Friday, January 20, 2012

Del Rio, Texas and Cuidad Acuna,Coahuila

After a couple relaxing holiday weeks in San Antonio, we finally got back on the border, right where we had left it. We didn't have many contacts in Del Rio, Texas and Cuidad Acuna, Coahuila so once again we turned to and thus we met Mandy and Liliana.

Couchsurfing in Del Rio, Texas!
Katy, Mandy and Eric

We hitched a ride into Del Rio (population: 45,000) and arrived at the beautiful home of Mandy, our couchsurfing host. She was busy making a big dinner and she had invited a bunch of friends over to meet us. It was great chatting with folks from the area and they were quite a diverse bunch--border patrol agents, national park rangers, meteorologists, and more!  We ate quite a feast of delicious Mexican cuisine and Mandy sent us to bed with a handdrawn map of Del Rio and a list of the top ten things to do!  What hospitality!

In chatting with the BP agent at dinner, we realized that Operation Streamline happens in Del Rio, so armed with our top ten list, the first thing we did in the morning was go to the courthouse to see if we could observe the proceedings.  We arrived just ten minutes before they started and though it seemed like they rarely had observers in the court, we talked our way in.  I posted previously about Operation Streamline in Tucson, so we  really wanted to see how it was different in Del Rio and we did find a variety of difference--some better, some worse than what we had seen in Tucson.

First of all there were only 37 people on trial this day in Del Rio (compared to 62 the day we observed in Tucson), but the capacity for Del Rio is actually 80.  All the defendants were shackled, as they were in Tucson, but they each also wore a surgical mask, which I thought added an additional element of dehumanization (agents told us it was due to TB).  There were 9 women and 28 men, and a greater percentage were from Central America: 9 from Honduras, 4 from El Salvador, the rest from Mexico.

What I found most shocking was that there was only 1 public defender for all 37 people on trial!  In Tucson, the public defenders could represent several people, but there were at least 8-10 of them in the courtroom.  Here there was only one, and she had not been able to speak with the defendants yet, so after processing the 7 felonies (they appear to be a bit harsher in Del Rio and do not drop everyone down to a misdemeanor if they agree to the plea agreement), everyone had to leave the courtroom while she spoke to each person.

During this break, Eric and I had the chance chat with the Border Patrol agents from the courtroom who are doing a rotation in the prosecutor's office. They handle all the paperwork for those involved in Streamline and they assist the governmental prosecutor during the trial.  They were really interested in our bicycle trip (a couple were quite jealous and spoke longingly about watching Into the Wild and wanting to rid themselves of their material possessions and go on an adventure!) and we asked a lot of questions about apprehensions in the area and Operation Streamline.  It was good to have a chance to talk with some agents, something Eric and I have wanted to do on this trip, and similar to the military and soldiers, we don't like the job of the Border Patrol, but we aren't going to hold that against individual agents.  (Well, we try not to!)

I think it is important to point out that nearly every agent I have spoke to, in El Paso and in Del Rio, "understands" the plight of economic migrants. They often say "if that was me and my kids were starving, I would jump that fence too..." And I appreciate hearing that, but what gets me is what directly follows it every.single.time. "But it is the people involved in drugs, in kidnapping, in criminal activity, that's why we are here." Agents always go on and on about the illegals who are murdering and raping U.S. citizens and how the we all put fences around our yards to keep out someone who just might want to kill us.  I hate listening to this fear-mongering and I told that to the agent, but really, I think that is the basis of their jobs: fear.

When we were in Douglas and chatting with a Customs and Border Protection agent, he was talking about how dangerous Agua Prieta is and how the supervisors are always showing them videos and pictures of what heinous activities are happening in AP to discourage them from ever going into Mexico. And does it matter that those videos were of no where near Agua Prieta?  They serve their purpose.

It was interested to talk with the BP agents for about an hour, and when summoned, we all went back to the courtroom.  I definitely think that is it unconstitutional to have so many defendants before the judge at the same time, but I appreciated the way the judge handled it in Del Rio much more than in Tucson.  After every single question to the defendants, the judge pointed at each person who then had to individually answer.  And when it came time for the sentencing, each defendant stood up and spoke with the judge, and the public defender included in the testimony why the defendant had crossed illegally.  We heard how many kids each defendant has, how their elderly parents need their financial help, how there just aren't jobs, etc.  Even through the surgical mask, this court let the defendant be humanized, be an individual with his or her own story.

Also, I think the judge did an excellent job of trying to make sure that each defendant understood what was happening and what they were agreeing too.  Several times the judge paused what was going on to allow an individual to speak privately to the public defender.

Most the defendants received 10 day sentences, others who had previous deportations got 30-180, depending on their previous record.  Once again, I struggled to know how to express my sympathy through my eyes as each defendant shuffled out of the courtroom.

