Best Texas rivers: San Saba River

SAN SABA — This is Tommy Lee Jones country. It’s also, in a sense, “No Country for Old Men” country.

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Courtesy of LandofTexas.com.

Not that the desolation of Cormac McCarthy‘s West Texas border novel echoes the soft, well-watered hills and vales of San Saba County. But Llewellyn Moss, played with unnerving reserve by Josh Brolin in the award-winning movie by the Coen Brothers, is from San Saba. And Jones, who grew up in this comparatively isolated country 90 miles northwest of Austin, constantly reminded Brolin that he is from San Saba, almost as a challenge to the younger actor’s authenticity.

Jones’ ranch is just five miles east of town. Strangers are not welcome, and he’s one actor I’d not want to irritate. A sign on the ranch gate barks “Go Away,” but one can spot Jones’ famed polo grounds across a gentle, red-grassy rise. Funny thing, all his biographies say the ranch is “outside San Antonio.” In fact, it’s two hours from Austin; three from San Antonio.

People in San Saba respect Jones’ fierce sense of privacy, and say so. The whole town — plus folks from Lameta, Brady, Goldthwaite and other nearby spots — turned out for Christmas in the Square on Saturday. In fact, the bleachers were full two hoursbefore the 15-minute parade through the courthouse square commenced.

While Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted hordes of children, performers in a living nativity scene sang carols. (There appeared to be no creche crisis on this county property.) Across the street, solo singers braved karaoke carols, including a Spanish-language version of “Jingle Bell Rock” (21 percent of the county’s 6,000 residents are Hispanic.)

San Saba is the “Pecan Capital of the World,” as almost everyone, including Harold Yates from the Chamber of Commerce, reminded me. “Not because we grow the most pecans, but because the mother tree for commercial orchards is here.” Nolan Ryanowns an orchard in the county.

“Sure it’s the pecan capital,” said a visitor from Lometa who declined to be identified. “It’s also the meth capital of the world.”

Yates, who is thinking of running for sheriff, agreed there was a meth problem, but that most of it was imported, not labbed in the county, the last in Texas to pave its roads (a situation that led to the the rise of the San Saba Mob, which ran the county until Texas Rangers were able to oust them). Yates took my request to fix a speeding ticket with good cheer.

We resisted the temptation to buy Jacalyn Morley-Webb‘s tassled purses from her business, “Itz a Girlz ThAng,” but couldn’t turn down Mary Huron‘s Hot Sauce, which sat alongside jars of Huron’s Mild Sauce. (Sad mild world.)

We also scored some samples of Bill’s Season All, a marinade that Edward Ragsdale said would “make your steak so tender you can cut it with a fork.” The late Bill Eden used to cook up in a small pan the seasoning in the back of the G&R Grocery store on the courthouse square “until he needed a really big pan,” the stuff got so popular. Ragsdale smiled devilishly when he said: “Bill’d be turning over in his grave if he knew how much we sold these days.”

Every other business in San Saba has to do with pecans. Tourism has not risen to the Fredericksburg level, but there’s a capacious, terraced Mill Pond Park, a preserved swivel bridge and “the oldest working jail in Texas.” Down the way is Colorado Bend State Park and, up the San Saba River, Fort McKavett State Park, a miraculously preserved compound from the late 19th-century Indian Wars, and the purported ruins of the San Saba Presidio, which look to be mostly 20th-century rather than 18th-century construction (including — ick — Portland cement, see photo).

The San Saba valley is pretty, clement and blessed with fluent springs. The river, which rises at Fort McKavett, quickly takes on a good surge, and one can see why the Spanish missionaries chose it for a mission, since the land quickly turns less hospitable to the west and south. (Did you ever wonder why San Antonio is where it is?) Unfortunately for the Franciscans and the Spanish soldiers, it was too deep into Lipan Apache and Comanche country, and the place was abandoned well before 1800.

