I read Travels with Charley, and as an antidote I read On the Road. And then I got on another plane.
It was April in McAllen, Texas, before it became ground zero in the American war on migrant children. In places like McAllen, kids were being shockingly separated from their families at what our government charmingly referred to as processing centers. As the parents faced criminal charges, the kids were being kept in makeshift shelters.
America was an ideal when I grew up, even if we didn’t always live up to it. We stood for something more, something better. Now in the confines of unmarked warehouses and used-to-be Wal-Marts there are children, and families, and cages. What do we stand for now? This wan’t policy; this was cruelty. The Pope called our callousness “a psychosis.”
When I got to Texas in 2018, the border wars were simmering but not yet boiling. The talk at the time was all about the wall. The separation of kids hadn’t started yet.
It was my eighth time chasing birds in this vast country within a country. Texas is not easy to explain, but Steinbeck kind of had it when he wrote that Texas is a mystique closely approximating a religion.” Or maybe Kerouac: “Texas is undeniable…We were already almost out of America and yet definitely in it and in the middle of where it’s maddest.”
For birders, Texas is a madhouse cathedral.
According to Cornell University’s e-bird portal, 658 species of birds have been reported in Texas, about two-thirds of the 989 reported in the 48 contiguous American states. Texas birders have submitted more than 1.3 million checklists to this online bird repository, dwarfing every state but California, where, an amazing 2.1 million checklists have been submitted reporting a total of 691 species of birds.
Part of the appeal in both states is the geography: different climates and geographic areas draw different birds. Another big draw is the border. In both states, border and shore locations are primary draws. Birds don’t know borders, and if you want to see neotropical birds in the U.S., Texas and California are the places to go.
Besides, the food is good too.
The battle over the border has been going since at least the 1830s. In all that time, birds have been pouring over the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico with impunity. We saw them landing on South Padre Island on the gulf — tired, hungry and bedraggled from their north-bound journey, hitting land and feeding from the moment they touched down.
Then there were the mass migrations: over 1,000 Broad-winged Hawks streaming over Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park in Hidalgo. More than two hundred American White Pelicans floating en masse over the Rio Grande near Laredo. This river holds history, and magic, and more than its share of strife.
We walked along the riverside in the small town of San Ygnacio. We looked over the river from a bluff on a ranch near Salineno. I put my hand in the river, feeling it cool to the touch. While it seemed serene, all you needed to do was look up toward the surveillance blimps and helicopters, or out to see the pontoon boats on patrol. But it isn’t all unfriendly. You’ll see border patrol agents at the local Starbucks. They’ll wave to you and let you go about your business. They are good people with an impossible job.
Apart from the birds, the only “streaming over the border” we saw were the cars lined up both ways from the massive border complex in Laredo to the smaller crossings in places like McAllen.
One day we looked at birds on a bluff high over the river on a private ranch, 1000 acres of rugged land that has been in one family since the 1850s. The rancher, Mexican by descent, draws a line with his boot in the red dirt. “To me this is the most beautiful place on earth,” he says in a low, slow song.
“To look out over all this and see nothing but open land, beautiful skies and the river flowing below: it is my serenity. There is a fifty-foot drop between here and the river. I don’t want to take sides but what good would a wall do here? Where would you even put it?”
I celebrate those who can experience nature while truly alone. Me, I am afraid of the dark. I like the comfort of others, of heat at night, of food shared with friends. In this case there was a chunky pork stew marinated with green chili and beer. There was authentic mole poblano. Guacamole gussied up with sea salt and lime.
Outside I got fascinated with things you don’t see in the east, things to wonder at but also things that are better off left alone in their world while you retreat to the safety around you. Bobcats. A giant ant-like wasp known as a tarantula hawk. An Elf Owl feeding a scorpion to its mate. A caned toad with a croak so creepy we thought it could be a sonar weapon designed to deter shenanigans at the border.
A motorboat rests on the Mexican side. A pickup truck sits beside it with no one inside. It gets a look from the border patrol, first no doubt from the air, then from a pontoon on a slow cruise down the river. A Swainson’s Hawk flies over, beautifully oblivious to the melodrama of people below.
I am just a tourist here, seeing birds, eating good food, gathering impressions. But I really don’t belong. This is a land that belongs to ranchers and family farmers, citrus growers and pickers and people who do all the regular jobs. They smile and live their lives, celebrate family birthdays and relax at their favorite taqueria. They fix their tucks with the help of a friend, gather in back yards on the weekend and tell out-of-town birders about the cool-looking owl that lives down by the bridge.
They don’t like the attention they’re getting on the news, or the intervention of politicians who don’t live there. If we left them alone, they might solve these problems outside the harsh glare of the cameras.
At least that is my hope.
As I was about to hit the send button, the president announced he would end the policy of separating families. It is a step, but there is still a long way to go in solving our very own refugee crisis.