Shuffleboard and River Cruises with the Winter Texans

Six days a week, Dave Rountree, better known as Omelet Dave, dons a foot-high toque and stands behind two double burners to cook breakfast for hungry South Texas retirees. Every year, tens of thousands of these Winter Texans, as they are known, temporarily relocate from across the continent to the southern tip of Texas, an area known for its warm climate and low cost of living. Many of them end up at the Victoria Palms RV Resort, one of Texas’ largest winter communities, which operates as a permanent summer camp for more than fifty-five people.

Omelet Dave, who has served over a hundred thousand omelets at Victoria Palms, is something of a local celebrity, and the wall near his cooking station is covered in clips of him from the local news. (“A local boy is doing good!! . . . Omelettes.”) On a bright February morning, a group of winter Texans discussed the wind chill at their homes in Minnesota and Nebraska as they dug in plates of Dave’s Special – an omelette and a half a waffle topped with strawberry sauce and a dollop of whipped cream, for seven dollars and ninety-nine cents (before tax). Outside the pool was crowded, with half a dozen people in the hot tub and the best sunbeds already claimed. The sound system played 60s and 70s rock, heavy on the Christine McVie section of the Fleetwood Mac catalog.

If the pool scene got boring, winter Texans from Victoria Palms could drive their golf carts to the resort’s twenty shuffleboard courts, or miniature dirt racetrack, to catch a Nascar style rally for radio controlled cars. They could entertain themselves in the ceramic room; the two carpentry workshops; the stained glass workshop; the Sewing, Quilting and Tailoring Room; the library, with its cupboard full of puzzles; or the poker den, with its green felt tables and Tiffany-style lamps. They could learn water aerobics with Lawrence, who is ninety-nine, or take part in a pet parade, golf cart parade or vow renewal ceremony. They could take a class on how to sync their Bluetooth devices, paint a portrait of their pets, or play the ukulele. And, of course, there are the parties: poolside sips and dips, jam sessions, happy hours, karaoke, talent shows, pizza nights and dances. “These people like to have fun,” Victoria Palms manager Rocky Ramirez told me. “Oh yeah. They like to have fun. And they deserve it – they’ve worked hard.

Retirees began to pour into South Texas in earnest in the 1960s and 1970s. After a series of devastating freezes nearly destroyed the region’s citrus industry, a number of landowners converted their acreage to motorhome parks. And when the devaluation of the Mexican peso in 1982 put an end to cross-border trade, South Texas increasingly turned to winter tourism to boost its economy. The region has attracted middle-class retirees, similar to snowbirds who decamp seasonally to Arizona or Florida, but 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 serving seasonal visitors to South Texas. Winter Texans, who hail mostly from the Midwest and Canada, say they beat the snowbirds. “Florida is too expensive,” a man from Iowa told me. “Arizona, there’s not much to do.”

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Today, hundreds of RV parks and age-restricted retirement communities, 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 residents or “converted Texans.” Welcome Home RGV holds a “naturalization” ceremony for new converts, who must raise their right hand and pledge allegiance to Texas.

Victoria Palms, which was founded in the 1980s, is one of the most upscale retirement communities in the area. “It’s a status symbol among winter Texans to stay here,” Ramirez said, as he took me on a golf cart tour of the one hundred and twenty-acre resort. “They don’t like talking about the park; they prefer it to be a resort. That tells you something. During the mind-numbing South Texas summers, Victoria Palms is a sleepier spot, its ballroom being rented out for the occasional quinceañera. When the Texas winter season begins, however, in November, it transforms into a town of more than two thousand people, of which Ramirez, a stocky man in his forties, is something of a mayor. Ramirez explained that first-time visitors to Victoria Palms usually get off in their RV. If, after a few seasons, they find themselves wanting more space, they can upgrade to a park model, a home up to four hundred square feet, usually furnished, that rents for around two thousand dollars a month. Those looking for even more permanence can choose to purchase one of Victoria Palms’ manufactured homes, which they can complete with landscaping and screened porches. As we walked down a street of pastel-colored houses, he greeted residents by name. We rounded the corner and passed a row of gleaming RVs. “There’s no shortage of quarter-million-dollar rigs here,” Ramirez said admiringly. “Rigs that cost more than my house.”

