My Great American Road Trip

To Americans, there’s nothing that holds more appeal than the classic road trip.

Moody Mansion, Galveston, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Moody Mansion, Galveston, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the ’20s, the car was a symbol of freedom—a chance to escape your small town or rural America.

As the highway system was developed in the ’50s and ’60s, a wave of young people set out on the road to explore the country, giving new life to America’s car and road trip culture.

And to this today, Americans have an ongoing love affair with the car and great open road. And no road trip holds more mystery and allure than traveling cross-country. It’s the king of all road trips.

In 1986 on a working road trip across the U.S. we drove our truck and fifth wheel trailer across the U.S. from west to the east and back west again.

Leaving our home in the Northwest we spent over eight months traversing the country, getting as far east as Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks, Charleston, Savannah,  and Jacksonville, and as far south as Orlando, Miami, the Everglades, and Key West before turning back west, driving across the southern states with numerous stops along the way including Pensacola, Mobile, Pascagoula, Galveston, San Antonio, El Paso, Las Cruces, Tucson, and Phoenix. But we barely scratched the surface of what America offers. We saw and experienced a lot—from the Rocky Mountains, to the Black Hills, across the Great Plains.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights
Our Grand Circle tour included Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights

But you don’t realize just how vast the U.S. is until you’ve been driving for twelve hours and notice you’re still in Texas.

The U.S. is big and there is still so much more of it to see.

During the past 18 years, we’ve driven over 130,000 miles in varied RVs as we explored America from the Oregon Coast to the Charleston and from the Upper Peninsula to the Rio Grande Valley.

We have traversed the U.S. along varied interstates and scenic routes and byways further exploring the beauty and uniqueness of this vast country. There is prodigious variety in the cities and towns and scenic attractions and offerings in various regions, a country of many impressions.

From Memphis to Montana, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, Wine Country in California, Utah’s Grand Circle Tour, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Mobile, and much more, we continue our exploration in our trusty and comfy motorhome.

“What’s your favorite place to go?”

Sedona and Red Rock Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Sedona and Red Rock Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course that’s what we’re asked. It’s the polite thing to ask, after all. People like to seem as if they’re interested in what you do. In this case, the question also always has a twinge of yearning.

I always give the same answer. I find something I like nearly everywhere I go, and it’s hard to pick just one or even two places.

People hate that answer.

“Come on. If you could pick just one place, where would you want to go again? Just one place.”

They all want to hear something exotic and bucket-listy. They want to hear the Key West or Santa Barbara, the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, Sedona or Santa Fe, Charleston or Savannah. They don’t want the truth. Can they handle the truth?

The truth is, we have visited 34 states and 4 Canadian provinces in the past 18 years, and found something that we adored in every one of them.

Our decade and half of RV travel stoked a love affair with American and Canadian attractions and historic sites, local towns and cities, and national and state/provincial parks.

Historic Downtown Charleston has stood throughout Charleston’s history as the cultural capital of the South and is considered by many to be a living museum, with a wonderful variety of things to do and see. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Historic Downtown Charleston has stood throughout Charleston’s history as the cultural capital of the South and is considered by many to be a living museum, with a wonderful variety of things to do and see. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I did begin rereading John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley — an incredible rumination on the America that he experienced as he took a road trip around the country with his wife’s standard poodle as a companion. Steinbeck was 58 years old in 1960 when he began his journey, and he felt compelled to get out and really see the country for the first time in a long time. He said he felt like a criminal writing about a country that he didn’t know enough about anymore.

After all these miles and varied experiences, I still feel the same way.

The “Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise”, the best is yet to come as I have quite the long route in front of me. Please stay tuned!

Worth Pondering…

You’ve heard the old Willie Nelson country music song with the lyrics, “On the road again. Just can’t wait to get on the road again…” We’ll be singing this song for sure.

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Birding in South Texas

Not fitting the stereotype of the avid birdwatcher who travels to the most exotic corners of the globe, many RVers simply want to be where the birds are.

A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not wearing the latest outdoor gear, carrying the biggest scopes, peering through the most expensive binoculars, and checking another bird off the official life list, we carry our mid-priced super-zoom cameras and take great pleasure in seeing the beautiful creatures that fill the air with music and the skies with color.

That’s what draws us and many other snowbirds to South Texas.

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. Well over 500 species have been spotted in this ecowonderland, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S. Each year, birders come to The Valley to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the green jay, black-bellied whistling ducks (pictured above), and the buff-bellied hummingbird to the great kiskadee (pictured below), roseate spoonbill, and the Altamira oriole.

