Everyone in Houston knows about Galveston. The city sits on an island of the same name, surrounded by very shallow waters. Sand and sediment mixed with runoff from the bayous and storm drains of Houston turn the nearby sea into a “dirty” brown. The Mississippi river, closer to New Orleans than anywhere else, releases silt right in Galveston’s direction. However, neither the city nor island is ugly, not by a long shot. Galveston is cozy in the daylight, but it is also loud, shiny, hot and crowded.
The sun, traffic and crowds made me travel to Galveston at night four years ago. I wanted a quick escape from downtown Houston and simply realized nothing could stop me at midnight. I discovered that Galveston at 2 a.m. is the poor man’s private island. The older I get, the more often I visit (at least two trips each summer). Orchestrating a late-night visit with Houston friends is nearly impossible; everyone else is usually out of state or in some far off part of Texas. This is a journey I take solo.
On my most recent trip, I stuffed a tote bag with essentials, grabbed a tarp and shovel, threw it all in my car and drove off at midnight. The drive is an hour from Houston, but at the time I was near Hempstead, 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
Tiny changes in the landscape became apparent the closer I drove to Galveston. Twenty miles past downtown Houston — after more than an hour of driving — the wind got cold and salty. Another 20 miles later, the sides of the road became pitch black salt marshes. Houses on stilts, fishing boats and the bay replaced the marshes just before I reached the two-mile bridge to the island.
For those who haven’t traveled to Galveston by car, the bridge, with its wavy concrete divider, is like a warning. The concrete crests and troughs are meant to mimic the ocean tides. Anyone who dares to look is guaranteed motion sickness. I crossed the bridge at 2 a.m. The island is 27 miles long but only a few miles wide at its thickest. The drive from the bridge to the beach is three miles, with rows of Victorian era buildings, pink wooden houses, gas stations and modern convenience stores peppering the way. I reached the end of the road to a two-way street that followed the seawall, a 10 foot drop of concrete before the sand.
Light fluffy clouds hung low to the ground that night. The moon was not in sight. Neon purple, green and red lights ran along the towering hotels across from the bay and the boardwalk. The beach looked empty. I picked a random spot to park (impossible during the day), grabbed my gear, hopped down the seawall and started walking about. My goal, as I looked around the beach, was to find something interesting. On certain visits I’ve found lost sunglasses and fishing gear. That night, between the driftwood and glass bottles, I reclaimed a lost skim board used for surfing along the shallow waves.
After giving up the hunt for bullion, I scanned the shallows of the tide with a flashlight, looking at the fauna — another good reason to go at night. Hermit crabs walked the beach in no particular direction. Tiny eels stuck their heads out among the bubbling clams. Algae in the water and loamy seaweed on the shore hid starfish. Maybe people take all the good spots for looking, or maybe they scare them away, but these creatures are hard to come by in the daytime.
After another 10 minutes I shook the sand off myself and climbed back into the car, ready to drive on. Clear waters exist on the west end of the island, miles away from the popular part of the seawall. The ground is more rocky and thus, less appealing to tourists. The east side of the island, facing the Texas City dyke and the shipping lanes to Houston, are also rocky. This however, is the best area to view sunrise.
I drove to the east end of the island after a few hours of watching blue crabs and digging for shark teeth. Six a.m. was near. A dozen or so early birds arrived, none of them by themselves.
The sun rose. The ocean lost the inky blackness and slowly gained back its murky brown tint. What were once fuzzy lights in the distance transformed into oil rigs and tankers. Temperatures elevated with the giant red ball on the horizon. The sounds of cars and people increased in volume, and another one of my nightly visits ended.
Past sunrise, my body wanted sleep. Occasionally I drive straight home in order to dodge traffic. This time, I parked and napped for a bit, woke up before noon, threw on my clothes, walked around the crowded beach one last time and headed for a cheap cafe. Anyone can get donuts and coffee at the H-E-B or Starbucks deeper in town, which is perfectly fine, but the small businesses like Dawn Donuts, Home Cut Donuts and Mod Coffee House feel more appropriate. I found a cup of coffee, bought a newspaper and left the island.
A typical daytime trip would usually involve renting a hotel room, visiting the tourist spots, going to restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner, dropping by Moody Gardens or any of the several historic sites and generally running around all day. While I had nothing to show for the trip but a few photographs, some seashells and my sand-covered boots, my night adventure cost virtually no more than six gallons of gasoline and a few cans of ice tea.