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Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again

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Offline Txlj

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #120 on: December 21, 2017, 03:38:22 PM »
Agreed.

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #121 on: December 21, 2017, 06:47:38 PM »
The day was young, and the rest of it would be devoted to getting ready to hit the river again…both logistically and mentally. I returned to the store, accessed my cache with the help of the staff, pulled some vittles, rearranged the contents, and headed back to my tent site in the campground to make lunch and notes. Minutes after returning to my bear box, the campground host, John, stopped by to check up on things. He pulled up in his truck and hailed me, “how’s things?” As always, I was delighted to see him, I asked him about his friend, the extraordinarily fit 75-year-old that had grilled me yesterday. “Well,” John mused, “he’s a good guy, spent 30 years with the US Forest Service. He knows what he’s talking about.” Click. Everything snapped into place. Okay, I understood the gentle grilling now. John wished me well, I wished him well, too, and asked him to pass my regards on to his wife, Mary, because I would probably be gone tomorrow morning before I saw either of them again. Just another example of ships passing in the night in The Bend.


I made lunch. Enjoyed it in the warm afternoon. Took advantage of the pristine restrooms. Filled up with water. Did a bit of bird-watching. And then headed back to the RGV store late in the afternoon, this time with my empty backpack on my back. Striding into the store, I asked the delightful staff if I could access my cache one last time. As always, they complied, and couldn’t have been more gracious. I emptied the 5-gallon bucket of everything I needed for the next 7-day leg of my trip, and put back into it anything I no longer needed. I kept the contents to a minimum: Mule Ears would need sufficient room in the bucket to stow my empty Bear Vault 500 cache when he delivered it there on December 8. Attached to the bucket was a large, folded duffel, into which Mule Ears would stow all my no-longer-needed packrafting gear after removing it from our pre-arranged point in the desert west of the main park road. On the outside of my 5-gallon bucket was a taped note explaining all this, just to make sure the store staff understood the sequence of the comings and goings.


I humped my now-somewhat-fuller pack back to my campsite, along the way I passed the musicians’ campsite and noted that they had moved on. Their campsite was empty. Sad, but glad I’d been able to enjoy their music for a little awhile. When I reached my campsite, the Chinese family was also gone. Lot of people leaving. Hmmmm. Anyway, I laid out all my gear and supplies, and began the process of packing for my upcoming departure. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to finish until tomorrow morning, when I would pack my bedroll and tent, but I could get a good head start and make absolutely sure I had everything I needed for the transition to land travel three days later. I was pretty excited about returning to the water, and even more excited about finally transitioning to backpacking. With each passing day in Rio Grande Village, my depression had lessened, my grief over the kitten attenuated by time and separation. Isn’t that the way of it? Grief never disappears, but it does become manageable. The heart and mind find a place to store it, in proper proportion. Still open for a visit, but no longer occupying the valuable real estate at the entrance to the joint. Years ago, my twin boys died in childbirth, in my hands. Took years to climb out of the gaping hole that blew in my soul. The hole is still there, and I still visit it briefly from time to time, but now I can sit securely on its slippery, sloped edge without fearing I’ll slide in and never get back out.


Sitting quietly at my picnic table in the late afternoon’s warm light, I pondered the kitten. It had been almost five days since I’d left her on that beach, me swinging around to face the downstream rapid, she struggling in and out and through the river cane, trying to catch me, our eyes locked until the very last instant possible. And what if I’d taken her with me? What if she was here now? What next? Well, this was the endpoint, she certainly wasn’t going any further with me downriver. She’d have to fend for herself here. Yet the campground was full of very boldly-lettered signs warning of the dangers to pets: “This campground is home to wild coyotes, bobcats, and owls that can and do prey on unattended pets. Many have died or disappeared here.” Clearly the wildlife was a danger to kittens. But equally, on the flip side, the kitten was a danger to wildlife. Rio Grande Village was one of the most unique and productive bird habitats in North America and domestic cats - an introduced non-native species - are prodigious killers of native birds, the birds not yet having evolved coping strategies to deal with the threat posed by these fearsomely well-designed predators who (in evolutionary terms) arrived on our American shores only yesterday. In my mind, I could instantly rattle off a list of rare (or at least rare in Big Bend) birds that could easily be decimated by the sudden introduction into RGV of a feral cat. None of the campers feeding her and nurturing her would realize the damage she was doing to the native ecosystems.


