WHAT SEPARATES OUR WORLD from that of Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico, is not so much a boundary as a threshold one crosses with the awareness that life will not be the same on the other side. The first hint of this comes twenty miles east of Big Bend National Park headquarters, still a mile inside Texas, where a wooden sign nonetheless announces “Bienvenidos a Boquillas.” A dirt road appears underneath the sign and eventually gives out into an unmarked, unshaded parking lot. Just beyond lies a caliche trail, which cuts a slender and winding swath through the mesquite underbrush for a hundred yards or so before tumbling downhill to the banks of the Rio Grande. A boatman waits there. “You want to go across?” he will ask, his accented voice soft and casual, and yet the question cannot help but compel a wary glance across the river. The view reveals a sleepy tableau: a huddle of men reposed against a pickup at the water’s edge, listening to a Mexican radio station while a couple of shaggy horses and a dozen or so donkeys brood nearby. In any event, no one comes this far only to turn back. You have been welcomed, you have been offered a ride, and in many ways, you are already there.
A $2 round-trip fee gets you into a rowboat, a porous metal relic that rocks precariously in the river the moment you step in. The boatman paddles against the current—or, in low-water season, he wades across, pulling the boat and its passengers the thirty-yard distance. Upon disembarking, you are asked by a member of the welcoming gaggle if you would like a ride into town. Taking the mile on foot is certainly possible, though the heat is unsparing and $3 will buy you a space in the back of the truck. But the most common method is to rent one of the donkeys stalled beside the river for $3 and trundle through the desert scrub in a proper state of humility, routed onward by the boy who trots along on his own mount, swatting the rear of your steed with a mesquite branch.
At the conclusion of the ride, the caliche road shoots steeply uphill near the first shacks. Children fly into the street and hawk the local wares, the boys holding fluorspar and fool’s gold in their fists, the girls waving hand-woven bracelets. More shacks come into view. The walls of the oldest ones are pocked with holes and seem in a state of impending collapse, while the newer houses resemble oversized concrete outhouses. Conjunto music drifts out of open windows. A battalion of tourists encamps on the patio of Restaurante Falcón off to the left, knocking back Carta Blancas and munching on small, delicious three-for-a-dollar tacos and burritos. Across the street at the Park Bar, a middle-aged gringa plays sixties ballads on the guitar for tips from the tourists, who slug down dollar tequila shots. Those who wander farther down the road will observe how, after its tiny school and its even tinier church, the village quickly dwindles into nothingness at the imposing rise of the Sierra del Carmen. They’ll return to Falcón’s or the Park Bar, figuring they’ve taken the full measure of Boquillas—which is unlikely, given the complicated nature of the town. But the sweetness of Boquillas is that it doesn’t rush to burden the visitor with its heartaches. It is content to welcome us into its collective sleepwalk for a few hours and a few dollars and then row us back to what’s left of the American Dream.
THIS RITUALISTIC JOURNEY INTO BOQUILLAS is taken by some thirty thousand American tourists a year. Every one of them is breaking the law, as we were reminded this past November by a U.S. Customs official in the wake of a drug bust at La Linda, a crossing some twenty miles downriver from Boquillas. Charles Strong, who was then the director of the Presidio port of entry, declared, “The law is very specific. It states that you can cross into the United States, whether it is persons or goods, only at a border crossing or a port of entry that has been designated by the Secretary of the Treasury.” Strong was referring to Chapter 19, Section 1459 of the United States Code, which was quietly signed into law in 1986. Failure to comply subjects violators to a $5,000 fine for the first offense and $10,000 each time thereafter.
Counting all of my pilgrimages to Boquillas, I would owe my government upwards of $100,000 in fines—if there was anyone around to collect. “Our officers in most cases don’t patrol the crossing,” said a public relations officer for the Customs office in El Paso, Roger Maier, a nice fellow I put on the spot with a few questions about Strong’s remarks, which had alarmed the residents of Boquillas who depend upon the tourist trade for their livelihood. No one had been arrested or charged with violating Section 1459 since Strong had spoken, Maier admitted. “Right now,” he said, “the push is to inform people of the laws that are on the books.”
Valerie Naylor, the public information officer for Big Bend National Park, sounded less proactive. “We have not officially changed any policies or procedures regarding the border,” she told me, “other than to inform visitors of the law.” But when I arrived at the Big Bend visitors center in February and asked for information on Boquillas, the attendant cheerfully handed me a detailed map of the town and a brochure listing sites of interest and visitor services. Driving to the crossing’s parking lot, I encountered no Customs officers but instead a shiny new plaque—presumably paid for by the U.S. Department of the Interior—detailing the history of the century-old silver mining town. At the water’s edge, the boatman, Pepe, shrugged and said, “I don’t see no Customs people.” Then he asked me, “You want to go across?”
I don’t mean to mock the border officials, whose labors would be difficult even