One Saturday in August, Charlie and I spent 12 hours driving toward, along, around, and away from the Texas-Mexico border.
The first thing to know is that our entire “day trip” was informed by a very devious, very outdated, and quite frankly UTTERLY FALSE AND DIABOLICAL flier that we picked up at an overly hip hotel in Marfa, Texas. The flier urged us to visit the nearby hot springs—turns out you can only soak in the springs if you rent a cabin, like, decades in advance. It went on to recommend that we swing by Presidio, a quaint Texan border town filled with charming hotels, lots of restaurants, and “outstanding shopping.”
With visions of colorful woven baskets and kitschy Texas-themed merch dancing in my head, we packed three types of film cameras, bagel chips and cheap spreadable cheese, hiking shoes just in case we came across a mountain, and a gallon of water I happened to have on hand. Then we peeled out of town.
An important thing to know about me is that I LOVE things that are objectively depressing (though what’s more subjective than the declaration that something is “objectively depressing”?). I get a distinct thrill from them. This isn’t an ironic “hipster” consumeristic thrill, either—it is real, it is poignant, it is unexplainable. I love Dollar Trees. I love sketchy motels. I love happy hours at TGI Fridays. I love half-abandoned buildings, failed businesses, dusty opera houses. So when it became clear that Presidio was not a bustling little town, but rather a stopover on the long and lonely highway from Death to Hell, my first thought was: maybe I could love Presidio.
We drove around and around, admiring the broken signage and faded lilac buildings, but soon it became clear that Presidio was nothing but dust and “Closed” signs and sketchy restaurants located in people’s actual houses. Eventually we made our way to a dollar store and bought peanut M&Ms in order to get a crisp $50 bill via the “cash back” function.
Why the money, when Presidio was otherwise business-less? Because we were about to cross the border to Ojinaga. And in Ojinaga, the mendacious flier promised us, we would find even better shopping.
Okay, this trip wasn’t just about indulging in a rampant consumption of “authentic artisanal crafts” with “Made in China” stickers on the bottom. It was also about spectre of The Border and the archetype of The Border Town. These things loom large in our cultural imagination, and I think it’s very important to see things like that IRL, to see as much as you can, no matter how far removed it all seems from your regular life, no matter how many miles away your real home happens to be.
The border itself was like something out of a dystopian novel. Looking at it—the military green uniforms, the huge white buildings, the mysterious “under-construction” structures that seemed destined for strange and foreboding purposes—you really got the sense of the magnitude of the State, the cruel, cold efficiency of Law, and the pointless stagnancy of Bureaucracy. The soldiers seemed . . . well . . . overdressed. I felt odd about the ease with which we whipped across the line.
Where Presidio was dead, Ojinaga was alive. I’ll give it that. But the town was confusing, sprawling, full of dead ends that spilled out into gravel pits. It was stuck in the hot humid gunk of transience that characterizes all things that live on the edge. Sure, there were schools, and stores, and men selling hammocks by the side of the street. My favorite part was the graveyard—festive with color, bleak with wire fencing. But you got the sense that people didn’t want to live there, that they were coming or going (or unable to come and go, trapped under the great black boot of the American Border Patrol).
The above paragraphs demonstrate a fallacy: my tendency to filter my experience of things through my own preconceived ideas of them. Is the Ojinaga/Presidio border actually foreboding? Are people in Ojinaga really stuck in a gunk of transience, waiting to cross over? Why is it so easy to convince yourself that you’re picking up on real human woe and boredom and despair? We all like to think we’re some beautiful empathetic channeler of pain, quivering like a dowsing rod, so tuned in to the agony of the world that by simply glancing at a colorful graveyard we feel—nay, we TASTE—the pain of a thousand border crossings, THE AGONY OF IMPERMANENCE, THE VERY CLASH OF NATIONS THEMSELVES!
Getting back across the border was characterized by a flurry of confusion. We had to pay $1.50 to get back into the States (an oddly petty fee) and only had our infamous $50 bill on us—and the people at the border toll simply didn’t have any change. We looked at them in disbelief as they told us to make a u-turn and go back into town and buy something to break up that albatross of a $50. So we went spinning back into the streets of Ojinaga, where Charlie sidled up to a currency exchange and I bought three beaded bracelets from a woman who had given us directions earlier. Then there was some waiting in traffic, some brief and disinterested questioning about our citizenship, and we were across.