The history of humans and cats is a complicated one, not unlike -- but still significantly different from -- the history of humans and dogs. Dogs co-evolved with Paleolithic hunter-gatherers as hunting companions and meat scavengers. Cats co-evolved with later Neolithic agriculturalists to protect settlements and their precious grain stores from rodents and birds. Over the ancient millennia, dogs evolved to be absolutely loyal to their roaming humans, and largely dependent upon their human masters for food.  Over succeeding millennia, cats evolved to be somewhat loyal but ultimately independent of their sedentary humans and largely self-feeding on vexsome prey in established villages and cities.  These animals did so because, as Stephen Budiansky pointed out in his brilliant little book, The Covenant of the Wild, it was in the interest of their DNA to do so. Dogs, cats, all of my chickens that would eventually die at the edge of my butcher knife, or the rabbits whose necks I would one day break, or the cattle and pigs my parents and grandparents slaughtered, even the rats and mice that the cats would eat, or the grackles and pigeons and gulls and cockroaches feasting on city garbage, had all remained associated with humans because, as difficult as things might sometimes be, in the end, their DNA was MORE likely to be passed along into the future by their Faustian association with humans, than if they chose to go it on their own as non-domesticated species. Domestication was a successful adaptation – cute, limpid eyes and irresistibly soft fur, being not the least of those adaptations – and, so, domestication persisted. But my little domesticated kitten, if she survived in Rio Grande Village, nurtured by the itinerant campers there, would grow up to be a super-predator, perched high on the trophic pyramid, until an even-more-super-predator made a meal of her and restored the ages-old ecological balance in that corner of the Big Bend. Was I ready to become another casual human disrupter – an ecological bull in the china shop of Rio Grande Village?


If so, I would join a long rogue’s gallery of human blunderers like the Californians that imported Giant River Cane in the 1820’s as a means of erosion control for irrigation channels http://[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arundo_donax, and the eastern US nurserymen that introduced Tamarisk trees, or Salt Cedars, as hardy ornamentals in California and the western US in 1823 http://[https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/plants/saltcedar.shtml]; and Brooklynites who released eight European House Sparrows in Manhattan in 1851, hoping they would prey on and eliminate the Linden Moths that were defoliating Manhattan Island http://[https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/the-truth-about-sparrows/; and Russian immigrants in South Dakota who inadvertently imported the Russian Thistle (tumbleweed) into America in a shipment of flax seed in 1873 http://[https://www.usu.edu/weeds/plant_species/weedspecies/russianthis.html; and the geniuses at the Philadelphia International Exposition in 1876 that imported Japanese Kudzu and passed it on to the federal Soil Conservation Service which encouraged southern planters to use if for erosion control http://[https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/urgentissues/land-conservation/forests/kudzu.xml; and Eugene Shieffelin of the American Acclimatization Society who released 100 European Starlings in New York’s Central Park in 1890-91, in an effort to introduce into America all the bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare http://[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_Schieffelin; or the legion of nameless buffalo hunters and immigrant farmers and loggers that slaughtered our continent’s millions of bison and decimated our native forest cover, exposing all manner of native birds to the now-maladapted breeding behavior of the Brown-headed Cowbird http://[https://nestwatch.org/learn/general-bird-nest-info/brown-headed-cowbirds/. Or, more to the point to me, as a potential deliverer of an invasive by boat, the sailors that carried the Norway Rat to America http://][http://www.tsusinvasives.org/home/database/rattus-norvegicus, or the Zebra Mussel to our lakes http://[https://www.csu.edu/cerc/documents/TheIntroductionandSpreadoftheZebraMusselinNorthAmerica.pdf; or the Asian Tiger Mosquito to our veins http://[https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/animals/asiantigmos.shtml].


The Law of Unintended Consequences is mighty and ever relevant. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Or our science. Intervention is a slippery slope from which we cannot always retreat. Many years ago, when I was but a young lad, newly living on my own, I came home to my apartment to find a Daddy Long-legs trapped in the messy web of a House Spider, high in one corner of my living room, next to the ceiling. The Daddy Long-legs was alive and kicking, but hopelessly caught in the spider’s web. I saw it, decided it was not my problem, and went to make myself some dinner. Later, sitting on the couch, eating, watching television, I could see the Daddy Long-legs, still struggling to free itself before being eaten. Exasperated, I reluctantly dragged a chair over to the corner, stood on it, and inspected the hapless creature. Okay, okay, okay, I said, I’ll pull you out of there. Gingerly, I reached in two fingers and gently grabbed the thorax, and pulled. The Daddy Long-legs lifted and with it the threads of the web lifted, too, refusing to release. Slowly, ever so slowly I pulled the arachnid toward me until….SNAP….one leg, unable to separate from the web, detached from the its body. Yikes. Seven left, I noted, and kept pulling….SNAP…two more legs left behind. Yow. Five legs left. Well, I said to myself, can’t leave it there now, can I? And so I kept pulling and pulling until……SNAP….three more legs came off. Now the nearly helpless Daddy Long-legs was left with only two legs. Do I leave it? Or do I press on with my rescue effort? I made one more, last, excruciatingly slow attempt to free the creature…millimeter by millimeter by millimeter until finally…..SNAP….only one leg left. Well, hell, I said, what’s the point now? Might as well leave it to become food for the House Spider.  And I did.


Playing god is often much harder and much more complicated than we think it will be when we blithely, optimistically pretend to omnipotence.


I made myself a dinner of Pesto Salmon, chased down by a not-quite-cold Modelo Negro, and hit the sack early in my tiny tarptent, reading an awful Big Bend-centered western, West Texas Kills, that I'd bought in the RGV store that afternoon. Unnoticed by me, the myriad empty campsites in the campground had filled in the late afternoon. About the time I laid my head down on my stuffsack of spare clothes, the music started. Not bad music, actually good music, but lots of it, and loud. And the laughter, and the young men and women chasing each other up and down the road, and the cars racing around, and the glow-in-the-dark frisbees, and the yee-haw-jello-shots.


