A few months after the 2016 election, I took a trip along the U.S.-Mexico border to see for myself if the situation down there was as dire as had been suggested on cable TV and the internet and at various campaign rallies during the previous couple of years.
What I found, as always, is that a place is never quite the same on the ground as it is when viewed through the lens of politicians and pundits trying to gain maximum traction—one way or the other—on some issue. What I found was a region that defies classification as either fully U.S. or fully Mexico—a place that had evolved over many years into its own thing.
Part of this journey was a drive west from El Paso across the southernmost strip of New Mexico. It’s a desolate part of the country, but its lack of human activity teases to the surface the fact that land—devoid of social and political context—is just land. Theoretically, a border—whether international or between states or provinces within a single country—is an arbitrary line across terrain that cares little about the markers hammered into it.
Borders are subject to change over time (consider that this part of New Mexico and a big chunk of Arizona were part of Mexico until the Gadsen Purchase in 1853, just a century and a half ago) and people who live along them often have more in common with the people living just across the line than they do with their countrymen who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away. That’s to say nothing of the many wild creatures that hop, trot, and burrow their way around these places, or the plants that grow there.
Of course, the human reality is difficult to escape, especially when it involves razor wire-topped steel fences of the variety seen between U.S.-Mexico border cities. But although the border wall—or fence, which is a more accurate description of the barrier in many places—has been growing for decades now, much of it stands in places like Southern New Mexico that are far from, well, anything really.
Because there aren’t many people there, I count this zone as a must-see—a place where scrub-covered hills stretch as far as the eye can see, and where starlight shines brightly, unmolested by the pervasive glow of electric lights. As long as you’re prepared to explain your presence and business to Border Patrol agents on a fairly regular basis, it’s a great place to enjoy a little solitude.
Slowing down the opposition
Driving west from the Santa Teresa Port of Entry, in New Mexico, county road A003—which eventually becomes state highway 9—skirts the border in a few places. Other cars become scarce and buildings nonexistent out here. A mile or two after passing a lone Border Patrol truck parked in the middle of a field near the road, I spot the dark line of border fencing in the distance and take a left onto the next dirt road. I drive slowly, so as to not kick up too much dust, and reach the border in a few minutes.
Out here the fence is only a few feet high—a series of steel X’s set perpendicular to the border, steel cross-beams running through them as fence rails. The Border Patrol calls them Normandy fences, because the X shapes look like those steel contraptions the Wehrmacht positioned on the beach in Normandy to slow the Allied invasion during World War II. Like the barriers used by the Germans, these won’t stop people from advancing, but they do make it very difficult for vehicles to cross without ramps or serious metalworking equipment—they’ve been placed here to slow down the opposition.
I’m at the fence a matter of minutes before I see the dust plume of a fast-approaching vehicle. A Border Patrol truck rounds the bend and stops next to me. The agent wants to know what I’m doing (taking pictures) and approximately how long I’ll be in the area (not sure, maybe half an hour?). I ask a few questions about the fence, and find out that the gravel road running along the border was built when the vehicle barrier was installed. Every so often, a plate—blue with yellow numbers on both sides—is posted on a pole so that the U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican authorities can pinpoint any incidents that may occur on or near the border with a consistent numbering system.
Satisfied that I’m not a drug smuggler or undocumented immigrant, the agent drives off. He will resume his neverending stakeout. After he has left, I hop over the fence and walk a few hundred feet into Mexico to take some pictures of the fence from the Mexican side of the border (nothing to declare on the way back into the U.S.). Then I drive further west, this time on the gravel border road. It’s difficult to follow on Google Maps, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get out on the other side, or I’ll need to backtrack. But I press on toward the setting sun, watching the state highway disappear as it veers to the north.
What are you doing here?
The landscape out here is stunning and seems limitless. Rolling hills and small ridges wear a consistent netting of green desert shrubs on their red soil. Dark mountains loom in the distance, and the shadow from a passing cloud transforms the scene into something surreal. I pass more border obelisks. Most are silver-painted steel, but the older ones are made of plastered stone.
On one side, they say, “Boundary of the United States. Treaty of 1848. Re-established by treaties of 1884-1889. The destruction or displacement of this monument is a misdemeanor punishable by the United States or Mexico.” The other side says the same thing, but in Spanish, and about reaching the end of the Republic of Mexico.
After 15 to 20 miles, the fence changes again, from Normandy X’s into a series of steel posts driven into the ground. They’re even easier to walk through, but are also designed to keep out vehicles. I want to drive the border road all the way to Columbus, New Mexico, but the sun has touched the horizon and the map is unclear as to whether or not I’ll have to backtrack at an energy plant a few miles further west. So I head back toward the highway.
I make it half a mile before encountering a Border Patrol truck driving in the opposite direction. As soon as it passes me, its driver wheels the truck around and catches up to me. The blue lights flash and I pull over.
“Did you just come off of a dirt road back there?” the agent asks. I say yes, and tell him that I drove along the border road for a bit. “You set off one of our sensors. I was wondering what that was.”
There is a note of incredulity in his voice, as if he can’t believe I’d want to be down here.
Like the other agent, he wants to know what I’m doing out here in the middle of nowhere. He doesn’t ask in an accusatory tone—based on my skin, hair, and eye color and the way I talk, I pass as a U.S. citizen, not to be harassed. I know not everyone is as lucky. But there is a note of incredulity in his voice, as if he can’t believe I’d want to be down here. Most of the Border Patrol agents I meet over the next few days are the same way: What are you doing here?
