Big Bend National Park was never on my list of must-visit-before-you-die places. Not like the sexy parks, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Zion, Grand Canyon. But it should have been. It has everything—biological diversity, epic history, crossroads of cultures, jaw-dropping terrain. Sitting as it does on the US-Mexican border, it’s also a battlefield in the present war on immigration.
At sunset on a rocky promontory overlooking the Rio Grande, I realize I’m standing on small triangle of the park that juts into Mexico. To my left is the Boquillas River and Mexico, to my right the Rio Grande and Mexico, behind me US soil.
Across the Rio Grande Mexican men are blasting Mariachi from the radio of a pickup truck with its door ajar. Two beached canoes sit on the riverbank at an opening in the narrow swath of lush vegetation along the water. I am pretty sure these men cross the river regularly to check on their wares: small toys of beads and copper wire—roadrunners, cacti, scorpions—for sale along the trail with price tags from $6-$10. By each display lies a one-liter soda bottle, weighted with stones, bearing a message about the provenance of the crafts and dire need of the crafters. Payment works on the honor system. I see only small change in the bottles, but I know people buy the toys as souvenirs, in spite of warnings from the National Parks Service that this trade is illegal.
I meet a man on the trail who, like me, recently retired and is travelling solo. His girlfriend and grandchildren are back in Louisville because they can’t take the time off to wander with him. He tells me he is planning to stay in Big Bend for long enough to “do the whole park.” A lot of people use this expression, as if the park were a badge they planned to earn.
“I decided to come to Big Bend this year so I could see it before the wall gets built,” he tells me.
I sweep my hand around the vista. “Are you serious? How would you build a wall here?”
“Well, our president doesn’t give up. I just know it is going to get done.”
I wonder what he is smoking, but I promised myself I was going to listen, not argue, on this trip. So I said, “It’s probably not a good idea for strangers to talk about politics. What trails do you recommend?”
It’s mid-April and 102 degrees in the Chihuahuan Desert. I decide to wait until early morning to hike up Boquillas Canyon. In the morning heading up canyon, I see three burros grazing across the water on the Mexican side. On my way back, the burros are in my way on the US side, wet from swimming the river. I doubt they checked in with the Border Patrol.
Three times during my travels in south Texas, I am stopped by the Border Patrol at moveable immigration checkpoints. They ask my country of citizenship, and then they wave me on, but they photograph all the cars, and I suspect if I were brown, my experience would be different. It feels strange and invasive to be stopped for an identity check inside the borders of America.
Driving and walking along the wild US-Mexican border in the desiccating heat, the idea of a wall across this expanse and terrain seems like a ludicrous fantasy. The Orange One should have to walk up that promontory and explain how the concept “wall” is compatible with the reality of a 2000-mile wild desert border in a land teeming with living things to whom border is meaningless and possibly an existential threat.
Seeing the country
In Mesquite, TX, the Peace Church is across the street from Prosperity Bank. Peace and Prosperity all in one intersection.
In Dallas, a man in a repair company uniform is standing next to his company pick-up smoking a cigarette while meticulously cleaning a paperback-sized circuit board. Each time he cleans a part he blows on it ostensibly to remove the dust but practically depositing the tar and nicotine on the chips and wiring. Seems counterproductive.
In one stretch of Texas, I see a large white tank in a field made to look like a space ship, a pipeline under construction, an enormous buck swimming in a cow pond with the cows, armadillos, a tethered radar blimp, fauns, longhorn cattle, roadrunners, antelope, ranch gates with the coolest wrought iron artwork, a succession of roadside crosses, each more elaborate than the last, marking places where people have died in car accidents. Each day, I feel filled up with these impressions as they flash by, wanting to keep them but covering so much ground I can’t hold them all. If I stopped to take pictures I would never get to California.
One theory of this trip was to experience the United States contiguously. In all my previous travels, I’ve dropped into new places, usually by air, explored, and transported out—slower than the Star Trek transporter, but just oblivious to the places in between. On this trip, I have gotten to see how one ecosystem, one culture, one terrain unfolds into another. Seeing the country through the car windshield still feels like watching a movie, but it is a movie with one very long, continuous, real-time dolly shot.
I happened to be listening to Rebecca Solnit’s book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking as I arrive in Santa Fe. She writes about walking as religious pilgrimage. Coming into the town of Española on US 84, I pass hundreds of pilgrims walking on the highway in the annual pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayo, north of Santa Fe. Police patrols, signage, closed lanes and cordons are set up to protect the walkers. The sun is brutal but the temperature at 6000 feet is mild. Some walkers have come from Albuquerque (88 miles) and beyond, to eat dirt at the shrine and be healed. Walking as hope. Walking as exercise for the spirit. I’m not seeking miracles, but my daily walks still feel like spiritual exercise.
Glamping in Marfa
On my way north from Big Bend, I stopped for a night of glamping (portmanteau of “glamorous” and “camping”) in the little big town of Marfa, Texas. Marfa was already pretty famous as the setting for old westerns, including High Lonesome and Giant, and then in 1971, the Minimalist artist Donald Judd moved there, securing the town’s place as a center for arts and culture. Since then, the movie industry has boomed. There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men filmed there, and the TV adaption of the novel I Love Dick was reset there. Sixty Minutes dubbed it the “Capital of Quirkiness.”
Downtown today is a weird mix of the truly wealthy, the young and hip, and RV-driving middle-aged tourists gawking at the wealthy, the hip, and the artists. At a downtown restaurant bar, I sit next to a young woman from Austin who says Marfa makes her comfortable because no one stares at her tats and piercings. I thought those trends had become commonplace, but I guess that’s because I live in Burlington. On the street I notice a middle-aged couple in matching American flag windbreakers climbing aboard their RV. I also spotted a couple of pairs of Lucchese black crocodile cowboy boots (MSRP $995), though not on the RVers.
I check into El Cosmico, a funky encampment of luxury teepees, platform tents, and remodeled travel trailers. You can pitch your own tent there for $10, but after a few days of roughing it in the desert, I opt to occupy one of theirs at a somewhat steeper price that proves to be worth a splurge. “Delicious” is the only word to describe the semi-outdoor shower and goose down comforter on the queen bed in the heated, well-lit platform tent. The wind was blowing at least 20 knots, and the canvas flapped all night like sails, but in my cocoon, I slept deeply dreaming of being on a sailboat.
The fun of Marfa doesn’t stop until way out town. Go west on 98 and you come first to this Giant shrine…
and then this self-parody of Marfa’s gentrified quirkiness, the Prada “store.”
Like Burning Man, Marfa is no longer a secret hipster destination, but the big desert sky, the pure light, the iconic Western landscape, and the people who find fellowship there all endure, even if the club isn’t so exclusive anymore.