At first glance, it looks like the perfect campsite.
We check in at Sea Rim State Park, in the Southeast corner of Texas, and drive out on the five-mile long beach. Our chosen parking spot is between the edge of a marsh and the Gulf of Mexico. From our bed in the back, we can look out at the sandpipers playing in the surf. The only other camper is a solo guy in a tiny tent, out fishing for his dinner.
Yep, this definitely seems like paradise.
After taking a jog along the packed sand, I return to Nash, who’s lying in bed eating Cheetos puffs.
“This is soooo cool!” I exclaim, jumping up on the air mattress.
An old lady approaches on her evening walk along the beach. She wears one of those floppy billed hats that old ladies like to wear when they travel.
“Beautiful view, isn’t it,” she says to us.
We’re a little awkwarded out because she a stranger and we’re awkward people to talk to in the best of times.
“Yeah, it’s a really nice area,” we say. “We’re enjoying the breeze.”
“Just wait ’til the mosquitoes come out,” she says. “Last time I camped here I couldn’t even get out of the car! You guys will be ok though. So long as there’s a breeze surely you guys will be okay…”
She trails off, looking at my boyfriend standing vulnerable in his short red shorts and flip-flops.
“At least it’s not summer!” Nash says. “Have a good night.” He tosses a puffed corn into his mouth.
“Yeah, you too!” she says, waving goodbye.
When the sun sets, we find out the lady was right. The mosquitoes come in droves. We shut the trunk and watch them swarm outside. A few rest on the windows on one side of the car. I’ve never seen so many before, but it’s easy to be unworried when there’s a barrier between us and them.
Even at the beginning of February, it’s muggy inside the car, so we crack a window on the leeward side. The mosquitoes can’t infiltrate the gap thanks to the breeze.
We both read until dark then drift off to sleep.
I’m woken an indefinite time later by a tickle on my cheek. I brush at my face, knocking a mosquito from its dining chair.
“Shoot, one got in,” I say, waking Nash. A whine invades my left ear. “Make that at least two.”
I worm my finger through the crack in the window and test the air outside. At some point, the breeze has dropped off. Uh oh.
With growing trepidation, I turn my Kindle screen to full brightness. It illuminates a terrifying scene. Fat black mosquitoes stud the car’s ceiling and fill the air with quivering blurs.
Nash and I respond as any sane people would, by pulling the blanket over our heads and screaming.
“There’s a jillion of them. Look up on the ceiling!” Nash shouts.
“The breeze stopped while we were sleeping, and they all shot through the crack in the window!” I shout back.
“Don’t leave the blanket or they’re going to get you!”
“If we wait until later they’ll probably go away,” I think aloud. “They’re that thing where they only come out in the evening and morning hours I’m pretty sure. What’s that called?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Crepuscular. Yeah, that’s it.”
“They ain’t gonna just go out of the car because it gets later!” Nash reasons. “They’re going to stay up there and suck us whenever they get hungry!”
“Well, I don’t know what we should do.”
“We’ve got to go out of here!”
“Give me a second to think…”
Under the blanket, Nash is silent for a moment, presumably thinking.
“Okay. We’ve got to drive off of the beach, but no matter what we have to make sure and not run over that fishing guy. And then we’ll go really fast down the road and somehow get them to go out and find some other place to spend the night. It’s the only way!”
“Uh, sure okay. It’s better than anything I’ve got. Help me move all this stuff out of the front seats.”
I scramble into the driver’s seat and start up the car. The wipers sweep the windshield free of mosquitoes, at least on the outside, but I still have to wait for the defroster to deal with the condensation. On the backup camera, through the swarming haze, I see our shoes sitting on the sand.
“Our shoes are still out there!” I yell back to Nash, who’s still cowering beneath the blanket.
He makes a little hole in the blankets and pokes his face out.
“Nooooooo! Don’t go, they’re going to get you!”
“I have to!”
“True. Okay, go quick though.” He pulls the blanket back over his face again.
With an unintelligible war cry, I fling open the door and run toward the back of the car. Tiny wings beat against every inch of me, but their window of opportunity is too short for a snack. I fling the shoes in the car and follow them back to relative safety.
Once we hit the open road, I roll the windows all the way down and step on the accelerator. We fly through the night, the wind whipping at our faces, and I pray a wild hog doesn’t pick this moment to cross the road.
Nash, still in the back, goes into Mosquito-Warrior-Maelstrom-Mode. He bounces across the air mattress and thrashes a pillow around, knocking the mosquitoes from their perches so they are swept outside.
“There’s some by my head!” I shout. “Get ’em! Get ’em!”
Nash winds up in the passenger seat, panting a little after his battle. It worked!
Not yet sure of where to go, we head north toward downtown Port Arthur, leaving behind the marshes and their sparse population of houses on stilts.
Out of the darkness, a twisted and glittering city appears. Bright orange lights outline miles of pipes and towers and tankers. An oily tang burns the back of my throat.
It’s the Port Arthur Refinery, the United State’s largest oil refinery, which can process more than 600,000 barrels of crude oil in a day. Here, science and industry have tamed nature in a way that makes our pillow fight with the mosquitoes seem like child’s play.
The outputs of this refinery built the roads and wheels we drive on and provide the fuel to move us along them, making our passage through the tortured land a kind of worship. Much like the mosquitoes, with their perfectly-adapted parasitic ways, it is ugly and beautiful at the same time.
We end up staying the night at another controversial titan of industry, in the parking lot of a Walmart Supercenter. Though not our norm, the location feels genuinely luxurious. The back corner of the lot is eerily quiet, set among hedges next to a cow field. We’re one paved stroll away from indoor plumbing and a selection of everything we could ever need at everyday low prices.
And, best of all, we’re able to open all the windows a full inch.
- Sea Rim State Park
With both marshes and gulf shore beaches, this state park is a great spot for camping, walking, paddling, birding, swimming, fishing, and hunting… just come prepared for the mosquitoes!
- Port Arthur Refinery
This massive refinery is an impressive sight to behold if you’re in the area.