Travel is not a question of money, but a matter of courage. I have made quite a few trips, but in all of those I did not really venture out of my comfort zone. Those were more kind of “touring” the destination than traveling in true sense. You need courage to explore the realms of unknown, to venture out of comfort zone unequipped with the sense of security that comes with familiarity. One is forced to adapt, to learn, to widen the boundaries of thought and to wonder. This trip is special for me for I tasted the fruits of courage and adventure, realized that the journey is the reward and now I only want to move forward from where I am.
A journey of 1000 steps starts with a single one. Little did I know that the single defining step that will inspire me to travel would come out of pinging my college friends randomly one lazy evening. In an attempt to escape the mundane routine of work life and with the impending long weekend vacation luring the prospects of meeting up with familiar people to enjoy a couple of evenings of friendship, fun and excitement, I finally broke my restraint and messaged my friends on Facebook urging them to plan a weekend road trip. Normally, I wouldn’t take the initiative to convince others into a trip but the long postponed urge to visit a new place and feel closer to natural surroundings got better of me. To my surprise, most of them were interested and enthusiastic about it as well, and so went on the chat for a couple of hours with us debating on the destination. South Padre Island turned out to be the winner for 3 main reasons – its close proximity from both Austin and Houston, perfect season for outdoor natural scenic beauty and most importantly it was a perfect prospective first time camping destination!
For the two weeks that followed, my excitement for the trip only built up. I admit that I am a little paranoid about doing adventurous things without carefully assessing risks and rationalizing them; and sometimes I do get intimidated because of the unknown factors. And this being a first time potential outdoor camping trip on the beach, with none of us having an inkling of idea about camping, it became a topic of serious research for me. The more I discovered about the primitiveness of the camping experience and wilderness of nature one can experience from it, the more excited I was, for it is my kind of real adventure. I partially informed my parents (and partially left out mentioning the risks associated, for they are more paranoid than me or should I say I inherited my fears from them :P) and personally resolved to still make the trip even in case they disapprove of it. My friends seemed equally enthusiastic and creative as well, a positive surprise to me for I haven’t seen them proactively planning in advance for our previous trips together. Ankit created a shared music playlist for the roads and even created a shared document to plan the trip details, Shivansh offered to ride in his brand new car and Himanshu went to the extent of adjusting his project research plans and even ordering car inverter to connect speakers to and play music on the beach! Our plan was heavily contingent on acquiring the camping gear prior to the trip and just as I anticipated, that was the most neglected part of our planning process and it so happened that we got very lucky to have found it just a day before our trip – thanks to UT Austin (which I would rather not approve of on other days given I am an Aggie :P) and the thoughtful novice driver Ankit for saving the adventurous weekend.
The trip began typically with us starting later in the morning or rather early noon, a little sleep deprived from the late night hangout of discovering the whats and hows of camping equipment we picked up. On the way, we loaded on plenty of food and other stuff we thought we needed to be better safe than sorry. Road journey went smooth with the GPS showing us a single road ending in ocean, beautiful bluebonnets lining the highway meadows, low traffic and cloudy skies and us listening to music while debating which gender were safer drivers. There were two routes to reach the island, through a ferry that our car could directly drive onto or by driving on the highway that connects the island to the mainland. We chose the highway to save the loading/ unloading wait time that would help us to reach the beach while it was still daylight outside. This was crucial as setting up the tent takes time and to add to that we haven’t quite figured out how to pitch it on the ground. I had no idea about others, but I personally was highly skeptical whether we would be able to camp on the beach ever since I heard the mild alert forecast the previous night that there were heavy gusts of wind of more than 30mph on the Padre national shoreline.
The first sight of the open ocean waters made me nostalgic of all the times I would visit Vizag beaches with my family. All of us were pumped with renewed excitement at the mere sight of some sturdy tents lined alongside backwaters beside the highway, groups of people in beach outfits fishing and parasailing and fresh salty sea breeze gushing through our lowered windows. As we figured out our way to the camping spot of Mustang Island located on the uninhibited northern half of the island, we rejoiced at the sparse population and the serenity of the untouched shoreline – something very hard to come across usually and more so in India. Just as we reached the destination and alighted from our car, the reality hit us!
