Big Bend is massive. While not as large as Death Valley in acres, something about the variety of terrain (they claim it’s three parks in one), the 100+ miles of Rio Grande it borders, and the fact that the park contains one whole mountain range within it all make it a grand statement on nature and the beauties of West Texas.
But one human-scale question looms all of the nature that is on display here. Big Bend, on the South border of Texas, is a national park that shares a 110-mile border along the Rio Grande River with Mexico. The political overtones of this border are hard to avoid. There are signs everywhere noting that it is illegal to cross the Rio Grande anywhere except the official border crossings. In my mind, the Rio Grande was, well, Grand with a capital G, but in reality, much of the river here in the park is shallow and not more than 20-30 feet wide. Thus college boys on Spring Break seemed to take great pride violating the stated law by wading across the narrow strait to do a little dance on the Mexican shore.
Likewise, on the riverbanks of Big Bend, there are frequently left a small collection of colorful beaded scorpion sculptures with a coffee tin for donations and a sign noting that all monies are to pay for schooling for grandchildren. Moreover, there are small rowboats left partially hidden under shrubbery (or is it flagrantly exposed?) on the Mexican shore, making obvious the means by which people crossed the Rio Grande.
The current American Administration promised its voters they will build a Wall between the US and Mexico, under the premise that it would keep out illegal immigrants. Looking at the vast desert landscape before me here in Big Bend, that idea seems both sad and laughable. Sad, as it would it be an environmental tragedy to slash through this pristine wilderness with some snake of massive concrete slabs. No matter who forks the cash over to built such a monstrosity, it would ultimately be the US public paying the price, as the wall would have to be on the US side of the Rio Grande and would cut off access to the river and mar the spectacular beauty of the green river banks that serve as a riparian oasis in the Texan desert.
Laughable, because the naturally harsh terrain – whether of unyielding desert or high canyon cliffs – seems to be as good of a natural barrier to a casual border crossing as any Wall. Anyone desperate and willing to traverse hundreds of miles of this unfriendly desert would unlikely be deterred by 20, 30, or even 50 feet of some man-made barrier. It also seems laughable to think anything as simple as a wall would be an effective long-term solution to the much more complicated issue of immigration and refugee policy.
While in Arkansas, and after we left Texas, we had the pleasure of going to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where there was an exhibit by artists on illegal crossings along the Mexican border. The photographs by Richard Misrach created a poignant display, and for me especially so after a week in Big Bend along the border and weeks in the Southwestern desert landscapes. The photographs contained no people – just pictures of the desolate and harsh desert landscape with found objects. These included effigies created by the travelers dressed in discarded human clothing and a variety of worn and torn stuffed toys, books and personal items left behind when the energy to carry them onward ran out. Then, strikingly, there were pictures of empty oil barrels shot full of holes – and an installation piece exhibiting one of these barrels.
These images struck me hard. I learned that some humanitarian groups leave barrels full of water in the borderlands – not to entice illegal immigration, but just in case some of these desperate travelers are truly in need of live-saving water while on they are seeking out a new life. Other people shoot holes into these barrels to empty out the water in an attempt to prevent illegal crossings. I have seen no evidence, but I am utterly unconvinced that this is a deterrent for those who were already determined to get over the border at any cost, and have already committed to enduring the harsh desert conditions we’ve seen in the Southwest.
To me, those bullet-ridden empty barrels signals that a country built upon the work and dreams of immigrants now also has some people whom reject that foundation and respond to American dreamers with virulent hostility. In a place as wide open and beautiful as Big Bend, where we spent days boondocking in near isolation, hiking up peaks for sunset views of a desolate landscape, it was too easy to forget the human struggles that played itself out daily along the borders of the Rio Grande.