“$5000 Fine for Crossing the Border”: Following the Rio Grande in Texas

The edge of the Rio Grande at Grassy Banks Campground, Big Bend Ranch State Park

No geographic feature signifies “BORDER” more than the Rio Grande River. Pete and I spent three days camping at the edge of the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park, where the river is a murky green creek slowly moving between ochre canyons, cottonwoods and tamarisk trees, and river grasses.The border with Mexico is technically the deepest part of the channel, which in many places might actually be knee-high. The rugged precipitous mountains of Parque Nacional Cañón de Santa Elena, a million-acre protected area in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, loom over the Rio Grande.

We stayed in the State Park rather than the better-known Big Bend National Park by accident— the national park campgrounds were fully booked in April while the state park campgrounds were nearly empty. We were nonetheless were awed by the mesas and rocky canyons and limestone monoliths and tree-less arid plains of the 300,000 acre state park, part of the Chihuahuan Desert as the national park. The vast landscape, now punctuated by red-tipped ocotillo, prickly pear cactus with yellow spring blooms, and mesquite, was formed hundreds of millions of years ago by the colliding of tectonic plates and magmatic eruptions, followed by millions more years of erosion that revealed the escarpments and peaks and odd formations of today. You feel as if you are walking through geologic time and space.

View to the east from La Cuesta. We tried biking up that road, but the 17% (!) grade did us in. We walked up to take pictures.
A pause on the West Contrabando trail system
Ocotillo is everywhere. The flowers are edible.

The border is ever-present. We joined a three mile paddle down the river with Big Bend Hiking and Boating Company. I asked our guide Erin about the relationship of this region with the border- were there many problems border crossings? What’s with the posted $5000 fine- is anyone crossing illegally INTO Mexico? I had learned from a historical marker in the State Park that this area – with an aptly named Contrabando Creek- had been, since the time this became United States territory, a passageway for all types of contraband. The contraband was smuggled in from Mexico to avoid customs at Presidio, 40 miles to the west: Cattle, rum during Prohibition, wax made from the abundant candelilla plant.

Erin told us a more recent history of a once open border.. Across the river from the tiny community of Lajitas, Texas, at the edge of the State Park, is a remote Mexican community whose residents once moved freely to and from Lajitas, sending their children to school in Texas and working in local tourism. The tiny Lajitas Cemetery is the final resting place of more Spanish surnamed people than Anglo. Rio Grande Electric Cooperative was even planning to bring electricity to its Mexican neighbor. That all ended, she said, after 9/11 and the closures have only deepened since then. Mexicans abandoned their remote community as they could no longer cross easily to work

As to illegal crossings, Erin said the territory of the Mexican side is so forbidding that relatively few people can even get there. Customs and Border Patrol surveillance is present through drones and cameras and heat sensors and highway checkpoints. Only a few asylum seeker a year are apprehended crossing the Rio Grande here, in stark contrast to the much farther to the southeast.

As I paddled down the curving green Rio Grande, through canyons under a hot clear blue sky, stopping to take a dip from the Mexican shore, ducking the tall grass stalks, peering into beaver caves carved into the riverbank, I thought about this fluid border. The Mexican Chihuahuan desert shares the same ecosystem with Texas. I kept imagining people slipping down the steep Chihuahuan cliffs and swimming to the US side. I imagined them navigating at night by the millions of visible stars. I was overwhelmed by the expanse and endless horizons. I could not imagine a wall desecrating the landscape.

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Our home for three days

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