Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Nebraska's 150 Greatest Literary Works Named; Many Set Along Highway 83



The Nebraska Literary Heritage Association, in partnership with the Nebraska State Historical Society and the Nebraska Library Commission, chose my book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns for its list of Nebraska books that “represent the best literature produced from Nebraska during the past 150 years” to mark the state’s sesquicentennial in 2017.
Nebraska has a rich literary history with giants such as Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, John G. Neihardt, Wright Morris and 13th Poet Laureate of the United States Ted Kooser among the state’s pantheon of great writers. Their works show up several times on the list.
My book mostly takes place 100 miles to the west of Highway 83, but scrolling down the list of other books chosen, there are several that are set along Highway 83 worth noting. Most of them I have read, and couple I relied upon for The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma.
Here are a few of that I cited in The Last American Highway book:

 Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz. The Northern Cheyennes’ dramatic escape from the confines of their reservation in Indian Territory in 1878 is an American epic. Two incidents during their journey took place along Highway 83 in Kansas: The Battle of Punished Woman Fork near Lake Scott, and the massacre of the settlers near Oberlin. Both stories are recounted in Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma book. Their journey afterwards in Nebraska took them northwest of the present day road.

The Niobrara: A River Running Through Time by Paul A. Johnsgard. University of Nebraska professor emeritus Johnsgard is the state’s foremost naturalist writer and the Niobrara, perhaps the state’s most scenic river. I relied heavily on this work for the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma book. Duane Gudgel, proprietor of the Plains Trading Co. bookstore in Valentine also contributed a chapter to this excellent work.


 The Nebraska Sand Hills: The Human Landscape by Charles Barron McIntosh. The University of Nebraska Press produced this plain looking hardcover book without a dust jacket for some reason, but don’t judge a book by the lack of a cover. This is a thorough work on this beautiful and unique landscape. Long out of print, however, the aforementioned Duane at Plains Trading Co. was wise enough to buy up the overstock. Contact the store for copies or go to its website.

An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians by David Wishart. Take a look at a map of Nebraska and note how many Indian reservations there are. Not many. Most of the nations that called the state their home, including the Pawnees, were sent to Indian Territory. Every Nebraskan should read this book. UNL professor of geography Wishart has a total of three books on the list!

  
The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin. We all know that many snowstorms in Nebraska are preceded by warm, balmy days. In 1888, school children across the northern plains headed to their one-room school houses without their coats or wearing light jackets. As they headed home that evening, a monster arrived from the north. This story became part of an excerpt on natural disasters I published in this blog.

No Time on My Hands: Grace Snyder as told to Nellie Snyder Yost. A memoir of how the Sand Hills were settled, including the story of my grandmother’s hometown Tryon, and the Highway 83 town of Stapleton. 
Here are two books on the list that are set along Highway 83, but I didn’t use in my writing:

Once Upon a Town: The Story of the North Platte Canteen.
Chicago-based columnist Bob Greene put the remarkable story of the North Platte Canteen on the map for many Americans. During World War II, every train carrying troops that pulled into the station was greeted by a group of mostly women who had baked or cooked dishes for them and spent some time talking with the soldiers in the Union Pacific train depot waiting room. Small towns along Highway 83 and in the Sand Hills would sign up to volunteer for a day. My grandmother Bernice Magnuson was among those who baked cakes and traveled there on Stapleton’s day to host the troops.

 Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris. Norris, a giant in Washington in both the House and Senate in the first half of the 20th century, called McCook, Nebraska, his home. Travelers can visit his house there.


And finally, anytime someone compiles a subjective list of this nature, there will be some disagreement. That's part of the fun. Here are some Nebraska works I think should have made it, but didn’t.

Red Cloud’s Folk, Spotted Tail’s Folk, A Sioux Chronicle, The Pawnee Indians, Life of George Bent, etc. by George E. Hyde.
How could the committee not name a single book by this Omaha-born and raised writer and amateur historian who devoted his life to recording the history of the Native Americans who called Nebraska home? Hyde corresponded and interviewed participants in the so-called Indian Wars long before most historians cared. Where would we be without these books? His life’s work is all the more remarkable when one takes into account that he was legally blind. Plus, Hyde is simply fun to read. A major oversight. 

