Sam Houston National Forest, TX

Late afternoon sun filters between tall pines, a splotchy canvas of black, green, gray, and gold. The hypnotically undulating road gently curves around discreet hills. Off to the left, a sandy driveway leads to a large clearing full of cremated appliances—the ancestors of your washer and dryer. The mechanized mausoleum is surrounded by a perimeter of wooden shacks in different phases of termite destruction. At the entrance of the clearing, a relatively new sandwich board announces "Big Red's Soul Food" in bold white text. Nobody is visible.

Two young black men ride horses along the roadside, working their way towards the Lone Star Trail that runs through the forest of Southern Pine. One seems to be teaching the other to ride. Their horses are calm when cars pass by.

Sam Houston may have been an egoist and a self-promoter, but the forest that bears his name is pleasant and understated. Mosquitoes will remain scarce until the summer rains begin, their weak population further stunted by voracious dragonflies patrolling the banks of a nearby lagoon. Cicadas fill the forest with an overwhelmingly loud white noise as the deep blue sky fades into gray dusk. When night closes in, the frogs take over noisemaking duties and a single firefly zigzags aimlessly through wooden pillars. The air is wet and still, qualities that make it feel omnipresent and forgotten all at once, like falling asleep in a warm bathtub. Other than a few feral pigs in the bushes, the forest is empty.


Austin, TX

What do you do when you're terrified of being alone? When you get agitated after only a few hours to yourself? When you constantly call friends, looking for someone, anyone to hang out with? You could decide to take six months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Alone. At night. This is self-therapy in its most extreme permutation. When bears and mountain lions are less threatening than the prospect of solitude, perhaps their company is perversely welcome. Another difficult decision. Will it work? Break the fear? Be empowering? Or will it fail, break ankles, and prove to be a financial washout? You do not care. The monophobia is so crippling that the choice, now made but yet to be acted upon, feels inevitable.

Austin is a city with bike lanes, public green space, topography, and a few walkable areas. Towering condominiums are being erected that have more in common with Chicago than anywhere else in Texas. For all of its size, the city is sleepy, as if half of its energy vanished with the local university's already-forgotten spring semester. In the park, an old man with dark skin, a flowing white beard, and a blue robe is fishing. When he smiles, his teeth are stained betel nut-maroon.


Blastrop Lake, TX

The campground is a small public concession from a large private hydropower company. They get the water rights to the lower Colorado (the Texas Colorado, not the real Colorado) and, in return, they operate a few campgrounds utilizing retired trailer-nomads as their unpaid labor force.

The lanky, pale mom sits next to a trailer surrounded by Christmas lights powered by a snorting diesel generator. Her cell phone illuminates her face with a blue glow as she chirps: "I can't spell corndog!" to her apathetic husband who is busy molting after a long day of sun exposure.

The camp host is massively overweight and diabetic. The mosquitoes swarm him as he sits in his overbuilt golf cart. "They can smell the sugar in my blood, it's high right now." He is a goldmine of insect lore. "They say chiggers die when they get in you, but they don't. You can feel 'em wriggling under the skin..." He advocates spraying them with a mist of Listerine: "chiggers hate it, and even if it don't do anything, it'll make their breath smell better after they bite you."

In a remote corner of the campground, in the ghetto reserved for tents, a plumbing van is parked half in the bushes. Behind it, buried amongst trees and deep grasses, there is a small shelter made of blankets, PVC pipes, and zipties. It contains two tanned white men in their thirties, a small cooler, a box of Captain Crunch, and some pills in a small yellow bottle. One of the men is chewing out the two police officers standing outside the shanty. Their conversation is long and tedious but graced with considerable colorful language. After almost an hour of standoff, the owner of the plumbing company shows up in a shiny white SUV and persuades both of the men to leave... locked up in the back of the plumbing van.


Goliad, TX

The Border Patrol is a bureaucratic placebo, a sugar pill of delusion bought by the American taxpayer. Their last checkpoint stands in a swamp south of Corpus Christi. Cars flow under the dark corrugated ramada with little delay, German shepherds barking at all of them.

Corpus Christi is a city of almost 250,000, but the metro area is larger. Whether or not it died for anyone's sins is hard to determine, but it certainly died, at least at its heart. Downtown is full of potential, a shallow hill commanding a view of the Gulf and Corpus Christi bay. It does not lack for tall buildings, but remarkably few of those buildings show signs of life. Empty concrete lots interrupt blocks of decaying buildings. They look like gigantic pieces of graph paper, their green lines of weeds tracing the seams between concrete slabs.

