The Boquillas Trail is located in a remote corner of Big Bend National Park in Texas. It begins with several long steps sloping gently upward, followed by a number of shorter, steeper steps which veer out of sight to the left. The gravelly sand of each step is held in place by a half-buried log, and the very first log separates the trail itself from the cracked blacktop of a small parking lot—creating a kind of artificial threshold or boundary, something people have to step over to begin their walk. Several years ago, when my wife and I followed the trail up and over a limestone ridge speckled with the plump, delicately joined pads of prickly pears, we barely gave the steps a second thought.
A map of the park shows that the Boquillas Trail is fairly short—less than one and a half miles round-trip. No one will be reminded of Mao’s celebrated dictum that even the longest journey begins with a single step. But walking the trail with my finger beforehand, seeing it double back occasionally to negotiate the slippery contours of the limestone ridge, I couldn’t help noticing that its relatively brief and labyrinthine route mimicked the many small bends in the Rio Grande River that are part of the larger bend the park is named for. Mathematicians have long been aware that landforms can remain symmetrical across a wide range of scales—a phenomenon known as self-similarity. But I’d never actually experienced this phenomenon until Ruth and I climbed to the rocky crest of the trail and slowly wound our way down to the section of the Rio Grande that cut its way through Boquillas Canyon below. It was as if my feet were able to draw a line from the trail to anywhere. “We are lined with eyes, we see with our feet,” Emerson once said.
Toward the bottom of the trail, as we were walking single file, Ruth stopped so suddenly that I had to grab her shoulder for a moment to steady myself—my lofty geographic reverie brought brusquely back down to earth. But a moment later I saw why she had stopped, and why she was looking so steadily at a rock about waist-high, seared and bare in the glaring sunlight.
The rock itself was nothing special—no different from all the others we’d passed on our way down, no different from the slanted cliffs that lined the other side of the river, no different from the landscape that stretched for miles in every direction. But loosely scattered across its flat, exposed surface was a shiny collection of bead-and-wire animals. And next to them was a clear plastic cup holding a couple of wrinkled dollars. Though we were used to seeing displays like this on the streets of New York, where vendors routinely sell everything from hand-wrought jewelry to kitchy portraits of Marilyn Monroe, stumbling onto one here seemed kind of weird. The very incongruity of it prompted a closer look—each of us reaching for one of the colorful animals.
Mine was a roadrunner, about three inches tall, with a head and tail feathers made of wire-strung brown and yellow beads, a body made of bare copper wire interlaced like a French braid, and everything else—neck, legs, and feet—made of wire wrapped like an electric coil. The effect seemed very deliberate and concise. The legs in particular made me wonder if the animal had been created quickly, with rapid weaving and winding motions, either out of habit or from a more magical effort to match the roadrunner’s own speed. But I was most intrigued by the artistry and imagination that had gone into it, the apparent desire to entice with something more than a simple, easy-to-recognize shape.
Again Ruth was a step ahead of me. Turning the animal she was holding this way and that, examining it from every angle, missing nothing, she said that it reminded her of Calder’s wiry sculptures. I could see what she meant. Even without all the materials he liked to use—leather, cardboard, rhinestones, bottle caps, pipe cleaners, rubber tubing—the colorful javelina she was balancing in the palm of her hand provoked the same frisky, off-kilter associations as one of his lions or leopards. When she put it back on the rock, next to the other animals, and began moving all of them around, playing with them, she said that it made her think of the Calder circus on display at the Whitney. Looking at the roadrunner still balanced in my own hand, I found myself imagining one of Chuck Jones’s zanier cartoons—Beep, beep!
Of course, none of this answered the question of what the animals were doing on the rock in the first place. Or who had put them there. Or why someone would trust people not to take the money that was already in the cup or expect them to add a few bills of their own if they wanted to keep one of the pieces. Despite our inclination to play with the animals, the situation was kind of unnerving—not at all the way things worked on the streets of New York, where everything was face-to-face, intimate and negotiable. So, feeling a little confused, we left everything where it was and looked ahead to see where the trail was about to lead us.
