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 if all of the laws they are required to enforce actually made sense. Still, the recent debates over NAFTA, drug smuggling, illegal immigration, and the like must seem laughably unreal to the 225 residents of Boquillas. Such discussions assume a border that is true and distinct. Yet between Del Rio and Presidio there remain about a dozen so-called informal crossings that give the lie to this notion. They exist not out of hostile defiance of Customs laws but as a reminder that respectable civilians have been crossing the Rio Grande as one would cross a street since long before there was a boundary with Texas or the United States. Border villages like Boquillas del Carmen, Paso Lajitas, and Santa Elena are Mexican in appearance and temperament, but everyone speaks a little English and carries dollars instead of pesos. Drugs and other contraband have been conveyed through the informal crossings but on nowhere near the scale as found at the official ports of Laredo, Presidio, and El Paso. Texans in search of illicit thrills would be hard-pressed to encounter a brothel or scads of narcotics in Boquillas. They seek instead the town’s drowsy pleasures, while Boquillas residents cross daily into Texas to buy cooking supplies at the Rio Grande Village convenience store, make a few bucks doing manual labor, or visit relatives in Marathon and Alpine. Despite this steady but illegal procession, no one can remember any movement originating from the Trans-Pecos (as opposed to Austin or Washington, D.C.) to shut down the crossings. The people of the region, Americans and Mexicans alike, have long acclimated themselves to life along a blurred border. But ambiguity invites hardships of its own, and they fall heaviest of all on Boquillas.

I have long thought of this village as a sort of Chinatown: not quite our town, not quite Mexico’s, and not at all what it appears to be. Fifteen minutes is all it takes to stroll through the whole of Boquillas. But the town is fraught with complexities, lending to it something Americans would liken to an identity crisis, except that such a conceit is a luxury unfamiliar to this hand-to-mouth world. Boquillas remains an ejido, a federal commons where all the land is owned by the Mexican government. Yet it is too far flung to be serviced by the federal coffers. Its 22 elementary school children face the choice of either continuing their education 141 miles away from home in the town of Melchor Múzquiz or going to Study Butte or Fort Stockton, an experience for which they are ill prepared because the Boquillas school doesn’t teach English. (They often give false U.S. addresses to get into U.S. schools.) The nearest hospital, bank, and stores in its own country are in Múzquiz, an arduous trip across the Sierra del Carmen typically accomplished by boarding an ancient bus that leaves Boquillas every Tuesday and Saturday and bumps its way along the desert road, 30 miles of it unpaved, with the result that the passengers arrive in Múzquiz several hours later covered with chalky dust. The town’s viability thus depends upon Texas—its goods, its services, and its technically illegal tourist trade.

The defining characteristic of Boquillas is, fittingly, that which it does not have, namely electricity. The story of why Boquillas has never been equipped with electrical power is a saga with Dickensian overtones. Because it would take 141 miles of power lines for Múzquiz to light up Boquillas, the village would have to acquire its electricity from Texas. In 1988 the governor of Coahuila lobbied then-governor Bill Clements for this to take place. The prospects looked so bright that each family in Boquillas ponied up hundreds of dollars to pay for the Mexican government to install power poles from the river to the town and for a Múzquiz electrician to install electrical outlets in each household. Then pettiness intervened from the north. A few West Texas ranchers concerned about rising electricity rates climbed in bed with the Sierra Club, which feared that drawing power lines across the river and into Boquillas might disrupt a known nesting site of peregrine falcons. The two forces persuaded the Rio Grande Electric Cooperative to jettison the proposal, and the Sierra Club arranged to have a few solar panels installed in Boquillas.

Nine years later, the Sierra Club and the ranchers have eased up on the cooperative. Now, however, the proposal to bring Boquillas into the twentieth century just in time for the twenty-first seems to have become lost in the bureaucratic maze of the Mexican government. The town’s energy sources remain a few scattered solar panels and butane hauled over from Múzquiz to cool the refrigerators and heat the stoves. The Big Bend officials, who have a vested interest in a more tourist-friendly Boquillas, continue to press for a more modernized village. The Sierra Club, in contrast, has made it clear that it will fight any major development of Boquillas. What the Mexican officials have in mind for the orphaned town is unknown, perhaps even to themselves. The Boquillans don’t talk about it much anymore. They go on their hobbled way, sleeping outside on hot summer nights, drinking lukewarm beer during the day, and occasionally cracking a few bitter jokes about peregrine falcons.

