Let’s Go To Garner State Park

 

November 21, 2017

Maybe you remember the old B.J. Thomas song, and maybe you’ve been to Garner. For Dahna and I, unknown to each other in those days, Garner was THE early 1960’s summer hot spot. The park was built in the late 30’s by Roosevelt’s CCC and 25 years later became Mecca for Texas kids who loved dancing the old cowboy Whip, the clear Frio River, and the cheap thrills of Mexico 90 miles away. Notorious Ciudad Acuna lies across the Rio Grande from Del Rio and was, and maybe still is, the target for gringo teenagers with wheels and shit for brains. We could buy liquor for pennies but still overpaid somehow, and we’d circle the pretty Mexican “girls” in the Sur Club or the Brown Derby. It became clear pretty soon who was circling whom, but penicillin was cheap and effective in those days, so nobody really cared. Back home there was always somebody who knew somebody and…well, it always worked out.

Once, coming back across the border in my newly-inherited ’57 Ford, about 2:00 a.m. with three of my buddies, the officer asked if we were bringing back any alcoholic beverages. I was about to naively say, “No sir,” when Jimmy piped up, “Yeah, but you’ll never find it.” You’d be surprised how fast two cops can dismantle the interior of a car. As good as they were, they were too dumb to frisk Jimmy who had a half pint of Bacardi down the front of his Levis. He was too loaded to be of much help putting my car back together, and it probably took us at least an hour but I don’t remember for sure. Jimmy lived into his late 60’s which is far longer than he had a right to.

Okay, so we’re all loaded up. The pickup’s gassed up with the kayak lashed on top, the RV’s packed and battened up in travel mode, and Sacha’s a little nervous in her comfy backseat. Neighbor Ray has been instructed to shoot anything that needs shooting. Allan has the house keys and is the master of the cats’ domain—not that there is anything wrong with that. The truck is pointed at the cattle guard, and we’re about to start our 14 day birding safari headed for points south. I looked over at Dahna and said, “This would be a great time for you to remember whatever it is you forgot.” She looked out the windshield and replied, “I guess you’re going on this trip without sunglasses.” A few minutes later, we were underway.

We got to Garner a little before 4:00, and there was a long, slow moving check-in line in the big, sleek headquarters building that looked inside like the lobby of Trump Tower, but more tasteful. This was a huge change from the old days when there was no headquarters, first of all, so you didn’t have to check in, second of all. We’d drive in and just park somewhere on the grass and eventually a ranger would come by and hit us up for two bucks and stick a receipt in the wipers. It was always good form to wash off the Ciudad Acuna evidence from the tail fins before he got there. There, in the summer of ’64, we were hot to trot and the skies were not cloudy all day like they were this time.

Northern Cardinal
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The weather wasn’t great when we left, but the forecast was good. Not so the forecasting. First it was fog, then fog with mist, then mist with drizzle, then cold with drizzle, mist and fog. I wasn’t worried though because Garner is Shangri-La as everybody knows and everything’s perfect there. I was worried about the gas, however. This new camper is bigger and heavier than the old retro, and the kayak on top combines to turn our normal gas guzzling truck into an aerodynamic brickbat of Godzilla proportions. Divide 210 miles by 30 gallons to get some idea. To be fair, there were lots of hills.

Unlike Dahna, I was too slow-witted to walk Sacha when we got there so had the pleasure of standing in line for over 30 minutes waiting to check in. I wondered, ‘Who the hell are all these old farts? Don’t they have jobs? Jeez!’ Finally, I stood before the lady ranger and listened to her sad story while she assigned us the worst spot in the park. She was worried about her son, a naval aviator trainee now assigned to the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi. She probably imagined the kid splashing his trainer jet in the bay like John McCain did 50+ years ago.

