The plane touched down in Harlingen onto a flat, broad landscape. Budget Rent-a-Car had only a Ford F-150 truck left for me to rent. I began to drive west to McAllen. I realized over time what a large blind spot a large pickup can have.
I passed through dozens of little towns, as the Rio Grande Valley is less any one city than town after town. I passed a billboard advertising "Armadillo Homes". I passed by the aloe vera factory. I passed by "Simple Homes, Inc". I passed by the Asado restaurant, which, with hindsight, might have been a good choice.
I listened to a gorgeous radio mariachi ballad dissolve into a ooompah-credible bandera ballad, before I switched to a classical station. Three Debussy preludes were preluded with an explanaton of what they meant, and how they changed piano forever. I enjoyed the piano performance, by the first Van Cliburn winner. Then I switched to a channel that promoted itself as "beautiful Christian music". It played music from back in the days when Christian music fought not rock and hip-hop through "relevance", but instead fought the "evils" of big band jazz and swing through bell-like tones from the singers, and orchestral arrangements that ranged from Lawrence Welk style to John Phillip Sousa style. It was quite enjoyable, like reverting to the Cretaceous Age of music. I particularly like the simple piano playing an old hymn (perhaps it was "Nearer My God to Thee") very piannissimo, with the spaces between the notes emphasized the most.
When I arrived in McAllen, the Country Inn and Suites had a sign up saying "Welcome Slovakian Delegation". I stopped at a promising steak house called Santa Fe, in hope of a good Tex/Mex border steak (I liked the exits, by the way, that simply said "Mexico"). Although pockets of people poured into and out to the place, to the sound of pulsing 70s disco within, the sign said dinner stopped being served at 10 p.m. I thought to myself about how disco in the seventies took the "sex, drugs and rock n roll" and tried to substitute in merely "sex, drugs and pulsing beat", and lost everything I cared about in the process.
I made my way to an all-night breakfast place instead, and sat eating incredibly good eggs and pancakes while two border patrol officers discussed how to document the undocumented people they captured. I thought briefly about driving ten miles south to Reynosa, Mexico, but decided to set it aside.
I drove to court the next morning. This federal court handled criminal and civil cases, so a gaggle of men were led into the court in handcuffs prior to my hearing. In Dallas, they tend to have different civil days than criminal days, but the McAllen court handled them all at once. I listened to a man who had pleaded guilty to drug trafficking suggest, through an interpreter, that if he were sent home instead of to prison, he would not return from Mexico to trouble us all again. I do not know if he understood, as I did, that the sentence enhancements the lawyer respectfully debated about with the judge mean that he is apt to live outside Mexico for a while. Another man got a thirty day probation revocation sentence, after falling off the drug addiction recovery wagon after eight years. He seemed deeply relieved when the judge, at the urging of his lawyer, reduced the sentence from 30 days to 27 days, so that the man could be released for "time served" and not spend another weekend in jail. Even three days of freedom is a huge relief.
After my court matter concluded, I began to drive back to Harlingen. I changed from the "beautiful Christian" station to NPR playing the Brandenburg Concerto soon after "the Christian homemaker" from Bob Jones University did the part about how homemakers should do more listening and less talking. By day, I passed the Centro de Jesus Milagros, the world's largest aloe vera factory, and innumerable palm trees. I stopped in Weslaco, roughly halfway to the airport, at the tourist information center. I had an extra hour or so before my flight, and I wanted to do a nature walk. I asked the nice woman at the tourist information house, also the Chamber of Commerce, where I might go. She pointed me the way to Frontera Audobon Center, not far away. I also asked if she knew a good Mexican-style bakery, and she obliged with clear directions.
The bakery, which was named something like Mi Casita, was a rather large stand-alone brick building. As at most panaderias, one used the little metal handles to
pick out pastries and then go to checkout. I began to recite my excessive haul ("three ginger pigs...") when the attractive woman behind the counter said to me simply "We weigh the bread". I sounded like nobody so much as Bertie Wooster as I said "Makes perfect sense to me" and she put my sack onto the scale. Apparently, it weighed one dollar and sixteen cents.
I drove to the Frontera Audobon Center, which was a nice stucco building, where a man gave me a trail map and collected two dollars and fifty cents from me. The trails were behind the house--perhaps no more than forty acres. I plunged into a native woodland filled with birds and butterflies.
The Rio Grande Valley is considered a paradise for both birders and for butterfly enthusiasts. Some 500 species of birds show up there at one time or another, including many found noplace else, and some found only in the Rio Grande and places southward. I am not a birder, but I think birds are really cool. In life, I feel that I often have to say "I am not a whatever-is-under-discussion, but I think that whatever-is-under-discussion is really cool".
From the moment I stepped onto the Audobon hiking trail, I saw cool stuff. The first thing was tons of chachalacas, a running bird that looks like a cross between a roadrunner, a rooster and a pheasant, which somehow failed all the "color wheel" courses in design school. It's a bit drab, but it's very vocal, and entirely charming. I also saw great kiskadee, a huge flycatcher with a black and white head, and a gorgeous yellow breast. I was surprised and pleased with how many different birds and butterflies I saw.
I saw a zebra heliconian butterfly, also known as the zebra longwings, which I did not know to exist in that part of the valley. They say you can see up to 260 different butterfly species in the Rio Grande, though, so I should not have been surprised. One zebra longwings hovered just above me, flittering its black and white striped wings, for a long interval.
I saw the buff-bellied hummingbird, green on its neck but a duller color (buff?) on its torso. I saw so many gorgeous wildflowers, attracting hummingbirds and
butterflies. There were blue and white and yellow blooms everywhere, on trees, on shrubs and on the ground. The coroepsis, which is large in north Texas, is a huge
boggy creek monster of yellow sunflowers in the Audobon preserve. I heard the cooing of wild doves, and saw green and white striped lizards running everywhere. I saw only a single cottontail rabbit, but saw butterflies of all kinds and stripes, familiar and unfamiliar. It was one of the most wildlife filled forty five minute walks I have ever taken. I walked amid tons of sable palms and other Texas palms and palmettoes, as well as various scrub trees which were locally endemic and some palo verde trees.
Soon it was time to return to the car. I confirmed my bird species names with the fellow, and then tried to buy a butterfly card, but could not, because the price was not marked. I drove to the airport, and caught my plane. I drove on home from the airport, listening to Eno's "Before and After Science". I took a work call at home. When my wife arrived home, we went and ate salmon at the Middle Eastern restaurant. Then we rented "Winged Migration" to watch on our VCR. We loved this bird movie, an enthralling documentary about the glorious things we call birds. It was like a giant "second" on my personal "Resolved that I visit the Rio Grande Valley again", although the Rio Grande appears nowhere in the movie.
This was a very hard working week overall, both in terms of volume of work and in terms of stress. I must again work this weekend. But I feel glad that I got a bit of nature in, and I hope to get more nature walks in this weekend. I will spend my Saturday pronouncing the word "kiskadee" to myself.