That was when we noticed a slender, solitary, dark-haired man, mounted bareback on a white horse, quietly watching us from a relatively flat area on the other side of the Rio Grande. There was nothing threatening or aggressive about his gaze. If anything, he seemed rather hesitant, ready to flee, and it occurred to us that we hadn’t seen him sooner because he’d concealed himself within a nearby tamarisk thicket until we stopped to examine the beaded animals. Unknowingly, we’d brought him out of hiding.
Only then did we realize that, whether we cared or not, this section of the Rio Grande had to be seen as a border as well as a beautiful stretch of scenery. What did it matter that the border was just a penciled line down the center of a river which endlessly shifted course? Though clearly porous—indeed, an informal, off-the-books example of NAFTA—the line that divided us from the man across the river, the distance that separated us, was in some sense absolute. As even the most arbitrary or imaginary lines can be sometimes.
Self-interest has always shaped the United States’s use of lines, especially as the nation moved farther and farther west, first securing, then erasing one boundary after another. The lowest of land grabs tend to provoke the loftiest rhetoric—yet another example of the “singular accord between super-celestial ideas and subterranean behavior” that made Montaigne so angry and disappointed—and Americans regularly invoked what the Declaration of Independence had famously called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” In 1802, hoping to settle the question of who owned the Mississippi River, Sen. James Ross of Pennsylvania argued that “From the very position of our country, from its geographical shape, from motives of complete independence, the command of the navigation of the river ought to be in our hands.” Three years later, after the Louisiana Purchase was ratified, a Massachusetts state representative named Joseph Chandler said the Mississippi River was just the beginning “of our anticipating hopes”—envisioning a future in which “our boundaries shall be those which Nature has formed for a great, powerful, and free State.”
How right he was. When Congress started looking past Louisiana to Texas, a special commission concluded that the entire territory of Texas was just an inward extension of the coastline that had been part of the Louisiana Purchase—making it part of the United States, not Mexico. Nor did there seem to be any limit to this geographical version of the divine right of kings. In 1829, with the urge to annex Texas making the United States more and more antagonistic to Mexico, the Nashville Republican not only said that the Rio Grande had been “designated by the hand of Heaven, as a boundary between two great nations of dissimilar pursuits,” but went on to claim that “On this side of the Rio Grande, the country is seasonable, fertile, and every way desirable to the people of the United States. On the other side the lands are unproductive, crops cannot be matured without irrigation; in short they are entirely calculated for a lazy, pastoral, mining people like the Mexicans.”
Nineteenth-century Americans would never abandon their belief that the line separating the United States and Mexico had simply been discovered, not imposed—proof of God’s hand rather than their own. Even something as straight and unvarying as the boundary between Mexico and New Mexico supposedly followed the lay of the land. After a Lt. William Emory surveyed this boundary in 1854, his official report included two etchings: “Near View of the Initial Point of the Boundary Line on Parallel 31˚20΄ Looking South along the Meridian” and “View from the Initial Point of Boundary Line on Parallel 31˚20΄ Looking North along the Meridian.” Emory claimed that the boundary existed in “a neutral region, having peculiar characteristics so different as to stamp upon vegetable and animal life features of its own.” He also considered it “fortunate that two nations, which differ so much in laws, religion, customs, and physical wants, should be separated by lines, marking great features in physical geography.” Yet the most obvious feature of the two etchings—one looking north to the United States, the other south to Mexico—is that they both show a flat, nondescript section of the Chihuahuan Desert which stretches all the way from central Mexico to the southern part of New Mexico. Literary historian Kris Fresonke has pointed out that one could reverse the etchings’ captions and never know the difference.
Difference was something Ruth and I seemed to discover with every step—the trail fluctuating from moment to moment and switchback to switchback as it snaked down the side of the ridge. When we’d stopped to examine the beaded animals, the tops of the limestone cliffs on the Mexican side of Boquillas Canyon appeared to be just above eye level. But this led us to underestimate how far the trail still had to drop—and the lower we went, the higher the opposite cliffs rose. By the time we reached the bottom, they towered over us—the nearest section curving overhead like a huge dome, its sheared, almost smooth, and shadowless face a lovely ecru color, looking very small-grained in the harsh sunlight.
