Green vines cover sandy dunes near a wide ocean under cloudy blue sky

Railroad vine covers some of the sand dunes leading to the beaches on Padre Island.

The sun rises on a cloudless day in mid-October. On North Padre Island, a barrier island near Corpus Christi, my husband, Adrian, and I pack our striped beach bag with bright plastic buckets and trowels, fruit pouches and bottles of water. By 8:00 a.m., we’ve buckled our kids into their car seats. We’re on borrowed time, determined to make it count.

Like millions of other families, we’d spent the last 18 months mostly at home. Our 3-year-old daughter, Jo, was living through her tablet and developing new social anxiety. After nearly 14 months of life, the most exciting place our son, Jack, had ever visited was Target. In our single-minded mission to protect our kids from COVID-19, they were growing up inside terrariums, believing that was the whole world.

Around Jack’s first birthday in September, as vaccination rates rose and caseloads fell, we decided to take a family trip. Adrian and I trace some of our happiest childhood memories to beach vacations—skin slathered in coconut-scented sunblock, that first dive beneath a cool wave, sandwich lunches and spaghetti dinners, falling asleep at night exhausted and dazzled. We wanted to give our kids some of that magic. We also wanted to do it cautiously.

Padre Island National Seashore is one of only 10 seashores run by the National Park Service. PINS, as it’s known, protects the world’s largest stretch of barrier island, encompassing 70 miles of secluded, undeveloped beaches—most of which can be explored by four-wheel drive. The coastal wilderness is home to a stunning variety of wildlife, including around 380 bird species, endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, coyotes, white-tailed deer, black-tailed jack rabbits, lizards, and Western diamondback rattlesnakes.

Neither of us had been to PINS, and after so many months of desperate sameness, the lure of something new was irresistible. We’d be able to drive there, avoiding air travel, and stake our own claim among the miles of coastline, avoiding crowds. Plus, we’d never taken a beach trip in the fall. There was something appealing about not knowing what to expect.

A small catch: The only way to stay overnight at the park is to camp. Malaquite Campground is 100 yards from the Gulf of Mexico and includes 48 sites for tents and RVs, flush toilets, running water, and cold-water showers. We could feel our adventurous selves stirring, imagining moonlit waves and cool sand beneath our feet. Then a more realistic image intruded—the four of us crammed beside one another in a tiny space, Jack refusing to sleep while he could still see the rest of us, impossible naps, and miserable days.

We sighed. “One day,” we told each other. Instead, we rented a town house at The Pathway to the Sea, a small, newly constructed development 10 miles from PINS, on North Padre Island a block from Whitecap Beach. The best of both worlds, we reasoned.

It rains on our two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Antonio along Highway 37, storm clouds like big-belly whales floating above us. The forecast has been changing all week. Some days, storms are predicted for our entire trip. Others, sun and high wind. “At least we won’t be in a tent,” I joke, as Jack wails from the back seat. Not an auspicious start.

The sky clears by 4:30, when we cross the JFK Memorial Causeway above the Laguna Madre, a long, shallow, hyper-saline lagoon along the Western coast of the Gulf of Mexico. “Look at the water!” we exclaim to Jo. She gasps from her car seat, pointing out the scarlet sail of a windsurfer as the board cuts through frothy white waves.

On North Padre Island, there’s little traffic as we drive past gift stores and strip centers straight to Whitecap Beach, where we park directly on the densely packed sand—a convenience of this 1.5-mile stretch. “C’mon!” Jo calls to Jack once they’re released from their car seats. “Let’s go, Jackie Boy!” It’s red-flag windy, and her long brown hair whips across her laughing mouth, covering her eyes like a blindfold. Jack’s loose curls tighten into spirals as he tucks his head and charges on all fours straight into the surf. Adrian and I chase the kids through the shallows, their squeals and shrieks relaxing my body, my own cheeks hurting from laughter.

We pick up fish and chips from the Boathouse Bar & Grill that night, and the kids are asleep by 8:00. At 1:00 a.m., Adrian and I jerk awake to the smoke alarm bleating in our room. We exchange panicked glances and token swears, more worried about the kids waking up than a fire. The beeping stops, and we sink back into our pillows, only to bolt awake an hour later at the same noise. By 2:30, I’m racing between the rooms of two crying kids as Adrian struggles to disarm the smoke detector. By 4:00, we’re all back in bed. And by 6:00, the kids are up. We start the day more exhausted than we are at home, and I can’t help wondering if it will be worth the effort.