Cypress Trees on The Frio River
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Our spot at Garner wasn’t really the worst. I’m sure plenty of people would have loved it. Hermits, for example. I’d like to know more about the hermit community but not by being one. I guess some people drag around a three ton RV in order to get away from the madding crowd, but that’s really not it. The purpose of RVing is to get out of your nice house so you can stay in a pinched rattletrap among lots of PEOPLE YOU DON’T KNOW. It ain’t camping! You pay a pretty high price in effort and money to meet friendly and intelligent folks who don’t give a rat’s patooie if you live or die. It’s liberating, truly. You’re not supposed to be lonely. You’re not getting away from it all if you do it right.

We were lonely for three days in our huge and forlorn “Frio River” loop. The park was half full but not where we were. Looking left or right through the drizzly fog, you saw only empty spaces. We drove down to the heart of our old memories, the beautiful, deserted stone pavilion where we danced all those years ago and took a quiet turn or two through the Whip. We reminisced about the corny songs we loved to dance to on the old jukebox, like “Black Land Farmer” and “Fraulein” and “Last Kiss.” Well, you had to be there. In the early ‘60s I mean.

Dance Pavillion
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CCC “Combination Building – Gift Shop, Restaurant & Mess Hall
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Dahna did see and photograph some cool birds such as a golden fronted woodpecker, some pine siskins, a yellow-rumped warbler and a pair of Egyptian geese. The place was full of huge jack rabbits that looked like long-eared dogs through the fog and a flock of wild turkeys trotted by through the mist. The best thing, critter wise, was our dawning discovery that our rescue girl, Sacha the problem dog, returned once, if not twice, to the shelter is, in fact, a sparkling gem.

Me with Sacha inside a Cypress
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Yesterday, as we marveled at how she combines the best traits of both Daisy and Libby, two of the world’s greatest dogs of all time, Dahna wondered aloud in hushed tones, “Is this the perfect dog? Did Daisy send her to us?” We are smitten.

Texas Jackrabbit
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The crappy weather never let up and for the first time in our lives, we were glad to get out of Garner State Park. We got a good early start and the hookup went smooth as silk. Our spirits were improving at the prospect of sunny skies down on the border 260 miles south at Falcon reservoir. It looked like clear sailing but, as you know, we’re the Branyans and the Simpsons have nothing on us. I won’t say it was the worst day of my life but…

Turkey Heaven
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Down Mexico Way

November 25, 2017

The trip from Garner to Falcon State Park took us through the streets of Laredo. We’d never been to this little burg, and were surprised to find it’s a lot like Los Angeles, only bigger. Seriously, if you think the border is sparsely sprinkled with dusty little towns inhabited by white-linened oxcart drivers, think again. There are millions of people of all descriptions living down here, with about half of them zooming around in patrol cars chasing the other half. Apparently border paranoia is a terrific job creator for the bullethead set, but I have yet to see one single donut shop. That confirms we’re not in Kansas anymore. Anyway, it takes gas to get from Garner to Falcon, and I had just enough sense to get it before Laredo.

Truck stops are the best places to get gas when you’re pulling a pretty long trailer because, usually, you have more swing room. The road sign said, ‘FLYING J,’ so I said, “Cool,” and exited. Not cool. We hit the biggest tractor trailer logjam in Texas history, which really pissed off the drivers because once it finally cleared, they were out for blood and in no mood to accommodate us tourists. Imagine driving a Smart car in the Daytona 500. I got air horned twice, and not in a good way, before ducking into the station. Ah NAFTA—Cheap flimsy crap by the truckload.

I spotted a driver side pump but got cut off by a sneaky SUV. The only other one was way over on the other side, but it was hemmed in by a bunch of semis parked at an angle, Le Mans style, leaving only a narrow access lane to the pump. I took a chance on it anyway and threaded my way through, miraculously without hitting anybody or anything. I pulled up to the pump…good old #3. You know, the only pump anywhere whose nozzle is too big to go into the filler hole. I won’t strain your credulity with how the rest of the day went from that point straight into the toilet, but I’d say it wasn’t the worst day of my life. Maybe not the worst day ever.

