The Border Makes America Great
Few places have captured my attention like the borderlands between the USA and Mexico. The first time I stood in front of the US-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona, where a large wall separates us from our neighbors, I felt diminished not only by its size but also by the emotional force it wields.
Mexico has always intrigued me. It’s right there, literally in our backyard. I drove down to Baja my senior year of college and the most amazing part of the trip was that it was so easy. Mexico was extremely accessible, friendly and accommodating. And yet, most Americans are raised in fear of Mexico.
I could write a whole blog post on the politics of borderlands and American attitudes towards Mexico, but for me, spending time along the border was the perfect place to let all that shit go. It’s enough for me that I’ve been humbled and awestruck by those unique lands with hard edges.
We were lucky enough to spend several months along the borderlands in both the Chihuahuan (Texas) and Sonoran (Arizona) deserts this spring and I’m incredibly grateful for the expansion of my perspective across these culturally diverse landscapes.
Big Bend National Park, Chihuahuan Desert
Big Bend is located at the southern tip of Texas, where the Rio Grande carves a verdant ribbon through the Chihuahuan Desert. This is not a place you just “stop by” on your way through, unless of course your final destination is The-Middle-of-Nowhere.
We arrived at the end of February this year, and stayed for three whole weeks! My boyfriend is from the panhandle of Texas, where his parents still live. It didn’t take much convincing to get them to take a two week vacation with us. Each day was an adventure, and more often than not, we got them out of their comfort zones. Okay, we might’ve even been bad influences on them, taking off-road “short-cuts” through dry creek beds and hitting the trail without backpacks full of gear. But we loved having them along as extra partners in crime and they hung tough!
Our phones were forgotten as we explored the landscape around us. After a few days together we all marveled at the fact that it was the longest any of us had gone without talking about politics since the election. Which is a wonderful and therapeutic thing!
Naturally though, visions of The WALL often crept into my mind as we navigated the rugged terrain along the Rio Grande and US/Mexico border, and it could be depressing and confusing. Gratefully, the canyons along the river echoed my thoughts. We didn’t have to say anything to be understood down there. The rocks get it, the light gets it, the ocotillo and prickly pear, they all radiated in a stern, silent agreement. Everything speaks the same language in a canyon that took millions of years of carving to divide in two. Our surroundings served as a constant reminder that the only boundaries out there are the ones we put on ourselves.
There’s a little, tiny town outside the entrance to the Park, called Terlingua. Once home to 2,000, Terlingua was a thriving mercury-mining town. Abandoned in the 40’s and repopulated in the 70’s, it’s now an active community of artists, musicians, and free-thinking individuals. It’s historic, fragile, dusty and beautiful.
The town kind of revolves around a trading post turned general store with the biggest front porch I’ve ever seen. It’s a gathering place for locals and one my favorite places on earth. It’s worth a 1500-mile drive just to drink a beer on that porch. Plus, you can take off in any direction to explore old dry-stack adobe ruins and listen to the howl of coyotes beneath the screaming wind. Terlingua is a mecca of drifters and wanderers who find themselves in places far removed from the regular world, and it’s blissful.
After Michael’s parents had to return home we spent a few days in the backcountry, pushing OUR boundaries. To start, we obtained a primitive backcountry pass from the park rangers and then drove 2.5 hours down rocky roads to cache 3 gallons of water for a 30-mile hike through the National Park. Big Bend is a serious desert wilderness!
We climbed up into the Chisos Mountains where temperatures are cooler and the views are incredible. You can see almost the entire southern half of Big Bend from the South Rim! The beauty and ruggedness of that terrain blew me away. Seeing it from that scale, I couldn’t believe we walked across it in the blazing sun with everything we needed on our backs. Humans are awesome.
Incredibly, there’s a pedestrian only crossing in Big Bend NP that takes you to the tiny village of Boquillas, Mexico, population around 200.
After going through a US customs border building we followed a dusty path down to the river, where we could choose to swim across or pay five dollars to a local in a rowboat to give us a ride. Once across, you can walk the half mile into town or hop on a mule for another five dollars.
Walking through Boquillas is like a visit to an early 20th century Mexican village. Unpaved streets lead to little more than the two restaurants and bar, a few dozen hand-built adobe houses, two plain churches and a school. This off-grid community relies on propane, solar and batteries for power. But mostly, the village depends on American dollars to sustain their livelihoods. Since there are no grocery stores, liquor outlets or pharmacies, your money is best spent on lunch and handmade crafts. I bought a handful of hand embroidered cozies that say “No Wall” on one side and “Boquillas” on the other side. I absolutely love them!
The legal border crossing is one way to get across, and I recommend it. But if you happen to be soaking in the hot springs on the bank of Texas soil and get a little warm, you might be encouraged to swim across the Rio Grande and plant your moonlit toes on the bank of Mexico. Sometimes life demands we break the rules!
On another afternoon, we hiked along the Rio Grande in search of the caballero from Boquillas that would canoe across the river from Mexico with a puppy Chihuahua for me if I waved him over. Seriously. I sat on the bank watching him carve hiking sticks for an hour before turning back. I dreamed and dreamed about that imaginary fur friend I would name Rio Grande, I just wasn’t ready. The truth is, I still miss my adventure cat, Sophie, every damn day.
Oak Bar Ranch, Nogales, Sonoran Desert
From Texas we drove to the Sonoran desert of Arizona, only miles from the Nogales border. We wanted to visit some friends that recently started caretaking a historic ranch in the area. Come work for a few weeks they said, “two hots and cot!” Holy mole, they fed us like royalty, treated us like family and hooked us up with good paying jobs. I even got to drive their Jeep around and Cota restored an adobe manager’s house on top of a hill.
We lived among mesquite trees, eucalyptus, citrus, pomegranate and olive trees. It was arid yet abundant with growth. Saguaros, prickly pear, ococtillo, cholla, and so many more cacti! Baby bunnies scampered around, birds flitted about, javelinas, coatimundis, bears, turkeys, Gila monsters, and cows, horses, dogs and gold-fish kept us company in those dry hills. The beauty is unbridled, everything wild and at the mercy of the relentless sun. We ate chiltepin peppers daily. Southwest food gets better with the only wild native chile to the US! The pepper grows naturally in canyons from West Texas through southern Arizona. Charmingly, it’s a staple item on most tables along the US/Mexico borderlands. It’s fun crushing chiltepins in small, wooden, hand-carved dishes shaped like saguaros and tortoises. The pepper is spicy, smoky and forgiving.
Dental tourism is popular in Nogales and I decided to take advantage of our extended stay. It was easy to park the Jeep on the Arizona side of the border and walk right over. I ended up going back two more times! It only cost me 250 dollars to have four metal fillings replaced and two cavities filled. It would have cost me thousands back in the states. I even called a couple of dentists to get quotes. I’m grateful for the opportunity to take care of my health without going into debt.
We spent eight weeks on the Oak Bar Ranch, co-living with two of the most fun and authentic people I’ve ever met. They grew their own chiltepins last year and gave us some seeds to carry with us on the road. They cooked the best food I’ve ever eaten, provided us with jobs, entertainment, honesty and loads of laughter. I love them and the land they call home.
Sometimes you don’t know where you belong until you get there. We’ll be back.
Life is slower in the desert and I like that. It even makes me feel better for taking so long to write my blog post. ;)