Empire on the Platte by Richard Crabb. This excellent 1967 book tells the story of a violent family of Texas cowboys, Print Olive and his brothers, who made their way to the Nebraska prairie to run cattle. They owned most of Custer County at one time. The Olives were the archetypes for the bad guy cowboys portrayed in so many Hollywood westerns. A great history of the cattle drive days before barbed wire.  Long out of print, but highly recommended. 

Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballentine. Chadron-based author Poe Ballentine wrote an instant classic about his on-again, off-again relationship to the Panhandle town. The first half of the memoir is literally laugh out loud funny, then takes a serious turn as the town is wracked by the gruesome death, perhaps murder, of a mathematics professor. The title alone deserved a spot on the list!

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Descendants of Nebraska African-American Settlement to Attend Historical Marker Ceremony on Highway 83


Turnoff for the DeWitty historical marker
Descendants of an African-American settlement in Nebraska’s Sand Hills are expected to arrive in Cherry County on April 11 to celebrate the unveiling of a historical marker on U.S. Highway 83. DeWitty, also known as Audacious, was a series of homesteads scattered along the North Loup River west of the present-day town of Brownlee, Nebraska, and lasted from about 1906 until the Depression years.

The Nebraska State Historical Society marker will be located just south of the Brownlee turnoff. The dedication ceremony is slated to take place at 10 a.m., Monday April 11 at the marker site. The public is welcome to attend.
“So far, I’ve heard from descendants coming from as far away as California, Delaware and Virginia who have booked flights,” says Stew Magnuson, author of the book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83, which has a chapter about the settlement.
Descendants of the town’s first postmaster, Jim DeWitty, are expected to come from Oklahoma. Other descendants of the DeWitty and Brownlee communities may attend from Omaha, Colorado and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, said Magnuson.
After the ceremony, Humanities Nebraska lecturer Vicki Harris will give a presentation about DeWitty at the Brownlee Community Hall, which will be followed by a potluck lunch.
“There are not many residents left in Brownlee and the surrounding ranches, but they are going all out to welcome the DeWitty descendants and the other celebrants,” says Magnuson. The two communities were very tight back in the day, he says. 
Brownlee Community Hall
“I am glad that the marker mentions the close bond between the black settlers of DeWitty and the white residents of Brownlee. The two communities were both really isolated and on their own in the depths of Sand Hills back then. Here we have the story of a mixed-race couple, integrated schools, neighbors helping each other when they needed it, and two communities coming together to celebrate the quintessential American holiday, Independence Day. This should be remembered,” says Magnuson. 

Speakers at the ceremony will include a Cherry County Historical Society representative, Magnuson, Catherine Meehan Blount, a granddaughter of Charles and Hester Meehan — an interracial couple, who were among the early DeWitty settlers — and Joyceann Gray, a niece of Goldie Walker Hayes, a legendary teacher who remained in the county to work in one-room schoolhouses long after the settlement disappeared. The invocation will be conducted by the Reverend Khadijah Matin, also a niece of Walker-Hayes.  

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com

Monday, March 21, 2016

Highway 83 to Be Featured on South Dakota Public Television


Award Winning author Stew Magnuson and his book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas will be featured on an upcoming episode of South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s Dakota Life television show.
It is currently slated to air April 7 at 8 p.m. Central/9 p.m. Mountain.

Those outside of the SDPB viewing area can watch the episode live online at this link. http://www.sdpb.org/dakotalife/
A SDPB crew last September followed Magnuson for a half day from Murdo, south through White River country and down to Mission, where he was filmed giving a presentation at Sinte Gleska University.
Magnuson says: “I was glad that we could meet there because that stretch of the road from Murdo down to the Nebraska border is one of my favorite parts of Highway 83. Not only is the scenery beautiful, the area is renown for its history.” 
The book cover image was taken in this area, he adds.

