A New Face After Ike

27 October 2008

Galveston Pilgrimage

What had begun as a germ of an idea on Friday night, had become a reality by Monday morning.  I had to go to Galveston. 

It wasn’t terribly responsible—I should have headed home and started in on this week’s sewing.  It wasn’t really going to be fun—it’s hard to think “fun” when surrounded by damage and destruction.  And, it certainly wasn’t profitable financially—an extra tank of gas, a “spendy” luncheon, and a lost day of work.  But it was food for my soul.  As difficult as it is to explain, I needed to go to Galveston.  And this was going to be my one chance between now and December.  Not necessarily wanting to go it alone, I suggested the adventure to Ginger and to Kelly (who had work responsibilities she simply could not shirk—good girl, Kelly) and learned that Laura had expressed exactly the desire to go to the shore, and see the Gulf of Mexico!  Laura is a native Canadian, and she and her husband Paul and son Ben currently live in Wisconsin.   She’s visiting Ginger this month and working for Faire Pair, and this was just the sort of thing she’d been hoping to do.  So, a little bit of logistic planning the night before, and off we went!

It was just about noon as we rounded the southwest corner of Beltway 8, and started to notice various signs of Hurricane Ike’s destruction.  The closer we got to the island, the more blue tarps we saw.  I was glad for Laura’s presence, because pointing out landmarks gave both Ginger and I something to focus on that wasn’t sad and negative.  It was as we approached the causeway that we saw our first boat alongside the road.  Then there was Tiki Island—looking a lot more empty of houses on stilts than I remembered it.  On the causeway itself, we were surprised to still see dozens of wrecked boats of all shapes and sizes.  We’d seen photos of that scene, but after six weeks I guess I thought they’d be gone.  But then, time moves slowly in the wake of a natural disaster.

Once on Galveston Island, it was impossible to turn our heads without seeing more damage.  All along the main road (I-45 becomes Broadway) we saw ruined buildings and piles of debris.  And brown.  Everywhere was brown.  I’d read where the island was struggling to save the 600-plus Live Oak trees that line Broadway.  But, I hadn’t stopped to think how brown everything would look.  Trees, shrubs, ground cover, flowers—all poisoned by the salt water, and dormant if not dead.  And the tall, proud palm trees were so horribly battered from the wind and water-tossed debris, that some looked like they’d been attacked by chainsaw. 

We had decided our first destination on the island would be the 1861 Custom House—the home of the Galveston Historical Foundation offices.  So, we followed Ginger’s GPS (hers works great!), made a couple of turns off of Broadway and found ourselves looking at Rudy and Paco’s.  Contrary to a news article I recently shared here on The Daily KRuMB, the building is still standing, and shows signs of continued renovation and recovery.  That was good news.

We found the Custom House, poked around a little, and climbed the stairs to the GHF offices.  I was hoping to meet Molly, my primary contact at the GHF, but she was at lunch and we chatted briefly with Judy, instead.  From there, we drove the short distance to Mechanic Street and parked right across from the Tremont House Hotel.  Seeing that was very near the top of our list for the day.  First we peered in the windows to our Gingerbread BallroomWow.  Then, around the corner, peering into each dirty window at naked studs and little else.  At the front doors of the Tremont, the extent of this recovery project became really evident.  Virtually all the walls have been removed.  The grand entryway is nearly unrecognizable.  A huge amount of work has already been done, but the project ahead is mammoth.  We actually learned that the current plan is to rearrange the whole floor plan, including moving the kitchen and restaurant to the opposite end of the lobby.  No wonder they need until after the first of the year to get it all done!

Having begun our tour of downtown at the Tremont, we were somewhat numbed to the rest of what we were going to see.  Across the street, the big ballroom lobby, The Strand Theatre, Fitzpatricks Pub, and the site of the late Midsummer Books—all stripped to studs and concrete slabs.  We soon realized that the spaces with brick or stone or concrete walls had a considerable advantage over anyplace that had had drywall walls.  But, at least the damaged walls all seem to be gone, now.  I’m sure that it must have been a very high priority of early recovery efforts to remove anything that would promote mold and mildew.

We walked down Mechanic Street, visiting the Galveston News Building to which I am so fondly attached.  On the way, we passed the building in my photo of the day—sporting a brand new coat of paint!  I was amazingly cheered by that simple green wall!  It was almost as if this building’s owner was thumbing his nose at Ike and saying, “Think you can bully the green off this island, do you? Ha!”  We walked over to the Strand and snooped around a bit, taking photos of high water marks and showing Laura specific sights. Amazed at how much time we so easily killed walking around and taking pictures, we finally had to give in to our hungry bellies, so we got back in the truck, and I pointed it toward the Hotel Galvez.

As I drove us down Seawall Boulevard, we were pleased to see a number of open restaurants and a fair amount of traffic.  We pulled into the Galvez, and in trying to decide where to park, were told that they weren’t busy, so we could just leave it there in the driveway with the valet.  They’d move it if necessary.  Lunch at Bernardo’s was very nice—the restaurant was technically closed (we got there just after two), but they obligingly served us anyway.  We had delicious burgers and sweet potato fries, and a delightful visit with the hotel’s concierge, Janet, who we instantly adored.  She was able to answer our questions about the island, and arranged for us to view rooms.  And, as icing on her cheerful cake, she engineered a meeting and introduced us to Mr. George Mitchell—the owner of Mitchell Properties, and much of historic Galveston, including the Tremont and the Galvez.  We were honoured and indeed rather charmed by Mr. Mitchell.  He was jovial, and seemed genuinely delighted to meet us and was very chatty about all the work being done to make Galveston whole again.  I was pleased to get to shake his hand and tell him how admired he is, and how much we appreciate all he does for Galveston.  It was pretty special.

We peeked at guest rooms and large meeting rooms (always thinking about future events!) and decided that the Hotel Galvez would be a fun change from our usual accommodations for Dickens.  Finished there, we drove on down the Seawall, and found the Memorial to the Great Storm of 1900.  And Laura found stairs down to the beach!  Ginger and I took photos and Laura put her toes in the Gulf of Mexico!  We were all happy!  By the time we were done there, the sun was low in the sky and we figured we’d missed the worst of the Houston traffic.  There hadn’t been time to tour the Elissa or Bishop’s Palace—things I had thought we might do—but it was a good, full day.  It was sad, but inspiring.  All around us was both destruction and hope.  I was content enough to leave, knowing, of course, it will only get better.  Even the green will grow back.

It was the longest drive home, ever.  I first took Ginger and Laura back to where we’d left Ginger’s truck, and that was a bit of an adventure in itself.  Then, food on the way to the highway and north.  But, the emotions of the day, and the shortage of sleep the night before conspired to make me too tired to finish the drive without a nap.  I slept for nearly three hours in a gas station parking lot in Centerville, and finally got home around three a.m.  One tired, but fulfilled, pilgrim.