That Boquillas keeps its resentment to itself is unusual in this part of the world. In 1994 two Mexican customs agents were shot in La Linda. A cavalry of several dozen renegades has crossed the river at least once recently from San Vicente, ten miles to the west of Boquillas, and frightened tourists camping on the American side. In contrast, there have been only two recorded incidents of violence against gringos in Boquillas over the past seven years. Both times, the American authorities responded by closing the crossing, effectively cutting off the town’s economic artery until the locals produced the criminal—who, both times, was an outsider newly arrived in town. The strategy worked, but it served to remind Boquillas once again that its tie to the north sometimes felt more like an oft-jerked chain. “In Boquillas we no kill gringos,” one of the locals told me in 1995, just after the second violent incident, in which two Americans who lingered after dusk were attacked near the river. Laughing fatalistically, he continued, “Five years ago, big criminal killed someone in the park. They no close the park. Then this happen. One tiny problema. And they close.” “Why do you suppose they do that?” I asked him. The man looked out into the street, where a few tourists mounted their donkeys and slurred their farewells to Boquillas. “Porque pueden,” he said. Because they can.

BUT I HAVE NEVER MADE THE CROSSING TO BOQUILLAS out of pity. I go because I love the place. Unlike other border cities, there are no discos, no prostitutes, no pottery shops. Instead, there is a quiet that mesmerizes. The well water is excellent in Boquillas, far better than the water across the river at Rio Grande Village. The absence of heavy industry and the relative scarcity of motor vehicles leave the air extremely clear. The numerous hot springs near the town are far more charming than the tourist-clogged counterpart at Big Bend. And for a reasonable fee—$5 an hour for a horse, plus $25 for guide services—a young bearded man named Geraldo Ureste will lead you on horseback a couple of miles away to the cloistered agricultural oasis of El Ojo del Agua Caliente or eight miles farther across the desert range to San Vicente.

The tourists traditionally leave Boquillas at sunset, when the boat makes its final crossing. But I’ve found the town to be a wonderful place for an overnight stay. Lingering in Boquillas means having an extra shot or two of Cuervo Gold at the Park Bar and chatting it up with the bartender, a slight but dignified gentleman named Francisco who is not above a little barside gossip. It means a few more three-for-a-dollar tacos on the porch of Restaurante Falcón, presided over by the town’s unofficial mayor, José Falcón, who greets his patrons with a warm smile while maintaining a vigil over every activity on and beyond his porch. It means a final stroll to the river to watch the sun set on the boatman as he ferries his last patrons back to America. It means standing there for a good while, watching the cocoa-colored water reflect the violet and mimosa overtones of dusk. And it means walking the silent trail back to the far end of town and settling in at the Buzzard’s Roost, a simple but endearing $10-a-night bed and breakfast run by Doris Sanchez, the chatty gringa who plays guitar for tips at the Park Bar. Though the Buzzard’s Roost offers actual bedrooms, I prefer to drag one of Doris’ cots out to the porch and monitor the shooting stars before dozing off.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with going to Boquillas just to spend a few hours at the Park Bar waiting to see who else will turn up. A steady stream of backpackers, from as far away as Belgium and Iraq, stop here and at the Buzzard’s Roost before taking on the Sierra del Carmen the following morning. I’ve run into a few hipsters from San Angelo State who sang Gregorian-chant versions of U2 and R.E.M. songs all afternoon while Francisco the bartender looked on, mildly perplexed. For years I was accustomed to seeing an affable doper named Danny Hickle strumming for tips at the Park Bar. Danny moved to Boquillas in December 1991 after being chased across the border by state narcotics officers for growing and selling marijuana. After that he was immortalized in Robert Earl Keen’s song “Gringo Honeymoon” and had the pleasure of jamming with Delbert McClinton and other Park Bar visitors. But in 1995 Danny had wearied of the fugitive lifestyle and turned himself in. He has since done his time, straightened himself out, and relocated to Terlingua.

Nowadays, the gringo drug runners in Boquillas have been replaced by Mexican soldiers patrolling the country roads for drugs. I’ve shared beers with them during midafternoons in the Park Bar, and at the end of one day I stood by the river’s edge and watched two of the young uniformed men ease their jeep into the Rio Grande. The soldiers took off their shirts and, standing waist-deep in the water, proceeded to scrub down the vehicle. Surprised by what I was witnessing, I looked to my right at Geraldo Ureste, my horseback guide, and then across the river at Pepe, the boatman. Their expressions reflected casual amusement. They seemed more attuned to the conjunto music emanating from the radio of the half-submerged jeep. Before long, the two soldiers were splashing around on their backs and singing tunelessly, as if they were somewhere else. But they could only have been here.