A note about the trip up: We tarried at the Hill Country Wildlife Museum in Llano, a display of more than 700 trophies from Houston hunter Charles K. Campbell. It’s a shocking place, full of walrus, bear, Cape buffalo, etc.

The kind but weary docent said the nonprofit that runs the place, so situated on Llano’s square to attract the annual migration of deer hunters, is hanging on by thread. If you are at all interested in novelty tourist destinations, plunk down the $3.

For more photos from the San Saba River Tracing, shared with college bud Joe Starr, look for the Monday morning blog.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.

Best Texas rivers: San Bernard River

This old report comes with a novel structure. To see other posted and reposted Texas River Tracings, go to this point along the way.

Travel: Highlights of our latest River Tracing, this time along the San Bernard, the middle sibling between the Brazos and Colorado rivers, which rises near hilly New Ulm and empties — or doesn’t, depending on your story — directly into the Gulf of Mexico near the oceanside village of Sargent Beach:

House of Guys: Like good little Hobbits, Joe and I began our journey from Houston with a hearty breakfast. We hiked across Montrose and River Oaks to the House of Pies, which, in the 1970s, was the hottest after-club spot for the gay community. Some of those guys are still there.

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Photo courtesy of the Ranches at Cat Springs. (We are still trying to retrieve Joe’s records.)

Map stores: Hoping for some topographical maps of the San Bernard, we stopped by the Key Maps Inc. store (1411 W. Alabama St.), only to be directed to a Hodges Mason Maps (5704 Val Verde St.), tucked away on a dead end near the Galleria. Gold mine! We purchased USGS maps of the San Bernard at 1:100 scale, which practically shows the dust spots on parked cars.

Wallis: For the first time in our lives, Joe and I took Westheimer Road all the way to its end, which eventually leads to this Czech farming town, where we gawked at the pristinely restored Guardian Angel Church.

Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge: Larry Sebesta and the whole staff of this lesser-known refuge treated us like visiting royalty (Larry’s daughter, Courtney, works alongside us at the Statesman). We spent hours on the back roads of this restored coastal prairie. Saw armies of sandhill cranes, a bobbing burrowing owl, every kind of field sparrow, duck and lark, but no prairie chickens — which number fewer than 500 wild and captive-bred.

New Ulm headwaters: After nosing around Eagle Lake, we checked into the Columbus Inn, then zipped up to this tiny burg on a hill, which, at dusk, revealed a tree line (no actual water) where the San Barnard rises.

Schoebel’s: Like many small-town, family-style restaurants, this one comes with an oversized buffet, but we tried more contained dishes, like my sausage-and-kraut German plate. Excellent service, filling eats and reasonable prices in Columbus.

More Bernards: We zig-zagged across the San Bernard watershed today, which begins to pool not too far north of Interstate 10.

We saw the Middle Bernard River, the Little Bernard River, the town of Bernardo and the community of El Bernardo (near Sweeney), the Bernard Grocery and East Bernard.

The river grew stronger as we headed downstream through hardwood breaks to blackland cotton fields.

East Columbia: Since seventh grade, I had wanted to visit the original site of Columbia, one of the first capitals of Texas. We go through West Columbia several times a year on the way to the beach, but its eastern sibling was flooded in the 19th century and now perches on a bank above the Brazos River in well-kept remnants — a log cabin, some lovely mansions, several historical markers — and a vision of early Texas.

Sweeney: Ate at the Dairy Mart, listening to the locals drawl on about the gossip in this town, which has avoided the Greater Houston sprawl so far. Why can’t chains get the lettuce and onions right on hamburgers, like these mom-and-pop joints?

River’s End: After crossing the San Bernard for the last time — and at its widest — we journeyed down a spit of land, past some back-river communities, to a spot where the river meets the Intracoastal Canal. We could not see the actual mouth, but heard the ocean and could have sent a bottle rocket over it. Newspapers had reported that the mouth was silted up, but the fishermen at the canal said that was not so.

