I didn’t actually have to swim across the Rio Grande. I stepped off the bank into the shallow water and started to walk toward the US side. Of course I was ready to swim. Everything in my backpack was placed inside tightly closed plastic bags. As the water rose slowly up my thighs, I scanned the gringo bank, looking for any movement, but there was no moon and the starlight only gave me shadows. I expected at any minute to be stabbed by flashlight beams, to hear Border Patrol agents shouting at me in Spanish, but I only heard the water rippling over a gravel bank.
The bottom was hard packed sand and the current was only three or four miles per hour. I walked slowly, carefully placing my feet, and the water rose up to the center of my chest. I had come about fifty yards into the river and was about halfway across. Just as I was telling myself that it was time to swim, the water level slowly began to drop. I kept on walking and in no time I was standing in front of the American bank of the river, unable to get out, because it was steep, about three feet high, slippery and covered in thorns. I looked right and left, but the bank didn’t look any better in either direction. I remembered the leather gloves in my backpack, found the plastic sack they were in and put them on. I grabbed a double handful of thorns and hauled myself up, only to slide back down the muddy bank into the river. Twice.
So I crawled up the slope. Since I was grabbing thorns with both hands I couldn’t keep the stickers out of my face, but I made it. Then I faced a new problem: bamboo. Lots of tall bamboo stalks, ten feet tall, and so thick it was almost impossible to walk through. Since it was late November, the bamboo was also very dry and it crackled and popped with every attempt to take a step. I was sure that any Border Patrol agent within a half mile could hear me. I tried to be as quiet as possible, threading my feet slowly between the stalks of bamboo, but I soon gave it up. I couldn’t move and be quiet both so I decided to get it over as fast as possible and started crashing and popping through the canes. It was hard work and the temperature, even at midnight, was in the 80s. After fifteen minutes of sweating I broke through the cane and found myself back on the river bank. I was forced to admit something that a trained land surveyor should never have to admit. I had gone in a circle without knowing it.
I had a GPS receiver, but the compass arrow on that model only works when you are walking at a normal speed. Bushwhacking through the cane I was moving too slowly. But of course I had a magnetic compass. I got it out of the pack and discovered that it did not have a luminous dial. I looked for the stars but inside the cane forest I couldn’t see the stars. Yes, I was beginning to have doubts about my planning for this escapade. I should have pulled out my flashlight, but I had decided not to bring one, on the grounds that I would be tempted to use it unnecessarily and it would give me away to the Border Patrol.
After an interval of time that I won’t attempt to quantify, I came up with a plan. I took off my watch and held it upside down in my right hand. I held the compass in my left and when I pushed in the stem of my trusty Timex, the luminous dial allowed me to read my compass. After another fifteen minutes of snapping and popping, I emerged from the cane into the west Texas desert: sand, cactus and sparse, stunted mesquite bushes.
I was at the bottom of a bluff, maybe two hundred feet high. I pulled myself up by grabbing handholds on mesquite or sage bushes and in no time I was standing on one of the few high points in that landscape, with a spectacular view of the river and the desert for miles in all directions. I turned to look west and could see a few pairs of red tail lights moving slowly north on Highway #2, three miles away in Mexico. The night was so still that I could hear the hissing of their tires on the asphalt. I didn’t have time to admire the view though, because I wanted to get as far away from the river as fast as I could. I took a compass reading to my destination, a small Texas town about 20 miles away and found a radio tower with a red blinking light on top that was right on line. I put my watch back on my left wrist, started walking and fell off a cliff.
I admit that when you say it straight out—I walked off a cliff—it sounds a bit stupid. Okay, it sounds really stupid, but up until that point I was doing fine. I had crossed an international border in the dark by myself and I hadn’t been shot, robbed or arrested.
I had time to think about this because when I felt myself falling, I reached out blindly and managed to grab some brush with both hands, so there I was, hanging in the dark with both arms outstretched. The cliff was not vertical but it was pretty close and I knew I couldn’t hang there for very long. I couldn’t feel anything under my feet, but whether the bottom was six inches below my boots or a hundred feet below I couldn’t tell. It was dark, you will recall. As I considered the matter, I figured a hundred feet was more likely. From the riverbank I had climbed up a bluff about 200 feet high, and apparently the back side of the bluff was cut by a gulley that connected to the river. So, I decided not to let go and hope for the best.
At this point I was wondering, how in the hell did I get myself into this mess?
In May, seven months previously, having written a few chapters of a novel set on the border between Mexico and Texas, I had traveled to the twin cities of Laredo, on the American side, and Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side of the river, which we call the Rio Grande and they call El Rio Bravo del Norte. I had crossed the border there several times in previous years while taking the bus to Mexico City, but this time I wanted to spend a few days in the area and look for locations I could use in my novel about drug smugglers. In Nuevo Laredo I hired a taxi for two hours and took a tour of all the barrios in the city, both rich and poor. Looking at a map, I noticed that on the Mexican side, Highway #2 sticks very close to the river all the way to Piedras Negras, ninety miles to the north, and I decided to take a bus ride and look at the country.
