DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
Chapter 18: borderlands and
Against the rising sun a horseman crosses the Rio Grande from Mexico to Texas, the river like a sheet of fire under the horse's belly and the hatted man riding dark and straight. The horse clambers the bank and disappears. They are going to the Trading Post, I think. Where else is there to go?
A battered metal rowboat comes to the sand beach under the bank, the boatman in a rough workshirt shipping his oars and running the port side on the sand. A woman and her two daughters, all in their best clothes -- white and blue and red and lace, neat white shoes -- get in and are ferried across. I have the idea that they are going to visit Grandma in the Mexican village on the other side.
To say that the border is porous here is an understatement, and is close to unimportant. This borderland is a place unto itself.
Time was, this was a dangerous place to be. By the early 1700s -- once they were equipped with stolen horses -- the Mescalero Apaches drove out the indigenous tribes, tribes who had been living here who knows how long. The horse was the key to this country. A hundred years later, mounted Comanches gave the Apaches hell. When Texas was "annexed" by the United States in 1845, a string of forts sprang up, and the U.S. military -- also a-horseback -- gave the Comanches hell. The border was as unenforceable then as now, leaky as the dickens, and it went smack-dab through fluctuating tribal claims, lending the Indian wars here the aura of a game. During the Civil War the cavalry had other things to do and Mexican bandits attacked the ranches and border towns, and this went on for quite a while, no one in Washington taking West Texas too much to heart; so Texas Rangers and their horses took the heat.
After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Pancho Villa's gangs made
"border incidents" pretty much at will, raiding ranches and ranchos
interchangeably; these are the moustachioed gents in big hats and
leather chaps, chests criss-crossed with bandoliers of ammo (there
are postcards of old photos in the Trading Post that show exactly
this; victorious banditos lined up for some gutsy photographer, he'd
set them up, some kneeling and others standing, all bristling with
guns) and it wasn't till the 1920s that this era came to an end. A kind of end. Prohibition sent booze and guns flowing back and forth across
the river, and the smuggling business hasn't stopped to this day, can't
have, really, in spite of what the locals say.
Nowadays there doesn't seem to be too much of interest either way, other than the Trading Post or Grandma's house or the odd cantina. Serious wetbacks or bigtime smugglers wouldn't choose this as a crossing place, this has been explained to me: strangers in town are too visible in these here parts and it's a long four hundred miles up across the desert to El Paso, the closest place for illegal employment or markets for smuggled goods or places to hide. Here Mexico is mostly the place to go for lunch and the U.S.A. is the place to buy burro oats. These are still two outbacks lying side by side along the Big Bend of the Rio Grande, which is not grand now, in wintertime, and no more trouble to cross than a wide road.
The pale silt-dust of the river blows into dunes between the battered shrubs of the floodplain. A roadrunner comes to drink, pauses at the bank, and stretches one foot and the opposing wing in the sun.
The Lajitas Trading Post has an American flag flapping from a pole over a pen of goats, so you know where you are. You can smell goat when you come to the door, male goat in particular, Clay Henry the Beer Drinking Goat to be exact. He's the claim to fame of the place (there are posters and T-shirts of him for sale inside), and there's a cooler in there half full of Lone Star and Bud, for customers, of course, but I'm reminded of the quarter-in-the-slot turn-the-toggle pellet dispensers in children's zoos. The female goats like beer, too; they'll climb the fence when they see you've got a can in your hand and look meaningful looks from their gilded slit-eyes, but you have to hold it up for them to drink. Clay Henry will take the whole thing from your hand, gently, adjust it against the ground until he's got the working end firmly in his teeth, then tip his head back and let it all pour down. He's out there surrounded by empties, their colors neatly echoing the flag overhead.
Inside there is a single long dark room, high-ceilinged, with burro panniers and pails and boots hanging from the rafters, and picks, spades, and grain sacks keeping company with grocery shelves and the cooler and racks of candy. Some of the more outbacky items look a trifle dusty but I have to believe that the dust's there because they're leftovers, not because they're bought for show. There are the T-shirts and a rack of weekend campers' gear: Swiss army knives, plastic canteens, golfer-type hats; overall, a mix of twentieth century with nineteenth. The post has been here for more than a hundred years and things haven't changed too much. It's the kind of place where you can get yourself a drink and sit at the rickety table and wait for someone to come and get paid. This is what I do.
