Looking deep into her large, expressive brown eyes, their noses almost touching, it was easy to see the true love passing between them. Just because Mark Pitman is a man and she is a female Gemsbok made no difference. In fact, it seems quite natural here at Rancho El Charco, where wild animals roam, birds of all kind make a home and nature abounds.
After living in Mexico for 30 years, Mark and his wife, Happy, made the decision to move to McAllen in order for Mark to be closer to his family.
“I made an agreement with my folks that if they would move to the Valley, near the border, I would move up from Mexico,” Mark said. Since his business was in Mexico, this would be the best he could do.
“We found a home on Walker Lake in La Joya and that’s how it all got started,” he said. “This was just brush country down the road from us. There was nothing back here. There were no roads. I had seen some folks walking around with surveyor maps and talked to one of them. He said they were going to start tearing all this down and build a big mobile home park. Happy and I both thought it would be horrible if that happened to this habitat. We put a bid in on it — never ever dreaming that the mobile home park would fall through and they would take our bid. Suddenly we were stuck with it.”
With a little over 150 acres of pure raw brush, they began their work of turning it into a little bit of heaven, and they don’t feel stuck anymore.
“I hired a man with a caterpillar tractor, and I had a machete with a pole and a red flag on the end,” said Mark, laughing at the thought. “I’d just start hacking my way through thick underbrush. He would see my red flag and head his bulldozer towards me. That’s how we made the roads.
“We literally carved these roads out ourselves,” he said. “I tell folks coming to visit, owning a ranch is like eating an elephant — you do it one spoonful at a time.”
Mark and Happy planned what to do with their new park.
“The first thing we did is put cattle back here for a little while. They multiplied. We took the cattle and sold them off and bought the deer fence and put that up. Then we put deer back here. Slowly it started to become a park,” Mark said.
As the park began to emerge from under all that brush, surprises awaited them.
“We certainly had no idea of the number of ebony trees that were here. Someone from the Texas Parks and Wildlife came and looked around and told us we have one of the largest concentrations of ebonies in a small area that exists in the Valley,” he said. “We have bobcats, foxes and javelina that live here. They are inside the enclosure, run around free and reproduce here. This is home. We do have a lot of different species that stick around so we’re glad we’re here.”
Just by having people over to walk around the area they have found what a novel place it is, including the variety of cactus they have. Another find was an antiquated irrigation system put in during the ‘30s or ‘40s. As he learns more and more about the park, Mark enjoys telling stories of his findings.
“The real name of this area is Los ejidos de Reynosa vieja, the communal grazing lands of old Reynosa,” he said while driving around the now vast carved-out road maze. “During the José Escandon period — 1740s — the first settlers along here would bring their cattle over here and graze them. What happens whenever cattle are left unattended?
“They’ll wander off. So from here they started wandering northward throughout the years. They would be on their own, having to fend for themselves, look for water. At the time of the Civil War, whenever the soldiers were coming back from Texas, they would find big herds of these wild cattle, round them up and take them to the rail station and send them north. You get the story of the Texas cowboy and the longhorn and it all started right here.”
As the years progressed, they continued to add to the park. A quiet chapel area with a magnificent hand-made retablo stands ready for weddings and gatherings, waterfalls flowing over concrete formed rocks across a lake formed from a swampy bog, palms trees towering over it all.
An added Gran Palapa faces Walker Lake, a thatched covered patio designed for wedding receptions, corporate parties, anniversaries, picnics and other events, which can be used with or without their catering services.
“We gave it a Mayan/Yucatan feel using a lot of our items, our carvings from the Yucatan when we lived there,” said Mark. “I even built a bathroom to look like Mayan huts.”
A favorite of visitors is taking one of the park’s wagon rides after lunch at Boca Paila, their restaurant. Serving such unique items as bacon-wrapped quail, buffalo burgers, frog legs, as well as regular fare like All American burgers, Ribeye Alambre, Ceviche and oatmeal cookies.
Happy put much detail into the restaurant decor. The stone tree columns holding the winding staircase with wood grained carved steps adds an ambiance which takes you to another land — certainly not like anything else here in the Valley.
“The restaurant is open on weekends — Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the summer. In the winter season, when the Winter Texans are here, the restaurant is open everyday except Tuesday,” said Mark, with a chuckle. “When they are in town, they are here at 11:00, ready to dance, eat and drink.”
Two massive Belgian mules pull the covered wagon for a 45-minute ride around the park complete with narrative on the history of the area.
“It’s fun for the kids because you explain to the kids their great, great grandparents used to travel around like that and it gives them a taste of what it was like at the turn of the century — going to Wal-Mart would never be a five minute trip!”
Fast becoming a school’s answer to science camp with it’s rock quarry along with the other fare, it’s also a fun place for the whole family. Take your pick — eat, dance, walk the only place in the Rio Grande Valley where you can see all 28 of Texas’s native trees in one piece of property, feed the fish, take a wagon tour — all here at Rancho el Charco.
Oh, yes — the Gemsbok. Along with blackbucks, land tortoises, American bison, Texas Longhorn, and their other animals are Gemsbok. One of the neighbors found a newborn Gemsbok (they thought it was a funny deer) along a fence and called the park. Covered in ants, they didn’t think she’d make it, and the sun had blinded her in one eye.
“We had to bottle feed her,” said Mark. “We found her mother two days later, shot in the head. The baby was in intensive care at the vet’s for a month, with some vets from Gladys Porter Zoo consulting on the formula. We had to feed her every two hours, just like a child.”
She made it and is around two years old.
“She thinks she’s more human than an animal,” he said fondly, scratching her lovingly behind the ears.
And so it goes — the newest destination, the in-spot to come and relax in the Valley — Rancho El Charco. For more information call 956-581-0397 or go to www.ranchoelcharco.com.