For about an hour, it was nothing more than a bus ride through the desert. Off to the right, about three miles away, there was a narrow green ribbon winding through the desert, marking the location of the river. Then the bus pulled over to the shoulder out in the middle of nowhere and stopped. Half a dozen passengers, all young men with backpacks, got off, stepped through the barbed wire fence and started walking east, threading their way through the sparse cactus and mesquite. Obviously, this was the beginning of one of those illegal pathways that end up days or weeks later in Atlanta or Chicago. I was surprised because I guess I had always thought those trips began at night. The other passengers on the bus paid no attention.
Then the bus drove on but about fifteen minutes later it stopped again, once more on the shoulder of the road. Five more passengers, all in their early twenties, got off. They all had back packs; a few had grocery sacks of bottled water. One was a woman. Before the bus got back on the highway they were through the fence and walking toward gringo land. I had an overpowering desire to get off the bus and follow them, but I was completely unprepared.
I looked around and spotted an obvious landmark and then a milepost, which I recorded in my notebook. The bus continued on to Piedras Negras, where I got a motel room. The next day I walked across the bridge into Eagle Pass, Texas. The two cities are both quite small and there is very little cross border traffic. Later that day I left for Alaska, where I had a summer job waiting. I needed to build up my bank account before attempting any further boots-on-the-ground research.Now, seven months later it was late November and I was back, attempting the trip on my own, and in spite of the fact that I was spread-eagled on the side of a cliff in the dark, I still thought I was doing okay. I was not ready to give up. My arms were getting real tired and I was breathing hard and sweating a lot, but I was still having fun. Maybe that was just the adrenaline talking.It seemed that my right hand was gripping thicker brush so I slowly let go with my left hand and squirmed around until I was facing the cliff. Bit by bit I found handholds and footholds that allowed me to crawl slowly back to the top. I had only fallen about fifteen feet but it seemed a lot farther pulling myself up with my arms.Once on top I sat down, had a drink, and after catching my breath I consulted my GPS and saw that the moon would rise in 40 minutes. I decided to sit on my butt and wait. I practiced deep breathing and stared at the stars. If you’ve lived your life in a big city you have no idea how many stars there are or how bright they can be.Once the moon came up, I could see much better and I detoured around the gulley, still aiming for the radio tower in the distance. I kept a fast walking pace, determined to get as far away from the river as I could before sunrise. I still don’t know how deep that gulley was but I should look it up on the topographic map. I recorded my route on my GPS, so it wouldn’t be hard to figure out.After half a mile I came to an unusual fence. It was at least nine feet tall and made of woven wire in six inch squares. In the west we call that sheep fence because that’s what you have to use if you run sheep. Even six strands of barbed wire won’t hold sheep. But I had never seen a sheep fence nine feet tall. Even stranger, the posts were steel pipes set in concrete. No sheep rancher in Wyoming could afford a fence like that and I was pretty sure that sheep raising couldn’t be that much more profitable in Texas. I thought maybe the government put it up, but why? It couldn’t stop border crossers because it took me about fifteen seconds to climb over it. It was definitely a mystery but I didn’t stand around thinking about it. I sighted on the radio tower again and got moving.Every now and then I would cross a dirt road. I saw a few cattle and an occasional stock tank. And then I came to another one of those strange fences. Actually two of them, on each side of a gravel road. I listened carefully for traffic in either direction and then climbed both fences and kept going. After about three more hours I was getting pretty tired and the sky was beginning to get light in the east. When it was bright enough to see a cow at about a mile I headed for the thickest patch of mesquite I could find and picked a spot to lay up in. I had a big drink of my water bottle, ate a few granola bars and lay down to sleep, using my pack for a pillow. I was proud of myself because I had brought a mosquito hood to keep flies off my face.Somehow I had picked a spot without ants and I had no trouble sleeping until about 4 pm. I do remember shifting position once or twice when the shade moved off my face. My plan was to walk eighteen miles the second night to Catarina, Texas, a small town on the highway between Laredo and San Antonio, but I had to modify that because I had only five liters of water left. I had started with three times that amount but I had been drinking it faster than planned. In spite of popular myths, there is no benefit whatsoever to rationing water in the desert. If you’re thirsty, you should drink. Trying to save your water accomplishes nothing at all. I had tried to buy a hiker’s water filter in Laredo the previous week and couldn’t find one in the entire town. They’re a common item in sporting goods stores in the Rocky Mountain states because so many people backpack in the woods, but I discovered that there is almost no public land in Texas, and hence no backpackers and no portable water filters. There were stock tanks available but I wasn’t going to drink that stuff straight.I knew I wouldn’t make it eighteen miles on five liters of water so I took my GPS and plotted the shortest course to the highway. Nine miles I could do, and when the sun went down I started off. I could walk a bit faster than the night before because I was using dirt roads. After a couple of hours an oilfield service pickup let me ride in back for a mile. About 1 a.m. somebody stood up from behind a sagebrush on the side of the road. He was maybe