After a while a man in a plaid shirt and with a blond ponytail down his back does come to the counter. His name is Norman and he's thirtyish, maybe; later his wife comes in, wearing overalls, cradling a baby blond as a cherub. Meanwhile Norman tells me what he does here, why it is he's here.
He's here so he can spend the summer nights -- beginning in May -- running the roads and hunting for snakes.
At dusk he fills his gas tank and stocks the cab with Cokes, jerky, Maglites, bubble gum, cigarettes. Three million candlepower is already mounted on the front of his Jeep. He hunts for himself or for other collectors, and keeps meticulous data on every find. He's discovering the minutiae of behavior: the effects of rainfall, humidity, weather, temperature, time, habitat. Lizards like it really hot but the ideal snake temp is 72 to 88 degrees F with 30 to 70 percent humidity, he says. When he finds an animal he notes the species, sex, length, pattern, scarring, parasites, coloration. These are delicate, extraordinary creatures, these are individuals. Every summer he spends three to four thousand dollars for gas for his Jeep. It's worth every nickel. Last year he ran the roads for one hundred and seventy-nine nights straight. The year before, for two hundred and thirty nights straight.
"I do it for the high. It's the ultimate high," he says.
He collects data on the lizards, too; the Big Bend geckos are extremely sensitive to habitat and weather, he says, but after years of data collection, "I can pretty much tell you when they're going to burp."
Then there are the "nimmies," the whiptail lizards, the fastest lizards in the world. They've been clocked up to twenty-two, twenty-three miles per hour. Some species are "normal," meaning that there are males and females. Other species are composed entirely of females. These are the "liberated lizards," he says. They're parthenogenetic, there are no males at all. Some of these lay eggs, some give birth to live young. One species lives at the flats at the base of the mountains; there is another species in the first five hundred feet of slope, and another above that. There is no interbreeding between or among them, of course.
He finds Big Bend milk snakes, trans-Pecos rat snakes (a race of blond trans-Pecos rats lives only in Boquillas Limestone), Texas lyre snakes, mottled rock rattlers, Mojave rattlers (the Big Bend variety is as venomous as Mojaves elsewhere; I'm glad it's not summer now), and, sometimes, given time and luck, he finds gray-banded king snakes. These are strictly montane, he says. They live in ancient seabeds punched up by volcanic action above two thousand feet. Once he caught one that was baby blue with chocolate rings and fire orange saddles; a gorgeous animal. A friend of his caught one that was sky blue with thin ivory white lines bordering bands of jet black, the saddles bright red. He was offered fifteen hundred dollars for that snake by a professional collector that very night, and wouldn't take it:
"Looking at that animal ... Christ. I can't even tell you. Beautiful ... ? I wouldn't have let her go for a million, myself."
Norman leans on the counter, I'm into my third Coke, we could go on like this forever -- my listening to him talking -- customers wandering through, goats and burros whickering outside, the screen door banging. So I ask him what it is he trades in, what he does at the Trading Post when he's not looking for snakes.
Turns out what the Trading Post does is cross-borders barter, mostly. They buy cactus plants, the little nipple cacti and the claret cups, the ones that look like bunches of lacy stones and have grand flowers. And cholla -- Europeans like cholla, and much of the market for cactus is, eventually, European. Cholla skeletons, tubular and gray with rows of holes, come in as raw material for napkin rings and southwesty decors. Then there's Mexican vanilla, the real thing, and pottery, and antiquities -- with permits, of course -- and candelilla wax. Most of this gets bartered for beans and flour, a pickax, matches, oats. The Mexican traders tie their horses and burros up by the goats outside.
The candelilla wax is made in "wax camps" across the border. It's not legal to produce it here, the candelilla plant being more delicate or rare, protected anyhow, on this side of the border. It's a Chihuahuan desert plant that frills the limestone ledges in plasticky-looking bunches like clusters of gray pencils. It is leafless, and it coats itself with wax to reflect light away and keep its water in, something like a waxed rutabaga in the grocery store; in matters of damage control in hostile environments we haven't invented too much. The wax of the candelilla -- little candle -- is one of the highest quality waxes in the world.
