The drone hung low in the sky as the road curved back to Fort Davis. It hung in the sky on a faint line tethered to the ground somewhere out in the desert. A mile away…fifty? It’s hard to judge distances in Texas.

It was white and metallic. It was a lurking thing and a lonely-looking one, too, in an odd way — this man-made bird up there with the kestrels and an occasional passing cloud.

High desert plains

High desert plains looking back at Marfa, TX

Lonely road outside of Fort Davis

Lonely road outside of Fort Davis

Famed and desolate Pinto Canyon road outside of Presidio

Famed and desolate Pinto Canyon road outside of Presidio

I first saw it a week earlier as we drove north from the U.S. border town of Presidio. We climbed over the mountains and into the high desert plateau on our way to the bustling railroad town of Marfa. It was further off then but still waiting in the air, hovering high above the purple mountains that frame the town.

This isn’t quite like the killing drones we’ve been hearing about lately. It’s for surveillance along our border with Mexico and is officially called an “aerostat” or “drug blimp,” as locals dub it. During the day, this faceless bird stays motionless. At night, it combs the border with its infrared sensors for body heat, tracking suspicious cars with its eyes above the clouds.

It’s pretty spooky.

Marfa's old courthouse

Marfa’s old courthouse

Old theatre

Old theatre

Old hotel

Old hotel

Local flavor

Local flavor

Of course the weirdness has worn off on locals. Now the drone is just a part of the landscape; a new cloud in the sky that formed soon after 9/11 to make us safer.

Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t.

What’s more certain is that things in West Texas are different now.

Before 9/11, there were walking bridges between remote towns along the Rio Grande. They were established in 1917 to “promote commerce between the U.S. and Mexico” but really they were just a good way for neighbors to visit. Share some food. Use the phone to call a relative. Watch a little television — an American sitcom, maybe some Mexican futbol. After 9/11, families were fined for not taking out their bridges. Nobody wanted to be the one to do it; to end a way of life that had been going on for centuries.

(Some of the earliest settlements along the Rio Grande date back to 1200 A.D. — long before there was an America and a Texas, before the Spanish invasion, even before the Apache and Comanche tribes.)

Old photo of Mexican vaqueros crossing the Rio Grande

Old photo of Mexican vaqueros crossing the Rio Grande

They had permits to cross to trade furs at local outposts

Trading furs at local border outposts

Young Mexican boy hauling water with his burro (notice the spouts on the water sack are made out of bull horns)

Young Mexican boy hauling water with his burro (notice the spouts on the water sack are made out of bull horns)

I heard some great stories about the dances — bailes — these Mexican towns used to have, with the gringos coming over to share in the fun. One story goes that a couple “river rats” (or rafting guides as they’re more properly known) came over for a baile, camped on the outskirts of town, and woke up to find they were sleeping in the middle of a horse run! No time to get out of their mummy bags so they hopped off the trail into the cacti and were spared the hooves but not the laughter of the surprised vaqueros.

Families lived (and still live) on both sides, too. You might have been born in the U.S. but your abuela’s house was across the river. There was a certain kinship between these towns, born of blood and geography. The Treaty of Hildalgo in 1848 established the border we know today but you can’t tell a man’s heart who are his countrymen and who aren’t.

Looking across the river at Mexico and a canoe

Looking across the river at Mexico and a canoe

Rocks along the paths ask for donations to the nearby Mexican pueblo

Rocks along the paths ask for donations to the nearby Mexican pueblo (this one in exchange for a cowboy’s songs)

The town of Boquillas, Mexico

The town of Boquillas, Mexico

Should I buy their trinkets left in the dusty sand? The national park says no but the morality is murky.

Should I buy their trinkets left in the dusty sand? The national park says no but morality is not so clear-cut

Sometimes, I am told, the river would use its great anointing powers and change the map. It would alter its course, as rivers do, and go around to the right of a town instead of the left, turning Mexico into America. There’d be a flurry of letters to the immigration office. A man’s life changed thanks to water and silt and dried mud.

