December 2018: It was, in many ways, a year of adventure for us. So it seemed fitting to embark on one more before the calendar turned over. We’d been hearing from our TX friends for some time that Big Bend National Park should be on any outdoor lover’s bucket list. So given our proximity and the fact that we were noodling on how to spend Christmas since we were away from our families, we planned our first destination holiday. One of the perks of living full-time on the road is freedom, after all. A modest collection of wrapped packages and our intrepid little tabletop Tannenbaum were lovingly stowed and we pointed the #CariVan west and then south.
Traditionally, the Thanksgiving to New Year timeframe is one of the busiest seasons in the park. As it turned out, though our trip would be met with challenges, crowding would not be one of them. It would be a 6.5-hour drive from where we were stationed. 5.5 to the park entrance, and another hour to our campground nestled along the Rio Grande. So, though we left work a bit early on the 21st, after a stop in the gateway town of Marathon for a few additional provisions and a top off of the fuel tank, we rolled into our site well after dark. All utilities hooked up and site arranged, we climbed in bed to rest our travel-weary bones. We would register properly when the office opened in the morning.
Drawing on piping cups of coffee, we watched first light cycle the yellow-brown canvas of surrounding mountains through a kaleidoscope of color. First deep lavender, then dusty blue, pink, salmon, and gold. Pot empty and daypacks full, we meandered over to the camp store to register our arrival. More people were milling about in the small space than I would have expected, and there was a slight air of tension bouncing around the rather small space. Though I couldn’t initially fathom why, our turn at the register was soon to reveal the culprit.
As the clock struck midnight and we slept peacefully in ignorant bliss, it also ran out on a senate bill that would have kept our government operational. The failure of the executive and legislative branches of the US government to reach an agreement over the price tag of a proposed border wall had killed it. Unfortunately for us, national park funding was included in the doomed legislation. A letter-sized flyer taped to the counter informed us that this national park was on “soft close.” The camp store, operated by a private concessionaire, had been spared, but with National Park Service staff on furlough, most other park resources were virtually unavailable.
A soft close meant that roads were still open and visitors are allowed to be on the premises, all visitor centers are closed, and the sanitary facilities remain open only until they become, well, unsanitary for lack of cleaning staff. So no maps nor advice for us and no backcountry nor NPS campground permits for anyone hoping to stay in the park (we already had a prepaid reservation so we were saved that hardship). It also meant that extreme adventuring would come at a higher-than-usual risk as we were informed that limited emergency services were available. Combine all of that with virtually nonexistent cell service and we were quite trekking blind.
With no better option, we determined to use the absence of external direction or suggestion as a welcome excuse to wander. And wander, we did. Our three days of hiking 20+ miles of trails and exploring over 150 miles on scenic paved and dirt roads had us in an ever-changing landscape as we climbed up, down, and around the 6000 feet of altitude change (1800-7800) in the park’s 800,000+ acres of geological diversity. From wetland to desert, mesa, spring, canyon, river, and mountain basin. The variety of terrain and climate in such a relatively small area was truly remarkable. Oh, and did I mention the views! There’s something about the combination of a sun hat on my noggin, trusty pack on my back, and boots on a trail that sparks a lifting in my spirit that quickly rises to lift the corners of my mouth before I even realize what’s happening.
The irony was not lost on us that we were staying within yards of the US-Mexico border during a government shutdown that was mainly the result of a political standoff regarding funding for a wall along said border. I think the way I felt about it after visiting Big Bend myself was summed up by a retired Big Bend Park ranger. “The only people who believe that a wall down here is a good idea are people who have never seen this country.” The mere visualization of an 18-30ft high, manmade barrier encroaching on some of the amazing views and blocking river access to the wildlife that depends on it left me a little heartsick. Thankfully, due to some pretty active protesting in 2017, the odds of the proposed wall including stretches in the park had diminished significantly.
As I learned more about the park, the irony of a fortified border deepened as I discovered that the main thrust of construction to build the park was completed by a Civilian Conservation Corps crew of some 200 souls—80% of them being Hispanic. And for nearly a century—spanning both sides of the park’s 1944 opening date, a virtual transparent border was enjoyed by neighbors along the Rio Grande. In fact, until 2002 during the weekends of October, an “International Good Neighbor Day Fiesta” was held at the Rio Grande Village where we were camped. The park’s superintendent at the time issued the following statement about the event’s cancellation: “The annual Fiesta is a celebration of both American and Mexican culture, one that promotes international goodwill and cooperation. We have opted to cancel it this year since our neighbors in Mexico, who have lived and worked along the border for generations, will not be allowed to attend.” The Fiesta has not been held since.
We, humans, love to draw lines. It starts young with those made in playground dust by the dragging toe of a dirty sneaker. As we get older, we construct fences around fields and ranches, stacked rock around pastures, and walls around gated neighborhoods. We seem attracted to the separation. I am me. You are you. This is mine. That is yours.
Now I certainly don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of political discourse and have no training in international diplomacy. To be frank, there’s a heap that I don’t know—about a heap of things. But I have observed a few things over the decades that have informed my broader perspective. And frankly, the value in having a broad perspective. For one, I have noticed that it can be very tricky to construct a wall, concrete or virtual, designed to keep others out and not become, in a way, yourself confined. It’s also been my observation that when I try to throw an over-simplified solution at a complex problem or watch others attempt the same, it rarely if ever works.
Even if one is a proponent of the promised result, a more secure border, a scan of history will offer handy schooling on how ineffective border fences and walls have been at accomplishing that task. The Sumerians built the Amorite Wall, one of the earliest known defensive walls in history, around the 21st century B.C. and were virtually wiped out by the Amorites. The Walls of Jericho? A ragtag bunch of marching refugees shouted them down. The Great Wall of China? Great—tourist attraction. Perhaps one of the most famous of our time, The Berlin Wall, came down just the same. In high school, was given a chunk of it by a German friend that he had personally chipped away with a hammer as the wall came down…literally and figuratively.
I can certainly get behind the idea of “secure” boundaries, in political and personal relationships. But history has shown us, again and again, that they are made by friendly (or at least peaceful/civil) folks working together to make it so. It requires even adversarial ones to seek common ground or at least common good as a place from which to step forward. I believe this to be true and have yet to encounter an argument to convince me otherwise. The steps to being a good neighbor, and the fruits of that effort, are as true across an international border as they are across a backyard fence.
“The wall” itself has receded a bit from the public consciousness in the past 3 years while the border remains a hot and unsolved topic. But as for me, I am less concerned about the crisis between our country and Mexico than I am about the one that is unfolding among us. The one born of a polarization fueled by a mountain of media—news and social—crafted, curated, and calculated to reinforce existing prejudices and positions while vilifying those who would oppose them. So as circumstances continue to present reasons for us to ponder physical separation, may we endeavor to remember, and to remind each other, that we are in this together. When it comes to gaining ground, may we seek the common rather than the battle. And in this waning season as in any other, here’s to peace on earth and goodwill to, and from, us all.