What I saw at the border with Mexico …

I stood on a large rock and watched a Mexican man cross the Rio Grande River in southwest Texas.  This was not an official crossing, and no one was around except for people like myself and my husband, hikers hiking along a desolate trail near the U.S.-Mexico border.

At first I saw the man sitting with a friend in a couple of lawn chairs on the other side of the river. They were chatting under some gnarled Texas cottonwood.

The Rio Grande is so narrow at this juncture, maybe sixty feet wide, I could hear their voices, their laughter.

Next to their campsite, a corral fenced three horses nickering and munching on hay.  Soon, one of the men raised himself up out of his lawn chair, pulled a cap down over his head, and climbed on the back of a sorrel-colored horse.

Where was he going?  Watching from the opposite bank of the river, in another country, felt like I was peering out a window at a cultural drama.

The Mexican trotted his horse for a while along a sandy embankment that was sloughing away.  Then he leisurely crossed where a large gravel bar spanned much of the river.  As soon as he was on the American side, he disappeared in the trees and brush.  Probably hiding, I thought.  But no.  The man soon emerged, his horse still sauntering.

“I’d like to meet him and say hello,” my husband said, as if we were emissaries sent from earth to greet the aliens.

“What if he’s a drug runner?  The drug cartels operate near here.  Remember those women and children that were killed along the border?  And what about that family that was attacked last week?”

Watching our Mexican man peacefully riding his horse, my comment seemed ludicrous.  Around a bend in the trail we saw some trinkets and a plastic jug lined up on a pile of rocks.  A little note said:  “Thank you for your purchase.  Your donation will help school children.”  Whose school children?  Likely this Mexican man’s. The trinkets—scorpions, tarantulas, and road runners made of meticulously twisted wire and beads—were labeled with prices.  Most of them cost five dollars, but some were tagged seven.

I looked up and saw that the man on the horse had stopped at a similar cache of trinkets down the path.  He slid off his horse, and picked up the plastic money jug, dumping what money was there, into his hands.  He was a businessman checking his sales.  Capitalism at its finest.  Free enterprise, or unfree perhaps.

We walked on down the trail toward the Mexican.  He looked up, and we waved and said, “Buenas dias!”

In broken English he told us his name was Benicio and asked us if we were interested in buying one of his trinkets.  He picked up the scorpion with its beaded tail.  As we looked over his merchandise, I asked him if he was worried about the border guards finding him.

“Los guardias fronterizos no son problema (the border police are not a problem),” he told us.

One of the items he had for sale was a walking stick covered with pictures of bright green cactus.  Along one side of the stick was written a distinctive message from our neighbors to the south:  “NO WALL.”

Driving on the way to our Texas hiking spot, we saw the border wall in El Paso.  Through the metal mesh of the wall I saw a city bus pick up people in Juarez on the Mexican side.  Buildings seemed smaller and older in Juarez, but more colorful. Adobe exteriors were painted aqua, yellow, and pink.  A thought came to me then:  if the wall was built to fence out Mexicans, why did I feel so fenced in?  I wanted to cut through the wall mesh and walk past the dry arroyo, to an old mission church I saw in the distance.

 

All image credit:  Diana Hooley

 

 

Battling the Bruneau Beast

I am not a competitive person.  Maybe most people say that who really are competitive.  My daughter challenged me on this subject when she brought the grandkids down to the farm for a wienie roast.  Holding her hot dog in one hand she looked at me archly.

“Oh mom, you are so competitive.  You know that right?”

I shrugged.  She sounded like the mature adult next to my adolescent resistance.  I realized our roles were reversing again, and I hated when that happened.

Being competitive was a non-issue for me—at least that’s what I thought until I hiked the Bruneau Beast.

Every summer I climb what I call the Bruneau Beast, at 470 feet the largest free standing sand dune in North America. The Bruneau Beast is also a fun run sponsored by the Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park near Bruneau, Idaho.  There are no footholds or gradual switchbacks to the top of this dune.  Something to keep in mind if you ever decide to try it.  It’s all slippery sand.

This year I climbed the Beast with a dear, old friend, Sue.  Sue is usually game for anything, and like me, she enjoys playing outside and finding activities that gets her heart pumping.

“Just so you know,” I told Sue as we walked to the base of the dune, “my knee’s been acting up, so I might go a little slower than usual.”

“Oh, me too!  I’ve got something wrong with my left knee. I’ll probably need surgery soon.”

Good, I thought.  We’ll both be a couple of hobblers on the hill.

“So, you climb this dune every summer?” Sue asked.

“Yep, at least once a summer (as if I’d ever go up the Beast twice in a year even).”

“Wow,” Sue said, suitably impressed.  I picked up my pace and tried to suppress the ensuing breathlessness.

Soon though, I fell behind Sue.  How could she be so fast, I wondered.  I was over six inches taller than her, which meant her legs were a lot shorter than mine.  

