Notes from a Border

Shuts off the engine and we stand sweating in the sand ruts and midday stinging sunshine talking through the driver’s side window. I know the green and white border patrol trucks from living in Arizona in the 1990s, but we’ve seen more of them in the last couple of days than in my seven years back then. He’s enthusiastic and friendly, says he hasn’t seen bikers riding the Camino, kind smile and curiosity seemingly not a professional facade. I don’t know whether I or Logan visibly wince when he uses the word illegals, though later in the conversation he switches to UDMs, undocumented migrants.

We talk about landscape, being so motivated for a better life, the economics of crossing the desert with 40lbs of pot on your back, the boredom of driving back and forth on this beachy track, the way that the BP outpost a couple of dozen kilometers back has Netflix and Xbox. In parting he offers us water and says that if we need anything in this remote country, give him a call, he’s there to help. I can see that he’s Mexican American.

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This leg had started in Ajo and we are headed to Yuma. Most of that time is within a mile of the border with Mexico, a line that in this part of the country doesn’t follow something natural like the Rio Grande but instead is a cartographer’s dashed euclidean creation. Maybe that’s more honest with respect to the contingency and arbitrariness of it, maybe it doesn’t let us off the hook by encouraging lies about the separation and the essential unalloyed luck of being born on one side or the other.

 

Elsewhere this debate is abstract and disembodied in a way that leaves a vacuum to be filled by a uncomplicated vile racism or a starry-eyed genial foolishness. The border can’t be open. The border can’t be closed. Within that contradictory intractable perfect atomic fact, in between infinity and imploded nihilism, that’s where answers are.

Here in the persistence of Sonoran real life, the lattice structure of the people, the Saguaro cactuses and ocotillos, the future and past: they are a scaffolding for an argument the complexity of which fuels our day pedal strokes and our starings into the night firmament. We turn it around in low slow voices, and we’re spoken back to by the printed warning signs and caches of water, the authoritative tire tracks, the discarded homemade soft carpeted shoes that allow passage across the desert without leaving marks. Logan sees a group of young men with burlap rectilinear loads on their backs picking their way with haste and weary wariness through a wash.

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On day three, close to the turnoff to Welton, we encounter a big group of retirees recreating in their desert buggies, obligated by law to fly a pennant so as to be visible from far away. They’re surprised to see us, then there’s the smalltalk of people that have every confidence in their right and permission to be there, and we take part somewhere between guilt and defiance. When they ask us about our H2O plan, we say that we’ll refill at Tule Well and they scoff, indicating that the people in charge had to put a locked fence around it to discourage those illegals. The one shakes his head in knowing dismissal, another says something acknowledging that it’s a tough situation to be in to just want your kids to have a chance. They give us icy water and they throttle away. We wonder after the limits of their sharing and the elementalness of our needs out here make that a better question than usual.

We get to Tule Well and locate the spigot that extends outside the fence. Turn the valve. Fill our bottles for later.

 

We’re traveling during the full moon and it brightens and sears. It’s reasonable to think that there’s more border crossing those nights when seeing is easier.

We witness no crisis here, no state of emergency. Except the crisis that unfolds slowly and in the harmonic of serenity so that it looks instead like fate. The skull and crossbone warning sign that a traveler might fall into a pit from a former mine is a metaphor for all the signs we’ve seen, that we might fall into a bottomless plunge of not listening for ways that split between impossible and can. This is a path through a punishing desert and no one doubts it. Maybe we should stop doubting that there can be a perpendicular passage, too.

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You’ll find the route description for the Camino del Diablo on Bikepacking.com.