My hair flew haphazardly all over my face as I squinted to avoid the fine sand blowing into my eyes. It was just as I feared, too windy a day at the island. I was a couple of hundred yards away from the shore, but it felt as if I were standing on a speeding ship in the middle of the ocean. At this point I was dejected as I was totally convinced that we would not be successful in pitching the tent. A couple of my friends were still positive to check out the situation first. As we reached the end of the paved road, the mighty ocean peeked into sight through the sand dunes. We drove onto the packed wet sand with waves crashing just a few feet away from the tires – an amazing first time experience for me! We spotted a few tents already pitched and their occupants seeking shelter inside from the strong gusts, and oh, did I mention that the wind on the shore was actually almost twice as strong as the wind a couple of hundred yards away in the dunes. Some people were struggling to pitch tents, some were leaving and the lady at the park’s office counter said people were leaving due to the heavy winds. I was damn sure we would not be successful to pitch the tent in this situation, and as an alternate I suggested that we instead pitch tent beyond the dunes, away from the shore where all the RVs’ and cars were parked, walk down to the beach to have some fun and return back in the night. But my friends wouldn’t be convinced until they gave it a try, so I reluctantly agreed to give it a shot. We all agreed upon a spot half a kilometer from the entrance where the dunes evened out and there were some wooden planks of firewood perhaps some other camper left behind. Using the principle of windbreaker for minimum drag on the tent walls, we positioned the car strategically. By this time, every nook and corner of the new car was filled with fine later of sand, much to the dismay of Shivansh, its proud owner. I was in awe of how he still maintained his cool while suffering to see his car subjected to such rough natural forces. My car is by no means new, but if I were in that situation, I probably wouldn’t have handled it in the same light-hearted manner. As he and I dragged ourselves though the strong wind back to the park’s office to get the night stay permit, we secretly agreed on the backup plan I suggested earlier. We both did feel this would not work and the other two would give in eventually after a try.
You probably couldn’t fathom the disbelief on my face at the first sight of a wobbly tent like structure that stood by the car as we slowly strolled back to the shore. There standing, our very own tent was! It was like Himanshu and Ankit did some magic in those 20 minutes, figuring out how exactly each piece of equipment should be, putting it together and transferring the weight into the tent floor to prevent it from being blown away by the gusts. The stakes were only about 15 cms long and pushed into the loose sand I could not believe how much force they could resist – even as a mechanical engineer it felt wonderful to me. But, our struggle was wasn’t over yet. There was a strong prediction of impending rain and the porous tent walls need another layer of waterproof tarp to resist that. As we four spread out the tarp over the tent, it seemed impossible to hold it down. We did not have enough stakes left for the 6 pinch points and the stakes alone would not hold it down as the wind momentum was completely diminished to a standstill by the sheet. However, we did manage it in the end by repositioning the stakes, putting the ice chest inside the tent for added weight and with the aid of a park bench and wooden logs lying around. Finally, we won the war! But how long the tent would last was a credible question that only time could answer. We decided that it was the time to grab some dinner from a nearby restaurant and that the tent be left alone in mean time as a test to its integrity.
As I dusted off myself the best I could and sat down in the quiet, cozy little restaurant, I reflected on the events that just passed. “Is it really me today, here without the slightest idea of what is going to come next? What if the tent was all blown away by the time we go back or worse, what if the tent will tear apart in the middle of the night? What if the high tide comes up in the middle of the night and washes off everything or what if it will rain too heavily that the tent would weight down? What if there are some wild animals near the tent? What if out car was stuck in the sand? What if we can’t find any place to stay tonight if something untoward was to happen? What if there were armed thieves/ gangsters from underdeveloped Mexican borders strolling on the shore? And still, with all these questions and uncertainties, I was there. I would never willingly put myself in such a situation ever. I would always have answers/ alternate plans ready if something didn’t work. But, not today. Maybe it was because of my friends’ influence (and I am thankful to them) or maybe because I wanted to push the limits today. Either way, it seemed that somewhere in the past couple of hours I have crossed an internal threshold, and now I was no longer afraid. There seemed to be simple answers to all of those questions now and even if it won’t work, I knew it was not going to be the end the world. My heart felt so light, so open and so carefree. What will happen later didn’t matter; I felt a strange sense of freedom.
