Voices. Its’s 2:10 am under a full moon on the edge of the Rio Grande in a tent parked on a bluff overlooking the green delta about 15 miles east of the southwest entrance to Big Bend National Park and I hear voices. They are not mine, not my son’s and they are not in my head. The age old debate about whether humans have instinct falls into tiny pieces as I go from deep sleep to instant awareness and strain to separate the sound of rushing water from whatever – I still think it is voices – triggered my consciousness. I nudge Foster, tell him to stay quiet, that I hear something. He raises up, mumbles something, and promptly goes back to sleep.
From the tent on top of the truck I strain to see the river below and to hear again whatever woke me. Most of the river is plainly in view below us, but at the far edge the overhanging cottonwoods shelter a dark passage where the water undercuts the bank. A thunk. Unmistakable for those of us who have been in one, as the sound of a paddle on the metal gunwale of a boat. Someone, or some people, are in the river. Voices rise again, soft but urgent, and I believe they are Spanish. Then two faint pin dots of light and more sounds of paddling. I see the boat.
I start the situational assessment: it’s 2:10 am, no one is just paddling around the Rio Grande at 2:10 am; we are 100 feet up an unclimbable bluff, but there are accessible draws 1/4 mile downstream from us; there is another square mile of so of open flat desert behind us; turning on a light to try and see the boat, or otherwise identify our position is not an option, we are plainly visible in the moonlight already and I don’t want to invite confrontation.
So I sit, with jangling awareness, in our tent, on top of our truck, and watch the little boat move in and out of the dark edge as it moves downriver. The rapid at the base of our bluff gives them some difficulty, but they make it through and douse their lights. Far off in the distance, downriver and inland on the Mexico side, headlights flash and a vehicle re-positions before going dark. As the boat disappears downriver, I strain to hear more sounds. A tree branch snaps, footfalls in the water – are these the cattle we know are on the other side of the river? Is there any sane analysis that puts us at risk? Is this moonlight boating just a happenstance of normal activity?
What happens next is this: nothing. The river rolls on, the moon continues its march across the sky, the night air remains fragrant and soft, and the view of the distant Chisos mountains in the moonlight hypnotically drags me back to my pillow and into a restful sleep.
We share this edge. For good and for bad, there are people and cultures on the other side that are not our own. I can’t come up with a good reason for Spanish speaking people to be in a boat on the river at 2:10 am paddling toward a vehicle in the distance, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Over breakfast the next morning with a glorious sunrise lighting the mountains, Foster says that when he heard them talking he knew it was nothing. Silence would have been required if their deed was a nefarious one. This is a cogent analysis no doubt born of youthful naïveté but no less accurate. I realize that I have been conditioned to expect danger at the edge and I have fallen to one side of that line between sharing a border an d defending one.
We break camp to head for the southwest corner of the park to the Castolon settlement and the Santa Elena Canyon where the Rio Grande breaks a narrow crack from top to bottom of the Boquillas cliffs. We don’t talk about the boat any more.
The Castalon settlement is really an army barracks, officer’s home, and several outbuildings and Adobe cabins. In 1916, the US Army built the station to protect us from the Mexican Rebellion. Never mind that most of the Mexican rebellion was directed toward internal civil strife, there were in our mind dangers on the edge and we matriculated men and materiel to protect ourselves. By 1925 it was clear our posture was no longer needed, if it ever was, and the Army left to near by Forts Davis and Stockton. A local rancher bought the buildings and began an agricultural enterprise. With water from the river and workers from Mexico, the community became a success. Workers were happy to leave strife ridden Mexico for a life of labor but peace in Castolon, and the Rancher was happy to build a thriving commercial enterprise in this lovely place. Trade and other various interaction was normal back and forth across the river and the village became a model of sharing life here on the edge.
Santa Elena Canyon looks like a crack in the walls of the Boquillas cliffs. I could throw a rock from one side to the other. At its base, the Rio Grande shows the only sense of motion and action I’ve seen since beginning to follow it. For many years, no one ever successfully navigated this section of the river. The Army sent an empty wooden boat down the river here around the turn of the century and it emerged a collection of splinters. The gritty waters of the Rio Grande, carrying the sediment of thousands of miles of surrounding desert patiently ground away at history here, from sandstone through limestone, then more sandstone then more limestone, layer by layer to its current level. The wall on the Mexican side that is the Boquillas cliffs, an other wise impenetrable, sheer rock divider, has been breached by this lazy, silty river.
We leave the park, and the border, and the sense of being on the edge, to head north and east for San Antonio. We stop briefly in Terlingua to see the infamous ghost town (don’t bother) but in the process visit the Terlingua Cemetery. A National Historic Register site, the cemetery is the final resting place for Mexican miners who, like their peers in Castalon, escaped a bad life for a better one. Mining around Terlingua was ridiculously dangerous, hard work, but it was infinitely better than what they left behind. By all indications a happy settlement (there was an ice cream parlor!) the treatment afforded the dead is respectful, strangely beautiful, and actively tended today by the descendants of those laid here to rest.
I want to have some grand conclusions from my first trip to the edge. I want to solve something that will make quickly drawn conclusions far inland unnecessary. What I have instead is a great adventure and a hunger for more observations along the edge of this great country. And a very clear sense that, however rough and challenging the life was, from Boca Chica to Roma, from Castalon to Terlingua, life on edge was best when it was shared. When there was mutual benefit to our differences and a welcome recognition of them. When no one had time to focus on who was what, but instead focused what was needed, what was available and what was fair. When wooden snakes and rows of crops and buckets of ore were traded and when homes and meals were created and when we shared the edge.