Bound by nothing

Exploring borders, real and imaginary, in the remote desert of Big Bend National Park

Outside Big Bend National Park is a small town called Terlingua, an old mercury mining town now home to perhaps 60 permanent residents. The Chisos Mountains of Big Bend are visible from Terlingua.

The water of the Rio Grande shimmers with a muddy green, lizard-like iridescence in late April sun, meandering slowly (unlike the actual lizards that scuttle about) through a deep canyon of banded limestone. A sandstone-colored snake winds its way, keeping pace with the languor of the river. It swims against the current, staying close to the rocks that line the shore farthest from where I sit on a shadeless mesa high above the river.

Water in front of me, sun-bleached desert on every other side. Prickly pears, chollas, pitaya and yucca erupt from the dusty ground around me, sharp and menacing yet alluring with their blossoms of butter cream yellow, alabaster white and carmine pink.

The silhouette of the Chisos Mountains, a third distinct ecosystem in this land of diversity, adds a postcard-worthy backdrop in the distance.

This is Big Bend National Park.

Gfp-texas-big-bend-national-park-overview-of-the-rio-grande-at-dusk (1)
Yinan Chen

Covering more than 801,000 acres in the wide-open expanse of southwest Texas, Big Bend is the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert in the U.S. It is also, despite its significant biodiversity, one of the States’ least visited national parks, with less than 300,000 visitors annually. Compare that to the landscape of my native home, the Great Smoky Mountains, which hosts more than 10 million visitors a year.

Those who have ventured to Big Bend know the hidden treasures within. The region supports more than 1,200 species of plants (including some 60 cacti species), 11 species of amphibians, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish, 75 species of mammals, 450 species of birds and around 3,600 species of insects. It is home to more types of birds, bats and cacti than any other national park in the U.S.

But in a land where shade is hard to come by, where temperatures soar to 115 degrees Fahrenheit along the river in late May and June, where nary an animal is seen by day save for vultures, where cacti sprout from every rock and canyons rise like sacred temples around the moss-green Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park can feel like no man’s land, a place too inhospitable for life of any sort.

Yet the park teems with life, and always has.

The ocean has shored up against and spilled into Big Bend more than once, leaving behind the remains of sea-dwelling organisms such as oysters, giant clams, snails, ammonites, turtles and marine reptiles. Further inland, fossils show dinosaurs roamed the land. Throughout history, periodic volcanic eruptions changed the geologic landscape and biological makeup of Big Bend, as does the process of erosion today.

Indeed, the land of Big Bend is a work in progress 500 million years in the making.

In the here and now, beside me on the mesa in the late April sun, my best friend picked up a smooth, blanched-white seashell and handed it to me. Living in San Antonio for the past few years, this was her second trip to Big Bend. When she and I decided to plan a vacation together after not seeing each other for a year, Big Bend seemed like the perfect place to reconnect, far away from the beeps and dings of our cell phones and laptops. 

I rubbed the cone-shaped shell in my hand wondering what colors it held in its prime before time washed it clean. Everything here feels ancient. Timeless. Artistic. Bound by nothing.

And yet there is the border.

From where I sat on the mesa, the land on the other side of the river is Mexico. This struck me as strange as there is nothing different about the earth a football-field’s distance away from me. In fact, the land just across from Big Bend is Mexico’s equivalent of the park, Parque Nacional Ocampo.

Yet geographic borders are part of human civilization, and in Big Bend the Rio Grande creates a natural border (and thus a political border) between the United States and Mexico for 118 miles. Much as the landscape of Big Bend continues to evolve, so do the political and social pressures of enforcing a natural border that was fluid for much of history, allowing people to flow between the two nations at will.

In many places near the Rio Grande, Mexican nationals will cross the river into the U.S. park to sell walking sticks, bracelets and other handmade crafts. Big Bend discourages park visitors from purchasing souvenirs this way and considers such items “contraband.” While it’s hard to say how often it actually happens, park officials say Mexican vendors selling crafts across the border are subject to arrest, fines and deportation through Presidio, Texas, a town nearly 100 miles from Big Bend — a harsh punishment for people simply trying to survive in a harsh environment, both environmentally and economically.

The village of Boquillas is home to around 200 people and relies heavily on tourism to stay afloat. Visitors at Big Bend National Park can enter Boquillas through a port of entry near Boquillas Canyon.
The village of Boquillas is home to around 200 people and relies heavily on tourism to stay afloat. Visitors at Big Bend National Park can enter Boquillas through a port of entry near Boquillas Canyon.

Many of the Mexican vendors are from a tiny village known as Boquillas, just across the river as it runs through the Boquillas Canyon. The village rests in an isolated area called Maderas del Carmen, with mountains on one side and the Rio Grande and U.S. border on the other. With only about 200 people living in the village year-round, Boquillas relies on tourism to survive. From Big Bend National Park, visitors can enter Boquillas through the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry, Wednesday through Sunday year round. A passport is needed to make the crossing, and $5 will secure a short boat ride the other side. (If you don’t have $5, you can always swim.)

But 15 years ago the village of Boquillas nearly collapsed when the border crossing was closed after the 9/11 attacks. Year after year after year the border crossing remained closed, forcing a mass exodus of villagers who were left with no work and no guarantee when the border would open again. It wasn’t until 2013 that the U.S. reopened the border at Boquillas. The Mexican government took measures to help the village recuperate, sending supplies and building a new hospital and school.

The border crossing was closed for the three days my friend and I spent hiking and camping in Big Bend National Park, but I thought about the little village of Boquillas often as we summited peaks in the Chisos Mountains, descended into Santa Elena Canyon or dipped our feet into the warm waters of the Rio Grande.

My best friend and I grew up in a small town in North Carolina, surrounded by other equally small — and often even smaller — towns. Many of the people who populated these small municipalities made their living in the textile industry.

My hometown of around 4,000 people took a hard hit in the 1980s when mergers and takeovers in the textiles industry stripped the town of more than 1,000 jobs over the course of a decade. The textile mills also were major customers for the town’s utilities and with their departure the town also lost $500,000 in utility revenue, not to mention tax dollars.

Born in the mid ’80s, right in the thick of the town’s downturn, I mostly grew up in a town that felt economically dead. My mother and grandmother remembered a town full of diverse businesses, but I grew up in place that was made mostly of churches and businesses that failed nearly as quickly as they opened. Neighboring towns faired even worse. It took decades — I was well out of my undergraduate college days — before my hometown began to bounce back, focusing on niche industries and, like Boquillas, tourism.

While my hometown and Boquillas are vastly different, our common ground seems more important — our need to survive in a world that increasingly seems to favor the big over the small. The health of our world, its economies and infrastructures, depends on remembering the value of individual humans.

In a time when politicians clamor to “make America great again” by building walls and retreating into isolation, a town like Boquillas reminds that we are all human, and we prosper most together, not apart.

Sometimes it takes a place as remote as Big Bend to remember how interconnected the world really is.