Day 2, mid-morning, December 2016 — The deep canyon walls rise steadily above the muddy flow of the Rio Grande, downstream of Big Bend National Park, along the Wild & Scenic stretch of river known as the Lower Canyons. Limestone walls cant up 1,500 feet above some of the loneliest river miles on the continent. Locals consider it the gem of floats. It has been on our bucket list for years. Now we ride the sinuous filaments in our red, 25-year-old tandem canoe, just the two of us in the middle of harsh aridity and haunting beauty as spacious as a small country.
We have come here to escape the Christmas empty nest. Rather than sitting around looking at the decorated tree and pining away for family, we chose a week on the Rio, deep in magical desert, under some of the darkest skies in North America, clasped in soaring canyon, hot spring, tributary hike, canyon wren, and solitude.
Yeah, it sounded like a better Plan B to us, too.
We have also come because of the looming atrocity that might well occur down here under the Trump reign. Who knows what stupid shenanigans will take place along this fraught and contentious border country full of history, skirmish, war, culture clash, and complication that Trump thinks a wall will take care of. A big, beautiful wall, he says, that Mexico will pay for.
That prospect – what it might mean, what I think of it, what it is about a wall, anyway – is always in the background as we uncoil the bends of quiet river. The Rio Grande, nearing its end in the Gulf, sliding away from that long and tortured course it makes from the first snowmelt tendrils in the high country of southern Colorado, through farm fields and wildlife refuge, pounding down the Taos Box, sliding under the volcanic cliffs of Bandelier. Dammed and diverted and milked all the way. Through bosque and irrigation ditch and municipal onslaught, until it goes dry around El Paso, turned into a concrete border ditch full of sand and tumbleweed and barbed wire and cross-cultural trash.
It is Mexican water that revives it down here, mostly water from the Rio Conchos, flowing north, revitalizing the channel, filling the canyons with ripple and roar, giving life again. A dirt-rich current that scribes the border, supports turtles and peregrine falcons and catfish and tiny border communities and cattle ranches.
My mental wandering is shattered by a loud splash. A longhorn steer careens off of the Texas riverbank, into the current, and high-steps across a shallow crossing to Mexico, where he turns defiantly, shakes spray in a shower of sun-crystals, and trots away south. It doesn’t look like his first international junket.
It makes me think of the great-blue heron we’ve been chasing all morning, alternately landing in Mexico and Texas, paying no heed to political nonsense. It makes me think of us, for that matter. We think nothing of landing in Mexico, camping there if the site is preferable, hiking up a side canyon, dipping in a hot spring, gathering drinking water at a seep. We have no passports.
I do wonder how a local might feel about a gringo acting so free to visit, given the recent political hyperbole. Would I blame him or her for chasing me out, reading me the riot act, making me uncomfortable? No I would not. In their shoes, I’d probably do the same. It doesn’t come up, because we never see anyone, on either side of the river, or on the river. Not one human being in a week. Sweet, right?
Not long ago local residents on both sides of the border felt just about as free as the longhorn and heron. Before 9-11 people came and went. People in tiny hamlets like Santa Elena and Boquillas and La Linda picked up supplies in Terlingua and Study Butte. It was far easier than making their way to the nearest communities in Mexico via hours-long odysseys on terrible 4-wheel drive tracks. Some towns still have cemeteries on the Texas side, remnants of centuries-deep realignments.
American tourists could whistle up a boat from Mexico and ride across for an authentic meal and a visit to a quaint central plaza. No big deal. No i.d. required.
Sure there was some smuggling going on, an occasional illegal crossing, some nefarious characters with drugs, a bit of violence once in a decade. Mostly, though, it has been, for generations, about people getting by, making a simple life, picking up necessities, selling wares, honoring the dead, accepting differences and understanding commonalities, figuring out how to co-exist.
