categories: Cocktail Hour
In March of 2006 I gave a talk and reading at the University of North Texas, which is in Denton, an agreeable prairie city north of Dallas. A week later I attended the AWP conference in Austin, a lot of fun—Gessner and I were on a panel together about science writing, I think it was. In between I drove down to the Aransas National Wildlife Preserve north of Corpus Christie and about wore out my binoculars on all the unfamiliar bird species I was spotting, a great time of year to be there, hot and dry and migrations in progress. From Aransas I had a look at Corpus Christie and all the people driving on the tar-stained beach at Padre Island, then down to Brownsville, the very southern tip of the state, tropical characteristics, where I found the mouth of the Rio Grande (and many birds I hadn’t seen since a trip to Costa Rica). I’d taken a lot of interest in the Rio Grande over the years, had swum and boated in it from its headwaters in Colorado, into New Mexico, and from El Paso to Boquillas in Texas, but never further east, and never this far.
In subsequent days I headed upriver, stopping at a number of town and state parks on the river looking for birds and snakes, and finally to the incredible Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. I walked and birded for several hours (chacalacas, curved-billed thrashers, white-eyed vireos, wonderful), made my way down to the river, where I spotted all three of our U.S. kingfishers—green, belted, and ringed. The green was tiny and gorgeous, the belted was as big as some of the kookaburras I’d seen in Australia. All three were perched in trees in Mexico, fun to contemplate the nature of a border—nothing birds care about. The path hugged the river, deeper and deeper into the thorny habitat. I was hot and wanted to swim, finally found a place I could climb down. There, I realized a kind of clothing station had been set up—nice, ironed shirts and pants on hangers on a branch pulled horizontal. Across the water, more clothes, less dressy but neatly stored. You could swim over and get dressed for work, head on into town.
That was the extent of the threat as I saw it, and though it gave me a creepy feeling (was I being watched? Did my binocs make me look official and therefore threatening in my own way? Was robbery common?), I kept up my birdwatching.
126 species for the single day!
The Santa Ana reservation along with quite a few others developed over thirty and forty years by painstaking political and financial increments, are threatened by the absurd border fence, hundreds of millions of dollars spent on hundreds of miles of fence designed to keep out a small number of people, at least in Texas, a fence sure to be circumvented in a thousand ways, a fence sure to be abandoned before long, its work of habitat destruction and ecological disruption lingering long past the current political winds that continue to whip up fear and then stupid immigration policies. But there’s money to be made. Boeing is one of the companies involved in building the thing, for example. And of course Halliburton, king of the fear industry. In Texas, the fence has been built in fits and starts, happily has stalled for now, crossing private land, wrecking access to the river, cutting off parks, cutting off driveways, cutting off whole neighborhoods. Except where the powerful live, and except where’s there’s a fancy golf course—the plutocrats must play through!
I went back to Texas in 2007, made a terrific driving trip with new friends to Big Bend National Park. I’d visited several times before, most recently in the spring of 2000. The Rio Grande courses the border a deep, silty green, and isn’t much of a barrier at all, certainly not the mighty, uncrossable waterway I’d called up in my imagination. It’s no bigger, in fact, than the Sandy River here in Farmington, Maine, easy to skip a stone across, easier to swim (or even wade, depending on rainfall and irrigation depletion). On previous trips I’d crossed repeatedly, set foot in the Chihuahuan Desert, wonderful, hundreds of miles of uninhabited and unfriendly landscape before you reached any cities of note.
My favorite activity in earlier visits was a walk down a donkey path to the river crossing at Santa Elena, a tiny town in the far north of the Chihuahuan dessert, inaccessible from the south, a farming cooperative of some 240 souls, dependent on at least a little tourist traffic, though it was not a sanctioned port of entry to or from the U.S.A. Back in 2000, the ranger at the park entrance had told me about the place, just as she told everyone: “Don’t miss it.” And she’d told me how to proceed. In other words, trips to Mexico were unofficially condoned, no border stations, no guards, no worries.
So there I went. On a hot, hot afternoon I waved and shouted, and pretty soon a cheerful older gentleman in a straw cowboy hat came to get me in a hand-built wooden rowboat. The fee, round-trip, was two dollars. At the southern bank, little boys raced to greet me, offering up small treasures; I still prize a Comanche arrowhead I bought for twenty-five cents, also a homely geode with a hole in it, a kind of natural ocarina. The boys laughed and danced alongside as I tootled on the thing and made my way up the muddy path to the main street—the only street—two small churches, an eccentric adobe museum, and a school complete with a colorful history mural painted on the front wall. No electrical wires, few vehicles, a kicked dog or two, fields of squash and corn and tomatoes.
But the chief attraction was the restaurants, four or more of them, rustic places ranging from a sort of soda fountain to a taqueiria to a family-style place with handwritten menus and a wood-burning cookstove. Not a soul spoke English. I hadn’t apprendo-ed much Espanol yet, but managed to order the best mole chicken I’ve ever eaten, laid over blazingly hot handmade tamales by a pretty young woman in kerchief and petticoats, served by the boss, an imposing Senora dressed to the nines in serape cloth and polished button-shoes. Children watched me eat each bite. A young man still in mule-driving clothes and field soil rushed in, played his guitar very well, sang about a dove, one of the words I know. I gave him fifty cents and he returned a quarter, only accepted it back after he’d played another song, about his heart, another of my Spanish words. The children laughed when the hot green chilies in a side of beans made me cry. The musician laughed, the Senora laughed, I laughed: it was a peak experience, a great afternoon.
