In the lower Rio Grande Valley, where 95 percent of the area’s native habitat has been eroded over the past two centuries by agriculture and development, the 2,088-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge represents one of the last untamed corners of South Texas. With 450 types of plants, at least 400 bird species, and rare creatures like the endangered ocelot and indigo snake, this subtropical jungle pulses with life.
In the three and a half years since Seth Patterson began managing the Sabal Palm Sanctuary, he has received regular phone calls from would-be visitors wondering where Mexico begins. That’s because, to reach the sanctuary, which is home to one of the last stands of old-growth palm forest in the United States, travelers must pass through a gap in the border wall. “It’s not a popular place for trafficking,” says Patterson. “But people do call, wanting to know if they need their passport.”
It was oh-dark-thirty, so I could not yet make out the improbable oak trees dotting the South Texas brush. Still, as I piled into the van with a group of birding enthusiasts from as far away as Ontario and Boston, it did not escape my notice that our guide, a biologist named Tom Langschied, had already pulled on tall, snake-proof boots.
“Maybe you want something a little less steep.” The ranger spoke in a neutral tone, but her words sounded like a challenge. As I contemplated the more than forty miles of multiple-use trails that crisscross the limestone-pocked Hill Country SNA, I was not about to admit defeat—at least not before trying my luck on a few of the more measly slopes.
The names on our boat say “Lester”and “Danny,” but that isn’t us. We don’t bother to correct all the people who call out in our direction as we wait in the middle of a crowd of canoes and kayaks at the Aquarena Center, in San Marcos. We’re at the start of the Texas Water Safari, an annual race down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers, and we have other things to think about.
Here is absolutely nobody in the parking lot, nobody on the trail, despite it being a magnificent spring day: blue sky, mild morning sun, and dogwood blossoms floating ethereal beneath the big pines. I’m with my best friend from high school, Kirby—a Houston suburbanite—and his youngest son, Cade, age fifteen.
When your guide is a Vietnam veteran who lets it slip that the wooded waterways of East Texas remind him of the missions he led as an elite Army Pathfinder in Southeast Asia, it pays to be ready for anything. If one such waterway is the Neches River, whose banks can be so thick with brush as to appear a solid green mat, it also makes sense to ask what might lurk in the woods.
Canoeing across Caddo Lake, my seven-year-old daughter, Ursula, and I were struck by its eerie beauty. Spanish moss hung from the limbs of centuries-old bald cypress like a shroud. We’d spent the night in one of the air-conditioned log cabins at Caddo Lake State Park, even roasting marshmallows before bed, but now we were on a primordial quest to uncover the lake’s mysteries.
As I trekked along the shady portions of Trail 3, a 6.5-mile route in the Caddo National Grasslands WMA, trying my best to avoid poison ivy, it occurred to me that you don’t necessarily have to head west to find the Texas frontier. The rolling hills and broadleaf forest above the Sulphur River have a rough-hewn beauty all their own.
The dunes were aglow in the afternoon sunlight, as though the sand itself were luminescent. A batch of kids charged uphill dragging plastic snow disks behind them, excited for another chance to swoop down the slopes. A roadrunner sat atop a pickup truck, surveying the scene.