As South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s number one rated locally produced show for the past 25 years, Dakota Life features interesting South Dakota people, places, and things. New episodes of Dakota Life are broadcast on the first Thursday of every month at 8:00 pm Central Time, 7:00 pm Mountain, from September through June. Reruns occur throughout the year and episodes are eventually aired on the RFDTV cable channel.

The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas is a nonfiction travel-history book that uncovers stories found along a road that bisects the states from north to south. Magnuson takes readers on a trip down the road and through the history of the Northern Great Plains. The famous and the forgotten are found in stories he discovers in the Dakotas.

The White River, just east of Hwy 83
Explorers Pierre de la Vérendrye, Lewis & Clark, Jedediah Smith, are all encountered along with Chief Spotted Tail of the Brulé Lakotas, TV sensation Lawrence Welk and rodeo superstar Casey Tibbs. Cold-blooded killers, homesteaders, ballplayers and rail barons from yesteryear meet today’s truckers, oil rig workers and ghost towns inhabitants as Magnuson launches his own Voyage of Discovery in a beat-up 1999 Mazda Protégé. Timed for release during the states’ 125th anniversary year, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, is a love poem to the natural beauty of the prairie and the fascinating people—both past and present—found along the road.
Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, Stew Magnuson is the author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border TownsNebraska Center of the Book’s 2009 nonfiction book of the year, ForeWord Magazine’s bronze medal winner for regional nonfiction and finalist for the 2008 Great Plains Book of the Year. And The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma. He is working on the final installment of the series that will focus on Highway 83 in Texas.
He also penned Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding, an account of the controversial 2012 Dakota Conference at Augustana College, in Sioux Falls, S.D., where members of the American Indian Movement squared off against retired FBI agents.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com



Thursday, February 4, 2016

Highway 83's Laredo Goes All Out to Celebrate George Washington’s Birthday

By Stew Magnuson

“I get that question all the time,” says Veronica Castillon, “What are a bunch of
Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez and some of her creations
Mexicans doing celebrating Washington’s Birthday?”

Indeed, the city of Laredo has made a pretty big deal out of acknowledging the United States’ first president since 1898.
Of course, what Castillon, former president of the association that produces the annual event, meant was “Mexican-Americans.” Laredo was founded by the Spanish in 1755, and later became part of Mexico when it broke free of colonial rule.
Long after it became part of the United States, the residents held onto their traditional Latin festivals and holidays. The city leaders wanted to balance that out, so they settled on a distinctly American holiday, Castillon explained.
Now, there is currently no other city in the America that goes all out for G.W. the way Laredo does. It has been doing so for 119 years.
The celebrations take up several weeks in February each year — when the weather is much milder compared to the summer months.
Washington’s Birthday Celebration events attract nearly 500,000 residents and visitors, and contributes an estimated $14 million every year to the local economy, according to the association website.
This year includes the annual parade, concerts, fireworks, an air show, a car show, and 5 K race, Jalapeno Festival, a 10-day carnival and the highlight: The Society of Martha Washington Ball where 13 young women and their escorts, representing the 13 colonies, attend in resplendent gowns and period costumes.
At the home of Laredo native Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez, I had an opportunity of
Gown details
seeing some of these gowns. Gutierrez is one of the city’s best known dressmakers, who can spend months working on one of the pieces.

How much does she charge to produce one of these one-of-a-kind gowns?
That’s confidential, she says. She has never revealed how much one of her clients pays. Once made, they become treasured family heirlooms.
While the ball is a big night, in Gutierrez’s mind, the most important ceremony is the International Bridge Ceremony, where two boys and two girls, each representing both side of the border, meet on a spot over the Rio Grande River and embrace. The big parade begins soon after.
Another reason Washington’s birthday is celebrated here is because of the respect the founding father commands in Latin America as a leader who threw off the yoke of European colonialism.
“Respected as the forerunner of such Latin American liberators as Mexico’s Father Hidalgo and Simon Bolivar, Washington’s esteem is not limited to the United States,” the celebration’s website says.
Bridge ceremony photo courtesy of WBCA.
The Princess Pocahontas Pageant and Ball where a local woman in a resplendent beaded costume “presides over a spectacular pageant that is as much a part of the Washington’s Birthday Celebration as it is a homage to the Native American culture. The Princess Pocahontas Pageant presents the Native Americans in a setting that is both mystical and natural, “ the official website says
The Society of Martha Washington Ball, where Gutierrez gowns make their public debut, is one of the most famous events in South Texas and was featured in National Geographic.
For a list of George Washington Birthday Celebration events check out the website HERE.
For those who can’t make it to Laredo in February, there is a small Washington's Birthday Celebration museum on the southwest corner of San Augustin Plaza, which has a display of some of the elaborate gowns and costumes.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Exploring the Historic ‘Streets of Laredo’ Along Highway 83


