Nobody knows for sure how many Jeeps, lifted trucks, ATVs, side-by-sides, and four-by-fours descended on the Bolivar Peninsula—a narrow spit of storm-wracked sand between Galveston and Port Arthur—during last weekend’s chaos. One estimate pegged the number at no fewer than 40,000 vehicles, many with intoxicated drivers zigzagging beaches with no marked lanes or navigating a two-lane highway with lots of construction zones, often with up to a dozen people riding unsecured in the backs of pickups.
Galveston County authorities made at least 100 arrests (most for alcohol-related offenses) as Jeep enthusiasts converged for Go Topless Weekend, an annual car show and campout in Crystal Beach. Of eighteen wrecks in the area, eight were deemed serious. EMS dispatchers were barraged with more than 600 calls for service, and one of the accidents snarled traffic on Highway 87—the sole east-west thoroughfare and only way to drive on or off the peninsula—for about six hours. Videos of the weekend’s drunken brawls have been posted to YouTube. A young man emerged from a coma on Monday after his head was run over by a truck from which he’d fallen, and at least a half-dozen injured passengers were evacuated by helicopter to the UTMB hospital in Galveston.
Wildlife may have suffered too. The full environmental impact—specifically effects on sea turtles and two species of protected shorebirds, all of which are in nesting season—is still being assessed, according to Richard Gibbons of the Houston Audubon Society. “Not only do these vehicles pose threats to the birds and their nests themselves, all that traffic really impacts the sand on the beach and degrades their food source,” he says.
Social media has been crackling with diatribes by local residents calling for an end to the Jeep event, and a Change.org petition has gathered more than 18,000 signatures in support of a ban.
Yet it’s far from just Jeep owners who are to blame for the mayhem. The event coincided with prom weekend for many schools in Deep East Texas, leading to the presence of hordes of young people arriving in jacked-up trucks and zipping around on dirt bikes and four-wheelers. Thanks to a swirl of teenage hormones, copious amounts of alcohol, and the revving of high-powered engines, fights inevitably broke out, and some young women took the event’s invitation to Go Topless literally. The Texas Patriot Network’s MAGA Beach Bash was also taking place nearby, near the town of Port Bolivar, adding to the crowds on the peninsula. On top of it all, a whim of Mother Nature—an abnormally high “bull tide”—forced all this humanity into a narrower and narrower slice of drunken, thrown-together life, hemmed in by saltwater on one side and dunes on the other.
Bolivar is something of a libertarian paradise. Unlike on Galveston Island, where camping is restricted to the state park, camping is allowed on all 27 miles of the peninsula’s beaches. There isn’t much in the way of amenities—port-a-potties are rare, and there are no showers or picnic tables, much less electricity or other modern accoutrements. Distances on the beach are measured in garbage barrels, as in “The specks were running hot near barrel 8 this morning.” At the far eastern end, where the remnants of ruined Highway 87 are swallowed by the sea, there’s an unsanctioned but mostly tolerated nude beach. National retail and restaurant chains all but ignore the area, whose commercial focal point is a quirky, independent shopping/dining emporium known simply as “The Big Store.” Texas troubadour Hayes Carll cut his teeth in the shrimper and offshore rig worker dive bars of the peninsula, a formative experience he immortalized in his early standard “Highway 87.”
Keep in mind, this is Ron Paul country. Bolivarians returned Dr. No to office for sixteen years, even after Paul voted time and again against federal hurricane assistance that would directly benefit his constituents. Locals have a saying, one I’ve heard more than once from a Gulf Coaster poking around the ruins of his life in the aftermath of a storm: “It’s the price you pay to live in paradise.”
Under normal circumstances, locals celebrate their freedom to drive wherever they want on the beach and camp as long as they want, to shoot off fireworks and to drink as plentifully and openly as they wish—but what about when hordes of outsiders want to do the same? As is common with tourist areas, locals love visitors’ money but hate some of their behaviors. There’s another local saying: “Know how to create an asshole? Take one Houstonian, add a six-pack of beer, and leave in sun for eight hours.”