It was Friday night.


Oh my god. Not my circus, not my monkees. Get me the f*ck off this damned carousel. I stayed one night too many. The carousing lasted until two or three in the morning. I was just close enough to the restrooms to hear every visit. It was a very long night, but eventually, as must all things, it came to an end. The sun rose, and so did I, but not much else. I made a quick visit to the now-deserted restroom, and then to the water spigot near my campsite to fill all my bottles and bladders with fresh water. The quiet older couple (though not nearly so old as me) nextdoor, who had moved yesterday evening into the spot vacated by the Chinese family, were up early, too, and grilling pancakes and bacon. As I was coming back from emptying the last of my garbage into the dumpster, the guy wished me a good morning and engaged me in conversation. His name was Arlen, his wife’s name was Pam. They were from San Antonio, but he’d lived and ranched in Colorado and other places in the west. They had arrived in Big Bend last night to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary: his wife’s first visit. (That is true love.) Arlen offered me a cup of fresh black coffee while I finished packing. I gratefully accepted, holding out my liter-sized titanium cookpot as a cup, and then greedily cradling the warm pot in my hands against the surprisingly chilly morning. The coffee burned going down my throat, just the way you want it to on a cold, cold morning.  And then I smelled the bacon. “You want some?” Arlen called over to me. Who could say no? I strode over and he piled me a heaping plate of thick, hot, salty bacon, just the way I like it: burned on the edges, juicy fat on the interior. It had been broiled over an open grill and it was the best bacon I’ve ever had in my life. I ate it with my fingers and every time the plate neared empty, Arlen would shovel more bacon onto it. The grease was dripping from my lips, from my chin, from my fingers. Man, I was in heaven. Meanwhile we talked about everything and anything, as strangers in a campground do, including Arlen’s wise take on the cascading ecological effects resulting from the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone. Arlen and his wife kept offering me food: pancakes, eggs. But I had to get going. Today was my day to return to the river. I packed up my bedroll, my tent, and finally, reluctantly, my cookpot-cum-coffee-cup.  I said my goodbyes to Arlen and Pam, and they wished me a safe trip. “I mean it,” Arlen said, “stay safe.”


Fully packed, including a week's worth of food and three and a half gallons of water, with my packraft stowed on top of my backpack and my paddles stowed in my pack’s pockets and my PFD's riding on my paddle shafts, I plodded away from my campsite, through the crowded campground, toward the boat launch at the far, far end.  I hadn’t gone more than a few dozen yards when three friendly guys about my age, who had been in the campground as long as I had, hailed me from their breakfast table and asked me if I was leaving. When I told them yes, they said they’d noticed I had no vehicle and would I mind telling them a bit more about what I was up to? I did and they were fascinated, asked some really sharp questions, and then wished me well. A few minutes later, another group did the same, and then another. I guess I made a big impression, hiking out with my big pack and big paddles and big PFD's. Seems like everyone had noticed. Then a couple approached, walking toward me on the road, “is it true people call you House Made of Dawn?” “Well, yeah, sort of. It’s a name I use in an online chat group.” “What does it mean?” they asked. “Excellent question,” I replied, and explained. And then walked, through a beautiful warming sunlit morning, down to the river and, finally, after a too-long three-day hiatus, returned to the wilderness where I longed to be.


So, in case you were wondering....


My mother’s maternal and paternal great-grandparents and grandparents came to Oklahoma from Illinois and Indiana in the 1880’s, in covered wagons. They settled on the rough but fertile plains of southwest Oklahoma, near Longhorn Mountain and Saddle Mountain and Rainy Mountain, just north of the US Cavalry’s Fort Sill, on what was then Indian Territory, specifically, Kiowa and Comanche lands. The legality of my ancestors’ early homesteads is questionable, but during the transition from Indian Territory to Oklahoma statehood, with the land rushes and lotteries, both families acquired titled farmland and became cotton farmers and cattle ranchers. My mother grew up on a remote farm near Mountain View, Oklahoma on the Washita River, just down a creek from a Kiowa family, the Momadays (some say Mammedatys). The Momadays are a fascinating family: including in its lineage both war chiefs and peace chiefs of the Kiowas, as well as several descendants that went on to become teachers and well-known artists. One of the infant Momaday kids, a contemporary of my mother, but a little younger, was Navarre Scott, or simply Scott as he would later be called (though his true, Kiowa name was Tsoai-talee). Scott Momaday’s young parents, teachers both, left their extended family in Oklahoma during the desperate years of the Great Depression and The Dust Bowl to teach for the Bureau of Indian Affairs – first at a school in Shiprock, New Mexico on the Navajo reservation, then in Arizona, and finally, a few years later, at another Indian school on the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. Scott, the son of teachers and artists, grew up to be a thoughtful and artistically-inclined young man, exposed to the strengths and weaknesses of many Indian communities. Enrolling in New Mexico University in Albuquerque, he studied literature, eventually receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1963. Five years later, he published a seminal, heart-breaking novel about the dislocation and despair of modern Native Americans separated from the natural environment in which their cultures had evolved over centuries and millennia.  The novel would go on to win the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Literature, the first Native American work to win that prize. The novel’s name: House Made of Dawn.