The Great Kiskadee has a bright yellow belly and looks a little like a kingbird on steroids but with it’s bold black and white striped head, and reddish brown upperparts it is stands out from other species. It is also large (almost 10 inches in length) and loud, repeatedly calling out its name. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Great Kiskadee has a bright yellow belly and looks a little like a kingbird on steroids but with it’s bold black and white striped head, and reddish brown upperparts it is stands out from other species. It is also large (almost 10 inches in length) and loud, repeatedly calling out its name. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After all, The Valley offers not just one but a total of nine World Birding Centers, and it’s located at the convergence of two major flyways, the Central and Mississippi.

Often referred to as The Texas Tropics, this area is very popular, too, with snowbirds from the Midwest and Central Canada. However, these winter tourists are not simply referred to as snowbirds but affectionately dubbed Winter Texans. After all, these birdwatchers and winter visitors are very important to the area’s economy, so they are, indeed, welcomed.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

The 760-acre park draws visitors from as far away as Europe and Japan hoping to spot some of the more than 325 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies, many of them from neighboring Mexico and Central America.

green jay
The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cars are not allowed in the park but a trolley makes regular pick-ups along the 7 mile paved loop allowing birders to hitch a ride from one feeding station to the next. It’s a quiet, beautiful, place and it is filled with birds.

As the trolley rounds the bend into the park visitors are frequently greeted by a sizable flock of the loud and raucous plain chachalaca, a brown, chicken-like species that’s found only in this part of the country.

To assist the casual birder Bentsen offers a series of bird blinds strategically placed near various feeding stations. The hut made of horizontally-placed wood slats is reached by a ramp so it is accessible to those with disabilities.

Inside the blind the wood slats can be folded down to form a platform for cameras so a tripod isn’t necessary to keep the camera steady. All you need to do is sit and watch the show as the birds keep coming to feed. We sat on a bench in the blind, peered through the opening and pressed the shutter repeatedly without disturbing the birds.

Yellow-breasted great kiskadees swooped down in front of us and drank from the small pool of water. This flycatcher has black and white stripes on its crown and sides, appears to be a kind of cross between a kingfisher and a meadowlark, and attracts attention by its incessant “kis-ka-dee” calls.

Green jays (pictured above) postured and fluttered at the feeders. This beautiful bird is, indeed, green-breasted (unlike our blue jay), with green wings, but there’s also some white, yellow, and blue plumage. This bird’s flashy coloring, boisterous nature, dry, throaty rattle, and frequent “cheh-chehcheh-cheh” call make it very easy to spot.

common pauraque
A widespread nightjar throughout the Americas, the Common Paraque reaches the United States only in the Rio Grande Valley. Its call is a loud burry whistle, “purr-WEEE-eer.” © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A golden-fronted woodpecker fed at the peanut butter log. Barred with black and white above and buff below, the male has red restricted to the cap; nape orange; forecrown yellow; the female lacks red but has an orange nape. Its voice is a loud churrrr; the call a burry chuck-chuck-chuck.

Another World Birding Center located in McAllen, is at Quinta Mazatlan, a historic 1930s Spanish Revival adobe hacienda that’s surrounded by 15 acres of lush tropical landscape and several birding trails.

Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques (pictured above), green kingfishers, grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, and roseate spoonbill.

The warm winter climate and the awesome bird watching attract Winter Texans to The Valley and keep them returning year after year. We’ll be back, Hope to see you there.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Top 7 Snowbird Hotspots

Cold winter weather is inevitable. But there is an escape.

Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Coachella Valley Preserve, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Residents of the northern half of North America have long found respite from winter’s chill by fleeing to the southern half. As refugees from the frozen north, snowbirds avoid winter’s bite, snow and blowing snow, and treacherous icy sidewalks and streets by migrating southward.

Northerners have a bounty of options for destinations. Many snowbirds are north-south creatures with Florida remaining a top spot for Easterners. Snowbirds from the Northwest settle in Arizona and southern California while those in the Mid-West are attracted to Texas. But these states aren’t alone in luring snowbirds, and even within each of these states there’s a bevy of choices to suit every traveler’s taste, interests, and budget.

While many snowbirds head directly south from their northern home and enjoy long-term stays at RV parks and resorts, others cut across the country in a diagonal direction, exploring a whole new longitude. Still other snowbirds follow an itinerary across the Sun Belt sampling a variety of regions and roosts.

Here’s a look at six places that snowbirds might call their winter home.

Yuma and the Colorado River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Yuma and the Colorado River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs

Rich in natural beauty and blessed with glorious weather, Palm Springs and the desert resort cities of the Coachella Valley is a snowbird and vacation paradise, the ultimate desert playground. Part of the Colorado Desert, the area is bounded by majestic mountain ranges—the San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, and Santa Rosa mountains close by, the little San Bernardino Mountains to the west and the Chocolate Mountains to the east. This desert oasis is also known as a golfing paradise.