Norman gives me a chunk of candelilla wax to hold. It's the color of maple fudge and is smooth and heavy as marble and almost as hard. The wax camps -- I see one later along the river -- are a brush shelter over a stone hearth on which bunches of candelilla are boiled. The wax is skimmed off and set to harden in pans. When all the candelilla in reach has been harvested, the camp is abandoned. The raw wax is sent north some ninety miles to Alpine to be refined, then it's sold to a dealer in New York City to be used in specialty items: chewing gums, shoe and car and floor polish, sealing waxes, lubricants, waterproofings, but soap and ointments and cosmetics, mostly. I think of those city racks of lipsticks the colors of cactus blossoms, and neat boxlets of expensive desiderata with their Frenchified labels, and of the goat pens and the limestone ledges; and it is strange to me how the world has been connected up.
For connections here the river is the greatest force there is. The connecting that it does is more natural than its work as border, which it doesn't do well. Governments do that, or try to; that's their job; the river is a route, a thing unto itself in the midst of something else: the desert.
Rio Bravo is what Mexicans call it; Bravo, meaning brave and strong and also hurrah, is a word we don't have anything like. The river is the through channel for Rocky Mountain snowmelt and -- through the giant tributary river, the Conchos -- of storm rain from the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Western Mother Mountains of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. All the water in the river now is Rio Conchas runoff, the Rio Grande having been tapped pretty thoroughly for city use and irrigation through New Mexico and Texas.
Today the Rio Bravo's running four feet deep in its main channel. This leaves plenty of clearance for a raft. A raft is what I use. A gray inflatable raft with a veteran river-runner named Tom.
Time for a luxury cruise is what I think. Enough of long marches and rough camps and instant soup. The rafting company has said it will send steaks and a bottle of wine, and salmon salad makings for next day's lunch, and a blue water barrel the size of a bathtub. Tom will bring his private oars, heavy enough for a Viking ship. There will be rapids. We will go through country inaccessible any other way except by foot tramp fifteen miles one way up over Mesa de Anguilla; I'm not in the mood.
In the morning we tie the baggage on and shove off, and all we have to do is take the river in. Mesquite roots trail in the water like cinnamon-colored hoses, thick as hair, like pipes. A great blue heron rises from the bank with a squawk like a door hinge. A sandpiper wobbles along the bankside like a single animated shoe. This is early migration time. The river is a road north, for birds. True spring won't come, Tom says, until the turkey vultures get back here from Mexico. Turkey vultures let the borderlands know they've had the last frost.
The water is as sleek and gray as silk. It mutters softly under us, being agreeable, comfortable. The desert can be comfortable, too, when you have a water barrel the size of a bathtub. It isn't always like this. Last fall the river rose in its bed to the height of twenty-three feet and washed the rootholds from under those mesquites and carried out whole groves of cottonwoods and swung a long arm around the village of Santa Elena, Mexico. For a while, the whole Rio Grande/Bravo looked like it might decide to follow this arm and dig itself a new main channel. There was a whoop-de-do in Santa Elena -- it was cut off from everywhere then like an island -- because they thought they might be U.S. citizens just by staying where they were.
The usual fall floods reach twelve feet or so, so that was a doozy, but summer rainstorms being what they are, the watershed being what it is, a sudden flood can happen anytime. A debris line comes before you've noticed any rise in water; junk picked up from once-dry banks. Then rocks begin to move in the rapids and you can hear them rumbling, even in the night.
Now black phoebes dip and flit from low branches, scooping insects. A flock of ducks flies on ahead. Big Bend turtles, red-orange patches behind their eyes, lie hauled out on stubs of wood and stones by the dozen, sometimes stacked three deep like bowls in a drainer. Hard-core baskers these ones are, not plooping in until you're at arm's length. Sudden loops of orange bob and wobble in the shallows: these, Tom says, are carp lips. Carp slurp foam where water back-eddies and foam gathers. What you see are lips. Tom says that a friend of his has caught carp here by baiting his fly rod with marshmallows.
The water is chalky in the sun. Texas color. Candelilla, prickly pear, hedgehog cactus, lechuguilla, on the ledges. Banks trashed by last year's flood. Wide high empty sky. Limestone mesas city-building- sized with black volcanic intrusions filling in a story or two. Dust-fine river grit everywhere. This is what my notes say. And: canyon light makes the dissolved and polished rock as smooth as cream. And: except for water noise, at midday, silence.
