IN SOUTH TEXAS, OCTOBER IS the month for the beach. Rather than hit the sand in July and August when our most vivid memories are likely to be sweat-soaked sheets, hot, sand-blistered feet, infestations of small children, plagues of teenagers on Hondas, sunburned ear lobes and eye lids, we make our move in the fall when the sun is a friend and the resorts practically deserted.
Here at the southern end of Padre Island, we bask in the sun, fish, and collect shells during an Indian summer. And, when we tire of these sybaritic pastimes, we travel to nearby Brownsville for a tour of that city’s historic sites and a visit to the unique Gladys Porter Zoo. Af.ter the sun goes down, Matamoros is at our beck and call for shopping and fascinating dining. If you are susceptible, as are we, to such an unbeatable vacation combination, here is how to do it.
South Padre Island
South Padre Island runs unbroken from Mansfield Channel to the Brownsville Channel and is notable in that it has the only five-mile stretch of beach in Texas (outside of the National Seashore at Corpus Christi) that is closed to motorized vehicles. At most Texas beaches, if you don’t drown in the surf or suffer terminal sunburn, you are likely to end up a traffic fatality. On South Padre Island, you can spread your blanket without first considering automobile traffic patterns, loose your children without fearing that they’ll be flattened by a panel truck, and walk from your accommodations to the water without worming between campers, dune buggies, and dragsters. Along this five-mile stretch, which begins at the southern tip of the island, are a public park with a fishing jetty, a cafe, trailer and camping facilities, and most of the island’s motels and condominiums. Above this strip is the rest of the island, 29 miles of undeveloped, unpolluted, unmolested beach.
In October the water is still warm because it gets deep quite rapidly along this part of the coast. The sun, while it will still burn at high noon, has lost its summer intensity, so you can collect shells, fish, or go boating comfortably. Fall storms distribute a plethora of shells on the beach, many that you won’t find any other time of the year; besides, in October you won’t have to fight 80,000 other tourist-malacologists for a lone spirulla spirulla.
Some of the best shelling is at the north end of the island. You may drive several miles north in your family car when the sand is packed, but your safest bet for serious ventures is to rent a motorcycle or jeep from one of the several participating filling stations along the island’s main drag. Thus equipped, you can drive all the way to the Mansfield Channel without fear of getting your car engulfed in the sand for the winter season.
A 30-minute drive through desolate mud flats will bring you from South Padre Island to Brownsville. Plan to spend most of a day here.
Founded when General Zachery Taylor planted the American flag on this side of the Rio Grande at the outset of the war with Mexico in 1846, Brownsville has a lot to offer the history buff. The ruins of Fort Brown, named after Major Jacob Brown who died in the U.S.-Mexico conflict, are still visible. During the Civil War, the area was important as a port through which the Confederates shipped cotton and imported European supplies. As a matter of fact, the last battle of the Civil War was fought just northeast of Brownsville six weeks after the war was officially ended. The Confederates won. Take that, Yankees. Actually, historic sites and buildings dot Brownsville. A fine map with self-guided tour of the city (emphasizing historic sights) is available at the Chamber of Commerce, Elizabeth at Gorgas, and at the National Bank of Commerce, 2300 Boca Chica Boulevard.
The highlight of your Brownsville junket will be your visit to the Gladys Porter Zoo (9 a.m. to sundown, 365 days a year; adults: $1.50, students: $1, children under 12: 50¢).
Zootopia on the Rio Grande, the Gladys Porter Zoo is both a Noah’s Ark for the preservation of endangered species and a landscaped park for their human observers. Opened in 1971, this unique and splendid zoo was funded by the Sams Foundation (Earl C. Sams of J.C. Penney fame), was donated to the City of Brownsville, and is managed by the Valley Zoological Society. It is named after Gladys Porter, daughter of Mr. Sams, and the person responsible for most of the miracles at the zoo. She is also president of the Valley Zoological Society and is often seen in her golf cart as she makes her rounds of the zoo. The purpose of the zoo is to be a “survival center” for rare and endangered species where carefully selected animals may live, mate, raise offspring, and be observed in areas free of caging, crowding, or stress. Hopefully, if the population explosion proceeds according to plan, the animal residents of Brownsville will become the parents of many specimens which can be returned to their native habitats.
New York, Washington, and San Diego may boast more zoo inhabitants, more acreage, and more attendance, but Brownsville has a few features that outdo them all. First, instead of starting out life as, for instance, did the Houston Zoo with its homeless bison in a barbed wire fence, the zoo was planned, engineered, and built before a single resident was acquired. Second—and perhaps most important, the climate in Brownsville is much like that in tropical Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, and so permits open housing for nearly all the specimens.
Third, by providing homes and a climate that pleases the tenants, the Gladys Porter Zoo has been highly successful in breeding hard-to-convince parents. Other zoos throughout the country are sending prospective mates to Brownsville in hopes that a short vacation, a different climate, and new faces will turn confirmed loners into proud parents.
The 26 acres on which the zoo sits