, I got us a room.”
She shows me a key.
“The man said the weather has been like this for a week now. I asked him if it was supposed to clear up, and he said it’s expected to be like this for another week. Some big storm out in the Gulf is causing all of this.”
And she slams her door shut.
“Have I got some beer?”
“Yes, but it’s not in the cooler yet. I can get you some ice, but where’s the machine located, I wonder?”
A few sandy suitcases get hauled in to the room.
“Not on the bed. Not on the bed!”
Eli calls out from inside the bathroom.
“Dad, there are no towels.”
“Joel, go to the front desk and ask for some fresh towels.”
The water goes on in the shower.
“Dad, where is the soap at?”
I call Joel back and give him more instructions. Ali returns empty-handed and mad.
“There’s no ice! What kind of place is this?”
David sits in a chair, swinging his legs and grinning.
“Mom, it’s the Bates Motel.”
“Okay. Where is the remote for the TV?”
I take two beers and go outside for a cigarette. It’s been a day worth contemplating.
A young man opens his door two rooms down. Light spills out onto the sidewalk where he stops to stretch. Noticing me, he comes to borrow a smoke. I offer him a hot beer which he gladly takes. He works here, he tells me as he squats down beside me, and we discuss the situation with the weather. He bums two more cigarettes as I crush my can and get up to go inside. No remote still, so another trip to the office. I soon fall into a dreamless sleep while Ali and the kids watch the flickering images on the tube.
Ali shakes me awake next.
“The wind has stopped! The wind has stopped!”
The wind always stops blowing during the night, but I don’t say anything. We go back to town to find a restaurant after checking out, and we have breakfast. Anything loose outside flutters and flaps by the time we are done, but it’s a new day, so we return to Malaquite to enjoy it as much as possible.
“They didn’t take our tent!”
“Who would want an old banana tent?” I ask.
I am ready to leave as soon as we arrive, but the boys need some time, so we park. David heads for the surf, and I follow while Joel and Eli speed off for the dunes. Ali sits in the van with a book, keeping one eye on us as we cavort in the waves. Ten minutes and I am done.
Ali closes her book as I walk back to join her.
“I tell you what.”
She keeps one hand tight on her beach hat as I slide in the back seat to find a snack. Finding a cold soda, I move around to the drivers’ seat. One foot on the sand, I lean the seat back before opening the can.
“Look. Why don’t I run back into town and get us all some Whataburgers for lunch, and you and the boys can stay here. David is having so much fun.”
She is right, so I take my soda and go sit on the wet beach to let waves eat at the sand beneath my bottom while David digs up the beach, looking for all the sources of tiny bubbles. The older boys return shortly, carrying driftwood poles and one sea bean.
“When are we going to build a fire, dad?”
“Why don’t you two go swim?”
Alicia returns an hour later with the goods.
We finish while gulls fly in and land close by. They stand in a loose group and watch us nervously until one of the boys pilfers the picnic basket and comes out with a loaf of bread.
“David! Want to feed seagulls?”
“Hey, you do that away from the van.”
Scores of the birds hover close above hands and laugh as bits of bread get tossed in the air. No gull gets nabbed by David, though it isn’t from a lack of trying. The beggars quickly leave us in peace when we run out of food. The boys then head off for a walk down the beach while David goes to build wet sand castles. Ali and I sit in the hot car out of the stiff breeze.
“Let’s go soon. This is too much.”
She lays down her novel.
“I know. All this planning. Who knew things would turn out so horrible?”
David yells at me.
“Dad, take me out swimming.”
He is smeared from head to toe with wet sand. A huge gob rests at the top of his head.
“Why don’t you go ahead. At least he is having the time of his life. I can wait here and read.”
I hate to say this to her, but what is the point in being miserable?
“No, let’s just go. We could stop down at the pavilion before we leave, and we can let him swim there maybe. Hey, remember the cold showers?”
We gather up the boys who don’t bother to complain, and promptly leave blustery Malaquite behind. The gang waves goodbye to the forlorn banana tent as we go past, all amazed that it still exists.
A mile down the road we find the huge parking area for the pavilion empty and wind-cleared. Parking close to the entrance, the boys take towels and run for stairs that lead up to a large veranda, and they quickly disappear around a corner. We catch up with them on the seaward side, but they are soon off down a second set of switch-back steps, heading for the beach again.
Ali and I join them, but claim one of several shaded picnic tables. Again, this section of beach is deserted except for my brood. She sets her purse and towel on the table, and lays the book aside while we talk for awhile. The boys are playing together in the waves.
“What are we going to do for the next ten days?”
“I was thinking. Why not drive on up to San Antonio, and we can stop by and see where Joel will be going to boot camp. We can stop along the way somewhere and camp if we see a good spot. You know, just take our time and see some of Texas.”