San Augustin church. Photos by Stew Magnuson

It’s the first Friday night of the month in Laredo and the CaminArte (art walk) is underway.
Families, young couples and folks on their own like myself — with a special map in hand — are making their way around the town center’s streets to check out the local galleries. About nine sites are opening their doors to sell paintings or crafts, and the town’s famous San Augustin Square is surrounded by vendors for an artisan’s bazaar.
One of my first stops is Gallery 201, a contemporary art gallery, where a handful of local artists have set up tables.
Erika Lamar Buentello happens to be selling prints of local iconic neon signs. Two of them, the Evelyn Motor Inn and Pan American Courts Café (and Hotel) are out on Business 83. Those signs have been there since before there was an expressway, and hark back to the Golden Age of road travel in the 1940s and 1950s.
“Sold,” I say. It’s as if she knew I were coming. She knocks five bucks off, $35 for the pair, and I get to take some great Highway 83 memorabilia back home with me.
Find Buentello’s art on this Etsy page.
Another highlight on the walk is the Laredo Center for the Arts, which has an ongoing exhibition and local artists there to do some painting as visitors watch.
Prints by Erika Lamar Buentello
Casa Ortiz, just off the square, is open to visitors. The building has been here since about 1830 and features a beautiful courtyard. Five generations of the Ortiz family lived there before it was sold, but someone has been there since then, making it the longest continually occupied home in Texas. Nowadays, Texas A&M University owns the building, and lets students stay there. Enrique Botello is one of the students and shows me around. He’s originally from the town of San Ygnacio on Highway 83, a community south of Laredo on the banks of the Rio Grande, which was established before the American Revolution. From Casa Ortiz, visitors can see the river. This was a good spot with a wide view and made it harder for Apaches on Comanches to sneak up on the residents, Botello explains.
San Augustin Plaza is where the vendors are set up.
I’m amazed at the low prices. I’ve been to plenty of artisan bazaars in my day, and I would have never found a beautiful lapis-lazuli necklace for my wife for a mere $22 at any of the others. Another vendor is offering hand-stitched, homemade postcards, each one unique and nice enough to frame. She doesn’t charge more than $12 for any of them.
San Augustin Cathedral next to the square has been here since 1778. The Gothic Revival church is open and features a beautiful collection of stained glass.
La Posada Hotel takes up the entire south side of the plaza. The building the lobby is in was once a high school and bits of the structure dating back to 1916 remains. The hotel was built around three other historic buildings. As a hotel, it only dates back to the early 1960s, but with two courtyards, swimming pools and palm trees, it seems like you’re stepping back in time. The four-diamond hotel is one of the best bets for casual or more upscale dining on the plaza.
A vendor on the art walk selling hand-stitched postcards.
Also on the south side is the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum. The building headquartered a short-lived movement to carve out a new nation here in 1840, when locals chaffed under Mexican rule. During the republic’s short 10 months, it created a flag, which is why the flags of seven nations, rather than six for the rest of Texas, have flown over Laredo.
Another item visitors might notice are the “City of Generals and Saints” banners hung on streetlight poles. The names of Laredo’s streets in the historic district alternate between famous generals and Catholic saints, hence the nickname.
Just two blocks away, is a reminder that Laredo is a border town. A steady stream of border crossers walk across the Bridge of Americas where a line of shops on Convent Street cater to them. Laredo is only surpassed by New York and Los Angeles in terms of trade. Some $280 billion of goods passed through its ports of entry in 2014, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics.
San Augustin Plaza taken from La Posada Hotel.
For decades, the U.S Canada Highway 83 Association advertised the road as a great route to “Old Mexico.” It held its annual convention here in 1963. The city once worked hand in hand with its sister city across the bridge Nuevo Laredo to attract tourists under its “Two Nations. One Destination” slogan, but sadly violence fueled by the drug trade in Mexico forced Laredo to shut that campaign down and separate itself from its neighbor, explained Blasita Lopez, director of the Laredo Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
They are indeed different worlds apart in that respect. As the numbers of local families and young couples exploring downtown during the art walk showed, downtown Laredo is as safe as any city of its size in the United States. It would be wrong to say the city is crime free — no place can make that claim — but it is also wrong to lump it in with what’s happening across the border.
Visiting historic downtown Laredo is a highlight on any trip along Highway 83, and shouldn’t be missed.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com