Key West

The southernmost tip of Florida has been the end of the line for eccentrics, free spirits, and creative types for a century or more. Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams are among its former residents.

Yuma

Yuma’s wonderfully temperate winter climate makes this southwestern Arizona city a popular destination for snowbirds escaping their cold winter homes. Arizona’s warmest winter city and the sunniest year-round spot in the U.S., Yuma has an annual average of 4,133 hours of sunshine.

Yuma is a major growing region for lettuce, dates, broccoli, cabbage, and agricultural seeds. Some of the major attractions around the Yuma area include the historical Territorial Prison, the Yuma Crossing Historic Park, and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.

green jay
Green jay at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park/World Birding Center near Mission © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Diego

San Diego is the last major city in southern California before the Mexican border. Cosmopolitan, and upscale, the area is blessed with a Goldilocks climate that’s never too hot nor too cold, a natural beauty on the Pacific Ocean and a deep restaurant and entertainment scene centered around the central and walkable Gaslamp Quarter.

Mission

Located in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, Mission welcomes the thousands of Winter Texans that call Mission their temporary home. Mission offers some of the most spectacular locations for birding and butterfly watching on earth. The Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park/World Birding Center and the National Butterfly Center have created havens for the special species unique to the area, and invite birders and naturalists to their sites by offering viewing stations, watching towers, interpretive centers, and various programs.

St. Petersburg

Along with beautiful beaches, St. Petersburg attracts visitors with the Salvador Dali Museum, Fort De Soto Park, and the St. Petersburg Pier. Beach Drive features a variety of dining and shopping opportunities. Glimmering between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg is known for its warm weather and delightful breezes, and fun in the sun.

Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Saguaro National Park near Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

There are numerous reasons to visit Tucson and the many other historic towns and sights around Southern Arizona. Some snowbirds come for a week or two. Others stay for the season.

Some of the major attractions include Sabino Canyon, Saguaro National Park, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, San Xavier del Bac (White Dove of the Desert), Catalina State Park, Kit Peak National Observatory, Tohono Chul Park, Pima Air and Space Museum, and Old Tucson Studios.

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Magnet For Birds & Snowbirds

They may be blue in the North Country, but in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the jays have bright green backs, purple-blue heads with black trim down to the chest, and yellowish-green underparts.

green jay
Take up bird watching. Many of the colorful birds found in Sunbelt regions are tropical species, reaching their northern range limits. The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Valley, as it is affectionately called, is an area near the Mexican border that stretches from Brownsville and Harlingen in the east to Mission in the west—a distance of about 65 miles. Starting in the east and heading west, there’s Brownsville, Los Fresco, Rio Honda, San Benito, Harlingen, La Feria, Mercedes, Weslaco, Donna, Alamo, San Juan, Pharr, Edinburg, McAllen, and Mission.

The Valley is one of North America’s meccas for birders. And the green jay (pictured above) is the official bird of McAllen, the area’s largest city with 135,000 residents.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park—an area well known by both birders and the U.S. border patrol—is a great spot for bird watching.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

Dozens of green jays along with the raucous chachalacas (pictured below), great kiskadee (pictured below), and Altamira orioles (pictured below) congregate around a series of feeders a short distance from the roadway at the first stop on a tram ride from the visitors center.

The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

This is bird watching made easy in what is touted as one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the United States.

From an observation tower in the park’s south end, visitors catch a glimpse of the meandering slow-flowing Rio Grande and neighboring Mexico. Sharing the park with birders and cyclists, are numerous border patrol vehicles, keeping watch along irrigation canals for people trying to enter the US illegally.

The green jay, along with some 500 other species that stay in the Rio Grande Valley year-round, is one of many head-turning attractions for the tens of thousands of Winter Texans who flock to The Valley annually.

Those who like to combine birding with spectacular architecture do what we did and head to the city-owned Quinta Mazatlan, one of the largest adobe-style mansions in the US.

There, staff relate stories of Jason Matthews, the adventurer who is said to have fought the Turks with Lawrence of Arabia and who built the estate, including a rooftop “hooch” made of sticks.

The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The place was nearly demolished after being damaged by a hurricane in 1967 but a local couple bought it for a song and restored it to the point it was honored for its splendor by the State of Texas.

At the end of the ’90s, the property was once again up for sale and the city outbid developers seeking to raze the mansion and develop the site. Now Quinta Mazatlan, like the state park, is one of the region’s most important birding areas and one of the most photographed spots in McAllen.

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and World Birding Center sits on 40 acres within an Edinburg city park. Built on re-claimed farm fields adjacent to the city’s effluent and floodwater ponds, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands is a showcase for wildlife and a native habitat site set amidst an urban setting. Surrounding the Interpretive Center, the 3.5-acre native butterfly habitat offers some of the most diverse habitat in the region.

