As the Galveston beach drew nearer, I was more excited than I’d been on many birthdays. I had lived for sixteen years without seeing the beach, but the sea was a prominent figure in many of the fantasy books I loved—an alluring, dangerous, powerful force that fascinated characters, threatened their lives, and more often than not drew them, like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, to cross its waters and never return.
My parents, my little sister, and I crossed Galveston Bay where I-45 became a massive bridge, a railroad with a drawbridge beside us. I watched the grey water, blending with the overcast January sky at the horizon, in fascination. When we reached Galveston, I glanced across the bay and realized that I was looking back at North America.
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Galveston looked strangely like any other overdeveloped city until we reached the sea wall and any illusions of normality vanished. The ocean stretched brownish-grey until it met the horizon in a smooth curve studded with thin oil towers. The small waves rose and broke against the beach, their edges impossibly sharp before they fell in a foamy tumult. We drove slowly along the sea wall; I wanted to get out and go down to the ocean.
Although we briefly returned to the bay side of the island—where a marsh filled with busy wading birds and stately cranes contrasted oddly with the brightly painted, empty vacation homes across the road—we spent most of our trip on the beach. The ocean, the color of weak coffee, foamed beside us. Two lines of shells wavered across the grey sand. Most of them were broken, but we collected brilliant pink barnacles, two gorgeous cowries (one of them, particularly glossy, had a foul-smelling shellfish still inside), and many other shells. We enjoyed the solitude of the January beach, but our loneliness came with a price: bitter cold.
Indeed, to vividly recall the beach, I must imagine being chilled. The temperature rarely rose above thirty-seven degrees. We walked along the beach until we could stand the cold no longer and then retreated to our warm van. There, I sat for twenty or thirty minutes, feeling the cold slowly leaching out of my thigh muscles. We ate our “picnic” lunch on the last day of our trip sitting in our van, opening the door only to throw bits of bread to the crowd of seagulls.
We didn’t do many “tourist” activities at Galveston, except touring the Elissa, a restored square-rigged barque which looked ridiculously small to have sailed around the world—particularly compared to the freighters we saw at the north end of the island, which were so huge that, from a distance, they looked like alien spaceships. We tried to visit several shops, but most of them were closed for the winter, so we spent most of the morning looking at Galveston’s historic architecture.
Although our trip to Galveston wasn’t a classic tourist trip, seeing the ocean justified all my excitement. I’m especially glad that it was too cold to swim. Without crowds of tourists splashing in it, the ocean appeared wild and majestic, thoroughly untamed and more than a little dangerous. When the sun briefly broke through the clouds on our last day, making the ocean glitter more brightly than fresh snow, I watched in respectful wonder, appreciating its majestic farewell.
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