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Places of Interest

Texas: Rio Grande Valley

South Padre Island, Port Isabel Lighthouse, Falcon Lake & State Park, Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, Sable Palm Grove Sanctuary

2004 Travelogue #1 Rio Grande Valley
Casa del Valle RV Park
Alamo, TX

"Life is like a box of chocolates …it's just full of surprises". The Rio Grande Valley has been that way for us this past month and a half; each day has brought some kind of surprise. We thought it was about time to pass along news of our wonderings and activities.

The incursion of "Winter Texans" is massive in the Valley. Many times, while living in the Dallas area and traveling Interstate's 20,30, &35, I saw RV's of all sorts moving south in the winter and north in the spring. Now I know where they were going to and from…the Rio Grande Valley. "Winter Texans" travel two main corridors to the Valley, one is US 77 through Corpus Christi south and the other is US 281 south of San Antonio into McAllen. We chose the San Antonio route since our final destination was Alamo, Texas, a few miles east of McAllen. Often when I thought about the Valley, I thought mainly of Brownsville, located at the tip of Texas but this area is much larger and more diverse.

We chose this location because we wanted to spend the colder months, December, January, and February, someplace where it was warm and the semi-tropical climate of the Valley met that criterion. We made reservations for this Park, site unseen, last July based upon the personal referral of someone we met at Lake Tawakoni. We have not been disappointed with the warm climate, as we watch the cold weather in the midwest and northeast. Our Park has many out-of-state folks primarily from Missouri, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota. So the name "Winter Texans" has been coined because of the influx. (The locals call us, "Q- tips", meaning white on the top and white on the bottom
(white hair and sneakers). The Valley's Chamber of Commerce has promoted the area, encouraging the " Winter Texan" concept, because of the huge economic impact on the Valley.

To give you an idea of what our Park is like: It sits on about 10 acres with paved streets and cross streets off a Farm/Market road, which was once agriculture land. Each site has a concrete pad, water, sewer, and metered electricity, with the option of subscribing to cable and telephone. There are about 30 feet between each site with one side having a paved patio. There are about 20 feet in the rear, which alleviates a crowded feeling.

The Park has "park models", which are smaller manufacture houses about 40 feet long and 12 feet wide and on wheels. Residents buy these homes; move them onto a lot they have leased, giving them a more permanent structure than an RV to return to year after year.

Our Park employs a fulltime Activities Director and has many amenities, such as a large activity hall, game rooms, information center, shuffleboard, tennis, horseshoe pits, heated swimming pool and whirlpool. The activity hall has a continuous line of folding tables and chairs surrounding a large parquet floor, where square dancing takes center stage. Professional entertainers, individuals as well as groups, appear weekly offering residents a wide variety of entertainment for the nominal fee of $2.00 or a goodwill offering. Many times the activity is advertised in the weekly newspaper and open to other "Winter Texan's". This place is a community and structured as such; there are many similar RV parks in the Valley. This lifestyle is yet another first experience. If you are looking for nature walks, this is not the place, but, if you're looking for things to do with planned activities and entertainment (similar to life on a cruise ship) then, this IS the place.

Also in this area is South Padre Island, and the Upper and Lower Valley; each having its own distinctive topography. South Padre Island borders the State of Texas all the way up the coast to Corpus Christi. Here, at the tip of Texas, Padre has undergone massive development in the last 30 years with large hotels and condominiums. The beachfront reminds one of the walkways along other prominent beach fronts i.e. Hilton Head, Gulf Shores, Destin, etc.

Peggy and I remember coming to Brownsville in the late 60's, taking the ferry across to South Padre and then driving for miles along the beach at the water's edge in our Mustang convertible, AND, we were the only ones on the beach. Today it's crowded with all sorts of buildings and service businesses to satisfy the "Spring break" crowd and summer vacationers, and a causeway connects Port Isabel to South Padre…BUT, the salt grass and sand dunes haven't changed.

The Rio Grande River has a story all its own. Rio Bravo is it's Mexican name and it begins in the mountains of Colorado near Creed. Its life giving water is controlled and measured all the way down to where it finally empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The United States and Mexico have jointly agreed to control the release of water out of two major reservoirs along the Rio Grande, Lake Amistad near Del Rio and Falcon Reservoir in the Upper Valley. These lakes were established to control the flooding that occurred in the Valley and to provide adequate water resources for the developing agriculture business.

The lower Valley starts at Brownsville, the tip of Texas where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and extends up the Rio Grande Valley for some 50 miles to Mission, Texas. The area was first settle in the late 1700's by Spaniards and Mexicans, then, after the Civil War, Brownsville became a port that offered opportunity to the people living in the Valley. By the turn of the 20th century agriculture was becoming the main export of the area. The lower Valley began to develop as the railroads extended their networks offering a means to gain access to markets.