Ramirez is responsible for keeping up good vibes at Victoria Palms, 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 stubborn diplomatic energy of someone who has worked in the hospitality industry since graduating from college. “Can you imagine letting a nineteen year old run a million dollar hotel?” he asked me. “But I did!”

Ramirez was born in South Texas, but his family soon decamped to Columbia, Maryland, one of the nation’s most ambitious planned communities, founded in the 1960s with the utopian goal of eliminating racial segregation and class. Ramirez’s time in Colombia was an idyllic time in his life. “You would never see a broken down car anywhere,” he said. “Block captains would let you know if your lumber was stacked incorrectly or your porch light was out. There was beauty and safety, if you followed the rules and regulations. He made friends from different backgrounds — “Jews, Mormons, Buddhists,” he said. “It’s a different life experience than if I had stayed here, a ninety-five, ninety-seven percent Hispanic place.” The demographics of Victoria Palms and the Texas winter community as a whole are monolithic in a different direction. According to a 2017-2018 survey by the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley, Winter Texans are ninety-seven percent white, “slightly more diverse than any previous study.” Overall, they are wealthier and better educated than the national averages 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, in which attendees told him that South Texas’ proximity to Mexico was one of his main attractions. Eighty-five percent of Winter Texans visit Mexico, according to the UT-RGV study; there they can have their teeth cleaned for thirty-five dollars or go shopping. “And, yeah, they’re still crossing,” Collier said, a little flustered, before I could even ask. The recent proliferation of videos of border visits by politicians portraying the region as a war zone has made Collier’s job more difficult. “I want to hit people right and left, like, please stop talking,” she said. “I would love to take some of these people. Let me give you a real tour of South Texas. It’s not much. It’s business as usual.”

“Business as usual” may be an exaggeration. Last year, encounters between border patrols and migrants along the southern border hit a record high, as did migrant deaths. The National Butterfly Center, a popular local destination, has closed indefinitely after becoming the target of right-wing conspiracies. The politicized border itself has become something of a tourist attraction. One Saturday afternoon, I signed up for a favorite Winter Texan excursion: an hour-long boat ride down the Rio Grande on a 55-foot pontoon boat called the Riverside Dreamer. The light shimmered on the water and the afternoon had a boozy pleasure cruise atmosphere, but some on board seemed to feel a chill of danger because of our proximity to the border. A visitor in a polo shirt sat with his back to Mexico. “If you start dodging, I guess they’re shooting,” he told people in front of him.

“You are our shield,” replied a man in a shirt with the words “Vacation Executive” on it.

The jokes about body bags and lawlessness died down as the Riverside Dreamer skirted the South Rim and passed manicured lawns and families barbecuing in Mexico. Captain Johnny, a terse man in a tie-dye shirt, kept a practiced crackle as he guided us down the river. The sight was an odd mix of pastoral and dystopia: a watchtower, an egret leaning in the river cane, a State Police patrol boat with rear-mounted machine guns, a couple on a train to fish, a section of border wall, a man in a man’s uniform with a gun, a white bird skimming the water.

Just downstream from the Riverside Dreamer’s wharf, the Chimney Park RV Resort sits on the bank of the Rio Grande, south of a new stretch of border wall. Vivian, a Winter Texan from South Dakota, told me it was disconcerting to have to walk through the gate to get to her RV. “We are cut off. It’s like we’re part of Mexico,” she said. Vivian added that she and her husband had been coming to South Texas for sixteen years and regularly saw people she assumed were migrants. “Sometimes they get 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, what appeared to be a member of the National Guard was standing next to a Humvee. “We have no problem,” insisted the employee.

Early the next morning I returned to Victoria Palms for one last Dave’s Special. Then I slipped inside the door and walked along a curved path. Grackles howled in the high palms; a woman drove by in a golf cart, her dog trotting beside her. A man with a leaf blower was cleaning the shuffleboard courts. The winter sun was shining, and inside the gates of Victoria Palms another day unfolded, full of possibilities.

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