I left Mustang Island heading south and spent a good part of the morning driving down Padre Island beach in The National Seashore Park. For 60 or so miles, there is nothing but barrier island and the beaches in Texas are considered roads, so you can drive anywhere as long as you don’t cross the dune. Which means you have about 50 feet – dune on one side, Gulf of Mexico on the other – and very very little traffic. This is my first experience actually driving for any distance on a beach and after a bit it gets kind of hypnotic. There is no road noise, and with the windows down the 12 mph “speed limit” draws you into the rhythm of the sea.
You can’t get off Padre Island to the south, you have to go back to basically Mustang Island and turn inland. So I find a spot along the beach and stay a while in this place, on this barrier, in the wind. Then I turn around and head back to find more of the edge.
As I said in the last post, nearly the entire eastern edge of Texas is barrier island. From Matagorda all the way to Brownsville, these islands protect the commercial ports and shipyards of the main coast. With the rude exceptions of Galveston and South Padre Island, they are like Padre Island, quiet and empty; thin ribbons of sand fronting large grassy flats hunted by hawks and probed by wading birds and small, oddly blonde colored deer. And blown, at least for my time here, by a steady 20 mph wind that pushes me inland and south. As if to encourage me to move along because they have work to do protecting and I have more edge to see. It’s just as well else I would be tempted to stay here on Padre, alone in its rhythmic grasp and the sunshine of a new day, and convince myself that I’ve found what I was looking for.
In 1846 James Polk wanted access to the Pacific and Mexico was in the way. He offered to buy the land, but Mexico was fresh off a run of monarchy and was testing its new Republic and said no. So, we took it. By military standards it wasn’t much of a war; it was done by a year or so later and total soldiers killed in battle were something like 1,800. Many many more died waiting to fight – the edge here is pretty rough country and sanitation standards were low. We ended up only taking what we wanted in the first place, though we invaded and held territory all the way to Mexico City, all parties settled on the Rio Grande river as the border.
The Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico just south of Brazos Island – the final southern barrier island. Today, a narrow, deeply dug shipping channel cuts between South Padre Island and Brazos and defines a spit of land to its south that carries you all the way to this point on the corner of the edge. A narrow river for its entire length, the Rio Grande spreads out here at the end and the lower Rio Grande valley as it is called, spreads lazily over grassy delta spotted here and there with Yucca trees, the deeper sections near the river proper marked with mesquite scrub and cottonwood. It is empty, unremarkable ground, a “freebie” that came with the negotiated border as we sought Pacific access to the west.
This barren ground has seen its share of man’s arguments. When the Mexican-American war broke out more than 7,000 volunteers showed up here and General Taylor had to build a fort to house them – the war planning insufficient at that point to deploy them. And here they sat. In the summer. In this barren place. For three months, they fought only bugs and disease, dying at a rate of 3 a day, until they pulled down the fort and moved inland having never fired a shot in anger. Later, in May of 1865, 34 days after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, General James Slaughter and Colonel Rip Ford (two of the greatest “war names” ever by the way) held off 500 Federal Troops from Brazos Island to hold onto a fort they had captured a year earlier and were not by-God going to give back. The Federal troops suffered 4 officer and 111 enlisted casualties before deciding to let the rebels – who lost not a single man – keep the damn place. All of this happened after the war was over.
Such is the history of this corner. Undeveloped and hardly worth fighting for, it nonetheless marks a critical edge. The turn to the west. The Rio Grande, with its Boca Chica, or “small mouth”, defines an eastern edge to our country bound by a geoligic scar filled blue with the Gulf of Mexico, and the southern edge bound by blood and a small river that will be my home, just off my southern shoulder, for the rest of my trip.