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Destination - Rio Grande City

By Eileen Mattei

A change in the river's course altered the city's future, but at places like LaBorde House and Rancho Lomitas, history lives.

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 5.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 1.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 8.75 hours /
  • El Paso - 12.75 hours
  • Houston - 6.75 hours /
  • San Antonio - 4.25 hours /
  • lubbock - 11 hours

Although Rio Grande City was founded in 1848 as the Mexican-American War rumbled across Texas, ranching clans had lived in the area since the 1750s, closely tied to the Mexican city of Camargo directly across the river. Until the early 1900s, river boats steamed to Rio Grande City's dock, but in 1952, the river shifted 1 mile south, leaving the city high and dry.

A relic of Rio Grande City's heyday, the carefully restored 1899 LaBorde House, once an elegant home, did time as a boarding house and hotel, and, rumors say, as a smugglers' den, before it evolved into an inn listed on the National Register of Historic Places. My husband Guy and I settle into one of the high-ceilinged rooms, which are graced with canopied beds, marble-topped dressers and mini-fridges, before ambling down narrow streets past weathered tan-brick buildings, many with French-style ironwork around second floor verandas.

El Patio Restaurant draws us in for a look at photos of old Rio Grande City showing a treeless horizon. On the patio, a rooster spur tree with massive thorns is an example of the semitropical plants that thrive in the arid environment. In the morning, we head north about 14 miles to Benito and Toni Trevino's Rancho Lomitas. Benito Trevino, a one-time oilfield chemist who grew up nearby, has gone back to his roots - the roots, leaves and seeds of native plants that his ancestors used for folk remedies, food and fiber.

Looking slim in black jeans, Benito walks us through his native-plant nursery, aflutter with butterflies, to the ranch's mesquite-shaded patio where Toni is serving pan dulce and coffee to a group of master-gardeners-in-training. "Benito is one of 13 children named in alphabetical order," Toni says, as she spreads mesquite beans in a dry cast iron skillet. When she heats them, the beans start popping like popcorn. Benito's grandmother saved the roasted mesquite shells and ground them to make a coffee substitute.

For our next lesson in native life, we hop on a trailer hooked to Jim Seeden's truck. Jim, who lives in the ranch's small RV park, eases the rig down trails winding through 177 acres while Benito balances on the back of the trailer to talk to us.

"To survive here, people had to know how to avoid the poisonous plants and to identify the medicinal and edible ones," Benito says. Older relatives passed lore to him by words and example. His grandmother would crush new mesquite leaves, cover them with water overnight and use the liquid to soothe irritated eyes. "Vaqueros with heartburn knew to grab a handful of mesquite leaves, chew them and swallow the juice for a natural antacid."

Benito describes himself as an ethnobotantist, studying how plants are used for food, fiber and medicines, but he doesn't suggest that Mother Nature is benign. "If you eat the purple berries of the coyotillo, you're paralyzed for life," he tells us.

When the trailer stops, Benito hops off and snips a slender 3-foot-long yucca leaf. He softens the leaf over a gas burner and then pulls 1/8-inch-wide strands from the leaf. Knotting two strands together, he invites us to connect additional strands. From one leaf, we make a 20-foot-long strip, which Benito rolls on his thigh, squeezing out liquid, before halving the strand and letting it twist on itself. Pulled tight, the quickly made rope is strong and will be stronger once it dries.

Snipping a twig off a bush, Benito identifies it as all-thorn goat bush, or armagosa. The bitter tea made from its branches was used to treat dysentery along the border. Persuaded to bite into the tiny leaf, we grimace at the strong bitter taste.

"When I was a kid, my mother sent us to the river for willow bark, mesquite and cactus root. She always asked for the three together," Benito says. Not until he moved back home years later did he ask why. In tea, the willow bark eases a headache, the mesquite flavors it, and the prickly pear buffers the concoction.

We scramble off the trailer when Benito challenges us to find trapdoor spider holes, which we do. Benito slices into the root of a nearby bush, and it oozes red drops. Peeling the bark, he pops a two-inch segment of the sangre de cristo bush into his mouth. He recalls doing this years ago in Vietnam, thanks to his mother, who sent the root to heal his irritated gums.