twenty yards ahead of me but I don’t believe he saw me. He stepped onto the road and started walking the same direction I was going. He was keeping a faster pace though and I slowed down a bit to let him get as far ahead as he wanted. I’m sure that he had crossed the river without papers and he probably had an appointment to meet somebody on the highway. I had a knife in my pocket and kept my hand on it for the next few miles, although I doubt if I could have defended myself with it.About 2:30 a.m. I decided to check my GPS to see how I was doing so I got it out of my pocket. I was looking down at it while walking and suddenly I saw the earth open up under me. I stopped with one foot in midair and refocused on the road I was walking on and the road wasn’t there. Under my upraised boot was nothing. Without realizing it I had walked onto a bridge over a dry stream bed. It was about thirty yards long and had no railing, curb or shoulder of any kind. About twenty feet below was a dry streambed full of jagged rocks. I had been within a fraction of a second of falling into it. At the very least I would have broken a leg. Most likely I would have died. I’ve taken enough construction industry safety classes to remember that half of all falls from a height of only eight feet are fatal.I had been getting drowsy, but suddenly I was wide awake and I stayed that way until I reached the highway about an hour later. There was still no light in the east, and I didn’t expect anyone would pick up a hitchhiker at night that close to the border, so I lay down off the shoulder to take a nap, but before I had time to settle down a truck stopped to give me a ride. It was the Border Patrol. I told the agent I was hitchhiking from Seattle to the Gulf Coast, he checked my papers and then gave me a ride to the international bridge north of Laredo. He said there were rules about civilians sitting in front so I had to sit in the box over the back, where they transport prisoners.I had been living on granola bars for two days so when I got to Laredo I headed for the nearest waffle house and ate about three greasy breakfasts. Then I got a motel room and took a shower.After about twenty hours of sleep I began the second phase of my research, looking at the border from the point of view of those who guard it. I called the Border Patrol sector headquarters, said I was a writer and asked if I could ride with some of their agents. No problem. They didn’t even ask me what I had written. A few hours later I was riding around Laredo with an agent showing me the favorite spots where people swim the river. It was interesting but I wanted to visit the country I had crossed a few days before. Another call to BP public relations and I was on my way to Comstock, a very small town in the desert a long way north of Laredo. I had an appointment for 8 pm the next morning with the station supervisor.Border Patrol Station at Comstock.
I was on time and my appointment consisted of a handshake and then the morning meeting started. No one asked me to leave so I sat still and listened to the briefing by the intelligence officer. I was amazed at the confidential information I was hearing. No one had taken my fingerprints, no one had asked me who I worked for or what I had written. They believed that I was what I claimed to be. After the meeting I spent the day riding with the intelligence officer, a plainclothes Border Patrol agent. We drove to isolated ranches and I listened while he talked to cowboys, sheepherders and landowners, in Spanish and English. We had coffee with a gentleman in Langtry who is a descendant of Judge Roy Bean. I heard a lot of great stories, only a few of which made it into Borderline Case. The rest will have to wait for the sequel.
After dinner I worked the night shift with another agent and was present at the arrest of eight people. On the radio we heard that there was a hit on an underground seismic sensor located at an intersection of two fences about 15 miles from the river. One truck with two agents went to the sensor, found footprints and started following the trail in the dark using night vision goggles. The agent I was with assumed that the illegals would follow one of the fences northeast to a large gulley and he decided to intercept them before they got that far. We drove cross country without headlights, bumping through the cactus, trying to avoid the larger mesquite trees. Just as we got to our intercept point we received word on the radio that the agents on foot had discovered a party of eight people in the process of bedding down for the night. In five minutes we joined the party.
When we got back to the Comstock Station the indocumentados, or paperless ones, were put in separate holding cells for men and women. The station supervisor was waiting for us, even though it was 2 a.m. The first thing he did was open a very large refrigerator in his office and pull out a large dinner size burrito for each prisoner. They were very grateful for that and the bottles of water. One woman was sick and the supervisor talked to her for a long time, offering to take her to a hospital. The nearest one is seventy miles away but he didn’t want any health emergencies in his station. She refused, saying she was only carsick from riding in back of the pickup. After awhile she was feeling better and the agents began processing them. Their fingerprints were taken electronically and they were told their rights under the law.
There are an incredible number of great stories in that part of the country and I plan to use them in the sequel to Borderline Case. The new book will also have scenes in the region where Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil meet, known as the Triple Frontera, or three-way border, one of the most lawless places in South America. I think I’m going to call it Borderline Times Three.
I suppose this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. What I did, crossing the border alone at night was stupid and dangerous and this was a couple of years ago. That area has gotten a lot more violent since then and I would not think of doing such a thing now. Don’t try it.