San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge: An even smaller operation than APC-NRW, this marshy preserve is home to thousands of migrating waterfowl, which one can see during auto tours or on foot. Hearing of alligators, we stayed in the car.

Sargent Beach: I had no idea this community was so extensive. We had doubled back around south to walk to the San Barnard mouth, but hit some rutted roads, so we hiked about four miles along the beach — encountering a small herd of cattle along the way — till we met some surf-fishers who had caught some enormous redfish. They said the San Bernard mouth was way, way off and, anyway, a recent storm had carved a cut in the island, which, at high tide, would keep us from the actual site. Ah well.

Cruising El Campo: We ended the second day of our trip in this curiously bustling town. We were actually looking for a bar, but didn’t know the address, so we drove around with my laptop open until we found a wi-fi signal — we gotta do this more often — located the address, then discovered it’s now a Mexican food restaurant. Which turned out fine: Family place with melt-on-your-lips enchiladas. Then back to Houston along U.S. 59.

Another river traced.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.

Best Texas rivers: Lavaca River

More Texas River Tracing, this one starting on the Navidad and ending on the Lavaca, August 2006. See posts and reposts here.

Now we know how it felt, in a small way, for explorers who misread incomplete maps.

This morning, on the third day of our Navidad river tracing, Joe and I retraced our steps through Point Comfort (a town with a difference of 200-residents on its population signs), past chemical and plastics plants, past snow-dappled cotton fields (“gotta get that cotton out before it rains,” one young woman told me), past Lolita to the confluence of what turns out to be the Lavaca and Navidad rivers, 10 miles or so above Lavaca Bay.

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Kreische Brewery Monument State Park. Photo courtesy of AustinExplorer.com.

There it was plain as day, but not marked clearly on our maps. So, in fact, the mouth of the phantom Navidad that we tried to spy from Point Comfort the day before is, instead, the disgorging of the Navidad/Lavaca river system. Later, we crisscrossed the Lavaca between this point and Hallettsville so many times, we can now say that we know both rivers in the sibling system.

Along the way, we dallied in the ghost town of Morales, formerly an outlaw nest, and witnessed a coyote chasing a doe (“our first mammal-on-mammal predation,” Joe pointed out.)

We also visited the Kreische Brewery Monument State Park, located high on a bluff above La Grange. Here lie the remains of Texans who fought as part of the Dawson Party in the 1840s (after Mexican troops retook San Antonio) and ill-fated members (the monument calls them “martyrs”) of the Meir Expedition, which aimed at capturing a Mexican city, but instead landed the Texans facing firing squads.

The brewery is a charismatic stone building, mostly in Roman-like ruins and half underground, yet the Kreische house, perched on a hill above the brewery, still looks in good condition.

We also stopped at every historical marker from the coast to the Hill Country, purchased a decaf at Latte on the Square, examined the superbly renovated Fayette County Courthouse and ate creamy chicken enchiladas at La Marina, housed in the former glory spot at the now-sad Cottonwood Inn.

All in all, a rewarding river tracing.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on this blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.

Best Texas rivers: Navidad River

We continue to repost Texas River Tracing posts, this one from August 2006.

See links to posts and reposts of other tracings here.

We hit the Navidad just west of Schulenburg. After tripping down the bank — no kidding — we found only shallow pools of water pocking the sandy riverbed. Giant swallowtails drfited overhead among the burr oaks.

Tomorrow, we will follow the river down to Lake Texana and, later, Lavaca Bay, during our second official River Tracing.

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Courtesy of RepublicRanches.com.

Earlier, we tried to pry our way into the Arnim and Lane dry goods store and opera house in Flatonia. If you’ve never seen it, this corner building is a perfectly preserved historic shop, and not preserved by curators or antiquarians, but rather by the owner, who had worked there for almost a century. Alas, he died three years ago, and the place is locked up. Just pray nobody tries to empty it out to modernize.

