Road Trip 2018: Border Checks–Without a Border

On February 23, the seventh day of our expedition, we headed south, taking back roads along the Rio Grande as far as we could before being forced out onto the Interstate north of Socorro, where we stopped at a local coffee shop we know well from past trips. We departed the freeway again at Truth or Consequences (formerly Hot Springs), taking the old highway through Hatch and along the river to Las Cruces, passing out of the Land of The Free (as noted by the northbound checkpoint near Radium Springs) unchallenged, into the Southern Exclusion Zone (our term), the 160-km-deep region around the perimeter of the country from which one cannot return without proper papers, or, more likely, without being subjected to racial profiling.  The Zone—which has no official name, for the purpose of plausible deniability—exists, and has for decades.  According to Wikipedia. there are 33 permanent checkpoints within the borders of the United States.  It is notable that few, if any, of these checkpoints are evident north of the 47th parallel, as would be expected if most Canadians looked different from many of us (surprise, they do—Canada is much more ethnically diverse than is the U.S., due to more liberal immigration laws) or actually wanted to work for lower minimum wages than they could find at home and were willing to risk persecution to venture south without showing identity papers at an official border crossing.

Grandsons, son, and granddaughter, at our granddaughter’s house in El Paso.

This trip, we again stayed at an AirB&B near the city core. The next few days were busy visiting our daughters, granddaughter, grandsons, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren in Las Cruces and our son and granddaughter in El Paso, where two grandsons also joined us. Our granddaughter in El Paso always finds interesting historical places to show us; as a result, we have a better understanding of the area. This time, we visited San Elizario, the second oldest city in the U.S., after St. Augustine, Florida, and once the salt-trading center of the New Mexico region of New Spain and the first county seat of El Paso County when it became part of the U.S., which it almost didn’t, as the Rio Grande changed course in historical times from north to south of the city.

We meet our great-great granddaughter for the first time. She let Gr-gr-grandma hold her, but wasn’t sure about the hairy old coot.

To save enough money to fill the tank again, we checked out of the AirB&B and spent a night camping at our daughter’s house, for a late night of conversation and a quick getaway in the morning.  Although we had a good visit, we did miss a few of the adult and teen great-grandchildren, busy with jobs and families of their own.  Keeping track of five generations in one family is a daunting task, indeed.

Heading west, we passed through the first of many Border Patrol checkpoints, part of the network that make up the region we have dubbed the Southern Exclusion Zone. The one on I-10 was passing cars without stopping, probably because they had met their quota for the month with the northern California raid the previous day, or perhaps they weren’t aware that Washington State (where our truck is registered) has a large population claiming Mexican heritage, and they just didn’t bother to check our whiteness index.   Being the elders in a family that spans the spectrum of black, brown, and beige, and having worked and played in multi-cultural milieus, we bristle more than a bit at the obvious bias of “white privilege” and the implications unequal treatment has for our society.  Border Patrol:  please do not assume we are “not the droids you are looking for.”  We would rather you check everyone’s papers and inspect the cargoes of every vehicle if you do any.  Maybe some of those all-white folks will feel violated enough to actually think about what the *real* ‘Murica stands for.  Hint: it’s not pretty.

As we crossed the continental divide—which, in this part of the country, is noted only by a sign, the desert being relatively flat—we ran into mixed rain and snow, which followed us into Tucson. We had planned to bicycle on the downtown river path in Tucson, but it was still a bit cold and blustery, the river was dry, and the motel prospects not the best, so we cancelled our reservation and moved on.

We left the freeway at Tucson to tour through the Tohono O’Odham reservation, noting another Border Patrol checkpoint on entry (faced toward traffic leaving the Rez, indicating we had once again crossed into the Zone). North of the old mining town of Ajo, we passed through the other checkpoint, back into the Arpaio District of Trumpistan, getting a bit more scrutiny this time: our bicycle helmets, hung from the handlebars, were mistaken for extra passengers.  Unlike the indigenous peoples of the northern Great Plains, the Tohono O’Odham were not granted dual citizenship when their lands were divided between European-style governments, so the Border Patrol are much more diligent in this region where the national borders are bound to be softer than elsewhere.  Not so diligent as to check the storage compartment under our sleeping platform, however, which would easily have smuggled in two or three “bad hombres,” nor did they poke the suspiciously bulky sleeping bag (containing our inflated pads), to make certain we had not been so inclined as to moonlight as coyotes for a little extra gas money.  The space was actually full, serving as our closet, pantry, kitchen, and dining room storage.  Once again, racial profiling kicked in: we passed inspection on our White Word alone, affirmation that institutional racism is very much a part of the American culture.

