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24 Things Every Texan Should Do: take an all-day trip down Padre Island National Seashore

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Cap'm Billy is behind the wheel when the narrow pavement runs out about 25 miles south of Corpus Christi.

Dead ahead 50 yards, the Gulf of Mexico. In the rearview mirror, the 21st century. And angling off to the right, a thin strip of white sand stretches toward the horizon and one of the most natural, beautiful adventures left in Texas.

It's just after dawn, and there are three of us in Billy Sandifer's million-mile, salt-and-stuff encrusted, who-knows-how-old Suburban. I'm semi-reclining in a permanently jammed passenger seat. Steve Knight is upright in the back.

Sandifer yells and pounds the cranky 4-wheel drive gearshift lever. The shift indicators don't work anymore, and he changes gears by guessing where they are hiding. He doesn't always guess correctly.

Metal grinding on metal sends shorebirds airborne, but the hand-painted, periwinkle blue land barge scrunches forward in the sand. We pull parallel to the surf line and begin a southward trek, 60 miles into a part of America that has changed little in hundreds of years.

In the hours ahead, we will see few people or vehicles. Just this seashore and the creatures — birds, coyotes and a few human misfits — that call it home.

We will spend the morning driving to the Port Mans field channel, turn around, and spend the rest of the day sightseeing and fishing our way back to the road.

As we bump across a sand dune to avoid the surf, I marvel at the situation: We are out here in a truly remote and unspoiled place with a guide who is a genuine Texas character, one of a select few Texans whose knowledge of a specific area is without peer.

It's Number 20 on my list, 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies: take an all-day fishing/nature trip down Padre Island National Seashore. You can do it on your own, if you've got a 4-wheel drive vehicle, know how to read the sand and are lucky. But I recommend a guide.

For Padre Island, I recommend Billy Sandifer. He knows the sand and the tides, the flora and fauna. He believes the island is alive.

Today he's wearing a blue fishing shirt that matches the paint job on the Suburban. He has a parrot feather and a set of snake rattles in his hair.

He stops. The engine dies. In a George Jones whiskey voice, he coughs through a lecture on a small group of nondescript little shorebirds tiptoeing in the surf foam.

"That's a red knot (hack), one in breeding plumage. It's a (hack) bird of concern here. He migrates 12,000 (hack) miles north to south and back again and on his way he stops on this island," Sandifer says.

The red knot is one of nearly 400 species that have been recorded on the island, more than half of all species in North America.

He snaps the ignition key, and the engine mercifully comes back to life. Break down out here and help could be hours in coming and extraordinarily expensive if a tow truck is needed.

A tire goes flat. As Sandifer changes it, we stand on a dune and look for miles in all directions. Sand, water, shells and the relentless sound track of the surf. Nothing else.

At the Mansfield jetties, we gaze south across the narrow channel at the better known of the Padre islands, then turn around to begin a leisurely return, looking for prime fishing spots.

Sandifer keeps the passenger side wheels, just on the edge of the foam, swinging up nearer the dunes when wave action builds a small cliff that could be dangerous to try to cut through.

It's afternoon now. Better for fishing.

Sandifer interrupts one of his stories, when his keen eye catches a perfect loop of wave and water. He saunters to the water's edge to survey the spot and, finally, we wet a line. We catch trout and skipjacks on flies and lures, then climb back in the truck to putter on, talking about fish and life and friends who aren't here to defend themselves.

We stop again. A 150-pound tarpon jumps 200 yards offshore. A large shark I can't identify throws a long, dark shadow on the white sands of the second sand bar as he cruises close to shore for an afternoon meal.

A petite green sea turtle skims the bottom in two feet of clear water, flying south toward Mexico.

I sink back into the wet bucket seat and think: This is Padre. Real life on a sandy stage. Drama, humor and reality, lathered in sunscreen and grit, strung out over miles of sand and shell.

Sandifer helps bring it alive. This island is his soul mate, his reason for living.

The windows are down. His ponytail flutters in the salty wind.

Those turtles you read about laying eggs, hatching and going off to sea from Padre Island? Sandifer guards them like the children he never had. Nobody pays him to do it. He just does.

The flotsam that barrier islands naturally attract — buckets and oil rig hard hats, plywood and faded ice chests? Sandifer organizes an annual weekend called The Big Shell Cleanup, where volunteers help clean up. Over the past 16 years, an estimated 2.3 million pounds of debris have been removed from the beaches here.

"Nobody can really own this island," Sandifer says. "It owns you. It created me. I wouldn't be alive if it weren't for this island. Once it gets a hold on you, there's nothing you can do. I want to give something back to the island because it saved my life."

This isn't just hyperbolic oratory for Sandifer.

Over the centuries, hundreds of ships have wrecked here. Sandifer thinks of himself as a shipwreck survivor, too. "When I came back from Vietnam, I didn't know what to do with myself," he says.

Sandifer says he came home with health problems and a nasty chip on his shoulder. He fought. He drank. He worked as a sky marshal and aspired to be a mercenary. Then one day, he found himself on the Padre Island National Seashore.

"I came here in 1977, and I didn't leave for 18 months," he says. "It was the first time I found any peace."

These days, Sandifer patrols the beach, recording his birds, staking off a turtle's nest, helping stranded folks and laying a tongue-lashing on anyone who breaks protocol out here. He makes the 120-mile, all-day round trip often — sometimes with a charter, often without.

It's late in the day now and, just short of the pavement, Cap'm Billy pounds the controls back into two-wheel drive one last time.

The sound of the surf fades. Sandifer's parrot feather waves goodbye to the dunes, and sand flies around the cockpit as the old hippo grinds up the road toward home. It's been a nice day.

mleggett@statesman.com

MIKE LEGGETT'S JOURNEY ACROSS TEXAS

During more than 25 years of traveling Texas, outdoor writer Mike Leggett has seen the best of Texas and shared his experiences with some of Texas' most amazing characters. In this segment of his ‘A Texas To-Do List: 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies,' Mike combines both, visiting Padre Island National Seashore with renowned outdoorsman and coastal guide Billy Sandifer.