Paddling through the last waves of the rapid, we saw a naked man. He was sitting on a midstream boulder to our left. On the right bank, a group of Mexicans stared at us wide-eyed. Something black floated on the water downstream.
We’d come to the Rio Grande’s Lower Canyons knowing it was an international border, but after four days of desert floating without seeing a single soul, the concept of borders — much less a wall — seemed illusory. Besides, it felt like we’d already left the United States just by entering the outback of West Texas. Driving into the last small town en route to the river, we struggled to find food.
My wife Lisa and I were mostly prepared for our nine-day journey, but we needed a few final grocery items, just the essentials: coffee, chocolate, and beer. Cruising the main street of Sanderson, Texas, we scanned for the town market. We’d just driven an hour of empty highway from the last town, and another hour before that from Big Bend National Park; surely little Sanderson, home to a thriving school and a grid of neighborhoods, would have a grocery store. But after our second pass through town, we gave in and asked a local.
“Groceries? Oh no, you have to go to Fort Stockton for that,” he said.
Now I was curious: “How far is it to Fort Stockton?”
He answered completely deadpan with a tinge of Texas twang, “Sixty-eight miles.”
We weren’t desperate enough to drive another hour for Walmart groceries, and actually, there was one food outlet in town. It was a gas station, patriotically coined, “Stripes,” as in Stars and _____ . We spent $50 on the best nutrition we could gather: candy bars, potato chips, red licorice, and an 18-pack of Budweiser (tall boys of course). Our expedition would press on without the precious coffee bean.
We organized our provisions in the parking lot and crossed the street to the Outback Oasis Motel to meet our shuttle driver, Roy. Roy was conducting a snake exposition for a couple of tourists who’d come specifically to see his collection. In a narrow room adjacent to the motel office, a variety of serpents curled within glass enclosures. While I gazed at an albino rattlesnake, one of the tourists told me the story of how his toy Chihuahua was bitten on the nose by a copperhead.
Hours later Roy was directing us down an endless dirt road toward the long-sought river when he mentioned the put-in ranger. This was unexpected news, and I felt a wave of permit-panic. Should we have gotten a permit when we were in the Park three days ago? Will we be turned away? I wanted to make a getaway. Roy wanted us to check in with the ranger. My heart pounded.
Jimi Hendrix blared from speakers hanging on a sheet metal shade veranda. Two old motorcycles leaned on kickstands in the yard. A voice from the shadows called, “come on over.” In a shaded recliner sat a 60-something man sipping a Bud Light in a coozie. False teeth rested on a table beside him. This was Fred, the ranger. He asked for $5 a head to use his key to access the riverside beach. My permit phobia ebbed.
There is a frontier lawlessness that still exists in Big Bend country, a product of the region’s vastness and the culture that has developed here, in all this space. When I guided here in the 1990s, we’d routinely cross the river, and the border, to get authentic Mexican meals served by local grandmothers in adobe casitas. That kind of cross-cultural interchange ended with the border security rhetoric following 9-11. Still, the region remains a relatively unfettered international zone, and folks from all sides of the political spectrum in these parts like it that way.
Political philosophies are bridged by anti-government feelings here just as the river links physical regions. The Lower Canyons hold a unique blend of the arid West and semi-arid Plains, part canyon country and part prairie. The cliffs are gray and the desert scrub projects a dull green. When palls of overcast move in from the east, the whole place takes on the soft gauze of a watercolor.
Lisa and I found a lazy rhythm to match the mild subtropical surroundings; paddling slowly beneath drooping river cane, stopping for a morning snack, then lunch, then camp, maybe with a hike somewhere for a midday diversion. For days we saw no people, not even much sign of humans. The fact that the left side of the river was one country, and the right side was another country seemed abstract. The thought of a giant new wall somewhere out there was beyond absurd.
That absurdity was only heightened when we finally saw another person. A huddle of people stood on river-right, poised beside the only rapid we’d seen all day. The swift water swept us past them without any communication, not that any of us wanted to chat much. Clearly, these folks were attempting to sneak across the border. We were wary of them. They were terrified of us. Still, I offered a friendly wave as the water ushered us past. That is when we saw the naked man, perhaps the one swimmer of the group, and a stuffed black garbage bag that was floating away downstream.
River runners instinctively chase flotsam, so off we went. Nearing the bag, I could see boots inside. Lisa and I began nudging it to shore like we would a partner’s runaway boat. It was waterlogged and heavy and very uncooperative, but between us we nosed it to a stop in the shallows of a gravel bar a quarter-mile below the rapid.
“It’s probably one of those guy’s clothes,” she surmised.
It seemed strange that nobody was chasing their runaway possessions, but we’d likely put a stop to that with our appearance from upstream, our frightening whiteness, our fancy border-patrol like river equipment. Lisa rolled the unwieldy bag onto my back deck, and I started back upstream.
When I came to within sight of the Mexicans, they shot startled looks, like a family of meerkats peering our of their holes. One fellow came shuffling our way: missing bag owner found. He wore blue jeans and cheap hiking boots that were a few sizes too big. It had taken him a full day, he told us, to walk this far from the end of the road somewhere deep in the state of Coahuila, Mexico. When we told him that we were from Arizona, he said, “Ah, Arpaio.” Just as Arizona’s bombastic megalomaniacal sheriff Joe Arpaio likely dreamed, his name was known across the border three states away.
As we turned to leave, it felt like this particular troupe of immigrants were giving up on their crossing. The river, tame as it was to us in our kayaks, was “muy fuerte,” they said, too strong on this day. It wouldn’t take a wall to deter this group, just a swift river, enough incentive to not risk your life for the allure of something better.
I wondered where a wall would go out there in that sea of desert scrub and crumbling gray cliffs. Most likely it would stand a few miles back from the rugged river canyon, firmly on USA soil, a West Texas fortification. What might that mean for river runners? Would friendly Fred the put-in man be replaced by an amply armed border security force? Would the whole river be some sort of off-limits Green Zone, making one more waterway that is a crime to float? And would we even want to paddle here anymore, in the shadow of a man-made wall?
Eventually, I suppose, The Wall would rust into the apocalypse, or perhaps become a shining tourist destination for wealthy Asians. It could even be part of a package tour with Roy’s herpetological exhibit back in Sanderson. I wonder, will there be food available in Sanderson then, or just gasoline?
— Tyler Williams is a longtime C&K contributor and the author of Paddling Arizona. His recent work includes ‘The Incident at Burro Creek,’ ‘Finding Time: A Wild and Empty Journey to the Arctic Ocean,’ ‘Secret History of the Green,’ ‘Doug Tompkins, Life and Legacy,’ and the four-part ‘Legends of Rafting‘ series.
The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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