Waterfowl and shorebirds like the green kingfisher, black-bellied whistling duck, least grebe, and American avocet have a home here, and can be easily viewed from platforms overlooking peaceful freshwater lagoons. At least 13 species of ducks flock here in winter months.

Estero Llano Grande has a well-deserved reputation as a can’t-miss birding destination. At the geographic center of the World Birding Center network, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest.

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the United States, it makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the United States, it makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estero Llano Grande shares some of the same specialty birds as Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, plain chacalaca, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques, green kingfishers, grebes, coots, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, roseate spoonbill, and long-billed dowitcher.

The many area RV parks are packed with Winter Texans who have for decades discovered Texas as a more economical alternative to Florida.

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The History of Winter Texans

Thousands of snow-weary northerners flock to Texas for the winter.

Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission.
Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Texas—a state famous for adding its unique flair—migrating snowbirds have been affectionately dubbed Winter Texans.

Most congregate in one of two areas: Coastal Bend and Rio Grande Valley.

The majority of Winter Texans flock to “The Valley”, an area near the Mexican border that stretches from Brownsville and Harlingen in the east to Mission in the west—a distance of about 65 miles. Starting in the east and heading west, there’s Brownsville, Los Fresco, Rio Honda, San Benito, Harlingen, La Feria, Mercedes, Weslaco, Donna, Alamo, San Juan, Pharr, Edinburg, McAllen, and Mission.

Technically not part of The Valley, nearby Rio Hondo, Port Isabel, and South Padre Island are also favorite roosts for Winter Texans. The South Padre Island beaches are never crowded, except during Spring Break, when no Winter Texan in their right mind would venture there.

The Valley lies at nearly the same latitude as Miami, Florida. Winters tend to be mild and a bit breezy; however, the weather can be unpredictable. The Valley enjoys a year ’round sub-tropical climate with an average temperature of 74°F. The average rainfall is 23.2 inches.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks dropping into fields to forage on seeds in the Rio Grande Valley. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Valley is arguably the best bargain in the U.S. for wintering in a warm climate. While the area offers everything you’ll find in other snowbird roosts, living costs are less expensive, with the added advantage of being right next door to Mexico.

Dining comes in all shapes and sizes in The Valley, beginning with Texas slow-cooked barbecues, where the pork, chicken, and beef fall off the bone, to Tex-Mex specialties, Mexican cuisine that’s as good as you’ll find in Mexico, fast foods, and buffets. Eating out here does not break the bank, and senior specials are available daily.

It has been said of The Valley that there are two kinds of ground cover: Perfect rows of irrigated citrus groves and winter vegetables; and semi-organized rows of recreational vehicles.

Local attractions, restaurants, and retailers go all out to lure these winter visitors. Newspaper headlines and signs welcome Winter Texans back home to The Valley.

World's Largest Killer Bee
Hidalgo is the “Killer Bee Capital of the World” and proud of it. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In trying to define what makes the Winter Texans different from their Snowbird cousins in Florida, Arizona, and Southern California, it seems to do with their roots and why they spend their winters here. Winter Texans come primarily from a Mid-West, small-town or rural roots—not that much unlike those that winter in Yuma, Arizona.

Bird-watchers from around the world converge on The Valley to see rare and unique birds.

Mostly frost-free, the valley contains the northern-most extension of the Mexican subtropical biota ecosystem, attracting a variety of neotropical birds more commonly found in Mexico.

Much of the valley now supports extensive urban/agricultural activities, but numerous natural areas along the Rio Grande have been protected and provide oases for more than 500 bird species that reside in or migrate through this region.

Many of the subtropical species are south Texas specialties, meaning it’s the only location in the United States where these birds can be found.

There are probably thousands of stories to explain how the term Winter Texan first originated.  But few pre-date the one from Barbara Pybus who published a personal account on the Texas State Historical Association Web site concerning the winter immigration of her grandparents starting back in 1925.

According to the story, it was Edward Horace Tate and Lucinda Amanda Tate who may have been the first Winter Texans. Grand-daughter Barbara reports in 1925 the Tates joined a real estate excursion train at Roosevelt, Oklahoma, traveling to McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. Convinced of the health benefits of the region and after being impressed by the tour of the Valley, the Tates decided they liked it enough to purchase a parcel of property to be used a place to escape the Oklahoma winters.

Tens of Thousands of Snowbirds come to Texas for the winter where they transform from snowbirds to Winter Texans.

The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas anddense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas anddense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We have wintered in Winter Texan Friendly RV parks in Harlingen, La Feria, Alamo, and Mission.

Approximately 15 percent of Winter Texans eventually make the Valley their permanent residence.

