There's a lot to report since our last update. We've covered a lot of miles and had some interesting experiences.

From Paris, Texas, we headed nearly due south, passing west of Houston, through Corpus Christi and on to Brownsville where we spent three nights and two days.

Most of the first day was spent with the truck at the friendly GM dealer (they're all friendly, actually) for a periodic service visit. We have 82,000 miles on our 1500 Sierra and it still hums. We picked it up after lunch and found our way to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

We hasten to remind you that we are not serious birders, although we do enjoy looking at birds through our binoculars, and especially enjoy the easy-to-find big bright species! Far South Texas is a separate climate zone, with citrus and tropical plants and trees. It's not particularly wet as a general With bright green wings, a lighter belly, and a blue head, the green jay stands amongst a gravelly river bed Green jay rule, but recently they were hit with a freak rainstorm that dumped ten inches of rain, leaving a lot of standing water making ponds and lakes in what used to be fields. The warm climate, the southern latitude and the proximity of the Gulf give the area a unique ecology, and there are quite a few bird species found in the U.S. only near the mouth of the Rio Grande.

Even though we didn't enter the Refuge until after 3 o'clock, the docents assured us we weren't too late to find birds along the 15-mile drive; our only problems would be timing ourselves to reach the end before dark! We pulled out our copy of Sibley, and identified five species that we had not seen before: green jay, tricolored heron, black-bellied plover, northern harrier, and the dark form of the ferruginous hawk. We had our eyes peeled for the newly reintroduced aplomado falcon, and thought we might have spotted one, but we weren't sure enough to check it off in Sibley. But it was fun driving around part of the refuge. The other part was closed off for hunters, who were shooting deer and feral pigs, the latter having become a hazard along the gulf.

The next day we met new second cousins. Actually, Barb and Elsa met once about 50 years ago, but have lost track of one another in the meanwhile. Genealogy and the internet enabled them to reunite. Barb and her husband Bob live in southern Illinois, but winter in San Benito, where the weather is warm enough for golf and sunny outings. After feasting us with local Mexican food they showed us South Padre Island, a wintertime beach resort for Americans, and a summertime getaway for Mexicans. We were fascinated by the huge spray of black sand which was replenishing the beach a mile north of the dredge which was keeping the Brownsville ship channel navigable for ocean-going ships. A huge crowd of pelicans and gulls crowded around the output to pick up the pieces of hapless fish that were caught in the dredge's intake.

After comparing genealogical notes, we said goodbye and the next morning we wound our way north along the Rio Grande. We saw fields of sugar cane and cabbages, and found ourselves wondering how those particular crops happened to be chosen. We would have thought the tropical climate would make raising exotic fruits and nuts and garden vegetables more profitable than cane and cabbage, but we know even less about farming than we do about birds! We did see a couple of fields The field appears to be around 10 acres of aloe Commercial aloe field growing aloe vera commercially, and that was a first. Barb and Bob have seen fields of cilantro.

We stopped and took a short walk in the Santa Anna Wildlife Refuge, but didn't see a single bird. When we returned to the visitor center they said, Oh, Yes, ever since the big rainstorm all the birds have left the refuge and now they're all over South Texas. But they'll be back. We left thinking it would have been more polite of them to tell us that at first before we got the binoculars and Sibley and hiked all around, but what the heck, the exercise was good for us!

The Mexican food along the Rio Grande valley is the mildest we've had, with unfamiliar names like picadillo and envueltas and carne guisada. But it tasted good, and we love to sample the regional cuisine as we travel around.

The signs of NAFTA prosperity are everywhere along the Rio Grande valley, but especially near the ports of entry. Several new bridges have been built for loaded semi-trailer trucks in both directions, and dozens of warehouses have sprung up. Near McAllen we noticed at least half a dozen huge warehouses for Ropa Usada, second hand clothing. There's nearly a million people on the U.S. side of the border along the lower Rio Grande, and there's plenty of work. We saw quite a few establishments offering adult day care, and we guess that this means that grandmas and grandpas who cannot quite care for themselves are being dropped off while the children work and the grandchildren are in school (or work, too). We understand that the Mexican side of the river is even more populous.

One typical sign of the region are the elaborate cemeteries, with dozens of bouquets of artificial flowers at every gravesite. The dead are long and fondly remembered here; we've heard that families sometimes picnic at a loved one's gravesite.

All our rubbernecking slowed us down and we only made it as far north as Laredo, where we found one motel sold out and the others charging about $20 a night more than we paid in Brownsville. We have two guesses as to why this might be. We think as many as eight or ten fully loaded freight trains come to Laredo every day. It's another sign of the tremendous economic impact of NAFTA. The border towns are booming. In addition to a spurt in employment, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are popular shopping and nightclubbing spots; we may have run into Christmas shopping frenzy.

The following day we moved along quickly, with what turned out to be a lightning stop in San Antonio to pick up a large box of mail and reregister the truck. We ended up the day in Sonora, Texas, on our way back west again to visit family over the holidays.

In Sonora we picked up the Texas Monthly and found this notice: "One thing you'll find inside the cafe at this El Paso institution is something you next to the car wash bays is a little hole in the wall; a sign says 'Cashier Inside' Chile and car wash won't find at any other car wash, a framed story from Saveur magazine. The elite gourmet magazine wrote about this place because the coffee shop inside makes some of the most astounding Mexican food anywhere. While your car gets a handwash, you can fill up on a bowl of green chile stew, carne picada, or huevos rancheros. Note the aprons worn by the staff: That's the emblem of the coveted James Beard Award, bestowed on only the most worthy regional restaurants."

Four hundred miles later, we reached H & H Car Wash and Coffee Shop, 701 East Yandell in El Paso. It's a small place - a counter for perhaps a dozen customers, and three small tables. Most of the diners were apparently waiting for their cars, but the retired judge and a couple of other regulars were enjoying lunch at the counter. We shared a cheese enchilada plate and a chile colorado plate, and although the aprons displayed no particular message the food was delicious, and the owner took care to make sure we were comfortable and satisfied. We recommend this little treasure.