Moore Park in Del Rio, Texas
We had tried to connect with the person from the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid who is in charge of the immigration clinics in Del Rio, but she never got back to us, so after Streamline, even though our heads were exploding from all we had seen in court, we ran around downtown, visiting the places on Mandy's Top Ten of Delightful Del Rio.  We got delicious hamburgers, visited an awesome antique/music shop, walked through the downtown shops, had a coffee at the old emporium, and biked by some of Del Rio's historical sights including the Brinkley Estate and Texas' oldest winery, the Val Verde Winery. Then we bicycled along all .75 miles of the bike trail surrounding the lovely Moore Park.

After a nap and some reflection, that night we attended Del Rio's First Friday art and music show.  It was really cool to see the young generation of Del Rio and hang out with Mandy and her roommates.

Lily and her folks
They next day, we packed up our bikes and headed a few short miles over the bridge to Ciudad Acuña (population: 220,000).  We had contacted a young woman, Lily, via and she offered us a place to stay with her and her parents.  They were really wonderful to stay with.  Lily, who teaches psychology at 2 universities in Acuña, drove us all over town and welcomed us as if we were family.

The only other contact we had in Acuña was the Casa del Migrante there. The diocese of Piedras Negras operated the migrant house in Acuña  and in Piedras Negras. We had been in touch with the manager, but had been unable to speak with the pastor to set up a visit. With Lily's assistance, we ran between the church and the shelter and we were able to get a short visit in.

The Casa Emmaus: Casa del Emigrante has operated for the last 20 years and is located very close to the river in Cuidad Acuña in an old school complex.  It is run by the parish and volunteers and they have an average of about 70 people sleeping there every night, about 90% of which are deported.  We were told that Acuña is one of the towns receiving the highest number of repatriations--up to 150 per day, many bussed in from Arizona!  The rest of the guests are heading north and a majority of them are from Central America.

There is space for men and women and each guest is initially given 3 days at the house and more time is granted on an individual basis. The house is open to guests 24 hours per day, which we were happy to hear, especially because of the high numbers of Central Americans they are hosting.  Central Americans are usually traveling illegally through Mexico and are often victimized throughout their journey so it is important they they have a safe space.

We were impressed with the large grounds of the Casa Emmaus which include basketball courts and lots of outdoor space.  We had no idea so many people were getting deported through this area, but it was very good to learn and to see the services the church is offering them in Cuidad Acuña.

On Sunday, we accompanied the family to church and though the service was long, we were very impressed with the priest's homily.  He spoke for a long time about the injustices of the area, ranging from the soaring price of tortillas and basic foods to the oppression of the foreign-owned maquiladoras.  We were happy to hear this message coming from the pulpit.

After mass, the extended family came over and because it was unusually warm outside, we pulled out the grill and had delicious carne asada.

After stuffing ourselves sick, Lily brought us over to the very impressive Lake Amistad dam.

Only days before, we hardly had a contact in this land of friendship, but through couchsurfing we were connected to wonderful, hospitable people, who will remain friends.

And forward we go, looking for signs of true amistad in the politics between the United States and Mexico.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

San Antonio, Texas

We had a great time in San Antonio celebrating Solstice, Christmas and the New Year.  Eric has lived in San Antonio off and on for the last few years and has amazing friends there.  

Eric volunteered at the San Antonio Catholic Worker where he became connected to an intentional neighborhood community which started about 25 years ago.  Many in the neighborhood community were involved in the Sanctuary Movement in South Texas in the early 1980s after which they moved into a poorer neighborhood together.  Some of the folks involved homeschooled their children together, many residents share cars and tools, and they even used to go on neighborhood camping trips together.  I have loved visiting this community, just walking down the street and being invited in by friends, all who were so interested in our trip and what we have learned.

Jack making mushroom barley soup for Solstice

We stayed with our dear friend, Jack Elder, for our duration in San Antonio and part of the reason we got picked up in Del Rio, which is a 3 day ride from San Antonio, is so that we could be there for his neighborhood solstice party.  So delicious and fun!

We also made tamales in the annual Tamalada and I learned to make rico champurrado! 

The Tamalada!

We went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve with friends Don, Dee and their family, after which we opened gifts and had a huge meal of pozole!  After a just a few hours of sleep, we went to yet another mass, this time at the San Antonio Catholic Worker. (Lots of praying for tailwinds and no flat tires.)

Eric at Enchanted Rock

On New Year´s Day, we went to Enchanted Rock and got to scramble all over this huge rock with the Elder clan and about 1 million other people who had the day off.  It was a lot of fun.

Our last day in town, we celebrated by playing Bingo at the Moose Lodge. The Moose Lodge was only blocks away from where our friends in the community had lived, but no one had ever been inside! We had a grand ole time at bingo, though none of us won any money.