In Schulenburg, we ate at the hearty Oakridge — sweetish sauerbraten for me, plate-sized chicken fried steak for Joe — excellent, but way, way too much for one meal.

Then we partook of the only entertainment in town — the single movie showing at the Comfort Theatre, sculpted inside the four-story Von Minden Hotel. Luckily, it was “Talledega Nights,” just right for the NASCAR-loving audience. They completely bought into Will Farrell’s Ricky Bobby character, and groaned when his arch-enemy, an existentialist Frenchman, kissed his husband.

But the movie is so delightfully subversive, they cheered and laughed when, later, Ricky kissed the Frenchman. Once again, culture wins.

Schulenburg at dawn. Broad streets. Quaint old houses. A town of 2,600 where whites, blacks, Latinos and South Asians easily share public spaces, and where the town has inched from its railroad core, to old U.S. 90 to Interstate 10.

We broke our fast at Frank’s, a diner since 1934, where German or Czech sausage replaces patties with eggs and killer biscuits.

We then toured some “painted churches,” unable to break our way into St. John’s, but easily accessing the church in Praha with the ornate paintings from a wandering artist during the 19th century.

So down to Halletsville through supremely tidy pasturelands, then back through county roads to the Navidad, the reason for our River Tracing. We finally met up with a real stream at Vienna. (Earlier contacts with the the Navidad and its rain-fed tributaries, as we traced the river from its source to its mouth, turned up only shallow pools of water.

We returned to the river several times via backroads, hiking down to its sandy, shallow bed as it fell from the gentle hills and oak forests of Central Texas to the green-green expanses of the Gulf Coastal Plain.

At Lake Texana — created mostly by the Navidad — we visited alligators, herons, egrets, bunnies and ever-present deer, which seemed smaller than the usual whitetails.

The dam that impounds the Navidad provided us with a view of what we belive was a bald eagle, then we tried to edge close to the mouth of the river at Lavaca Bay. The river widens here, almost to mock its meager origins just up the road.

We then tried to spy the mouth from Point Comfort, home to three enormous plastics and aluminum plants. (Don’t even want to consider how much pollution they generate.)

Across the bay in Port Lavaca, We ate at Gordon’s — a seafood mainstay since 1964 — which retains a sort of roadside glamour in decline. The rest of PC bustles, whether from the commercial and recreational fishing, the businesses along Texas 35, or simply catering to the workers at the plants across the water. Still, much of its historic core is in decay, looking like most older Gulf towns — weatherbeaten, rescued, then beaten back again by nature.

Then we headed down the bay to Indianola, a place of lasting romance. Here was the biggest port on the Texas gulf, the location of La Salle’s fort, the port of entry for thousands of Germans, Czechs and Austrians. Gone, all gone, wiped away in successive hurricanes, with only a few stilted bay houses of very recent vintage — and one bold statue — in their place.

A visit here as a chlld made a lasting impression about the relationship between hurricanes, climate and geography. Later I contemplated the relationships at our summer retreat, Surfside, which was destroyed by Carla. Surfside itself had replaced Velasco, previously the capital of Texas. It, too, was obliterated by a hurricane.

And we haven’t even brought up Galveston in 1900 or why the Spanish found no significant permanent Indian settlements on the coast, or why they learned not to raise any themselves.

The message: DON’T BUILD ON THE TEXAS GULF COAST. When will people ever learn?

Now we know how it felt, in a small way, for explorers who misread incomplete maps.

This morning, on the third day of our Navidad river tracing, Joe and I retraced our steps through Point Comfort (a town with a difference of 200-residents on its population signs), past chemical and plastics plants, past snow-dappled cotton fields (“gotta get that cotton out before it rains,” one young woman told me), past Lolita to the confluence of what turns out to be the Lavaca and Navidad rivers, 10 miles or so above Lavaca Bay.

