In a little over two years, I drove more than 35,000 freeway miles: all of them along the same 250-mile stretch of coastal plains and tropics that lay in deep South Texas. Saying that I am not severely bored with the drive would be an understatement; it was one heck of a commute. My husband was director of the International Museum of Art & Science in McAllen, where we rented a house, but home and family were both in San Antonio.
The border of Texas and Mexico is dangerous, hot, and not my favorite place. Most people are living in the region because their family lives there. They were born there and for one reason or another, can not leave. Others come by choice: Winter Texans enjoy the warm weather during the winter months, but head back north as soon as temperatures begin to rise. In a similar fashion, Mexicans travel across the border seasonally, and sometimes illegally. Many residents have family on both sides of the border, and take the irrational political line for what it is. It means little more to them than an inconvenience. The slowly fluctuating population makes it difficult for the government to nail down, but it is a large metropolitan area – sometimes there are 1.5 to 2 million people in the area. We were two of those people, faithfully driving back and forth to San Antonio on a regular basis.
Along with people, a lot of things cross the border. Trade, both legal and illicit is how real money is made in this mostly impoverished area. Because of NAFTA and the governments’ desire for a very long cross-continent trade route from Canada to Mexico, traffic has increased. Inevitable freeway construction in an effort to provide for better and faster trips to and from the border cities makes even frequent trips slightly different as you negotiate detours and lanes that narrow. With the approval and construction of Interstate 69, I expect you will miss several of the small towns mentioned below if you head south from San Antonio in the not too distant future. While the 4 hour trip could be cut to 3 1/2 (or maybe even 3) hours, you will miss quite a bit of Texas history after this corridor is complete. Interstate 69 is a curious freeway, as it comes into the Valley area from the east, and then splits into three I-69’s, heading to Corpus Christi, McAllen, and Laredo. So basically, there is a network of construction zones along the route that makes little sense, but I’m sure a grand vision of West Coast-like freeways will soon rise from ancient trade routes.
We’ll start our trip in San Antonio and head south on Interstate 37. State highway 281 runs from San Antonio along with Interstate 37 south. At Three Rivers, 281 leaves 37 and heads really south toward the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico. We’ll travel through a number of small Texas towns that were formerly ranches and before then, Spanish Land Grants. Between these, there’s not much to see except for the great expanse of Texas. Any “ownership” of the land between San Antonio and Mexico was hard-won, which is sort of ironic for such desolation.
As you leave San Antonio, cry a little bit and reconcile yourself to four hours behind the wheel. When you get to South Loop 1604, you might want to exit and pull into the south-most Bill Miller BarBQ. While certainly not the best in Texas, it is the most reliable Texas fast food, and all the kids working there are getting rebates on their college tuition. If you don’t like dry meat, order yours “marbled” and get a little fattier cut. Sure, it adds calories, but you will need something to keep you going, and it tastes much better than the standard lean cut.
Seventeen miles south of the city, you’ll see Braunig Lake on the left. The lake was man-made in 1964, and it’s a great place to take the kids, the old man, and his bass boat. The lake is stocked with Redfish (usually known as a salt water fish along the Gulf Coast) and some sort of hybrid striped bass. I guess if your truck broke down on the way to the coast, you could still get some good fishing done in this fairly large 1,300 acre lake. I’ve never actually stopped because it always looks so hot. Especially from the freeway. The lake and surrounding park is owned by San Antonio’s only retail electricity company, CPS.
Before you know it, you will be in Atascosa county (pronounced “atta-Sco-saa”). Less than 50,000 people live in this entire county. That’s less than 41 people per square mile. If you think that’s not a lot, just wait until we get a bit further south. Forty-one souls is positively bustling!
Off in the distance, behold the garish lights of a Love’s truck stop. They appear over the horizon and seem just a bit too bright, even during the day. By now, you have probably noticed what looks like space shuttle launch pads in the area. These are rigs for oil field operations that use a drilling technique known as “fracking.” Pass that little gem of a word around the car and see what kind of definitions you get.