Pausing a moment to admire the scene head-on, we were struck by how effortlessly its geology turned beauty into a force of nature. The bottom half of the dome was a series of layers. The layers varied in thickness—suggesting they’d been deposited over different intervals of time—but all slanted uniformly downward from right to left, like a cake that had been sharply tilted instead of squashed, the lowest layers diving beneath the river. By contrast, the upper half of the dome was rather jagged and tumbled-looking, an almost chaotic swirl of rock, as if it lacked the skewed harmony and wisdom of the older strata and was still waiting to settle down. Certainly the upper half seemed more likely to crumble and send down a rock slide, even though the area was unusually free of loose or fallen boulders and nothing suggested that Boquillas Canyon had ever reverberated with the hard crackle of skidding rocks. Nature had been both sly and generous with the scene, and the overall effect was stunning.
Just how nature had created this effect—the earthly deus ex machina at work behind the deceptively hardened design of the canyon walls—forced us to think bigger than this particular scene. The dome-like cliff on the Mexican side was matched by the somewhat more rounded ridge we’d descended on the American side, with both walls rising to about twelve hundred feet above the river while ranging more than twenty miles to the east in a tight sequence of sharp and sweeping bends that either narrowed the space between them or pushed them apart. Like a plastic ant farm that allows people to see how ants diligently construct their tunnels and nests, the canyon was basically a visual cross-section of how it had been made by the river.
Ostensibly, the Rio Grande had just cut its way down, year after year, century after century, the abrasive power of water slowly hollowing out terrain that had been stationary for millions of years. Americans of Lt. Emory’s day would have added that the actual course of the river merely followed a line separating good land from bad—evidence of the eventual difference between a good nation and a bad one. But the angled, layered walls of the canyon told a different story. In fact, the entire region had changed a great deal over time. Above all, the region had been lifted and folded by an east-to-west compression of the earth’s crust—meaning that the river itself had remained stationary, kept to its own level, while the land rose higher and higher, forcing the river to meander east or west, north or south, depending on the kinds of rock it had to cut through. Any differences between the two sides of the Rio Grande had been created by the river rather than codified or confirmed by it.
On the other hand, none of these differences have ever amounted to much, and even now the similarities between the two sides far outweigh any disparities. Both sides of the Rio Grande’s banks have been taken over by tamarisk bushes and river cane—neither native to the area, and both considered so invasive that the two countries work together from time to time to burn them off. In fact, the United States and Mexico have collaborated for many years in the region. When Franklin Roosevelt created Big Bend National Park in 1944, he told Ávila Camacho, his Mexican counterpart, “I do not believe that this undertaking in the Big Bend will be complete until the entire park in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande forms one great international park.” Though implementing this plan took another fifty years, Big Bend is now matched by the Parque Nacional Cañón de Santa Elena, just across the Rio Grande from the western side of the park, and by the Área Natural Protegida Maderas del Carmen, just across the river from its eastern side. The layered dome of rock Ruth and I stopped to look at is part of the Maderas del Carmen preserve, which stretches the entire length of Boquillas Canyon on the Mexican side.
The sheer walls of Boquillas Canyon mean that not much of it is accessible on foot. Still, Ruth and I wanted to see what we could, so we headed along the gently sloping bank of the Rio Grande as far as the trail would take us.
At first we were surprised by how wide the bank was, since we could see far enough ahead to tell that it gave out pretty abruptly—imitating, on a horizontal plane, the way the rocky dome slanted into the river vertically. But our sense of surprise quickly gave way to a feeling of delight. For we found that we kept shifting our eyes from the vertical cliffs to the horizontal bank—first looking up, then looking down—as if the canyon were one of those gestalt puzzles in which you see either a vase or two profiles face-to-face, but never both at the same time. Only in the near distance, where the bank disappeared, did everything merge.
