There’s hardly a more delightful way to pass over a border; on our first of two trips, we had barely rounded the bend of the descending trail from the Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry before a young man in a “Houston Strong” T-shirt was rowing his way across the river to get us in a waterlogged metal boat, the “seats” covered in what looked like bathmats. It’s $10 round-trip for this makeshift ferry, which hauls its tiny load of camera-wielding tourists back and forth all day during official crossing hours. Once on shore it’s up the hill by foot, burro, or bed of pickup truck to a trailer, where your passport is stamped and you’re granted formal entry into Boquillas del Carmen, the colorful, sparsely settled remains of a former mining town.
Borders are always porous, particularly the riverine kind, and so it goes for this one. “Maps that split country into zones of topography, climate, vegetation, and such things have much more neatly sweeping lines of demarcation than nature has usually been willing to go along with,” wrote John Graves, Texas’s beloved chronicler of land and lore, and that goes for people too. For decades the Boquillas border crossing was decidedly informal, illegal but never monitored, a conduit for supplies, a lifeline for loved ones residing on opposite sides, a day’s amusement for tourists. But it always was an international boundary and as such subject to the day’s prevailing sociopolitical anxieties. The crossing was shut down in 2002, in response to Sept. 11, and reopened 11 years later, this time with automated passport control. And now looms another threat.
In Boquillas proper, the specter of the wall seems to be just that, haunting the dish towels and koozies for sale on every corner, their hand-embroidered wildflowers, roosters, and javelinas accompanied, in slightly crooked letters, by a simple phrase: “No wall.” A succinct “Trump no bueno” was all we got from a congenial gentleman who walked us into town, that and the declaration in small black letters on his white baseball cap: “The border makes America great” (that message brought to you by El Paso’s Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic congressman running against Senator Ted Cruz in November). The people here exhibit a sort of seen-it-all-before serenity, which seems appropriate, as this battle royal is going down a few miles from rock formations whose strata reveal the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, i.e., a visible record of the extinction event 66 million years ago.
Existential musings aside, a visit to this village of a few hundred people feels much as it has for years. We perused the blankets and molcajetes at the shop at José Falcon’s, then took a seat on the colorful patio of the adjoining restaurant for cheese enchiladas, clay copitas of sotol and sweeping views of the Sierra del Carmen range (and, incidentally, a fellow skinning rabbits and goats next door). The joy in a trip to Boquillas, other than its old-world charm, is the hospitality of the people, allowing a visitor brief proximity to the kind of community you’d expect to find in a remote, only recently electrified town 150 miles away from the nearest city. At Boquillas Restaurant, the proprietor offered to give us the souvenirs we happily picked out before realizing we had run out of cash (had too many of the excellent margaritas). We promised we’d return the next day, which we did, to find our items waiting for us in a neat pile on the counter.