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Driving from Edinburg, the Hidalgo County seat in the southern tip of Texas, east to Raymondville, the seat of adjacent Willacy County, requires less than an hour, but the transition covers more than just highway miles. Edinburg bustles with the campus of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley at its heart, while the agricultural community of Raymondville invites you to savor nature and history.
When I spot Martin Aparicio, 14, in the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg, he is wearing replicas of a Spanish helmet and breastplate from the 1600s. His aunt, Veronica Paz, and her daughters critique his fashion sense as he dons a leather tricorn hat and a long, black leather vest in the Spanish colonial hands-on corner. “A hands-on museum like this has more of an impact,” says Paz, who brought the teenagers from Chicago.
The museum promises a stroll through 500 years of South Texas history. I start in the late 1700s and wander through a colonial town inspecting saddles and a beehive stone oven. A few steps and a few decades later, I climb on board a Rio Grande steamboat to the sound of creaking barrels and the splash of a paddle wheel. Still later, I hear lonesome cowboy songs that herald chuck wagons and vaqueros. With World War II approaching, I peer through a German submarine’s periscope trained on a freighter in the Gulf of Mexico.
I leave one museum and head for the South Texas Motorcycle Museum, where highly polished motorcycles with sensuously curved fenders preen in spotlights that reflect off diamond-plate flooring and gleaming chrome. Eighty vintage bikes give the impression of sculptural forms.
The majority of the bikes (and the earliest ones do resemble bicycles) are Indians and Harley-Davidsons. A 1913 Indian racing motorcycle, made without brakes or a transmission, sits near a gorgeous red 1947 Indian Chief, complete with sidecar. The oldest is a 1903 Harley, and the most recognizable may be a Captain America Chopper, a replica of the customized Harley in Easy Rider.
“All of them run,” says caretaker Dave Garcia, who owns the motorcycle shop next door.
I head north on Interstate 69C, then drive 4 miles on Texas Highway 186 to La Sal del Rey, the smallest of three hypersaline lakes in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. A wide gravel path leads a half-mile north to the 530-acre lake, which sparkles like a snowy field.
Since the 1500s, Native Americans, Spanish explorers, ranchers and soldiers have traveled to this deep salt dome for salt to preserve meat and hides. Sandhill cranes and long-billed curlews winter here.
As I walk along the shoreline, dry salt crunches underfoot. Wildlife obviously traipse across the salt-topped mud: Huge nilgai tracks and dainty sharp javelina and bobcat prints are visible. I scoop out a nilgai hoofprint and come up with a handful of salt flakes.
At the Willacy County Historical Museum, Elva Sayas guides me to Mifflin Kenedy’s La Parra Ranch exhibit. I gawk at the former Rio Grande riverboat captain’s 30-pound bulletproof vest. The 1554 Espíritu Santo shipwreck—the oldest in the U.S., which formed here when the Santo sank along with two Spanish galleons during a storm—resulted in a treasure trove of coins, jewelry and artifacts recovered from county beaches, now displayed here.
I drive on FM 491 to Hilltop Gardens, a historical botanical sanctuary where aloe vera has been grown commercially since 1939. Hilltop includes more than 200 species of aloes displayed in climbing, blooming and spiky exuberance. The sensory garden invites you to touch sandpapery anacua leaves, smell jasmine and citronella, and watch butterflies. The healing garden with its reflecting pool, herbs and tropical birds encourages relaxation and reflection on the Valley landscape.
Eileen Mattei, a Nueces EC member, is a Texas master naturalist in Harlingen.