Walking Galveston

Flor and I started coming to Galveston six years ago for three-day weekend getaways. I first visited Galveston in 1976, after my family moved to Houston. Two high school buddies and I used to fish off a pier from midnight till dawn, never catching anything. Galveston is where I had my first beer, my first time drunk, and my first time being threatened by an angry drunk. But Flor had never visited.

We stayed in an old mansion in the historical district and were captivated by the strange, antique beauty of the place. When we started exploring the neighborhood on foot, we discovered many more houses like it. It was like stepping back in time. Much of the magic of the place would have escaped us if we hadn’t been walking. Six years later, three years after we moved here, Galveston’s walkability is high on the list of what we love most about the city.

Walkability here certainly isn’t a product of urban planning. Galveston’s sidewalks are maddeningly inconsistent. One house will have a sidewalk; the next one won’t. You’re either forced to walk across a yard or venture into the street. It must be worse than maddening for the disabled. But the traffic is light enough that walking in the street rarely feels dodgy.

Much of what we love about walking is what we walk past in Galveston. When we used to take drives in the Texas Hill Country, we talked about the scenery, and that was the right word. Driving reduces what you’re driving past to a scenic backdrop, partly because you’re cocooned in two tons of steel, but mostly, because of how fast you’re moving.

Scenery is not the right word when you’re walking. When you walk, you’re part of the scene. You notice things you can’t notice in a car. The scene becomes a three-dimensional space with sounds and smells. You feel the ground under your feet. In Galveston, when the wind blows from the Gulf, you taste salt.

The speed of driving comes at the cost of these commonplace intimacies. Walking returns us to a human-scaled world. And walking is particularly suited to Galveston because Galveston is human-scaled. You can walk from one end of the city to the other in 75 minutes. You’d need more time to drive across Houston.

Our neighbor’s house, built in 1882

But walking Galveston is special because Galveston itself is special. Most of the houses in the historical district date to the nineteenth century. Many are grand, but many are not, and they too are unlike anything built today. Our neighbor’s house is a tiny, one-bedroom shotgun built for laborers in 1882, and even this little house has gingerbread trim on its front porch. Most old houses here have this idiosyncratic detailing. The carvings required time and craftsmanship, and I’ve yet to find two alike. The trim exists for no other reason than particularized beauty. Churches built during the Renaissance were built to glorify God, so they were designed to be beautiful. Our neighbor’s modest house shares this distinction with St. Paul’s Basilica.

And then there’s the beach. Walking along the surf, early in the morning, before the crowds arrive, reminds me of the ocean’s terrible power, of this island’s vulnerability, and of my own insignificance. I’m prone to inflate my own importance. This self-importance lifts me occasionally, but most of the time it’s a burden, not to mention untrue, so most of the time it’s a relief to have the air let out of the balloon.

The Gulf of Mexico reminds me that the world is big and marvelous, bigger and more marvelous than we can comprehend, and that we are small and contingent and inexpressibly lucky to live in a place beyond our fondest imagining. Walking Galveston’s shoreline humbles me, and that sort of existential, matter-of-fact humility is a comfort.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s