In May’s TEXAS MONTHLY, Houston writer Dan Oko visited 15 of the best (and least-known) spots on the Texas coast. With the summer still ahead of us, Lydia Neuman got Oko on the phone to chat about his travels, and the story behind the story—including what he’d put at #16.
You researched “The Hidden Coast” in January and February. Did that make for a more private trip?
Yeah, I didn’t have to make up the solitude. I drove close to 3,000 miles, bouncing back and forth, up and down the coast. I covered 300 miles of coastline twice. I was looking for the unknown, so there were all these fifteen-mile detours. The joy of doing an article like this was that instead of hard-charging to the place where my friends have established fish camps where I can crack a beer and get on the water, my job was to explore and slow down and dawdle. These little five, ten, fifteen mile detours to hidden boat ramps and Laguna Salada, or cooking out with Sally and Aubrey Black on Baffin Bay—you avail yourself of the generosity of people. You slow down so that you’re not parachuting in and running out. You don’t want to get it wrong, and that means you take your time. There’s no way that you can derive the experiences I had by looking at people’s blogs and internet sites and twitter feeds.
I wondered about all that driving on the beach. You can lose a vehicle if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Right. You see boats buried in sand. I didn’t have four-wheel drive. There were a couple of times where I thought, I’ve done my duty, I don’t need to stick this car in the sand. I remember working for Parks & Wildlife, doing a story about mountain biking amongst alligators, and an editor said, “This is exciting and poetic, but we don’t think anybody is going to want to do this.”
You camped on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore?
It was outstanding. I don’t think many people make it that far south. It’s fifty miles down the beach, and once you get down there, you have to go fifty miles back up. The drive is on the sand, so you need to know the tide, you need to be prepared.
Would I see a lot more commerce and tourism along that route this time of year?
There are places that are wild, where there’s no construction as far as the eye can see. I did the trip as a “hard” adventure, but you can definitely do it as a “soft” adventure. You could spend every night in a bed, stay at hotels, go to galleries and restaurants.
Do you have any qualms about outing so-called last bastions of solitude?
There’s a huge debate within the conservation community about wilderness as a construct. The reason we have wilderness in this country is because we eradicated the Indians. I was in Bhutan recently, and you know what’s at the end of the road in Bhutan? A village. This idea of the unpeopled place is illusory. And it’s not that I don’t think it’s important to have unpeopled places. I think national parks and wilderness areas and wildlife refuges that are maintained in perpetuity are very important, but the idea that they’re untrammeled—they’re not.
The concept of unspoiled nature that exists for our enjoyment is very contemporary and American.
Five hundred years ago, Cabeza de Vaca washed up and walked the Texas coast, and his account is a wilderness account, but it’s filled with indigenous populations. Indianola, where Powderhorn Lake is, was a big city. Houston is here, in part, because Galveston was not sustainable. It kept getting shellacked by hurricanes. We live in a place where the landscape alters and changes, and people move around; populations grow and boom and shrink. But I don’t want to minimize the amount of development pressure that exists along the coast because a lot of people want second homes.
Were there any surprise moments?
The real surprise was seeing how nature has reasserted itself on the Bolivar Peninsula in Sea Rim. You hear about hurricane destruction, and then you visit these places and you realize that nature is persistent in a way that we don’t always give it credit for. I also found that in Galveston. You can go to Galveston and see that as long as you protect the parklands, they can stand up to the worst. We forget that, I forget that. You get out there and you think, here’s the wind, the waves, the water, here’s the sand, the plants, the fish and the birds, and you think—it sounds a little philosophical and cosmic—there’s this universe that we forget about because we have our PDAs and our laptops and our iPads. And for me, as someone who goes after these experiences with some regularity, what surprised me was how awake being on the beaches made me feel, to that other side of life. Also, I wasn’t really aware that Texas had anything that would compete with my favorite place on earth, Cape Cod National Seashore. It was a surprise for me to sit on a beach in the sand and look out at the water and think, “Texas has this, too.” And Texas doesn’t get credit for having it, because so often you’re in Corpus, or your looking at off-gassing petrol plants, or you don’t have access because you don’t have a beach house. I’m a freelance writer, so no second home for me.
It’s easy to forget that mountains and stars exist when you’re in the city.
I live in a single family dwelling in a subdivision filled with houses. The skies are apparent to me, the trees are apparent to me, the birds are apparent to me, and still the surprise is—and it’s a head-slapper—not how hard it is to get to nature, but how easy it is. You have to break inertia. You have to get movement going. If you’re stuck in a routine that doesn’t involve throwing your sandals and a beach towel in the car and driving until you see the ocean, then you have to prompt yourself, use whatever lever you can to point yourself in that direction. But once you get rolling, my goodness, there are so many choice spots. I was surprised. There are places where I fish with my friends—like Port Mansfield—that I didn’t get to. I went past them, going both directions. I felt like it would be redundant. I thought, usually I come down with friends—native Texans—and they have systems for visiting these places. And I thought to myself, in the absence of friends who know the lay of the land, how do I get there, and tell people about it? There were fifteen places, but I could find more.
What would number sixteen be?
Lighthouse Lakes, down by Aransas Pass. It’s one of the early Texas Parks & Wildlife paddling trails. I’d have to check the numbers, but there are ten or fifteen miles of kayak trails, and it’s really beautiful. Redfish Bay is there.