Penned on spec for a cancelled column, sigh……

Borderland souvenirs from Big Bend

A man on the horse rides down to the Rio Grande, where my backpacking buddy and I are cooling down after a 16-mile hike across the high Chisos of Big Bend National Park. I have crossed back and forth to Mexico and floated the river a number of times, yet I’m a little wary of this stranger. Floating along in the gentle current, we struggle to our feet. A breeze rattles the giant cane, and the song of a laughing thrush echoes from within Boquillas Canyon.

On a blanket, a collection of trinkets, small clay pottery and scorpions formed from copper wire and beads, are for sale, as they are at many unofficial crossing points along the 118-mile park border with Mexico. A plastic jug holds a few dollars from tourists who have purchased a souvenir or two. The Park Service frowns on this business — “Items purchased are considered contraband” says the NPS website — and over many years I have never been tempted to buy one.

Until that last trip. Something shifted when the cowboy waved and smiled. He started to wrap up all those geegaws to take them back to his home on the Mexican side. Because recent incidents, including the pandemic, other health issues and forest fires, had conspired to keep me away from this heart-stirring landscape, I wanted a reminder.

“Do you have a roadrunner?” asked the rider, trilling his Rs so hard that I didn’t even understand. Out came another phlegmatic “Rrrrroadrunnnnerrrrr…. “ as he pulled a small statue from his satchel.

Now I ruminated on the Rio Bravo as it’s known in Mexico, and the nature of this boundary between Texas and Mexico, a flashpoint in the national debate over immigration. Then, I am a little ashamed to say I bargained the horseman down from $10 to $5 for the beaded roadrunner. (My Texas license plates picture a roadrunner too, with fees going for statewide conservation programs.) Today, he remains taped to my dashboard. Also known as “paisano” — Spanish for countryman — he represents both an invitation to keep moving and a reminder of the many miles we have left to go.