U.S. Islands: On Padre in Texas, Soft Sand, Shells and Seclusion

2017-06-07 08:12:03

 

U.S. Islands: On Padre in Texas, Soft Sand, Shells and Seclusion

This week’s U.S. Islands special package celebrates the charming, often dreamy life to be found off American coasts and within its lakes. Below, Jordan Breal writes about the soft sand and seclusion of Padre Island, in Texas. Kim Severson writes about Cumberland Island, Ga., full of charm but not easy to get to. The islands of Lake Champlain, in Vermont, are filled with history and legend. Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands, in Lake Superior, offer stunning sea caves and plenty of creature comforts.

Last October, a friend and I, not quite ready to let go of summer’s languor, set out from Austin to spend a long weekend on a quiet stretch of sand. Four hours later, we were speeding across the John F. Kennedy Memorial Causeway just east of Corpus Christi, leaving the Texas mainland for the string of skinny islands that parallel its coast. Below us was the Laguna Madre, the shallow, super-salty pool protected from the brunt of the Gulf’s harassments, where sea grasses and trophy-size spotted sea trout flourish. Just ahead, the scarcely visited wilds of the world’s longest barrier island.

Padre Island extends 115 miles down the Texas coast, nearly to the mouth of the Rio Grande. And though its most populous resort town, South Padre Island, is known for its thumping spring break bacchanalia, the majority of this unattached spit of land remains uncivilized in the other sense of the word. In between the modest clusters of seafood restaurants, souvenir shops, chain hotels and condos that anchor Padre’s northern and southern ends, is a stretch of feral shoreline where sand dunes are the only developments and sea turtles, ghost crabs and shorebirds the only residents.

As anyone who has traveled any distance to get to the edge of land knows, you want to see it immediately, even if it’s too late in the day to swim. So, with a mere hour of daylight left, we headed down island and didn’t slow up until we got to the park entrance station at Padre Island National Seashore.

PINS, as it’s known, runs nearly 70 miles long and welcomes only about 600,000 visitors a year. And yet, its selling points are universal in their appeal: soft white sands, a bounty of seashells, world-class windsurfing on the bay side, surf fishing robust enough to occasion an annual Sharkathon, a range of habitats that attracts more than 380 bird species, and the largest Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nesting site in the country.

And then there’s its seclusion. All but one of the park’s five named beaches are open to vehicular traffic, so if you have four-wheel drive and enough nerve, you can head miles out of range — far, far away from any facilities, cell towers or other human beings. And even if you don’t have either of those things, it’s easy enough to at least feel completely off the grid and claim your own private expanse of Padre.

That first evening, it was just us and a handful of other late-hour loiterers walking along the waterline near the Malaquite Visitor Center. I was just as enamored of the purple-flowered railroad vines that cascade over the dunes (and, in fact, hold them up) as I was by the thousands of pastel coquinas that shimmied to life every time the tide washed over their half-buried shells. Here, on pedestrians-only Closed Beach (also known as Malaquite Beach), the shore was pristine, not marred by tire tracks, but also not studded with the flawless lightning whelks and whole sand dollars that I’d heard were to be found on Little Shell and Big Shell beaches several miles south.

We walked until we got to the row of pointy pylons marking the end of Closed Beach. On the other side, trucks with multiple fishing rods lashed to their grills and S.U.V.s pulling fifth-wheelers rumbled through the sand. I wondered how many of them, if any, had made it the full 60 miles to the Port Mansfield Channel, a man-made cut that split the island into two parts when it was created in 1962, the same year President John F. Kennedy signed an order establishing the National Seashore. I wondered just how many of those 60 miles we could reasonably traverse in our two-wheel-drive rental.

The next morning, plastic foam containers filled with pastries from JB’s German Bakery and Cafe squeaked on the floorboard as we headed back to PINS. This time, we followed the park’s lone road to South Beach, where the pavement peters out but the sand is firm enough even for a sedan to navigate — for a few miles at least. At mile marker 5, we passed a stern advisory: “Warning! 4 Wheel Drive Vehicles Only. Soft Sand And Large Debris Ahead.”