A white bird with long black legs leans down into still blue water

The coastal wilderness is abundant and diverse, from white egrets to crabs.

Wind thrashes the palm trees outside. The ocean, from what we can glimpse on the back patio, is white-tipped, violent. We figure the sand is whipping around like pellets. There’s no way we can take the kids to PINS right now. Instead, we have a slow, tired morning inside followed by lunch at Costa Sur, a Peruvian wok and ceviche bar located in a strip mall a few minutes away from our rental.

The unassuming entrance opens to a bigger space than we anticipated, with black chalkboard walls, blue twinkle lights suspended from the ceiling, and a string of purple LED lights illuminating the bar. The place is mostly empty, and I’m relieved, able to more easily justify our choice to come in the offseason despite the unpredictable weather. We order chips and guacamole and serrano sashimi to start, followed by hoale poke (yellowfin tuna, soy sauce, sesame oil, and mangos on crispy white rice) and a steak sandwich. I could have sat there for hours, sampling dish after dish.

After lunch, we head to the Texas Sealife Center, a nonprofit that rescues, rehabilitates, and releases coastal and aquatic wildlife. Inside the bright turquoise building, a dry-erase board lists all 2021 releases, including 128 birds—42 species—and 360 sea turtles. We wander the tight space, holding the kids up to see camouflaged lizards and coiled boa constrictors, until a volunteer named Esmie Marquez takes us through a back door to see the other rescue animals.

First: a green sea turtle, maybe 18 inches long, swimming in a round tank. “Aw!” Jo beams, staring through the glass. “It’s so little!” The turtle is about 5 years old, Marquez tells us, and won’t be fully grown until around 30, at which point it will be 5 feet long and weigh up to 300 pounds. Jo isn’t really listening. She’s tugging at my hand, pulling me to the next tank.

“Most of our turtles come in here because of human-induced causes,” Marquez says. “Some have gotten smacked by boats, some have ingested fishing line, some have gotten fishhooks stuck in their eyes.”

When injured sea turtles are found washed ashore, they’re typically brought to Texas Sealife. Since 1978, PINS has worked with multiple agencies in the U.S. and Mexico to bring the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle back from near extinction. Turtle nesting season is March through September, and hatchling releases, facilitated by PINS, are open to the public between May and August.

The three turtles in the tanks have been here several weeks, but one, which died recently, was here for years. And if an animal can’t be released, Texas Sealife will give it a home for life.

That’s the case for Pear, an African crested porcupine whose mother—which was owned as a domestic pet—rejected her. Sometimes, I’ve read, it’s an act of survival for mother mammals to selectively abandon their young. Natural selection can be selfish. With Jack strapped to my chest, squirming, and Jo whining now, pulling on Adrian’s hand, I think of the last 18 months of pandemic parenting. Days bleeding into nights and weeks into months, times I’ve screamed into my pillow at 3:00 a.m., buckling beneath the weight of exhaustion. I hate how often my children get this version of me: tense and snappy, going through the motions, trying to survive with all of us left intact. I resolve again for this trip to be an antidote.

The day is hot and muggy, mosquitos landing on our arms as we thank Marquez. After the kids’ naps, we return to Whitecap Beach. We swing them, laughing, high over the waves. I can’t help remembering my own childhood beach trips to Port Aransas—my mom in her high-waisted bikinis and baseball cap, her only makeup a glamorous swipe of coral lipstick. Always calling to us, “Stay where I can see you!” My dad leading us into the water, lifting us into jumps, a weightless swoon.

I saw them so simply back then, no nuance or complication. I never considered how tired my mom must have been, the three of us children so close in age, or how much pressure my dad must have felt, with all his entrepreneurial ventures. We laughed at our mother’s worry, incapable of understanding the specter that always haunted her at the beach—the fear of losing a child’s grip in the water, that small warm body slipping away. It’s strange to now be the parents in this picture, balancing our instincts to keep our kids close—keep them safe—with the joyful, terrifying necessity of helping them leap.

A gray and orange crab covered in dark gray sand

On our last full day, we wake up to storms. My chest tightens. We came all this way, and instead of exploring PINS we’re stuck inside watching spooky “Baby Shark” on repeat, trying to keep Jack from plunging headfirst down the stairs. Adrian looks out at the downpour and shrugs. “Not much we can do,” he says. I know he’s right, but I keep refreshing the hourly forecast. There’s still a chance, after the kids’ afternoon nap.

