Domestic Bliss 

I can hear your sea winds blowing...

Our road trip to Texas every year at Christmas is a form of exquisite torture. The destination is 1,100 miles away, any way you approach it -- Galveston Island, on the Gulf of Mexico just below Houston, as far away as a place can be from the northwestern corner of Texas and still be in the state.

There were years when we were flush with cash and flew there, enduring only the drive from Houston to Galveston, a drive that has been known to turn the sturdiest trucker into a quivering mass of nerves, flesh and tears. But most years, like this one, we have driven -- down to Raton, over to Clayton in New Mexico, and on to Texas and Texline, past Dumas to Amarillo, then Lubbock, then by whatever route the map offers that we haven't taken in years past, to Galveston.

This is an excruciatingly boring drive, distinguished by the proliferation of roadkill, the shocking aroma of cattle feed lots, winds that rattle the front end of the car until the bumper threatens to fall off, and roads that extend forever in unforgiving straight lines. Occasionally, a piece of roadside kitsch startles us into awareness. One year it was a 20-foot-tall fiberglass cheerleader standing on the side of the road in a small town we have never been able to find again. This year, lost on the outskirts of Abilene, it was a giant barn on a vast parking lot in an industrial district, encased in shocking pink neon, a drive-through liquor supermarket called Doc's.

Our love-hate affair with the state of Texas is as wide and varied as the state itself. We curse the hideous winter cotton fields, the dust, the proselytizing billboards, the XXX adult video shacks in the middle of nowhere, the endless screeching country music stations. But we love the names of the towns we pass -- Happy, Tulia, Rosebud. And at night, far from the city lights, our cold hearts melt when we look out the car windows into the black sky and see thousands, hundreds of thousands of stars. I taught my youngest son how to find the Milky Way while I one-handed the steering wheel, hurtling down a highway at 70 miles per hour, peeking through the front windshield and pointing at the sky, "deep in the heart of Texas."

My favorite part of the drive is early morning the second day. Generally, we have driven 700 miles or more the first day and are well into central Texas by the time we pull over and check into a motel. I drag the boys out of bed the next day, pile them into the car where they immediately fall back asleep, fill the gas tank, then take off on the highway of my choice. I have seen deer, jack rabbits and eagles on this part of our journey. I have watched early morning mist rise above pecan groves and part, revealing a cloudless sky. This trip, I saw a farmer crossing a deep grassy field, surrounded by a herd of babbling sheep. By the time my kids wake up, we're on the home stretch to Galveston.

Both entrances to the island, approaching it from the northwest, are perilous, startling and stinky. Freeport, off the island's western tip, is a massive band of belching chemical and petroleum factories. Texas City, across the causeway from the island's center is a mass of steel towers with flames unfurling from giant chimneys -- oil refineries where, at least once a year, a fire or an explosion kills a couple of workers and puts the community into lockdown mode. We grow silent as we pass these monstrosities, knowing full well that, if not for them, there would be no such thing as a road trip.

But our hearts lift as we cross one of the two arching bridges that look as if they will catapult us into the bay once we reach the top. Stretching out before us is Galveston Island and time with our family. Gulls fly overhead. Pelicans, ibises and terns hover around marsh ponds. Pickup trucks take on a rusty glow. Tiny houses on stilts stand in neighborhoods adjacent to seaside mansions owned by Houston Rockets players and former Enron executives.

For a week, we settle into island life, watching the tide turn, the surf rise and settle. My boy and his cousin catch fish and my brother-in-law grills them in the back yard. We never know what time it is, except when the sun rises and sets. Eventually we have to face the return drive, but in the suspension of time, the love-hate affair is resolved. On the far southeastern edge of Texas, we are in love.



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