Since all beaches in Texas are considered public highways and, thus, all the usual traffic laws apply, we pulled over to the shoulder, threw on the hazard lights and mulled the intelligence of continuing. We watched a Prius, about a half-mile ahead, kick up some sand, then make a slow U-turn back toward terra firma. We were already without cell service, and I’d recently heard a cautionary tale that ended with a $1,300 towing bill. We made a U-turn of our own, which I immediately regretted.

A week before, I’d called the visitors’ center to ask for some tips and was transferred to Patrick Gumman, a longtime park ranger stationed here since 2014. He told me that 90 percent of visitors only explore 10 percent of the park. Naturally, everyone heads for the beach, but PINS, which is no more than three miles across at its widest points, also has one of the largest remaining sections of protected coastal prairie.

Thanks to 200 years of cattle ranching, more than half of Padre Island has remained as undeveloped as it was when the Coahauiltecan and Karankawan tribes made camp here seasonally through the mid-1800s. In 1805, Padre José Nicolás Ballí, a Spanish priest who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, was awarded the first known land grant for the narrow strip that now bears his name. He and his nephew quickly turned the untamed grass flats into a cattle ranch, a practice that the island’s subsequent landowners found to be more lucrative than development, at least until oil and gas leases and — eventually — preservation and tourism took precedence. Not long after the National Seashore was officially dedicated in April 1968 (Lady Bird Johnson was on hand for the ceremony), the last herd was shipped back to the mainland.

Mr. Gumman suggested we trek out to the Novillo Line Camp, the last of three corrals erected by the island’s final ranching dynasty. The closer we got to the peaked-roof driftwood structure, the higher the grasses rose. I remembered the ranger’s other bit of advice: Bring a stick and keep an eye out for rattlesnakes — all three types. As we sniffed around the lean-to that once served as the kitchen, it was easy to forget we were on an island at all. The shoreline was out of sight, hidden by a high ridge of dunes, and the relatively flat, utterly treeless plains surrounding us had the same lonesome beauty as the remote backcountry of West Texas. But we could still hear the waves crashing out in the Gulf, and I couldn’t begrudge the 90 percenters for wanting to spend all of their time along the water’s edge.

That evening, we ate fried shrimp and drank Mexican beer at Snoopy’s Pier, an open-air restaurant near the causeway, and decided we couldn’t head home without making a second attempt to get at least a little farther down the island.

The next day, a Sunday, we returned to South Beach. Most of the other weekenders were heading in the opposite direction, back toward home. But the sand was still firm, as was my resolve. I rolled down the windows and turned up the norteño music on the radio. We got to the “Warning!” sign and kept going. I counted fewer tents wedged up against the dunes, and the surf fishers were farther between. The 10-mile marker came and went — hello, Little Shell Beach!

Surprisingly, the sand at Little Shell was still well packed, but the debris was getting thicker. I noticed that all the vehicles we were passing were serious rigs with aggressive tires. I begrudgingly rolled to a stop short of the 15-mile marker, lest we puncture one — or four — of our own. We continued on foot for another couple of miles. The shells were little, as advertised, but the beachcombing was like nothing I’d ever seen. Four currents converge here, which means loads of trash from around the world washes onto Padre’s midsection; only quarterly volunteer cleanups keep the place from resembling a landfill. We burned through a quick hour poking at strange things in the sand: coconuts, a Dutch prescription bottle, a refrigerator door, yogurt cups with labels in Arabic, and dozens of shoes, toothbrushes and bottles, most covered in gooseneck barnacles.

I spent so much time with my head down, scanning for shells and treasure, that I wasn’t sure how far we’d wandered. I looked back and could no longer see our sedan. I looked ahead, farther south toward Big Shell, and saw nothing but the open Gulf and the shore and the dunes. We were still 47 or 48 miles from the cut — and an additional 40 miles from the island’s end — but this was it, the quiet stretch we’d come for, our own private Padre.

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