Future Members of the San Antonio Moose Lodge

It was wonderful to relax and write and visit with friends over the holidays, but back to the border we go!

Days 30, 31 & 32: Marathon, TX to Del Rio, TX

Sunday, December 18      Marathon, TX to Sanderson, TX      Miles: 58      Flats: 1     Elevation: 4055 ft - 2,790 ft

After a nice breakfast in Marathon, we got on 90 and headed toward Sanderson. It was cold and cloudy, but downhill and we flew!

 Once again we saw more wildlife than usual- deer and javalinas. We heard people say this was due to the drought driving them out in search of water. We did get one flat, once again my rear tire. We took the opportunity to make lunch too as there were no places to stop along the way.

Condensation on Eric´s eyebrows
The last twenty miles got even colder as it became foggy. We couldn't see 50 feet on front of us and water began to accumulate on the front of our fingers, and drip down the front of our helmets. I usually start a day's ride in my down coat to warm up, peeling it off after just a mile or two. I wore my down jacket this whole twenty mile stretch and it was covered with condensation when we finally arrived and pulled into the gas station to consider our options.

There was RV camping in Sanderson, but there was also a motel on (a hospitality website exclusively for cyclists) so we decided to check that our first. Danny, the manager of the BudgetInn, was very kind, offering us outdoor camping for free or "maximum discounts" on a room. Because it was cold and foggy, we opted for a room, only our third hotel of the trip and the first in the U.S.

Staying in a cheap motel with heat was such a treat after camping (or being in a cold hostel) for the previous 11 days! Shower and heat and a bed! Oh my!

Monday, December 18    Sanderson, TX to Langtry, TX    Miles: 61    Flats: 0    Elevation: 2,790 ft - 1,290 ft

We heard it was going to rain, but most of it fell in the early morning, so by the time we got packed up and ready to go, the sun was shining.  After coming into Sanderson in a fog, it was so strange to go outside and be able to see across the street!  We had cycled through the main street of Sanderson, but I had not seen much until this morning.

Not only was it sunny, but we had a tailwind and we were going downhill.  These three things = a very happy day of riding.  Eric even pulled out his shorts for the first time since we cycled into Bisbee, AZ on November 3rd!


There was plenty of uphill to keep us working too, but after so many dreary days of riding, we couldn´t stop smiling.

Our destination: Langtry, Texas.  Population: 16 ("and that is counting the greater metropolitan area" says the man at the little Langtry store, "there are only 4 of us downtown").  The interesting thing about Langtry is that it was home to the famous Judge Roy Bean, the "Law West of the Pecos."  Though we thought he had a reputation for hanging nearly everyone who entered his court, we learned from the musuem that he had never hung anyone!  We got to go in his famous courthouse, which was also Judge Bean´s liquor store.

Shockingly because Langtry is so small, we met Keith via and he offered us a place to stay (donations encouraged)--a little trailer they rent out.  It was really nice and new and we were so glad to sleep on a bed again!

Tuesday, December 20    Langtry, TX to Del Rio, TX      Miles: 54    Flats: 1    Elevation:  1,290 ft - 970 ft

This was a lovely day of riding.  On most riding days previous to this, we have ridden from point A to point B and there isn´t usually much in between.  But this day of riding included lots of stops and traveling through mostly populated areas.

Our first stop was to gaze down at the Pecos River.  Coming from Minnesota and after three years in El Paso, I am excited to be entering a part of Texas that has more natural water.  The river is beautiful and green.

The Pecos River

We also stopped at the Seminole Canyon State Park and checked out the indoor exhibits, though we did not have time to go on the rock paintings tour.  Next stop was in the little city of Comstock for lunch and when we got on the road again, the area was populated with businesses geared toward Lake Amistad tourists.

Lake Amistad

We biked over a little part of Lake Amistad, and even though it is not a natural lake, it was nice to see the clear, blue water.  Lake Amistad was created by putting a dam near the confluence of three rivers: the Pecos, the Rio Grande and the Rio Diablo.  The lake is on both sides of the border and this area is known as the Land of Friendship.

We had not found a place to stay in Del Rio, and in our short search, I got another flat (once again, my rear tire).  The first RV Park we pulled into wanted to charge us $30 for a full RV site, because they didn`t have tent camping (?).  The second place was a gas station/RV Park that only wanted $5.  Later we learned why (gas station lights on all night and constant traffic), but what a deal!

And Del Rio proved to be the land of friendship, because after setting up our tent and making our dinner, we were invited into the trailer of a couple of young folks where we watched a movie and had a couple beers.  They were so nice!

