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

Southern Efficiency, Northern Hospitality

My friend Alex, upon finding out I was in DC for the summer, told me that this is where she had imagined me living permanently – I believe the term “puzzle piece” was employed. I like the idea of fitting here very much: D.C. connected with me a very electric way (I’m tempted to use words people use when explaining why they love New York, which I could never understand). I like the youth and the energy, the wide boulevards and the grand structures provided for government buildings, and the pressure to work, constantly. The southwest may have a permanent grip on my heart, but this is undeniably where my head needs to be – at least for the next few years. SO: here is a collection of things I enjoyed doing, and might suggest to other people making their way here for summer months. Consider it an epitaph to infatuation – when I’m back next, I expect it’ll grow to something more thorough.

D.C. Summer Intern Bucket List

Activities

1. Run the monuments. There is a way to do this at every skill level – the loop to WWII from GW is a perfect 5k, and the Capitol to Lincoln Memorial and back is just over 5 miles, which you can extend to 7 if you swing around the Tidal Basin (the way to meet up with TJ & FDR). Add on three more miles by swinging across the bridges to Roosevelt Island, which has fantastical things like real trails and tree cover. Or cut wherever you’d like. In any case, I loved making a habit of this; it’s the best way to be an early-morning patriot.

2. Eschew private transportation. This is coming from a girl who treats her car like a person, who will agree to drive 14 hours at a stretch without blinking: I adore the Metro. I get the same feeling of awe from the arched vaulted ceilings that I get from approaching a tangled loop of Texas highway interchanges – a sort of gasping pride that people managed to create this. Wait until a thunderstorm in off-hours and snag a car to yourself. Run up and down like this guy.

3. Watch 4th of July fireworks form the Lincoln Memorial. I can’t say I remember this, but the pictures make it look lovely.

4. Spend a hungover Sunday strolling through Eastern Market. Try on a bunch of jewelry, and revel in items of absurd political kitsch. I bought these ridiculous portraits of the city stylized a la Van Gogh…

5. Visit the monuments at night. Jefferson at night is particularly spectacular, as is WWII when the fountain is working. The place fills up with fireflies.

6. Watch a motorcade. I can’t provide actual instructions, but somehow managed to catch both Obama and Biden. Even too-cool-for-school Dupont halts, giddily.

7. Tour the three branches of government. Indisputably a must; I was lucky (?) enough to hit the Capitol on the final day of debt ceiling proceedings.

8. Shop in Georgetown. Dress up. Laugh at the Ralph Lauren café (why is that there??!). Wish all streets were so cute.

9. Wander by everywhere you want to work. In addition to providing some solid motivation, most of the buildings (Ronald Reagan!) that ought to be in question are lovely.

10. Walk. DC is a city of neighborhoods and townhouses and shops crammed in between – you miss it by taking the metro.


11. Creep. Creep so much. I wandered Georgetown hoping to see Maureen Dowd, who lives in one of JFK’s old bachelor pads (this eventually happened in an ENTIRELY different way – as in someone on our nonprofit’s board is her neighbor – but that’s a longer story). I got to be the mayor of the State Department on 4square for two days before someone who actually works there figured it out (this is basically the only thing 4square is good for). Eavesdrop on staffers at happy hours, deliberately leave for work early so you can pass Foreign Service employees walking from Foggy Bottom, smile at the attractive ones, go on runs by the Pentagon. This may be a tragic example of my poor taste and general nosiness, but I like important people who are good at their jobs and it’s exxciiiiittting with all the extra letters.

12. Become reacquainted with trees on Roosevelt Island. Real trails! Genuine shade! A statue of Theodore! I had never been so excited.

13. Arlington Cemetery. One way to grasp at immensity.

14. Visit the National Zoo. GIANT PANDAS! Giant pandas giant pandas giant pandas.

15. Go on lots of random dates, because during the summer this place is swarming with twenty-somethings in suits with interesting jobs, and if you’re like me and simply here for two months you never have to see them again. This is also the best way to eat in nice restaurants.

16. Bus to New York for a weekend. It’s twenty dollars one way; there is no excuse not to.

17. Listen to Secret Service agents having normal conversations. He was turned away from the crowded street outside the White House, speaking furtively into his walkie-talkie: “No, honey, the five grain bread.

18. Houstonians: keep quiet when locals complain about the heat and humidity, for they are naïve and know no better.

19. Browse Kramerbooks. 1) There is a bar in a bookstore, and that is great 2) They have an excellent selection of niche works likely of interest to anyone who would get a summer job in DC. There was an obscure development travelogue I had spent months passively searching for – it was sold out on Amazon and missing in every chain bookstore I visited. They not only had it, they had TEN copies and more by the same author. Fantastic selection of works in international development and counterterrorism and wine.

20. Watch a lot of West Wing. Be inspired by fictional retellings of things happening down the street. Shrug off cynicism, relish tiny victories.

21. Recognize obscure policy makers in your field of choice. Become momentarily star-struck. Get over it and introduce yourself if appropriate (Peter Hotez after a talk he gave about moving to Houston? Yes. Kal Penn looking scruffy outside the White House? Rajiv Shah hurrying home? No.)

