‘So this is… Planet Houston?’
These famous words said by General Zod after landing on Earth in Superman II. I know, maybe a bit obscure for some of you. It was 1980 after all.
But to me, it would have been more a more accurate statement if he landed somewhere else, somewhere more unique and less representative of all cities in America – suburban sprawl, traffic jams, big box retail.
‘So this is… Planet Galveston?’
Planet Galveston. That’s way more like it.
Now, I grew up in Houston, and had been going to Galveston to surf and skimboard and do donuts on the beach in our old van for years. But I had since moved on, living and surfing in places like New York, the Virgin Islands, and Southern California.
When I moved to Galveston, I hadn’t lived in Texas for about 20 years, and honestly didn’t think I ever would again.
Unlike other moves I had made, when I came here I was in full-on surf mode. I had been living in Southern California for about five years and surfed all the time, finally getting confident to the point where I was seeking larger and more exposed breaks and didn’t fear urchin encrusted points or a bit of exposed rock in the lineup.
I felt confident that I could handle anything that the Gulf could through at me, and as far as waves were concerned, I was right.
But it was the other things that I wasn’t ready for that made it so much fun – a trip abroad, to another planet – that I’ll remember fondly forever.
Now, I know many of you Texans are scratching your heads and wondering why in the world anyone would ever go anywhere else, but we’ll leave that conversation for another time (or never). Maybe we can talk about it out in the line up.
Ok, back to Planet Galveston.
In hindsight, it would turn out that my stint in Galveston would last a year. A year is an interesting time frame because some might say, ‘just one?’ while others might wonder ‘a whole year? In Galveston?’
Also in hindsight, living a year in Galveston would be as strange, unexpected, and interesting as any other I had done overseas, in other countries, on other continents.
A year gives you insight, unlike a trip or a vacation or even a short-term stay, into a full calendar – all of the seasons, all of the events and festivals. It’s long enough to get a place to stay, find a school for the kids, make yourself known at the local coffee shop, find a favorite stool at a favorite drinking hole.
We were living right downtown, 22nd and Post Office, across the street from the MOD Cafe where I would end up spending my days working and evenings bringing dinner out to the sidewalk tables with my kids to listen to street performers and enjoy the coolest evening part of the day.
My kids were little at the time, attending the small Holy Family Catholic school just a few blocks away, driving first through the desolate, sun-scorched empty lots in town then into the Oak-shaded old-growth streets on the south side of Broadway. This drive would just take a few minutes without traffic on the nearly empty streets, but you would never consider walking. The kids shoes would just melt into the pavement then they combust in the shadeless apocalypse.
The other reason we would drive is because for the entire year I never took the 12 foot paddleboard of my roof or the little fish out of the back of the car. It was easier to just leave it than maneuvering it in and out of our little storage locker. Plus, there was no use checking Surfline for the wave report, I was going to drive over to the seawall and check it for myself every day, no matter what.
If there were waves, I surfed, if not, I paddled. Sometimes I would paddleboard anyway, catching crumbling chest high swells far out past the end of the pier and all the way into shore – long but not steep, but rides nonetheless.
Similarly to when I lived on the island of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, you would never plan a surf trip to either of these places. But as I’ve found, if you actually live right on the beach, without the need to commute or play the ‘is it worth it’ game with your time and gas money, you tend to surf a lot more than you think.
And this is what I found in Galveston as well. I was in the water all the time. Between the small swells and warm water, it was easy to just go in for a bit and then head in for work. And I even have some distinct memories of good swells and even particular waves that are filed away with all of the other surf memories generated from travels all over the world hunting for waves.
The thing is, it’s always special to have the chance to just go local and get a place dialed in.
Paddle Board Fishing
But like I mentioned, it’s really some of the other things you see in Galveston that stand out and make stories. Like that guy who had clearly hooked something big while fishing from his paddleboard near Pleasure Pier at the end of 25th Street. Like I need to tell you where Pleasure Pier is.
Ok, so just to back up, he was fishing from his paddleboard. That’s a pretty serious feat of balance by the way, and this not even being over on the calmer bay side of the island.
Without any swell in the water, which was why I was on my paddleboard as well, it’s still a bit wind choppy, not oil-slick glass (pardon the pun) that can happen down here.
Curious, I casually paddle over to check it out and ask what he’s got. After all, one thing I’ve noticed surfing here in Galveston is that things are a bit more social than SoCal.