This is not to say people aren’t still crossing. I saw it with my own eyes one day in the Big Bend National Park where my Mom and I stood on the bank of the river looking over at some horses grazing on the Mexico side. Two riders appeared on the other shore, angled their horses into the shallow rapid, and were on our side in moments, their little white dog swimming after them. Buenas tardes, they said and went on up the hill. The dog, on foot now, trotted contentedly behind them.

Another day an old Mexican from nearby Boquillas is at the campground store looking for his burro. It had wandered off. (Homeland security was not on that donkey’s mind.)

Then there’s a day some Border Patrol newbees get lost up in the mountains and have to ask the ranchers which way is home. And there’s a night a man is caught returning home in his boat and taken to jail in Presidio. He was crossing to check on a friend.

There are stories of tow ropes and canoes. And this endless cycle: Border Patrol cuts rope today. New rope appears 50 feet downstream tomorrow.

These stories seem to beg the question “…and what is this for again?”. It’s not like you can get very far if you cross the border, one local tells me, what with all that desert and everything in it out to “bite you, stick you, or sting you.” Nature does its own work of keeping you cornered.

Looking out our window at Mexico in Laredo, TX

Looking out our window at Mexico from Laredo, TX

Early morning cue into the U.S.

Early morning cue into the U.S.

But things are different in West Texas nowadays because Mexico is different, too.

The drug cartels are out there, somewhere. (No doubt waiting for a tourist to venture over in a canoe for a good burrito.) We are told in the park not to leave valuables in our cars overnight. There’s been some break-ins.

I wonder about those.

I imagine the two Mexican cowboys riding back with fresh horses. They come at night and root around the cars. They take our money, our synthetic polar fleeces, our walking sticks and binos, maybe an iPod. Do they sell it all for stirrups? Does it go to the pueblo school? Are they our modern day Robin Hoods, our Butch Cassidy-s robbing the train at the curve in the track? Take from the rich, give to the poor.

Or is it all just for beer?

One day, climbing along the river in Santa Elena Canyon, I’m trying to make sense of it all. The sea of border patrol, helicopters, check points. The motion sensors in the hills. That drone. The friendly, attractive patrolman who rolled down his window on a back road in Pinto Canyon just to say “Are you enjoying your stay?” and “Maybe go a little slower around the turns.”

I look out on the Rio Grande and see a dry rock bed in the middle. Is it Mexico? Is it the U.S.? Where is Mexico? Where is the U.S.? All I see are the smooth sides of the canyon, the green reedy grass, and desert cardinals flying back and forth across the current.

Where is the U.S.? Where is Mexico? All I see are beautiful mountains

Where is the U.S.? Where is Mexico?

Dry rock beds up river from Lajitas, TX

Standing at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon with Mexico steps away

Beautiful walls of Boquillas canyon

Natural hot springs with Mexico's rugged Sierra Madres behind

Further into Santa Elena canyon where the reedy grasses grow and animal footprints cover the mud on both sides

Santa Elena canyon from far far away (the light part on the mountain ridge line)

The river from up top

In the small border city of Laredo, Texas they have this funny George Washington celebration where people dress in period costumes and there’s a parade. The sister city, Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side, sends a group of delegates — a symbol of their long-shared history and friendship. The festivities start when a boy from Texas and a young girl from Mexico meet ahead of the delegates at the center of the international bridge. They greet each other with a sweet awkward kid hug and the day goes on.

Those dry rocks aren’t so different from those two kids. They are neutral, peaceful ground. A place where no one can say “this is mine” and “that is yours.” It’s permeable, temporal — gone with the next rain (gone until the next festival), but there’s a certain eternal reminder in there. A testament to something no treaty, no line on a map can ever touch. A testament to our common humanity. Our common earth.

Soon, they are planning to reopen a walking bridge to Boquillas. There will be a camera on the American side where you will hold your passport up to the screen. The image will be sent by satellite to an immigration officer in El Paso. You’ll get the green light to enter or a red one to stay away. (Smile for the camera.)

The locals are already talking about going over for burritos and beer, and if they’re lucky, the bailes. Maybe things in West Texas won’t be so different after all.

Maybe. There still will be that drone.

One can only wonder what it will make of all the sweaty bodies dancing the two step far off in the moonlit hills.


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