Whenever I wake up in wilderness, on dirt or sand or rock or leaves, on dry land or beside water, in canyon or desert or mesa or forest, I am home, where I belong, in a House Made of Dawn.


[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: January 16, 2018, 12:12:26 PM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline Txlj

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #122 on: December 22, 2017, 07:25:12 PM »
Waiting patiently

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #123 on: December 22, 2017, 07:34:24 PM »
Waiting patiently

Sent from flat land

Haha! Putting up the Christmas tree tonight. For some reason, everything seems to be running behind this year.


Sent from my iPhone using Big Bend Chat
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline Txlj

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #124 on: December 22, 2017, 11:19:58 PM »
Ok. You get s pass. Merry Christmas everyone

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Offline DesertRatShorty

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #125 on: December 23, 2017, 07:34:43 PM »
That’s how I’d survived all manner of disasters: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, avalanches, lightning strikes, illnesses, injuries, animal attacks, equipment failures, falls, broken bones, burns, muggings, holdups, kidnappings, stabbings….you name it.

Wow, you really could write books on your experiences, and if this report is any indication, it would be an eminently worthwhile read.

Your compassion for the cosmos is clearly deep and at the core of who you are. You tale is both heart warming and heart rending. I hope that writing and sharing it helps in processing your grief, I know it has moved me.
I roamed and rambled, and I foller'ed my footsteps
   To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
   And all around me a voice was a'sounding
   This land was made for you and me

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #126 on: December 24, 2017, 03:22:49 AM »
Thanks, DRS, those are kind words that mean a lot to me.

Thanks also to Presidio, for his kind words about this report, posted on another thread.

Hard to keep up with the trip reporting with the holidays hard upon us, but I stayed up late after the family went to bed, and I'm ready to post another installment.
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #127 on: December 24, 2017, 03:33:29 AM »
Camp Contrabando: December 2, 2017


I reached the RGV boat launch considerably later than I’d intended because so many people stopped me on the way out of the campground and wanted to know what I was up to, or knew already and wanted to wish me well. It was closer to 11am than 9am when I finally reached the cut in the river cane and spied the river gliding eastward, glistening in the sun. The last thing I’d done on my way out of Rio Grande Village was stop by the store and check the weather forecast. Not too bad: a cold front moving in on Tuesday night, temperatures near freezing at night and a chance of rain through Thursday, but then sunny skies for the foreseeable future. I was anxious to get moving. I walked down the long slope of the boat ramp and over the paver stones that stabilized it, unloaded my packrafting gear, quickly inflated my raft, assembled my paddle, strapped down my backpack and spare PFD and firepan, and slipped into my own PFD and belly bag. Before launching my raft, I paused for a moment’s reflection. Had things turned out differently, this, rather than then, would have been the moment when I abandoned Olivia Felix, here on the banks of the river in Rio Grande Village. She wouldn’t have understood why we were separating here, after so many days of bonding together, but at least she would have had other humans here to help her. But there was no Olivia beside me this morning, just a memory. From here on, I would be moving through parts of my trip that she never would have shared. In a strange way, slipping back into the river at Rio Grande Village and heading down into Boquillas Canyon, was freeing to me. My memory of Olivia would always end here, in Rio Grande Village, the point where I COULD have taken her, and left her, if I’d had the courage.


I pushed my raft gently into the brown-green waters, and stepped into it. The current carried me swiftly downriver, into the future. As it did, I spontaneously, and to my own surprise, broke into a full-throated version of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.”





I hadn’t been to the village of Boquillas in over twenty years, long before the border crackdowns following the 9/11 attacks. I wondered what sort of Border Patrol or INS presence I’d see along the river as I neared the crossing to the village. But I saw nothing at all. The Giant River Cane obscured everything on the Texas side. The river crossing was heralded by a palapa on the Mexican side, where a dozen or so Mexican nationals were gathered on this weekend morning, playing music, dancing, and grilling meat. Then the actual crossing point came in to view, with a flatboat just completing its journey to the Texas side, and two tourists debarking. I hailed the boatmen in Spanish and wished them a good morning. They didn’t seem to know quite what to make of me and my tiny colorful raft with the giant backpack lashed to the bow.  I realized then that I’d lost track of the days of the week. “Buenos dios, amigos, hoy es Domingo?” “No,” one of the boatmen laughed, “es Sabado.” Well, there you go. Glad I asked.


Soon thereafter, I spotted the colorful buildings of the actual village of Boquillas, up on a high bluff above the river. I slid silently past the village and approached a walled hot spring just downriver, and just in time to see a young woman slipping on a tube top, and then a blouse. I saw her, but she didn’t see me until I was right beside the spring. She yelped, and straightened her blouse, and then giggled and another young woman beside her giggled, too, as she sunk down deeper into the waters within the walls. I wished the ladies a good morning and good luck and then politely focused my attention downstream as I floated swiftly past.