‘I’ve got a shark on the line’ he says before I can even ask. He then laughs somewhat, but not too casually, a bit nervously if maniacally. I said good luck and paddled on my way, leaving him to his adventure. He looked like he had it under control and I really had no interest in getting involved.
Of course, about 90% of my surfing here was done in this exact spot, but seeing a shark pulled in from next to the pier wasn’t a surprise in the least. This shark fishing was something you saw everywhere, and by everywhere I mean all of the places I swam, surfed, played with my kids – everywhere.
All you have to do is cruise down Seawall Blvd to the 61 Street Fishing Pier, another good surf spot as it turns out. Inside the house where you buy tickets and bait are pictures of fish caught over the years. These pictures line the walls like famous faces at the old Carnegie Deli and most of them are sharks.
It is also common for people to surfcast right there along the sea wall, and a constant passtime on the sand with two little kids was looking in the fisherman’s buckets – bait in one, sharks in the other.
Anyway. Surfing in Galveston was fun and the side attractions could get exciting.
Living in Gaveston for the year meant spending the winter when most of the tourism dries up and the surf is better and I never would have gone there at this time of year when I was growing up in Houston.
It’s one of those things that locals know about living at the beach, right when the weather is getting good school starts and life gets busy and all the people disappear and it is absolutely amazing. Fall in Galveston was no different.
Living right down town also offered the chance to connect with the community – farmer’s market on the weekend, working at the coffee shop and riding my bike over to have lunch at UTMB with my wife, forever entranced by the haunted old Victorian houses along the way, wondering if we would end up staying here and fixing up one of these old relics.
There was also the cajun guy at the bodega who you could barely understand when making quick runs out for milk and sitting at the counter at the Star Drugstore, a scene straight out of an old book.
A Town of Music
Probably my favorite thing about being in Galveston besides the water was the music, and my favorite spot was the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, owned and operated by Wrecks Bell who had toured and played with Townes Van Zandt and Lightning Hopkins back in the day.
The Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe was no B.B. King’s – a private equity fueled behemoth licensing a famous name. This place was an old school bluesy dive where you would grab a seat just a few feet away from performers with stripped down sets suited for the venue.
I would often sit at the bar alone and chat with Wrecks himself and the bartender, the musicians joining in while they waited through openers or had a nightcap before hitting the long Texas highways back to Austin or San Antonio.
The club had respect and history, so people came from all over. One of my favorite sets was the Band of Heathens from Austin, but just the duo of Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist belting out staggering vocals and acoustic rhythms. My favorite conversations were with crusty, road hardened old relics in broad cowboy hats who sang bluesy-country tunes, sold records out of their trucks, and shared whiskeys at the bar.
That’s just the way it was, and it was amazing. After I left, I would miss this music most of all.
It seems that soon after we moved on from Galveston, Wrecks decided to sell the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe. Luckily, it seems that it has been purchased and kept running in its old tradition – only upgrading the sound system and an ability to take credit cards.
If you ever make it down that way, it is worth staying the night just so you can take in a show and enjoy some drinks without having to drive home. You may be able to even get up and have a surf in the morning.
Country music and surfing aren’t always put together in surfing culture, but I assure you this is a pretty amazing way to spend a weekend.
Eventually, we had made it through our year – fortunate enough to avoid any tropical weather or shark attacks or snake bites (I’m sorry did I not mention the snakes? There are snakes everywhere, sharks in the water and snakes on the land. It’s terrifyingly unbelievable). My kids had had another year of living on the sand, although the water at the shoreline here browner but warmer and more inviting, completely devoid of any shorebreak due to the gradually sloping beaches into the shallow and tepid Gulf water.
They had seen music and learned to hide in the shade as we walked the broken sidewalks and empty foundations and wondered aloud where all the people were.
They had seen a Mardi Gras parade and marveled at the huge cruise ships and enjoyed Field Day at a school where a seven year old could come home with a 3 liter bottle of Coke and a chocolate cake (the whole thing, not a slice).
Life was different in Galveston among these survivors, survivors of shrinking economies and a landscape that gets battered into submission once a decade and an ease and fatalism has been found amongst the storms and sharks and snakes. But the people will invite you into their home and parents will sit down together at the school and share a cup of coffee, taking the time to connect and not be in a rush. And in that very Texan way they’ll expect that out there in the world you are doing whatever you want.