Boquillas and Big Bend

Here’s a thing I have feelings about!: the opening of a border crossing in Big Bend National Park.

Last time I was in the area, my boyfriend and I were driven from camping in the highlands by terror (harmless mountain lion encounter – but still! Not 20 feet away!). At some absurd hour of barely-morning, we set up in the nearly abandoned Cottonwood campground – and woke up not an hour later to footsteps outside our tent.

One swinging MagLite later, whoever had been around was running into the brush and we were piled into the car, headlights blazing, back to the mountains to sleep crushed vertically onto car seats. The decision to camp by the Rio Grande may, of course, have been a skosh bit of idiocy (albeit as a side effect of sheer exhaustion) – but I had camped on the border before, and felt a perhaps false sense of reassurance. Truth is, there’s not much to it:

And I’d be a liar if I said my only venture outside of these United States didn’t involve some wading.

In any case, there’s no doubt that the residents of Boquillas – a town just across the border that, from what I could tell, survived on tourism and providing beer to the 18-to-21 crowd – has suffered tremendously since the existing crossing closed after 9/11.  Trinkets appear by landmarks overnight, with requests for compensation.

Some of the comments on the article I linked to (and in other places, though generally not on sites frequented by BBNP visitors) are vicious: allegations that the potential border opening will do nothing but expand drug trade, criticism of the Mexican government for “relying on tourism” and the United States for reviving a scant population, and cries that opening the town to park visitors would destroy the sense of wilderness.

As someone who never ceases singing the praises of Big Bend, who would rather be nowhere but the middle of nowhere  – and as a potential crime victim with an interest in national security – here are my counterarguments:

1) Information is better than no information, and open communication with Boquillas residents helps Border Patrol to do the job effectively. There’s no cell service in that region of the park, and with the border closed residents can’t alert patrol members of strangers, crime, unusual activity – anything they would do and have ordinarily done in order to maintain stable relations and protect their economy.

2) Anyone who thinks the growth of a 19-family town across the river will be enough to tame or temper 800,000 acres of desert is insane.

3) The town isn’t a drain on the region – it enhances it. You can’t spend a day hiking and not want to drive down to the river, enter a makeshift gondola run by Singing Victor, and re-hydrate with cervezas. Impossible.

4) Victor himself: “I don’t think the terrorists want to cross here on a burro.”

Boquillas and Big Bend

Travelogue

I remember, as most people probably do, the instant I realized the world was bigger than my hometown.

That terminology is less than particular; I had been out of San Antonio before, exclusively to the Rio Grande Valley (a biannual trip to visit relatives) and South Padre Island (where – laughably, when viewed through the eyes of a current college student – we took yearly summer trips until I was around 14). I had also taken to making excursions to areas nearby but still in the Hill Country (Austin, or Canyon Lake) on days when I had to “work,” or so I’m sure I would have told my parents if they asked, which of course they never did.

In any case: It’s all Matt McDaniel’s fault. Driving in a ridiculous 9-passenger van rented for a trip to a UIL Science trip – yes, Rice, you read that correctly! – to Midland, I continually re-processed my location as though panning horizontally from an aerial vantage point. This is the furthest West I have ever been – no, this – no, again! – chatting half with the collection of friends along for the ride, half with the type of favorite high school teacher everyone has about college and travel. “I know you want to get out as quickly as you can,” he said, referring to Texas. “But out here is where things get magnificent.” And duly, my eyes did not leave the window as gnarled mesquites grew first into the sides of cliffs and then gave way to rock, as speed limit signs ticked upward from 65 to 80 and as oil pumps bent cyclically towards the earth, positioned against the sunset like black cranes dipping in and out of water.

And I got back home and I missed things like long roads and deserts and accompanying panoramas, achingly. My senior year of high school I had the misfortune of dating someone with equally absent supervision, which led to things like “oh let’s plan a roadtrip to California” or “oh let’s go climb this mountain in Colorado”, with extensive google-mapping and legitimate planning. I was the only one who took those things seriously, as fact would have it. A few months after we broke up, barely-eighteen-year-old Jordan decided, at five o’clock one summer morning, that it would be a good idea – or, at the very least, a good story – to take a day and visit Big Bend. Those not so well acquainted with the geography of Texas may not fully appreciate the absolute absurdity of that timescale, so I will state very embarrassingly for the record that I set out to drive 7 hours both there and back on no sleep, without telling anyone, without ever having driven more than two hours at once, feeling adequately prepared with a few cans of redbull, a backpack, and a breakfast taco. Needless to say, this was not the case.*

This led to several very important discoveries. In chronological order:

  1. Winding down the windows on highway 385, in just the right part of August, is intoxicating. Juniper floods the air. Nothing afterwards will ever smell so good, and you will be tricked into constantly believing you enjoy gin even if you do not.
  2. “Speed limit: 80” is secret code for “Set your cruise control to 95, and don’t look back.”
  3. Robert Earl Keen made his music to be played on IH-10. It’s okay to listen to “Sonora’s Death Row” as you pass through the wrong Sonora.
  4. Mountains! Mountains are ridiculous! They are so tall! Soooo tall, and you have to drive slowly, and they make you dizzy, and I had never spent so much time looking up and had never before had a landscape so abruptly, wonderfully interrupted.
  5. They are sooooooooo tall. Especially if you decide to climb them…in August…alone. Also, they hide behind other mountains, so you think you’re done and then you’re not.
  6. Spending 14 of 23 hours driving is tremendously fun until it is very suddenly not.
  7. Sleeping in your car in Kerrville is also not fun, but it is kind of hilarious.

And since then I’ve been rapidly captivated by countryside, by views from car and plane windows, by the mentally staggering absurdity of being tossed across various points that had existed on nothing other than a globe for the vast majority of my life. It’s fitting, I guess, that I started writing this on my first train – DC to New York. I remember telling Amy (who met up with me in Baltimore) that I was so excited I felt like it was going to Hogwarts. This was probably not an exaggeration. Subsequent adventures, in brief:

  1. New Year’s 2009, Guadalupe Mountains NP: there is not a single better place on earth to wake at dawn than in the middle of the desert.
  2. 05/09: Tall trees exist in real life, and they are all in Seattle. Also, May here = Texas in January, and that is the worst.
  3. 05/10: Venturing north to realize that Dallas and Fort Worth were, in fact, exactly as I expected
  4. 01/11: Attempting to discern the subtle differences between Southern New Mexico and West Texas; succeeding.
  5. 06/11: Bafflement at the dense, marshy forests lining the road on the first bus I took from Baltimore to DC.
  6. 08/11: Flying back to SA from DC at night, alarmingly discovering the feeling of being homesick and immediately recovering , knowing which cities are which by the layout of the freeways.

Here’s the confession: at twenty-one, I still have not been out of the country. I realize this is likely the standard for an average U.S. citizen, but it feels like a handicap at a top-twenty private university where most of my friends, if they don’t travel annually, have lived abroad for an extended period of time. Certainly, it seems almost woefully inept for someone intending to pursue work in international health. But that’s what fellowships are for.

* Although, on my most recent BBNP trip, we left at 3 a.m. from Houston after throwing a party. But that’s another (and much, much better) story. Idiotic spontaneity becomes me?

Travelogue