The tasajillo, or desert Christmas cactus, decorated with orange and red berries in winter, holds a seasonal remedy. Hit the plant, he suggests, to knock off the berries, chew on them, and swallow the watermelon-flavored juice to ease a cough.

Brownsville biology teacher Tira Wilmoth is taking notes as we go. "It's giving me a lot of good ideas on how organisms interrelate," she says. "And kids could interview family members about using mesquite and ebony."

Benito holds up a spiky leaf of the lechuguilla, an agave. After removing the spines, he peels off thin threads of the leaf, leaving a barb at one end. Wow! ... seven inches of thread with an attached needle for repairs.

Soon we are back on the patio where Toni has laid out a feast of mesquite sugar cookies, mesquite jelly and a sweet, dark nutbread made with Texas persimmon and mesquite flour. Her cactus float, combining juice from red cactus flowers, lemonade and lime sherbet, is refreshing and colorful.

Later, we join Mauro Villarreal, Main Street manager, who hosts an open-air, 90-minute trolley tour. "I love the history of the town. It's my heritage, too. Understanding where you came from gives you a sense of belonging," he tells us as his tour weaves through Fort Ringgold, circa 1848, intact with thick brick walls and gracefully arched verandas on the hospital and barracks. Besides identifying some of the town's 627 historic structures - river warehouses and homes - Mauro points out the greenery, because "people are curious about the plants and the ecological diversity."

In the evening, Guy and I relax on LaBorde's upper veranda watching Brazilian free-tailed bats slip from the eaves of the building across the street.

Before first light the next morning, we're traveling west, past Roma to Chapeño, with Steve Monk and Debi and Mark Warner, to canoe a stretch of the Rio Grande. Fair-haired and sunburned, Steve is a part-time college biology instructor and our guide from the Friends of the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge. Paddling upstream to Falcon Dam, we discover that the Rio Grande, wide and dotted with islands, is a busy flyway. Green kingfishers, ringed kingfishers and green herons dart in front of us. Chachalacas and kiskadees cross north from Mexico to Texas, while red-winged blackbirds and white-winged doves work both banks. Above the Mexican bank, an altamira oriole flies from a hanging nest, which is the longest nest found in North America.

"These trips are a way to get to know the river and enjoy the natural habitat that still remains," Steve says as we paddle downstream past Mexican button bush, retama and green jays. "It surprises people, especially locals." Another surprise: He plunges his paddle down into the water at midriver and touches bottom.

Debi, a medical librarian, is on a quest to see a Muscovy duck. We spot some, along with black-bellied whistling ducks, red-billed pigeons and a groove-billed ani. A narrow channel carries us past cliffs with dozens of kingfisher holes to what passes for whitewater on the lower Rio Grande, where we paddle over a shallow, rocky patch.

Steve steers us behind tall reeds into an arroyo, a setting that recalls African Queen. Guy spots two-foot-wide, round depressions underwater: nests of the Rio Grande cichlid or mojarra.

Ashore for lunch, we see javelina and raccoon tracks. Steve suggests we hike to the bluffs and petrified oyster reefs. Bushwhacking through a sea of oxeye daisy and cenizo, we reach the ancient reefs that look like layers of fine puff pastry. As we scramble up a ridge to get a breeze and a vista, Steve points out a Chihuahuan raven above us and, at our feet, a roadrunner anvil: a small rock surrounded by broken white snail shells.

Back on the river, past more shoals, Steve steers us from the bright sun into the cool, dark shade of "the nicest grove of Montezuma bald cypress anywhere on the river." The dense braid of roots reaches for several yards along the bank.

Six hours after we put in at Chapeño, we reach Salineño, happy campers. "We really did see all the biggies today," Debi says. "Birders go absolutely bonkers about getting these birds in one day."

Details:

  • LaBorde House, 601 E. Main, Rio Grande City, (956) 487-5101
  • El Patio Restaurant, 402 E. Main, (956) 487-6598
  • Reservations are required for the following tours:
    • Rancho Lomitas, (956) 486-2576 or www.rancholomitas.com
    • Mauro Villarreal, Main Street Trolley Tours, (956) 488-0047
    • Friends of Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, (956) 784-7500

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