The barbequed dinner was delicious and filling, the light drizzle on the way back felt so soothing and the wobbly tent still stood majestically. ☺ The sound of waves crashing just a few feet from the tent was our 24 hour background music. The night was consumed in technical discussions, fun games and songs. As the night progressed, heavy rain splashed on our roof, the LED lantern swayed dangerously above us, but we stay put dry and happy enjoying our very first camping experience. Eventually the rain and wind died out completely and we came out for some fun late night cooking experiment with our portable propane stove with some loud music on the speakers. People in others tents came all prepared with full-fledged barbecues, music and guitars around camp fires. S’mores were the order of the night and I decided to introduce this Texas tradition to others as well. Our little snack time was abruptly interrupted by some hungry mice from the sand dunes that boldly ran under our feet scouting for the fallen biscuit crumbs. We were all scared out of our wits, or at least I was momentarily when a mouse started running towards me even after I tried to scare it away. We quickly packed up the food, cleaned up the area leaving out any further cooking until next morning and decided it was time to sleep to avoid facing other hungry mice.
The 6 person tent was still a bit small for 4 persons to sleep comfortably, but on the bright side the weather was not too cold or too hot and our sleeping bags worked fine. Perhaps it was the intensity of the evening that I could hardly catch any sleep. After trying in vain for a couple of hours, I woke up early and walked out onto the beach to wait for the first sunrays of the Easter morning. I pulled a chair and sat within a few inches of the longest reaching wave and waited for the cool water to touch my feet eventually as the tide rose with time. The lights in all the other tents lining the shore were out, except for a couple of them far far away. I was the only person on the open beach and this was exhilarating. I put on some music and sang at the top of my voice, which I can only do when I am very happy and when I am sure no one would hear me. The seagulls slowly started coming out onto the shore in formations and brazed the surface of the waves. The lighthouse beacon shined bright at the stroke of every minute in the far north. Slowly and very inconspicuously, the first rays broke out. It was again a very cloudy morning, and I pondered was it always this cloudy near beaches or have I seen any clear sunrise/ sunsets before? I also missed the full moon because of the cloudy night. Eventually people started coming out and cars started roaming around. I got out of the way and decided it’s high time for a nap to survive the rest of the day.
The rest of the morning was perfect with instant coffee in the cool sea breeze, walking into the waves knee deep the first time since we came to the beach, building sand castle, playing with a defective Frisbee, football with a volleyball (and me scoring a close goal too), and strolling along the length of the beach looking for butterfly shaped sea shells. It felt as if the time had stopped to see people playing with their small kids and pets, doing silly things, building huge sand castles and just lying around in swim suits. No one was in a hurry, no one was worried and everything seemed peaceful.
Finally it was time to pack up and leave. We successfully rolled the tent equipment back into its small bag, something which we were told was more difficult than pitching the tent. After a day of rolling in sand head to toe, I finally took bath. You realize that these occasions help us to appreciate the little pleasures of life like being able to take a warm shower and feel clean. On the way back, we had fresh sea food. We were all exhausted, but still content with the success of our long weekend adventure. Cleaning the car and equipment were the next biggest concerns while we passed time in a small smog induced traffic jam by discussing the nuances in languages. The final cherry on the top was a yummy Indian dinner and awesome late night coffee in Austin to keep us awake for another 3 hour drive back to Houston. This trip inspired in me the desire to break my own boundaries, travel and experience more and I hope to up it a notch by traveling alone to another natural wonder high on my wish list for the first time this fall as a personal gift for my 25th birthday! ☺