“Induced hydraulic fracturing” (or “hydrofracturing”) is commonly known as fracking. The technique is used to release petroleum, natural gas, or other substances from the earth. These space shuttle launch pads are holding up the boring equipment that drills a hole, then pressurized stuff is pushed down the hole that creates fractures in the rock formations and oil is released from secret hiding places. Well, that’s my limited understanding of the process. Oh, and don’t dare stop at that Love’s. They are insanely busy because of these fracking operations, and they sell expired Texas Lotto tickets. However, you will want to take exit 72 off of the interstate toward Three Rivers and roll on down the road until you get to town.
In a few miles, you’ll drive through downtown Three Rivers, literally named for three rivers near the south of the town: the Atascosa, the Frio, and the Nueces.
Major employers in the area are the oil industry (Valero owns the refinery on the south end of town.) and the Federal Pen, located about 10 miles to the west across from Choke Canyon Reservoir. The refinery sits on the same property where the first glass factory in Texas opened in 1922 after the discovery of quartzose, the major ingredient for making glass. They manufactured jars — the nice guys at the Ball glass company (think home-made jelly preserves) bought the factory out in 1937 and closed it in 1938, grinding growth to an already depressed local economy to a halt. However, people in this part of the country are stubborn and willful. There was still ranching and the promise of an oil boom that held people to the land.
Three Rivers is now in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale discovery, and the impact of all those frackers has definitely changed the sleepy culture of the town. As you drive through it, the warm scent of boomtown bellows through your car windows (yeah, that’s what that smell is) — several new motels have been built in the last year, and Dairy Queen is now open extended hours and no longer accepts checks! Signs for “Man Camps” begs questions. A man camp is basically a bunk house used by men who work in the oil fields. Most of these men are young and single; women and children are not permitted overnight stays. The nature of oil work is transitory as well, so trailers and other temporary housing is erected and dismantled as needed. Three Rivers is hot, gritty, oil rich, and rough. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to raise a family.
Congratulations! You are one-third of the way to McAllen.
George West / Live Oak County
Slow down! George West has an incredibly well-staffed, over active and bored law enforcement operation. I got stopped one Thanksgiving at 11:30 pm for parking in a Handicapped space outside the gas station — and I have a tag. It was hanging from my rear view mirror. The officer creeped me out, too… not in a “Deliverance” kind of way, but more in a Barney Fife kind of way. George West just may think it is overly important because it is also the seat of Live Oak county. In 1913, a cattleman from San Antonio decided to go out of business. He sold his herd and road south to buy land and start his own town. Bet you can’t guess his name. Yeah, that’s correct: George West. This town seems greener and caters to hunters and winter Texans more than oil field workers. Signs and streamers let you know that the town is proud of its high school football team, and the Dairy Queen seems positively wholesome compared to its neighbor. Still, you won’t find a Whole Foods or any other “communist” businesses here. George West seems to almost overcompensate in the Americana department with a tidy town square that is lit up like a winter wonderland in December. It almost seems like it is still 1950 here.
Alice / Jim Wells County
After all the down home excitement in George West, there’s not a whole lot for a very long way. Well, there is Alice, deep in the heart of ranch country. Alice is the namesake of Alice Gertrudis King Kleberg, and her daddy found the King Ranch (once the biggest ranch anywhere). The Alice post office opened in 1888, and the town was a hub of the cattle trade as several rail lines stopped there. But now, the freeway bypasses the town, and if you do exit 281 business (this follows the route of the old expressway and intersects the freeway further south so you don’t lose too many miles) you won’t find much business. Now Alice just seems kind of old and industrial, like the elderly relative no one wants to be with anymore, even though it is the seat of Jim Wells county and the hub of distribution for the oil industry. It is also almost exactly half way between San Antonio and the border of Mexico.
