Section 15: McAllen to the Gulf
Claire’s ankle made it another day. It wasn’t pretty after yesterday’s slog but nothing seemed to have gotten worse so we’re rolling with it (ha!). We set up another Lyft this morning, pinging a random location in the middle of nowhere that we figured was roughly a day’s worth of hiking away from the hotel. It’s always funny to imagine what kind of character the driver thinks they are picking up when they see our dot way out in farmland or an industrial lot or the side of the river. And then we tell them that we’re going to spend the whole day walking back to the spot where they picked us up. Welp.
Our Lyft driver Juan dropped us off in the middle of...a town?
Our map suggested that that’s what we were looking at but as far as we could tell it was just an intersection of four enormous crop fields. We joined Old Military Road to hike northwest back towards McAllen. As per Texas usual 8 in the morning was blazing hot and the traffic was heavy. Still this is our favorite kind of walking (if we have to be on a road that is), carving a path through agricultural lands. It’s peaceful after the chaos of a city. Row after row of carefully groomed and sectioned earth that supported crops of onion, cotton, cabbage.
One patch was swarming with a crew of people rounding up onions. There were at least 20 people performing different steps of an efficient assembly line that tackled the rows and rows of low-lying onion plants. We felt awkward staring while we wandered by but after two people waved we felt more at liberty to watch the group at work. Overturned mounds of soil marked the areas ready for harvest and two guys moved as fast as they could to sift through the soil and extract onions. Another group followed behind picking up the onions and transferring them to be packed in crates, while another crew loaded the crates into vehicles parked nearby. When we pulled off our headphones we heard a loud musical beat blasting out of a truck’s speakers.
The portion of the onion field that had already been harvested was covered with straggler onions that hadn’t made the final cut. A couple locals had parked their van to the side of the field and were collecting leftover onions by the bushel. We assumed they were just taking them home, but maybe they have some sort of arrangement? Even these ugly onions looked tasty.
You may wonder why we are so obsessed with these onions?
Good question. We have been walking on endless highway for a month and this was riveting stuff. Onion-related conversation abounded.
Cushioned by the crops were a few buildings here and there, concentrated in clumps so that we couldn’t pass by without peeking at each tiny, self contained community. There was a historic church that Juan told us had a tunnel running underneath that crossed over the Rio into Mexico. The nuns used to use it to travel back and forth. Wish we knew more, that sounds like a good story. We also noticed a concentration of structures/systems built to manage water in the area. Since the agricultural boom in the early 1900s levees, dams, underground piping, and irrigation canals have played a huge role in shaping this landscape. We tried to investigate a levee when we came across a rehabilitation sign but the road was so overgrown that we could barely see anything special. We shouldn't be surprised, these levees are decaying and need to be updated. The Lower Rio Grande levee project is in charge of this location. They have their work cut out for them!
Eventually our agricultural tableau morphed back into city suburb and then city. You know the drill. The afternoon was mostly unremarkable except for one encounter with a fruit seller on the side of the road. When Claire passed by and waved hello, the fruit seller stopped her to ask what we were doing. He had seen us hiking yesterday and was surprised to see us again. We had been walking in the opposite direction yesterday (west towards McAllen) so he was understandably confused! After hearing the story he shared some enthusiasm and encouraging words and handed Claire two perfect mangos from his stand. Thank you Joe! What a treat. And nicer still that you remembered and looked out for us. We appreciate it!
Another Lyft ride, this time with Greg, a Midwestern transplant who had been living in Brownsville for decades. We talked about agriculture and the changes he’s seen over the years. This area used to have one of the most profitable agricultural industries in Texas, particularly cotton, sugarcane and citrus, but the passage of NAFTA and a series of unlucky frosts sifted the economy towards more urbanized industries like retail and technology. Since then farming hasn’t been what it used to be.