I drive to Columbus, where, in 1916, Pancho Villa attacked a U.S. Army garrison. In a highly controversial move (not at all popular in Mexico), General John “Blackjack” Pershing and his troops spent nine months chasing Villa through Mexico. It’s twilight, and across the broad sweep of the desert floor I see the dark mass of the border fence, which is crowned by a chain of floodlights. Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua squats behind it. Here, the fence is back to its anti-pedestrian 18 to 20 feet; designed to funnel people toward the port of entry. Or around it. The lights don’t stretch very far on either side of the port. From afar, this section of fence looks like what it is—a standalone part that can be circumvented.
America’s loneliest border crossing
During a ridealong with the Border Patrol’s El Paso office the day before, Agent Joe Reyes, a public affairs officer, told me that Border Patrol is basically like the local police. But unlike municipal cops, Border Patrol agents are the only ones you’re likely to see out in the desert. When I first started out on state highway 9, every white SUV I saw perched in the bushes had me stabbing at the brakes to avoid whatever ticket I was likely to get speeding through open desert. But Border Patrol agents don’t seem to care about speeding, so I set the cruise control for a comfortable number and watch the empty miles swoosh by.
After a couple hours driving in pitch-blackness, I reach the port of entry in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, down in the state’s Bootheel region. It’s 9 p.m. and the gate is closed for the night, but even during the day, when only a few vehicles drive through, this is probably the loneliest border crossing in America. Of the 43 official ports of entry along the southern U.S. border, this one is the least-used. The border here is a mirror image of emptiness.
So I turn around and set up camp in the desert, two miles north of that desolate, fluorescent tube-lit stretch of chain link. There is nothing here. Not a light, not a road sign, not an iota of evidence, other than the road, that anyone else ever comes through here. I sing songs into the night sky, certain that no other human is within earshot, then enjoy the dead silence that follows. Sitting in a folding chair staring up at the sky, I’m dazzled by the brilliance of the stars against so inky a backdrop. There is no moon, and better yet, there is no light pollution. Out here I’m alone, and the stars actually twinkle for me.
Out here I’m alone, and the stars actually twinkle for me.
I wake up in the back of the car just after first light, and hear the sound of tires disturbing earth, followed by the squawk of two-way radios. Peering out into the pre-dawn grayness, I can see that I’m surrounded by Border Patrol trucks. Two of them are the standard white-with-diagonal-green-stripe SUVs. A third is a white Silverado with a giant dual camera that looks like an oversized Number 5 head from Short Circuit mounted in its bed.
An agent approaches me wearing a concerned look on his face. His hair is close cropped on the sides and generously pomaded on top. He tells me they received a call about a suspicious vehicle and wants to know what I’m doing out here all alone. Once again, I explain what I’m doing and the agent looks at my ID. He tells me to be safe and the trucks corral and roll out, leaving a cloud of Mars dust hanging in the crisp morning air.
With the Border Patrol posse gone I can see where the suspicious vehicle call came from. A house I hadn’t seen in the darkness the night before stands a couple of hundred yards further from the highway. Whoever lives there is probably wondering who the hell parked in their front yard overnight, and what all that howling was about. The house is the only man-made feature for miles around. No human activity can be seen around it. In fact, the only life forms I do see are a handful of cows munching on some rough shrubs across the road.
The last tank of gas
Having seen the nothing that is Antelope Wells, I consider driving a few hours west through Mexico. But the car’s computer says it only has 60 miles of range before I run out of fuel. I know for sure that there’s a filling station about 60 miles north and west, in Animas, New Mexico. It’s unclear how far I’ll have to drive through Mexico before finding fuel, and the last thing I want to do is run the tank dry on what’s supposed to be one of the cartels’ main supply routes. Seems like a great way to lose a rental car I probably wasn’t supposed to take across the border to begin with.
I make for Animas, reaching the fuel pump at Bootheel Grocery just before the fuel gives out. About 15 miles further west, where state highway 9 dead ends into state highway 80, I stop to take pictures. A Border Patrol agent sitting in a truck nearby drives over to see what I’m up to. He’s friendly; a native Michigander. I ask him if he likes his job. He loves it. I ask if he listens to podcasts and audiobooks while he’s sitting out here by himself in his truck (I’ve been listening to a steady stream of them throughout my trip). He does not.
It strikes me that, of the agents I’ve met over the past couple of days, not one of them seems to have relayed a message to the others that a weird guy in a rental car is poking around by the fence and most likely headed their way. Another thing that stands out is the loneliness of the job. A Border Patrol agent doesn’t work with a partner. Out here, he (most of them are men) sits in a truck by himself, with no one else around for miles.
What happens if a cartel convoy approaches and wants to cross? Do they offer to pay him? A California state trooper I chat with several days later, near Yuma, Arizona, tells me a story of this sort of encounter, when he was heavily outnumbered by men with military trucks and machine guns. He says that when he saw them approach the border fence, he got in his cruiser and quietly drove away.
The agent from Michigan suggests that I visit Portal, Arizona, just across the state line, while I’m in this neck of the woods. I do, and it’s a beautiful place, the entrance to the Chiricahua National Monument and its majestic rock pillars. But even as I behold the towering sandstone formations jutting skyward, I’m reminded of the issues here. A brown sign next to the road warns, “Travel Caution: Smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area.” Unlike other similar signs I’ve seen, this one isn’t riddled with bullet holes.