Monday, January 11, 2016

Dedication Ceremony for DeWitty Historical Marker Set for April


Marker site on Hwy 83 near Brownlee turnoff
A dedication ceremony for a new Nebraska State Historical Marker in Cherry County commemorating DeWitty, the state’s longest and most successful African-American rural settlement  in the state is scheduled for Monday, April 11 at 10 a.m. at the site of the marker, near the Brownlee turnoff road on U.S. Highway 83.
The ceremony will be held in the Cherry County Historical Society Museum in Valentine in the event of inclement weather.
The ceremony is expected to draw descendants of the original DeWitty settlers from all over the nation.
“I’ve already heard from descendants from as far away as Delaware, Virginia and California who are planning to come,” said Stew Magnuson, the author of two books about Highway 83. Last year, Magnuson, the Cherry County Historical Society and DeWitty descendants coordinated efforts to raise the $5,100 needed to pay for the marker.
North Loup River just south of marker site
“Donations came from descendants, Cherry County residents, history buffs in Nebraska and members of the Fans of U.S. Route 83 page on Facebook. It was a wonderful gathering of different people who believed that this unique community should be remembered,” said Magnuson.
Black settlers first arrived in the area about 1907 to take advantage of the Kinkaid Act, which granted homesteaders 640 acres of land in the counties that comprised the Sand Hills of Nebraska. DeWitty, also known as Audacious, grew as more settlers came to take advantage of this offer. The Homestead Act only granted 160 acres of land. Some settlers had roots in Canada and were the descendants of escaped slaves. Others came from big cities to try their hands at farming. The town barber, Robert Hannahs, had been born into slavery.
View of Sand Hills west of marker site
They built homesteads along the North Loup River, extending some 14 miles west of the town of Brownlee, a mostly white settlement. Relations between the two communities were excellent, Magnuson says. They came together to celebrate Independence Day, shared one-room schools and helped each other whenever needed.
“This is really the story of two communities: DeWitty and Brownlee. The marker text notes the bond the communities shared,” says Magnuson, who wrote a chapter about DeWitty in his latest book, The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska,Kansas, Oklahoma.
Joyceann Gray, a DeWitty descendant now living in Sterling, Virginia, said, "My sister Khadijah and I are so excited to attend the DeWitty-Audacious Historical Marker Installation ceremony. What an humbling honor to be a part of recognizing our ancestors, their struggles, and their lives."

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com
 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Laredo, Texas: A Birder's Paradise on Highway 83