Big Bend State Park
The Rio Grande is muddy and slow. The road snakes alongside it, mimicking its curves. We curved along the road. I looked for falling rocks, since the signage implied that there was a 75% chance we’d die that day under a rock fall. We got out to look at the hoodoos—rock columns that have been eroded on the bottom, so that the rocks appear to balance on top. Two women were taking a selfie. I thought about offering to take their photo, knowing how often I wish someone would offer the same to me and Charlie. But I didn’t. I was feeling awkward, sensitive to other humans, content just to nestle against Charlie and look at the mushroom-shaped rocks.
Later, I broke the law of the park by filching a purple rock, studded with crystals. In my defense, the rock was already sitting on the road. The next semi truck would have crushed it. You could say I saved it. You could say I was truly a Good Person in that moment. Couldn’t you?
Terlingua Ghost Town
If you want to commune with the ghosts in Terlingua, I have a recommendation: meet them in the cemetery just before a rainstorm, when the wind is making the milagros rattle against the hand-hewn wooden crosses.
It wasn’t raining when we got there. We scrambled into the incongruous gift shop (no ghosts there) where we snagged a map of the tiny town, put a dollar in the “suggested donation” box, and set out to explore Terlingua on foot. The sun was brutal.
Terlingua used to be a mercury mining town, and now it’s mostly laying in beautiful ruins. The town seems sensitive about mercury poisoning and insists that very few people actually died of it, despite the size of the graveyard. My favorite ruined building was the former house of a very rich man, which was tall and thin and gorgeous (the house, not the man), and is now half-hotel, half-ruins. I’m sure the insurance company has a field day with that. The windows on the top of the house were built purposefully narrow, to protect the house against Pancho Villa. How these narrow windows protected the inhabitants against Villa was unclear to me. Less glass, less chance that a bullet is going to fly through a window and snuff ya out? See, I would want big windows, massive windows—not just because I love natural light, but because I want to see my enemy coming.
The church was also beautiful, and seemed to be still in use. But it was so hot and humid and airless that we moved around slowly, dripping sweat. I liked these little pictures that narrated the walk to the cross. I know other people would find them cheesy, or tasteless, but somehow they managed to strike me as very sorrowful—perhaps because they were so small, and tacked so high to the wall.
In the ghost town, as we were staring at what looked like an abandoned movie theater (but was actually a functioning restaurant housed inside an abandoned movie theater), a man in his 70s asked us if we were enjoying Terlingua. He was wearing a shirt that said “My Indian Name is Runs-With-Beer.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“We’re living in Marfa this summer, then Chicago in the fall,” I said.
“I hate both those places,” he replied.
I laughed and didn’t say anything.
“Okay, Marfa has like three cool things about it. But this place has eighty thousand cool things about it.”
He told us that his house was the one with the rock sculptures around it. “Are you an artist?” I asked.
“No!” he scoffed. I really dug his denial.
The residents of Terlingua have a vague truther vibe. You have to be a little bit cracked to reject the venerated cultural capital of Chicago and Marfa and settle among ghosts in one of the most striking and desolate parts of the world. I think it’s admirable. The town’s population is, like, 50 people.
Our stint with the border patrol was far from over. At night, on our way back to Marfa, speeding down some lonely and flat highway, we were waved into a border patrol checkpoint. A huge drug dog with a manic look in his eyes smelled the wheels of Charlie’s car and gave some mysterious signal to his handler who gave another mysterious signal to the man who was interviewing us who, in turn, informed us that our car had drugs inside it.
No, we said.
They looked at us sternly. “It will be so much easier for you if you’re honest with us,” they said.
We speculated afterward, racing away in our drug-free car, that they were bored, that they had a long night to kill, and that the dog was just hyped up on all the human attention.
It’s hard to know what to take away from that interaction, as it is with most things in life. There were five of us: two men, the dog, me, my husband. Who was just doing their job? Who overreacted? Who tried too hard to be right? Who could have tried harder to be kind? Under the fluorescent lights, in the Texas night air, we were all looking warily into each other’s eyes, trying to read the situation, wondering how real it all was, striving to calm our animal selves as the beautiful mad dog leaped around, panting, confused, happy to be alive.