TRAVEL: The last major Texas river. The Rio Grande staggers the imagination. Almost 2,000 miles long, it defies the type of river tracing that Houston buddy Joe Starr and I have ardently pursued for the past few years. The Texas-Mexico border alone is 1,000 miles long, which Keith Bowden tackled by kayak and canoe, then recorded in “The Tecate Journals.” The Rio Bravo is also beautifully revealed — in fragments — in Jan Reid‘s magnificent collection, “Rio Grande,” which I dipped back into this week on our 32nd Texas river tracing. Joe and I made a deal: Tracing the river’s whole length by car and on foot would take months. Also, in past years we have explored its banks in and around El Paso, Big Bend, Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Laredo, as well as spots in Colorado and New Mexico. Our missing link was the Valley. So we spent a long December weekend soaking up the Rio Grande from the bluffs of Roma to its quiet terminus at Boca Chica. It turned out the most gratifying of our tracings so far. It also pointed the way for three week-long, sweep-up tours of the final 18 Texas rivers.
TRAVEL 2: Eight hours on a smooth road. It takes less than three hours to reach Houston on a good day, then just over five hours to land in Brownsville, an old city that’s part of a sprawling, new metropolis. Tawny winter grasses alongside U.S. 59 and U.S. 77 — part of the planned Interstate 69, the so-called NAFTA Superhighway — make the rarely interrupted trip all the more pleasant. Once near Harlingen, palms replace coastal grasses, apt for the spot Spanish explorers called Rio de las Palmas for the wild groves that crowded the river’s mouth. Once a patchwork of ancient border crossings, forts and irrigated farms, the Valley is now home to 1.2 million people, just on the American side. From Mission to Brownsville, its spine is a 70-mile-long freeway, lined continuously with the kind of freeway culture recognizable anywhere in this country. Yet off that thoroughfare are pockets of singular culture and more than 80 birdwatching sites, the organizing theme of this trip. Gov. Rick Perry‘s “surge” is evident everywhere. Every cut in a median hosted a highway trooper. Helping out were police, sheriffs, constables, border patrol and, on one back road, a truckload of nervous, laughing Texas National Guard troops. The only uniformed activity during our drives were escorting an ambulance and directing traffic around a community parade. Other fleeting glimpses of the local culture: Billboards for insurance, immigration or accident help — especially involving 18-wheelers — also for adult day care and every level of public and private education.
TRAVEL 3: Our first stop: Gladys Porter Zoo. This is a big, modern zoological park at more than two dozen acres, built around a resaca, or oxbow lake. Richly landscaped, it rivals any big-city Texas zoo for variety of animals and novelty of presentation. For instance, I counted no less than seven giraffes and an equal number of very active lowland gorillas. One thing missing this warm winter afternoon: People. The lady at the butterfly house said she’d counted only six guests that day. Also, it being winter, much of the park was under construction. Some enclosures stood empty, others contained short-term visitors. Of course, it was our luxury to spend as much time as possible at each stop, which included quite a few endangered species supported by captive breeding programs. If you like zoos at all, this is a must-stop. We even spotted local birds like chachalacas, muscovy ducks, great kiskadees and golden-fronted woodpeckers poking around the enclosures. Time to play “If I Could Write a $1 million Check.” Then the money for Gladys Porter would go to all-new, larger and more current signs for the exhibits. Some appear to have been made of substandard material, fading quickly in the elements.
TRAVEL 4: From Mission to Roma and back. Our first full day started at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park near Mission. This preserved patch of riparian thicket has been altered in recent years to respond to immigration concerns. It is also the HQ for the World Birding Center, an alliance of nine Valley sites that help stitch together the more than 80 viewing areas in this unparalleled magnet for bird watchers. Right at the park’s entrance at generous feeders were dozens of chachalacas, green jays, clay-colored thrushes and white-tipped doves, along with more familiar species. On a hike, we were swarmed by mosquitos, but still caught glimpses of warblers, vireos and other flitterers, but no ocelots or jaguarundis, of course. We headed west for the treasure of pre-1900 buildings in Roma, some rescued, some still crumbling. Even after reading about this collection around a traditional town square for years, still a charge to wander around practically alone. At one point, Joe looked across the river, thinking: Oh that looks just like Mexico. It was Mexico. After lunch, we headed back east to Anzalduas County Park, where we saw the Rio Grande impeded by a big dam and wandered the fields looking for perhaps a groove-billed ani. Lots of other birds, including the now familiar kiskadees!
TRAVEL 5: Up at dawn the next day for the Palo Alto Battlefield. Not so much out of interest in the Mexican War, but rather for some more recommended bird watching. In fact, we learned much about the Taylor campaign and the U.S. Army’s “flying cannons” at this excellently interpreted site, and, along the way, found only a few birds: Eastern meadowlarks, Western kingbirds and what we believe to be an Aplomado falcon (humor us). We stopped by the Palmito Ranch Battleground — last clash of the Civil War and very similar in circumstances to the earlier engagement — on our way to Boca Chica. This rough beach leads to the mouth of the Rio Grande, but the scattered fishermen and families didn’t seem to care. We got out and made a five-mile roundtrip hike to the mouth, passing by terns, gulls and wading birds in their confusing white-and-gray winter plumage. White and brown pelicans, along with cormorants, soared overhead, while great blue herons peaked out from the high-peaked dunes. Finally we saw the Holy Grail of Texas river tracing: A big river reaching the sea. It was only a few yards across and Mexican fishermen waded out into its middle stream. Thinking back, of all our river tracings, we’ve witnessed only one true, verifiable source (San Saba River) and one true, verifiable mouth that reaches the sea (Rio Grande del Norte).
TRAVEL 6: A somewhat isolated land. Leaving the Valley, one could not help noticing the dearth of vehicles heading north or south. If counted together, the 1.2 million people in the Lower Rio Grande Valley would comprise the fifth largest metro in the state. And yet the NAFTA Superhighway was clear, even of 18-wheelers on a weekday morning. This fact underlined the impression that the Valley is unto itself, connected east-west by that long freeway, north-south by the river and its bridges. But not particularly interested in the rest of Texas to its back. Which explains some of its magic. We lingered at excellent eateries — Kiki’s, El Pastor and Camperos — and were always the only Anglos present. Same was true at the super-sized H-E-B we gleaned for grub. Clerks, except at the Hampton Inn, greeted us in Spanish and English. We overheard a good deal of idiomatically fluent Spanglish not like any other in the state. If anything, this made us hungry for more and more of the Valley. We ran across some of the crippling poverty endemic to the area, but we also found a place where people seem particularly settled and at ease in their part of the world.