Section 15: McAllen to
(the last day!)
Our last day of walking!
Can it really be here?
We woke up early, wanting to guarantee a before-dark finish. We knew we wouldn’t exactly be trucking it today, what with the filming, our visitors, and the scent of freedom, but we still had miles to make. We are not there yet.
Zak and Corey brought us back to the state park, passing through yesterday’s BP checkpoint. By the end of today, they will have gone through at least 10 times within 24 hours. We wonder what it’s like for people who live down here passing through the checkpoint over and over again. It probably becomes second nature at some point, part of the background of the day like riding the train into work or waiting at a stoplight, but for us every time we went through we felt the same uneasy sense of wrongdoing as we were asked to justify our presence. And we are white, and English-speaking, and driving a nice enough car, and BP was always friendly and waved us through with minimal challenge.
If you aren’t one of these things, if you are brown, or a non-native speaker, or poor, what toll does this constant scrutiny have on your psyche?
We have gotten so used to the feeling of being watched out here over the last few months that we’ve forgotten what a privilege it is to belong so much that you go unnoticed.
Corey wanted to grab some footage of us walking so we started down the road as he performed an agile and seamless backwards walk in front with the camera. Nice footwork there! We followed his occasional instructions until he and Zak got what they needed and left us to it. They went back into town (and through the checkpoint) to get some errands done, including picking up a banner we had made for the end and grabbing us all some lunch.
After they left we walked in silence, our thoughts folded somewhere deep down inside ourselves. We barely noticed the first several miles of empty road, focused instead on trying to figure out what this day meant in the grand scope of our journey. Like yesterday, it didn’t feel like this day really mattered. To some extent, finishing a trail is always like this. You fantasize about that final step for days, weeks, months, and then when it actually arrives, you are shocked at how normal you still are. We always think we’re just going to get that bolt-of-lightning epiphany that just falls out of the sky, but in reality most wisdom comes through small, incremental changes. Hiking isn’t some magical fix that hands you a new personality on a silver platter. Who knows how long it will take before we can identify any of our changes.
A truck drove past us only to slow down and pull over ahead. Hold on, that looks familiar...it's Fred and Kim! They drove 32 hours straight from Kentucky to get here and we couldn’t be more excited, grateful or impressed. They are just really awesome at this support thing. Thank you guys. YOU MEAN SO MUCH TO US!
After gabbing with Fred and Kim and checking out a few historical signs (did you know that the last battle of the Civil War was fought in Texas, a week after the war ended? And that the Union army lost?) most of the morning was gone and Zak and Corey were headed back with lunch.
They pulled over and set up a makeshift picnic table on the back of the car. Enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos and mango soda! One epiphany that we don’t need time to figure out is that the food down here is GOOD. This, we will miss. We gobbled it down in record time, projecting loud, crazed versions of ourselves as we struggled to interpret our emotions.
Are we happy? Sad? Confused? Angry? Useless? Ack!
A few more miles of walking and we met up with everyone again, this time only a few miles from the end.
We had a decision to make - follow the road and end up a few miles north of the Rio/Gulf confluence, or bushwhack through the marsh and hope there weren’t any surprises?
What would this trip be without one final logistical headache? We pored over the few maps we had loaded (there’s zero service of
course, another fitting end to this trip) and decided why the heck not? Let’s go all in and get our spectacular finish at the true eastern corner of the US/Mexico border. Everyone but Claire and Tenny headed back to the car to drive down the beach as close as they can get to the end and hike in from there.
Our final miles!
Would you believe that most of it was spent on a vicious fight?
Only to be resolved with perfect timing with tears and hugs and “I love you’s”? Another item checked off of the list of this trip in a nutshell. We caught our first glimpse of the rest of the group, wandering towards us across a wide flat sandy expanse. Beyond that were the lumpy dunes sculpted through an eon of tides and beyond that, the faint ribbon of water and horizon. The air was thick with the smell of brine and the sounds of birds and distant waves. The resolution of our fight and the adrenaline of finishing created a shaky high that practically pulsed under our skin, which felt too tight for our bodies. We were here.
A deep slough lay between us, our group, and the finish. The water had carved out deep banks and left a slick, slimy muck that sucked at anything with weight. Tenny found an old wooden slab underneath the scrub and, after checking both sides for any surprise critters, we carried it with us to a spot where the slough widened and flattened out. Using
the wood as a stepping stone, we held on to each other and half-wiggled, half-slid our way across, keeping one foot on the slab and one in the mud, pulling every second step out with a squishy yank. After thoroughly embarrassing ourselves with this ungainly hop (our friends had now arrived and were cruelly filming us) we realized it was easier to walk without the board, and we abandoned it to the soggy river bottom. We pulled ourselves out of the slough with a final tug.
We still had no handle on what we were or should be feeling. The cameras added an additional pressure as Zak and
Corey tried to help us articulate our thoughts. We mostly failed! But then we crossed our last dune and the ocean lay out before us, in all its sparkly, limitless glory. The Rio came in on our right, wide and sleepy and familiar. Across the river, a carnival of trucks and tents and grills marked a popular spot for Mexican beach goers and dozens of heads bobbed in the waves. (The American side was mostly empty.) We were so happy to be finishing here, and with people! Unlike Friendship Park in San Diego, which had giant, impenetrable fences and empty beaches, and alert Border Patrol, this spot felt far more true to the original concept of Friendship Park. Fisherman stood waist deep along a sandbar thirty feet offshore and kids jumped in and out of the river. There were no fences or Border Patrol in sight. If you didn’t already know that this was the border between two countries, you would have no way of knowing. After months of walking through spaces that discouraged people from being there, here was a place where “the border” didn’t have to be the most obvious thing about it.
We walked into the eastern edge of the Rio Grande and towards the ocean, feeling the shift from warmer waters to colder and the tug of the current. We are here! We walked further and further in, not wanting to break the spell. The water stayed shallow until it suddenly wasn’t, rising from our knees, to waist, to chest and buffeting us with shockingly strong waves which did their best to unbalance us. Laughing at ourselves, we fought our way back to the shore, with new respect for the line of fishers who balanced with deceptive ease in front of us.
We popped a bottle of champagne and stood around, beaming and taking picture after picture. We hugged for a long moment. This trip would not have been possible without each other's dogged, relentless and devoted support. We had to fight to find it sometimes but it was always there. Then we hugged Fred and Kim and Zak and Corey. This trip wouldn’t have been possible without them. We sent out a prayer of thanks to the other people who had come out to join us, Claire’s parents, Sarah and Kris, Dan and Julia, Maddy and Courtney, Nikki. The people back home, who sent us money and words of encouragement, and read our blog, and followed us on social media. And we thought about all of the people we had met on this trip, the people who had stopped to give us water, to let us cross their land, to reach out to us, to help us with a ride, to ask us questions and to share their stories. We are so grateful. This is not the end of this project, but for now know that we finish this walk without a single negative incident and with deep appreciation for the generosity of the people we met along the way and the people who supported us from afar. Thank you to everyone.
*Check back in a couple weeks! We plan to add more blog entries as our post-walk days begin.