By Emma Eisler
We have been driving through the Southwest for long enough, now, that the inside of my car is caked in sand and I know instinctively to check my hiking boots for scorpions. This is it, the adolescent American dream: a post-high school road trip. Two best friends, highway stretching on into the distance from California to Texas. Foot on the gas and Doritos crumbs in the cup holder. What could be better? We are free. And it is everything I wanted, everything I expected. Except it also isn’t.
Finally, we’ve reached our southernmost destination, Big Bend National Park. In front of me, the Chisos Mountains rise, reddened by the setting sun, the Rio Grande a silver glimmer in their wake. I am looking out at Mexico, I realize, though there is nothing in the landscape to indicate where one nation becomes another. Black bears and bobcats wade across the Rio Grande and across the two countries daily. Gray wolves paw at both Mexican and American sand and howl at the moon, unaware of the change in government.
As a kind of thought experiment, my friend and I imagine what kinds of conversations might happen if there was a bar exactly on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. This is impossible, of course; in this part of the country, the two countries are separated by a river, and it seems unlikely that any US president—especially Trump—would allow a bar to be built where you’d need a passport to get from one table to another. Still, though, it’s interesting to think about. Would rangers from each country compare knowledge of cacti, confess fears for what the new era of U.S. government might bring, or maybe just complain about the 110-degree weather?
Sometime after we enter Texas, we start encountering border patrol stops. At first I am surprised, since we aren’t actually crossing into Mexico, but after the second or third time, it feels routine. Sometimes the cars in front of us are stopped for a long time, and we watch the border patrol agents asking question after question.
But we are two blonde girls in a bright blue Subaru blasting Kacey Musgraves, and are often waved through only seconds after reaching the front of the line. Each time, I feel motion sick and uncertain. How wrong for me to be able to drive through this land so freely, as if it is my birthright? For others, the mere act of living here involves surviving so much hostility and distrust, while still more are cut off from this land entirely. If I wasn’t so white and blonde, so much the arbitrary and limited media definition of “American,” I have no doubt I would be spending longer talking to border agents, would have to justify my presence and existence, no matter that my family did not come from this part of the world, but from across the sea in Europe. I wonder as well to what extent the intensity of these inspections has increased since Trump was elected, or if the mere act of my questioning the severity of border patrol before Trump is yet another signifier of my own privilege.
Driving through the southwest, I find myself at turns feeling expansive and idealistic and sad and disillusioned. Each time we pass a “Make America Great Again” sign, my friend and I grow quiet. American flags waving in the wind strike me not as old-timey or aesthetically pleasing, but as dangerously nationalistic. Being so close to Mexico, Trump’s wall feels less theoretical. This is the land that would be split—not just in lines on a map, but with a physical barrier. I want to wade into the Rio Grande and declare the divide between these countries null, to stand in the way of construction. For years I have been doodling rattlesnakes and cacti in the margins of my notebooks and dreaming of this trip. I thought traveling through this landscape would be my own personal Odyssey, my journey home. But home is more than a place; it is also a feeling of safety, comfort, and recognition. I do not feel at home in a country that voted Trump into power and put so many of my and others’ rights into question. Other people have never felt at home in this country, and feel even less so after the election. How vain I was, I now realize, to feel this road trip was in some way promised or destined to me specifically. The only claim I have to this place is the accident of my birth and the arbitrary borders of this country.
Despite all this, each night lying in my sleeping bag and listening to coyotes howl, I find myself feeling hopeful. I think how, despite everything we’ve done to the planet, there is still so much left that is beautiful. I think too of all the people working together to fight back against this administration, and the history of activism that is also embedded in this country. I can’t help but question, however, how much of my idealism and optimism also come from privilege. After all, whether or not this country feels fully like home to me, I am still able to drive through this land freely, and to take the trip I grew up dreaming about. Still, I cannot help looking at the mesas and canyons in front of me and feel that they—that this place and this land in general—are worth fighting for, and that there is a better way for us to coexist with each other and the natural environment.
Not too far from where we’re camping, visitors to Big Bend National Park can wade through or row across the Rio Grande at the Boquillas Crossing Point of Entry, explore the town of Boquillas, and hike protected lands in Mexico. Most of the economy of Boquillas comes from this kind of tourism, although with each new set of immigration laws, it becomes more complicated for visitors from the U.S. to cross the border and see this part of the land. Both park rangers in Big Bend and residents and rangers in Boquillas are opposed to Trump’s border wall. Not only would the wall endanger a number of species of wildlife, it would also damage the tourism industry in Boquillas and detract from the number of visitors who come to Big Bend based on their desire to experience nature on both sides of the border. Thinking about this conflict makes me wonder again what a bar on the border would look like. Would park rangers from the U.S. naturally mingle amongst themselves, while rangers from Mexico talked primarily to each other? Would there be a dotted line map where the bar crossed into Mexico, and would visitors from each side respect this designation? I sense they would not––that actually, park rangers from both countries would talk and find common ground sharing their knowledge of the desert and appreciation for this harsh, but beautiful place.
As I look out towards Mexico, I think about how all these questions of borders and national boundaries are not only questions of how we choose to divide and treat people, but also a question of our relationship to the natural environment, and what kind of mark we want to leave on the earth itself. If Trump’s wall is built, it would devastate the wildlife I am witnessing and scar the landscape for generations. There is no inherent difference in the desert on either side of the Rio Grande, and I wonder why we feel the need to draw such arbitrary distinctions.
I watch as a scorpion tunnels into the sand at my feet and think how building a wall—or maybe establishing any kind of border—inherently involves fighting the landscape. Thwarting the path of the animals that migrate across that distance, ignoring the sun that shines on both sides with equal splendor, and ripping from the roots the plants that push up through soil on both sides of the boundary. We live and die by these lines, but no matter the walls we build or maps we draw, our borders remain unreal and arbitrary. I am no more “American” than a high school graduate—or any other person—living in Mexico, or crossing the border to reach the U.S.
As the sun sets over the desert, I think how silly an idea it is that any person or nation can own this land. No property or deed can cede these golden canyons or valleys, the swish of the Rio Grande, or the expansiveness of the stars. Rather than look at the land and attempt to divide it up or possess it, we should look at this land with humility, and remember that it is from the land that we grow. I don’t want to just travel through this land appreciating its beauty. I don’t want to call a place my home without working to make that definition of home inclusive of all kinds of people, not just those who look the way I do. I am scared, and hopeful, and angry. This country is not what I thought it was growing up, but maybe I and other people of my generation will grow up and tear down the walls left for us, to create something better.