His big jaws were holding onto something – I couldn’t see what – but the gator was half out of the water as it downed a late afternoon snack. The nearby waterfowl and egrets maintained a safe distance; they had no interest in adding to the predator’s Happy Hour noshing. There was plenty of room for everyone in Beaumont’s Cattail Marsh, a 900-acre constructed wetlands complex run by the City of Beaumont, Texas as part of their water reclamation system.
It was only the second time that I’d seen an alligator out in the wild since spotting one in north central Florida, and I was tromping around in there for two reasons….a high school reunion and a tweet.
My high school years were spent in Beaumont and I’ll tell you, I didn’t like it very much. It was hard for me to fit in there after living and traveling all over the world while growing up in a Navy family. When southeast Texas people asked where I was from, I said that I was born in Key West, Florida but had moved to Beaumont from Virginia.
I might as well have said, “I came here from Neptune.”
It was an insular place; the kind that singer Michelle Shocked talks about in her song “Memories of East Texas….”
“Looking back and asking myself
‘What the hell’d you let them break your spirit for?’
You know, their lives ran in circles so small
Ah, they thought they’d seen it all
And they could not make a place for a girl who’d seen the ocean”
As I often joked, the screen door could not hit my butt fast enough on the way out of there.
Now I was back in town, having discovered of course that time heals a lot of things, and the short visits I’d made to Beaumont in recent years had been surprisingly enjoyable. Some things haven’t changed – the town is still too sharply divided along class, economic and racial lines – but attitudes are evolving and it makes me smile to watch good things happen.
My high school class of 1979 was very diverse, as was the reunion crowd, and at reunion social events we talked about the importance of taking our 1970’s experiences of learning to get along with one another and bringing that into our business and personal lives today.
I can also see the town and surrounding region through traveler and writer’s eyes.
My personal mission is to poke, prod, and dredge until I find compelling features in any town, so why wouldn’t I do the same thing in Beaumont? The reunion was a chance to go back and explore southeast Texas without the baggage of teenage angst (although I did drive around with my rental car’s SiriusXM radio tuned to the 70’s channel to provide aural atmosphere) so I made a list of places to investigate, including spots that were there in the late Seventies and newer items of interest, like Cattail Marsh.
But what about the tweet that I mentioned earlier?
It was a Twitter conversation – about the lack of mosquitoes in Cattail Marsh – between @Beaumartian/Stephanie Molina, now a friend of mine at the excellent local tourism bureau, and a couple of the forward-thinking people who are pushing for positive change in Beaumont.
Any information about where to avoid mosquitoes in this muggy part of Texas is definitely going to get my attention, so I clicked through to check it out. From those tweets I learned about Beth Rankin who edits the weekly Cat5 Magazine arts, food, music and culture blog for the Beaumont Enterprise, and @aomegajones who also writes for Cat5.
By reading back through their tweets and blog posts, I found all sorts of places to eat and visit, but I also liked their attitude, especially a terrific post by former Austinite Christina who is tired of the way Beaumont residents run themselves down. She says “it’s time for Beaumont to start loving itself.”
Guess you should count me as one of the new #Beaulievers – the ones who believe that Beaumont locals have to start knowing about and appreciating their own offerings before they can show off the town for visitors.
There are already enough people who blast past this area on Interstate 10, never stopping for a snack and coffee at historic Rao’s Bakery on Calder, or investigating the Neches River and nearby Big Thicket on a two-hour cruise, or shopping at cool boutiques like Ella + Scott in the Mediterranean-style Mildred Building or grabbing some produce and a breakfast burrito at the Beaumont Farmers Market.
I plan to move past my own high school hangups and join the #Beaulievers crew.
How about you? Is there a town that you’re ready to give another chance?
Update: I put together this blog post for the Beaumont CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) about things to do in Beaumont, TX on a perfect Saturday morning – works in spring, summer and fall but two of the suggestions are closed over the winter.
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