The next morning, we got picked up by friends from San Antonio where we went to spend the holidays. Happy belated New Year!!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Days 28 & 29: Big Bend National Park to Marathon, TX

Day 28:  Thursday, December 15        Big Bend National Park, TX to Double Mills Historical Marker       Miles: 51     Flats: 0      Elevation: 1850 ft - 3750 ft - 2860 ft                     

After coasting down to our campsite on the Rio Grande, we were not looking forward to the 20 mile climb up the Panther Junction, but it turned out to be a nice way to start our ride on this cool, cloudy day.

Riding out from the Gravel Pit

Riding towards the Chisos Basin, which we unfortunately did not ride up to

After a quick lunch at Panther Junction and chatting with a motorcycle traveler from West Virginia, and two recreational cyclists from Dallas who had really fancy bikes, we headed north into a 15-20 mph headwind toward Marathon. The wind kept it cool, but at least the sun came out to warm us up a little as we rode along.

Originally we planned to camp near the northern exit to the park, but there was confusion with our primitive camping permit and we had to leave the park this day or we would have to pay again (a whole $10!). On our way out, we stopped at the Persimmon Gap park entrance and learned about the U.S. Army using camels for transportation in the area in the 1860's and we taught the ranger about the Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle Corps of the 1890's that traveled from Missoula, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri on bicycles!

The most notable part of this day of riding was all the wildlife we saw.  We saw roadrunners, a coyote, and we saw two big bucks jump a high fence right on the edge of the road.

Outside the park, there was a campsite 5 miles away on an east-west road, but we decided we didn't want to go an hour out of the way, so we continued up highway 385 and decided to camp at the Double Mills Historical Marker. We tucked ourselves under a little tree, hoping no one would come by and kick us out.  This was only the second time on our trip that we guerilla camped on the side of the road.

Day 29:  Friday, December 16     Double Mills Historical Marker to Marathon, TX       Miles: 38   Elevation:  2860 ft - 4055 ft

We survived the night without getting caught, but at breakfast we realized we had run out of gas for our stove. We nibbled on crackers and summer sausage, packed up and headed toward Marathon.

It was an uneventful ride with the exception of several more deer sightings. Minnesota is crawling with deer, but the difference with seeing deer in this area is that you see them for more than three seconds.  In Minnesota, they hop into the woods and they are gone, but here, you can see them bounding along long after you initially spot them.

James H. Evans photo

We were happy to arrive in Marathon where we planned to stay in a hostel/eco-village, but before we headed over there we got some burgers and checked out the James H. Evans gallery.  Eric and I both really enjoy his photographs, both of the desert landscape and its inhabitants, and in appendix of his book Big Bend Pictures, he has wonderful descriptions of his subjects.

The hostel/community we stayed at is called La Loma del Chivo.  It is a big plot of land with a few permanent residents, a couple of gardens, two chickens, many other pets, and several projects in sustainable construction.  Part of the draw of experimenting in construction techniques in a place like Marathon is that it is an unincorporated town and therefore one does not need to pull building permits.

La Loma del Chivo
Eric is a carpenter and was therefore really interested in the alternative buildings ideas and in our time in Marathon, he heard a lot about building with papercrete.

We stayed two nights at La Loma del Chivo in the papercrete hostel that includes a nice outdoor kitchen. La Loma was a really cool so we stayed an extra night, but the only bummer was that it was so cold. It was cloudy and in the 40s both days and there was no indoor heating.

Outdoor kitchen at La Loma del Chivo

On our full day in Marathon, one of the Loma semi-residents showed us around Marathon and introduced us to come folks in town, especially people involved in papercrete. That night we ended up going back to one of the places we visited for an open house, a bed and breakfast called Eve's Garden. It is a really colorful, beautiful place and it is almost all constructed of papercrete! We enjoyed meeting folks from Marathon, eating delicious appetizers and we even got invited to someone's house for breakfast the following morning!

One little colorful corner at the bed and breakfast Eve´s Garden

Eric and I have passed through Marathon several times while traveling between San Antonio and El Paso, but we had never even stopped.  We are so glad to be on the bicycles, traveling slow, as it allows us to see so much that we never even imagined was there.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Days 25, 26 & 27: Redford, TX to Big Bend National Park, TX

Riding Day 25: Friday, December  9    Redford, TX to Lajitas, TX       Miles: 34       Flats: 0  Elevation: 2520 ft-2600 ft

After our lovely visit with Enrique and Ruby Madrid, we headed towards Big Bend National Park, passing Big Bend Ranch State Park on the way.  This drive along the Rio Grande is supposedly one of the most beautiful in all of Texas and I would not doubt it.  It was quite picturesque, travelling up and down over the mountains, right on the river bank.

We hardly saw anyone else on the road and, once again, I was just in shock at how peaceful this international boundary looked.  I just could not believe I was looking across the river at Mexico--where were the chain link fences, camera towers, Border Patrol blimps to spoil my view?  In terms of the actual borderline, this stretch has been most surprising to me.

