THE VINE-CHOKED FOREST WAS LUSH and impenetrable. Sturdy palms and ebony trees blocked out most of the harsh midmorning sun and the world beyond. Walking quietly along the twisting trail of the Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary, accompanied by the soothing rustle of the broad palm fronds, I was seized by the delicious sensation of being Somewhere Else, somewhere outside Texas.
I get that feeling of dislocation a lot in the Rio Grande Valley, that flat crescent of land that hugs the river for some one hundred miles at the southern tip of Texas. Fly into the Rio Grande Valley International Airport at Harlingen, and the neatly plowed, symmetrical fields will fool you into thinking of the midwestern breadbasket rather than the gateway to Mexico. Cruise the often-bypassed business routes of U.S. 83 and U.S. 77, and all the fruit- and vegetable-packing plants and faded hotels, motels, and trailer parks will recall Southern California before the subdivisions squeezed out the citrus groves. Get behind a slow-moving vehicle, and you might wonder if this is the Mexican interior or St. Petersburg, Florida, depending on whether the motorist is a pachuco lowrider or a retiree. Appearances are peculiarly deceiving here.
Of all the memories I have stored up in more than thirty years of visiting the region, the ones that burn brightest revolve around the hidden Valley, the one filled with unexpected, even exotic, natural and historic delights that exist nowhere else in the state. You can get a taste of this wilderness while enjoying other diversions at the usual tourist destinations of South Padre Island, Port Isabel, Brownsville, and McAllen.
Even though 95 percent of the Valley’s wildlife habitat has been destroyed by agriculture and urban development, the small part that remains is a revelation. The Valley’s geography has blessed it with a remarkable diversity of tropical plant and bird life, much of it otherwise found only in Mexico. You don’t have to be a birdwatcher, a fisherman, or a hunter to appreciate butterflies with strange markings and even stranger colors, raucous bright chartreuse green jays, or the simple solitude of tramping down a dirt path surrounded by odd-looking prickly plants and trees you thought existed only in greenhouses.
However, if you happen to be thrilled to see new wildlife species, the Valley harbors animals seldom, if ever, seen elsewhere in the United States—the fluorescent turquoise-and-black snake known as the speckled racer; the graceful ocelot, a spotted cat that has been hunted almost out of existence; and the even more elusive jaguarundi, a dark, low-slung feline that ripples through the brush like water through reeds. While you may never spot them, knowing they are lurking in the thorny underbrush is a vicarious pleasure.
A plan is under way to return more of the Valley to the wild, in the form of the 110,000-acre Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, an almost contiguous greenbelt that will meander along the river from Falcon Dam to the Gulf once the remaining parcels of land are acquired over the next five years or so. (About half the land has been purchased.) In the meantime, you can sample the wild side at “islands” that the national refuge will eventually link together—the Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary, the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the Bentsen—Rio Grande Valley State Park, and other local pocket preserves.
October and November are an ideal time of year to experience the Valley. Temperatures have become almost bearable, with highs in the 80’s and low 90’s, and lows that fall below 70 degrees in the evenings. This is the Valley’s off-season for tourism. The summer crowds have departed, and the seasonal residents known as Winter Texans won’t start arriving until Thanksgiving. Hotels drop their rates to the most affordable of the year. For example, a double at the Radisson (512-761-6511), the best hotel on the South Padre beach, is a tolerable $89 in the off-season; a smaller-sized double at Port Isabel’s charming if less-posh Yacht Club Hotel (512-943-1301), with its excellent restaurant, is half the price.
Our family’s first morning of exploring began at the Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary, a 35-minute drive from South Padre. “You’re looking at five or six species you won’t see anywhere else in the United States, outside the Valley,” said Rose Farmer, the manager of the refuge, quietly pointing out pheasantlike chachalacas, spectacular green jays, bright-yellow-and-russet kiskadee flycatchers, hooded orioles, and several buff-bellied hummingbirds hovering around the bird feeders outside the small visitors’ center. Since we were 6 miles southeast of Brownsville and 160 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer, her comment wasn’t surprising.
Survival is a risky proposition on the border, Farmer explained, which is why the National Audubon Society purchased the land for the palm refuge in 1971. It began with 32 acres of Sabal texana palms, all that was left of a native subtropical palm forest that once covered 40,000 acres. Today the palms have spread throughout the refuge’s 172 acres, room enough to make you feel as if you’re in the land that time forgot.
After walking the palm grove trail, browsing in the visitors’ center (knock if the door is locked), and watching the action around the feeders, we followed Farm-to-Market Road 1419 east and north until it intersected with Texas Highway 4, the road to Boca Chica—the southernmost stretch of coastline in Texas. This is rough, forbidding country—“loma tidal flats” is the technical description—evidenced by the crumbling gates of a failed development named Palmito Hill. We stopped to check out the historical marker for the last land battle of the Civil War (May 12 to 13, 1865), a site still so utterly removed from civilization that it is small wonder that the blue and gray were duking it out weeks after Lee surrendered to Grant.
The scenery became increasingly minimal until it was distilled to sand, scrub, and sky, with an impressive bunker of dunes marking the beginning of the beach. There is no there there