There it was plain as day, but not marked clearly on our maps. So, in fact, the mouth of the phantom Navidad that we tried to spy from Point Comfort the day before is, instead, the disgorging of the Navidad/Lavaca river system. Later, we crisscrossed the Lavaca between this point and Hallettsville so many times, we can now say that we know both rivers in the sibling system.

Along the way, we dallied in the ghost town of Morales, formerly an outlaw nest, and witnessed a coyote chasing a doe (“our first mammal-on-mammal predation,” Joe pointed out.)

We also visited the Kreische Brewery Monument State Park, located high on a bluff above La Grange. Here lie the remains of Texans who fought as part of the Dawson Party in the 1840s (after Mexican troops retook San Antonio) and ill-fated members (the monument calls them “martyrs”) of the Meir Expedition, which aimed at capturing a Mexican city, but instead landed the Texans facing firing squads.

The brewery is a charismatic stone building, mostly in Roman-like ruins and half underground, yet the Kreische house, perched on a hill above the brewery, still looks in good condition.

We also stopped at every historical marker from the coast to the Hill Country, purchased a decaf at Latte on the Square, examined the superbly renovated Fayette County Courthouse and ate creamy chicken enchiladas at La Marina, housed in the former glory spot at the now-sad Cottonwood Inn.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on this blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.

Best Texas rivers: Little River

This was our first entry in our Texas River Tracing journals, dated March 25, 2006. Posts and reposts of other entries can be found on the Medina River post.

We’ve dubbed it “river tracing,” following a Texas watercourse from one end to the other by car and short hikes.

We chose the Little River for our first foray, because, well, it’s short, and I am obliged to give a keynote speech to a conference in nearby Temple today.

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Sugarloaf Bridge over the Little River in Milam County.

The closest we could inch to the spot along a vast floodplain where the Little joins the Brazos were orange dirt Milam County roads and an old trestle bridge over the muddy, slow-moving tributary. Songbirds made a delirious din in the jungle of high-ridged banks. Nearby, we circled a conical tor that must be a volcanic outcropping (will check maps later).

Surely, ours is the only Chevy Malibu to have navigated these rocky rural roads. Most common birds sighted among the tender hay and alfalfa fields, besides larks and sparrows? Shrikes.

The land rose rapidly as we passed through post oak belts and well-tended pastures from Gause to Minerva, then Sharp and tiny Davilla, where we discovered an improvised corner store and two-table cafe. The Little here alternates between streamlike youthfulness and broad, lazy wetlands. From Bartlett, a tidy, prosperous farming community in the blackland prairies, we zoomed through Czech settlements in Holland and Sparks to Academy-Little River at the confluence of the Leon and Lampasas rivers.

Our Little River band of two was able to dip into the deeper, green Leon just past the site of the Little River Fort (renamed several times, once Fort Griffin) and to linger over the shoals of the smaller, shimmering Lampasas by way of Bell County roads.

At this point, we agreed to follow the longer Leon branch to the northwest. We cruised through the tranquil county seat of Belton up to Belton Lake and its impressive dam. Like other Hill Country reservoirs, it had shrunk below the vegetation line to its white limestone banks. We also nosed around Miller Spring Park below the dam, where we spied another band of buzzards. (Among the first sights of this trip was a flock feeding on a carcass outside of Tomball.) Lake Belton looked ideal for sailing — and it was perfect boating weather, but we spied not a single spinaker.

At that point, we backtracked to Temple for the evening.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on this blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.

Best Texas rivers: Sabinal River

Readers have asked for access to past reports of Texas River Tracings that are no longer online.

Travel companion and co-author Joe Starr and I are trying to compile links to the 40 or so preliminary reports, which requires reposting some of them. This process will likely take weeks.

We’ve rescued this one about the lovely Sabinal River from an RSS feed.

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The Sabinal River is a rare and exquisite jewel that rises in the steep, narrow canyons of Lost Maples State Natural Preserve northwest of San Antonio.