All that changed with 9-11, with Homeland Security, and now, with the Trump foolishness. Mind you, I feel comfortable slinging a little mud, because without exception, every single person I ask on our journey – from shuttle driver to ranch worker, from park employee to waitress to hotel owner – thinks the wall is a really stupid idea. Many admitted to voting for Trump, but added that the wall should never happen. They waved a hand dismissively at the thought, the way Trump supporters wave hands dismissively over many things he says.
I very much hope they are right.
A wall is an affront. It says, in confrontational terms, stay out or stay in. I know how I feel at the entrance to a gated community. Not welcome, is how I feel. We don’t want you, or your kind, in here. To say nothing of how Berliners felt about their wall, or how Syrian refugees feel about the razor wire holding them back from whatever dreams they might aspire to, and holding them fast in the grip of whatever terrifying desperation drove them there.
Yes, there are boundaries that serve a purpose. As Frost said, ‘good fences make good neighbors’. And yes, wildlife pays attention to territory from time to time, defends it, marks it, patrols it. But there is an essential difference when Trump talks about his wall, because it’s clear that this is something entirely removed from farmers making their pastures clear, or an Arctic tern defending a nesting ground to ensure the survival of its young. It is judgmental. It says we are better than you, more entitled, and that we fear you.
Don’t get me started on the complications involved in building this stupid barrier, or the short-sighted, myopic cluelessness of it. Minor matters like the logistics of actually constructing a 2,000-mile, impenetrable wall along a border as environmentally intimidating as ours with Mexico. Or the mind-boggling cost of such a project and the very good possibility that it won’t work anyway. Then there are the thorns of history that still fester centuries later along that border. And don’t forget the native peoples’ claims to land and culture that predates our occupation. If we really want to talk about entitlement, let’s talk to some Apache.
But those are the details, gnarly as they are, the nuts and bolts of it. We are speaking philosophically here.
The essence of Trump’s wall is to stand as an affront. It is precisely that affront he intends. It says stay out, we don’t like you or want you. A statement made of concrete and wire and guards and drones. To hell with them. They are not us, they don’t belong. They are, if you believe the rhetoric, the criminals, the rapists, the usurpers, the other. They are to be feared.
Festering away at the heart of it is that fear. We fear for our jobs, we fear for our way of life, we fear change, we fear for our control of the situation. So we make these neighbors a threat, innately different and inferior. The other.
I remember talking to an old friend some years back. He was a veteran of World War II. He had thought some about this ‘othering’ business. He said to me that nationalism was the root of a great deal of evil.
Sure, he said, it’s fine to cheer your country on at the Olympics or feel pride in national distinction, but taken too far, it’s a slippery slope into an abyss of prejudice and conflict rife with really dark repetitions of history, periods we’d all rather forget. Periods we feel shame and remorse about in hindsight.
And that’s where we stand today, in the process of confronting just that sort of exclusionary nationalism, symbolized oh so clearly by the ludicrous, impossible, and all too real 2,000-mile wall no one thinks will actually get built but which also empowered Donald Trump’s election.
The specter of it forms the backdrop for our lovely holiday journey. It shadows all the spectacular side canyons we walk up, all the rapids we run, all the springs we drink from, sours the company of all the wildlife we see going back and forth. Hour after hour, day on day, our red canoe rides the currents of water eddying back and forth between arbitrary borders on a map. Mile after mile we marvel at the true beauty of canyon walls rising sheer out of the river – intimidating, harsh, craggy, lovely walls, courtesy of Mother Nature.
The longer we are in the grasp of that relentless downhill momentum, under the blue dome of winter sky, in the cool shade of looming cliff, in the company of life that never entertains nationalist seduction, the less I feel a part of the recent American enterprise, this vote that just took place, these sentiments shouted in angry arenas. In some fundamental way, I truly can’t fathom that it happened.
At the take-out, a quiet dirt road without a marker, 80 miles and a week downstream of our put-in, I take a long look back into the ragged, heart-stopping emptiness. I whisper a fervent wish with my children in mind, and then I bend to the chore of packing things up.
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