Come to Texas for the Winter, You’ll be glad you did! You may even become a Converted Texan.

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.

—Elmer Kelto

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Mission a Prime Destination For Winter Texans

Located right in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, about 250 miles south of San Antonio, lies a tight knit community of friends, family, and children.

The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

During winter, they embrace the thousands of Winter Texans that call Mission their temporary home. With winter temperatures averaging 72 degrees and with a ZERO percent chance of snow… why wouldn’t they?

Mission has a little bit of everything for everyone. Close enough to the hustle and bustle of a larger city, but far enough from the harsh cold winters most are trying to escape. While Mission has over 80,000 permanent residents, the Sunbelt community caters to those looking for a sunny alternative to blizzards, snow shovels, and tire chains.

Mission looks forward to another season full of fun loving, adventure seekers who also want to just kick up their feet and enjoy a margarita right on the calm waters of the Rio Grande. There is never a shortage of activities to do, places to visit, or delicious Tex-Mex food to eat.

With more than 300 butterfly species, Mission is proud to be the butterfly capitol of the US.

Two hundred butterfly species have been seen at Mission’s National Butterfly Center, a project of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation and study of wild butterflies in their native habitats. This 100-acre wildlife center and native species botanical garden contains trails for exploring, observation areas, garden café, educational exhibits, and a plant nursery. The beauty of the natural world, the wonder of butterflies, particularly and the powerful role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems and sustainable food resources. The Center is open for exploration daily.

Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission.
Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Butterfly Center is honored to host the 19th Annual Texas Butterfly Festival. From November 1-4, 2014, attendees will spend three days exploring renowned public lands and private properties with world-class trip leaders and expert guides. The Festival is taking place during prime butterfly season, when you may reasonably expect to see more than 60 species in a day.

In keeping with all the nature that surrounds the area, Mission is also home to the World Birding Center. Known as one of the top birding destinations in the country, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park well deserves its status as headquarters of the World Birding Center. Birders across the nation know Bentsen as a treasure trove of unique Valley specialties, tropical birds found nowhere else in the United States.

Striking Green Jays with bright green backs, purple-blue heads, and yellowish-green under parts; radiant orange Altamira Orioles; Great Kiskadee, an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown; and raucous Plain Chachalacas are just a few of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the park.

Other neo-tropical varieties such as Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Clay-colored Thrush, Hook-billed Kite, and Gray Hawk are also likely. Virtual clouds of migrating Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks are a popular spring and fall spectacle.

Pet friendly amenities at Bentsen Palm Village in the Rio Grande Valley include dog agility course and pet parade. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Pet friendly amenities at Bentsen Palm Village in the Rio Grande Valley include dog agility course and pet parade. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission prides itself on the affordable appeal of the town and it’s amenities.

New restaurants and stores open weekly and huge projects such as the University Of Texas Medical School and a Space X commercial launch pad plan to call the region home.

The recent media exaggerations of the lifestyle in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas have raised some concerns. However, contrary to what is reported by mainstream media regarding safety and illegal immigration, Mission is, in fact, one of the safest places to be. The community’s priority is the security of their visitors and residents.

With its wide variety of outdoor recreation, such as kayaking, canoeing, biking, and golfing at one of four premier golf courses and world class birding and nature attractions, Mission is a place where simple activities become rich and enjoyable experiences.

Mission extends an invitation to come for a visit and see for yourself why thousands of Winter Texans return every year.

A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home in the Mission area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

For additional information on the Mission, Texas, area visit the following websites:

Discover Mission: www.discovermission.com

The Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce: www.missionchamber.com

National Butterfly Center: www.nationalbutterflycenter.org

World Birding Center: www.theworldbirdingcenter.com

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Snowbird Destinations

Snowbirds flock to Ol’ Airy Zonie, Southern Texas, Florida, and other Sunbelt states and Mexico to avoid winter’s bite, snow and blowing snow, and treacherous icy sidewalks and streets. Northern Europeans are also known to migrate to the U.S. Sunbelt, adding to these communities of seasonal residents.

On the Colorado River in the southwest corner of Arizona, Yuma’s been at the crossroads for centuries. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
On the Colorado River in the southwest corner of Arizona, Yuma’s been at the crossroads for centuries. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The available options are unlimited enabling snowbirds to design their winter lifestyle to suit their financial ability and social preferences.

The basic question is WHERE are YOU going to go? Do you prefer the Pacific or Atlantic coast or Gulf of Mexico with their sunny beaches, or arid desert? Is your preference for dry air or higher humidity? Do you enjoy fishing, boating, hiking, or biking?

The majority of snowbirds migrate straight south from their northern home. As a result most snowbirds from the Northwest tend to winter in Arizona and California; those from the Midwest in Texas; and snowbirds from the Northeast head to Florida.

