Sometimes it is a muddy stream running between two identical shores. At others it resembles a prison, with a thirty-foot high razor wired fence patrolled by armed guards. I’m talking about the four hundred miles of border between Mexico and the United States from El Paso to the Big Bend. It’s a dry, brown, thinly populated land, no country for old men. And the current political climate has turned it into a battle zone that pits illegal immigrants against the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. On a recent trip to the border we found ourselves near combatants from both sides, some more visible than others.
El Paso, once a thriving trans-national city, looks dystopian, its downtown filled with abandoned buildings and feral cats. Motor traffic, mostly sixteen-wheeled trucks, backs up for miles on the U.S. side of the international bridge. Pedestrians crossing into Mexico have dwindled to a trickle, deterred by the high level of violence now endemic in Juarez and the requirement that U.S. citizens present a valid passport to reenter their country. Diminution of the counter flow has withered El Paso’s historic business district.
In March, before the annual rains, the Rio Grande ceases to exist in El Paso. The border there becomes the midpoint of a concrete channel running northwest to southeast. East of the border lie the four lanes of Highway 85, the rails of Union Pacific, a patrol road and the wire fence. Even if an intrepid visitor were to cross the highway, the tracks and the patrol road, uniformed agents would turn them back before they reached the fence. Photographs are also discouraged.
South of El Paso the fence ends and, fed by the Rio San Carlos and the Rio Conchos, the river resumes. From a high vantage near the highway we saw canoers and kayakers launching from the United States and paddling downstream with varying success. We also encountered a scientist involved in a geological survey who explained that despite popular opinion, the Rio Grande, while polluted, is far from dead. In fact several species of fish and their food sources ply the river year around.
The Customs and Border Protection agency keeps a pretty high profile in the area. Their vehicles, at least the new ones, are adorned with a green stripe on their white body paint. I needed some help in appreciating the “border” symbolism of the color combination. Driving through the region, we encountered rolling road blocks where agents looked into our vehicle and asked “U.S. citizens?” Our looks and our accents got us through without incident. Not everyone is so entitled.
The Big Bend refers to the curve that the Rio Grande makes, diverting its bed northward, before resuming its predominantly south eastern flow. The National Park preserves some spectacular country, filled with wildlife and remarkably empty of people. My wife and I traveled with friends who are keen birders, people who sometimes talk of “life birds” and the neck feathers of ladder- backed woodpeckers. Even though March is early for the prime migration season, the park lies at the northern edge of many birds’ natural range which makes it a birding paradise. Our friends’ enthusiasm was infectious, by the way, and even though we remained satisfied with our rudimentary skills, we’ve come to appreciate the value of a spotting scope and dropped some pretty serious change on binoculars.