I completed my most ambitious adventure to date after 5,310 miles. From Atlanta to the southern edge where I last left it — at the west gate of Big Bend NP — and from there along the southern border to Imperial Beach, CA, and finally, up the western edge to Los Angeles, CA. I turned inland a few times, most notably to Joshua Tree, NP and then to Coachella for a four day music festival, before returning to Laguna Niguel, CA and then heading home. I was on the road for 19 days.
There are two ways to think about this quest to circumnavigate our country — the first is a philosophical one: our edges define us as a country by boundary, but do they represent anything more than that? Is there a palpable difference the closer you get to the edge? The second, is a practical one: what does it take to “ride the edge” as it were? Can you expect to physically and mechanically accomplish this solo?
The second point is proving to be answerable — the new (to me) vehicle, a 2002 Toyota Landcruiser 100 series, is more than up to the task. The improvements to it are worthwhile and valuable additions to its legendary capabilities, and it is a very effective platform from which to live for extended periods. The first question is more elusive. The edge is not a homogenous place. In many cases, you can clearly sense the presence of an end to our country and the beginning of another; in many others, you could be anywhere in any country and it wouldn’t feel any different. This latter point is due to the absolute isolation that exists in many parts of the edge. With no people and no commercial activity, there is little to identify your space as American or otherwise. What is present, even in the remotest of locations, is a sense of beauty and awe, and sometimes confusion that leaves an impression. I left these places pleased that they were “ours” in some cases, and questioning why we thought they were important enough to include in others. But in each case, I left with a sense of completion and certainty that I am better for having been there.
There is a good amount of edge yet to go before I’ve circumnavigated our great land, but I have finished the southern shared border. This was not by design, it just sort of happened that I went south and west first on this loop around. Mostly it was because my son was in New Orleans, but I also felt like this was a road less travelled for me. I’d been up and down the east coast; I felt like I’d been on the northern border frequently, if not thoroughly. Regardless, I ended up doing it this way. And, it seems, everyone has an idea about what is wrong or what is right with the Mexican/American border. More importantly, whether those that cross it are ruining lives or saving them.
The last sentence is a big part of the problem. In American politics we like to pick sides — mostly because there are really only two sides in American politics. So this discussion on the border is too often a yes/no discussion. Having travelled the shared edge, I don’t see it that way. It’s important to me that I don’t represent this odd little experiment of mine as anything other than what it is — one man’s experience doing this one thing. I don’t live 365 days a year on the border. I don’t run a business that needs competent hard working laborers. I don’t wake up every day in a country where feeding my family is an unknown. I travel on the ground and look at what I see and listen to the people I meet. And this is what I think about the Mexican/American border.
I can’t remember anyone ever asking in a class or a general discussion to describe what “Americans” are, but I’ve answered the question in my own mind. Hard working, independent, self-determined, God-fearing, family oriented. I can go back as far as the country’s founding, and roll forward through all its material developments, and that describes its citizens. That, of course, is changing as the country changes, but I don’t think it has been supplanted as a descriptor. Yet. And I’m not dealing with whether changing it is a good thing or a bad thing, I’m making a point. If you leave your home to travel without safety to a place you don’t know and with which you can’t communicate so you can work and sweat to send money to your family so they can eat, and your greatest single comfort is a rosary, or a saint card; you fit the description of American.
In my experience, the bulk of the people crossing the Mexican border to come to America look like that. I personally think we are better off with more people like that. Now here is the flip side. The reason you are coming here, is because we are a country that offers limitless opportunity. We are a country that is based on God-given rights, formalized in a document on which we base an entire system of government, that says everyone has a say, and everyone has a chance. Furthermore, it is a system designed (this is not to say actualized) to be completely merit-based. Do better than the next person, get better than the next person. In all the world, this is a system to be dreamed of and sought after. No one is coming here because they think it is worse than their home. So remaining diligent about ensuring that uniqueness is critical, not just to residents, but to those who think that is what they are coming here to get. That means ensuring that difference remains.
This is a generalization, but I think it’s defensible: we built America on the backs of and with the brains and determination of, people from somewhere else who stood in line at Ellis Island, or somewhere in San Francisco or Los Angeles, were registered, tracked, and who pledged their allegiance to this ideal we laid forth in our documents and laws. That is not to say places like Ellis Island were a picnic. Without question, there were horrible things about going through the process, but such was the promise, that many endured. And such was the importance of our country’s sacrosanct ideals, that we enforced it. We did indeed say come one come all, or, as the French saw it, bring us your tired, your poor,…yearning to be free. And we said, here is the way to come.