The Beast hike seemed more grueling than usual.  I bent over angled against the incline, and watched frustrated, as each step I took slid back halfway in the feckless sand. When I looked up heaving and panting, Sue was well ahead of me, pausing to look at the scenery.  Or was she waiting for me to catch up?  “Where’s the fire, Sue?” I muttered grouchily as I slung my tired legs forward.  When I finally got within talking distance, I gasped out, “Sue!  How old are you?”

She smiled quizzically, but I was determined to establish she was three years (THREE YEARS!) younger than me.  Not only that, she and I both knew she was dozens of pounds lighter (not something I wanted to dwell on).  These were significant differences that needed to be noted when hiking with a partner.

“Well,” I bent at the waist and placed my hands on my knees to catch my breath better, “Just wait till you’re my age and stage (Sue was apparently hiking with her grandmother).  Then we’ll see how you feel climbing the Bruneau Beast.”

“Oh Di,” Sue tried to assure me, “This is really a tough climb.  I’m too tired to fight the sand anymore.  I think I’ll crawl the rest of the way up.”

“Crawl?  Really?  That’s a great idea!”  Then we both happily dropped to all fours and stink-bugged our way to the dune ridge.

Sometimes you don’t know how competitive you are until you find yourself in a competitive situation.

To Sue’s credit, she didn’t seem to notice or mind her friend’s weird behavior.  Going down the dune we laughed and sand-surfed on our backsides.  At the bottom, I heaved one more deep breath, a sigh of relief, because this year’s hike up the largest sand dune in North America—was done.

 

Image Credit: Bruneau Beast 

Image Credit:  Dale Hooley (Diana Hooley climbing)

Image Credit:  Dale Hooley (Diana Hooley at the top of the Bruneau Beast)

 

 

 

 

Out of the Suburbs and Into the Desert

I grew up in a little box of a house in an Indiana suburb.  There were houses on either side of us and one across the street.  As far as the eye could see was a flat landscape littered with driveways and asphalt.  So when I moved West after college, I was in awe of the mountains and deserts.  I still am: all this empty space and rugged beauty.  It never grows old.  Every year when May rolls around and the weather warms up, I feel compelled, like the great explorers of the West, John Muir and John Wesley Powell, to take a look around.

The month of May I call Desert Appreciation Month. The temperatures are still cool enough to make hiking pleasant–and all the wildflowers are in bloom. 

May, with its warmer weather, not only beckons people, but other creatures too. Yesterday, hiking the Wilson Creek Trail I came across a long, patterned bull snake gliding peacefully through the grasses.  The Wilson Creek Trail climbs the Owyhee Mountain front in Idaho.  When I saw the snake of course, I jumped back, startled.

Bull snakes look similar to rattlesnakes and I’ve come across enough rattlesnakes in my desert wanderings that I try not to repeat that experience.

A couple of years ago I was walking in sneakers and shorts along the side of a dirt road when I heard a distinct rattle sound warning me away.  I froze, aware of my exposed legs, and looked down to find a rattlesnake coiled not three feet from me under a sagebrush.  I softly stepped back thinking I really needed to wear boots and long pants hiking around in snake season.

trailhead

On the Wilson Creek hike I crossed several bends in the little ribbon of a stream known as Wilson Creek. 

Apparently, the snow melt coming off the peaks of the 8,000 foot Owyhee Mountains formed the headwaters.  Two hundred or so head of cattle drifted in and around the creek bed blocking my path.  I walked through them keenly aware of bawling and nervous cows worried about their calves.  Cows are generally docile animals but have been known to charge if they think their calves are being threatened.  It was difficult to ignore the damage done to little Wilson Creek by this big herd of cattle.  The banks of the stream were all caved in and the vegetation around stomped down, flattened, and covered with cow pies.  I wondered what this oasis in the high desert would look like minus cows—or at least with fewer cattle feeding from such a fragile stream.

Above me, on the hillside, I saw neat planted rows of crested wheat grass.  No doubt the Bureau of Land Management had tractors drill seeds into the soil, probably hoping to restore such a heavily grazed area.  It always makes me shake my head when I hear ranchers complain about the federal government infringing on their rights.  The government supports ranching in so many ways: including keeping grazing fees phenomenally low ($1.69 a month per cow/calf pair —this as opposed to approximately $25 a month to feed a cow/calf pair on private land).   They not only plant hearty grasses to ensure better pasturing for cattle herds, they also fence miles and miles of pasture—free of charge.

Fortunately, away from the stream bed I noticed plenty of undisturbed native wheat and rye grasses.  I watched their leaves blow gently in the breeze.

“Multiple Use” is a phrase, a paradigm for public lands today.  Multiple use was everywhere evident on the Wilson Creek Trail.  I saw hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders on the trail.

Off in the distance an RZR (a Razor, a crazy-fast, steep-climbing recreational vehicle) drove, dust billowing behind. Still, for all the uses made of the Owyhee Mountain Front that day, it was blissfully quiet the farther I hiked up into the mountains.  I didn’t see a street sign or hear a car honk.  I almost pinched my arm to remind myself I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t still living in a dreary Indiana suburb.  No, I was happily awake, enjoying the mountains and deserts of the American West.

 

Image Credits:  Diana Hooley on the Wilson Creek Trail, southwest Idaho