It was odd to suddenly encounter humans along the river. During the entire rest of my trip downriver from Castolon just below Santa Elena Canyon, to where I was now, I’d seen only one other group of boaters (the crazy nighttime canoeists) and only three people on land: one man camping at the Black Dike site along the River Road, and another couple at Loop Camp. Both sightings had occurred on bluffs high above me and on the Texas side of the river. I’d seen no one on the Mexican side of the river since putting in at Lajitas ten days ago. Only cattle and horses and burros and goats and javelina…and not many of those. The Mexican side of the international border, while mostly fenced, was done so with rusty barbed wires strung between spindly cedar and mesquite posts cut by poor ranchers off their own land. This was a “desplobado”, an uninhabited land left to livestock, too inhospitable for human habitation. Between the village of Boquillas, which I had just passed, and the village of Santa Elena, almost 80 miles upriver, there wasn’t a single named settlement on the Mexican side. And the only thing that passed for settlements on the Texas side were the houses and campgrounds abutting the official national park visitors’ centers in Castolon and Rio Grande Village. The land in between the two was, simply, a Chihuahuan wasteland: too remote, too dangerous, and too heavily monitored by the American government to be attractive to either illegal migrants or drug-runners. Even at Santa Elena, I’d seen no one. That made bustling Boquillas all the stranger.


But Boquillas was now a memory. I was downriver and it was out of sight. The river was again quiet. I slid my way through a few more of the “every-quarter-mile” riffles and rounded a bend, only to find a canoe beached on the Texas side, and four men standing on a small, steep, shallow, muddy beach. One was digging into the beach with a shovel, a few inches above the river’s waterline and the other three were watching. I didn’t have a clue as to what they were doing. Nor did I really want to. I waved, greeted them, and pushed on downriver. The men looked puzzled my presence, but hardly responded. Whatever they were doing, they paused until I was several yards downstream. Just before I rounded the next bend, I spun and looked upriver. The canoe was now crossing back to the Mexican side with all four men in it. You tell me.


The day was sunny, cloudless, and windless. Perfect paddling weather. I rounded another corner, ready for the rapid that had telegraphed itself several hundred yards in advance, and there, on the forward edge of the convex Mexican bank, was a gang of Mexican nationals hurriedly scurrying about, doing what, I couldn’t quite make out. I ran the rapid, with only a second to glance at a  very large, very dark, very taciturn man, with tightly slicked-back hair and one black eyepatch, sitting in a folding camp chair in the middle of all the activity. I nodded but he didn’t nod back. The others ignored me, too. As I rounded the curve of the rapid, I spied another man in a canoe, paddling hard across my line of travel, toward the Texas bank and a stand of high river cane. He beached just as I emerged from the rapids, almost abreast of him. Passing him, I tried to make eye contact, but he dragged the canoe further onto land and immediately disappeared into the cane without acknowledging me. I decided speed was my friend at this point and dug my paddle hard into the river. Continuing to round the large bend, I sped past the cane wall and approached a wooded section of the Texas bank. There, at the edge of the water, sat an old man, a Mexican national, I assume. I smiled, waved, greeted him in Spanish. He nodded, then asked, in English, “You want souvenirs? From Boquillas?” “No, lo siento,” I apologized, “no tengo dinero, no necessito dinero en el rio,” and I shrugged my shoulders, “Ya voy a La Linda,” I exaggerated. “Cuantos dias a La Linda? Dos?” the man asked. “Si, dos, dos y medio, mas o menas,” I replied, and then waved and turned back downriver, dug my paddle hard into the current and sped onward. “Adios, vaya con dios,” I added, over my shoulder.


Again, I don’t really know what was going on at that bend in the river. The mind, of course, reels at the possibilities, but – I said to myself – I’m less than three miles downriver of Rio Grande Village, which has an INS checkpoint and a consistent Border Patrol presence. There are both river and air patrols around Boquillas – and frequently. While it might not be hard to imagine I’d witnessed illegal activity, it was harder to actually believe that were true. Later, after my trip, talking to rangers, I decided that the latter sighting, at least, was probably a candellila wax camp [https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/waxcamps/techniques.html] even if the jefe looked like a villain straight out of central casting. As for the first sighting…..beats me….but I will admit to feeling spooked more than once that day. I was ashamed, but I also forgave myself: it’s not as if I was moving through a social landscape completely free of danger.