West of downtown, Citgo refineries are silhouetted against the dirty rays of a setting sun. From a distance, the refineries look like science fiction cities, their thin piping and fiery smokestacks dissembling as gloomy skyscrapers. Up close, they shrink down to messes of silver spaghetti, less dramatic but more ominous. They have obviously been planted on top of old, poor, black neighborhoods. Around the refinery perimeter, whole blocks of houses have been knocked down to form a safety barrier in case of an industrial accident. A few crumpled homes remain, boarded and condemned, surrounded by grass, oaks, and driveways leading nowhere. All of the street lights remain standing, probably because knocking them down would be creepy, even for an oil company.

The sandwich shop is in the gas station and the gas station is in Goliad. The sandwich artist is a gangly teen with a bulbous tomato-shaped head sprouting from narrow shoulders. His green visor is pulled low over his eyes, which accentuates his chipmunk features. His right forearm saws back and forth under his running nose like the bow of a fiddle. There is apparently nowhere else to eat in Goliad on a Friday night and customers line up, clearly intimidating him. He chokes, fumbling with a pair of plastic sanitary gloves for an excruciating thirty seconds as his puffy cheeks flush red. Having secured the gloves, he flails at sandwich fixings, sending lids skittering across the counter, dropping ingredients from one container into the next, and continually obstructing the smooth competent movements of his fellow artist, Christina Ricci circa 1994. He eventually finishes building the first sandwich and, in the act of trying to close and cut it, spills its gooey contents all over the counter. Christina glares at him as he shamelessly rolls the mess into a ball, wraps it in paper, and proceeds to ring up all of the customer's orders on one tab. He will do well in government.


Brownsville, TX II

Are you a US citizen?


Where are you going?

Ultimately, Canada.

But where are you going tonight?


Have a good one.

The metallic-green Rio Grande oozes between downtown Brownsville and Matamoros, its unappreciated journey to the Gulf almost complete. For most of the river's course it is invisible and inaccessible, deliberately cloaked behind overgrown ranch lands teeming with Border Patrol agents, the water always a few miles distant from the roads that parallel it. Cities are the only significant places the river is visible. Reeds and deep grasses line the Mexican side of its course in Matamoros while, on the American bank, the reeds have a towering, oxidized steel counterpart. Even when visible, the river remains in quarantine.

The border wall comes to an abrupt end in a forgotten park near the international bridge. It could easily be walked around but is, presumably watched too closely. The narrow space between the wall and the river is empty, save for a few flood lamps and cameras, while the other side features two historical markers, a muddy channel of a road, and a few Hispanic men sleeping under trees. The park is nearly as lost as the strip of land between the wall and the river. One of the historical plaques describes the vibrant boardwalks that used to line the river from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, an era of considerable traffic, the sign intones, but one that was destined to end as bridges replaced ferry traffic. Its fatalism is absurd, but less absurd than the second plaque, which sits in the muddy channel facing the wall—a bronze plate that preceded the steel wall, a commemoration of a transborder cattle trail at a border nobody wants to visit. Under lush trees, one of the Hispanic men is hanging a pink button-down shirt from a branch. Another man has tethered a rainbow-colored windsock to a tree and lies on his back, watching it from the shade.

Are you a US citizen?


Ride safe.

Texas route 4 goes down a thin strip of land between the Rio Grande and the Brownsville shipping canal. The land makes Kansas look mountainous, a sheet of yucca-studded grass on the river side and alkali flats on the canal side. Apparently the alkali flats resulted from cutting the canal and the area—nominally an avian wildlife refuge—is currently undergoing some form of mysterious environmental rehabilitation. There is nothing out there except a few abandoned houses and a few houses that look abandoned but aren't. The pavement ends abruptly about twenty meters from the Gulf of Mexico, the black asphalt hitting white sand, a clean line framed by low, trash-strewn dunes. An elderly couple sit directly in the road's path on folding chairs, their small, black Dodge Neon looking bogged in the sand next to them. They are pink, uncomfortable, blinking in confusion. It is entirely possible that they were sitting in this exact pose at an anemic church party, only to be transported to this desolate beach by some cosmic jester. White trucks bristling with fishing rods and packed with overfed Texans scream down the asphalt road, barely slowing down as they hit the beach, their knobby tires vomiting rooster tails of sand into the air as the drivers scramble to avoid killing the retirees. If you drive six miles south down this flat, filthy strip of sand, you can find the Rio Grande's delta.

