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.
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
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.
Horse Canyon is the first of the Lower Canyons
Below Black Gap Wildlife Management Area
Kathy, in Hot Springs Rapid
In low water, this is Complejo del Caballo Rapid
In high water, the same rapid as above is called Rodeo Rapid, and has the biggest waves on the river
Steve and Susan, in Upper Madison Falls
Lower Madison Falls. Left to right: Susan, Kathy and Steve
Kathy, in Panther Rapid
San Francisco Canyon
The Teapots, upstream of Dryden Crossing
The road to Dryden Crossing. Left to right: Susan, Steve and Kathy
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.
Rafting guests enjoy the Boquillas hot springs
Boquillas Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen, MX
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.
Kathy, in Mariscal Canyon
Kathy, in Mariscal Canyon
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.
The Chisos Mountains of Big Bend NP, from Terlingua, TX
The Chisos Mountains
Kathy, atop Emory Pk., 7825′, the highest point in the Chisos Mountains
The beer drinking billy goat of Lajitas
Rock Slide Rapid, Santa Elena Canyon
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.
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.
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.
Big Hatchet Pk
This sign says it all
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.
The Arizona woodpecker is mis-named, as its range is mainly confined to Mexico. Ramsey Canyon, in the Huachuca Mountains.
Anna’s hummingbird in December. Ramsey Canyon, in the Huachuca Mountains.
Ramsey Canyon, in the Huachuca Mountains
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.
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.
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.
Kathy Miller, in the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, 1999.
(photos by the author except where otherwise noted)