22. Check out the White House protestors. Some of them are crazy, and some of them seem too sane to be spending their time where they are. My favorite was actually a counter-protest: two old men with “ARABS are people, too” written in incendiary red letters, standing next to your typical “kill the Muslims” stock. In any case, they will likely be more interesting than the fenced-off rose garden across the boulevard.

23. Get out of town. Unlike Texas (where three hours will take you from Houston to San Antonio, and perhaps 12 will allow for a state-wide crossing), here there are not quite so expansive stretches between places of note. Hiking in Great Falls, MD is accessible by public transportation, Charlottesville is two hours southwest, and Shenandoah NP is a scant 90 minutes away. I opted for the latter two – vineyards in CVille, Appalachian Trail runs and BEARS, OH MY! in the park.

Restaurants

24. Order a Rickey, DC’s official (yes!) cocktail. Preferably at The Passenger, as they managed to make one that landed in my top 10 list and the shadowy train-car atmosphere makes for a unique venue.

25. Founding Farmers. I can’t get enough of this place. Stuffed French toast, butternut squash ravioli, locally grown food, brilliant decorating and more LEED-certified than Duncan.

26. Peregrine Espresso in Eastern Market, right behind Capitol Hill, unequivocally provided the best latte I’ve ever had. There is and never will be a contest: I took one sip and realized I’d peaked.

27. Amsterdam Falafelshop on U-Street is open all of the hours you would like it to be, with a fantastical variety of toppings.

28. Julia’s Empanadas, anywhere. Size of your hand and warm and delicious. I got into an awful habit of running here for dinner, eating, and running back. There are worse zero-sum games.

29. Ben’s Chili Bowl. Classic, crowded drunk food. Veggie dogs! Veggie chili! Oh, the joy.

30. Crepes A Go Go, Dupont Circle. I wandered in randomly, mostly because of the similarity in name to my favorite Houston taco place, and then came back…and came back…and came back. Whatever they put in the batter kicks ass; going back to Coco’s will be a struggle.

31. Baked & Wired, Georgetown. Stop in post-shopping for…honestly, anything I’ve had there could be described as impossibly delicious. The menu changes based upon what they bake that day. One standout: an espresso brownie the size of my face, loaded with chunks of dark chocolate and made with still-detectable cream cheese.

32. Market Lunch, also in Eastern Market, provides a damn fantastic breakfast. A line out the door at 7:30 on a Saturday morning should speak for itself (but if it doesn’t, the buckwheat blueberry pancakes were killer).

And for the moment? I’m stuck in limbo – San Antonio – feeling homesick for both D.C. and Houston. One of those is going to come up much more quickly than the other!

Southern Efficiency, Northern Hospitality

D.C., day three

The new things I have encountered and accomplished during my first three days in DC can be best conveyed in list form:

  • 1 Biden Motorcade encounter in Dupont! It is a poorly-hidden secret that I wish Joe Biden were my drunk uncle, so you can imagine the excitement that ensued.
  • MANY fantastic coffee shops. Favorite thus far: my present haunt of SoHo Tea & Coffee, distributor of an indescribable blackberry mocha. This combination of flavors has entirely altered both the drink menu in my ideal version of heaven and my future plans for cocktail experimentation. This was accompanied by a bagel served with, get this, Axelrod Cream Cheese?! YES PLEASE. Port City Java was also a nice place to stop after a Sunday stroll through Eastern Market.
  • 2 catcalls yelled from cars?! I have dealt with the opposite, oddly enough, more frequently – this can be explained with the words “San Antonio road construction” – and in Houston, it’s mainly bored homeless dudes playing the “who can be more vulgar” game downtown. In any case, this is probably a natural result of walking much more. And I like that I can walk virtually anywhere here. Still wishing I had my (albeit critically damaged) car, mainly for the purpose of taking a weekend drive out to the Appalachian Trail or Shenadoah, but I’m becoming increasingly used to life as a permanent pedestrian.
  • Trader Joe’s. I will ammend my mental grocery store hierarchy to place this on par with Whole Foods but still, of course, below reigning king Central Market.
  • 2 hostels. My room at GW isn’t open until July 3rd, so I am crashing in the absolute sketchiest of ways imaginable until then. It’s a very, very strange experience full of Germans. From discussions with my friends who have stayed in hostels exclusively abroad, I get the feeling that these maintain the basic structure of simple and cramped living quarters while lacking any sort of sense of community. So it’s very hilariously American – we will sleep in the same room as strangers, but still refuse to make eye contact or say hello.
  • Visits to TWO universities I am glad I do not attend. However, I will say without hesitation that I relentlessly envy the opportunities Georgetown and GW students have to intern in DC during the school year, basically without competition. Can’t imagine how advantageous that is, experience-wise, especially since Rice basically offers lab or Rockets or nada.
  • 3 6-mile morning runs through and around the National Mall. This is undeniably my new favorite thing. Tourists think I live here, and I get to feel pretentious, and the scenery beats the outer loop any day. Also in my head this makes me feel constantly like a patriot and/or a badass.
  • D.C., day three