Falcon State Park sits on the huge Falcon reservoir which serves the U.S. and Mexico with its dammed up Rio Grande water. It’s a fisherman’s and birder’s paradise, two pastimes that share their demand for stealth and patience. Dahna has both of these plus a fine eye for detail, a knack for taxonomy, and the technical skill to handle a sophisticated camera like a pro. She uses all this talent to get some really stunning shots of what’s becoming a very long list of avian species and varieties. My job is to carry stuff, control Sacha, and resist the urge to photobomb the shot. I try not to say much when she’s talking shop with the other birders because I know doodley about birds. Taxonomy is a must, but that stuff rolls off me like water off a duck’s back. I know red bird, blue bird, squirrel! So, trying not to embarrass her, I generally affect an arrogant faraway gaze to repel anybody from talking to me. It usually works, but sometimes I get busted.

Curved Bill Thrasher- Falcon Reservoir
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Salineño Wildlife Refuge isn’t too far from the park, is famous as a “Don’t Miss!” among birders, and is funded by a conservation consortium including Texas Parks and Wildlife. The place is hosted by RV live-in couples who volunteer for months at a time and rotate duty among themselves. It was manned this time by a nifty Iowa couple about our age who were expert birders and really knew the area from their many years of service there. An international set of birders were there when we arrived, about 20 or so, training their long-lensed, tripod-mounted cameras on the birds and butterflies. We quietly moved in and stood in back and Dahna started shooting. A moment later, a large female hound started sniffing me up. Her owner, the hostess, whispered, “You must have a dog. If it’s in the car, it’s okay to bring it here. She likes other dogs.”

Pyrrhuloxia – Falcon Reservoir
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I retrieved Sacha, and as soon as I got close to the site, the hound came tearing out, with the hostess right behind, and the two dogs had a quick meeting of the nose. All was well until a minute later when Sacha took a giant poop right in front of the lady’s RV and then scratched up a dust storm worthy of the Dust Bowl itself trying to cover it up. The whole incredible performance only took only a few seconds, but it kicked off a deafening cacophony in the trees nearby. I turned to look and blurted out, “What the hell is that??” She said, “They’re chacalacas.” “What’s a chacalaca?” I asked. Her look of astonishment caused me to realize I had blown my cover. “Why, it’s a bird,” she said, “A big brown bird.” I figured I might as well confess, “My wife’s the birder. I’m the gofer, but hey, I do have a poop bag.” She said, “Forget it,” and giving my arm a little squeeze said, “Let’s go back in.” Back inside, she petted Sacha so I could watch the birds through the binoculars. Nice, nice people. Later, I asked Dahna if she ever heard of a chacalaca and she said, “Sure. I’ve got some shots of them. Big brown bird.”

Plain Chacalaca
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Green jays were the most common birds there, and there were tons of them at the park. These are beautiful (“gaudy” as Dahna says) tropical birds. They have blue heads with black chins, green wings and yellow underbellies. I’m still partial to my fave, the bluejay because they love to scream just to be obnoxious. They always remind me of those bucolic summers when school let out and our parents wanted us to get lost until dinnertime. We’d eat and then they’d kick us out again. Heaven on earth. Someone said you can’t grow old in the same America you were born into. [sigh]

Green Jay- Salineño
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Falcon’s wildlife wasn’t limited just to birds. We had a friendly pack of javelinas that roamed through our sites and Dahna saw a coyote stroll by right down the middle of the road. We saw an entire flock of roadrunners there, about 7 or 8 or so. Back home we hardly ever see them and then they’re always solitary. About a year ago, I saw our cat chasing one through the back yard. The bird took a mighty wing-assisted leap up and over the roof of the cabin, and the cat kind of spun around wondering where the hell it went. Beep Beep is where it went.