When I lead immersion groups, almost every single student would say that the most astounding part of the trip was seeing and touching the physical border wall--before they arrive, they have no idea what it looks like or how it cuts an ugly scar between communities.  As for me, after 3 1/2 years on the border, I have been hardened--I am accustomed to BP being everywhere, I expect overpriced gadgets and fencing.  So, to look down the Rio Grande and just see the natural beauty was literally unbelievable.  It was so beautiful.

The scenery took my breath away, as did the hills.  It was up and down all day and we knew there would be at least one difficult stretch, one climb that is aptly called The Big Hill. 

We were warned miles in advance of the steep 15% grade that lay ahead of us, and as we rounded each bend, I would look ahead apprehensively. Enrique Madrid even warned us of the climb and encouraged us to walk our bikes down, saying a cyclist once died on the downhill.  I kept getting more and more nervous and finally, we saw it.

Katy on the Big Hill

And really?  It is not that bad. It is a Big Hill.  It is steep. That much is true.  But it is pretty short and there are extra wide shoulders that help when you are switch-backing your way up.

And when you get to the top, you can climb up 100 more feet to get an even more spectacular view.  We had our lunch there, followed by a nice nap in the sun.

We hoped to make it to Terlingua, but the wind was against us and I was still feeling under the weather.  We were shocked when we saw the little resort town that is Lajitas--we never expected to find such fancy little shops and condos in the Big Bend--but we were tired and in need of a shower, so we shelled out enough for an overpriced campsite at the RV park and watched movies in the TV room until it was time to crawl into the tent.

Day 26: Saturday, December 10     Lajitas, TX to Terlingua, TX       Miles:  13    Flats: 0   Elevation:  2600 ft - 2900 ft

We woke up to a cold, cloudy, windy day in Lajitas--potentially the most isolated place on our trip--and there were white spots on my tonsils.  We heard of an EMT in Terlingua and we weren't going to shell out $23 again for a campsite, so we packed up and headed east.

We arrived in the Ghost town of Terlingua and we went in the first business we saw, asking if there was an EMT in town.  The folks we talked to were super friendly, getting me phone numbers and lending me their phones, but no one I called answered.  We decided to find a place to camp and continued down the street when we saw a cafe with free Wifi.  WebMD was just as good as an EMT, right?  We got some hot chocolate, unsuccessfully tried to navigate the medical site on my ancient droid and chatted with some Terlinguans about our trip and desire for some medical advice. People were so friendly and they directed us just a few houses down where we were able to score some antibiotics and a free place to camp!  Really, I was still functional, but I just wanted to know if this thing was going to go away by itself.  We decided to stay in Terlingua for a night or two and make sure I wasn't going to need to be evacuated from Big Bend National Park (so dramatic!).  The closest clinic was 80 miles away in Alpine, and we were prepared to hitchhike up there and skip the park if we needed to.

Terlingua is an interesting place.  It is an old mercury mining town and though it was cold and dreary the two days we were there, it was very welcoming.  All the people we met were super nice and we were told it was because each person had chosen to be there--they weren't there out of obligation to family or for a job--instead, they had decided this is where they wanted to be.  We also heard that you have to be really, really strange to be rejected by Terlingua so it is certainly filled with interesting characters--lots of artists and musicians, perhaps a bit less pretentious than Marfa.  While there we watched a 30 minute documentary on the town which jokes that their social hierarchy is dependent on your housing--the lowest rung being a tent, moving up to a bus or RV, but I can't remember where living in caves or old ruins classified, but I know most folks aren't living in plain old houses.

We spent two nights in Terlingua and really enjoyed the personality of the town--relaxed and friendly.

Day 27:  Monday, December 12     Terlingua, TX to Big Bend National Park      Miles: 50   Flats: 0  Elevation:  2900 ft - 3750 ft - 1850 ft

Feeling a bit better, we decided forego the clinic and go ahead into Big Bend, the entrance of which was only 10 miles from Terlingua. I had previously told Eric that I wanted to bike up to the Chisos basin, a supposedly grueling 8 mile climb, but one of the top 50 bicycle rides in Texas.  However, I still wasn't feeling that great when we entered the park, so we just headed up about 20 miles to Panther Junction, the Park Headquarters, and reserved a primitive campsite near the river 20 miles south.

The ride to the park headquarters was cold and long, but we literally sailed down to the campsite from the junction, dropping almost 2000 ft in elevation.  The surprise waiting for us was that our campsite (in the gravel pit) was at the end of a 3 mile road of gravel and sand--not ideal riding conditions.  I may have cursed the poor volunteer from Panther Junction a few times on that 3 mile stretch, but we arrived and set up camp before the sun went down.

