AFTER THREE DAYS OF DRIVING U.S. 83 from Brownsville to Laredo, I decided that "the border" is an inadequate term to describe the curving corridor. The highway, which is one of the main arteries of Los Caminos del Rio—the Roads of the River—cuts through a wide borderland where architecture, food, and language overlap. Texas and Mexico are so interwoven there that I often couldn't tell where one ended and the other began.
When I made the trip, in early March, the mesquite had put out new sap-green leaves. Yellow puffs of flowers covered the huisache. Winter Texans prepared to head back north as the thermometer was already pushing 90 degrees. I began at Brownsville, following the paths of early Spanish explorers and colonizers like José de Escandón, who established river settlements in the 1700's. Between Brownsville and Harlingen, I detoured to Business 77 and went to San Benito, the birthplace of country music legend Freddy Fender. I didn't find a statue of Fender (though the town has named a street in his honor), but I did discover a picturesque city park along the Resaca de Los Fresnos, a once-dry riverbed that's now a wide canal. After I rolled into Harlingen, I played the accidental tourist. Earlier that morning I had flown into the Rio Grande Valley International Airport and thought I'd seen the famous Iwo Jima sculpture nearby. Curious, I backtracked north on Loop 499. Sure enough, just west of the airport on the grounds of the Marine Military Academy is the full-sized plaster original that sculptor Felix de Weldon used to cast the bronze Iwo Jima memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Outside Harlingen I abandoned the expressway for the slower but more interesting Business Route 83. In Mercedes, twelve miles up the road, I found some of the custom bootmakers for which the town is famous, including Camargo's Hand Made Boots. Owner Henry Camargo emerged from his workshop to show me shelves of fancy custom boots with intricate designs. They were artworks in leather.
On the way to McAllen I drove through a string of towns in rapid succession—Weslaco, Donna, Alamo—which have some nice fruit stands selling bags of the Valley's famous grapefruit and oranges. I wanted to see the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle in San Juan but had trouble finding it (turn north on North Nebraska and go less than half a mile). A plane crash destroyed the shrine in 1970, but the tiny statue of Our Lady of San Juan survived. Thousands of pilgrims visit the sprawling rebuilt basilica and shrine every month. On the north wall is a 33-foot-tall Italian mosaic that depicts Christ and the Virgin of San Juan hovering above green fields.
A mile west, in Pharr, I turned north on U.S. 281 and crossed the railroad tracks to Smitty's Juke Box Museum. Leo "Smitty" Schmitt, Jr., proudly showed me the 75 restored vintage jukeboxes on display. It was a kick to see the 1940's-era Wurlitzer nicknamed the Bubbler, with its long bubble tubes filled with alcohol heated to the boiling point.
The sun was setting when I entered McAllen. I quickly spotted my hotel, the pink Spanish Colonial-style Renaissance Casa de Palmas, a block off the highway on Main Street. With a shady courtyard, lush tropical plants, and a trickling fountain, it was a refreshing oasis after my day on the road. I expected to be eating lots of Tex-Mex on my trip, so I decided to try the pretty yellow-stucco Mediterranean restaurant called España several blocks from my hotel. One of its specialties is paella, a Spanish dish, which seemed apropos of my trip through history.
McAllen has revitalized its downtown, and I walked over to have a look the next morning. Old-fashioned street lamps lined neat landscaped avenues where small shops sold jewelry, perfume, electronics, and cheap ceramics. I was craving a good Mexican breakfast and found one at Los Arrieros Mexican Restaurant about half a mile west of the hotel. The crowded, lively spot is popular with local politicos. I wolfed down a plate of huevos con papas (eggs scrambled with diced potatoes), fiery salsa, fluffy refried beans, and hot homemade flour tortillas. The tab? $2.99 plus tax.
Though Mission is just four miles west, I noticed that its small-town atmosphere gives it a completely different feeling from McAllen. Near downtown the business route splits one way in each direction, and the westbound side turns into Tom Landry Street, named for the Mission native. At the intersection with North Conway Avenue is a building with a nicely done mural of the late Dallas Cowboys coach's career by local artist Manuel Hinojosa.
I parked and walked a block south on Conway to the stunning Border Theater. Completed in 1942, the old-fashioned picture show has Pueblo architecture with white plaster walls and colorful ceramic tiles and murals. I also wanted to see the mission for which the town is named (stay on Conway—which is also FM 107 and turns into FM 1016—and go south five miles). Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the simple little white, stuccoed stone chapel called La Lomita was built as a way station for Oblate priests traveling on horseback between Brownsville and Roma and dates from 1899. I noticed its plaster was deteriorating, and sunlight shone through the roof. The U.S. and Mexican governments are trying to preserve historic sites like La Lomita on both sides of the border as part of the collaborative Los Caminos del Rio Heritage Project, but much remains to be done.
West of Mission, the land changed from flat fields of aloe vera, onions, and cabbage to rolling chaparral thick with mesquite and prickly pear. Towns were farther apart, and farms segued to ranches. I had driven twelve miles when I came to FM 886 and turned south for two miles to Los Ebanos, the site of an ancient ford across the Rio Grande. Brightly colored artificial flowers festooned ornate headstones