It rained so hard on the drive down to the island that the only thing I could see sometimes was the taillights of the car in front of us. Since the sun rose the sky had been grey, and the car crept forward slowly as we prayed we wouldn’t be washed off the road. It was the worst possible day we could have picked to go to the beach.
But the rain cleared as my friend Sydney and I crossed the bridge to Galveston Island, the closest and most popular beach getaway for Houston, Texas.
But Galveston has long departed from the virgin beaches it must have had long ago. Everyone in Houston knows that. When I first moved to Texas, a story about a woman who had contracted flesh-eating bacteria while swimming at Galveston was the talk of the town. When Sydney and I came to the ocean, the water that stared back at us was the color of dead skin.
We weren’t about to be put off though, not after that drive. We parked the car and walked to the spot where the historical marker for old Fort San Jacinto is. But we didn’t see any fort. There was a small sign with a map, however, and before long we realized that if we went down the beach a little ways we’d get near one of the old buildings.
As we walked the beach became grimier and grimier. In our path we met diapers soaked with seawater and God knows what else, old bottles filled with dead fish, and other unidentifiable man-made objects. It was trash piled on trash piled on trash, and it smelled like some giant sickly animal.
At the end of the little coastline we spotted something bright through the reeds. We passed over an expanse of choppy brown rocks, and then Battery Croghan was meters away.
Amid the greys and browns that had marked the day, the walls of the battery were the brightest thing I’d seen on the island. At its base the fort was beige concrete, but painted over it was layers of graffiti – curses, love notes, and nonsense in blues, purples, and reds against the green beach brush.
Battery Croghan was built in 1900 and was used through World War II, then abandoned in 1946. Since then it has been reclaimed by the rebellious youth of Galveston.
In the main room of the battery stood a mic stand, and in the corner was a busted up drum set. How in the world it could have gotten all the way out here was perhaps the biggest secret the battery hid from us. The concrete walls blocked out all outside noise, and in the silence I could almost hear the ghosts of teenagers making dumb decisions.
Other treasures we found included a driver’s license from a nineteen year old kid from Georgia and an expensive looking Mardi Gras mask in one of the turrets. As we explored, whispers from the past whipped around us in the wind and sang through the empty doorways.
Would I call it a bad trip? No. There was a ragged and raw kind of beauty in the scribblings that the Galveston youth left. We saw the real side of the island – the dirty, ugly, sludge filled footprint that humanity has left on these beaches and on the planet, and the kids growing up in the trash that tourists leave behind. To know that side of a tourist destination is better thing to remember than any glimmering facade.
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