The Great Divide

He drew a circle that shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him in!

– “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham

If a golden eagle were to fly back and forth across that open space, would she need a passport?

rio grande

Yes, say the politicians, because that shallow river is said to divide two sovereign countries from each other.

But how can that be? This notion of boundaries baffles me. Swirling molecules of H2O, which you can never step twice into, can define an edge? The water’s equally wet on both sides and the fish all speak the same language. And what is a sovereign nation, anyway – is it really anything more tangible than an institutionalized fiction?

The Rio Grande is just spittin’ distance wide in some places, and barely knee deep. A reprobate like myself staring at that kind of no-no opportunity has no choice, really. I rolled up my pants and waded across into Mexico.

“Hey, Amigo,” I yelled out to this kid, “take my foto up on this rock, por favor?”

He had a rifle slung upside down over his shoulder and was wearing jungle fatigues and a brightly-colored scarf, and seemed a bit flustered by my presence 🙂 but he obligingly took my picture.

john in mexico

From then on I became obsessed with the border between Mexico and the United States. I followed its every twist and turn for hundreds of miles throughout the Southwest.

There were warning signs posted on every trail.

warning sign

There were ominous aerial surveillance blimps tethered high above.


There were heavily armed border patrol agents in the remotest of areas.

border patrolAnd everywhere there were fences and checkpoints and dogs and cameras and guns and a foreboding sense of hostility.

border at TijuanaNevertheless, in spite of the tension and the drama, there was still the enigma of the river, and I couldn’t let it go. In a remote corner in Texas (Big Bend National Park) I would sometimes sit on a ledge overlooking the Rio Grande for hours, just staring. There were stories floating in that river – sad, beautiful, funny, tragic stories – crying out to be heard.

rio grande

🙂 😦 🙂

It was a quiet Sunday morning.  A kid in a tiny shack in the village of Boquillas del Carmen finished the meager breakfast his madre had made for him.  I could hear the screen door slam shut as he walked out back.

I didn’t see any movement yet but a scant few yards across the river was a canoe and the photojournalist in me sensed a story about to unfold.

rownboat on the rio grandeI sat very still, and waited.

kid with canoe on rio grandekid with canoe on rio grandekid with canoe on rio grandekid with canoe on rio grande

Suddenly, half way across, he looked up and locked eyes with me. It must have been the clicking of my camera.

“Hey, Amigo!” I shouted, hoping he would come on over so we could chat.

But he had turned and was swiftly paddling downstream, out of sight.

Was he a smuggler? Minutes later I found out what he was up to, and I think he is best described as an entrepreneur.

mexican trinkets for salemexican trinkets for salemexican trinkets for salemexican trinkets for saleI didn’t need any trinkets or a walking stick but I dropped a few bucks in the jar anyway.  He would be back, once the coast was clear.

The United Mexican States

– or – 

The United States of America

rio grande

Which side of the river is which?

rio grandeWhich chunk of rock belongs to whom?

🙂 🙂 🙂

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