Shuffleboard and river cruises with the Winter Texans

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Six days a week, Dave Rountree, better known as Omelet Dave, dons a foot-high hood and stands behind two double burners to cook breakfast for South Texas’ hungry retirees. Each year tens of thousands of these Winter Texans, as they are known, temporarily relocate from across the continent to the southernmost tip of Texas, a region known for its warm weather and low cost of living. Many of them end up at the Victoria Palms RV Resort, one of the larger Texas winter communities that functions like a permanent summer camp for the 55-plus crowd.

Omelette Dave, who has served over a hundred thousand omelettes at the Victoria Palms, is something of a local celebrity, and the wall next to his cooking station is covered with local news clips of him. (“A local boy is doing well!! . . . omelettes.”) On a bright February morning, a group of winter Texans discussed the wind chill at home in Minnesota and Nebraska while digging into plates of Dave’s Special—an omelette and an omelet Half a waffle with strawberry sauce and a dollop of whipped cream for seven dollars and ninety-nine cents (before tax). Outside, the pool area was hopping, with half a dozen people in the hot tub and the best lounge chairs already claimed. The sound system played sixties and seventies rock, heavily sourced from the Christine McVie section of the Fleetwood Mac catalogue.

When the poolside scene grew dull, Victoria Palms’ winter Texans could take their golf carts to the resort’s twenty shuffleboard courts or to the miniature dirt track to see a Nascar-style RC car rally. They could have fun in the pottery room; the two wooden shutters; the stained glass studio; the sewing, quilting and sewing room; the library with its closet full of jigsaw puzzles; or the poker den with its green felt tables and Tiffany-style lamps. They could learn aqua aerobics from Lawrence, who is ninety-nine, or participate in a pet parade, a golf cart parade, or a vow renewal ceremony. They could take a class on how to sync their Bluetooth devices, draw a portrait of their pets, or play the ukulele. And of course there are the parties: poolside sip-and-dips, jam sessions, happy hour, karaoke, talent shows, pizza nights, and dances. “These people like to have fun,” Victoria Palms manager Rocky Ramirez told me. “Oh yes. They like to have fun. And they deserve it – they’ve worked hard.”

Retirees began flocking to South Texas in earnest in the 1960s and 1970s. After a series of devastating freezes nearly destroyed the region’s citrus industry, some landowners converted their acreage into RV sites. And when the devaluation of the Mexican peso in 1982 affected cross-border trade, South Texas increasingly turned to winter tourism to boost its economy. The region attracted middle-class retirees, similar to the Snowbirds who move seasonally to Arizona or Florida, albeit with a distinct identity. “We like to think we’re different here in Texas,” said Kristi Collier, founder of Welcome Home Rio Grande Valley, a tourism organization that serves seasonal visitors to South Texas. Winter Texans, who hail mostly from the Midwest and Canada, claim they can beat the Snowbirds. “Florida is overpriced,” a man from Iowa told me. “Arizona, there’s not much to do.”

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Today, hundreds of age-restricted RV sites and retirement homes with names like Leisure Valley Ranch and Patriot Pointe are scattered throughout the Rio Grande Valley. Each year, a few seasonal residents become full-time employees, or “converted Texans.” Welcome Home RGV hosts a “naturalization” ceremony for new converts who are expected to raise their right hand and pledge their allegiance to Texas.

Founded in the 1980’s, Victoria Palms is one of the area’s premier retirement communities. “It’s a status symbol among Winter Texans to stay here,” Ramirez said as he took me on a golf cart tour of the 120-acre complex. “They don’t like being called a park; They prefer to be a resort. That’s saying something.” During South Texas’ stupefying summers, Victoria Palms is a sleepy spot whose ballroom is rented out for the occasional quinceañera. However, when the Texas winter season begins in November, it transforms into a city of more than two thousand people whose mayor, Ramirez, a stocky man in his forties, is something of a mayor. Ramirez explained that first-time visitors to Victoria Palms usually drive down in their RVs. If after a few seasons they need more space, they can switch to a park model, usually a furnished house of up to four hundred square feet, which rents for around two thousand dollars a month. Those looking for even more permanence can choose to purchase one of Victoria Palms’ prefabricated homes, which they can expand with landscaping and screened-in porches. As we sped down a street of pastel-colored houses, he greeted the residents by name. We turned a corner and passed a line of shiny mobile homes. “There’s no shortage of quarter-million-dollar trucks out here,” Ramirez said admiringly. “Rigs that cost more than my house.”

