Marvelous Matagorda

East Bay at sunrise

Hundreds of miles of coastline stretch from Galveston to the Coastal Bend. I’d always wanted to explore that stretch in between where the Colorado River meets the sea. But aside from a state park on an island that is no longer accessible, nobody I spoke to could say much about what I might find there.

This only made me more curious. So one day I picked up the phone and started calling around. And before I knew it, I was packing my bags and headed for the coast.

What I found surprised me: spectacular beaches, abundant wildlife, great food, a fascinating history, fishing to die for and friendly folks who will make you feel right at home.

What I didn’t find was an overabundance of tourists. A couple from Fort Worth, a father and daughter from Houston, a family from Pearland and a handful of locals — but mostly, miles of white sand pounded by surf and backed by graceful dunes.

Last week I got to spend a couple of glorious days soaking up some of the best this region has to offer. On Aug. 9, the story will appear in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Meanwhile, here’s a preview.

Biking Bohemeo Style

Last night I followed up on a welcome invitation from Patrick Taylor, organizer of a new biking group over on Houston’s East End. I couldn’t think of a better way to meet new friends and explore my new city than this one — so I packed up Bessie and headed east.

Bohemeo’s, it turns out, is a pretty cool little cooling-off spot in itself – tucked inside the Tlaquepaque Market (an East End community center that’s as much fun to visit as it is to say), it’s a coffeeshop (yes, free wifi), restaurant, bar, and art & music venue all wrapped up in one.

Bohemio's, the East End's first art and music coffeehouse
Bohemeo's, the East End's first art and music coffeehouse

And now, it’s also the departure point for the city’s coolest new biking club.

Patrick Taylor checks Lajla Cline's tires in preparation for our inaugural ride.
Patrick Taylor checks Lajla Cline's tires in preparation for our inaugural ride.

It quickly became apparent that this group was not going to be like the bicycle club I trained with for the MS 150. No padded bicycle shorts or gloves here, and barely a helmet to be seen. The important thing here, I was told, was to have a good time.

“I work hard enough during the daytime,” said Elise, who was fetchingly attired in a denim dress and pink headscarf. Her hobby is biking from bar to bar, and “the getup is really important for that,” she confided. Note to self: I need to work on the getup!

There was an impressive turnout for the group’s first ride. I guess it shows the power of Facebook – and Patrick’s organizing skills. Or maybe it was just a good idea whose time had come.

Ready to roll
Ready to roll

Our first ride took us down the new Columbia TAP Trail, a rail-to-trail project inaugurated in March, and past scores of new trees planted as part of Mayor Bill White’s Million Trees + Houston Initiative. We cruised through East End neighborhoods and the TSU Campus to the McGowan Street Trail, a bike trail that parallels Brays Bayou and runs through the so-called “River Oaks of Houston,” a wealthy black neighborhood where you’ll find the mansions of famous locals like Beyonce Knowles.

The bayou here is sadly paved in concrete, unlike the Buffalo Bayou in my neighborhood, which was mercifully left intact. But the skies opened up here to the prettiest sunset I’ve seen in awhile, and I can honestly say the breezes were refreshing.

We did seven miles on this first round, and got back to Bohemeo’s before dark — in time to drink a cold one and enjoy some live music. A little soggy for a public appearance indoors, unfortunately — so the music will have to wait!

Mission accomplished
Mission accomplished

A farm with art – and heart

After a month of travel, these thirsty boots were aching for something more than the road — a place to dig in and put down some roots in the heart of this vast city. And right in the heart of one of its most blighted neighborhoods, I found it.

Cidette Rice, 5, Last Organic Outpost volunteer (and rock star)
Cidette Rice, 5, Last Organic Outpost volunteer (and rock star)
It’s a place where I can roll up my sleeves, grab a tray of squash seedlings and a shovel and put them in the ground. A place where I can reach down and run my fingers through dirt as soft and rich as that of my mother’s garden. A place that draws kindred spirits from far and wide and from right next door to work that soil. Folks like Cidette, who worked side-by-side with me to plant about 100 squash plants on Saturday, and a host of others who have contributed to an exuberantly lush expanse of vegetable abundance on a back street in Houston’s Fifth Ward.

The Last Organic Outpost is more than a garden, it’s an urban farm. It’s the brainchild and the lifework of Joe Nelson Icet, who has poured his sweat and his muscle and his life’s savings into this acreage and the other lot that surrounds his home.

“It’s not just about gardening; it’s about building a community,” Joe said.

Joe Nelson Icet, founder of the Last Organic Outpost, at the gate of his community farm
Joe Nelson Icet, founder of the Last Organic Outpost, at the gate of his community farm

About 10 years ago Joe was trying to figure out what to do with himself after a rough divorce. His job as a refrigeration maintenance man paid the bills, but didn’t fill the hole in his soul. He was looking for a mission, and as he began to plow up his yard and fill it with vegetables, he found it: to create an urban farm belt on the vacant lots in the inner city.

He found other abandoned lots to cultivate, and a community of people to help him. He found artists to come and lend their creative touch to the spot. And then he found the love of his life to help him – or, more accurately, she found him.

The vivacious Marcella Murff is now the red-haired, barbecue-cooking, bikini-wearing muse of the garden, and Joe’s never been happier.

I discovered the Outpost just days before departing for a monthlong global sojourn, and I lamented the fact that I wouldn’t be around to help for awhile.

“No worries,” said Marcella brightly. “Just think of how your garden will have grown when you come back.”

The whole story is here in Lisa Gray’s account in the Houston Chronicle, the article that first led me to Joe, and I’ll always be grateful.

“Fertility is the gateway to the soul,” Joe told me. “We start with the land and we heal it, and we end up healing ourselves.”

I looked around me at the assorted crew that had gathered to weed and hoe, a group as diverse as the vegetables they’d come to tend; I looked down at my own too-white, too-soft hands, and I saw that he was right. I grabbed a shovel and I dug in.

Farmer Joe gives Maddalena Romano a lesson in weeding.
Farmer Joe gives Maddalena Romano a lesson in weeding.
Time for a photo break!
Time for a photo break!
Patrick Taylor, flower child of the day
Patrick Taylor, flower child of the day

Food Inc., a horror film you must see

Normally I avoid violent movies, but this was one I knew I had to see. And it’s far more disturbing than the worst slasher flick – because it’s true.

It’s a gripping story about the violence being perpetrated not just on the miserable hordes of dumb beasts, but on us all.

It’s a tragedy that will move even the skeptic to tears.

And it’s a message of hope in a time of change.

See the trailer, and then, if you haven’t already, go see the movie. Please. It will change your life, and maybe even the way we do business in this country.

Cultural Safari in Tanzania

When I told people I was planning a trip to Tanzania, the first question was: “Are you going on safari?”

Well, I didn’t see giraffes and elephants and lions. But since “safari” is the Swahili word for “journey,” I can honestly say I did!

Look for the full story in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News travel section, or just click here to read it online. Meanwhile, njema safari (happy travels)!

TANZANIAFor more stories from this incredible journey through the real Africa, from celebrating the election of Obama in hubub of Dar es Salaam to making new friends in the Bukoba countryside, see Tracy’s blog, Postcards from Tanzania.

BUWEA women thumbnailFor a story about the amazing group of women who drew me to this remote region, and how they are changing it, see From Texas to Tanzania: San Antonio network changes African lives.

Zanzibar thumbnailAnd for story and videos from an exotic little side trip to the legendary Spice Islands — a land of Omani towers, red colobus monkeys, sparkling white beaches and mahogany forests — see Hakuna Matata in Zanzibar.