Jeep devotee Kimberly Heisner of Port Arthur has been attending Go Topless Weekend for nine years, but she says this was her last, barring big changes. She laid the blame squarely at the feet of those between the ages of 15 and 25 who had little interest in Jeeps but plenty of interest in getting drunk, breaking traffic laws, and fighting. “This was the worst I’ve ever seen it, but it wasn’t our group that was causing the issues,” she says. “Nope. It was young kids in daddy’s truck.”
Heisner spent many a weekend on Crystal Beach growing up in the 1980s and early ’90s and says that while brawling was common, what she saw this past weekend took it to a whole new level. “This was so much worse than what I remember,” she says. “It got so bad we left the beach at nine o’clock [at night] because we were scared.”
Bryan Camp, a retired state trooper who now lives on Crystal Beach, believes Heisner might have a rose-tinted recollection of her youth or missed out on the worst of the excesses in the 1990s. He recalls as much or more peninsular pandemonium when he patrolled the area in the 1990s and early 2000s. After all, the wild and woolly epicenter of the activity has been known locally as Zoo Beach since at least 1994, when the moniker first appeared in print in the Galveston County Daily News.
“It’s always been a place where the thugs from Houston and the rednecks from East Texas would meet and scrap,” Camp says. Summer holiday weekends like Memorial Day, Labor Day, and the Fourth of July were always stressful for first responders, but plain old summer weekends could also spell trouble. “I worked a sixteen-casualty wreck on the beach one night,” he remembers. “It was just some drunk with a girls softball team in the back of his truck.”
Camp believes that the difference last weekend is that there were more “adults”—the Jeep and pro-Trump crowds—in and around the area to see what the young folks get up to on the peninsula. Fueling their perspective was the spread on social media of some of the worst moments via videos of fights or crashes. Camp and other law enforcement vets say this past weekend wasn’t shocking to those who patrolled this beach before Hurricane Ike pretty much erased the entire peninsula in 2008. As services and retail have slowly returned to pre-Ike levels, so have partiers.
Regardless of whether last weekend was an aberration, what could change to prevent similar scenes in future? Any ban on the Jeep event specifically is probably unworkable under Texas law. The peninsula sits entirely in unincorporated Galveston County. Just about anything goes there, so long as it’s not a state or federal crime. There’s been social media talk about one proposal, attributed to a Galveston County commissioner, on how to manage Zoo Beach: The idea is to funnel all vehicles through one entry and then allow only one exit point. Traffic would be one-way under this plan, away from the entry and toward the exit. If you can’t find a parking spot, tough luck, you’ll keep moving and be ushered off the peninsula. This could bring some order to the pure vehicular anarchy that prevails on the beach.
Seems sensible, right? Well, locals fear that it would be unenforceable absent enormous police presence and that traffic will stack up from the entry point back up onto the highway. They also don’t want any new regulations applied to them. Why should they suffer because of the actions of unruly outsiders? And might this be a slippery slope? Next thing you know, Ron Paul’s dream beach could be as regulated as some Yankee stretch of coast in New Jersey.
“Bolivar people have this attitude that it’s no-man’s-land, that it’s lawless, that there is one sheriff patrolling the whole beach, and you can do whatever you want there,” says independent journalist “Gator” Miller, a native of Orange but long a resident of the communities along the coast and Galveston Bay. “And you can. Every time there’s some big bash on the beach, for every one person you arrest, 999 people have gotten away with the same thing. Weekends like this will happen again.”
“But I will tell you this,” Miller adds. “When I camp there, I take my handgun with me, and I’ve had to brandish it twice.”
Just another price you have to pay to live in paradise, I guess.
This article initially reported that Jeep Weekend resulted in one death; it has been updated to reflect that no deaths have been confirmed and initial reports of one from Beaumont and Houston TV stations have since been retracted.