Today, the way to come is cloaked and shackled in so much mumbo- jumbo that highly educated people argue about it all the time. The process is generally outlined in the 14th amendment to the US Constitution, but it’s the bureaucracy of administration that’s made it such a quagmire. What if you are a poor person who just wants to work, help his/her family and be free? The folks at Ellis Island were those people, and we, in the words of a great American songwriter, Guy Clark “poked and prodded and shoved” them through an awful process; but we welcomed them here and they made lives because of it. I can’t believe that with all our current technology, and the very limited corridors of most immigrants from Mexico, we can’t replicate an entrance process similar to the old one in more humane ways today.
I used to urge folks in the corporate world to never make policy based on exceptions — yet I think that’s what we are doing on the Mexican immigration issue. There are bad people, doing bad things, and exploiting our openness to do them. And the vast majority of those things are drug related. In all my travels, I never felt worried or scared in areas where I knew people were crossing the border to come to work. But I was terrified in the remotest areas where I knew the traffic across the border was drug-related.
As states in the US have begun legalizing marijuana, the drug trade from Mexico has shifted from Marijuana to other drugs. There is a lesson in this. As a country based largely on free-market economics, we are seeing that supply and demand affect behavior. With less demand for Mexican marijuana because local growers can legally supply it, in many US states, the Mexican suppliers — many of whom are the bad actors on the border – are changing their business. I can’t argue the point as cogently as Bill Buckley, but I don’t think I have to endorse drug use – which I emphatically do not – to recognize that criminalizing it is not a solution to addiction and corresponding issues arising there from. And de-criminalizing it provides revenue for commerce not currently taxed, and removes incentive for illicit activity in order to provide supply.
So, I’m afraid, in an effort to maintain the criminality of drug usage, we are making immigration policy based on exceptions. We are madly building walls – not one of which (electronic, physical, combination) will be as insurmountable today as were the Atlantic and Pacific oceans overcome by penniless immigrants who arrived and thrived here so many years ago — in the hopes that bad people doing bad things won’t get in. And the landscape in which we are building them is impossible, tactically, to defend anyway. Meanwhile, good people, God-fearing, hard working, etc. who want to come here can’t possibly get through the red tape. So we get what happens when you make policy based on exceptions — we get a terrible outcome. Good doesn’t get in, and bad doesn’t give a shit so they do their thing anyway.
After a transit of the entire shared southern border, my view is we should establish a handful — probably 5 — immigration portals that are very straightforward. You show up, register, agree to be tracked and pledge allegiance to our country. You have a reasonable time within which to complete the requirements (and these should be minimal and based on our language, our form of government, and our laws as outlined pretty simply in the 14th amendment) supporting your allegiance, after which you are deported if you haven’t complied. We severely punish any US company providing work to anyone not in this process — every single business every single time. Everyone here already stays, but has access to the process if they want to participate. With no employment available if they don’t, I expect most if not all will. And, we legalize, and tax heavily, drugs. With no market for illicit goods and a straightforward – but not easy – way to come in, we won’t need walls. I expect all this can be buttressed with aggressive trade policy that welcomes import and export across the border.
I think that makes me an “open borders” person in the eyes of many, but nothing could be further from the truth. Being American means something, but that something is in our ideals and our documents and our markets, not in skin color or origin of birth. We must never waiver in our insistence on those ideals, even if it makes people uncomfortable. We are different than other places — there is a difference on our side of the edge — and that difference is to be celebrated and grown, not hoarded, and not watered down.
The edge is an interesting place, full of wonder and fear. But it is an edge, more than anything, that defines freedom, independence and a willingness to sacrifice to be part of something larger. It doesn’t so much hold one person in or out as it marks a change in what one person can become.
This process of exploring the edge is certainly changing me. I’m seeing things and meeting people and experiencing situations that are having a cumulative effect on me. I can’t say they are making me better or worse, but they are making me more aware and more appreciative. Completing the western edge and turning east at the northwest corner will be even an even more ambitious undertaking — just getting to the starting point takes some doing — but having set my mind to this thing, I will do it. After some rest and, hopefully, some restoration of the bank account. While I don’t think the remaining edge will prove as controversial as the southern edge has become, I expect it to be no less inspiring, and no less beautiful. So many people have contributed to defining these edges, and so much has happened to make them what they are and therefore what we are, for me it is imperative to get on the ground and see them. I hope you will be along for the ride and I hope my experience is worth the time you take to follow along. Until next time.