The town itself is pretty much like any other middle-sized American town, except that the strip malls containing the exact same stores owned by the same few corporations are decorated with palm trees.
The magic happens when you get out of town. As soon as Florian finished his classes on Friday afternoon, we were off to South Padre Island.
Beautiful, mostly empty beaches, warm water, and pretty big waves! We went in but were scared to go too deep.
This part of Texas along the Gulf is known for its incredible diversity of birds and butterflies, as it is along a major migratory pathway.
So of course we went to the World Birding Center, a neat raised walkway through an expanse of brackish wetlands.
Next stop, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
Where we saw a javelina as we were driving in, and where Florian hopped around and swore almost the whole time we were on the narrow trails near the visitor's center, where staff had told us there were often sneeks, I mean snakes. We did not see a single snake, but we did see a beautiful Green jay
and finally some baby alligators.
After Laguna Atascosa, we continued west along a two-lane highway until we reached Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, also known for its network of trails and fantastic birding. Here too, we were warned about the multitude of snakes so Florian hopped around tightly gripping my arm as we made our way along narrow pathways amidst the spooky, mysterious Spanish moss.
We walked in the steamy, sweltering heat, close on the heels of a nice family who didn't mind us tagging along behind them so they would be the first to encounter any snakes. Florian was pretty brave though, and we got to walk part of the way well out of reach of any ground-dwelling slithering friends.
It is magical to be up above the tree canopy and able to look across such a lush tropical forest, and stand among the profusion of bright yellow butterflies as you listen to the trill of cicadas and the screech and cackle of all those birds.
Having completed our trip back to McAllen, Florian had to teach all day Monday so I took the day to explore one more birding and biodiversity hotspot: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, known as one of the best birding locations in the country.
It is not far from McAllen, but having gotten there I was not about to be deterred by the fact that the road was blocked off and the trails, once I hiked in along the road, were marked closed due to storm damage. Signs like that are merely invitations, as they promise an even more remote and natural experience.
Along trails that are completely deserted as they meander through the low, scrubby riparian woodland forest, the only sounds the chatter of insects and birds.
You wouldn't know it from the top of a hawk tower that was also closed, the better to enjoy the silent, steaming expanse of treetops in serenity and solitude.
Didn't see any hawks but did get a view across the Rio Grande, wide and marshy in this part, and the spooky sky and approaching storm.
I knew this trip would be good because I knew I needed to reconnect with my beloved Southwest desert and Rio Grande Valley ecosystem. Thanks to the scraps of precious wildland that have been spared conversion to yet another WalMart or Home Depot, and have instead been left for the birds, the critters, and for human sanity, I was not disappointed!