In for the night in Gila Bend, a “wide spot in the road” on I-8, at Cheap Hotel #4, we soon discovered that the WiFi 1) did not work, and 2) was likely being spoofed, as neither the correct nor the misspelled ESSID connected us with the Internet. Being the end of the month, it was necessary to use the iPhone as a hotspot for our laptop to do the monthly web updates for a client. In the morning, with no breakfast bar at the motel and no food stores (the one listed on the GPS was boarded up, and the Dollar Store wasn’t open yet), we refueled ($0.69/liter, rising above the $0.57 we paid at the last station in New Mexico) and continued west without indulging in the usual fuel station fare of rancid peanuts, hard sausages, and puffed fried starches or pig skins (i.e., Slim Jims, Funyuns, and Chicharrones), stopping for coffee and breakfast 150 km down the road at the first coffee shop we came to.

In Yuma, we unloaded the bicycle and rode 22 km on the canal trails. It was cool, but sunny and a very pleasant riding. Our ride was cut a bit short by a steep cut in the levee path that our long tandem would not have negotiated without bottoming out. After lunching out of our food staple supplies, we continued on into California, passing through the “agricultural” inspection station without incident (the Republic of California has its own idea of border control, obviously). The freeway had many construction areas, so we cut off on a secondary road to Calexico, seeing several Border Patrol vehicles on the way, then north to El Centro, where we picked up some groceries and dry-camped for the night, cutting costs to compensate for the rising gasoline prices. We used the campground day room to take care of our Internet business and recharge our electronics: a site with electricity would have been $12 more for the night.

Early morning, we swung by a nearby Starbucks for breakfast and coffee, then took the southern route again, passing thousands of hectares of solar panels, installed or staged for installation, before the secondary road rejoined the freeway to climb over the mountains. At the top, we split off again on a side road that meandered down into a mountain valley and another reservation. After passing close to a pre-existing section of the Trumpian Wall that marched darkly across the steep mountainside, we curved back north, enduring yet another scrutiny by the Border Patrol, the third checkpoint to which we had been subjected, without ever leaving the borders of the United States, or at least without passing through a checkpoint operated by the Mexican government, giving credence to the theory that we have been living in a police state for some time now, subject to inspection and seizure of person and property at any time, any place.  The traffic being a bit higher here, we passed through with only a quick check of our facial features, with the feeling we had been traversing through some sort of no-man’s land, where “bad hombres” lurked, pursued by armed militia, infiltrating white-land despite the obvious physical barriers visible on the mountainsides.  Our journey through the southern regions of the U.S. had begun to feel more like a time travel trip through the Iron Curtain of Eastern Europe in the mid-20th Century.

Soon, we arrived in San Diego, where we spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon exploring Balboa Park. We took in the Air and Space Museum, my first visit since the museum was rebuilt after the 1978 fire. I had visited only a few months before the fire.  Some of the exhibits were carefully crafted reproductions of the original historic aircraft, others had been donated by collectors. We enjoyed our first lunch out in many days, from a vendor in the Plaza at the park. We took an auto tour of Coronado. We might have ridden our bicycle, but parking along the bike path that passes beside the Navy base was an issue. We noted that there is a ferry from downtown San Diego for bicycles, which sounds like an interesting adventure for another time. We checked into an inexpensive motel near a shopping district on Rosecrans, in the area near Ballast Point where I used to stay when I traveled to San Diego on business, back in the 1970s. We restocked our food supplies at a nearby natural foods market, and turned in early. The internet access, like most low-budget motels, was iffy at best: many motels use the same ESSID for all of their access points, and, combined with other nearby hotspots on the same channels, cause frequent conflicts and signal drop.

Once again, rain overtook us: it had rained overnight, and we proceeded north along the coast in alternating mist, drizzle, and downpour. There were many bicyclists out along the coast highways and volleyball games on the beaches, despite the stormy weather. Gasoline prices rose to $0.89/liter when we refueled, and we saw even over $1.00/liter in some areas. Our slow sojourn along the beach was interrupted by Camp Pendleton, where all traffic runs on I-5 (except bicycles, allowed through the military base by prior permission). We got off the freeway in San Clemente and took a walking break in San Juan Capistrano, bypassing the Mission, as we had toured it more than 25 years ago, and it hasn’t changed all that much since the 1812 earthquake that destroyed the church.  We had a light lunch at a gelato shop (3:16 Bakery Shop). Back on the I-5 freeway, we finished the day driving into Anaheim in relatively light Saturday midday traffic.

Our plan was to spend a few days, up to a week in the L. A. area before winding our way back north toward home. Since we became cat-less, we decided our travel plans could be a bit more flexible, as long as we arranged to have our mail picked up every 30 days and didn’t crop up any major medical issues. Once again, staying with relatives allows us to catch up on laundry and grocery shopping as well as visiting. The L.A. basin is not our favorite place to drive, but one gets used to it after a few days.  We also planned to try out a few of the many bike trails that top the levees along the concrete-lined rivers and creeks.

To be continued…