Ramirez’s job is to keep Victoria Palms in good spirits, which means keeping an eye on trends (horseshoes are out; pickleball is in) and enforcing the community’s long list of rules. He has the dogged diplomatic energy of someone who has been in the hospitality industry since graduating from college. “Can you imagine having a nineteen year old run a million dollar hotel?” he asked me. “But I did it!”

Ramirez was born in South Texas, but his family soon moved to Columbia, Maryland, one of the country’s most ambitious planned communities, founded in the 1960s with the utopian goal of eliminating racial and class segregation. Ramirez’s time in Columbia was an idyllic time in his life. “You wouldn’t see a broken car anywhere,” he said. “The block captains reported you if your wood was stacked incorrectly or your porch light was out. There was beauty and safety in following the rules and regulations.” He made friends from a variety of backgrounds—“Jews, Mormons, Buddhists,” he said. “It’s a different life experience than if I had stayed here, in a place that’s 95.97 percent Hispanic.” The demographics of Victoria Palms and the entire Texas winter community are monolithic in a different direction. Winter Texans are 97 percent white, “slightly more diverse than any previous study,” according to a 2017-18 survey by the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Overall, they are wealthier and better educated than the national average for their age group.

Welcome Home RGV’s Collier regularly hosts focus groups for retirees, some of whom have also wintered in Florida or Arizona, where participants told her that one of the main draws was south Texas’ proximity to Mexico. According to the UT-RGV study, 85% of Winter Texans visit Mexico; There they can get a teeth cleaning for $35 or go shopping. “And yes, they still go across,” Collier said, a little nervously, before I could even ask. The recent proliferation of border-visiting videos of politicians depicting the region as a war zone has made Collier’s job more difficult. “I want to smack people right and left — like, please stop talking,” she said. “I would like to take some of these people with me. Let me give you a real tour of South Texas. It’s not a big deal. It’s like always.”

“Business as usual” is perhaps an exaggeration. Last year border guard encounters with migrants along the southern border hit record numbers, as did the number of migrant deaths. The National Butterfly Center, a popular local destination, has been closed indefinitely after becoming the target of right-wing conspiracies. The politicized border itself has become something of a tourist attraction. On a Saturday afternoon, I signed up for an excursion popular with winter Texans: a one-hour cruise down the Rio Grande on a 55-foot pontoon boat called the Riverside Dreamer. The lights sparkled on the water and the afternoon had a boozy pleasure cruise vibe, but some on board seemed to feel a shiver of danger at our proximity to the border. A visitor in a polo shirt sat with his back to Mexico. “If you guys duck, I assume they’ll shoot,” he told people facing him.

“You are our shield,” replied a man in a shirt that read “Vacation Executive.”

Jokes of body bags and outlaws evaporated as the Riverside Dreamer hugged the South Bank, cruising past manicured lawns and grilling families in Mexico. Captain Johnny, a laconic man in a tie-dye shirt, kept up a practiced babble as he steered us down the river. The sight was an eerie mixture of pastoral and dystopian: a surveillance tower, a heron in a river pipe, a state police patrol boat with stern-mounted machine guns, a couple fishing, a stretch of border wall, a uniformed man with a gun, a white bird flying about the water slides.

Just downstream from the Riverside Dreamer dock, Chimney Park RV Resort sits on the banks of the Rio Grande, just south of a new section of the border wall. Vivian, a winter Texan from South Dakota, told me it was unsettling going through the barrier to her RV. “We’re cut off. It’s like we’re part of Mexico,” she said. Vivian added that she and her husband have been coming to south Texas for the past sixteen years and regularly see people she assumes are migrants. “Sometimes they are wet from the river. There were seven runners last night, maybe more. But they don’t bother you at all,” she said. A resort employee, who declined to give me his name, said six different types of law enforcement were patrolling the area. On the other side of the boat ramp, a National Guardsman stood next to a Humvee. “We have no problems,” emphasized the employee.

Early the next morning I returned to Victoria Palms for one last Dave’s special. After that, I ducked through the gate and walked down a curved path. Grackles squawked in the tall palms; a woman driving by in a golf cart, her dog trotted beside her. A man with a leaf blower cleaned up the shuffleboard courts. The winter sun was shining, and just outside the gates of Victoria Palms, another day of possibilities unfolded.

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