This U.S.-Mexico border crossing is one location where construction of Donald Trump’s “wall” ended. (Credit: Timothy Johnson)
By: Timothy Johnson
Adapted from Johnson's essay series, "Homelands That Are Not Mine."
The first time I saw the U.S.-Mexico border in July 2021, I had the overwhelming sense that I shouldn’t be there.
My phone’s navigation app was guiding me toward the border crossing at the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge. It directed me to turn left at a four-way intersection, but according to the map, the border was directly in front of me on the other side of a hill. I drove into what appeared to be a development zoned for warehouses and industry, which made sense, considering all of the trucks carrying goods across the border in both directions.
It was midday and quiet. No trucks were entering or exiting the facilities through their fenced security checkpoints.
At the end of the road, I parked my car and exited into the July Texas heat, over one hundred degrees and humid. At the top of the hill, I peered across about a mile of swampland and, on the other side, construction of a new border barrier. To my left was the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge. The barrier construction extended from the bridge west about a mile and then abruptly stopped, a final bollard plunged into the earth and then open land as far as I could see. A dormant bulldozer sat near the end of the ceased construction.
I returned to my car intent on visiting the border crossing. Along the way, I observed dozens of strip malls with vacant storefronts. I drove through a historic downtown district without a soul in sight and no businesses to speak of. I discovered a storage facility that had been converted into a market where independent or small business owners could come sell their goods, and as I walked the aisles, I found only about one in ten were occupied.
Hanging over all of this was the specter of Covid-19, of course, and I couldn’t help but think this community had been devastated not by the pandemic but by years of squeezing border policies. Miles from the border, McAllen proper was thriving with newly constructed big box stores, chain restaurants, and residential developments. At the border, however, the divide between countries seemed to be widening, one nation pulling away from another.
When I left McAllen, I drove west on Interstate 2, which becomes Texas Highway 83 and roughly follows the border. Mexico is often in view. I discovered one of the best vantage points along the route in Roma, Texas, which, like the communities close to the border in McAllen, seemed far too quiet. Like many towns I drove through on my travels, Roma seemed to be a place where an economy grew because it was in the middle of nowhere and travelers needed a place to rest. Here were a bevy of gas stations and fast-food restaurants, but not much else of apparent note. A sign caught my eye, however, directing me off of the main route onto a secondary street where Roma had its very own bird observation site along the cliffs of the Rio Grande River.
I wasn’t there to see birds. I was there to study the border, and as I followed the signs toward the observation deck, I noted a U.S. Customs and Border Protection pickup truck idling beside the road. As I passed it, I saw the driver, a man, middle-aged, white, tired with an aimlessness about him as if he wasn’t asking the right questions, didn’t even know he should ask any questions. I didn’t ask why he was there because I could guess: A footpath was beaten into the hill about fifty feet ahead of the truck, and it led down to the river. When I parked and made my way to the observation deck, it all made sense.
There, overlooking the Rio Grande River and Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Mexico, the Rio Grande was a mere trickle, as river standards go. Children splashed in the water below. Families gathered on the shore, having picnics and barbecues. A pair of fishing poles were cast with loose lines. All pretense aside, I could have walked into Mexico in minutes with only some wet shoes for my trouble. Later, I could simply retrace my steps. The existence of the foot path and the border patrol agent told me some people attempted just that.
Roma, Texas and the Rio Grande. (Credit Timothy Johnson)
I stood on the observation deck for a long time, awestruck by the proximity I was afforded to a foreign country. Mexico was there, right in front of me, accessible, touchable, near. In the shadow of Roma’s international bridge, nothing else in sight indicated those children playing in the water below were any different than I had been when I was their age. Children were children everywhere.
I considered approaching the CBP officer in the truck. I wanted to ask him what he was doing there after all. While I had every right to be there as an American citizen, was violating no laws, and was in no danger, even I felt a fear in the face of that authority, and I knew I didn’t have the courage to ask him what I really wanted to know: If one of those children dared to cross, what would he do about it?
After Roma, my journey took me through Laredo, Texas, and then a long route home. Every mile of it felt like returning to a comfortable place. It felt like retreat.
Something mundane yet profound happens in the wake of an epiphany. We learn again that, though we are no longer children, we may never stop growing. Cell division is one thing, but to keep growing after mitosis finishes its work in our bodies, we have to stretch and reach and pull the earth toward our open mouths and feed ourselves, because no one is going to do it for us.
I think that’s all any of us is trying to do, those of us who are trying anyway.
Timothy Johnson is a writer and editor living outside Washington, D.C. In 2022, he graduated from the George Mason University MFA in creative writing program where he was a 2021 Alan Cheuse International Writers Center fellow. He was editor-in-chief of Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art, and his published writing includes fiction from Gamut, Deracine Magazine, Crystal Lake Publishing, and Inked in Gray Press.
Learn more at www.timothyjohnsonfiction.com.