I exited a Texas drug study then made way for the Mexican border. I headed to Big Bend, an eight hundred thousand acre cut of desert straddling two countries. I drove shirtless as the heat was immense. I rolled windows and let a current pass over my bare, sunburnt body. I chugged water but with no AC it was like trying to sop the ocean with a waffle. Sweat soaked through me to the seat. It was a hundred outside and even warmer in my car, its interior reeking of shit soaked roadkill. It only got hotter as the hours passed on. I was headed for the border.
Texas emptied out as I shot further from its big cities. There were endless miles of nothing. Just desert. Scrub brush lined either side of the highway, beyond that low trees or barren land. There was the occasional town of crumbling one story cement buildings. They’d pass in a minute then bring me back to nothing. I passed fields of wheat picked clean by combines. This was odd as I was raised on a farm just shy of Canada. Our harvest was still three months away. At the bottom of the country things operate on their own time.
Border Patrol built gravel paths on either side of the highway. Their SUVs parked on high points or dragged chains and tires to rake the road. I passed a checkpoint in deep Texas where a dog sniffed my car. They asked if I was American. I drove on, still spiraling to the Mexican border. I drove past another checkpoint as I neared the park. It would only inspect me on the way out. This land once belonged to Natives but settlers and missionaries filled it like rats on a rabbit. In time the Americans claimed the carcass as their own. Now they sealed it off from others. I was here to enjoy those spoils so who was I to criticize.
In the distance I spotted the Chisos Mountains rising from nothing. I’m used to the rolling slopes and foothills of Northwest ranges so this took me by surprise. The muted landscape of the Chihuahua Desert went from nada to towering bursts of rock spotting the horizon like spikes on a heart chart. I’d spent little time in desert regions and didn’t expect this. The mountains were bare, a messy mix of red, gray, and brown. Below them lay sprawling flatlands of parched flora — grass, brush, and the occasional cluster of cactus. Here the sun and climate don’t so much bring life as they sap it. Only a hardscrabble, bare bones essence remains. It sat in contrast to the lush, moss covered mountains I’ve hiked so many times in Oregon. This land left me in awe.
I snagged a campsite then erected the tent I’d live in as I traversed the Southwest and Pacific Coast of America. Even with shade beneath thin trees all I did was sweat. There were no showers due to limited water so it’d be baby wipes for scrubbing my armpits and asshole. This was the start of a month long road trip to be spent in camps, my car, forests, and along the ocean. I’d be dirty and beat down for a long time so no shower was no biggie. After camp was ready I got in my car and went for a short hike through Boquillas Canyon.
I started out hiking upward which led to a vista. I could see the rocky foothills and distant mountains. Before them lay a little river snaking through low trees. I realized this was the Rio Grande, a watery border separating America and Mexico. It was so small, calm, and insignificant in the broad views before me. But I knew that river swallowed countless people as they tried crossing to find a better life. The little river, one that I could paddle in a minute, was the only thing telling me that I was standing on the edge of two worlds. At times the river was hidden and I couldn’t decipher which country I was looking at. It seemed silly, this invented line, a river formed by nature but enforced by man.
The canyon was breathtaking. Vertical rock walls formed on either side of the river. They seemed to rise high as towers, shadowing the Rio Grande, leaving you small in their enormity. The distance between walls on either side of the border looked little more than a football field. I could’ve swung a gulf ball into Mexico. These close quarters caused me to tilt my head as I did my best to take it in. There were small stones along the water and solo birds circling overhead. Again I was amazed at this terrain unknown to me. I thought I’d seen so much of the country but this canyon ground me down to the state of awe I experienced when I first started traveling. I walked the canyon floor for an hour, peering at little caves in the walls, wondering just who or what lived in there.
As I walked out I passed a makeshift display of handcrafted figurines formed from beads. They simulated roosters, plants, and poisonous bugs. The work was colorful, intricate, beautiful. The figures stood out from the ashen landscape around them. Next to them sat a milk jug sawed in half. A marker scrawl explained that all monies went to the school across the border. I spotted a canoe on the Mexican side and wondered if each night they risked their freedom to collect meager amounts from the jug. It only held change. Change that anyone could nab if they wanted. There was no one to stop them. Just the note reminding you that this was something real, a little hand reaching out to the world for help.
That night I went to the hot springs near my campground. The warm water was contained by a stone foundation, these open walls just a few feet above the Rio. The water was almost too warm, the bottom of the springs slick with moss on rock. I poured a Four Loko and sipped it as I warmed in the waters. There were only a few people in the springs, a few more out swimming the river. The river swimmers, both white and Latino, joked incessantly about Trump’s wall. The gist was to swim the water now as one day it may be hidden by another border built by man. A dude goofily boasted that he’d swum a record setting four illegal border crossings that day. If he snagged four I could manage one.
