Saturday, December 20, 2008

National Landfill

Photo taken during our visit in Spring of 1979

As we looked out along the moon’s pathway to the Gulf’s horizon, we could see the multiple silhouettes of oil rig platforms anchored to the sea. We were camping on Padre Island along the Texas Gulf coast in 1979.
We wanted to take a few days to explore Padre Island National Seashore, and it looked as though everyone just drove out onto the beach with their rig and camped wherever the wind blew. We only paid $4,000 for our Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser (largest frame automobile every built) and a 28 ft. Avion Travel Trailer, but it happened to be the only thing in the whole world we owned. So it was going to take a lot of convincing to get me to drive it out on some beach and sacrifice it to the sand dollar gods. But after a day of walking the beach and witnessing other fools with $100,000 rigs along the shore, we decided to go for it. The secret was to stay on the hard-packed sand and out of the water. By evening we were five miles down the beach, parked near a calm sea, within eyesight of others who looked as though they too would spend the night. Was this sucking the juice out of life or what? Sipping wine with our feet in the waves and our hind-ends in the warm Gulf sand. Not a worry in the world, and our only responsibility was to make sure we didn’t track too much sand into the trailer. It was an incredibly beautiful beach. For miles we had walked and discovered something new with every step. Gaila and I both agreed it was the most beautiful beach we had yet discovered along the Gulf coast. The calm evening was a perfect end to a perfect day, and we went to sleep lulled by the rhythmic sounds of the Gulf’s water ending its journey just yards away.
We were rudely awakened at midnight by Mother Nature in a rage. The wind shook the trailer in violent gusts. I can only compare it to the bombers in movies about World War II as they took flack from heavy, land-based guns. The wind-driven rain was well past the drop stage. It was as though we were parked under Niagara Falls. I jumped out of the trailer to put the fiberglass window awnings down, but the wind and rain were so ferocious, I could not keep my eyes dry enough to see. I left the awnings and went back into the trailer soaked to the bone. Then in an instant of horror I began to wonder if the tide was in or out when I parked. Did everybody else leave after dark? Is this some kind of spring hurricane? I raced back out into the storm and worked my way to both ends of the rig, trying to focus up and down the beach in search of another rig and a little assurance that we were not the only fools left out here to be flushed into the Gulf of Mexico. I could not see ten feet in either direction. The water’s edge was much closer, but perhaps it was just the storm and not the rising tide. I went back into the trailer and we rode out the storm without another wink of sleep until dawn broke in a eerie calm that made the whole episode seem like only a bad dream. I made some coffee and we walked down the beach. In the distance I could see that there were a few rigs still on the beach, but the storm had thinned out the smart and the timid. It had also transformed our beautiful pristine beach into a common landfill. Along this sand-strewn stretch that just yesterday held only nature’s treasures, today would yield anything one would hope to find in any landfill. The storm had rooted up, from the bowels of the Gulf, debris of every type and laid it out for a hundred miles in a display of natural decadence. Our feet became heavy and our pace slow, not only from despair, but from the fact that our shoes had become caked with a thick black tar that was compacted in yesterday’s pure virgin sand. We had seen enough and decided to cut our Padre Island visit short and head further west.
We pulled up off the beach, and it felt good to be back on hard ground again. I was never much of a sailor and, after a night of standing watch against the waves breaking up against my land yacht, I was a born-again land-lover.
An hour out of Corpus Cristi on Highway 441 I was about to rethink that status.
We passed through Alice, Texas, and it was 110 degrees in the shade—had there been any shade! I had seen plenty of pickup trucks with rifles in the back windows. In fact, I thought General Motors and Ford had made it a standard feature on pickups shipped to Texas. An option would have been a fishing pole in place of the rifle. In the middle of my gun thoughts, I heard one go off. It turned out to be a Michigan trailer tire that just couldn’t take Texas heat. It blew the rubber right off the inside of the tire. Our trailer was a 28-foot, 1963 Avion. In 1963 they could make a 28-foot trailer with one axle, and that’s exactly what they did when they built ours. To keep the wheel from hitting the ground in case of a flat tire, they installed an axle guard. This was a small piece of angle iron that attached to the trailer axle and hung lower than the wheel. It worked like a skid to protect the wheel—which was great unless you were in Alice, Texas and the asphalt road was as soft as warm margarine! By the time I got that rig stopped, we had cut a slice in the heart of Texas 50 yards long. Figuring they still hung people for less than road destruction, I wanted to get that tire changed and put Alice in the rearview mirror just as quickly as possible.
I was in such a hurry I forgot to unhook the equalizing hitch that distributes the weight between the car and trailer. I couldn’t seem to get the trailer tire jacked up off the ground. Sweating like a thief in church I soon discovered my error and released the hitch. At the same moment a 1963 Chevy low-rider sped by, noticed my dilemma and turned around to offer help. The kid in the Chevy turned out to be a nice Alician who wanted to help me. It was a small town. I imagined his dad was the road commissioner and I would soon be on a chain gang patching Texas back roads.
I never went back to see but I assume it gets so hot in Texas the road eventually melts back into place—just as my tire tracks along Padre Island melt into the sand.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

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