Fast forward to 2007. I wanted to show my friends the beautiful town, get a great lunch. We even skimped on breakfast to assure strong appetites. I remembered the turnoff, a dirt road into the thorn scrub (my first painted bunting perched thereon!). A little ways in toward the river, the gate was closed. There’d been a sign on it, but it had been neatly pulled off—just the bolts and scraps of cast aluminum remained. No words, no warnings. I parked my rental vehicle and we walked in about a half-mile till we found the little parking area I remembered. It looked eerily unused, but was clean and un-mussed. The gateway sign was still in place, torch-cut steel hanging by chains from the high log lintel of the gate: Bienvenidos Sta. Elena, also a US Parks Service sign explaining that park visitors could cross for lunch but not return with curios.
My confidence returned.
A hot quarter mile more with frequent stops for bird and javelina sightings and for plant identifications brought us through mud and donkey tracks to the end of the line. The road no longer seemed to make it to the river. I said, “Trust me,” and we beat our way through bamboo-like grasses and alders to the banks of the Rio Grande, batting mosquitoes all the way. You could see where the old boatman once waited, where the path had risen from the water. But all that was gone, a pair of big mules lolling instead. “Halloo,” I yelled. And “Hola.” And nothing. The church at the top of the incline was boarded up. The homesteads looked abandoned. No laundry on lines, no kids to greet us, no singing. No sign of anyone.
Back at my rental car, a park ranger waited. I hiked right up to his window. “No more crossing to Santa Elena?”
Voice shaking, hands shaking, heavy .45 in his lap, he replied, “Please take a step back, sir. Please take one more step back. Your friends, hands on heads. Do you have any weapons in the car?”
“Weapons? We were just going to get lunch.”
“I.D., please. Each of you. Collect them, sir. Put them in my hand.”
I did as he asked, trying not to smirk. I’m not exactly Steven Seagal or Antonio Banderas, and my hair was wild all over my head, dust all over my legs, my shorts bunched up, my binocs resting on my belly. My companions were grad students, slender and slightly geeky, also dressed for the heat, tie-dyed t-shirts, flip-flops.
“Back in your vehicle.”
“Sir it’s too hot in there.”
“Back in your vehicle. Use the AC.”
“We just wanted to get lunch,” I repeated.
“Back in your vehicle. We have to wait for border patrol. One at a time, in the vehicle.”
Nice that he’d taken our word about weapons. It was just a rental. But it did have Sirius Radio. We started it up and put on the AC and the Sirius reggae loud and ate chips and salsa, starved for the lunch we’d not had, waited for the ranger to run our licenses. After a very, very long half hour, the car hot despite the AC, the engine running red-zone hot, he was back, a softer look on his face. “Border Patrol says you may go. They can’t find us, but I guess your IDs checked clear. I don’t know how you could possibly think you were going to get lunch down there.”
“I’ve had lunch in Santa Elena several times in years past.”
“You could miss a meal or two.”
“You’re adding iIsult to injury, sir. So we’ll be on our way? You’re through with your major bust?”
He softened further, good. “It’s just that no one parks here,” he said. “And this is a rental vehicle. And it wouldn’t be unheard-of for someone to leave a car for an amigo across the border, you know.” Finally, he smiled, acknowledging a hint of absurdity. He poked my arm comradely, said, “And then you three come out of the scrub, and you’re kinda kooky looking.”
“Well, not normal, anyway.”
“We just wanted lunch, okay? What’s more normal than lunch?”
“Okay. I’ve been here ten years,” he said. “I used to get lunch at Santa Elena every couple days. That place with the picnic tables? Wasn’t it great? Isn’t it a shame?”
“Total shame,” I said, “Why the change? What happened?”
“9/11,” he said.
“Are we worried about Al Qaeda in Mexico?”
“We’re worried about everything, I guess.”
A little later at the hot springs downstream, a fellow selling fluorite crystals and God’s-eyes and kid-carved walking sticks called across. “Buy,” he said.
Such commerce is illegal on both sides, always was.
I shook my head no.
He looked sorrowful, looked away, squatted by his meager wares under his tent of reeds. I watched over there as we swam, no one with him, no threat in sight, no obvious weapons, just a donkey grazing in the reeds behind him. I bid the grad students keep an eye on me and swam over with a ten-dollar bill, bought a pair of beautiful, deep blue crystals we’d seen for sale in the park store for $100 each. He liked the bill all right, folded it four times, tucked it in his blouse. “Hombre, please,” he said, American-sounding English. “I used to work in the park, he said. “I took care of the roads on the truck crew. Many of us worked in the park from here. Now, it’s nothing. Do you have any food? Come back tomorrow with food? A banana, a tortilla, comidas? Please. Food for these crystals.”