Winter in Harlingen, Texas

My never-ending quest for a warm winter is what led me to book a stay in Harlingen this past January and February. Harlingen is almost as south as you can go without bumping into Mexico.

The town is part of an area known as the Rio Grande Valley. The “valley”, or the RGV as it’s sometimes called, is bounded by South Padre Island on the east to Mission on the west. This whole area sits just north of the Mexican border. It’s not really a valley, but mostly part of a flat scrubby coastal plain.

The RGV is a popular place for “snow birds” from northern states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the whole area has a plethora of RV parks. The snow birds are welcome here; they have a huge positive effect on the local economy. I have posted about all of our trips down to the Gulf; what else is there to do?

Plenty, as we found out. I will try in this blog to give you a little flavor of what our life here was like.

Closest to us and just a short ride on our new e-bikes (more on that later) was a large Iwo Jima monument. I took a picture of Cal in front of it just to show how he was dwarfed by it.

The original statue is in Arlington Cemetery. The sculptor, Dr. Felix W. de Weldon, gifted this full-size model of his statue to the Marine Military Academy across the street. It is 32 feet high. It is made of molding plaster prior for casting in bronze; the constant temperature and humidity here were thought to be perfect for its preservation. All of the conflicts that our country has been in are etched around the base of the statue.

Still on our bikes, after seeing the memorial we also drove right past the Valley Airport doors. That’s how small it is! I flew out of this airport when I went to New Orleans. It only has seven gates.

Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum was also near our park. They had a quilt show in their exhibition area. The quilt show had a Shakespearean theme and this quilt was inspired by the bard himself.

Stepping outside the exhibit and entrance, we could see the 1904 home of Lon C. Hill, along with other historic buildings. According to the museum brochure, Lon was a “lawyer, store keeper, hotel owner, farmer, sugar mill owner, developer, builder, brick kiln owner, canal builder, Statesman, pioneer and visionary.” What a busy guy! His wife died when he built the home, leaving him with eight children.

Len’s house is on the left

One of the things we love about Texas is being able to grocery shop at HEB. To me, it is the best grocery store chain of anywhere we have been. How can you complain about a store with a tortilla bakery? But what does the abbreviation mean?

It is explained at the historical museum here. The H.E. Butt family donated the building housing the museum to the city back in 1967. Howard Edward Butt took over management of the family grocery store from his mother, Florence T. Butt, in 1919. She founded it and ran it for fourteen years, so why isn’t the store named for her? Well, that’s a mystery. Howard and his wife are in this somewhat grainy picture.

Shopping at our local HEB one evening, the grackles totally took over the parking lot. It was raining birds! We even saw the parking lot on the evening news the next night. It was the time of year when grackles come from where ever they are all day and congregate. I guess even grackles like to shop at HEB.

Speaking of birds, there are plenty of places to go see them in the valley. The area is part of the migration flyway for birds. We took a walk in Hugh Ramsey Nature Center in Harlingen and came upon a yellow-throated warbler that you can see in the branches below, keeping an eye on the two turtles below.

At the beginning of our Hugh Ramsey walk, we spotted a couple of javelinas in the underbrush. That was exciting, until at the end we found the whole herd!

I hoped to find more wildlife at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles from our park and a place we walked twice. A sign at the beginning of the park road was promising:

I would have loved to see an ocelot, but I knew it would be a stretch. Much later, we watched a nature show about the wildlife of Texas and were able to see what this cute little cat looks like. Laguna Atascosa is only one of two of their remaining habitats in Texas, and only 100 are known to exist in the entire United States. This wildlife refuge is trying hard to encourage their reproduction but they have a lot of predators; it’s not an easy task for an ocelot mother to raise a kitten to adulthood.

A huge part of their mission is to provide habitat for wintering water birds, and other migratory birds. It is a bird watching destination for those who enjoy the hobby. We saw green jays at one of the feeding stations at Laguna Atascosa. I suppose if I wanted to be a serious bird watcher, I’d need to get to the refuge a little earlier in the day.

Most of this park is coastal wetlands. We did see egrets in the large lake here, and an alligator, but it was far in the distance.

On another day we headed down to Sabal Palms Preserve, which is the last remaining stand of the great sabal palms that used to cover the area. An interesting part of visiting this preserve, as we discovered, is that it is right on the border with Mexico. We drove right past the fence.

Passing through this fence was a little confusing but somehow we were still in the United States. Two members of the National Guard were sitting on the levee by their truck as we passed. Sabal Palms closes right at 5:00 and the gates are then securely locked. There is plenty of illegal border activity here, as we later found out.

Long ago, before land was cleared for farming and there was no international border, there were about 60,000 acres of Sabal Palm forest along the Rio Grand River. Now there is less than 100 acres.

In my working days, I was thrilled when I vacationed somewhere during a long winter where I was able to see palm trees. Now I’m happy to see palm trees all winter long. They and other trees lined the beautiful trails in this park.

Part of the draw for Sabal Palms is the Rabb Plantation House. It was once part of Rancho San Tomas, which covered 20,000 acres. The house served as the headquarters for the ranch and was an architectural shift from typical ranch homes of the early 1900’s era. We were able to look around the first floor inside.

On one of our first Saturdays in the area we drove all the way past McAllen to Mission, on the west side of the RGV, for the Citrus Festival and Parade. It was good small town fun.

The best thing about the Citrus Festival was that we were able to buy two large bags of fresh citrus – one orange, one grapefruit – for $5.00. What a steal!

Harlingen still has a fairly vibrant old downtown, which was another thing that scored points with me. There is a smattering of thrift shops, antique malls, and other specialty shops, plus some eating establishments. Once a month on a Saturday, the streets are blocked off for Market Days. Vendors under their canopies line the streets. There is music and plenty of good Mexican and other food to be had, too.

I guess if one drawback can be given about the area, it is the wind. We learned to gauge the weather by very windy, not too windy, and not windy at all. I got used to it because I discovered I didn’t mind the wind as long as it was warm – which it usually was, even in the evenings.

The sites next to us were empty most of the winter so we had a good back yard view. The park is bordered on three sides by farm land and it felt like being out in the country.

When we were at home in Tropic Winds, there were many things to do. I attended yoga and line dancing classes. Cal was outside a lot and chatted with all the neighbors around us. A fruit-and-vegetable truck showed up on Mondays. There were sometimes music concerts to listen to, and few special dinners. The spaghetti dinner put on by the woodworking group is a twice-annual event that everyone looks forward to. The spaghetti is delicious and prizes are handed out throughout the evening.

There are all kinds of ways to RV and we discovered last winter in Phoenix that settling down in a park like this for just a month or two during the winter gives us the community that we don’t have the rest of the year. The permanent park model and manufactured homes that lined the street across from our RV area made the place feel a little bit like the quintessential small town. As I walked the little streets I’d most always be greeted by everyone passing by, whether they were walking the dog or riding their bike or golf cart.

In the late afternoons, friends gather around RV sites, on front porches, or around someone’s golf cart when they are passing by.

Everyone decorates their little home in their own particular style.

Jackrabbits make their home here, too. These RV sites were empty most of the winter and I always looked forward to seeing how many were out playing or basking in the sun.

Anywhere and any way you call it, there’s no place like home.

Next time – on the bay in Corpus Christi