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Time and the River

The deep canyons of the Rio Grande remind us how our lives are written in water.

By E. Dan Klepper

A spring afternoon in 1974 has “hotted” up, withering and pallid from the Mexican sun as if August, not April, had just begun. I am sweating in a friendly cantina on the streets of la Villa de Boquillas del Carmen and sucking on a tiny bitter lime. My eyes are watering and I am hoping the acrid juice of the lime will offset the fiery slivers of serrano pepper slicing into my fresh-made taco and my tongue and lips and the farthest reaches of my throat. My friends — my lifelong pals, as I believed at the time — M and K and N and J and all those names that seem to repeat themselves throughout my life yet with new faces and, thankfully, with a few of the same old ones, are laughing. So is the bartender, who hands me a beer and some salt. This seems to quell the heat briefly until another bite triggers the burning sensation and the merriment all over again. The taco is deliciously spicy and the laughter contagious, causing pure suffering and joy at once. A record player sits on the bar, a little box designed for a child, and is plugged in to the light socket that hangs from the ceiling.

The bartender positions a 45 on the turntable, then drops the needle onto the rotating vinyl, and suddenly, the Rolling Stones are scratching their way out of the tiny speaker. Through fresh tears and winced eyes, I can see my friends dancing herky-jerky amid their easy laughter. There is M, a riot in his deadpan wit and pop sensibility. There goes K, outfitted to the teeth with a sure-fire solution for every possible circumstance. And here is N, redheaded and beautiful and ready to embrace everything the world has to offer.

Memory shades here and then shines again later as memory often does. I’m not sure how long we stayed at the cantina but I recall we eventually made our way down to the banks of the Rio Grande in order to swim back to the United States side. My companions and I had crossed to Boquillas del Carmen earlier in the day from Big Bend National Park, where we had been camped for the week. The informal border crossings up and down this West Texas stretch of the river were still open and casual at the time. Citizens of both countries were free to come and go at will as they had done for more than a century.

Ours had been a foolish crossing, as the river was swollen with rain. But we did it anyway, anxious for the relaxed and steady slowing of time in the Boquillas cantina. And, after all, the high flow of river water may not have been such an unusual sight. The river always seemed to be full of water at the time, at least with enough water for everyone who needed it — for the wildlife, the river rafters, the cities lining the border, and farmers and their crops along both sides of the banks.

Sunburned and at ease, my companions and I sit above the bank and rest before forging the river and hiking back to camp. We spend the time joking, enjoying the late afternoon sun and eyeing the currents for an easier return across. I remember gazing downriver, admiring the light as it enhanced the bright limestone along the river’s edge and threw the opposing slabs of bank into shadow. As the river carves its way into the mouth of Boquillas Canyon, the bank walls tilt and slope in an alarming gesture and then disappear into the canyon depths. I recall a sense of exhilaration, a mixture of awe and dread, as if the canyon’s traverse represented my future, unsettling and unknown.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges defined time as a river that carried him along. “…[B]ut I am the river,” he revealed, for “time is the substance from which I am made.” It has been 30 years since that Boquillas afternoon and on another, more recent, lazy day, I was reminded it of as I maneuvered a canoe slowly past the banks of Boquillas del Carmen. The village had flourished under the generosity of American tourism in the intervening years. But after 9/11, all informal border crossings were shut down. With the crossing off-limits, tourist dollars had vanished and the villagers had resumed suffering the isolation of their geography and the neglect of their government. American assistance, just 100 feet away, might as well have been 100 miles away. Had I beached my canoe along the Boquillas banks, eaten another taco at the cantina and returned the same way to the United States side, I would have been breaking the law.

But my companions and I hadn’t come to the river to cross it to Boquillas del Carmen this time. We had come, instead, to follow the waterway into Boquillas Canyon. Gazing downriver, I anticipated the moment when I would finally see beyond the canyon’s mouth.

The tilts and slopes hadn’t changed, it seemed, nor the fiery light glancing off the walls. The buildings of Boquillas del Carmen, however, appeared transitory and fragile, as if a great wind or a sudden rise in river levels could simply make them all disappear. But the water would have to rise dramatically these days. Water in the Rio Grande is scarce, and whatever else I anticipated in my three-day journey through the canyon, low water was certain. “Not enough water!” is the battle cry of a river-dependent civilization all along the border’s edge, each side accusing the other of creating the river’s shortages and contributing to its degradation.

