I published the original version of this story on drunkcyclist and Expedition Portal in March of 2013. I decided to blow the dust off and re-post it here. I think it tells a lot about me and even more about the desert Southwest that I love so much.
I have always just called them long rides. I never felt the need to classify them as anything other than that. Pick a spot on the map, load up the right bike for the job and take off for a few days. I was doing them long before I started thinking of myself as a story teller and I will keep doing them until I can no longer turn the pedals. They are my meditation, my classroom, my time to think and sort stuff out. Sometimes I think about heavy shit like the loss of a friend, a break up or money problems. But more often than not, I wander through the desert and just think about random stuff. Stuff that isn’t particularly important, like how awesome Black Sabbath is, how many different plants I can see in 100 miles, or what would make the perfect mash for my whiskey still. But this one particular ride was for educational purposes.
Back in 1854, the US government drew a line in the sand that is now our current border with Mexico. There has always been some kind of fence along the border but it was mostly to keep our cattle herds separated. Over time, there have been various attempts at making bigger walls and fences. But in 2006 a huge push was made to secure the entire border, all 1,969 miles of it. It is now a monstrosity of steel and concrete stretching to the horizon. Only interrupted in places where the landscape is too rugged and too remote for modern machinery to easily build it. I understand the reasons why it is there, and I am not here to argue politics, but I hate that wall. To me, the desert, in all her rugged and thorny beauty represents everything that is free. To have a wall there just seems wrong. Every time I cross the border, whether it be Tijuana, San Louis, Lukeville, Nogales, or Juarez it is there staring at me. I have never been able to put my feelings about the wall into words. So I did the only thing I knew how. I went for a ride…along the wall
I decided that riding for a couple days in one of the more remote sections of the border might do me some good. Maybe I would be able to find those words I have been looking for somewhere out there amongst the cactus, Mesquite and sand.
My journey started with a bus ride to the border town of Nogales, AZ. I didn’t have much of a plan or even a good route, all I wanted to do was wander and learn. I had a compass, a big ugly wall on my right, 3 days worth of food, and 2 days worth of water. Let’s point it east and see what happens.
I got off the bus and headed straight to the wall just past the port of entry. I was quickly met by a Border Patrol agents sternly advising me to move to the outskirts of town before meeting up with the wall. I took their advice and rode east through a neighborhood before finally hopping on a dirt service road for a few miles. I eventually merged onto the road that parallels the border. Smooth and hard as pavement, I covered a lot of ground in a hurry thanks to a killer tail wind.
As I rode along, I couldn’t help but notice that there were doors in the fence every so often. Now why would a fence, which is designed to keep people out of our country have a door in it? Granted it was secured with a giant steel beam, but was this some kind of sick joke?
After a while, the road and the fence abruptly stopped and was replaced with open desert and what I could best describe as giant steel saw horses. It reminded me of pictures I have seen from the beaches of Normandy, or war footage from Afghanistan. What the hell is this for? To stop the tanks?
This seemed like a good place as any to stop for lunch, so I sat right down and used the re-purposed railroad steel as a back rest. It then occurred to me that there is really nothing but a little barbed wire fence keeping me from being in Mexico right now. So I hopped on over. I did a little dance, threw some middle fingers in the air, and hoped that some eye-in-the-sky was watching me do it. Maybe some poor bastard in a command center somewhere was getting a good laugh out of it.
By this point the road was gone and it was replaced by a faint doubletrack made by ATV’s. I rode that for quite some time, always staying as close to the border as possible. Conditions degraded until there was no more track to follow and I was left to bushwack. I stood on a fence post and glassed the horizon to see if there was any reprieve in sight. There wasn’t, so I made the decision to turn back and reevaluate. I got back to the road about an hour later and was greeted by the Border Patrol. We had an interesting conversation:
Border Patrol (BP): Where ya headed?
Me: Trying to get to Bisbee in a couple days by following the border.
BP: Well, you aren’t going to be able to get there along the line, it’s some pretty rough country. It’s gonna be dark soon and you don’t want to head up into the mountains. I suggest you just turn around and head on back to Nogales.
Me: Well sir, I have a bunch of food and 2 gallons of water. So I think I will just see what I can see around here for now.
BP: I knew you would be OK, I could tell by the way you are dressed. It’s the boys we see down here in the spandex that we worry about. You armed?
Me: Yes sir.
BP: Good. You have a nice night.
Well, I came here to learn and I have never been one for listening to authority, so I ignored the warning and headed up into the mountains. I zig-zagged around the desert for a while following every piece of trail or dirt road I could find. Most trails were made by human feet and were littered with empty tin cans and water bottles. They headed north into valleys and sand washes, staying low to avoid detection. When they went too far off my route, I turned around and headed back to the nearest dirt road. It was a spider web of old ranch roads and they always seemed to dead end at either a corral or some kind of old farm structure.
I finally made camp around 9pm and settled in for the night. I was in plain view, near a large graded road and Border Patrol made plenty of visits. We talked quite a bit and they educated me on the activity in the area. They also explained the abnormal, almost monkey-like sounds that I kept hearing. They weren’t wild animals at all, but actually look-outs camped in the hills who were signaling border crossers below. I woke up dozens of times paranoid that somebody was in my camp, panicked but never actually seeing anyone. Come daybreak I realized that my paranoia was actually warranted. Because now there were new shoe prints in the sand over mine, and I was missing a water bottle. It’s silly, but the first thing I thought was they should have just woke me up. I would have given them some food or even the bottle with the high calorie drink mix in it.
It was a cold morning and there was a little frost in the shade. I sat in the sand and let the morning sun heat my aching body. When in the desert, do as the lizards do. I thought about everything I had already seen and experienced and concluded that one night out was enough. If I put in a good ride, I could probably make Tucson in 10-12 hours by way of the saloon in Patagonia. There was no need to take the most direct route and I decided to explore every side road I saw, as long as it was pointing in the direction I needed to go. The rolling hills seemed to go on forever. Every so often interrupted by grassy fields with bonsai-like trees scattered randomly about. It was like a scene straight from the African savannah and my imagination ran wild. I half expected a giraffe or an elephant to come walking by at any moment. I hit pavement just after sunset and rode towards the light pollution of Tucson. Just like that, it was over.
I went to the border looking for words and trying to find some answers. After two days of travel through this breathtaking countryside, I went home with even more questions. I guess that is the sign of a truly good teacher, and I guess this lesson is to be continued.
Thanks for reading.
2 thoughts on “Borderland Education”
I spent some time in Green Valley. I built bicycles there with an interesting fellow named Damien . We used map my ride to determine where to clear the ground for 2-3 off mile loops to ride before and after work. We never encountered anyone, but the evidence existed that someone crossed our makeshift paths, H2O gallon jugs and food cans strewn about. It seemed like a war zone with all the armored vehicles with machine guns mounted in them and Blackhawk helicopters flying around . Felt very foreign to me!