In the evening I walk a side canyon and climb ledges to the top. From there, the river looks like silver melted and poured. Can't see what all those horsemen fought over. That's my blindness, my myopia. I'm no Comanche, no river rat either; just passing through. What was worth fighting for unless it was the emptiness? That's still here.
There are resources: turtles and fish and ducks to eat, and beaver -- we found the tracks of a beaver on a river bar, we could see where he'd come back again and again to bite and drag away branches of catclaw acacia; we could see the gray stubs on the catclaw where he'd bitten branches off last year; he'd remembered where they were. He lives in a hole in the bank (Rio Grande beavers live in bank holes; no way and no reason for dams here, and he'd survived that flood). In spite of beavers' foraging there's plenty of firewood along the river. The rise of the Chisos Mountains is furred with grass -- great horse country there and game forage. And there's water in the mountains and the river. And there are a hundred thousand places to hide in the volcanic Chisos and the faulted limestones, too. But for all the galloping back and forth, it's been left pretty much as is.
There's been a little overgrazing -- more than a little, the Mexico side is threadbare -- and horses and cows and goats cross over all the time. Mexican horses made the trail I followed up here. They give the Big Bend National Park rangers a hard time. Rangers catch the horses and return them to their ranchos, then the horses come back. Of course they do. I would. The old story over again; the river's no barrier at all.
Maybe it's the emptiness. Maybe people needed that -- need it now. I don't mean a romantic need for wilderness to soothe the soul or a need for contemplation space -- Christ went to the desert for temptation, that's a thought. I mean the space to be away from other people's judgment. Perhaps they're all one need rolled together. Some people have the thirst to live without mirrors or their equivalents, the pressures to conform to rules. Wherever there are people there are rules. Whoever makes them or whenever they've been made there've been laws of behavior and appearance, codified expectations. Rules. Laws. Nice to get away.
The rangers do their best to keep this side pristine, but the unpristineness is part of its charm. Horses can be outlaws, too.
Above the woodlands and canebrakes of the river, desert comes back. There are two places here for the eye: huge distance with its spill of silver river, then close focus: the pale clustering of cactus at my feet would fit in a flowerpot. Each stem is the size of a golf ball. Red buds just poke through white spine mesh. This is beauty of another size. It will have flowers in March, in spring; it's still winter now. You can feel it ending, though.
Rubbery red jatropha plants, and candelillas pale as shredded moonlight, perch in the limestone. And brindled green lechuguilla. Lechuguilla is the symptom of Chihuahuan desert. It grows nowhere else. It's an agave, it has that familiar fleshy rosette, each foot-long leaf tipped with a black spine; but lechuguilla has a fiendish sort of will. It grows in colonies, blanketing the ground, each rosette curved like a claw. All those spines are thick as awls and as sharp and hard and they all, somehow, seem to point uphill.
Not so bad maybe when you're afoot, you can walk around and choose a climbing place so they're nowhere underneath, but if you're on horseback then they're something else. Uphill's fine: that's the sneakiness of the things. Coming downhill there they are. They can cripple horses, pierce their ankles. If you fall on top of them you lie impaled. Tom calls them "lemme getcha" and that's right. You wonder how they did it, all those horsemen, fighting. Why?
Sunset on the Rio Grande: To the left, at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, the river narrows and plunges in rapids between sheer sandstone walls. Across the river in Mexico is the Sentinel, where the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa posted a lookout to warn his bands of approaching enemies and to communicate important news, by smoke signal or mirror flash. During his revolution there was a continuous system of such lookouts from Mexico City to the border. According to people in Lajitas, the lookout network brought the news of his victory to Texas before the telegraph did.
For the emptiness, I think. Can't see what else. Like the lechuguilla, they fought for keeping others out. For the right to the emptiness itself.
The river is red now like a spill of paint. Nothing moves that's visible. Nothing man-done is visible, and no one, and no live thing, though that's an illusion, too: these rocks are limestone boulder jumbles, great snake habitat. And camp is down there and the fire must be ready for those steaks. I'm just passing through. I'm going. I'll be gone. I'll watch my footing all the way down. I'll be back.