I’m not sure when the Valley started feeling like home instead of a place I moved to because a job was waiting for me. I may have realized it that time I was driving down 281 from Dallas, a drive I’d made so many times the billboards had become old friends (boring old friends who repeated themselves), and I had become something of an expert on gas station bathrooms.

I still get Twitters from friends: “Mark, I’m passing the Shell at the corner of 281 and Farm Road 4113 just outside George West. Clean or dirty?”

I’d Twitter back: “The sinks and urinal are clean and paper towels are provided instead of those hand dryers. I give it a 3.5 out of 5.” 

Driving back that particular afternoon I was surprised by warm fuzzy feeling from seeing the first palm tree along the highway. You might not have noticed that palm tree, not matter how many times you’ve driven down 281. I hadn’t before that day. It’s a scrawny, lonely stump of a palm tree, growing only half-heartedly in the overpass median at the Alice turnoff. And I admit, getting a fuzzy feeling from a palm tree may be sure sign that before too much longer I’m going to start crying when I hear “We are the World” one the radio. (The old version, not the new one, which just makes me itch.) Even though that palm tree is way out in Alice, for most of us, not really part of the Valley, passing that sorry looking tree along the highway is moment I know I’ve come back home.

So what it is about the Valley that makes in unique? Lord knows it’s not the scenery. If someone plopped you down anywhere along 83, the only way you’d know you weren’t in a suburb of Dallas or Houston Is that the landscape is so flat that that a mole hill (or a particularly tall overpass) looks much like a mountain.

No, I think it’s the little things that let you know you’re in the Valley.

You know you’re in the Valley when, for a few days in Spring, the fields suddenly come alive with flowers. Not just the Blue Bonnets they brag about in the Hill Country, but a riot of colors, shades of purple and orange that they haven’t even come up with names for them.

You know you’re in the Valley when you walk into a corner gas station and someone’s abuela is behind the grill making tortillas and cooking menudo, and serving up the best breakfast tacos anywhere. Won’t find that in Houston.

You know you’re in the Valley when tamales are considered as much a staple as the turkey and dressing for the covered dish Thanksgiving Dinner at the office.

You know you’re in the Valley when someone comes to your door on Saturday morning when you’re still in your bath robe to offer to trim your trees, and you don’t have any trees. (Though I admit, this may be as much a clue that you know you’re in a recession.)

You know you’re in the Valley when women call each other “mama,” unless they’re talking to a girl too young to actually be a mother, in which case they say “mamasita.”

Perhaps we don’t all get a fuzzy feeling when we see a palm tree. But, we all know what it means to come home to the Valley, whether we moved here a few years ago, we’re Winter Texans for whom this is a second home, or we’ve lived here our whole lives, maybe generations. Somewhere deep inside, the place where we would get teary eyed listening to “We are the World,” we know when we’re here. So, I invite you all to play the game. How do you know you’re in the Valley. Log on to the Valley Town Crier website and post yours in the Columns section.  And, let’s all be positive. Let’s be Valley boosters.