There's a perfectly usable Weber kettle barbecue grill resting amid a modern-day midden heap on the beach ready for the taking--it's right around mile marker No. 4, just north of where the road out of town ends in a trashy dunescape on the Gulf side of South Padre Island.
Apparently, the folks who abandoned it didn't need it anymore. They also left a gently used camp chair and all of their garbage, presumably from a Memorial Day weekend on the island. They just bagged it up and decided they didn't have room in the truck to take it to a Dumpster in town. Since they left it, every raccoon and coyote and jackrabbit has pilfered through the refuse, creatively spreading it across the sand and sargassum. There's a motor oil bottle here. A six-pack ring there. Is that a bottle of liquid drain cleaner?
The only ingredient missing is the the weeping Indian standing atop a dune and surveying the makeshift landfill. There are apparently no consequences for litterers. No incentives to stop it. No precedent to follow. There is garbage everywhere. Not just a Coke can here or a stray water bottle there. It's everywhere.
And it's gross.
Now, a case could be made for much of the refuse coming from the Gulf of Mexico itself--currents and tides being what they are, it's certainly possible that a lot of this trash migrates up from Mexico, like the tarpon that run along the Texas coast this time of year. But it's pretty obvious, after a walk out on the South Padre Jetty at the south end of the island, that the cans and bottles and dirty diapers have been deposited in situ by folks just too damn lazy to pick up after themselves.
I adore this little slice of Texas. It's a wonderful, almost-tropical stretch of the Lone Star state that feels completely unique. It has island town charm, tourist trap kitsch and a stretch of blonde-sand beach that can be as pretty as any in the country. But it's not. Because it's trashed. Every vista a visitor might try to enjoy is spoiled by refuse. Every camera frame is tarnished by rubbish.
It's so bad, so putrid, that I'm wondering if the cause is lost. The city of South Padre Island, over Memorial Day weekend, launched it's "Treasure It, Don't Trash It" campaign. It's not working. In fact, I believe it's worse than I've ever seen it, and I'm a frequent visitor. The garbage is a disgrace to the city and to Cameron County.
When I was growing up in the 1980s in East Texas, the state launched its famous anti-littering campaign--it featured legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn strumming out a few priceless licks and uttering in a menacing voice, "Don't mess with Texas." Apparently the campaign never achieved any traction on South Padre, where littering appears to be the norm, not the exception.
There's plenty of blame to go around for this travesty. City officials have done a poor job keeping their beaches clean. County officials should be embarrassed. And, frankly, the people who visit and treat it like a landfill should be ashamed. I know, if I wandered off the beaten path on public land near my home in Idaho and discovered such a mess, I'd be angry and embarrassed. The "Treasure It, Don't Trash It" campaign is a bust.
What's the solution? A friend of mine who lives in the area pointed the mayor's house out to me--it's a palatial bay-side estate that gets the best views of the Laguna Madre sunsets every evening of the year.
"He's always had money," I overheard someone say. "But I think he won the lottery, too."
Fresh off a fly fishing hike into the island's backcountry that consisted of wading the sand flats north of town and then humping it over the dunes to the beach where the bulk (but not all) of the trash is located, I looked at my friend, and I said, "If I won the lottery, I'd make sure there isn't a scrap of litter on this island."
And, at the moment, with images of Styrofoam cups and plastic water bottles and Mylar balloons still still fresh in my head, I meant every word of it. No, I don't expect the mayor--or the county leaders--to dip into their own pockets to clean up this mess, but, as a visitor to this place, I'd sure like to see some common-sense enforcement and an effort to clean up after the slobs who aren't motivated enough to clean up after themselves.
Or how about this? Threaten--and mean it--to close beach access to vehicles. There's no way in hell that a barbecue grill, a camp chair and cubic yard of waste made its way to mile marker No. 4 without the help of a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Keep the vehicles off the beach, and I'll wager the garbage problem gets a lot easier to handle.
And, frankly, how much is "too much" to spend on cleaning up the beach? Is it unreasonable to expect this very simple, very basic service from local governments?
Maybe this will help. It'll be awhile before I come back. I can chase reds and specks along the Florida Gulf Coast, or in the marshes of Louisiana, where trash isn't lying around like pickup sticks. I can walk the beach at Pensacola. I can fish from the jetty at Port Aransas. I can take my business somewhere else. Somewhere cleaner.
The city's new Convention and Visitors Bureau Director, Rachel Flores, needs to know that selling her new home to visitors would be so much easier if the resources were allocated to clean up the trash that's piling up on the beach, along the bay and on the jetty. She should know that people who don't live on the island still love it dearly, and that it kills many of us to see it in this sad condition today.
Above all, she and her fellow city and county leaders should know that we have options. I will choose to go elsewhere until the folks in charge of leading their community step up and address this problem.
The island is a treasure. But it's tarnished. It's trashed. I can't bear to see it this way again.
This article was also published at eatmorebrooktrout.blogspot.com.