Well so much for resting. Claire was determined to continue. We wrapped up her ankle as best as possible and poured a bottle of Ibuprofen down her throat. Time to hobble 18 miles. Please, please physical therapy gods let hiking for 8 hours straight be the magical treatment for a sprained ankle!
Our day began as it always did. We found the best route forward that didn’t add extra miles but also kept us from walking down an interstate. Today we chose to walk next to the railway, just like old times! Our favorite. Between the tracks and Hwy 83 our east-west route through Weslaco, Jharr, and McAllen was straightforward. We smoothly coasted through the urban sprawl.
The city outskirts were a checkerboard of agricultural cropland abutting residential areas adjoining warehouse parking lots. A small, yellow plane circled low over one crop to distribute pesticides over the harvest.
Is it frustrating for locals who have to cope with the resulting poor air quality?
There was a fire somewhere nearby and ash rained down on us all day. Big and small chunks that fell like snow and left a gritty dust over everything. Everytime a breeze came through it lifted up the particles and sent them spinning through the air as a mini tornado. We got used to it way too fast.
What have we been breathing in on this trip?
By midday we had progressed to the sidewalk running along a busy city road. We were now solidly at the heart of McAllen, surrounded by a slew of businesses. After our morning of agriculture/neglected city streets we were surprised at the sudden switch to swanky bars, banks and food trucks that spanned the length of 2-3 blocks before transitioning back to a line of thrift stores and car dealerships. For a brief moment tall palms lined the main street and we were deeply grateful for every swath of shade that they lay out in front of us.
Our Lyft driver, Doug, was a cool guy, with some interesting stories about motorcycling and revisiting Vietnam after serving in the military there during the war. He had a curiosity about the world and a compassion for other people that we admired (it certainly helped that he had some enthusiastic things to say about our walk!). He told us that there used to be only one cartel in this area, the Gulf Cartel, but in the late 1990’s Mexican ex-military defected to form their own rival cartel called the Los Zetas. The resulting turf wars brought about a culture of violence that destroyed the quality of life in the Mexican border towns and devastated the tourism industry. This was a repeated refrain from many of the people we met in this area, including several born across the river in Reynosa and Matamoros. For the last 10+ years, many would not risk crossing, even for a day, fearing the random gunfights that broke out constantly.
Doug echoed our belief in having a more nuanced (and positive) understanding of the border. He told us a story about a guy he had met from Spokane, WA who couldn’t believe that Doug willingly lived in McAllen. This guy watched the Nat Geo TV show “Border Wars” and figured you would have to be crazy or out of options to live in such a risky place. Prior to talking to him, Doug had never even heard about the show and didn’t exactly feel like it represented his way of life. Just goes to show that TV doesn’t always get it right!