After several long spurts of driving and active sight seeing, we were ready for a brief repose. I had packed for a beach adventure a year and a half earlier and had been carrying it with me without ever making it to a beach. So when we were looking for a place to go after San Antonio, we first looked at Corpus Christi, but discovered slightly better deals a couple of hours south on South Padre Island. And honestly we thought it would be cool to reach the bottom on Texas. We were not disappointed.
South Padre Island is a barrier island at the southern tip of Texas along the Gulf Coast. The island was closed during the Mexican-American war and through the civil war, and after, taken over by the National Park Service until 1962 when sections were opened for settlement. By 1978 there were around 300 people on the island and has since rose to nearly 3000. The island is very narrow, only three roads traveling north, and essentially all coastline. Only the southern tip of the island allows development. The road north ends abruptly into high dunes only 12 miles from the southern terminus and only half of that area has structures. The area north of the road is a strange alien of a landscape, windswept dunes thick with shells and coastal plantlife.
Just south of South Padre Island, in the small stretch of Boca Chica beach before the US-Mexico border is where Elon Musk has built his SpaceX headquarters along with a modest launch pad for rocket launch tests. Launches can be easily viewed from any location along the South Padre beach.
The Portuguese Man O’ War
I had only previously read about these alien creatures but the beaches here are littered with them. Hundreds of these guys wash up with the tide, dotting the child strewn beaches with venomous purple xenomorphs. I couldn’t help but take a picture of every one that I encountered. This is just a small sample.
“The Portuguese man o’ war is the only species in the genus Physalia, which in turn is the only genus in the family Physaliidae. It has numerous venomous microscopic nematocysts which deliver a painful sting powerful enough to kill fish, and has been known to occasionally kill humans. Despite its appearance, the Portuguese man o’ war differs from single organisms like jellyfish as they are siphonophores, a colonial organism made up of many specialized, though genetically distinct, parts called zooids. These zooids are attached to one another and are physiologically integrated to such an extent that they cannot survive independently. The assemblage of zooids works together to function as an individual animal. ” [Wikipedia]
Imagine if each of your fingers had their own digestive track, mouth, anus, and sexual parts but still functioned as a finger, attached to a separate arm that had its own mouth and anus and sexual parts, attached to still another separate trunk.
These constituents can be both sexes and create new fingers. Old fingers can be released and replaced with new fingers in such a way that the colonial organism is functionally immortal.
Our beachside condo
In late November there were plenty of condos available to rent on the island and much cheaper than both Austin or San Antonio. We found a nice sized one bedroom right on the beach with a balcony facing the sunrise over the ocean and a well worn Miami Vice era pink and teal décor with wicker seating for 9 along with two recliners and a comfy couch. The water tastes a bit funny so we bought jugs at the store but otherwise, pretty damn homey. And for the first time in a while we were able to cook meals that didn’t have to be made exclusively in a frying pan.
I honestly thought we’d be at the beach every day as it was literally our front yard, but as it turns out when you can get the sea breeze and lulling sounds of waves right in your living room, the appeal of actually sitting in the hot sand is diminished somewhat. But we did make it down regularly for romantic walks and even a few full-on beach days with a blanket. We were both a bit wary of swimming after watching hundreds of Portuguese Man o’ Wars wash up on the beach. So less swimming, more wading.
The north shore
There’s a single main road that runs from the southern tip of the island north. You drive past the last condos only a few minutes up the road which then turns to high dunes on both sides until you reach “the end of the road”. It just stops at a barricade. And beyond, pristine coastline for as far as you can see. The sand is relentlessly trying to reclaim the road. A snow plow was working continuously scooping up sand and dumping it back on the dunes. Some portions of the road were covered completely.
This area is like an alien dreamscape, desolate and ribboned with texture, striped waves broken up by jagged fingers where shells and debris carved the wind. We walked for over a mile up the shore and barely saw another person aside from a few off-road style trucks driving down the beach. A monolithic white plastic drum the size of a sedan half buried in the sand like the final scene of Planet of the Apes.
The south shore
The southern terminus of the island is Isla Blanca park with formal parking for the beaches there, a boat launch, and an RV park towards the center. A ship channel is buttressed by a long jetty on both sides dotted with fishermen with long sea poles. I watched guys dragging fish larger than they could carry back to their cars. The channel is busy with commercial and trophy fishing ship, small boats to obnoxious yachts, and the occasional oil tanker floating by like a Super Star Destroyer. We saw a dozen dolphins fishing the channel, popping out of the water with a spin, and squadrons of pelicans, and a few enormous heron that seemed to give fuck all about humans. It was a great place to watch the sun set.
Across the channel you could see the SpaceX launch site a few miles down the Boca Chica beach that runs between here and the US-Mexican border a few miles past. All of the SpaceX employees would come to this park to watch the launch.
The SpaceX rocket launch
SpaceX is the billionaire vanity project of Elon Musk started in 2002. The Brownsville location was created as a commercial-only project in 2014 and the facility runs three shifts a day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From Isla Blanca park you can easily see the launch site and the rocket. SpaceX employees, including Elon, drive to Isla Blanca to watch the launches.
While we were there they launched a test flight of the STARSHIP SN8 rocket. We camped out on the beachhead for three days with scrub after scrub. Its a bit exhausting to get excited time after time only to have waited 8 hours in the sun with no launch each day. The fourth day we decided to watch from the beach in front of the condo. Not as good of a view but we watch the countdown on our phones and could run out to see if it actually flew. After the last day of several scrubs it finally flew and we were happy to see it. We were a few miles further away but you could still feel the rumble and see the rocket pretty well. Though it would have been nice to actually see it explode on landing.
Thanksgiving and other food stuff
Last year we were in Kotor, Montenegro, for Thanksgiving with not a turkey in sight, but this time we had a full kitchen to play with, so we made the whole deal, if only for a couple servings. We were excited to finally be able to cook something that you didn’t have to make in a single frying pan. I didn’t have my dutch oven but the condo had a slow cooker so I made the best of it. And the grocery stores here sold all the good parts so I even got to make stewed beef cheeks and hearts that I made into tacos. We stayed here for an entire month and didn’t eat out once.