Because it was still early spring, the Rio Grande was moving low and slow, in no rush to reach the Gulf of Mexico. Choosing to walk even slower than the river, we discovered that many sections of its bank were covered with loose pebbles, many others with an uneasy mixture of sand and pebbles, and one in particular with a peculiar series of small, grass-tufted mounds that resembled Maya Lin’s sculpture Wave Field. Slowing even more, we picked up a few of the scoured pebbles—graded bigger toward the cliffs, smaller toward the river—relishing the hard, punctuated sound they made as we walked over them.
At one point we stopped completely, the sun on our faces, a breeze at our backs. All around us, tamarisk bushes sought the water’s edge and river cane grew in great green swaths. The cliffs to our right opened up a view of the canyon, the cliffs to our left closed it down. The river ran green in some places, brown in others. Occasionally the dry, resinous scent of creosote wafted down like a branch drifting in the vaporous, earthy stream of river smells. Feeling lulled by the sound of the river, and sheltered by the cliffs on either side, I experienced one of those intense, exhilarating moments that have often crystallized my relationship to nature.
Nature is remarkably specific. Anyone familiar with the Southwest, for instance, can tell right away that none of the so-called spaghetti westerns were ever shot in Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas. Likewise, anyone familiar with Southern California knows that all those movies from the 1930s and ’40s that supposedly took place in Africa or South America were really shot in the white sands of the Mojave just east of Los Angeles or among the dry, rolling, oak-studded hills just north of it. However, I’d say that our strongest and most sympathetic experiences of nature are usually specific to a particular moment as well as a particular place, and more often than not they’re unique. Did Wordsworth really mean his heart leapt every time he beheld a rainbow? Did Wallace Stevens place more than one jar on a Tennessee hill? Better to say that each turned a moment into a quality or an eternity.
Many of my own moments resulted from seeing something familiar in a new light—one of the first being the time I stood waist-deep in the swirling white backwash of a heavy surf, my ears popping, my nose dripping salt water, my hands shielding my eyes against the sun setting over the crest of a wave, and realized that even though I’d spent most of my childhood in the Pacific Ocean, I would forever remember that moment as one of the happiest of my life. It was as if everything I’d experienced while snorkeling, scuba diving, tide-pooling, body-surfing, or simply hanging out on the fine-grained muddy beaches of the Pacific had instantly been invested with a strange and overwhelming joy. Wittgenstein might say it was an extreme version of learning how to appreciate what we already know.
Still, I’ve been equally struck by the unfamiliarity of a situation or place—and that’s basically what happened at Big Bend, where everything I’d been taking note of in bits and pieces suddenly fell into place and became whole. Though different from my adolescent epiphany, the shift in perspective was equally astonishing. All at once I felt that I was seeing the relationship between things, not just the things themselves, as if mere words had been replaced by a grammar. Features that had earlier seemed somewhat random or chaotic now seemed necessary. Rocks lay where they lay for a reason. River cane took root where it did for a reason. Even the most residual or peripheral aspects of the scene fit a pattern—part of what made it a pattern in the first place.
Clearly, I had awakened to a new and wonderful world. I was alert. I was conscious. And because we’ve become so accustomed to the need for self-consciousness—think of how obsessed Thoreau was with the state of being asleep or awake—the heightened awareness of my senses gave me nearly as much pleasure as the beautiful stretch of river I was beginning to make sense of. One of the reasons I mistrust the sublime, at least as Kant memorably defined it in the Critique of Judgment, is that it resists “the interests of the senses.” Of course, Kant meant something very specific by this, defining the sublime as an expression of the mind’s capacity to imagine limitlessness. But the concept has played an iffy, often reactionary role in American history. Manifest Destiny in particular trafficked in the rhetoric of the sublime, deliberately slanting the idea of limitlessness to mean that a nation which had barely moved west of the Mississippi could lay claim to an entire continent—if not in person, then “by map” alone. In the 1820s, an anonymous article reprinted in the North American Review declared that “Americans are far from being pleased with the irregular figure which the Republic exhibits upon the map. This and that corner of the continent must be bought (or conquered if it cannot be bought) in order to give a more handsome sweep to their periphery.” These were not the sentiments of someone interested in his senses. If Lt. Emory had relied on his senses in the Chihuahuan Desert—really looked at the land before him, really measured it by eye rather than his sextant—he wouldn’t have claimed there was some sort of natural or providential boundary between the United States and Mexico, and then identified that supposedly God-given boundary with the abstract lines of latitude and longitude that circled the globe. Parallel 31˚20΄, indeed!