Another consideration is finding an RV park that is within your budget. Even with the recent escalation of RV park rates, one can still find a spot for about $400/month.

Large snowbird parks offer a variety of activities: swimming, dancing, woodworking, quilting, lapidary.

With an RV, you have the freedom to check out places that appeal to you. Experiment before you decide to settle into one place. Or, like us, you may prefer to be “roving gypsies”.

Two desert systems, the Mojave and the Colorado, abut within Joshua Tree, dividing California's southernmost national park into two arid ecosystems of profoundly contrasting appearance. The key to their differences is elevation.
Two desert systems, the Mojave and the Colorado, abut within Joshua Tree, dividing California’s southernmost national park into two arid ecosystems of profoundly contrasting appearance. The key to their differences is elevation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Warm weather hubs such as Arizona, Texas, Florida, and California are tops for their predictable warm weather. But other states are also becoming popular—Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Arizona

The majority of snowbird resorts are centered around Mesa, Apache Junction, Tucson, Yuma, and along the Colorado River.

One of the hottest spots in terms of growth is YUMA (Yearly Uncontrolled Migration of the Aged), which doubles in population during winter months.

Any discussion of Arizona and snowbirds would be incomplete without mentioning Quartzsite, a rock-hound paradise since the 1960s. Quartzsite has been described as “$400,000 motorhomes towing $40,000 SUVs looking for FREE camping”.

Texas

The aptly-named Roseate Spoonbill is one of Florida's most distinctive wading birds. Spoonbills feed on fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects with its unusual shaped bill. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The aptly-named Roseate Spoonbill is one of Florida’s most distinctive wading birds. Spoonbills feed on fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects with its unusual shaped bill. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thousands of snow-weary Northerners flock to Texas during winter. In Texas—a state famous for adding its unique flair—migrating snowbirds have been dubbed “Winter Texans”.

Most congregate in one of two areas: Coastal Bend and Rio Grande Valley.

The majority of Winter Texans flock to “The Valley”, an area near the Mexican border that stretches from Brownsville and Harlingen in the east to Mission in the west—a distance of about 65 miles. Winters tend to be mild and a bit breezy. With less expensive living costs, the Valley is arguably the best bargain in the U.S. for wintering in a warm climate.

Florida

Think Florida, and you have thoughts of dazzling white beaches, wind-swept palms, endless citrus groves, fresh-from-the-water seafood, delicious key lime pie, Kennedy Space Center, NASCAR drivers at Daytona International Speedway, well-manicured golf courses, the Everglades, Key West, Disney World, and other Orlando-area theme parks.

Florida is the only state where you can winter anywhere. The further south you go, the warmer the winter temperatures.

There are so many choices depending on your interests and budget. The cost of RV parks increases as you travel further south and with proximity to the Atlantic or Gulf Coast.

California

Winter weather is close to perfect in Palm Springs and the other desert resort cities in the Coachella Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Winter weather is close to perfect in Palm Springs and the other desert resort cities in the Coachella Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The majority of snowbirds who make California their winter home, head for the Coachella Valley. This is desert country with an occasional oasis—some natural but mostly man-made. Known world-wide as “the golfer’s paradise”, golf courses abound.

Synonymous with the good life, Palm Springs is a retreat of the rich and famous, the ultimate in resort living. Swimming pools and fairways almost overlap. People who can afford to winter anywhere in the U.S. often do it here where winter weather is close to perfect.

In conclusion

Every fall when I hear the geese honking overhead, something starts pulling my inner-compass to the South. And an inner voice whispers: “Surely you’re as smart as a goose”. Feeling that I am at least as smart as a silly goose, I pack up the RV and head south to the Sun Belt.

And, remember, getting there is half the fun.

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Fewer Winter Texans Visit The Rio Grande Valley

The Rio Grande Valley has been a winter refuge for northern snowbirds for many decades.

Iwo Jima Memorial,
The original sculpture of the Iwo Jima Memorial, that is in Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC, is in Harlingen at the Marine Military Academy and Iwo Jima Memorial Museum. This is the clay sculpture that the bronze statue in Arlington Cemetery was made from. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the heydays for these retired part-time residents, dubbed Winter Texans, may be over.

A new study by the University of Texas-Pan American’s Business and Tourism Research Center shows an alarming drop in the number of Winter Texans traveling to the Valley.

The survey counted about 100-thousand Winter Texans this past season, down from 144-thousand four years ago. In turn, the economic value of Winter Texans also shrunk, from 800-million dollars spent four years ago, down to 710-million dollars this past season.

Last winter, the Valley lost 33,000 Winter Texans many of whom have migrated south for many years, said the bi-annual report that surveyed 88 parks and nearly 1,400 people.

