The Wall


A stand-off in Washington continues over whether to appropriate 5.7 billion dollars to construct a “wall” along our border with Mexico, while American citizens are punished by the Trump administration with a record-length government shutdown. Trump boasted that the shutdown would continue until his demand for that particular sum of money was met.
Despite Trump’s insistence that the border is in crisis, recent news coverage suggests that the security of our border with Mexico is being well managed by a variety of means (barriers, fences, cameras, electronic surveillance, border patrol agents etc.), with the number of migrants entering via the southern border going down over the last number of years. And, I don’t doubt for a minute that, prior to Trump’s initiating his crusade for a wall, planners in the Dep’t of Homeland Security had already decided upon the most effective means to stop or catch migrants for each and every mile of the border.
But, why isn’t a wall that runs the entire length of the border a smart or practical idea? My wife Kathy and I have visited a number of areas along the border with Mexico, and it is an understatement to say that the terrain along the border is extremely varied, with large sections of the border unsuitable for the construction of a wall or too desolate to attract migrants.
The border with Mexico is 1954 miles long, and is geographically broken into two parts.  For 1260 miles, the eastern portion of the border follows the the deepest channel of the Rio Grande, from a few miles upstream of El Paso, TX, to the Gulf of Mexico. The western portion of the border does not adhere to natural features, but, rather, follows geopolitical boundaries i.e. the southern borders of New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Let’s take a look at those areas of the border that Kathy and I have visited, starting with the eastern end of the border, where the Rio Grande runs into the Gulf of Mexico. This spot is known as Boca Chica, and a 4WD vehicle is needed to drive the three miles of beach from the nearest road access to the north. It is, likewise, hard to access on the Mexican side. It is visited by fishermen, and the few tourists that are ready to tackle the problematic sands of the beach. As far as I can ascertain, no barrier has yet been constructed along the river here, and/or out into the surf. Nor, because of the isolation and lack of roads, is such needed.
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Lighthouse in Mexico, with the Rio Grande in the foreground

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Upstream view of the Rio Grande

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Pelicans and other shorebirds, with the Rio Grande in the foreground and surf in the Gulf of Mexico beyond

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NOTE: In the above map, and all Rio Grande maps that follow, the river runs from left to right.

Found some 25 or so miles upstream from the Gulf are the twin cities of Brownsville, TX and Matamoros, MX. Brownsville is situated at the downstream end of the heavily-populated Rio Grande Valley, known for its citrus production, as a winter destination for “snowbirds”, extraordinary birding and wildlife refuges, and the Brownsville Ship Channel, that connects it to the Gulf.

The Sabal Palm Sanctuary is located along the Rio Grande in Brownsville. A barrier was constructed to the north of the Sanctuary 10 years ago, leaving it (happily) intact.

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Sabal palm

The Santa Ana NWR is located on the Rio Grande, to the south of McAllen, and was saved from construction of a barrier by Congressional action in 2018.

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Black-necked stilts and ducks, Santa Ana NWR

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Spanish moss, Santa Ana NWR

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Butterfly in winter, Santa Ana NWR

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Rio Grande, at Santa Ana NWR

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Kathy looks at clothing discarded by migrants after swimming across the Rio Grande, Santa Ana NWR.

Construction of 33 or more miles of barrier is slated for the Rio Grande Valley, over the objections of most property owners and much of the local population. In the news lately is the scheduled construction of a barrier through the National Butterfly Center, south of Mission, TX.

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Courtesy National Butterfly Center

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Courtesy National Butterfly Center

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Courtesy National Butterfly Center

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The Rio Grande Valley is a unique ecosystem, of a sort found nowhere else in the United States.

Located upstream of the Rio Grande Valley are, first, Falcon and, next, Amistad Reservoirs. The terrain becomes increasingly arid and desolate as one travels upstream in this region.
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Dryden Crossing is located 100 or so river miles upstream of Amistad Dam. Dryden Crossing is the take-out (end point) for the river trip that runs through the most downstream of the Rio Grande canyons – the Lower Canyons. This 83 mile stretch is found immediately downstream of Big Bend National Park
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The desert canyon country of Big Bend National Park and surrounding lands is as rugged as it gets. The Lower Canyons are most easily visited by boat. The put-in is at La Linda Bridge and the take-out at Dryden Crossing.
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Horse Canyon is the first of the Lower Canyons

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Below Black Gap Wildlife Management Area

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Balanced rock

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Kathy, in Hot Springs Rapid

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In low water, this is Complejo del Caballo Rapid

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In high water, the same rapid as above is called Rodeo Rapid, and has the biggest waves on the river

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Burro Bluff

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Steve and Susan, in Upper Madison Falls

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Lower Madison Falls. Left to right: Susan, Kathy and Steve

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Kathy, in Panther Rapid

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San Francisco Canyon

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The Teapots, upstream of Dryden Crossing

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The road to Dryden Crossing. Left  to right: Susan, Steve and Kathy

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While showing off the beauties of these canyons, these photos also demonstrate that no artificial barriers are needed along the Rio Grande here. And that remains the case as one travels upstream into Big Bend National Park. The next canyon upstream from the Lower Canyons is Boquillas Canyon.