    Of Canyons and Cadillacs

    I’ll begin with a story:

    I like to drive fast, and for long distances, with purpose – generally to places where there isn’t much to stop for until the very end.  I have a car named Clyde (he is boring and old and white), and together we tackle Texas on a roughly bi-annual basis. The most recent adventure involved dropping a friend off at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, but was motivated primarily by finally getting a chance sample the margaritas at Blue Mesa Grill (note: worth it). Post-dinner, at roughly 9 pm, I came to two very serious realizations: I will likely not be in Texas after graduation, and I have not yet visited the Panhandle. Solution? Drive seven hours to Palo Duro Canyon, in the dead of night, to satiate my ridiculous drunk personality and complete the map of my home state. Events of note are as follows, times taken from texts:

    11:05 pm – I’m outside of Wichita Falls, and owls begin swooping across the road: at least five, massive things, figments of J.K. Rowling’s imagination rather than anything I would ever expect to witness. I swerve madly, thinking that I would be the worst goddamn Rice student in the world if I hit an owl while driving. Best: one was carrying my first in-person view of a wild 3-foot snake.

    2:23 am – Rainbow-variety of flashing lights in the distance illuminate what might be cornfields. They go and go and go and stop and suddenly the fields fade away to empty storefronts, lights still blazing in the distance, leaving my headlights for all other purposes useless. I blare the radio and bite my tongue hard, thinking I’m beginning to hallucinate (not out of the question – Critical Mass the night before, anyone?). But no – Quitaque, Texas, is actually where any potential alien invasion will begin. No David Duchovny sightings, to my dismay.

    5:45 am – Pull into a Starbucks in Amarillo (This is a real town! Not the ex-cowboy-turned-railway haven of my imagination, though there is a bit of that) and witness FAR too many hipsters. There’s no way, there must have been a convention – the man at the table next to me, all skinny jeans and Pitchfork, is certainly en-route to Austin. But the barista calls his name and chats about his dog. Madness.

    7:30 am – This absurdity:

         

    I found an abandoned bright-orange can and added something to the ten-car collection, one step closer to completing Texas Monthly’s bucket list.

    9 am – Make the short drive back to Palo Duro Canyon, endure the typical Memorial Day Weekend state park entry extravaganza, and set out on the Lighthouse Trail to a brisk 76 degrees. Straightforward, easy trail, but entirely distinct from anything I’ve done before – something that belongs in Arizona or Malawi, rather than a spot of rust on the sea of wheat. I’m in Birkenstocks like an idiot who didn’t plan to be here (surprise), but three miles from the trailhead I come across three figures straight out of a Cormac McCarthy book – old men with boots, horses, sun-worn skin who greet me with “how’d’you do” and a tip of the cowboy hat.

    I return to my car to be greeted with a heat index of 116, rest with the AC on for ten minutes, stand up, and promptly pass out. Not a joke. Ridiculous first-time occurrence. Awful. But whatever had been afflicting me (low blood pressure, my best bet) fades quickly and I begin the drive back to Houston.

    2 pm – And what a motherfucking drive it is. There is no way, none, that this wind and this landscape are real things, no way I’m still on earth. I’m surrounded by stripes: graying asphalt at the bottom, light yellow, and then sky. The only thing on the horizon? A few windmills, maybe, far in the distance, only if I’m not deluding myself. How can I tell? The sky is purple. I indulge my inner high school physics nerd by toying with my driving, seeing how long it takes me to drift across two lanes, trying to calculate wind speed, but mainly this is just terrifying.

    12:23 am – I’ve just finished getting lost in Ft. Worth and my phone is dead, I’m approaching my third day of very little sleep and my 18th hour of driving during that same time period. Fifty miles outside of that city, my least favorite thing happens: the check engine light comes on. Ten minutes later, I’m looking for somewhere decent to pull over when my car starts bucking, physically rattling beyond anything that should happen when you’re not on an angry horse – so I take the next exit and drift into a closed gas station and get out. Bars on the windows, closed liquor store nearby, the sketchiest set of cars I’ve seen in my life, and a skittish Dachshund in the parking lot. Panic panic panic panic panic. Like a freakshow, I circle the building, searching for somewhere to plug in my phone: I eventually pry open a rusted metal cabinet and unplug the “closed” sign.  And then I’m delirious and panicked and alone and terrified and I grab pepper spray from my car and literally cower, tethered to the aluminium wall and trying to stop hyperventilating long enough to place an intelligible call to AAA.  This is less than productive, as there will be a three hour wait. So I sit and panic some more until a homeless guy shows up and starts, pardon the stereotype, crazytalking at me and telling me I’m pretty. CUE: batshit insane bitch. Flee to my car, lock it, start it until he meanders off. Charge my phone for thirty more minutes until I realize the car was normal when I had trapped myself inside; decide to risk at least partially driving back (within the 100-mile tow circle, perhaps?), and crawl at 40 miles per hour back to Houston, radio crooning country music from the 90s all the while.

    This is a good example of things that I do. Likely this attempt at blogging will fall by the wayside, but ideally I’ll keep being interesting enough to have things to say.

    Of Canyons and Cadillacs