Our first sunset in Big Bend National Park

We spent three nights at the gravel pit and while it had been 40 degrees and cloudy our few days in Terlingua, the weather on the river was much warmer--It even got into the 70s one day we were there.

We intentionally wanted to camp near the Park's hot springs, but we realized after our 3 mile trek on the gravel road that it was going to be a bit of a ride and hike to get there.  Fortunately, as we sat around sipping coffee and hot cocoa the first morning, a fellow camper and cyclist came over, saying he had seen us on the road (We saw him too--he was half hanging out of a van, waving with both arms--potentially our most enthusiastic encounter with a motorized vehicle yet). He was from North Carolina and has been on the road over a year with his brother and they are making short films as they travel along. They were on their way out of camp and gave us the best gift they could have--a couple gallons of water, which allowed us to relax easier, knowing we weren't going to run out (the closest water was about 7 miles away). He also gave us a key piece of advice: just about 1/2 mile down the river, there was a small hot spring that wasn't on the map.

So, our first full day at the park, we packed a lunch and started down the river. I have to admit, I had never seen a real cowboy before coming into the Big Bend area. I didn't even think they really existed.  But since Presidio we saw men on horseback bringing their cows to the Rio Grande to drink and to a city girl like me, they looked like something out of a movie.

We found the hot springs and they were amazing--we heard they are about 109 degrees.  It was a small area, like just a few people had pushed the rocks up to make the pool which only fit 2 or 3 people.  It was really isolated with just a Mexican cowboy or a donkey meandering by once in a while.  We spent the whole day there, getting in and out of the spring, taking naps in the grass.  It was lovely.

The next day we headed the 7 miles down to the Rio Grande Village where the main campground is with the RVers and a store and such. After we filled our water bladders, we went down towards Boquillas canyon. Eric and I had heard about Boquillas and we were eager to see it. Boquillas is not only the name of the canyon, but also of the small Mexican town on the other side of the river which subsisted for many years off tourists visiting Big Bend. Campers would cross the river in a little canoe or on a horse or donkey and visit the town, buying cheap burritos, beer and Mexican crafts.  But once again, the strict border policy after September 11th stopped the illegal crossings and since then the tiny town of Boquillas has drastically suffered economically and many of the people living there were forced to move elsewhere.  Some of the folks that did stay, continue to make crafts to sell to tourists, crossing illegally and putting them on rocks on one of the scenic overlooks along with a price list and a coffee can.

Ignoring the park signs saying it was illegal to purchase or possess items from Mexican nationals, I bought a roadrunner and ocotillo made of beads and wire, dropping my money in the jar. Moments later, two men on horseback arrived, each assessing if they had sold any goods. They were both born and raised in Boquillas where they say only about 27 families are currently living. They told us that it has been really hard since the border has become more enforced, not only because folks from the Park aren't crossing, but because residents of Boquillas used to cross into Rio Grande Village to buy basic food staples like rice and beans. We learned that Boquillas is a 5 hour drive from the nearest decent sized town in Mexico--half of which is on a dirt road. There is a bus that goes to Boquillas, but only once a week. Every Monday, a bus weaves through all the teeny towns in the area, finally bringing them to the city of Musquiz, Coahuila. Then they have to wait until the following Monday to head back to their hometown. Can you imagine?!  It is funny to think that Big Bend National Park is the least visited national park in the country because it is tucked into an isolated little corner of Texas, but across the river, Boquillas is actually in the middle of nowhere in Mexico.

The really interesting thing about Boquillas is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is seriously considering reopening the port of entry there.  It would be the smallest port and because it would be so slow, they are looking to make it the first remote ("unmanned"--though hate to use that word) station on the Southern border (they already exist on the Canadian border). So, there would be passport and luggage scanners and Customs and Border Protection agents would monitor the foot traffic via video from Presidio or Del Rio or elsewhere.  Also, Border Patrol would be standing by in the area in case they were needed.

We heard about this proposal a couple of months ago and it is currently under heavy scrutiny as this article details, but I recall just being really surprised. Why would they possibility care to open a 2.3 million dollar port there? Because people are suffering on the other side??  I still don't fully understand it, but I think:
a)  DHS has way too much money being thrown at them since border security is one of those issues touted by both sides of the aisle and
b)  because the park agents really care--about the people visiting the park (it is good for people to see Mexico), the people in Boquillas (it is good for people to make a living and have access to basic food staples) and in the conservation efforts in the area (rangers of the park are devoted to conservation projects and want them to be bi-national efforts, but currently, to meet with leaders on the other side, the one way commute is 16 hours)

See the city on the hill? Teeny Boquillas
Most the scrutiny of the proposed port has to do with the fact that it will be unmanned, and honestly, before I had seen it, I thought that sounded silly too.  But once you see how tiny the town is and realize how far away they are from anything in Mexico, it is easy to see that neither drugs nor people are going to start flowing through there.  As the article says, "People that want to be engaged in illegal activities along the border, ones that are engaged in those activities now, they're still going to do it, " William Wellman, Big Bend National Park's superintendent. "But you'd have to be a real idiot to pick the only place with security in 300 miles of the border to try to sneak across."