From time to time, earlier in the trip, I had contemplated the strangeness of the international border along which I was traveling.  The river was sometimes as narrow as 20 yards; at others it could be 200 yards. Sometimes it seemed barely a foot deep; at others far, far deeper than I am tall. But along most of its length, it was shallow enough to ford easily and narrow enough to throw a rock from one bank to the other with ease. But toss that rock in either direction – north or south – and it would pass from one world into a wholly, dramatically different one. The difference might not be immediately apparent, but it was profound. There are, in fact, few places on the globe where two so radically different nations bump up against each other.  Haiti and the Dominican Republic come to mind, or South Africa and Zimbawe, or the Gaza Strip and Israel, or North and South Korea. The most striking difference between the US and Mexico might be in the relative wealth of its citizens. In the US, the average household net-adjusted disposable income, according to the OECD’s global analysis, is $44,049; in Mexico it is $13,891. Income distribution in Mexico is far more lopsided than in the US, meaning the rich are fewer and richer, and the poor are more numerous and poorer. One can argue why these things are the way they are, but one cannot argue that they are not that way. So, as one travels downriver at a 2 or 3 or 5mph pace, the left bank is the southern edge of the globe’s richest country, home to some of the most economically-advantaged people on the planet, and the right bank is the northern edge of one of the globe’s poorest countries, home to some of the planet’s most economically-disadvantaged people.  Travel north through North America, and the wealth continues all the way through Canada to the Arctic. Travel south through Mexico and into Central America, and the picture, for the most part, gets even bleaker. And the only thing that separates those two worlds here in Big Bend is a small muddy brown river. And, frequently, a prodigious amount of Giant River Cane. But more on that later.


I’ve traveled extensively in Latin America and am as comfortable there as the next guy. I speak enough survival Spanish to get by. I like the people and the cultures and the foods and the history. I’ve studied there, worked there, recreated there. But being IN Latin America is not at all the same as being BETWEEN Latin America and what we, in the north, self-centeredly call “America” (there are, after all, at least two Americas in the western hemisphere). Being BETWEEN these two Americas can be a bit like being BETWEEN two tectonic plates: not always the most reassuring place to be.  Whether that geographic and cultural and economic boundary is divergent, convergent or transformative is debatable and debated endlessly. I suspect only time will tell. What is not debatable, I would argue, is that the boundary between the US and Mexico, along the Rio Grande, is – like any tectonic boundary – a place of extraordinary tension and pressure and even upheaval.  These tensions and pressures and upheavals are, for the most part, absorbed and accommodated by the extraordinary people living on each side of the border, but nevertheless from time to time the disequilibria – born of the social and cultural and political and economic differences between the two sides of the border – finds expression in angry, often frightening, and sometimes violent actions and reactions. Whether, in the end, our societies turn out to be elastic, brittle, or plastic in response to these challenges, is something I cannot predict.


[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: December 25, 2017, 11:13:29 PM by House Made of Dawn »
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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #128 on: December 24, 2017, 03:34:02 AM »
Money, they say, makes the world go round, and there’s no doubt that money helps the basement foundations of the United States and Mexico bump and grind against each other in their fertile disequilibrium.  While national foundations, like rock strata, are huge and massive and ever so slow to move, money, which is more like heat, generally flows through the environment at a much faster speed and, in doing so, seeks the path of least resistance which is also happens to be the path of greatest acceleration. One nifty definition of heat is “energy on the move”. And if there’s one thing money does along the border, it’s move. And when I say “money”, I mean money in all its forms – not just cash, but credit, investment, capital, raw materials, natural resources, labor, finished products, and all manner of things of value, both legal and illegal. The path of least resistance is often the path less legal, and the maximum acceleration of one’s net worth is often achieved through those same shady routes. Cheap illegal labor and goods flow north, illegal cash flows south. Illegal byproducts and substandard products are dumped in the south, and semi-legal cash flows north. Even the best of people, on both sides of the border, are tempted to follow the path of least resistance - let’s call it “the shortcut” - to riches.


In The Tecate Journals, a book I highly recommend, author and boater Keith Bowden tells this story:

“Rumors abound – many passed along by very trustworthy sources – that the business of drug trafficking had infiltrated all levels of the Border Patrol, the National Park Service, and local law enforcement agencies in the Big Bend Region. The most publicized case involved the bust of Presidio County Sheriff Rick Thompson, a twenty-year Marine Corps veteran, who was arrested in December 1991 after federal agents found a ton of 94% pure Colombian cocaine in his horse trailer in the fairgrounds outside Marfa, Texas. Thompson pled guilty and initially received a life sentence, which was later reduced to twenty-two years on the grounds that he had ‘cooperated’. Reputedly, the ex-Sheriff was part of an intricate smuggling network, originating with the legendary Pablo Acosta, that stretched through many of the backcountry ranches of the Big Bend area and included the cooperation of the ranch owners and Park Service officials.”


http://www.nytimes.com/1992/02/07/us/drug-traffickers-are-reopening-old-routes-in-texas-badlands.html?pagewanted=all

http://libit.sulross.edu/archives/marfanews/indandsent84-92/1992-01-16.pdf


Later in the book, Bowden, who recounts his own journey by canoe and raft down the Rio Grande from El Paso all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, writes of his personal experience encountering drug smugglers near the Adams Ranch, just outside the eastern border of the national park:

“I heard the unlikely sound of voices moving through the mesquite growth above the opposite shore. A moment later I spotted two heads, and I called out a friendly greeting in Spanish. Suddenly ten or twelve men, all outfitted with bale-sized yellow backpacks, scattered for cover. Even as they hurried to hide, I could tell that not one had seen me, even though I was only a hundred feet away on the other side of the river. I noticed that all the backpacks were identical – yellow and waterproof, similar to the wet bags…I use to keep our gear dry when running whitewater.”