A kiskadee on Las Palmas Trail in Laredo, Texas.  Photos by Stew Magnuson
Nestled between bustling downtown Laredo, Texas, and the banks of Rio Grande is a wide thicket of palm trees, grasses and assorted vegetation where some 140 bird species have been spotted over the years.
Tom Miller, director of Laredo Community College’s Lamar Bruni Vergara Science Center, is leading a group of writers, including myself, down a path into the dense vegetation on a cool early December morning as a light fog lifts off the river.
The Las Palmas Trail — populated with native and non-native grasses and palm trees — has survived fires, floods and urban development and emerged as a prime spot for “birders.”
(Don’t call them ‘bird-watchers as that is a bit of a faux-pas.)
“Birders” are well known for keeping detailed records of the species they have spotted and many come here for the white-collared seedeater, which Miller describes as the trail’s “signature bird.”
But it’s only 7:30 a.m.
Tom Miller
“Actually, I think the white collared seed eaters are late risers. They’re a little lazy,” he says. “It seems that the best time is 10, or so. They would rather to sleep in late and wait for it to warm up a bit.”
Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley as Highway 83 travels south of here to Brownsville, has long been known as a Mecca for “birders.” Its southern locale brings in species that don’t travel far north and is also a popular stop for migrating birds. The city holds an annual Laredo Birding Festival in early February. Attendees recorded 165 species in the region last year.
Blasita Lopez, Laredo Convention and Visitor’s Bureau director, estimates that 1,000 to 2,000 visitors from all over the world travel to the border city every year just for birding. This is one of nine prime birding spots or trails within the city limits.
Miller takes out his binoculars and scans the tree branches.
“Three kingfishers have all been seen here the belted, ringed and green,” he says.
In January 2010, a female Amazon Kingfisher was spotted for the first time in North America in this spot, which by itself brought in hordes of birders as it took up a two-and-half-week residence, according to a visitor’s bureau brochure.
“There!” Miller says. “In the top of the tree directly ahead of us is an Audubon oriole.”
Golden-fronted woodpeckers
One avid birder in the group, a University of Texas-Austin professor, gets to add that species to his list. Later he will send a simple text message to his brother in a game of birder one-ups-manship. “Audubon oriole,” he wrote. That elicited an immediate response from his sibling, who is also an avid birder. The hobby can be competitive, I find out. The professor is most excited about a group of red-billed pigeons that are reportedly hanging out at a municipal golf course north of town.
That’s on the itinerary, Lopez assures him.
We spot green jays in some other branches sticking out from the cane. I had no idea that they came in colors other than blue.
Mixed in with the distinctive call of a kiskadee, we hear a lonesome train whistle, and Spanish coming from a megaphone across the river trying to lure shoppers into a store Only these sounds reminds us that we are in the middle of two large cities.
Next, we spot a pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers.
“That’s one I hadn’t seen yet this fall. So that’s a good bird for me,” Miller says.
The professor is the first to see a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Along with birds, those who hike the path are likely to encounter members of the Border Patrol. They have ground sensors here, and have cut a path wide enough for vehicles to traverse on one part of the preserve.
“We’ve had to negotiate a little bit … but they’re working with us,” Miller said. The agency has promised to do their best to keep ATVs and other vehicles out of the sanctuary.
Indeed, a pair of agents in their green uniforms come down to check us out. But it’s pretty obvious that we’re a bunch of hikers. They’re friendly, chat about some of the birds they’ve seen, and leave us be after awhile.
We at last come to a cove near a water treatment plant, where some neotropic cormorants and other waders reside. The treatment plant is scheduled to be demolished, which may open this area up for more visitors.
On the way back to our bus, Miller sees a white-collared seedeater scurrying across the path. I’m standing right next to him, but I didn’t see it. We crouch still for a minute hoping it will come back, but it doesn’t.
I feel a little frustrated that I missed it. I’m starting to understand why many are attracted to this hobby. It appeals to those of us who like to hunt, but only want to shoot animals with a camera lens. On your worst day, you’ve taken a nice walk in nature.
Rio Grande at Laredo
Highway 83 is the perfect road for birders. Heading north from the birders' paradise that is the Rio Grande Valley, they arrive at the wetlands of the Great Plains and all its diversity. They can then take a detour a few miles east to see the Sandhill crane migration on in the Platte River Valley in Nebraska. In the heart of the Nebraska Sand Hills is the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.
North Dakota and its Prairie Pothole Region is called North America’s “duck factory.” And then there is the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Audubon at Coleharbor, North Dakota, where some 200 bird species have been recorded.

The Laredo Birding Festival takes place Feb. 3-6, 2016. Registration is now open (link here). Other times of the year, local tours can be arranged by contacting the LBV Science Center at 956-764-5701. A list of birding spots in or near Laredo can be found here.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com