Ali is the eternal optimist.
I stand up and take off my glasses. I can hardly see through the sticky salt film anyway.
“I’m going in one last time. You coming?”
“No, you go ahead.”
I leave her to read and go to join my three sons. Just before I hit the cooler edge of the beach, a glint in the sand catches my eye. Reaching down, I pick up a tiny golden seagull, dropped there by someone. Simple and elegant, I stick the object in the pocket of my swim suit and walk on into the waves.
Two small dots some distance away now bob up and down. It’s Joel and Eli. One suddenly comes up out of the water; Eli hurls himself headlong into an on-coming wave. Joel copies his move. David lays stomach-down in several inches of water to my front, so I walk by and kick a spray of water over him. He dog-paddles in a half-circle madly as a small wave approaches, and then he jumps up to catch up to me.
“Let’s go out real far, dad.”
I tease him with tales of sharks, but I keep my eyes peeled too. After teaching him the simple art of body-surfing, I stand in water no deeper than my waist to watch him. He puffs his cheeks and sputters with the first wave, but he gets the hang of it fast. He keeps it up while I feel the sand slip from under my feet as waves recede, and then I feel something familiar. I reach into the water and grasp the object with my fingers.
“David! Check this out!”
He has almost reached the shore, but he turns over on his back and yells what.
I feel another under the other foot, so I pick it up.
“Come here quick!”
He comes running but falls down, partly on purpose. He laughs and spits a stream of salt water from his mouth while he glides into the next small breaker, and then he paddles towards me. By this time I have four more, and feel another under my big toe.
“You got to help me, Davy. Come quick. I found a whole bunch of sand dollars here.”
For the next five minutes we uncover and pick up scores of the echinoderm discs.
“How many do we get to keep, dad? Are they alive? Can they bite?”
He and I deposit our catch on the shaded table. Ali lays down her book and marvels at our find while David rests his chin close to one circular creature.
“Dad, it’s moving! Look!”
I reach in and take out the little seagull. With a smile I slide it over to my wife.
“I got you a gift. Happy anniversary.”
“Oh, wow. Oh, this is so beautiful. Where did you find this?”
Joel and Eli appear soon, eyes reddened and happy.
“You guys ready to head out?”
Eli starts to shiver.
“Where are the showers, mom?”
Ali and I exchange silent grins.
“Up the steps there is a shower in the men’s room. We’ll meet you up top.”
The pavilion she and I remember exist no longer. This newer one, sitting high on its bluff of sand, overlooks the wide expanse of the Gulf of Mexico, and serves as a final stop for fool-hardy adventurers that choose to drive the rough road to the extreme tip of North Padre Island, as well as those who only want a safe place to sit and enjoy a restful view of the sea. While unfamiliar to us both, it remains much nicer than the old one. But replacing the former spectator area that fell victim to ravages of time and weather, it yet holds a gift in store.
Alicia and I climb the flight of stairs, pausing to take one more long look over our shoulder. Then at the top of the stairs we notice a couple that occupy one of the tables in the middle of the shaded veranda. A young bearded man lays stretched out on one bench. He has a cap shading his eye. A young woman, her golden hair a mess from the wind, sits on the other side, half-turned and staring out to sea. She smiles as we walk by.
Eli comes out of the restroom, leaving wet foot prints behind. He scowls for all to see.
We seat ourselves at another table as Joel emerges from his shower with David in tow.
I toss him the keys.
“Go get the cooler, and stick some beers in it.”
“But all the ice is melted, dear.”
“Then just toss some beers in and bring it.”
The man sits up and sets his cap on backwards. We introduce ourselves. Joel returns, hauling the cooler. The four adults sit and sip on warm beers while swapping stories as the three boys check out the snack bar.
Moze, he goes by. “Me and Sara live in that first camper down the beach,” And he holds his can up and points to the south. “We been out here a month,” He tells us. “Don’t know how come we ended up in this God-forsaken place, but we just love it. Got no place else to go, anyway.”
“Yeah, he lost his job, so we packed up and moved out here on the beach, just me and him.” She snuggles close and hugs her Moze.
We tell them the story of how we met here years ago, and they offer us and our marriage a toast. “I used to pick up soda cans and sell them at the snack bar,” I tell them. “That’s one way I survived.”
“Hey, that’s a thought, Sara. Maybe we could do that.”
He finishes his beer. “That ya’lls tent down there?”
We all laugh as Ali recounts the last two days. “Say, you guys want that thing, you are welcome to it.”
Their eyes light up. “Aw, man. I am so tired of sleeping in that crowded camper. You sure you don’t need it?”
Somehow it seemed fair. We got ourselves free sand dollars, and they got themselves a free tent. Best of all, we got to share.