Southeast State of Mind
Port Arthur mixes it up with seafood, Janis Joplin history and a floating campsite.
I’ve camped atop mountains, on sandy ocean beaches, beneath towering pine trees and along rushing rivers at the bottom of canyons. But until I paddled a kayak 2 miles into the marshes at Sea Rim State Park in Southeast Texas, I’d never pitched a tent on a floating platform.
That overnight stay on a gently bobbing campsite, against a soundtrack of splashing fish and buzzing insects, felt surreal. Its location 24 miles south of Port Arthur makes it a great spot to stay when you want to explore the culture of the southeast coast of Texas.
I spent three days exploring the region and went home with a new appreciation for its people, food and character.
Chase Fountain | TPWD
Chase Fountain | TPWD
OUT AND ABOUT
I’d heard about a local restaurant called The Schooner in Nederland for years, so I kick off my trip with a visit to the landmark seafood joint. When the restaurant opened in 1947, the menu started with beer and ended with a dark roux gumbo. Since then, the restaurant has survived a devastating fire, and the offerings have expanded to include just about any type of seafood you can think of, including fried shrimp, oysters on the half shell, grilled tilapia and barbecue crabs. I settle on flounder topped with shrimp and crabmeat, a side of rich and cheesy au gratin potatoes, and a tasty mess of hushpuppies.
At the Museum of the Gulf Coast, housed in an old bank building in downtown Port Arthur, curator Robert Fong walks me through exhibits featuring the music, sports, history and art of this corner of the state. The museum highlights not just Port Arthur, but the entire Gulf Coast region.
You’ll find information about Spindletop, the oil field near Beaumont where a gusher sparked an oil boom in 1901. It blew for nine days, sparking an influx of people who worked the fields, staffed the refineries and supplied the fledgling crude industry. That diverse influx of people made its stamp on life along the Gulf Coast. Three separate galleries honor the region’s most famous sons and daughters, a list topped by rock musician Janis Joplin.
“A very large percentage of people from outside the state and country are here to try to connect in some way with Janis Joplin. Her stature, myth and legend just continue to grow,” Fong says.
Joplin died of a heroin overdose in Los Angeles in 1970, when she was just 27. Her hits include a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee, as well as Piece of My Heart and Mercedes Benz. I admire sketches Joplin made as a girl and inspect an old black-and-white photo of her climbing a tree outside her childhood home. A replica of Joplin’s famous psychedelic 1965 Porsche 356 Cabriolet is parked in one corner.
“I feel like she’s a product of this area,” Fong says. “And this area is partly responsible for the great music that came out of her.”
Joplin gets lead billing in the museum’s Music Hall of Fame, but others get a nod, too, from country great George Jones to rockers Edgar and Johnny Winter, Cajun crooner Johnny Preston and zydeco legend Clifton Chenier, who started playing the accordion during lunch breaks when he worked at Gulf Oil Refinery. The hip hop duo UGK gets a nod, as do Clifford Antone, who brought blues to Austin, and the long-bearded trio ZZ Top, who played their first gig in Port Arthur.
It's not just music, either. Museum visitors can see work by artist Robert Rauschenberg, learn about Liar’s Club author Mary Karr and see Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson’s high school letter jacket, Karen Silkwood’s employment application from Los Alamos and the Oscar won by Leah Rhodes for costume design in the movie Adventures of Don Juan.
JAWS AND JANIS
I want a casual, unpretentious place to eat lunch, and Fong suggests Jaws Bar-B-Que, a brightly painted yellow-and-red structure down the street.
Punarbassi Sandy, who came to Port Arthur with her husband from British Guyana 40 years ago and opened the restaurant, knows her way around smoked meats. Jaws is known for links and barbecued neck bones.
The restaurant’s name comes from Punarbassi’s husband’s initials – Arthur Jefferson Washington Sandy. (He flipped the order of the letters around to get Jaws.) Arthur has since died, but Punarbassi and the restaurant were featured in Texas Monthly in 2017.
“In my country, everybody cooks, so we know good taste,” the 78-year-old restaurateur tells me, and explains that she combined three recipes to come up with her own spin on links.
I have just enough time to zip over to 4330 32nd St. for a peek at the house where Janis Joplin spent her high school years. (Her earlier childhood home has long since been torn down.) Other than a historical marker out front, you’d never guess that one of the country’s most famous blues rockers spent her formative years here. Unless, that is, you saw the slab on the garage floor, where Joplin and her sister supposedly wrote their names in the cement.
SEA RIM STATE PARK
It’s time for the highlight of my trip — paddling out to the floating campsite for a night. The platform was designed by architecture students from the University of Texas, and makes a great home base for bird lovers, paddlers and anyone looking for a unique place to spend the night.
The only way to reach the platform is by shallow draft boat, canoe or kayak. You can use a small fuel stove to cook, and you must bring a 5-gallon waste bucket (available at the park headquarters) since there’s no nearby restroom.
I meet Callie Sumerlin, a Port Arthur resident who’d never been to the platform, at the boat launch. I rent a kayak at the park’s headquarters a few miles away on the opposite side of the road, but you can also use a credit card to access kayaks at a self-service boat “vending machine” next to the dock. Sumerlin brought her own.
We strap our tent, sleeping bags, clothing and flashlights, along with the required 5-gallon bucket and waste bag, onto our kayaks and shove into the grass-lined channel. From the dock, it takes about an hour to paddle to the campsite, 2 miles away. You can’t get lost — just follow the well-defined channels, which are almost like watery roads cut into the marsh.
Look for wildlife along the way. Pepto Bismol-colored roseate spoonbills and spindly-legged blue herons wade among the wetlands, and alligators occasionally make an appearance in the lagoons and salt meadows.
We spot the campsite long before we reached it. A tall wooden tower, which serves as a three-walled shelter (where you can tuck your waste bucket under a bench conveniently outfitted with a toilet seat,) rises from the marsh like a beacon.
Up to four people can stay at the site. Just make sure you have a free-standing tent that doesn’t need to be staked into the ground. (You can tie it to points on the platform). We tie off our kayaks and hoist ourselves onto the 13-by-20-foot platform. There’s room for two tents.
I secretly hope we’ll spot a gator (keep 30 feet away if you spot one), but all we hear are some mysterious, unidentifiable splashes as we unzip the tent flaps and crawl inside for the night. We’d been warned about the mosquitos, too, but a cold front blows through, keeping most of the bugs away until the sun sets.
While you’re at Sea Rim, make time to explore the beach side of the park, too. The park opened in 1977 and has been walloped twice by hurricanes — once, in 2005, by Rita, and again three years later by Ike, just as it was preparing to reopen after repairs. It finally opened on a limited basis in 2010, and in 2014 a new camping loop, boardwalk and day-use area were unveiled.
The coastal environment is rich with opportunities for exploration, and Port Arthur itself offers a gumbo of culture with all its food, music and history. The southeast corner of our state may just take a little piece of your heart, too.
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