The Gulf of Mexico
On a lark, I decided to bicycle the entirety of the Texas Gulf Coast from the Mexico border to Galveston, TX near the Louisiana border. The route includes some 650 km of national seashore, national and state parks, birding trails, sleepy beach towns, and more. I’ve been interested in seeing this part of the state since I moved here and this seemed like a great way to do it.
A good friend of mine agreed to drive me down to South Padre Island to begin the tour. Sadly, bicycles are not allowed on the Queen Isabella Causeway so I was forced to begin the tour on the main land. I ended up beginning at the lighthouse in Port Isabel, TX early one morning.
South Padre Island, for what it’s worth, is a nice enough beach town. It was difficult to get a good feel for the place since I happened to arrive on Easter weekend. It’s a popular weekend for many Mexican Nationals to come up to the US, stay on the island in it’s many hotels, and simply party non-stop. I know that South Padre Island is somewhat of a tourist trap but it wouldn’t be fair to judge it based on what was going on that weekend. There were roving bands of one to two dozen Mexicans at a time, singing at the top of their lungs. It seemed no one slept. I wasn’t able to do so myself until well after 0100.
The ride from Port Isabel to Rio Hondo saw me and Mook meander along the coast to pass through Laguna Vista then turn inland to skirt the edge of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Eventually the road deposited us in the tiny speck that is Rio Hondo. Fire ants, as well as several other kinds, made wild camping… difficult. With a complete lack of motels I eventually decided to inquire about camping behind the local fire station. It was in a municipal park of sorts, was lit up and unlocked, but completely vacant. In this case it seemed that asking for forgiveness might be easier than asking for permission so we set up camp behind the station.
It didn’t take more than a couple hours for one of the three local police officers to show up, scratching his head, inquiring what on earth I was doing camping behind the fire station and doing my laundry. He was actually really nice about it and after some explanation agreed I could stay as long as I was leaving in the morning. He even explained where his office was, where the public restrooms were, and encouraged me to come ask if there was anything that I needed.
That would have been enough, but more surprises were in store that night.
At about 0400, Mook decided it was reasonable to attempt a capture of some random furry animal by passing directly through the walls of our tent. Five or six holes in the main tent enclosure and a broken main pole later and we finally got back to sleep. Luckily I had a tent pole splint and duct tape with me.
Hitting the road at sunrise, we made our way toward Raymondville. The ride was utterly uneventful. As you move inland in South Texas the surroundings morph into endless miles of corn fields and wind mill farms. Not necessarily awful things to behold, but fairly mind numbing to bicycle through for six to eight hours.
Raymondville is one of many nondescript South Texas towns. The fact that it boasts both a Walmart and an H-E-B is about all there is to say. Thankfully the hotels were nice enough and the people were very friendly. Mook and I holed up for two days in order to log some hours for my employer. This also offered a good opportunity to clean and repack all my gear and attempt to sew up the newly acquired ventilation holes in my tent.
Raymondville to Kingsville was one of a couple long hauls with no provisions on this tour. A 120 km slog across the King Ranch to reach Kingsville and any hope of fresh water and food. The King Ranch is one of the largest ranches in the world, claiming some 3,340 square kilometers and boasting excellent bird watching, pecan farming, cattle ranching (of course), and more. Thankfully there was a reasonable tail wind, fresh pavement, and an overcast sky so we made this leg without too much difficulty. Kingsville might as well have been Raymondville though for all it’s uniqueness.
Kingsville to Mustang Island State Park proved to be one of the more trying days.
I was witness to a hit and run and held a beautiful but fatally wounded female pit bull in my arms as she died on a nameless country road. Finally rousing the owner I was told with utter lack of compassion to “leave it in the ditch”. It! I left thinking perhaps the dog was better off this way.
Turning southeast towards Corpus Christi I began mortal combat with the endless gulf coast wind. This continued for the rest of the day through league after league of monotonous, mind numbing corn fields. This time of year the winds vary from 25 to 40 km/h and never stop. Not for one moment.