It’s time to back off the gas pedal again as we pass through Premont, Texas. Premont was founded around 1907 by land speculator, R.P. Halderman, who purchased a part of the tract from the heirs of Henry Seeligson to create a planned development. Henry Seeligson purchased a larger part of the grant from the Peña family to use as ranch land. The site was originally part of the Los Olmos y Loma Blanca land grant issued to Ignacio de la Peña on December 9, 1831. Between 1910 and 1912 the community was advertised as a highly productive agricultural region (“A Winter Garden”) and attracted many new settlers from the northeastern US.
Seeligson then subdivided the land into five and 10-acre tracts to entice these northerners to invest in South Texas, citing the region’s warm climate and ideal planting conditions. Halderman named the new community Premont, after Seeligson Ranch foreman Charles Premont. A section of the community, located east of the railroad, was set aside for Mexican and Mexican American families arriving from the south. There is also a plaza called Hidalgo Park, designed and built just for those families. R.P. Halderman sold hundreds of lots to Charles Premont, who in turn, served as the real estate agent for the Mexican families because he was fluent in Spanish. There were about 1,000 residents in 1914 when the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway built a stop at Premont. A railway stop was usually the make-or-break facility, and determined the survival of these small communities.
The area did not fulfill its developers’ claims, however, and the town’s population decreased to 600 by 1925. In 1927 John W. Duerksen established a Mennonite church at Premont. On May 12, 1933, Premont’s first producing oil well was drilled. Oil production and dairy farming helped to revitalize the area’s economy. While dairy-farming did not remain a cash cow, the oil industry is still feeding the small community, now numbering less than 2,000 people.
The abandoned Primary School on the north side of town is of interest. The architecture of the school is a very distinctive art deco style. The school is abandoned though, and I wondered every time I drove through why they left it. Through broken windows, you can see that there are still trophies and desks in some of the abandoned rooms. It simply appears that the children just vanished one day. It probably didn’t happen in one day, but a closer look reveals that Premont is a town in serious decline. Currently there are less than 600 children attending public school, and the school is in very real danger of being closed all together by the TEA due to poor performance on standardized tests. Every time we drove through the town we noticed further signs of decay.
When the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway built a stop at Edward Cunningham Lasater’s ranch 36 miles south of Alice in 1904, Lasater decided to create a community known as Falfurrias and subdivided a sizable portion of his ranch land for sale to other farmers. A community had already started forming on the site, as a post office was located there in 1898.
Today, Falfurrias is the seat of Brooks county. It is also a major Homeland Security station, with an interior border checkpoint just south of town. Falfurrias, once a dairy and ranching capital, is now at the center of the effort to keep illegal drugs out of the hands of Americans. This town is booming, and ready for the inevitable slow northern crawl of population from McAllen and Edinburg. In addition to a plethora of fast food drive throughs, the town has both a Walmart and Texas-based HEB grocery chain stores. It certainly seems that law enforcement is the main industry here, as Falfurrias Police, Brooks County Sheriffs, Texas DPS and Homeland Security vehicles are frequently observed by the dozens in just one pass through the town’s winding main road. The Chamber of Commerce rusts along this road as well, protected behind a low barbed wire fence bearing a “No Entrance” sign.
Edinburg / McAllen Metro Area
After what seems the longest stretch of our journey, we are at once greeted by a “Welcome Winter Texans” billboard and, a half mile later, a red billboard advertising RDS gun shop that features the black outline of an AK-47. Mixed messages, perhaps?
The Edinburg / McAllen Metro Area boasts just about every big box store in the country, and was recently the #1 area in the nation where residents said they did not feel it was safe to walk alone. The town is a study in contrasts, and you can’t figure out what is appropriate behavior, should you laugh or should you cry as you pass gated communities and winter Texans at intersections holding signs that say “disabled, need $$$ – God bless.”
Do I need to mention that I am very thankful we no longer live in South Texas’ “Winter Gardens?” I do occasionally wonder if our nation knows or cares about what is happening on our border.