Tangent:  Citizens of the U.S. used to cross back and forth illegally to Boquillas on a regular basis without punishment and without being branded ILLEGAL. I just can't believe our country regularly calls people who cross an invisible line illegals, like that invisible-line-crossing is the only characteristic to their person. Entering the United States not through a port of entry is an administrative error--it's paperwork.  Yet, we brand people because of this one action.  Have you ever gone over the speed limit?  ILLEGAL.  Have you ever rolled through a stop sign?  ILLEGAL.  I am going to forget your name and just call you the illegal from now on, okay?

Boquillas canyon was beautiful and there we met another man from Boquillas attempting to squeak out a living from the Park tourists.  His name was Victor and he would sing from his little perch across the river, his voice echoing through the canyon.

We sat on the edge of the river by the canyon and wished we had strapped a kayak to the back of our bikes. Someday we will have to go back and paddle down the Rio Grande.

While we can always find something to get political about, Big Bend was lovely and we really enjoyed relaxing in our isolated little campsite with only a little kangaroo mouse visiting us each evening at dusk.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Day 24: Presidio, TX to Redford, TX

Riding Day #24: Wednesday, December 7     Presidio, TX to Redford, TX      Miles: 25    Flats: 0

Before heading out of Presidio, Eric and I biked over to Ojinaga one last time to get some groceries (divine bread from La Francesa and fresh, local cheese) and because we enjoy crossing through the ports of entry on our bicycles though we inevitably do it wrong and get yelled at (sometimes bicycles enter with car traffic, sometimes with pedestrians, it is never posted and when we can't read their minds we get scolded). After that jaunt (mileage of which is included above), we dropped by the Consulate to say our goodbyes and express our gratitude and then we hit the road.  

Heading out of Presidio our plan was to stop in Redford for a couple of hours and meet with a border historian we had previously contacted and continue on our way, likely camping in the Big Bend Ranch State Park just before the sun went down.  Not all went as planned.

Redford is only about 19 miles southeast of Presidio and it is home to about 100 people, most of whom have cattle ranches or herd goats or sheep.  It was a teeny town and we only planned to spend 2 hours there, but we ended up spending 2 nights.

Ruby and Enrique Madrid
The reason for our extended stay was the gracious hospitality of border historian Enrique Madrid and his wife Ruby.  We had been encouraged by several people since Marfa that we should look Enrique up, and we are really glad we did.  We agreed to meet at his house around 2pm to chat and when we got there Eric and I had not eaten lunch, so we offered our fresh bread and cheese to Ruby and Enrique and all of the sudden, instead of talking about local history, I was at their kitchen stove learning the secret to making authentic tasting refried beans to make molletes (toasted bread topped with refried beans and cheese).  It soon became apparent that this was not going to be a short visit, as Enrique kept saying things like "next we will teach you to make tortillas" and "if you stick around, we will teach you to make authentic enchiladas."  We came to Redford thinking we would learn about the history of the area, but who can complain about free Mexican cooking lessons!

Ruby and Enrique's house was freezing inside, so we sat in the sun and ate the delicious molletes, and we began to realize the depth of Enrique's knowledge of archaeology, Redford, Jumano Indians, religion and spirituality and more. Enrique and Ruby met in college in Austin, where he studied archaeology and she anthropology and after which they moved to Redford, where Enrique's family has lived for generations.  They were very open about their intentional decision to not have children, as each child born in the United States has the environmental impact of at least 20 children born in some developing countries (food for thought!). In 1968, Enrique became one of the five conscientious objector in Texas during the Vietnam war and the government attempted to try him for failure to submit to the draft, but the case was dismissed because he had been denied due process by the Selective Service Board.

We had scarcely finished our snack when some old friends of Ruby and Enrique's pulled in.  They had driven down from Dallas to deliver a Christmas package to their old friends and to bring them out to dinner.  I was surprised that Enrique would be willing to host us when he knew his friends were coming in from out of town, but that just made us more grateful to be there.  Next thing we knew we were headed back to Presidio in the friends' van as they promised to buy us dinner as well!  After dinner, the visiting friends went back to their motel and Ruby made Eric and I cappuccinos and Enrique told us all the guests they have had whom they have served cappuccinos (including some folks from the CIA).  Health wise, I had not been feeling 100% and was delighted when they invited us to stay in an apartment behind their house that they usually rent out.  We spent two nights there and we learned a lot from Ruby and Enrique--both about Redford, Mexican cuisine and a myriad of other topics.

