Seven years ago, right before my 24th birthday, I was sent on a fateful trip to Mission, Texas, to lead an intensive week-long Care Force service project renovating a Boys and Girls club. The universe aligned that week, and Chris was sent in as reinforcements. The rest is sweet sweet history.
A year ago, Chris took me on a surprise trip for my 30th birthday. It wasn’t until we got to the Dallas airport that he told me where we were headed – back to Mission to relive our first memories together, exactly 6 years later. Yes, he is adorable. As part of our quest to post some of our past US trips on this blog, we thought one year later would be an appropriate time to share this one.
Most of Mission is an eyesore, and upon first glance, one might wonder why anyone would ever come here on purpose. A town full of strip malls and run down restaurants 5 miles from the Mexican border, it is probably not on most of the world’s radar – unless you happen to be a serious birder. This area of the country is one of the nation’s best migratory bird watching havens, as they all make their journey from North to South for the winter and back again. It also happens to be on the monarch butterfly’s winter route.
As we stepped off the plane into the tiny, familiar McAllen, TX airport, the memories started rushing back. We decided our first stop should be the boys and girls club where it all began. After a few wrong turns, we finally found it. Some of our handywork around the grounds was still evident, but time had erased a lot of it. Walking around the building through the sites where we exchanged our first conversations, it was both strange and amazing to think about how far we came in 6 years. At that point, neither of us knew what our next step would be or where our careers might take us. I hadn’t thought hard about public health yet, let alone applied to schools, and Chris was unsure where and if he would accept a grad school position for the following year. And yet life just has a way of happening, and 6 years later we are somehow “adults” (or at least pretending) forging our way in the working world.
We headed back to the car and decided that this trip would now become a birding quest, while instantly realizing our first mistake – we didn’t even have the most basic ingredient needed for successful birding – binoculars. So we googled and found a birding-themed bed and breakfast, Alamo Inn, owned by Keith, an avid birder in the area, and called him to see if he could guide us to binoculars. In extremely animated South African English, Keith invited us to come and find him at a booth that he was currently manning at the World Bird Expo a couple towns away. There, he would tell us about binoculars. Not having any other plans and figuring we couldn’t get much luckier than our trip coinciding with this annual event, we headed to the bird fest. We arrived to throngs of retirees coming in and out, all dressed in matching kakhi safari gear and binoculars. Inside, we found Keith’s booth and introduced ourselves – surpassing our wildest expectations, he excitedly told us about the area, gave us chocolate bars, and told us we could take our pick of all his fancy binoculars to borrow for the next few days. After we’d chosen an expensive pair, we grabbed maps and species guides from the surrounding booths and plotted out the best wetlands and nature reserves. The first stop was South Padre Island, home of The World Birding Center .
The dunes were beautiful, but birds were scarce, so we grabbed some dinner and retired to one of the multitude of hotels sitting vacant on this party island during the off-season. The next morning we got an early start and drove along the empty country roads that I imagine make up most of Texas, to a big nature preserve. The phone wires along the roads were lined with raptors and scissor tailed flycatchers,
the ponds were filled with redheaded ducks, teals, grebes, and coots,
and the ground was covered in fascinating, beautiful creatures like the green jay, and roadrunner.
Feeling bird-satiated, we then made our way up the coast to North Padre Island off the coast of Corpus Christi, a bizarre mix of national seashore and concrete. However, once you get beyond the build-up, the seashore is gorgeous and stretches on as far as the eye can see – nothing but sand, water, scraggly plants, and birds. We caught a firey sunset as the park closed the first night.
We explored the park again the following morning in daylight and took a guided tour of the area, but didn’t see many species we hadn’t seen before. So, we headed out to another nearby reserve and spent the next hours mesmerized by the egrets, pelicans, and stilts splashing and flapping in the lake. Each of them has such a distinct personality, it’s not hard to imagine stories about how their days are going. This egret clearly woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.
We decided to head back to Mission then, a few hours drive south, but to stop on the way at a huge sandhill crane migration grounds. This turned out to mean following a road to the middle of nowhere, using mileage as our guide to the turnoff. After parking and hiking down a long dirt trail, we found the swamp mentioned in the guide, and though we couldn’t see them, we paused for a while to listen to the sound of hundreds of cranes settling in for the night as the sun sank behind the trees. As we set back down the path towards Alamo Inn to return our binoculars, the road was lit by the glowing eyes of nighthawks.
The last stops on our trip were a wonderful wetland preserve attached to a huge mansion that winds along the Mexican border, and a park full of green and belted kingfishers and black crowned night heron.
Besides the tasty, cheap, authentic Mexican food, the birds, and the memories, there isn’t much to draw us back to Mission. So perhaps the next time we come back, it will be when we blend into the rest of the snowy-haired kakhi-clad birdwatchers. But, Mission will always hold a special place is our hearts for bringing us to each other and creating the wonderful adventure that’s been the last 7 years of our lives. Here’s to the next 7 and the people we’ve become by then!