©Bert Gildart: “See ‘em?” questioned Janie from our perch on the boulders near Rio Grande Village Campground in Big Bend National Park, Texas. “There goes another…
“I don’t think they’re supposed to be doing that!”
Fact of the matter is they’re not supposed to be doing that! But it’s so darn easy for Mexicans to cross the Rio Grande River at Boquillas, Mexico and enter this immense American national park that they do so at will. And everyone knows it. Rangers know it, campground hosts and hostesses know it, maintenance personnel know it, and now we know it ‘cuz we’d just seen it. It’s easy! Simply hop into a saddle behind a Mexican horseman, and no one even gets wet. In places the historic river is only about 100 yards wide (if that), and on a Quarter horse the water is but stirrup high.
L to R: Prior to 9/11 Victor could legally transport Americans from Big Bend to Boquillas, Mexico. Today, he wades or boats the river with items to sell which the park now considers to be illegal. Nevertheless, everyone knows he does it, just like they know other illegals (images 2 and 3) ford the Rio Grande with items of art which they too sell along the park’s various trails. In the case of image 2 & 3, Mexicans are fording Rio Grande immediately adjacent to the Rio Grande Village Campground. Many we talked to say it makes them nervous. (All images copyright Bert Gildart)
The purpose, of course, of “stealing” across the U.S./Mexican border is to sell your family’s works of art, and this river setting offers many opportunities.
SHALLOW AND NARROW
In some places the water could hit a horse at shoulder height, in which case you defer to a small canoe like the one Victor, “The Singing Mexican,” uses. Worst case scenario, simply wade the river, get wet, and when no one is around, place your objects of art along the trail. Before day’s end American tourists will be along — and just as surely as the Chicos Mountains will be standing tall and majestic in the morrow — someone will place the requisite price in the small, stone-weighted adjacent glass jar. Signs warn against purchasing contraband from undesirables, but most (visitors at any rate) just chortle the thought away. “Yeah, we’ve got one of Victor’s walking sticks.”
And though purchase price may be small, the money means much to residents in Boquillas.
Along the entire Mexican/American border, the small village of Boquillas, Coahuila (the state) is truly unique . Established about 1916 to serve mining interests, the village peers down on the Rio Grande River from a 500-foot high cliff face where it looms over the 800,000 acre Big Bend, famous for its javelina, road runners and other premier examples of the Chihuahuan Desert. In this immense landscape employees at the park once played baseball with residents of Boquillas. Folks from both sides crossed from their respective countries with little more than God’s blessings, and might have done so simply to gossip about Juanita’s new baby boy.
Here, too, in this setting a genuine business once existed where American visitors could hop aboard Victor’s boat and listen, perhaps, to a few of the man’s ballads as he paddled you across this historic river. Five minutes later you would step foot in Mexico, climb the bank to the village, have dinner and then, several hours later, boat back to Big Bend National Park.
Though illegal border crossings is a significant story in Big Bend, it is not the major story. Instead, it is park’s unique geology; its outdoor activities such as paddling the Rio Grand River; and the wildlife, such as the javelina, that make this premier park so fascinating. Nevertheless, Big Bend National Park, like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, has problems that must be resolved.
Prior to 9/11 it was all very legal and everyone loved the experience. No passport or other legal papers were needed, but most importantly, adventures here provided residents in Boquillas with an income.
NOT VERY ACCESSIBLE
All this worked because Boquillas is not easily accessible, making drug running impractical. Nevertheless, after 9/11 new rules were implemented. Essentially it meant that Americans could no longer cross the Rio Grande for a night in Boquillas. As a result, generating revenue for the 450 residents of Boquillas became a huge issue. And so Mexican residents began crossing the river where they’d position their art on rocks along the Boquillas Canyon trail, which is remote.
And because times are now desperate, some who make these illegal crossings get overly zealous. A few ask inappropriate questions, as just recently happened to Janie and me.
WE WERE WARY!
Four days ago (December 15), Janie and I were returning from our hike into beautiful Boquillas Canyon, when we saw a Mexican horseman near the crest of our short trail. From his vantage he had a commanding view of our vehicle and the comings and goings of all hikers. He was just off the trail, and he was definitely not supposed to be there. Nevertheless, he wanted information – and that pissed us off, for his attitude seemed imperious.
“Ola,” said the horseman. “Where you camped… Any more behind you?”
Because posted signs explain that thefts have recently occurred at the parking lot, his presence also made us wary, so we hiked on, saying little. Later a ranger said our thoughts were justified.
Priort to 9/11 Victor the boatman could transport visitors from Big Bend to Boquillas. That may soon be possible again.
“Yes,” said Ranger Jose Galinda, “he could have been signaling a partner.” But Galinda also said aggressive residents would probably be weeded out if conditions returned to those that existed prior to 9/11.
SOON TO BE LEGAL?
Most can’t wait and rumor has it that change is in the offing, though convoluted red tape will be part of the bargain. Nevertheless, most believe it will be a start in the right direction – that it will eliminate any budding problems by charging the economy in Boquillas. That means that in two to three months (March, some say) Janie and I may be dining in Boquillas. It would be an adventure – and then, too, we’d like to help Mexicans in Mexico sustain themselves.
It could be a very good thing, certainly better than labeling some of American’s closest neighbors as “undesirables,” which they certainly are not – at least in the case of Boquillas.
AIRSTREAM TRAVELS SIX YEARS AGO:
*By Their Beaks Shall You know Them
4th ed. Autographed by the Authors
Hiking Shenandoah National Park
Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Sometimes the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.
$18.95 + Autographed Copy
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$16.95 + Autographed Copy
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$16.95 + Autographed Copy