Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference
My second journey to roads in the Valley that are less traveled began when I received a note from my friend Victoria Barrera Cappadona, along with pictures marked "La Sal del Rey." The king's salt? Curiosity got the best of me, and I opened the file. Inside were incredible pictures of Victoria, her husband, Justin, their three sons and some friends.
At first, I thought they were taken at South Padre Island, and I wondered about the "La Sal del Rey" label. But then I noticed something quite peculiar. In all of the pictures, they were standing on top of what I originally thought was a section of the Gulf. They appeared to be walking on water. Then I saw a picture with some of the children crouching down and touching the "water." The label on the picture read, "Checking out the salt. It's really cool." Salt? Suddenly, the folder label made more sense. "La Sal del Rey." La Sal…salt. Where in the world was this place? I wanted to know more.
La Sal del Rey is not in some exotic location. Instead, it is four miles southeast of Linn, just off Highway 281, four miles off of FM 186. Victoria invited me to join her and some other friends on their next excursion to "Salt Lake." (I must admit this English name for it does not capture the essence of "La Sal del Rey.") Victoria recommended I buy a pair of Keen water shoes or similar footwear because the trip would involve walking on a trail that leads to La Sal del Rey, and, once there, the terrain would be too rough on bare feet.
I purchased my Keens and told Victoria to prepare our adventure. I invited my friend, Robin, and her son, Bryce, and we headed to Victoria's ranch in Linn. We met up with some other friends of Victoria's, and she provided each of us with copies of stories she found on the Internet about this hidden Valley treasure. I glanced over them, my interest level growing with each sentence. "… La Sal del Rey is one of several natural salt lakes on the coastal plain north of the Rio Grande Valley," "Hunter-gatherer peoples likely obtained salt for their own uses and probably for trade as well," "…local lore maintains that Indians from the Mexican interior, including Aztecs, obtained salt from La Sal del Rey." Cameras in hand, Keens on our feet and bags in our hand for collecting shells and other artifacts, we started our convoy to La Sal del Rey.
According to The Handbook of Texas Online, La Sal del Rey, also known as La Purificacion, is located 28 miles northeast of McAllen. "The lake has a circumference of five miles, is a mile long, and ranges from three to four feet in depth," the story reads. No one seems able to explain how the salt is formed.
We soon arrived at our destination. The gravel trail leading to the lake is blocked off to vehicular traffic, so we parked our cars at the kiosk and readied for the 15-20-minute walk. My mind drifted back to my younger days when we would walk along nature trails in Illinois. We heard melodious bird calls and commented on the plants and trees that lined the trail. Suddenly, we came to a clearing and a complete change in the landscape. A white blanket covered the earth in front of us, but it was neither water nor snow. Was this the salt? A lack of rain caused much of the lake to dry up, so we took a right and went in search of it.
Along the way, we picked up shells covered with a white film of a much rougher consistency than sand. I touched it and then touched my finger to my tongue. Salt. We saw dried animal bones and petrified wood covered with salt. As we walked, someone yelled, "Look!" We gathered around as salt bubbled up from the earth. We picked up chunks of it, fascinated by this natural production of something we are used to seeing in a shaker on our dining room table and tasting when we swim in the waters of the Gulf.
I heard Victoria yell, "Here it is," and before us loomed the lake. We walked right into it, its depth diminished by the lack of rain. Salt covered our feet. We waded in the mid-calf-deep water, lost in this place of natural wonder just off a busy Valley highway.
We stayed for a couple of hours, gathering chunks of salt to add to our collection of shells and bones before heading back to the trail. I imagined the beauty of a sunrise and sunset on Sal del Rey and made a mental note to come earlier and stay later next time so I could see both. When we arrived at our cars, instead of wiping sand off of us like we do at the beach, we used towels to wipe the salt off of our arms, legs and feet. We got in our cars and headed toward McAllen, just 28 miles away and yet in another world entirely.
Since our visit, Victoria has led several more excursions to La Sal del Rey, though I have not yet returned. Both of us have researched this Valley treasure, and this is some of what we've learned:
La Sal del Rey is now part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Texas Parks and Wildlife describes the site as a 530-acre salt lake that has been mined since aboriginals occupied the land. Sandhill Cranes can be seen in flight at dawn and thousands of Snow Geese and long-billed Curlews return to the site at dusk. Several other species of birds can also be seen here.
We found a painting by Jose Cisneros courtesy of the Museum of South Texas History. In the painting, Northern Mexico Indian traders mine the salt from La Sal del Rey around the year 1400 A.D.
We also found a story written by Valley historian Tom Fort. Here is some of what he writes:
â€¢ Salineros (salt miners), with permission from the king, dug salt from the lakes. Traders carried the salt south by mule trains and oxcarts.
â€¢ In the 1860s, a dispute over rights of ownership to salt from La Sal del Rey resulted in a state constitutional provision giving mineral rights to the land owner.
â€¢ Salt mining continued at the site until the 1930s.
â€¢ Another salt lake, La Sal Vieja, actually consisting of two lakes, is in Willacy County.
Interesting facts from The Handbook of Texas Online:
â€¢ Salt removed from La Sal del Rey normally replenishes within two to three days.
â€¢ The lake is said to hold approximately four million tons of salt.
â€¢ During a drought, the lake may dry out completely. After a heavy rainfall, it may be over 10-feet deep.
â€¢ Spanish explorers claimed the lake for the king of Spain and allowed the public to use it.
â€¢ In 1798, it became part of the La Noria de San Salvador del Tule land grant issued by Spain to Captain Juan José BallÃ-.
â€¢ Wooden carts were used to haul the salt into Mexico. Visitors may still see the wagons' tracks at La Sal del Rey.
â€¢ During the Civil War, due to increased demand for salt, the state took control of the mining and export of salt at the lake. At the time, JesÃºs CÃ¡rdenas owned the lake. The state allowed him to sell the salt already mined. The Confederates carried the salt to its destination by camel caravan. Each camel carried 600 pounds. Due to freight thefts, they ceased this method of transportation.
Eloise Campbell wrote this piece for The Handbook of Texas Online. The article ended with, "In the early 1990s, La Sal del Rey was the private property of Eloise Campbell." This intrigued me, so I contacted Linn rancher Carlos Guerra. He put me in contact with Eloise's son, Scott, who lives in Harlingen. Scott told me his dad, Byron Campbell, bought La Sal del Rey. He said it was then sold to Ben Kirsch, but the Campbells bought it again in 1986 and farmed the land until 1992 when they sold it to the Nature Conservatory and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
I called Eloise, who also lives in Harlingen. Eloise said she and her husband named their ranch La Sal del Rey Ranch in honor of the lake.
"We had cattle on one side of the lake and we farmed the other side," she said. "Every five years we flip-flopped them because during the five years the cattle were on the land, their manure provided an excellent fertilizer."
Eloise's father ranched 23,000 acres north of Harlingen and had a meat market in Harlingen. "He would come here for the salt. He used it to salt the hides before sending them to San Antonio," she said.
"We could ride our horses over the lake," Eloise told me.
We still have so much more to learn about La Sal del Rey, along the roads less traveled in the Rio Grande Valley.
To view a map and more information on La Sal del Rey visit http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/STRC/lrgv/La%20Sal%20del%20Rey.html.