The put-in for the Boquillas Canyon run is located at Rio Grande Village, in Big Bend National Park. Found across the river is the Mexican town of Boquillas. The inhabitants of Boquillas depended, in the past, on Park visitors who crossed in row boats to purchase their crafts, and this trade has been disrupted by new Department of Homeland Security restrictions. Boquillas Canyon is 33 miles in length.

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Boquillas, MX

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Boquillas, MX

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Rafting guests enjoy the Boquillas hot springs

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Boquillas Canyon

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Boquillas Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen, MX

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The part of Mexico south of the Rio Grande in this area is extremely remote, wild and un-populated. Again, there is no need for a barrier along the river here.

The next canyons upstream are the short Hot Springs and San Vicente Canyons. The ten mile Mariscal Canyon comes next.

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Kathy, in Mariscal Canyon

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Mariscal Canyon

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Kathy, in Mariscal Canyon

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A fluted and polished limestone boulder, Mariscal Canyon

Equally forbidding to Mariscal Canyon is the next canyon upstream – the 19 mile Santa Elena Canyon. The put-in for Santa Elena Canyon is Lajitas, with the take-out at the mouth of the canyon. The Mexican village of Lajitas used to have commerce with the Texas town of Lajitas, including rowing their children across the river to go to school in the latter. But this, too, has been disrupted.

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The Chisos Mountains of Big Bend NP, from Terlingua, TX

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The Chisos Mountains

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Kathy, atop Emory Pk., 7825′, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains

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The beer drinking billy goat of Lajitas

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Rock Slide Rapid, Santa Elena Canyon

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Kathy, in Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon is the most upstream canyon in Big Bend National Park, but one more canyon is found farther upstream – Colorado Canyon.

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Colorado Canyon

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Kathy, in Colorado Canyon

Upstream of Colorado Canyon are the twin towns of Presidio, TX and Ojinaga, MX. A north flowing Mexican tributary, the Rio Conchos, joins the Rio Grande at Ojinaga. This river replenishes the Rio Grande, which is otherwise dry at this point. The Rio Grande is dry, in fact, for the approximately 150 mile distance upstream to Fort Quitman. This stretch is now known as “The Forgotten River”, and has been taken over by the invasive tamarisk tree, with the river channel eradicated. Here, the river ran through the howling wilderness of the Chihuahuan Desert, and what’s left of it is in no need of a barrier. The 70 miles from Fort Quitman to El Paso, TX/Juarez, MX is populated, with barriers already in place where needed.

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The border leaves the river a few miles north of El Paso, and, from there, follows the southern boundaries of New Mexico, Arizona and California westward. Big Hatchet Peak is located in the bootheel of New Mexico, where, at a point about 100 miles west of El Paso, the border makes a right angle turn, to run south for 30 miles, before turning again and continuing westward, to meet the southern boundary of Arizona. This area is extremely desolate and in no need of a barrier.

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Big Hatchet Pk

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This sign says it all

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View to the east from Big Hatchet Pk. The distant range is in Mexico, with the border running north/south along the length of the intervening valley.

The last stretch of the border that Kathy and I have visited is that in the vicinity of Hereford, AZ. Here, the Huachuca Mountains rise immediately to the north of the border. Because of its proximity to Mexico, this area is famed for Mexican bird species that can be seen in few other, if any, places in the United States.

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The Arizona woodpecker is mis-named, as its range is mainly confined to Mexico. Ramsey Canyon, in the Huachuca Mountains.

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Anna’s hummingbird in December. Ramsey Canyon, in the Huachuca Mountains.

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Ramsey Canyon, in the Huachuca Mountains

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Ramsey Canyon, in the Huachuca Mountains

These mountains are known to serve as a corridor for migrants, and Border Patrol activity is evident in the area.

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Kathy and I have no direct experience of the border west of Hereford, AZ, which passes through the Sonoran Desert before it intersects (and follows for about 20 miles) the Colorado River, from San Luis, AZ, to Yuma, AZ.  From there, as the southern boundary of California, it follows a beeline to the Pacific Ocean. Again, much of the border runs through desolate and largely unpopulated terrain.

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Trump’s insistence on building a wall along the entirety of this border is nonsensical. Yes, one can make an argument for erecting barriers along certain additional high-trafficked stretches of the border, and that will certainly occur, regardless of how the current stand-off is resolved. Otherwise, I think it unlikely that Trump’s 5.7 billion dollar wall, to run along the entirety of the border, will ever see the light of day.

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Steve Miller, author of the http://www.believesteve.org blog, in the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, 1999. Photo by Kathy Miller.

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Kathy Miller, in the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, 1999.

(photos by the author except where otherwise noted)

About evensteven

I am a photographer and author. I have published a book of photography and accompanying text on running the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The first (print) edition is out of print, but a second edition is available as an iBook (eBook) through the iTunes bookstore. All Grand Canyon, river and nature lovers will enjoy my book: The Grand: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-grand/id672492447?ls=1 I have also published five additional iBooks: 1. The Salt River: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-salt-river/id1244922282?mt=11 2. Coyote Buttes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/coyote-buttes/id1271773201?mt=11 3. Four Cornered, the Land https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/four-cornered/id1384038899?mt=11 4. Four Cornered, The Rivers https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/four-cornered-book-two-the-rivers/id1402287568?mt=11 5. Rio Marañon https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/rio-marañon/id1415174046?mt=11
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