It started with driving an hour or so to Clute, Texas, to pick up a couple of boxes of my books from the Intermediate school. I'd spoken there a few weeks earlier, and had left the books so a few students could buy copies the next day. Clute isn't that far from where I live now, in Sugar Land, and it's more or less part of my my old stomping grounds. It wasn't much of an imposition to make the drive.
The day was a bit chilly, which was a welcome change. Texas days, even in the Fall and Winter, can sometimes be hot and muggy. Humidity climbs to ridiculous levels, so that even on a day in the mid-70s you could have a nice little rivulet from armpit to waistband. And everything you wear feels overdone for the weather, even if it's shorts and a T-shirt. But on this day, I had on a leather coat and a hoodie, and I was loving it.
I got the boxes and loaded them in the back seat of my truck, and then set out from Clute for a drive to Wharton.
I'm working on a piece about the Dinosaur Park in Wharton. I've already talked to a couple of people, and done some research online. But my plan that day was to go spend some time at the park for a bit, then find a few local sources who could give me more information. I was going to visit their local museum, the local newspaper, a couple of local businesses—I was going to make a day of it, and enjoy myself while I learned more about Dana Steinheimer, the creator of the 'Wharton Brontosaurus.'
But something funny happened on the way to the Brontosaurus ...
I took the long way 'round, leaving Lake Jackson and driving 332 into Brazoria—which really was my old stomping grounds. I was born and raised in Brazoria, and I was happy to see that despite a new bridge and overpass network leading into town, the place hadn't really changed much.
From there I swung through Wild Peach, right past the street I grew up on, and kept rolling toward Sweeny, where I graduated high school. I marveled at the paradox of the whole place—simultaneously exactly how I remembered it, while being completely changed. People I didn't know were living in houses where I'd spent a lot of time, growing up. Roads I used to travel for school and work and church were rerouted. Woods I used to play in were leveled to the ground.
Maybe that's what did it. Maybe the incongruity of the place set off something in my head. Maybe I just had to see how much had changed, and how far those changes would stretch.
I started driving along Highway 35 into Bay City. The plan was still to go to Wharton, and this would get me there without much of delay. Just a bit more of a scenic route than the one I had originally planned to take.
But a funny thing—once I was through Bay City I decided to just keep going. I decided I hadn't seen much of this countryside in the past twenty or thirty years. Not since I was a kid on a church bus.
Palacios, 22 miles ahead. Now that's a name I think about often, but a town I haven't been to since I was a kid.
And only 22 miles? Well ... that's not far, is it?
I stuck it out. I listened to an audiobook as I drove, "What the Dog Saw" by Malcolm Gladwell. I enjoyed hearing about the invention of the birth control pill and the plight of a playwright who accidentally plagiarized the life of a researcher who works with serial killers. I let my attention glide over the homes and schools and businesses and empty fields along 35 to Palacios.
And then I came to the town itself.
I'd been to Palacios maybe three times in my life, prior to that day. As far as my memory is concerned, the town itself is a blip. I don't have specific memories of any given place there. No stores, no libraries, no homes. Nothing at all, really. Except for the camp.
The Texas Baptist Encampment, or Palacios by the Sea, has a hundred-year history of giving kids a safe place to spend a summer. And it has a pretty special place in my memory. It's where I spent a few summers, growing up, having fun and learning more about God alongside a few hundred fellow Christian kids. There were games and activities, swimming pools and fishing, and lots and lots of sunburns. There were nights sleeping in bunks, with dozens of other boys snoring their heads off, and all the smells and noises that you'd imagine. There were pranks and the occasional fights. And there were girls.
In fact, my first real girlfriend was a girl I met on a trip to Palacios.
Nikki was a tall, thin, dark-haired beauty. She was smart. She was kind. And she pretty much set the tone for all the girls I would date afterward. We had a week of romantic nights staring at the bay, holding hands and making out on the pier. We got in trouble a few times ... because Baptist. But I I had no regrets. And even when things ended, barely a month after we left camp, I still thought fondly of Nikki, and I couldn't be more grateful that she was my first love.
I pulled into the the camp, and had that little shock of recognition you get when suddenly a place just dials into focus, and all the familiar details pop into perspective. I hadn't realized just how solid my memories were of the place. Once I had my orientation, I could still pick out the direction to the pool, to the little onsite convenience store, to the pavilion and the cabins. It all came back to me, being in that place. It was all familiar. It felt like home.
Which is weird. Because, as I said, I spent maybe three summers there, as a kid. Other church camp years saw us in different parts of Texas. Some years had us bunking out in the Fellowship Hall—a large metal building beside our church that was something of a multi-purpose space. Or "cheap digs" when you're a church in a low-income, backwoods part of Texas and you want the kids to have some safe and wholesome fun.
But Palacios was and always will be the youth camp I remember most clearly. It's the essential model of youth camps, in my mind.
I was pretty far from Wharton now. It was going to take me about an hour to get back there. And it was late in the day. I was hungry, because I hadn't stopped to eat along the way. I thought I might find something while meandering back toward Sugar Land.
But instead of going straight back, I took a left turn instead of a right, and just drove aimlessly for a while, taking in more country. I drove along the bay for a bit, and then hooked a right through a couple of small towns, and made my way slowly back to 59. And from there it was less about the drive, and more about the direction.
I passed the exit for Wharton, and kept going until I was home.
There's something to be said for taking a drive like that, for sipping the memories of your youth and seeing if they still have their potent flavor. Nothing all that profound happened, on my drive to and from Palacios. There was nothing so notable about the trip that it changed my life or anything. It was just a reminder.
I probably spent six hours making a drive that brought me right back to my home. It was essentially a waste of gas and a waste of time. What could I have written, in those six hours? How many people could I have talked to in that time? How much could I have produced?
Was it wasted, though? Was it completely without value?
I think it was a bit like reading through old journals. It was a peek at who I used to be, and there were contrasts there that helped me identify who I am now. It was a long drive just to come back around to where I am, but somehow it got me further along. So it was totally worth it.