All of this came to mind when the rising and falling sounds of a song again reminded us that the Rio Grande was a river to be looked at but not crossed—yet another gestalt of sorts that had us toggling back and forth between scenery and politics, the United States and Mexico. For perched on a large rock across the river were three men singing Cielito Lindo over and over again—though just the first verse and the refrain, each four lines long:
De la Sierra Morena,
Cielita lindo, vienen bajando,
Un par de ojitos negros,
Cielito lindo, de contrabando.
Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Canta y no llores,
Porque cantando se alegran,
Cielito lindo, los corazones.
At first the men seemed to be serenading us and a few other tourists wandering through the canyon. But they were clearly on their side of the river and we were clearly on ours, so even when their singing appeared to have the incidental, background quality of birdsong, there was almost a taunting edge to it—as if to prove that the border cut both ways. The same thing was true of the way they sometimes gestured with their hands, effectively beckoning us and needling us at the same time. Even the song itself was fraught, since it’s said to be about a young woman rescued from a bandit stronghold in Spain:
From the Sierra Morena,
Pretty little darling, are coming down,
A pair of black eyes,
Pretty little heaven, which are contraband.
Ay, ay, ay, ay,
Sing and don’t cry,
Because singing brightens up,
Pretty little darling, the hearts.
What made this situation especially strange was that unlike the man on the white horse, the men standing on the rock didn’t seem to be selling anything. We didn’t see anything laid out on the river bank and nobody was holding anything up. Nor did they indicate they might be holding something back, waiting for one of us to show an interest of some sort. The only thing that seemed to explain their presence was that they were there. And from our side of the river, you couldn’t even tell how they’d gotten there, since the rock was just an eccentrically eroded portion of the cliffs and didn’t offer any obvious means of reaching it.
Maybe the sheer obscurity of the situation—the question of what the men were doing there in the first place and what they might want—explained why several of the people ahead of us on the trail started acting a little nervous. None of them stood stock still or bolted back up the trail. But three or four moved away from the river’s edge as they passed the men, angling back only after they’d opened up a comfortable gap, and one couple put even more distance between themselves and the men as they returned, nearly hugging the cliffs at times. It occurred to me they might feel as threatened by an unaccustomed urge to be watchful as by the men themselves. Not everyone is used to keeping their eyes peeled like New Yorkers. But I wasn’t surprised to cross paths with a ranger a little later who said he’d gotten several complaints about the men and was about to investigate.
On our way back up the trail, Ruth and I decided to buy a few of the beaded animals after all. We found them just as we’d left them on the rock—still waiting for a playful hand to animate them, perhaps, but something worth looking at once we got back to New York and a tangible reminder of the line we’d crossed when we stopped to look at them in the first place.
While selecting the ones we wanted, we noticed that the man on the horse was watching us again. To signal him, to let him know we were paying for the animals, we held the plastic cup in a slow, silent movie kind of way and exaggerated our gestures as we put the money in. A little later, looking back from above, we watched him slowly splash across the river, work his way up the trail until he reached the rock, lean over from the horse’s back to pick up our money without taking the money that was already there, then return without a second glance to the other side. For some reason I was reminded of a scene in Chinatown—the one where Jack Nicholson is squatting down in what’s supposed to be a dry riverbed, waiting for a young Mexican American boy who may know why there’s a small pool of water there. When the boy shows up, riding a large white horse, he says very softly, very matter-of-factly, that the water “goes in different parts of the river. Every night a different part.” Then he jerks the horse’s head around and leaves without a backward glance.
I’ve often wondered whether we would have encountered the men selling the beaded animals and singing Cielito Lindo if a small border crossing in Big Bend— just two or three miles upriver from the Boquillas Trail, and officially named the Boquillas Crossing Point of Entry—hadn’t been closed at the time.