Winter Texans who have died, fallen ill, or have been deterred by Mexican drug violence have helped caused the drop, according to the survey.

Many of today’s winter visitors are younger and more mobile than their counterparts of years past.

As Winter Texans grow older, 62 percent of respondents in the report noted that health was a factor in them not returning for a new season.

World's Largest Killer Bee
Hidalgo is the “Killer Bee Capital of the World” and proud of it. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Concerned family members were the second reason that they do not return.

Perceptions of drug violence ranked third—a departure from the last survey taken in 2012, when it ranked atop the list of why wintertime visitors avoided the region.

It is a worrying trend. That’s how the head of the U-T-P-A Business and Research Tourism U-T-P-A marketing professor Dr. Penny Simpson summed up the study. It’s time for local chambers of commerce to ramp up their marketing campaigns to counteract the negative perception potential new Winter Texans may have of the Valley, she said.

Kathy Olivarez, the editor of the Winter Texan Times, says they’re getting numerous calls from readers wondering if it’s safe to return—citing national media stories that portray a dangerous border region in chaos.

Learning of the report’s findings last month prompted local chambers of commerce to join together for a call of action in late July.

“We have been tracking this, knew it was happening and have a plan,” said Nancy Millar, vice president of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau, a branch of the local chamber.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks dropping into fields to forage on seeds in the Rio Grande Valley. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Millar said the chamber rounded up more than 200 business leaders to try to find ideas to keep Winter Texans coming—and coming back.

She admitted that businesses relied on word of mouth for years instead of targeted marketing in the Midwest states, where many Winter Texans reside.

Nuevo Progreso, a Mexican border town just south of Weslaco, is still considered a safe haven for many Midwesterners and Canadians who flock there for cheap dental work and discounted medical prescriptions—though there have been a handful of violent incidents.

In July, a nearby shootout between suspected armed rival groups left 10 dead and spooked some retirees. And in December 2009, gunfire erupted during an annual celebration welcoming back Winter Texans, but no visitors reported injuries.

RV parks surveyed in the 2014 report cited worried calls from prospective visitors up north, but none of the dozen RV Parks contacted for this story would confirm it.

Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission.
Camping at Bentsen Palm Village RV Park south of Mission. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 85 percent of Winter Texans said they visited Mexico for an average of five trips per year, which has helped Tamaulipas’ northern border towns rake in around $30 million in tourism revenue each year, the report said.

Others deny longtime Winter Texans are afraid.

“We are looking forward to a good year,” said mobile home park manager Gail McDaniel, who runs 1015 RV Park in Weslaco.

McDaniel said reservations are strong and most Winter Texans are not worried about border violence.

She pointed to poor health and the inability to travel for most vacancies.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Valley of Butterflies

The butterfly explosion was right on schedule.

Source: valleymorningstar.com
Source: valleymorningstar.com

Abundant September rain put blossoms on Rio Grande Valley plants and the result was an explosion of butterflies in October. It was only logical.

And just as the Rio Grande Valley is the number one birding destination in the United States, it’s also among the best places to view butterflies, including several species not seen anywhere else, reports valleymorningstar.com.

Some of the best local places to see birds double as great spots to view butterflies, but just about anywhere there are flowering plants can be a good place, including backyards, gardens, and even pastures.

Just a few great butterfly places include the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, plants at the SPI Convention Center, Sabal Palm Sanctuary in Brownsville, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Resaca de la Palma State Park, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, Frontera Audubon Center in Weslaco, Ramsey Nature Park in Harlingen, and the National Butterfly Center in Mission.

Local favorites include the diminutive blue metalmark and the Mexican blue wing. Both are drop-dead gorgeous. Other Valley beauties include the border patch, Gulf fritillary, queen, silver-banded hairstreak, orange julia, white peacock and, well, the list goes on and on.

The Valley has the distinction of being one of the better places to find the world’s smallest butterfly, the pygmy blue, which has a wingspan of half an inch, reports valleymorningstar.com.

Source: valleymorningstar.com
Source: valleymorningstar.com

Currently, American snouts are passing through the Valley by the millions and are undoubtedly the most numerous butterfly in Texas. By the way, snout butterflies similar to those passing through the Valley were around when dinosaurs roamed the earth 70 million years ago.

According to the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas, the Lone Star State has 495 species. The Butterfly Website estimates there are 28,000 species worldwide and 725 of those butterflies can be found in the United States. Moths are even more numerous than butterflies, but that’s a subject for another day.

Butterflies serve a useful purpose. They pollinate plants, provide food for many birds, and their beauty adds an exclamation point to our day. They also help us connect to nature.

