Houston. Photo courtesy TxDOT staff.

Under ordinary circumstances, it takes forever to get anywhere in Houston that isn’t just more Houston. If you live in the center of town and head west, you’ve got to go all the way to Sealy before you feel truly out of town; to the north, past Conroe; and to the east beyond Baytown. In any direction, you are looking at an hour-plus of white-knuckle driving just to get past the last of the master-planned communities and out where the Buc-ee’s begin.

But today’s circumstances are anything but ordinary, and for those of us in big cities, one scrap of good fortune we can salvage from this quarantine is the ability to get to drive around more efficiently and with far less stress.

So I discovered on Saturday morning when I looked up travel time from my home in the Heights area of Houston to my favorite beach in Brazoria County: a mere 84 minutes. This beach is not in Surfside proper, but about 15 miles of increasing isolation east along the Bluewater Highway, practically within sight of the San Luis Pass bridge to Galveston Island. Only 84 minutes to drive nearly 80 miles through the Houston metropolitan area on a Saturday morning. Dang.

I hastily gathered a few provisions and piled in my aging Honda Accord, blasting vintage soul courtesy of KCOH, Houston’s legacy R&B station, on my speakers. Singing along with, and hopelessly butchering, Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” ate up virtually all the time it took to traverse both the western and southern portions of the Bayou City’s normally clogged 610 Loop. In what seemed the blink of an eye, Johnny Guitar Watson’s Space Age Third Ward guitar licks on “A Real Mother For Ya” heralded passage of the Brazoria County Line. I glanced at my dash clock: 7:37 AM. Again: dang.

Mulling the empty roadways, I though about how Houston is like its own planet with a forcefield that takes tremendous energy and fuel to escape. Not so during this pandemic, which had turned every day into a Sunday morning. Uncharacteristically, I found myself driving too fast and only partly because the Accord’s cruise control was on the fritz. Mainly it was because I had the highway to myself, at least once I’d cleared Pearland. Down there, the road was almost as lonely as a West Texas highway, I thought, as I braked once more to bring the Accord in at or near the speed limit.

Inside of another half-hour I was easing through Freeport’s empty streets on my way to the Surfside cut-off, which is where I hit the only snag on the trip. As usual, I’d blazed right past the Farm-to-Market Road 332 cut-off up by Clute. Much to my chagrin, as just as I was about to escape the Dow Chemical complex, I encountered a railroad with a long line of chemical cars. I should’ve taken the cut-off, but perseverance finally paid off for me after about 20 minutes when the train passed.

Another 20 minutes after that I was at my beach Eden: Kelly Hamby Nature Trail, a verdant acreage of magnificently preserved saltgrass dunes traversed by a boardwalk leading to Follett’s Beach. All Brazoria County beaches are currently closed to vehicular traffic, but pedestrian access after parking elsewhere, as in Kelly Hamby’s small lot, is  permitted.

And was it ever worth it. In my hour or so there, I saw no more than a dozen people coming and going into a pretty vast area, so social distancing was a breeze as I took in the sights of the park itself—a pair of brilliant blue indigo buntings freshly arrived from Mexico, desperately seeking ripe dewberries in the dunes; a wheeling caracara, eyes out for the plump marsh rice rats skittering through the foliage; a lone roseate spoonbill soaring over the Cold Pass into Christmas Bay on the other side of the Bluewater Highway.

And of course, the mighty Gulf itself, tending a little greener than usual, whitecaps fighting a north wind as they sighed ashore in a receding tide. I christened my new Astros cap with a saltwater baptism (deciding there and then this would be a new tradition), took in the sights once more, realized that this was indeed a morning very well-spent, and headed back to Houston with all its big city worries in the time of the pandemic.


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