After the stress of dealing with the canine death, then hours of battling wind and monotony, I was required to cross the John F Kennedy Memorial Causeway in Corpus Christi. It isn’t exactly illegal to cross the causeway on a bicycle… but it’s about as crazy as a soup sandwich. The shoulder is approximately a half meter wide and the automobiles (mostly large trucks in Texas) are doing well over 100 km/h. Let’s just say I was relieved to exit the causeway and enter North Padre Island.
Reaching Mustang Island State Park after the office was closed I found myself a camp site on the beach. The wind here was just as bad as anywhere and simply setting up a tent that wasnt going to fly away within 30 seconds was a task in itself. Within minutes all of my gear was covered in sand. Keeping it out of the tent was a laughable notion. It was too windy to cook any food. In the end I simply gave up, climbed inside my tent, and slept in a pile of sand without a sleeping pad or bag. The endless wind howled all night long.
As with all things however, this too shall pass.
The next morning made up for all. For a couple hours in the early morning, as the temperature differential of the ocean and land equalize, the wind dies down to a few km/h and the sun begins it’s ascent over the Gulf of Mexico. It was serene and otherworldly. I paid my dues at the park office and continued my journey.
We made the short 23 km ride up the island to Port Aransas and the safe haven of the Coffee Wave. Life became downright enjoyable sipping an iced latte on the patio, smelling the ocean breeze, and doing some video conferencing. After that we checked into the Plantation Suites hotel with some serious laundry intentions. They even provided me with two beers and a pool towel upon checkin.
Leaving Port Aransas we continued toward Port Lavaca by way of Aransas Pass and Rockport. Stopping to resupply, I met some really nice DEA agents collecting old medications outside the H-E-B. They were super awesome people and we spent a good deal of time chatting about everything from dogs to airplanes to ultra-marathons. It is one of the true pleasures of bicycle touring to meet interesting people from all the various walks of life.
With the exception of Rockport, another sleepy beach town on the ocean, Aransas Pass to Port Lavaca was another stretch of South Texas nothingness. I met engaging people at the gas station in Tivoli. I was offered money for the first time as a bicycle tourist. After that the wind shifted and I battled more brutal headwinds for 35 km until reaching Port Lavaca. The bar and grill next door to the hotel was staffed by people who actually knew how to make a cocktail though and the mahi-mahi was the best I have ever had. It was a good end to a hard day of pedaling.
Leaving Port Lavaca across the Lavaca Bay Causeway was the beginning of what I call the ‘Chemical Coast’. There are a high number of Dow Chemical factories, oil refineries, and even a nuclear power plant located in this area of the state. The cycling was good enough but no one lives here so there were many more miles of nothingness. Who would want to? I’m not even sure the air is safe to breathe there.
And there was always the wind. The malevolent, inexorable wind.
Bay City to Freeport saw the daily high temperature climb to about 34C with no respite from the wind or the smelly, ugly, industrialized landscape. Staying hydrated became a problem. Leaving Freeport though, finally, I was back on a scenic barrier island with cooler temperatures and a laid back life style.
Outside Bay City, on another stretch of nothing called Texas Highway 35, I encountered a man walking against traffic on the shoulder. Perhaps thirty with a fully loaded hiking backpack, wearing a bandana and sunglasses.
“Just walking, are ya?” I asked.
“Yep.” he replied.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t even know, man.”
That was it. He didnt slow down to talk. There is an interesting story there, I’m sure, but I will never know it. He was going his way and I was going mine.
Entering Galveston Island at Surfside Beach we turned into the wind again and made the slow, painful crawl up the island toward Galveston proper. In total it took nearly 10 hours to cover just 80 km. My GPS reported an average moving speed of just 12 km/h.
I had hilarious tan lines at this point. You have two choices of SPF in this part of the country; 70 or 100. Being as white as they come I’d been wearing 100 for days and I had still gotten quite dark in places.
I spent a couple days recuperating in Galveston and reflecting on the tour. Above all I think this tour taught me flexibility and persistence. Never was I entirely certain how far I would get in a day, nor where exactly I would be sleeping that night. The wind never stopped and there was nothing I could do about it. Just keep putting one pedal in front the other. Eventually you will get there.
I met friendly people. I saw a few really beautiful and interesting places in a way you simply cannot experience by automobile. While I will probably never tour this part of Texas again, I will definitely be back to the sleepy beach towns that give the Texas coast their character.
Save an iced latte for me.