The most exotic wildlife we saw, rarely seen in Texas, was an old mating pair of New Mexico liberals. Liz and Charlie were our neighbors, and we nearly extended our stay another day just to hang out with them. Charlie was a retired something or other who retired from Los Alamos where he worked on something or other that had to do with lasers. He was, as you might expect, a technical whiz who had his camper tricked out with solar arrays, wildlife cameras, and other gadgets. They were experienced boondockers who often camped off grid for a week at a time, usually at national parks or on BLM ground. The threat of Trump and the Republicans to the public ownership of these lands led to a gentle dance of political opinionating that evolved into a full-blown polka stomp of liberal outrage. We had a high old time and discovered they were considering going to Choke Canyon State Park. We’re going there too on the way home, and there’s a slim chance we might meet up with them again. Meeting people like these guys is a lot of the reason we do this.

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly
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The short trip from Falcon to the Paradise RV Park in Harlingen took a long time because the 100 mile distance is mostly town, and you make lousy time. The park is privately run and functions as a winter home for a lot of snowbirds who own their own lots. Some have small trailer houses all decked out while others live in their motorhomes or campers. It’s a not-so-little village with lots of folks with various temperaments. One woman pounded on her window and barked at Dahna when Sacha peed on her lawn. Then again, when I almost ran over a couple of ladies last night, they were pretty good about it.

Our particular site was not good, and I’m afraid my language wasn’t very nice around Jeff who skipped over to help us get situated when we drove up. He’s a retired Army chaplain who goes around in his motorhome helping veterans with their PTSD. I told him my PTSD was working just fine at the moment, thank you very much. Dahna hates it when do-gooders rush over to help us set up, and she finally had enough and basically ran him off. He’s a nice sky pilot on a mission though, and he runs his own little nonprofit with his wife, Chrissy. Sometimes he runs halfway across the country to assist families of veterans left behind by suicide. I’ll probably donate a little.

Great Kiskadee
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The next day we drove out to South Padre Island Birding Center which is just this incredible thing. It was Thanksgiving Day and the center itself, with its multi-storey observation decks, was closed but the best part was accessible. This was, I swear to God, about a mile of first class walkway elevated about 4’ over the brackish tidal marsh on the lagoon side of the island. It must have cost millions and came complete with fancy rest area/bird blinds. We had Sacha in her harness at the entrance, and Dahna was already shooting while I read the big sign that said, “NO PETS ALLOWED ON THE BOARDWALK.”

As I was telling Dahna about the sign, a woman wearing an official shirt marched up and stated flat out, “That’s a fine looking service dog you have there.” I started to correct her but she repeated, “Yes indeed, a beautiful service dog you have right there. Sitting there.” Dahna confided to her, “They’re very close.” They both turned to stare at my dumb blank face until, finally, the lady said, “If anybody says anything, you say, ‘service dog,’ okay?” I said, “Yes Ma’am.” She actually thanked me for my service as she walked off, but I had recovered enough to yell back, “Thank you for YOUR service.” Dahna said, “Shh, you’ll scare the birds,” and the three of us headed down the long path.

White Ibis- South Padre
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White-faced Ibis – Resaca de la Palma State Park
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This place turned out to be the Valhalla of birding in south Texas. There were zillions of birds we never see like tricolor herons, little blue herons, black necked stilts, various kingfishers tons of ospreys on the wing and a bunch of different ducks. I particularly like her close shots of a roseate spoonbill and those of a couple of big alligators lurking cinemagraphically in the marsh grass. We’re talking about coming back for a longer stay sometime in the foreseeable future since we barely scratched the birding surface. The Tex Mex is cheap and tasty as is the seafood. Always go to the old family restaurants.

Little Blue Heron – South Padre
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We’re leaving for Choke Canyon tomorrow and hope to do a little kayaking there. See you back at the ranch.

Vermillion Flycatcher – Falcon Reservoir
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