I’m amazed that on I-10, between San Antonio and El Paso, the speed limit is eighty; which means drivers are, for the most part, setting their cruise controls at eighty-four because there’s an unsubstantiated belief that cops don’t ticket unless you’re going five or more mph above the speed limit.
West Texas goes on forever. If you live out here, which few people do, you don’t buy groceries every week; you buy supplies once a month. The view from the car holds flat land broken by rough-hewn hills, occasional groves of huddled oaks, and graceful buzzards coasting down to rip off a bite. Wind farms perch on far horizons. What else? Cattle and oilrigs, AKA bread and butter.
For miles and miles behind me, no other vehicles. There’s an eighteen-wheeler way up there, climbing a faraway slope. I’ll catch up and pass it in about five minutes. And then it’ll fill my mirror for a while.
Five and a half hours and Big Bend rises like a surprise. Hazy violet peeks are juxtaposed against the painful blue of the sky. We anticipate great hikes and spectacular views.
“Volcanic,” David tells me, nodding toward the jagged horizon.
I prepare myself. He’s a geophysicist and he’s going to be explaining rocks to me for the next few days; and I, in turn, will tell him once again about the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, an enthralling multi-generational tale in which one of the characters is a geologist. While reading it, every time I turned a page I released a satisfied Ahh. A moving tale gloriously written. At any rate, geology’s in there somewhere.
We stay at the Chisos Lodge, the only boarding in the park. There’s a pleasant gift shop and a restaurant. We check in, unload our stuff to the room, and go to dinner. There’s room for fifty in the dining room and it currently holds only fifteen; yet there’s a half-hour wait to be seated. The reason soon becomes clear. A single person hosts, takes orders, delivers food, and busses the tables. There are complaints.
“If you don’t like it, write your congressman,” the waiter snarls. Apparently it’s an issue.
Next morning. It’s six-point-six miles to and from The Window, the most popular hike in the park. Its pictures are in all the pamphlets and guidebooks. It’s an easy walk, unexpectedly not crowded. The last quarter mile, however, is more for mountain goats than people. Some are gifted when it comes to leaping from one rocking rock to another, butt-scooting across gigantic boulders, and scrambling up and down steep rock faces. Not me. A kind word might be inelegant.
But the view is worth the effort—a creek falls to its destiny from between a tight opening between two walls; and beyond, on the other side of the valley, another fissure that perfectly mirrors our window.
In the afternoon we drive two hours to the border, to the Santa Elena Overlook. The Rio Grande is a lethargic brown ribbon, narrow. It brings to mind the same feeling I had when I first saw the Jordon—I’d heard about it my whole life and when I was standing beside it, I thought, “This is it? This reedy trickle shaped human history?” As to the Rio Grande, I could toss a rock from one bank to the other, yet look at the prominence it holds in the lives of so many.
Incongruously impressive, on the other side of the river a massive cliff looms—a towering straight-up barrier of gray and orange stretching as far as we can see in both directions, humbling in its size and aspect.
“Well, there’s the wall,” I say. “Good to see it’s coming along.”
“Someone could hang glide from it.”
We gaze at it speculatively. Like ants, people get to where they want to be and there’s no obstacle that can stop them.
At the end of the day, another mediocre meal in the dining room. No big deal. We didn’t come here for the food.
The next morning we drive to Boquillas Crossing, where there’s a Boarder Control station. Inside the squat building a young man in uniform sits at a desk and views a computer. I suspect he’s playing Spider Solitaire. He stands, greets us, and, explaining that there’re no requirements, wishes us an enjoyable morning. He returns his attention to the screen as we exit the building and follow the shady path to the river.
A man wielding oars picks us up on the Texas side and pumps his arms against the current to get us to the Mexican side. Five dollars. We take donkeys to Boquillas, a one-road village. Five dollars. Edgar, our donkey handler, doesn’t know the names of our donkeys. The ride takes twenty minutes. The sun beats down. Flies buzz. There is no breeze and fine dust lifts from the hooves, coating us. It’s all very stinky.
When we reach the village Edgar intends to give us a tour. Five dollars. The first place he takes us is the Tourist Board, which consists of a trailer and a guy. Five dollars for arm bands. Good for four days. We can come back tomorrow. We set out.
Small homes doubling as businesses line both sides of the road. Windows are holes in the walls. Canvas flaps keep the flies out. We pass a church, a restaurant where slumped tourists sip drinks, and two schools. The high school has ten kids. Every building is a simple square constructed of cement blocks.
Edgar’s house is marked, as are all the others, by bags and T-shirts clothes-pinned to a line strung across the yard. There’s no wind so there’s no festive fluttering. His wife and two-year-old daughter rush out to greet us when they see Daddy coming.
I buy a bag from his wife. Ten dollars. This bag is an exact replica of all the other bags dangling along the road, yet Edgar proudly insists that his wife makes the bags by hand. How can this be? If you gave me fabric and a sewing machine and instructed me to make a bag, you can be sure that it wouldn’t look like every other bag. We’ve seen this cut-and-paste craftsmanship in every poverty-stricken village we’ve been to in every corner of the world. I will never comprehend it.
Edgar speaks affectionately of his tiny town. He’s been other places, so he’s aware of what’s possible.
“We just got solar panels,” he says. “Now we have refrigerators, microwaves, and televisions.”
“Air conditioning?” David asks.
Swimming around in the sweat on the back of my neck, a bug bites hard.
“No air conditioning. But now we have cold drinks.” This gives him joy.
We ride back to the river. David gives Edgar an additional five. We cross, return to our car, and turn the air conditioner on high as we head back to the Chisos Basin.
“How much did we spend?” I say spend, but in fact it’s a giveaway. We’ve purchased stuff and services we didn’t need in Egypt, India, Cambodia, Thailand, Borneo, Malaysia, Kenya—well, and many more. We appreciate where we were born and what we have; and we’re acutely aware of where others live and what they don’t have.
“Less than fifty.”
“He seemed like a smart guy.”
“No opportunities in a place like that.”
“They’re freely back and forth across the border every day.”
In the afternoon we go on another hike. In the evening we skip the dining room and have beer and nachos on the deck while we watch the clouds change from gray to pinkish orange as the sun drops behind the mountain.
“Let’s go home tomorrow, “ David suggests, though we’re booked for another night.
“I miss my bed,” I say, “and the sheets here are rough.”
It’s decided. We’re done.