As Texas rebuilds after Harvey, an ode to Port Aransas

12:31 p.m Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017 Austin360 Home

Last Monday, I was sitting in an airport terminal in Atlanta, wondering if I would make it home.

I’d taken a poorly timed weekend trip to Georgia to visit one of my best friends who lives there  -- poorly timed because that same weekend, Hurricane Harvey devastated much of this state that I’ve called home for 26 years. It ripped through Sargent, where my family has two vacation homes. It flooded La Grange and Smithville, the two small cities I claim as my hometowns (yes, I claim them both). But what threatened to rip my heart right out of my chest was the devastation in Port Aransas, the tiny beach town where I’ve vacationed nearly every summer for my entire life. I sat in the airport last Monday morning and wept, alone in the terminal, for the loss of so many things I love.

As Dan Solomon of Texas Monthly pointed out, we are in extremely privileged positions to be lamenting the loss of a beloved vacation spot. It’s true -- people who live there lost everything, and it will take a very long time to rebuild. But calling it simply a “vacation spot” does not do this place justice.

I don’t remember the first time I went to Port Aransas. That’s because I was too little. My family has been visiting the small town as long as I’ve been alive. Some of my earliest happy memories include riding the ferry, begging my dad to roll down the truck windows and let me peek outside. If I was lucky, I got to get out of the truck and stand on the side of the boat, watching the ferry cut through the water. Every time we’d drive down to Port A, my heart would race at the first sign of a palm tree, the first scent of salt water in the air, the first caw of a seagull. Now, more than 20 years later, my heart still leaps at the first palm tree (usually sighted in Refugio as I stop for gas or stretch my legs), and boarding that ferry still brings me indescribable joy.

My dad and I found a lot of solace in Port Aransas over the years. It stuck with us through divorces and awful breakups, family heartaches, work-related stresses and more. It was a getaway when we needed one. It was the getaway we didn’t even know we needed, at times. We spent several summers at the Pioneer RV community, which the Port Aransas mayor has since called “a 100 percent loss.” We spent several more summers at the Sandpiper Condominiums, then a few more at Port Royal. More recently, my dad and I discovered the Beach Lodge, a restaurant/bar/hotel along the beach. It’s little more than a hole in the wall, but it’s everything you need in a place like Port A.

My grandparents briefly owned a beach house in Port Aransas when I was in high school, and it’s the reason my cousin and I rekindled our friendship. (It’s also the reason I got second- and third-degree sunburn as a 16-year-old who wanted a tan and was unwilling to wear sunscreen.) My friends and I spent several spring breaks there, sneaking alcohol from our parents’ cabinets before we were old enough to buy our own. 

I’ve had nearly a half dozen birthday dinners at Virginia’s On The Bay, and we’ve hung more than a few baseball caps from the ceiling at Shorty’s. I’ve cracked open hundreds of crawfish at the Crazy Cajun. I’ve caught sand dollars and collected shells that remain on the shelves of my childhood home and my current home in Austin. There are parts of Port Aransas with me every day.

I was thinking of those sand dollars when I wept in the Atlanta airport, watching these videos taken by a journalist in the area:

Until then, I’d been holding out hope that I could go on my planned birthday vacation to Port Aransas. I was hoping for the best -- maybe some water and wind damage, but a community still standing in much of the same way it was when I last saw it. But as I watched these videos, I knew I had to postpone my trip.

When I hit “cancel” on my hotel reservation, I felt terrible. Of course, I was upset about not spending my birthday in my favorite place in the world. But I was more upset that my favorite place in the world would never be the same again. I was upset that the money I’d planned on spending in the community -- money it needed now more than ever -- would be back in my bank account, not serving any purpose. I considered donating the money to relief efforts, but struggled to find a way to ensure the money was used in the Port A community. Instead, I pledged, as so many others have, that I’ll be back. The second the first hotel reopens in Port Aransas, I will be there. I’m not sure which restaurants and bars survived the storms, but I have hopes that I will once again buy crab cakes at Virginia’s and cheap beers at Shorty’s and crawfish at the Crazy Cajun. That I’ll drag myself into Coffee Waves on a morning after too many of those cheap beers at Shorty’s, begging for relief, and eat oysters at Roosevelt’s at the Tarpon Inn. That I’ll once again spot a palm tree in Refugio and feel my pulse race. That I’ll hop over seaweed and try (and fail) at boogie boarding and pick up shells and eat sandy pimiento cheese sandwiches and fall asleep on the beach after forgetting to put sunscreen on and wipe tears from my eyes every time I board the ferry back home, because it means yet another trip to paradise is over.

In the comments section of the videos above, somebody wrote, “Port A is not just a vacation spot at the beach. No it is a place to renew our souls. Many people are suffering this loss and want it to come back to it's [sic] full bloom once again. Memories and love is all we have for this island place. I hope there is enough people to go down and just volunteer in any small way to get her back on her feet. I will be looking for that opportunity.”

I will, too.

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