I stepped down the springs’ foundation to the Rio. I was surprised at its warmth — gentle tub temperatures. The river rose to my waist but its current held immense power. The crossing was no more than forty steps but it took strength to do it. I walked the water until the current was too strong then swam the rest. The river grew shallow and soon I was walking onto the muddy shores of Mexico. It was my first time in this country. I looked back at the hot springs, the swimmers. No one noticed what I’d done. In this little area it meant nothing. The sun set as dusk took the mantle. I walked barefoot on the shore, sinking into mud, slinking over rocks. It only reinforced how imaginary this border was. It reminded me of the muddy river shore I grew up on in North Dakota. That river forms the border with Minnesota. The river here and the separation it implied was about as meaningful as the split between my home state and its neighbor. After a few minutes I swam back to America, to the warm waters of the spring.
People filtered in and out as night took hold. The sky was black but spackled with little lights, these stars bright and full of power. I grew up on a farm in the country, far from light pollution. Even still, home couldn’t compete with Big Bend. This area had the darkest skies in all of mainland America. The Milky Way spread over me like a belt of incandescent dust. In the thick canvas of black a star popped across the sky like fresh champagne. The scene enveloped my being as I took in its beauty. Here I was on an international border, soaking in warm waters, sipping liquids that warmed me. Some party people showed up and gave me a beer. I sipped it down then made way to camp. I had a huge hike the next day and needed rest.
The next morning I woke at six to hike the South Rim, Texas’ most lauded trail. It’s a grueling route through mountains both dry and jagged. For miles it trudges upward ’til you reach a vast unbroken view of foothills that stretch to the horizon. From there it winds back down to the valley floor, stretching over thirteen miles in total. I was alone for large chunks of the hike, only encountering groups as I wound down the mountain come mid afternoon. The temperatures were near record highs, well into the 90s but threatening to climb higher. Before that the morning was cool, the rising sun glinting over a red hued mountain opposite the way I was heading.
That morning I walked the dirt path, one enclosed by scrub but also offering peeks of the jagged Chisos. The beaten trail circles the high mountains of this range. Soon the day warmed but still I marched on. After hours of powering upward I was there: the South Rim. It holds a high abutment that juts out over the world. From there you inhale the valley of barren hills, a beautiful slice of endless desert. The hills fade off to the horizon, cloaked in blue haze. After this apex of experience I was thankful to be winding back down to the valley floor. By the end my feet looked like surgery footage. I rested at camp then returned to the hot springs to soak.
The vibe this night was different. I arrived after dark and missed the sunset. A redneck family showed up and sprawled out. They were ignorant of the solemn peace this place offered. I can be a dumb drunk but as they drank beer and yammered without regard for others it took away the serene. The mother of this redneck clan forced her kids to swim the river. As her little boy cried to get out she swilled her beer and told him to stay put. I dipped in my cups and in time they left.
I propped myself on a stone edge nearest the water to stare at stars. I hit my whiskey hard and once more the scene turned magical. Stars blotted by booze shot across the sky. A group of people my age showed up to the tub. Some swam and others soaked. They sipped their drinks and chatted with each other. I’d be alone the entire month of my trip, the same as I’d been the previous three in other parts of Texas. I held steady in my spot, my communique with the stars. A cute girl broke free from her friends and sat beside me.
She said sorry for her group being so loud and drunk. She hadn’t encountered the rednecks from earlier. I told her it was cool, we were all here to have fun. She scooted close and we talked about the stars, their power and how many shot across the sky that night. We compared what we’d done that day, me the South Rim, her a different hike that started with a bear sighting. I knew neither of us would to take the step to make this happen but it was nice. We were both leaving the next morning, her for work, me for my travels. I told her how I was on something of a never ending road trip, one that may take years to complete.
She came from Dallas so I asked if she’d been to Big Bend before. She said she almost never does stuff like this. How work is a thief that takes her time. Big Bend was her weekend escape. Now after hiking mountains she had to rush back to sit in an office. I said I’m sorry, that I forget most people live in the real world. That I’m lucky I don’t have to. She said it was good to know there are people doing this kind of stuff, even if it meant sleeping in my car and eating food from dumpsters.
A friend of hers joined us and asked what I was doing the next day. I hoped to hike the highest mountain in Texas but my feet were torn to pieces. The next day I learned that mountain was on fire. My fucked up feet were thankful. The girl gave a goodbye hug then headed back to camp. Soon I did the same. I left the next day for my on-fire mountain, passing a border checkpoint as I exited Big Bend. An agent walked out his little station to the pullover, yawning on approach. I was still inching to a stop when he asked if I was American. I said yeah and rolled on, ever thankful that fate didn’t birth me south of the border.