By the time I reached the trail that sagged under the bridge, the Border Patrol had been following me for at least a mile. The white-and-green SUV started tracking me as soon as I ran onto the levee and crossed in front of the old municipal golf course, where a dirt path, ridged and cracked with heavy tire tracks, led me down toward the Rio Grande. I had been running this trail for more than thirty years. Even after moving away from Brownsville for school and then work, it was here I would return whenever I came back to visit, and over time, the run had become as much of a homecoming as pulling up to my parents’ house.
Beyond the customs office on the Matamoros side, the late afternoon sun lingered behind a toxic haze of exhaust fumes, as if wondering whether it had put up with enough for one day. The two northbound lanes of the bridge, those closest to me, were choked with the cars of businessmen and their drivers returning from the maquiladoras, of dentists and doctors returning from their practices, of locals and tourists returning from the mercado, all waiting to cross into downtown Brownsville and the rest of the country, while southbound, the pedestrian lane swelled with nannies, maids, gardeners, janitors, construction workers, and high school students making their way home.
On the other side of the narrow river, a goat nibbled on a patch of dry grass and sighed, its jutting ribs distending like an accordion. A shirtless boy, as gaunt as his goat, stared over at me, an American in shorts, about to run under the bridge for no particular reason. Six foot five and light-skinned, un güero, I probably didn’t look like a Mexican to him, at least not the type the Border Patrol would be following. And yet there was the white-and-green SUV not far behind, 150 to 200 feet at the most. The dirt along the bank was soft, and I had to be careful not to twist an ankle as I stole a glance over my shoulder. It occurred to me that I should turn around and ask the agent why he was following me. It also occurred to me that no one else was on the trail and that the agent might ask me what I was doing down here and want to see some ID and that I might say I didn’t bring it because I was just going for a run and that he might say this is government property and not a running trail and that I might say this is where I ran when I was growing up and even now when I visited my family and that he might tell me it’s time for you to find a new place to run and that from that point on the conversation might not go anywhere positive. And then it occurred to me to just keep running.
Did I mention this was the summer of 2010, not long after the latest call to secure our border? A call that had started with the threat of terrorists at our back door, which later became a call about foreigners entering the country illegally, which became a call about foreigners taking jobs from Americans, which became a call about spillover violence from the drug cartels. First came the giant portable spotlights and ground sensors along the river; then the heavy machinery to clear out the brush that might hide someone taking cover; then the agents, hundreds of them, with night vision goggles and thermal imaging equipment, on bikes, on horses, in boats, near the river and the beach, around downtown and the mall, in the bus station and the airport, outside restaurants and hotels. And then came the eighteen-foot-high fence.
The Department of Homeland Security built most of the fence in rural areas, where the vast tracts of farmland made it easier for someone to cross into the country undetected, but the agency had also planned to cut through a section of the University of Texas at Brownsville, leaving 165 acres of the campus on the south side of the fence. UTB challenged the proposal until the government revised its plan, but even so, a scaled-back version of the barrier now stood between the campus baseball field and the golf course, where the agent had started following me.
Just as I was about to cross under the bridge, I glanced back again, and the SUV had disappeared. I had no idea where it had gone, where the agent could have turned around on the narrow path. A few years earlier, I had been running through here in the morning and nearly tripped over a rolled-up tarp that had a man’s bare leg sticking out of it. From the blood-caked scratches, it looked as though his calf had been snagged on barbed wire. Half the tarp lay on the path; the other half was flopped over in the deep brush, as if the bundle had fallen out of the back of a truck. As I came close, a low moan bubbled up from under the sheeting. Suddenly, the tarp snapped back and a homeless man, his face and beard smeared in streaks of what looked like motor oil, sat up, a pipe of some sort in his quivering hand.
“What’s it to you?” he yelled. “Eh, what’s it to you? Get your hands off me, you hear?” He tried to untangle himself from the tarp and stand, but by then I was already down the trail.
My father, whose work for the USDA involved patrolling the river, must have often seen worse. For 33 years, he rode on horseback along these same banks, watching for stray or smuggled livestock coming into the country. He carried a service revolver in his holster in case he ran into trouble in the brush, whether the trouble was a rattlesnake or a drug smuggler. From 1949 to 1982, he covered an area of roughly sixty miles along