Details

National Butterfly Center

Unlike various butterfly conservatories that have been built across the United States, the National Butterfly Center provides extensive outdoor gardens of native nectar plants and specific caterpillar host plants as well as natural habitat to attract large numbers of wild butterflies and to conserve rare native butterflies.

In the few short years since the National Butterfly Center opened, it has already been the site of a number of sightings of butterflies never before seen in the United States. The close proximity to Mexico and the Rio Grande gives ample opportunity for species to cross over into the United States.

More than 300 species of butterflies have been found in the Rio Grande Valley, and over 200 of these have been seen at the National Butterfly Center, including a number of rarities and U.S. Records.

In addition to the butterflies, the National Butterfly Center is revegetating its land with rare native plants, giving visitors the chance to experience and learn about the Rio Grande Valley’s native flora and fauna.

Source: valleymorningstar.com
Source: valleymorningstar.com

Incredibly, almost 40 percent of the 725 butterflies that can be found in the United States can be seen in this three-county area at the southernmost tip of Texas, where the subtropical climate makes it possible to enjoy the outdoors year ’round.

Address: 3333 Butterfly Park Drive, Mission, TX 78572

Phone: (956) 583-5400

Website: nationalbutterflycenter.org

Texas Butterfly Festival

The National Butterfly Center hosts the 18th Annual Texas Butterfly Festival from November 2 – 5, 2013. Attendees will spend 3 days exploring renowned public lands and private properties with world-class trip leaders and expert guides. The Festival is taking place during prime butterfly season, when you may reasonably expect to see 60 or more species in a day.

Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

The 20th Annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival will occur in Harlingen immediately following the Butterfly Festival from November 6-10, 2013.

Worth Pondering…

Happiness is a butterfly which when pursued is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly may alight upon you.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Welcome Home Winter Texans

Winter Texan parks are now seeing a few winter residents trickle in, but expect the majority of residents to return following the Thanksgiving holiday.

The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas anddense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas anddense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV parks in the Rio Grande Valley expect to be full this Winter Texan season, based on a positive outlook from last year.

A survey of Winter Texans last season, conducted by the University of Texas-Pan American, found that 95.8 percent planned to return to the Valley this year, reports the Valley Morning Star.

With the Winter Texan season fast approaching, local RV parks are open and ready for their guests.

Some Winter Texans have arrived a bit early.

Larry and Sharon Schnulle, from Missouri, have been coming to the Valley for seven years. The couple will be staying for about six months at Sunshine RV Resort in Harlingen.

“I retired and that’s allowed us to come a bit earlier than last year,” Sharon  told the Valley Morning Star.

Joe Ellis, from Massachusetts, has been coming to Sunshine RV Park for 13 years. He came down earlier than usual because of the cold weather starting at home, he said.

Visitors to Santa Ana are often greeted with the raucous cry of the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that reaches its northern limits in the Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Visitors to Santa Ana are often greeted with the raucous cry of the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that reaches its northern limits in the Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

He will stay for about six months. He said his love of the area stems from the culture of the Valley.

“We love the culture down here. They are very welcoming to us; they welcome us with open arms,” he said.

Sunshine RV Resort, one of the Valley’s many parks, can accommodate up to about 1,000 residents.

Most of the park’s residents won’t arrive here until the first week of November. The park currently has about 117 residents who live there all year round. The rest are residents who come from out of state or Canada.

Last year the park was about 82 percent full. That’s about 900 lots.

Most of the parks agree that they don’t get busy until November or December.

Anne Lewis, a Sunshine RV Resort resident, said most people come down when the weather gets cold wherever they are from.

“This area is a great place because it has everything that Florida has but the cost of living is cheaper,” she told the Valley Morning Star.

Don Losher from Park Place Estates said, “We have around 150 residents right now. The park can hold about 1,600 people. We expect the park to be full to capacity this season.”

The parks usually have a multitude of events for their residents, ranging from entertainment, dances, happy hour, outdoor activities, bingo, and a fully stocked library.

“There are enough activities to keep residents busy,” Losher said.

An employee at Fun-N-Sun Resort in San Benito said that last year all the lots were occupied. Right now they have about 251 residents and expect another 300 or 400 residents to show up next month. They will get another rush of guests in January.

The most recent study conducted by UTPA found that Winter Texans made a $751 million economic impact on the Valley.

The study by UTPA’s Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center found that 88.6 percent of Winter Texans came to the Valley for the climate, while nearly 67 percent listed “friendly people” as one reason for coming here. While in the Valley, they visit flea markets, historical sites festivals, and the beach.

A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home at La Feria Nature Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A few of the hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks that make their home at La Feria Nature Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Little known and interesting fact about Texas

Beaumont to El Paso: 742 miles

Beaumont to Chicago: 770 miles

El Paso is closer to California than to Dallas

King Ranch in South Texas is larger than Rhode Island.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Read More