Interactive Timeline

Walking the Border

By Luke Dittrich

Journeys Beginning

The Borders Beginning, It heads due east from the beach straight across California until it hits the Colorado River, at which point it backtracks a bit, squiggling southwest along the river's edge before firming up again and slicing across the bottom of Arizona in two long straight lines. Shortly after reaching New Mexico, it suddenly jogs north for a few dozen miles, but then quickly resumes its straight, eastward course all the way to Texas, where it merges with the Rio Grande and rides out the final stretch to the Gulf.

Friendship Circle

The buffer zone between the two fences is reserved exclusively for the use of the U. S. Border Patrol, with one exception: At the top of the hill, there is a little door in the northern fence, and a sign informs that twice a week, Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 A.M. until 2:00 P.M., U. S. citizens are allowed to enter. Then, if there happen to be Mexicans on the other side of the second, southern fence, the Americans are allowed to look at them and talk with them, though reaching through the fence or attempting "physical contact with individuals in Mexico" is prohibited. A portion of the American side of the visiting area has been paved with cement, in the shape of a semicircle, and there is an identical semicircle on the Mexican side of the fence.

The official name of this place is the "Friendship Circle."

A big marble obelisk stands in the center of the circle. There is a break in the southern fence to accommodate the obelisk, and some additional fencing around the break to keep anyone from trying to squeeze through.

In 1851, some men from something called the International Boundary Commission placed the obelisk here. Back then, the Mexican-American War had just ended, and Mexico had agreed to surrender more than half its territory to the United States, including the places now called California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The job of the International Boundary Commission was to come up with a map of the revised frontier between the two countries. They started here, on this beachfront hill, and installed the obelisk as their first survey marker.

Imperial Sand Dunes

Another gust lifts the dirt and sand off the road and spits it in my face, and I've had enough, so I take a break and lean sideways against the fence, my back to the wind. It's been blowing all day, fierce. The fence here, a few miles past La Gloria, is crude but strong, made from corrugated sheets of brown and yellow steel. The National Guard was deployed to build this stretch back in 2006, and every couple of miles a different engineering battalion marked the section it was responsible for by carving a piece of metal in the shape of its home state and welding it in place. The fence builders came from Hawaii, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and when they got here, they worked till they were done, even through the holidays, I'm guessing, judging by the spray-painted Christmas tree I'm leaning next to.

The fence is tall, twelve feet or so. It would be tough to climb over. And the steel of the fence would be almost impossible to tear through. But dirt is dirt, and from where I'm standing, I can see a spot where the dirt next to the fence has been dug up and there's a little hole underneath it, and I bet I could get down and crawl right through.

There's a sign on the other side of the road. It's bright yellow and busy with pictographs: A sun, some mountains, a rattlesnake, a cactus, and a little drowning man, one arm raised, sinking into a pool of water. CUIDADO! the sign reads. NO VALE LA PENA!

It's not worth the trouble!

But of course it is.

The returns are as stark and clear as those pictures on the sign. By the simple act of carrying his own body across the line, a man immediately boosts his earning potential sixfold. And if he chooses to carry something else along with his body, well, a pound of cocaine costs twice as much in Tecatito than it does in Tecate.

It's worth the trouble, and so every year roughly 2.5 million people in Mexico make the simple and consummately rational decision to make unauthorized entry into the United States of America.

It's worth the trouble, and so the fence, like the Border Patrol, has more than doubled in the last decade. But the incursions haven't stopped. Instead, they've shifted. Back near San Diego, where the fence is particularly brawny and the density of the Border Patrol is particularly high, traffic has slowed. Here, where the fence is easier to conquer and patrols are less frequent, traffic has increased. The pressure on the other side remains the same, and as long as there is any gap, any weakness, it will push and probe until it finds a way.

It's worth the trouble, and so I wonder why I still haven't run into any crossers myself. The wind eases a bit and I lean back into the stroller and start moving again. I've been hearing things all day, seeing things, too, little murmurs behind me or blurs of fabric in the chaparral or footfalls on the other side of the fence. I'll stop and look and listen, but then everything goes still and blank.

El Camino Del Diablo

Straight through the lava fields and sand dunes and cholla beds of the Sonoran Desert. Nobody knows who created the trail, but a thousand years ago it was already ancient, and young Papago Indians would make holy pilgrimages on it, testing their manhood.

It earned its name during the Gold Rush, in the 1850s. Hundreds of ill-prepared miners and their families dried up and died here, trying to reach the gold fields of California. The arrival of the transcontinental railroad in the late 1870s made the route obsolete, and hardly anyone else set foot in the wilderness around the Camino until recently, when other groups of strivers began to pass this way.

In May 2001, for example, fourteen men — a mix of former coffee farmers, citrus-plantation workers, Coca-Cola plant employees, and high school students — were dropped off near here, near where Mexico's Federal Highway 2 skirts the very edge of the border, and told that if they walked north, across the Camino del Diablo, across this desert, they would reach an American highway. And so they walked north. That evening they came up against the Growler Mountains, which they tried and failed to cross. They walked north along the edge of the range for most of the next day, and then for some reason they turned almost 180 degrees and walked southwest across the valley that divides the Growler Mountains from the Granite Mountains, walking all the way to the southern tip of the Granite range, back near the border, before turning again and heading northwest.