After 9/11, when the Age of Fear took root, the Border Patrol closed two U.S.-Mexico crossings in Big Bend National Park, at Boquillas and Santa Elena. In response, the park boss canceled what would have been the 22nd annual “International Good Neighbor Day Fiesta,” scheduled for October 2002. Explained Superindent Frank Deckert:
“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 Boquillas crossing eventually reopened, but not at Santa Elena. Because its people could no longer engage in the trade that was the village’s lifeblood, they left. Santa Elena ceased.
The river, as Superintendent Decker noted, had long been a boundary of politics but not culture or economics. After the U.S. victory in the Mexican American War in 1848, the boundary was established, and Americans streamed into the area, establishing farms, mining for cinnabar ore (for mercury) and building cross-border trade in a variety of legal and illegal goods for the next century. During the Depression, inspired Texans began establishing a park and Franklin Roosevelt sent the Civilian Conservation Corps to start building infrastructure. The state ceded Big Bend (for the U-shaped bend in the river) to the federal government in 1944. Plans for an international park, like Waterton-Glacier, have not come to fruition.
I’ve longed to visit for four decades, since I lived in Austin in the ’70s but somehow never made the effort to drive the 400-plus miles to get here (it’s 80 miles to the nearest town on our most southern highway, US-90). What I found is astonishing geology, a scientific narrative common to many of our western parks, which some of our farsighted forebears realized was worth protecting. Its huge expanse is part river, part desert, part mountains, home to unique plants, and a birder’s paradise.
The Big Bend region, part of the Chihuahuan Desert, started to get interesting about 135 million years ago (mya), when a shallow sea invaded North America, separating the east from the west, leaving a record of fossilized fish species, some of them huge. By 100 million mya, the sea had retreated to the Gulf of Mexico, adding a record of dinosaurs that had occupied an Everglades-like lowland. About 65 mya, when the planet’s most famous mass extinction took place, the Rockies began their uplift, and in came the age of mammals – early horses, rhinos, camels, rodents. Then came the first volcanoes, about 42 mya, whose lava flows shaped the topography in areas of the park. Now exposed is a sedimentary record of a half-billion years.
The most striking mountains are in the middle of Big Bend: the Chisos, volcanoes that last erupted 17 mya, surrounded east and west by fault lines that caused the land to drop around the Chisos Basin, where I sit writing at 5200 feet above sea level. Around me are peaks that range up to 7800 feet. On the east side of this encircling mountains is a gap over which the CCC built a road. At the west is “the Window,” through which the sediments get washed – and the view of a mid-spring sunset is majestic.
Yesterday I climbed through forest to the tallest peak, Emory, and gazed west at thunderstorms blotting the landscape. They finally arrived in the Basin about 10 p.m. after a couple hours of howling winds. The rain, lightning and thunder were pleasant, but the wind flapping my tent was annoying. By 3 a.m., the waning near-full moon was bright.
In the morning I drove to the southwest. The evidence of the previous night’s ruckus was all over the road in several places – rocks and sand pushed out of the washes. I happened upon three Park Service fire fighters whose home territory is Yellowstone but are stationed here for a month or two to deal with wild fires – maybe started by lightning, maybe by humans doing something dumb. They love the lifestyle: they get to be outside, see the country, work a ton of overtime, enjoy furlough downtime. “Ah, moisture,” one exclaimed as a passing breeze brought a change in barometric pressure. These guys know their business.
Down to the border across from Santa Elena, it is 100-plus degrees. Castolon is the Texas village that started dying in the 1940s, after falling cotton prices drove local producers, using irrigation from the river, out of business. Some park facilities along the Rio Grande shut down by May 1; it’s too hot to sustain interest for the next six months. I had many short hikes to myself, except at Santa Elena Canyon, where the Rio Grande has carved a gap in a towering wall (much bigger than Trump could imagine building). I walked to the end of a mile-long trail along the bank, and then watched as fellow travelers waded across the shallows. “Viva la Mexico!” the woman cried.
Americans are only the latest tribe to invade Big Bend. Paleo-Indians were here more than 10,000 years ago, living on large game. Five hundred years ago, Spanish priests encountered nomadic peoples, the Chizo, in the high mountains (right here). The Spaniards – searching for gold and silver, farm and ranch lands, Christian converts and Indian slaves (it’s gonna be one or the other, or both) – built a line of precidios along the river to try to repel Indian raids from the north. The Chizo were supplanted in succession by the Mescalero Apaches and the Comanches, then by American settlers in the late 19th century.
That 2002 Border Patrol order closing Santa Elena notes that the crossing at Precidio, Texas, to the west, remains open. Ironic that its name is Spanish for “fort.” The futility of trying to stop the next invasion, imagined or otherwise, will end. As soon as we get that we’re part of the passing parade. Nature’s gonna do its thing – fires, volcanoes, earthquakes – as are peoples. The USA is blip in time.