“It would be difficult to overstate how pervasive marijuana trafficking is along the Rio Grande, but even I found it surprising that smugglers had chosen this remote route. By river, La Linda sat only five miles away; by land, because of the need to circumvent two impassable canyons, the distance was more than double. Furthermore, the next access on the Texas side, via the rough road network of the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, was six river miles away, but two more canyons required long walks around.”

“In the vast desert triangle formed by Highway 90, Highway 385, and the Rio Grande – an area of roughly four thousand square miles – an extensive network of seldom travelled ranching and wildlife management roads crisscrosses the terrain. Rarely visited by the Border Patrol or any other law enforcement agency, these roads offer smugglers routes to circumvent the B.P. checkpoints on all the area’s paved highways leading from the river to the state’s interior. Apparently, this group of a dozen “mules” who carried the backpacks in the mesquite grove adjacent to camp was headed – or at least their cargo was headed – for this isolated network.”

“I angled onshore to chat with them…the men aged in range from late teens to mid-forties, most of them anxious about my approach…one of the men asked for cigarettes…I tossed a pack of cigarettes onto shore. Three men sprinted to retrieve it, and I saw that they were more relieved to have cigarettes than they had been to learn that I was not a drug agent. I asked, in Spanish, ‘So just what are you guys doing out here?’

‘Fishing,’ they replied.”


What a trip! As for myself, I wasn’t particularly keen on meeting any ‘fishers’ during my last two days on the river. With a little luck, I would camp tonight downriver of the spot where the Marufo Vega trail terminated at the river, and by tomorrow evening, I would be camped at the very easternmost edge of the national park, ready to pack up my rafting gear for good and head overland for fifteen days, back to my vehicle at the Mesa de Anguila trailhead in Lajitas.  Thankfully, as the day wore on, the canyon became quieter, the walls higher, and I saw no one else on either bank. I was now in truly remote and inaccessible territory. No room for humans here. Boquillas Canyon may be my favorite of the three major river canyons inside the park. It is not as tall or narrow or majestic as Santa Elena or Mariscal, but what it lacks in immediate drama, it makes up for in sustained complexity. At any given point it is usually possible to see two, three, or even four layers of sheer cliffs, each retreating behind the others and forming a deep-focus vista. And always dominated by El Pico, the iconic and imposing crown of the Sierra del Carmen mountains in Mexico.  Rarely was El Pico out of my sight. As the sun moved across the sky during the day, each cliff rank would shift in color and focus, so that the visual field was always a complex and dynamic canvas of contrasting colors and textures. And the caves! My god, the caves! It seemed as if every quarter mile or less, some amazing, often astoundingly deep cave would appear in a cliff face, begging for exploration. But, of course, I had not time for that, it was always, “Press on! Press on!” Fortunately the day remained warm, and unlike Santa Elena and Mariscal, Boquillas Canyon was open enough that I usually had the sun on me.  In the rare slow sections without rapids, I could lean back, prop my legs up on either side of my backpack lashed to the bow, let the sun warm and soothe me, and paddle leisurely downstream. Once, I even nodded off…for how long, I don’t know, but thankfully nothing disastrous came of it.


Occasionally the wind would pick up, mostly upriver, and I’d have to sit up and paddle vigorously into it to keep moving, but these occasions were rare. It was during one of these sessions that I noticed the sun was no longer shining on me, that the sky had noticeably darkened and the wind was picking up substantially. A little worried, I hunkered down and paddled hard against the wind. I soon passed the riverside terminus of the Marufo Vega trail, an extremely rugged section of the canyon with high, forbidding walls and jagged cliffs. Nevertheless, the day was coming to a close and I took this as a sign to begin looking for a campsite. I’d wondered if I might encounter any backpackers at the Marufo Vega trail, but I saw no one at or near the trail, so I felt certain I was all alone in this canyon this evening. The sky was schizophrenically moving from overcast to sunny and back again, but the wind continued unabated. I carefully scanned both banks for a suitable campsite and soon spied a tiny beach on the Mexican side. I had heretofore avoided camping on that shore, and had only beached there under necessity (once when I flipped on Day 2, and another time, also on Day 2, in order to scout the Rockslide in Santa Elena Canyon), but the sky was growing dark from clouds and it was late in the day.


Just as I began seriously considering the tiny beach as a campsite, I spied something orange above it, partially obscured behind a rock. What was it? An abandoned life vest? Noooooo….it was a tent. A tent? WTF? Here. And on the Mexican side? Perhaps there was a boater ahead of me? I had mixed feelings. I didn’t really want to encounter anyone else out here, even another American. I slowed down to take a better look, pausing near the Mexican shore, but still some 20 yards away from the tent, which I could now see was a two-person Eureka in pristine condition. At the same instant I identified the brand of tent, I sensed I was being watched, and turned to look upriver over my right shoulder. There, standing on what looked to be a steep and very rocky trail above the tent and a few yards behind me, were two men. Staring darkly at me. One was short and seemed clearly to me to be a Mexican national in everyday work clothes. The other, in warmer clothes, was enormously tall, strongly built, and impressively swarthy with a few days’ growth of beard. I’ve dealt with drug smugglers on three continents, and these guys looked like drug smugglers. And not just mules, but managers.


