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