Texas City oil and gas refineries bellow steam at sunset.

Kemah Boardwalk and Texas City ride with Dave

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It’s the last Sunday of October. Dave and I set out on a lazy day-ride to Houston’s southeast. The idea is to hop through a string of cities along the western shore of Galveston Bay and to explore a part of Houston I have yet to visit.

I don’t know much more about this area than its proximity to the water. Our only scheduled stop is the Kemah Boardwalk. Beyond that, we will let the bikes lead.

And for good reason, too. A bike left to lead will ride you through small towns and down roads with “no trespassing” signs. Without a destination, curiosity begets the kind of exploration that unveils beautiful views and rewarding run-ins with the wildlife. It’s not mindless riding; it’s open-minded riding, and you can’t beat the rewards of an open mind.

Days like today get even better when you leave your cash at home.

See, Kemah is a cute little tourist trap that reminds me of John’s Pass Village and the Santa Monica boardwalk, combined. Tourists wave at other tourists from rides and boats. Tourists take pictures in front of signs. Kids run and scream at birds. Birds fly and squawk at kids. Shopkeepers peddle the kind of useless crap no one truly needs, and everyone buys the shopkeepers’ crap. The money flows, and smiles abound.

It’s the kind of expensive fun that a penniless chap like myself can appreciate for free. Every twenty feet, the boardwalk presents a new opportunity to trade a tourist his money for a fleeting fancy. Food, carnival games, rides — heck, Kemah even lets you feed the catfish — for a price.

The snickering cynic in me hopes the boardwalk restaurants feed the catfish to the catfish feeders — for a price.

Perfect motorcycle parking near the not-so-rickety wooden roller coaster.

Perfect motorcycle parking near the not-so-rickety wooden roller coaster.

This man and child just finished riding the zip line, and the look on her face is of sheer terror.

This man and child just finished riding the zip line, and the look on her face is of sheer terror.

Fall is in the air ahead of Halloween.

Fall is in the air ahead of Halloween.

A young boy feeds hundreds of catfish along the Kemah Boardwalk; the fish all but leap from the water to eat.

A young boy feeds hundreds of catfish along the Kemah Boardwalk; the fish all but leap from the water to eat.

Dave smiles whenever the eye candy allows.

Dave smiles whenever the eye candy allows.

An unlabeled access road with an open gate catches our eye along the highway; we explore and find property owned by the local energy company and several of these curious, seemingly abandoned structures.

An unlabeled access road with an open gate catches our eye along the highway; we explore and find property owned by the local energy company and several of these curious, seemingly abandoned structures.

Next, we head south to Texas City. It’s the part of Houston that isn’t so much a destination as it is the scenery around other destinations. Does anyone actually go to Texas City for fun? Dave and I expect a short drive-through at sunset, and then we’ll be off to dinner.

I’ve seen this corner of Houston a few times before — but only while leaving Galveston and only at a distance. At night, the shipping port and oil refineries light up the sky with an erie, red-colored glow. Thousands of mercury lamps dot hundreds of darkened towers and tubes. In the daylight, the mess looks like that 1995-era screensaver of tangled pipes.

Still, the view from across the bay has always impressed me, and I’m excited for a closer inspection today. It’s not “beauty” I expect to see. Something else about Texas City tugs at my curiosity. So much of Houston’s economy points to petroleum. The big players employ tens of thousands of people here, and the oil itself is such an integral part of our modern lives that wanting to know more is natural. How much so, I had no idea before just a few minutes of reading on the topic.

For starters, oil is arguably one of the least appreciated industries that is simultaneously one of the most accountable for our luxurious standard of living. Think back to a time before oil and you’ll likely think of coal and steam-powered locomotion. Think more and you’ll picture yourself walking or at best riding a horse-drawn carriage. That time is not too far gone — only a few hundred years.

Today, transportation uses the lion’s share of petroleum refined within the United States. Petroleum lets us move about for leisure and for work to a degree never before achieved. It quite literally lubricates the movement of everyone and everything, everywhere.

And not only is petroleum moving us and our things around, it packages us and those things. Plastics and chemicals account for the next-largest consumption of petroleum in the United States. Jugs, bottles, boxes, cartons, bags, and synthetics — these plastics are derived from petroleum and they cover our technologies, insulate our electricity, and protect our bodies. They carry our goods and make every-day living easy.

Petroleum is everywhere and in everything, and still, it is the stinking-est most pollutant in the minds of everyone who uses it. Plastics litter our streets and beaches. They fill our landfills. Pipelines mar beautiful wilderness. Drilling rigs and tankers spill countless quantities of filth into oceans. Petrol stations stink. Exhaust stinks. Oil stinks!

We hate oil. Oh, how we love to hate oil.

And just driving through Texas City, I see why. The place refines chemicals all day, every day, and has done so for many decades. Texas City has an off smell to it. It’s a place of industry, and industry is not pretty. There is no natural beauty here. Even the coastline is a contrived pile of dirt designed to keep nature OUT. The few visible “lakes” are manmade holes designed to keep unnatural contrivances IN.

Most of the beauty here is seen while looking AWAY from Texas City.

Men fish at the foot of the Texas City Dike; a cargo tanker passes along the horizon.

Men fish at the foot of the Texas City Dike; a cargo tanker passes along the horizon.

A view of Galveston Bay from the Texas City Dike.

A view of Galveston Bay from the Texas City Dike.

One just doesn’t look to the miles of coastline chocked full of container ships, towers, tubes, and tanks and think, “Wow, this place is beautiful.” Sure, the refineries are casually interesting — interesting like a water treatment facility for their function. But looking to a refinery for entertainment is like watching a nuclear power plant make electricity. There’s just no real indication that a refinery is doing anything at all. With some steam and maybe a visible fire or two, the place really just looks like an oversized chemistry lab.

A very quiet, abandoned-looking chemistry lab that we all know processes some extremely volatile chemicals. In fact, the place could blow up at any second. Texas City has a history of things blowing up, after all.

In 1947, a ship laden with ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded in Texas City with such magnitude that it ignited two other ships also carrying fertilizer. All three exploded, killed hundreds, wounded thousands, and leveled the two fire departments that would have responded to such a disaster. A ship’s anchor landed several miles away. A drive shaft was embedded into a nearby building. Entire blocks of homes around the port were destroyed. Children and adults attracted to the disaster died from inhaling the noxious fumes and smoke.

Suddenly, I want to leave Texas City.

In 2005, a British Petroleum refinery exploded. An important person showed up late to work. Some volatile stuff overfilled, some technical stuff failed to alert anyone, and some sparky stuff set the volatile stuff afire. Two hundred were injured or killed, and the United States’ third-largest oil refinery went offline. Yet despite the obvious human errors that led to the explosion, investigators found hundreds of safety violations after the fact. The refinery was old and ill-maintained. Heck, it was built in the 1930s. You don’t exactly expect a 70-year-old machine to be the flagship of safety.

And so, after a brief pause to appreciate just why all the streets around the port and refineries are abandoned, Dave and I ride through. I snap a few photos, and we head off to dinner. I’ve decided that just short of an explosion, oil refineries look their finest at sunset while all the drab gray metal turns orange and fire-colored!

Texas City oil and gas refineries bellow steam at sunset.

Texas City oil and gas refineries bellow steam at sunset.

Brian

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