The crossing point is very low-key: just a dirt road, a parking lot, and a few buildings. And it’s only for pedestrians in any case, since people make their way back and forth across the Rio Grande on a small flat bottomed boat. But the crossing is more important than it might seem at first. Among other things, the village of Boquillas del Carmen lies just uphill from the river, and the village is known for its restaurants, embroidered bags, and, yes, beaded animals. When the crossing closed in 2002—one of the many ancillary responses to 9/11—American tourists stopped coming, the village’s economy tanked, and a number of people left. I can easily believe that those who stayed felt they had little choice but to lay out their wares for the tourists who still visited the Boquillas Trail—even if the need to keep their distance forced them to trust the very people who’d closed the border in the first place. That some might also want to taunt those people is hardly surprising.
Happily, the Boquillas crossing reopened in 2013, after a lengthy study by Customs and Border Protection concluded it would be useful and safe. Despite all those who opposed the move, the agency found that “the establishment of the Boquillas border crossing is consistent with the designation of the area as a region of binational interest and that the Boquillas border crossing is needed to fill the long stretch of border between Presidio and Del Rio where there is currently no authorized international border crossing.” There’s even a hint that closing the border had been counterproductive, since the study also specified that an “enhanced security focus at the border crossing” generally “discouraged illegal activity in the vicinity” rather than making it easier. Jane Jacobs had pointed to something similar in The Death and Life of Great American Cities when she said that crowds and neighborhood businesses—with their “constant succession of eyes”—were the key to safe sidewalks in New York.
But here’s the most interesting thing about the study: it wasn’t prompted by fears of a hostile border. Instead it had an environmental focus that turned the entire issue of Big Bend’s southern boundary into a good neighbor policy. Contrary to Sen. Ross, Joseph Chandler, Lt. Emory, and all the others who had misused natural law over the years, the opening paragraph of the Customs and Border Protection decision read: “In 2010, the Presidents of the United States and Mexico issued a joint statement supporting the designation of a region of protected areas on both sides of the Rio Grande, including Big Bend National Park, as a region of binational interest. In support of this, CBP began working with the National Park Service to establish a border crossing to allow authorized travel between the areas in the United States and Mexico.”
For some reason Mexican and American authorities waited until 2015 to celebrate the reopening. But in early April—nearly four years to the day Ruth and I visited the park—they held a joint ceremony, first on one side of the border, then on the other, bridging a river the United States still calls the Rio Grande and Mexico still calls the Rio Bravo. According to a Houston Chronicle article, the double ceremony included comments by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Earl Wayne, and Mexico’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Juan José Guerra Abud. Secretary Jewell emphasized that the Big Bend/Rio Bravo region is one of the most bio-diverse in the world, and that “butterflies, reptiles, flowers, plants, birds . . . don’t know of this artificial boundary.” Ambassador Wayne echoed these sentiments when he declared, “The park is a symbol for what the border can be—a place that brings us together, not one that divides us.”
So here I sit, admiring my crafty roadrunner, knowing that when Ruth and I bought it we crossed a line that no flesh-and-blood roadrunner would ever recognize. Needless to say, the most important line between a good and a bad country is always the one that lies within a country’s borders, not the one separating it from any other country. I later discovered that even the NPS website for Big Bend cautions that, like the pair of black eyes in Cielito Lindo, anything not sold in Boquillas del Carmen or the park’s camp stores is “considered contraband.” But contraband is the language of nations, not nature, and one of the things that sets a good country apart from a bad one these days is its attitude toward nature. Because the Mexican border has become such a contentious issue, far too many people now believe that nature needs to be secured rather than preserved. And yet, as the Customs and Border Protection study showed, when things are seen in a less fearful light, an appreciation for nature encourages the United States and Mexico to share their border instead of constantly fighting over it. If various factors have hardened the boundary between us from time to time, nature has always been a way of softening it again. In the eyes of nature, even where the two countries diverge or come into conflict, we are more like a gestalt than anything else—not antipodes, not antonyms, but different sides of the same thing. To slightly amend a phrase Pascal made famous: Nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. No lines at all.