Saturday, November 20, 2010

A by-the-book tour

The free ferry — David Hahn take notes — to Galveston.

For those of you who have been in our home, it may come as little surprise that much of our peripatetic wanderings on this trip through the U.S have been inspired by books.
Our dining room and bedroom are lined with books. They are piled on end tables and coffee tables and on the desk in the room that houses our computer, until at last Vicki cries, ‘Enough,’ and there is a cull. Well, a mini-cull at least.
For a long time Ian especially has had a passion for books by William Least-Heat Moon, a writer and English professor from Missouri who writes about travel in the U.S. in at least three of his books. The wanderlust of Jack Kerouac and Jonathan Raban have left an indelible imprint of travel on his brain, and sometimes Vicki gets dragged along.
But often she shares the enthusiasm: Savannah (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil); Charleston (Gone with the Wind, Cold Mountain and other books about the antebellum South); New Orleans (countless choices); Vicksburg (Bruce Catto’s history of the Civil War); and Galveston (Isaac’s Storm).
Each has been interesting and even exciting, with a sense of a dream come true. And so it went until we hit the Texas Gulf coast.
Isaac’s Storm is about a hurricane that levelled Galveston in 1900, a story of personal and professional tragedy for a meteorologist based in the Texas island city, and how the lessons learned there helped develop the fledgling science.
The Erik Larson book is a marvellous description of people caught in events beyond their understanding and control, and we arrived in Galveston, travelling on the free ferry to the island city, looking for some of that history and spirit. We knew the city had been ravaged two years ago by Hurricane Ike, but were sure there would be signs of progress.
Instead we found a city with 20 miles of magnificent Gulf coast on one side of the main road that cleaves the island, and a strip mall of back-lit signs, fast-food joints, and cheesy bars — anything to separate you from a buck — on the other.
The historic city, a block off the strip, was boarded up and derelict to a large extent. A cruise through the heart of downtown at 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon involved less traffic than Pender at ferry time, and fewer people than gather at the Driftwood on a sunny summer afternoon.
Unlike New Orleans, likewise hammered by Hurricane Katrina, there is no sense of urgency or outrage, and fewer signs of life. Even exiting the area on Friday morning there was almost no traffic on the road, and nobody around and about the houses-on-stilts, built for the potential 15-20 foot storm surge, that line the coast. The absence of people was almost surreal, even though the RV park we were staying in was jammed with snowbirds and tourists settling in for the winter.
If a book is written about Galveston and how it’s dealing with Ike, it looks as if it will have a much sadder ending than Isaac’s Storm.

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