Here among big tooth maples and red oaks, the stream pools in clefts among the scattered boulders, evidence of raging floods that were no danger on this warm, cloudy December day. The preserve has been one of our favorite hiking and camping spots for decades. Even though the fall colors had faded, a steady trickle of hikers followed its trails.

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Just below the preserve is tiny Vanderpool, which guards two of the state’s most scenic drives on RR 337 — westward to Leakey and eastward to Bandera. These winding branches of 337 overlook craggy, green valleys. Stop at the vista points, but try not to notice the abundant litter — one of the ways Texans mistreat Texas.

(And before you blame out-of-state tourists, they don’t perch at these remote spots late at night drinking beer. That’s a local thing.)

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Back in the Sabinal Canyon, the water flows freely from a series of springs and backs up behind short weirs. Fish wriggle through the crystal depths. Flycatchers, mockingbirds and a raven or two keep them company.

IMG_1671-thumbThere’s little evidence of a tourist industry here, unlike the Frio River Valley just to the west. There’s no lake or tubing. Still, a few tourist cottages dot the Sabinal’s banks. Just beware flood season if you decide to get away here. My friends who have been rescued from rooftops will tell you a story or two of this sometimes angry river.

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As the canyon widens into a proper valley, cypress trees line the river, almost as if they were planted with an architectural eye. Depending on the flora, the Sabinal shimmers green or blue, picks up speed then fades away for a while.

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Ranching is an option here. We talked to one man who moved here from Colorado whose family’s ranches stretched well into the foothills of the Edwards Plateau. He told us about a “Black Hole” on the next ranch downstream where the Sabinal disappears altogether.

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We discovered that this is true for other rivers coming down off the plateau to the south. They enter an arcing recharge zone and just go away. They pop up again below Uvalde, but don’t really gain strength until they reach the coastal plains — if they get that far.

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Our acquaintance — one of two who warned us about deer hunters in the area — said that hydrologists had dyed the water that entered the Black Hole and said they found remnants in a bigger river below the town of Sabinal (probably the Frio, which eventually joins the Nueces River below Choke Canyon Reservoir).

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Anyway, the valley remains lovely as far as Utopia, site of Kinky Friedman’s animal rescue ranch. Here, too, the farming begins. Irrigation from those aquifers that swallow up the rivers allows for some surprisingly intense agriculture around Uvalde.

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The town of Sabinal, by the way, was once a railroad stop and it still sits along U.S. 90, formerly the main southern route to the Pacific Ocean. It appears rather dusty and abandoned now in comparison to Uvalde, where we spent the night. The county seat has the appearance of a boom town, with almost every national franchise fighting for a place along U.S. 90.

It’s north of the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas frenzy, but Uvalde might have benefited from its economic reverberations.

We stayed, as is our new custom, in a new “fauxtel.” These are the three or four-story hotels that can be found in any Texas town of 1,000 or more people. They are clean, convenient and comfortable, if they lack the character of the old roadside motels and the miraculous historic hotels.

Since we are only there at night during these river tracings, who needs character? Give me WiFi and access to local cooking if at all possible. I’ll be fine.

Best Texas rivers: Lower Rio Grande

The Rio Grande looking upstream from the Roma bluffs.
The Rio Grande looking upstream from the Roma bluffs. Photo by Joe Starr.

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.

The Rio Grande impounded at Mission.
The Rio Grande impounded at Mission. Photo by Joe Starr.

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.

Pelicans soar at Boca Chica.
Pelicans soar at Boca Chica. Photo by Joe Starr.

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.

The silent square in old Roma.
The silent square in old Roma. Photo by Joe Starr.

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!

Gulls, terns and wading birds in winter plumage.
Gulls, terns and wading birds in winter plumage. Photo by Joe Starr.

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).

The mouth of the Rio Grande at Boca Chica. Mexico is in the background.
The mouth of the Rio Grande at Boca Chica. Mexico is in the background. Photo by Joe Starr.

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.