The hair on the back of my neck stood up. My heart skipped a beat in shock and surprise, and then I hailed the two men, “Buenos tardes, como estas?” “GOOD,” came the reply in English, from the tall one and only the tall one. And when he said “GOOD,” I clearly, unmistakably heard the unspoken, “and that’s ALL you need to know.” The single word was uttered loudly, curtly, and with a very strong full-stop period at the end. “Bueno,” I replied, but it came out as a soprano “Bueno?” The last thing I wanted to say. “Bueno!!!” I hurriedly added. “No problemo, bien, voy a La Linda, muchas kilometros, adios, amigos!!!!” And I hauled ass out of there without looking back. 


The problem was, it was getting even windier, and the sky was darkening with what looked distinctly like incipient mammatus clouds, and those almost always meant rain coming soon. It was late in the day and I needed to find a campsite quick, definitely before I hit the Arroyo Venado rapids which were getting ever nearer with each paddle stroke. Fortunately, the river made two quick bends and the two men were soon out of sight, and more importantly, I was out of their sight. Just upriver from another minor riffle, I spotted what looked like a good beach on the Texas side, made even better by a 40-foot cliff jutting up from its upriver edge. With luck, I could make a camp behind the cliff and remain unseen, even if the men tried to follow me downriver. I dug hard with my paddle strokes and vaulted the packraft onto the beach cobbles, then leapt out of the raft, unlashed my backpack, and quickly carried it upriver through mesquite and tamarisk to a nicely-sheltered sandy spot behind the cliff. Then I ran back down the beach to my packraft, removed a water bladder from its floor, tossed it onto the beach, lifted my packraft and paddle to my shoulder and hoofed it all up to the slope at the back of the beach, and gingerly threaded it through the trees. I left the inflated packraft in a small depression largely behind the cliff and mostly hidden from the river, and then rapidly retrieved my water bladder from the beach and tossed it back into my packraft for nighttime ballast. All my belongings were now hidden, more or less, behind the cliff. I quickly laid out my campsite, changed out of my wet river clothes and into warm fleece against the falling temperatures. The sky, which had been filling with mammatus clouds, now began to clear in an upper level breeze, and turned instead into a beautiful canvas of wispy clouds firelit from within by orange and red sunrays fading to a clear night of crystal stars. Looked like I would escape rain tonight. I debated whether or not to make a hot dinner with all the attendant odors floating upcanyon on the wind, or get by on meager but stealthy cold rations.  My stomach won out and I made a quick dinner of chicken ramen noodle soup, jerky, and M&M’s. Then, with the sun now down and the sky filling with stars, I slipped into my sleeping bag on its soft platform of sand, carefully placed my glasses and Petzl e-LITE into my river shoes, and laid down to sleep.


It took a long time to calm down, but eventually weariness overcame an abundance of caution and the excesses of my imagination, and sleep overtook me. My last, groggy thought was, “I don't know if I'll be alive when I wake up tomorrow, but if I am, by the end of the day I'll be off this river for good...and not a day too soon.”


[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: December 25, 2017, 11:10:17 PM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline iCe

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #129 on: December 24, 2017, 06:08:27 AM »
 :eusa_clap:


Merry Christmas to you and yours

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Offline mule ears

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #130 on: December 24, 2017, 08:10:12 AM »
I think you camped just down stream of what I called the crux in the route from the MV trail over to Arroyo Venado, long beautiful riverside open area just below it.

I do think a book or some literary piece should come out of this trip.  My report on the other hand will read like a fact finding technical paper I am sure but it is coming soon anyway. 

Merry Christmas to all!   :a035:
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #131 on: December 24, 2017, 10:22:26 AM »
I think you camped just down stream of what I called the crux in the route from the MV trail over to Arroyo Venado, long beautiful riverside open area just below it.

I think you're right, ME.  Keeping your trip report in mind, I looked for that spot, as well as the mouths of Arroyo Venado and Cow Canyon. They all looked gnarly. I knew when I read your report of that trip that it was a hard one, but even with your trip photos, I still didn't realize just how incredibly difficult and forbidding the territory was until I saw it with my own eyes. And I only saw it from the margins. That must have been some trip.
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Offline horns93

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #132 on: December 26, 2017, 06:26:03 PM »
This is a great read so far, HMoD. You are the backpacking wordsmith.

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Offline Txlj

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #133 on: December 27, 2017, 08:27:37 PM »
The suspense is killing me

Sent from flat land


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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #134 on: December 28, 2017, 01:24:00 AM »
I think you camped just down stream of what I called the crux in the route from the MV trail over to Arroyo Venado, long beautiful riverside open area just below it.

ME, been looking at my journal notes. They indicate that my Holux recorded 29 15 1975N, 102 54 1770W, as the location of "Camp Contrabando", which would put it farther upriver than we thought. In fact, it looks like it's exactly where you and your party exited Marufo Vega and began your riverside bushwhack last February. Google Earth images do indeed look like my campsite, complete with the obscuring cliff. Does that make sense?
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

 


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