The major highway running east and west is US 83 and the drive from Brownsville to Mission is the agriculture belt. The water that has been controlled through the two reservoirs and released when needed offers irrigation for various crops. In our drives we have seen large fields of carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, sugar cane, and large citrus orchards of tangerines, oranges, and the delicious ruby red grapefruits. (Our friends Joe and Jean Crouch have supplied us with the most wonderful handpicked ruby reds, which we have enjoyed each morning.)

Heading west from Mission toward Zapata and Falcon Lake is the area known as the Upper Valley. As we drove to Falcon Lake, where the State of Texas has a large Park with RV and camping facilities, the terrain became more rugged, less fertile and rocky and it appears that the topsoil is not conducive for much agriculture production. It looked like a good place to grow scorpions, tarantulas, and snakes…if you get my drift.

The Lower Valley area sits in the middle of one of the great natural flyways for birds moving between North America and South America, with over 450 species being identified. We are not too knowledgeable about birds, but we do enjoy watching them and trying to identify the different species.

The afternoon of our second day here, December 14th, we drove south on FM907 to US 281 to the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (956-784-7500) west of Harlingen. This refuge, like many other places in the Valley, is a great place to observe birds. The Park is one on the largest remaining pockets of wilderness on the Lower Rio Grande River. The Refuge has more than 2000 acres of primitive forest of honey mesquite, ash, cedar elm, and underbrush with every branch having some kind of thorn on it.

We arrived shortly before the 5 pm closing time but were able to enter the Park and walk one of the many marked trails before dark. As we walked into the bush we heard a noise up ahead, and there, feeding across our path into the underbrush, were about 10 Plain Chachalacas. This bird is native to the area, larger than quail but smaller than pheasant but it does resemble a pheasant. Intrigued, we had a close-up view while they foraged.

A little further down the trail we heard voices. Approaching a large Resaca (a body of water where the River has flowed in the past but is no longer a part of the river channel) a man and woman sat on a bench looking out over the water. We stopped to view the scene and started a conversation. The lady was from Massachusetts and is the birding guide on Sunday and Tuesday mornings at the Refuge. She pointed to several different species around the water, the Least Grebe, Great Kiskadee, and Green Jay were among those we spotted. Since it was getting dark, we walked back together encountering more Chachalacas along the way.

Several weeks later we returned to the Refuge and took the 7-mile interpretive tram ride around the Park. This hour and a half ride is well worth the $3 per person ticket. We were fortunate to have a husband and wife team as our driver and guide. The lady was extremely knowledgeable of the area adding insights to, not only the wildlife and natural setting, but also the history, which made for an enjoyable ride. Her husband, our driver, was very good at spotting different birds as we rolled along.

In January our Washington state friends, Joe and Jean Crouch, arrived in the area. We had met them at Lake Tawakoni last spring but hadn't seen then since, so we planned an outing together. Driving to Brownsville, we picked them up on our way to the Sabal Palm Audubon Grove Sanctuary off of FM 1419. www.audubon.org/local/sanctuary/sabal

This Sanctuary is cradled in a bend of the Rio Grande River along the border on the U.S. and Mexico. Sabal Palms once grew in abundance along this stretch of the Rio Grande. They could be found in small groves extending about 80 miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico. Today, only a small portion remains, in this 527-acre Preserve. The Sanctuary has two, half-mile walking trails which we took. It was quiet, peaceful, and relaxing as we made our way through the rustling palm trees. We stopped along a boardwalk over a Resaca and observed some of the aquatic activity.

Leaving the Sanctuary for South Padre and Port Isabel, we stopped at the Port Isabel Lighthouse. It was built in 1852 and served as a guide for ships until 1905. During the Civil War it was a lookout for both the Confederate and Union armies. After walking the area we drove across the causeway to South Padre and through the town. It was noticeably not the season for beachcombers but, with all the commercial establishments, this must be the place to be when it gets warm.

We found a place to park, which provided public access and following a path through the salt grass and sand dunes; we made it to the beach. As the surf rolled in, we skirted the edge enjoying the peace and sound of the rolling waves, like the roar you hear when you place a conch shell over your ear. There is something majestic about walking a beach with the rolling surf, looking for seashells and always awaiting the next surprise that we might find in the sand, a feeling that you get in no other place.

Our Christmas this year was different from any in the past. Shortly after arriving in the Valley, Peggy flew to Tulsa from Harlingen, then rented a car and drove to Marshfield, MO to be with her Aunt Nola who had fallen and broken her hip. Nola was 94 and never recovered. We lost her on the 22nd. On Christmas Day, I was on the plane to Tulsa and then on to Marshfield. All the family arrived on Christmas evening, we had a celebration around the passing of a loved one… truly a precious moment in time.

We have been active since our return to the Valley. In the next several weeks I will gather more information and prepare another Travelogue describing what we found to do in this sub-tropical environment.

Bob & Peggy Woodall


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