As my canoe cleared a mat of reeds below Boquillas del Carmen, I was surprised by the sight of a man taking a bath. He stood up to his chest in steaming water. The water was hot here on the Mexican side, bubbling up from some volcanic remnant to create the Boquillas Hot Springs. A woman waited with a towel just above the man. She was perched on an old, half-built rock wall and laughed when she saw my expression. The man waved at me with a soapy hand.

I was relieved to finally enter the mouth of the canyon and float out of reach of the trinket vendors and beyond earshot of the Mexican goat herder’s chatter and the hikers taking snapshots from the end of the canyon lookout trail. Each new moment in the canyon seemed a slip in time as my companions and I discovered aspects of a geography that had evolved on a much grander scale than we, in our tiny boats, would ever witness. The walls of Boquillas Canyon revealed an elementary drama of waterworks both tender and brutal and undirected by anything man-made. Water had wept, scumbled, cemented, ground and ravaged the rock layers of this remote and desolate place for eons, carving the canyon into the centerpiece of a breathtaking landscape. The next three days of exploring the river’s monumental limestone towers and hidden slot canyons brought real satisfaction to our wanderlust. It was a realm that remained unaffected by our presence, or by our absence. The forces that have been at work, literally moving mountains incrementally over time, seemed well beyond the scope of human interference. It was difficult to imagine anything mankind could do to compromise the natural evolution of this place.

But once I passed beyond the canyon’s rough and inaccessible walls then out the other side, I found myself paddling alongside the choking thickets of non-native river cane and water-hogging salt cedar and through open pastureland, overgrazed and eroding away; all of it brought on by the hand of man.

I floated passed a horse grazing listlessly along the banks. She had been fitted with a bell because of her advanced age and the propensity for the rest of the herd to follow her lead, letting the horseman know where his herd had wandered. As the bell mare shook flies from her mane, I could see the thick leather strap buckled around her neck and hear the copper bell’s toneless clamor. The mare seemed to bear her burden with a limited tolerance as if the bell were a weight affixed to her resignation. She appeared encumbered, not only by the strap and the heavy bell but by its implications that marked her old and gray and predictable and mortal. There are limits to all things it seems, including a filly’s youth or a river’s generosity or a country’s shortfalls or even perhaps its privileges. And then I remembered a moment just six months back when the river had all but disappeared.

The water supply, the river has proven, is finite. In early May of 2003, Big Bend National Park officials released photographs documenting exposed gravel beds across the river’s floor where water once flowed. Areas of static, pooling water and drying flats of mud were reported for segments of the river along a full two-thirds of the total 118 miles of river defining the national park’s southern border. The river had experienced low flow conditions for a number of drought-stricken years, but this sudden zero flow status attested to the added pressure of water diversion by humans for urban consumption, irrigation and industrial needs.

Late May rains ultimately restored the watercourse to low flow conditions at best. But the alleviation of an immediate danger by nature is not necessarily a long-term solution for humans. We tend to interpret the arbitrary ebb and flow of nature as expressions of turmoil and security - the water flow is restored, so we can continue to use as much water as we need; the floodwaters have receded, so we can fill in more wetlands for development; the hurricane has passed, so we can rebuild our beachfront homes; the wildfires have been extinguished, and now life may go on as it has gone on before. Yet these natural cycles, and their disturbing aberrations, are not designed to terrify or reassure us. They are simply the ways that nature, like the river, moves forward through time, with or without us. We can decide to work within the parameters of the natural world, of which we are an integral part, or to continue the hubris of our manifest destiny over nature. The free will to choose is our blessing in life and one that is accompanied by the responsibilities of stewardship in a world dense with its need and lacking in the freedom of choice. The decision is not an option but an imperative and will determine the river’s survival and, ultimately, our own.

M and K and N and I sit above the riverbank of Boquillas del Carmen and goof lazily for the rest of that memorable afternoon. It is as if time stands still for us simply because the moment is so full of our own celebration that it becomes ours to command. We are at that age when the young believe in anything, including the illusion that everything will last and that the generosity of this fresh world will never temper. A thunderstorm boils up from some unanticipated concoction while we carry on. The anvil bruises the sky and sends a chilled wind and sharp drops of rain that drive us to shelter against the old rock wall, a remnant of some half-forged idea to house the hot springs bath that simmers just below us along the river’s edge. The pelting rain runs in sheets, icy and unpleasant, but subsides just as we reach our limits for suffering it. One of us shivers, and we all look down to the steaming riverbank and dive en masse into the springs. The Boquillas children come to watch us as we huddle neck-deep, pestering us to buy their tiny packs of Chiclets. We soak until the sun has almost set, unwitting and optimistic, protected from the cold river current in our cups of eroded rock and thermal brew, as the mortality of our youth flows by us, undetected and into the future.

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