James H. Evans photo of a ghillie suit
One really interesting thing we learned about Redford is that in 1997 U.S. Marines were secretly deployed there and they ended up killing a U.S. citizen.  For some unknown reason the government determined that 75% of Redford's population was involved in narco-trafficking, although that would mean that every adult in Redford was involved (Eric and I were on the lookout for the narco-mansions the whole time we were there--we didn't find any). The Marines were deployed without the knowledge of the Redford inhabitants and there they hid in ghillie suits to spy on the people.  On May 17, 1997, 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez was herding his goats by the river, carrying a .22 rifle to ward off dogs.  The hidden Marines somehow mistook him for a threat and shot and killed him.  The Marines say that he fired at them first, but there was no evidence that Esequiel had fired his weapon and he was shot by the Marines in the back.  This killing came as a total shock to Redford residents and Enrique traveled to Washington to protest the presence of the Marines using the James H. Evans photograph to the right.  There is a PBS Documentary which includes interviews with 3 of the 4 deployed marines (the man who shot Esequiel declined to be interviewed) "The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez"--I have not seen it, but hope to soon.  Here is a great article about Esequiel and our ineffective border policies.

The site of Esequiel's murder by U.S. Marines--
his families house is in the distance

Enrique showed us the sights of Redford which included the place where Esequiel was shot, which is in view of his family's house, and where he is now buried.

Across the river from Redford is a little Mexican community, mostly of people who own livestock.  It is one of several small villages across the river that were all accostumed to crossing the river as necessary.  With the heightened security after September 11, the Redford crossing which had been used for 100+ years was shut down, forcing people to cross in Presidio/Ojinaga, if they have the papers to do so.

Redford in the foreground and a real cowboy bringing his cows for a drink 

Enrique and Ruby told us of the conservation efforts in Big Bend Ranch State Park which basically border their property.  Apparently years ago, some donkeys became feral and now, as a non-native species, they are destroying the natural habitat.  Several humane eradication tactics have been tried, unsuccessfully, so now people are just killing the donkeys.  In addition to that, an invasive insect has been introduced to kill salt cedar trees, which are about the only tall trees in the area, but they are also nonnative.  These killing conservation efforts have been difficult for those in the area to understand, but the efforts of the State Park conservation teams to want to return the land to its natural state are valid.  However, it is interesting that the conservation effort is only happening on State Park land, because for most of our bicycle trip we have traveled through desert area and almost ALL of that huge expanse of land is leased out to cattle ranchers and the cattle are slowly (or quickly?) destroying the desert.  What did my dad tell me when he visited El Paso the first time?  That ranches in the area allot each cow like 100 acres to graze, where in more humid areas of the country, the ratio is more like one acre for each cow.  Shouldn't there be more conservation across the board? (there are too many variables to say this for certain and I just read a million cow acreage websites and there are really no definite answers, but I know it is drastically different in different climates).  The desert is a really fragile landscape and while I applaud these efforts, I wish it wasn't only limited to the park land.

The Madrids also told us of the Lady in Blue, a Catholic nun who visited the area up to 500 times in the early 1600s. There are several accounts of her visits from Jumano Indians, but Mother Maria de Jesus de Agreda was actually cloistered in Spain and visited via a deep trance where in she recalls speaking with the Native Americans and feeling the climate difference of the area.  When missionaries later came to the area to attempt to convert the Jumano Indians, the Native Americans told the priests they were ready for conversion and had been told by the "lady in blue" that the missionaries would soon be in the area to guide them.  Many people, inlcuding Ruby and Enrique, are now trying to get Maria de Jesus de Agreda cannonized. More info on the lady in blue here.

Eric, making flour tortillas

And of course, the cooking lessons!  Ruby and Enrique have spoken with hundreds of Mexican people (mostly women) in an effort to retain traditional ways of cooking Mexican cuisine.  Ruby and Enrique often give cooking classes in the area and for many years taught all the Minnesota folks from Outward Bound some basic techniques. We learned the secret to making perfectly round flour torillas and it can be summed up in the following simple mathematical equation that Enrique has discovered after more than 15 years of research:

Enrique at a recent event in Marfa teaching the mathematical equation of perfectly round tortillas.  Via here.

Got it? We also learned to make authentic chile colorado which we used to make amazing chilaquiles. We always thought chilaquiles were invented to use up stale tortillas, but for these chilaquiles we first made fresh corn tortillas by hand!  AMAZING.

Enrique, making chilaquiles

Our visit with Ruby and Enrique was both delicious and informative.  We are so fortunate to have been able to change our plans and spend two wonderful days with these two folks and learn so much from them.  I would recommend ANYONE who travels through Redford to stop and visit them--they live right across from the old Redford elementary school. Go. And bring them chocolate.