Float the Rio Grande

horses graze along the rio grande at sunset

Photograph by Eduardo Amorim


The Large River, the Rio Grande, this separator between Mexico and the United States.

I have learned quite a bit from this river. I have seen the awesome negative power of humanity’s effect on the environment, I have seen America use terrorism laws to push Mexican border towns into destitution, and I have seen actual relationships between people break down. But I have also seen a will to rebel, a spirit of community, and a sense of survival here like nowhere else.

For example, once on a float trip I watched as my various friends learned how to work together on two person kayaks and canoes. Some couples buckled at the pressure of learning how to keep themselves straight, blaming each spin around of the vessel and unplanned detour into some side pocket on the other. Then again, some couples worked seamlessly together, their strokes mimicking one anothers so to keep them straight ahead and on course for wherever they might be destined. I saw some people buckle under frustration at the trip taking longer than was planned, and others frolicking on islands having a blast even in the face of waiting for the uncertain arrival of other slower traveling floaters.

More seriously, I have heard first hand the tales of how these Rio Grande towns, on both sides of the border, once relied on one another. When the border was easily crossed, US and Mexican families would work together to create communities. There was a clear division to who was an American and who found their citizenship more south of the border, but when communities can freely cross borders it makes things like finding work, daycare and friendship much easier than when a 9/11 inspired law decided that from now on anyone living, literally, yards away in another street on the other side of the Rio Grande who might attempt to venture over the border would be considered felons.

Once upon a time tourists and locals alike in this region could walk across rope bridges or be ferried across the river to Mexican towns. They brought their American money and the Mexicans showed them the time of their lives, whether that involved living a gift shop foreign fantasy or simply getting sloshed hammered on mojitos. Mexicans could easily slip across the border for work as nannies or on ranches. Things were as they should be in West Texas, wild, free and certainly no one was drawing a line in the sand and trying to call it a law.

Just as that reality is no more, just as fear and Congress have conspired to keep our two nations so perpetually afraid of one another, so has the Rio Grande itself been slowed to a trickle.

Yes, you can still float it in a kayak or at times a canoe, in some areas, but thanks to the needs of farmers trying to grow massive green fields in the desert and large cities like El Paso sucking out what they need to keep on growing their concrete high into the sky, the Rio Grande is often completely dry and in nearly all circumstances able to be walked across. Assuming “Large River” was not sarcastic when the title was bestowed upon the waterway, things have changed very considerably since the body of water was dubbed.

Perhaps it’s Mexican name, the Agitated River, is more fitting nomenclature today.

Still, I have watched from distant mountains as Mexicans children ride donkeys across the river to drop off wooden trinkets and a coffee cup, hoping tourists will exchange money for the gifts and all on the honor system. I’ve waved back to Mexicans standing on the shores of the river, literally a few yards from my kayak, as they smiled and went back to their daily business.

While I have seen both immaculate beauty and simple pleasure while exploring this river, I have more than anything come to a reality as to what law is, in this or any other country. I once had a policeman tell me that “Laws are not a matter of right and wrong, but of majority opinion.”

When you see children playing on a river bank only twenty feet from your own children doing the same thing a riverbank away, a nation away, it feels all so absurd. As though it’s not the small town artists and blue collar workers in America, not the ranchers or any of the people who actually live on the borders who are perpetuating these laws, but some xenophobic ignoramuses up in Illinois and South Carolina who feel they just need to come up with a way to keep a country which has absolutely nothing to do with Al Qaeda from playing nice with our own.

I wish the tale of the Rio Grande could be more up beat, the introduction to this photo gallery more glamorous, but the sad reality is that the moral compass in this country is majorly flawed. We are more likely to kill what we fear than to love the unknown. We are more likely to board up an unknown cave and label it dangerous than to strap on flashlights and go exploring. I am not anti-American, all the opposite extreme, I write and run a magazine dedicated to the virtues of exploring this grand nation, but I am sad for the barriers we put up between ourselves and Mexico that the two countries couldn’t become more integrated, perhaps learn a little something from one another.