Jo wakes up wailing, clutching her ear. An hour later, she and I are sitting at Urgent Care in Corpus Christi as we wait for the inevitable diagnosis: her first ear infection. My normally independent daughter refuses to leave my lap, fevered cheeks streaked with tears. Meanwhile, naturally, the storm has cleared, and Adrian texts me photos of Jack from Whitecap Beach.

When Jo and I return to the town house in the early evening, there’s spaghetti waiting for us on the stove. I smile at Adrian, who knows my childhood beach trips always included vats of my dad’s spaghetti. He’s doing what he can to soften the disappointment of a trip that hasn’t gone according to plan.

That night, Jack falls asleep on my chest with a final, contented smile. I gaze at the dimpled hand tucked under his chin, lower my nose to those beach-salted curls. It doesn’t matter to him that we haven’t gone to PINS. I feel his happiness in the trusting weight of his sleeping body. I set him in his Pack ‘n Play before reading to Jo, who wants to sleep with her plastic sea turtle “just like the ones we saw ‘esterday.”

Downstairs, Adrian and I open a bottle of wine and, despite having just eaten spaghetti, order from Rock & Rolls Sushi Lounge for a second night in a row: bluefin and strawberries, hamachi and mango, pork belly braised in Japanese beer and Korean BBQ sauce, then garnished with balsamic cherry chutney and cilantro cream.

As we eat, we talk about our childhood beach memories—the grin on his dad’s face as he bodysurfed; the endless “meatballs” I loved making with damp sand—and question if we’ll make it to our destination since we’re supposed to check out tomorrow morning. It feels less important now, somehow, than it did a few hours ago. We’ll leave it up to the weather and Jo’s ear, we decide.

The kids wake us, as usual, before sunrise. “How are you feeling?” I ask Jo, brushing tangled hair from her eyes.

“Better,” she says, smiling.

A collection of houses and palm trees line a waterway traveled by two boats

The Packery Channel is a man-made waterway separating Padre Island and Mustang Island.

On Texas Park Road 22, we quickly leave behind the condo complexes and strip malls of the quieter side of the island. Soon the landscape becomes Rothko-esque: all blue sky and flat, yellow coastal grasslands. We’re the only car on this two-lane road bisecting the endless yellow. It feels as though we’re about to drive off the edge of the world.

The 5.5-mile paved entrance to Padre Island National Seashore passes Bird Island Basin, a campground ideal for windsurfing, and the Grasslands Nature Trail, a .75-mile loop through the grasslands and dune habitats. The grasslands give way to dunes created by sand, wind, and stabilizing plants like railroad vine, a salt-tolerant ground cover that grows up to a foot a day, blooming bright pink flowers.

We’re the only car in the lot at the Malaquite Visitor Center, and I wonder if it’s because we’re early in the day or because it’s October. For a moment, I yearn again for the trip I’d envisioned—days spent driving miles of undeveloped coast, a cooler in the back, Jack napping in the baby carrier on my chest during long hikes—but this morning is all we have.

A sense of expectation hangs as we tread across the boardwalk to Malaquite Beach, as if something hangs on it being special. Then, past gentle dunes threaded with railroad vines, here it is. My breath catches as I take in the endless, pristine shoreline, waves silver in the sunlight, stretching like an unwrapped gift before us. It seems strange, after so many months of aloneness, to cherish these miles of seclusion, but I do, deeply and completely. It feels as though we’ve discovered something together. A secret that, I admit, I almost don’t want to share.

We cover the kids in sunscreen, and we all go careening toward the water, loud and giddy and entirely uninhibited. Waves lap warm and gentle against our legs. We laugh at side-scuttling ghost crabs and help Jo write her name in the sand with a large stick. She buries my legs and builds lumpy sandcastles that Jack instantly destroys. Time is expansive and generous, minutes swelling to feel, somehow, like lazy hours. In the distance, a lone pelican balances on the skin of the ocean. Even as we’re here, basking in the purity of our childrens’ joy, I’m aware of the memory forming, crystallizing. A double exposure of the present moment and its future reminiscence.

Travel looks different in a pandemic, and with children, there is no such thing as a perfect vacation anyway. But there are perfect moments. This is one of them.

From the December 2021 issue

Get the Magazine

Save up to 62% off the cover price


Sign Up for Our Newsletters

Sign up for magazine extras, upcoming events, Mercantile specials, subscription offers, and more.