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stories >> 1997 - 12 - 07

Port Lavaca

      I took a trip this weekend.

      The best drugs that I know are distance and time (sweat and enorphins, though cheaper and quicker, rate a far second). Something about sheer mass make things change. The ocean is different than the lake, and a good long road trip gives me a different buzz than a bike ride around the block. I can feel the mighty miles piling up on my back, and everything changes scope. Problems get smaller, my mind gets clearer, my heart gets bigger. There's nothing like being around a lot of people that you don't know for putting things into perspective.
      So I decided on Friday night that it was time to go on a fevered haul to somewhere I had never been. I tell Jim, "I'm going to go see the ocean tomorrow." I sneak into the office early on Saturday to get my big black book and I check out mapquest. I click around on the Texas coast until I see Freeport, somewhere between Houston and Corpus. Looks great, I think. On the way put the door, someone asks me what I'm doing this weekend. I tell them Freeport, so of course she asks "What's in Freeport?" Don't know, I tell her, then I'm out the door.
      The Leper's purring from a brand new oil change, and my directions are as simple as can be:
      Hwy 290 until you get to Hwy 77
      Take it to Victoria, and figure it out from there.

      So why the fevered trip? Because I've got someone to forget about.

      So off down 290, feeling the familiar vibrations of the Leper, and watching resignedly as he loses a few more square inches of paint. Through Giddings, where I pick up 77 and the temperature is 41 degress and I'm freezing from having the windows rolled down and the heat blasting as high as it will go. Through a string of nameless towns: Hallestville, Schulenberg, sweet La Grange. There's nothing "limited access" about Texas Highway 77, and each of these towns has the annoying habit of timing the lights so that you have to stop and spend endless angry minutes glaring at cross streets that haven't seen a car in two hours.
      You know you're in the middle of nowhere when La Grange seems like a metropolis, and I start thinking about some old Uncle Tupelo song: "When the bottle is your bible and the wooden floor is your bed." Let me warn you: not having a radio in your car makes you remember songs that you've forgotten for years. You also make up your own songs... once I sang my life story to the tune of that "Alive, Alive O" song on the way back from Tallahassee. It took three of the five hours, I think. This time all my made up songs are about her, and they all end in "You find what you want, and it's already gone." The miles are swelling me up, and it's all filling up with her.
      I stop in Victoria to stretch and get some gas. I haven't seen any signs that say "Freeport," so I'm not sure where to go next. I go inside and ask the woman for a map. She asks me, "Where you going?" and I tell her I don't know. She looks at me a little askance but hands me this beat up map that I can look at inside the store. I find Victoria, and I see the bright red line of Highway 87 pointing straight from Victoria to "Port Lavaca," right on the coast and right where I want to be. I hand the map back, and I tell her thank you. She asks me if I've found what I want, and I tell her "I sure hope so." She looks a little concerned and asks, "Do you think you can find your way back?" I laugh and tell her, "I just thought that it was a good day to see the Gulf. Maybe I'll go for a swim." We both look outside at the overcast and 50 degree weather, and she starts laughing with me. I tell her goodbye, and pop out onto Highway 87. On the way south, I pass some little shack that sells prefab "Garages and Car Ports." I start obsessing that Port Lavaca must have been an old West name, when instead of Car Ports they had Cow Ports.
      26 miles later, and I'm driving down main street Cow Port, population 10,000. I pass the "Surf" and the "Sands" motels ($22 a night), and then Main Street dead ends into Commerce Street. Directly in front of me is the Gulf in all its dreary glory. I compare my odometer to the shiny new oil change sticker, and find I've come 190 miles.
      In front of me there's a park built out into the bay on top of some old jetties, and you can see the rebar poking up through the crabgrass in certain places. I park the Leper and stumble down to the dirty water. The shore in Port Lavaca is made up of broken concrete and anonymous trash. Across the bay, I can see huge nameless factories pumping out plumes of smoke. Behind me, the pine trees and the palm trees are pushing against the shore, and the gulls and pelicans are screeching and chasing each other around. There's that forever Gulf breeze pushing against me, and I think that this is exactly the kind of place that I want to be.
      I walk back up the busted concrete toting my 190 mile heart. The weight of it is too much for the dubious pier and it groans piteously underneath me. I turn around and walk out to the end of the jetty instead, where there's a sorry little playground and a flock of seagulls shivering togerther on the ground. I sit down in the swing and listen to the gulls grumbling to themselves. That breeze is cold, I can hear the far off horns of the shipping traffic, and I just swing a little bit and let my heart ache.
      We had talked about "issues" and "baggage," and what the difference was. I told her that I thought "baggage" meant something that had happened in the past, but you were still carrying it with you. "Issues" were something you were currently dealing with. Of course, "baggage" is a great cause of "issues," and "issues" have a bad habit of becoming "baggage."
      Mmm, "baggage." How apropos. The heavy things that you carry with you.
      So I sit a little more in the swing, and keep thinking "Wish I was ocean size." I'm staring at these crazy freezing gulls, all waiting around. When I was driving up, someone was feeding them and they were flying around in a huge frenzied mass. Now they're sitting there, eyeing me, wondering what I'm going to do for them, waiting for something to happen. I look down at the crab grass and think that life is too easy in the Gulf Stream, even in the middle of winter. And then I think that I'm a lot like these gulls, waiting for something good to come along, hunkered down against the breeze.
      I walk back to the Leper, and drive down to the enormous bridge that spans the bay. I check into the Shell Fish Inn ($26/night), where I leave every piece of information about myself blank and no questions are asked. I don't know what kind of tourism Port Lavaca has in the summertime, but there's nobody here in December. I get a second floor room that looks out over the brown and gray water.
      The room smells like a hundred years of seawater and smoke. Nothing's changed in here since 1977: there are "Help Conserve the Nation's Energy" stickers stuck next to the light switches. There's a suspicously clothes-iron-shaped hole burned into the rug, and the towels in the bathroom are small and rough enough to be pieces of 100 weight sandpaper. I open the door and all the windows, and drag one of the chairs outside to stare at the bay. I think back to that song again, "When the bottle is your bible..." and think about getting a pint of whiskey. But I'm alone, and I don't really feel like drinking anything, so I just think about that penitent burn of the whiskey down the throat and look at the bay some more.
      As the sun goes down, I can see all of the orange sodium lights come on across the bay. They light up the smoke plumes and turn the overcast sky a pale orangey gray. The water reflects it back in quiet ripples, and the view is surprisingly beautiful.
      I'm down to thinking about Dogen Zenji, old Japanese Zen Master, who said that:

      To study the self is to forget the self.
      To forget the self is to learn the ten thousand dharmas.

      Dogen became enlightened when his master told him, "drop both mind and body." Yes, that's what I want to do. I'm going to leave something behind, here in Port Lavaca. I'm a little afraid to, but I can't see why not. I just want to hold on to it a little longer.
      Back down to the water, finding my way through the dark. I look across the bay, then I look up at the clouds and see a silvery patch where the moon should be. I think, "there, that's where I'll stare and wait for the moon to show through." As I'm thinking this, I see a thin silver smile break through and then a perfect half full moon is grinning down on me. I shake my head and smile back. I know it's time.
      I bend down to find a rock that's not too muddy. I pick it up and whisper her name to it. I throw the rock out into the water, where it lands with a splash of silvery reflected moonlight. I look back up, but that old moon was already sliding back behind the clouds, his job done. Sure wish I was ocean size.
      I find an old construction road that's just two bands of crushed down weeds and make my way back to the Shell Fish Inn. I have no idea how late it is, but all I want to do is go to sleep. I want to be up at sunrise.


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