Are you a US citizen?


What is in the boxes?

Everything. I'm on a three month tour.

Hunh. Go ahead.

A Tangent: All You Need is a...

I have a new short-format radio piece in which two groups of SB1070 protestors attempt to define the word "wall" without reference to Mexico. It's on the Third Coast International Audio Festival website. Give it a listen if you have two minutes.



Brownsville, TX

Cicadas, mosquitoes, butterfly swarms. Tropical Texas Trail coexisting with the Texas Coastal Birding Trail and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway. Under a picnic shelter in horizontal rain, revolving groups of Hispanic construction workers in orange safety vests stop for lunch, cigarettes, and beer, the doors of their white pickup trucks left open in defiance of the weather.

A sudden voice from a truck stop bathroom stall: "so, she's got money, hunh?" The voice shifts to rapid Spanish and then back to American-accented English: "yes, sir." Back to Spanish. Then English, again in mid-sentence: "I can't believe you'd do that..." Then he abruptly steps out of the bathroom stall with jeans down and boxers up, nonchalantly continuing his cell phone conversation in Spanish.

Brownsville is sunny and choked with flowering, big-leafed trees. Old houses are cocooned in this foliage, roadways cluttered with vegetative excess. Off the freeway, the city is quiet, the humid air stifling activity and sound.


Laredo, TX

Willie's fingers are thicker than rolls of quarters. When he shakes your hand his grasp is so firm that you can feel a bubble of blood pump back up your arm. He is a large man in his early forties with a round, unshaven face and a cammo trucker hat. Willie sits on a folding chair underneath a series of low tents surrounded by his own personal bazaar: bolt cutters, machetes, ammo boxes, a glass display case brimming with old Third Reich medals. This ensemble is plopped down in the parking lot of an abandoned hotel from the 1920s, white Venetian blinds clanking in and out of broken windows in the fecund breeze. "I had to stop to open a gate earlier today," Willie says, "and there were fifty mosquitoes in my truck. Be glad for this wind."

The wind almost blows Willie's tents away, but he pins them down with chunks of an old tire.

A hispanic man stops and drops eighty bucks for two car jacks. Willie is making money doing this, somehow. Ten years earlier, he was working a salaried job and feeling frustrated. After a taking the fall for a slacking supervisor, he channeled the spirit of Johnny Paycheck and told his boss to "take this job and shove it." So he went self-employed and married his girlfriend of ten years to get on her K-Mart insurance plan. He has seen okay years and bad years—he had to lay off his son in 2009 which, he says, was hard but not personal. Overall, though, he is happy with his decision. He is making five times his previous income and owns several houses.

If only Texas would follow Arizona's lead and get their prisoners working for the state and turning a profit... that might lower his taxes and then he would be set.


Del Rio, TX

It happens slowly, the rolling landscape anesthetizing the senses and, then, the desert vanishes. The Chihuahuan desert around Big Bend is colored in shades of mustard, yam, and chocolate. While the sun is overhead these hues are mild pastels but, as it declines towards the horizon, they grow saturated, crushed-black shadows giving the distant mountains weight. It is the Hollywood-perfect backdrop your imagination builds when you dream of the Old West. But it has vanished and now you have something else, a landscape that features in nobody's imagination.

Imagine the Pacific Northwest. Do you see soggy forests of Doug Fir, salmon in clear water, and snowy Cascades in the background? Perhaps the Great Plains evokes cornfields and Wizard of Oz cottages. New England might conjure an Adirondack scene from Last of the Mohicans while the South overflows with both brutal and romantic visual associations. But the fringes of Southern Texas or Northern Coahuila? They are blank spaces in the mind.

The land is a combination of beautiful and ugly, just as it is a combination of desert and plains, or desert and swamp, or swamp and plains. It seems like a bipolar land, in which both poles are different variations on the theme of hostile: dusty and arid / muddy and humid. The Southwestern deserts are harsh terrain, but they offer topography and visibility. This region does not. Its hills roll in every direction, choked in dense, thorny foliage approaching a tall person's height. Prickly pear, yucca, acacia and mesquite would shred your skin to tatters if you went bushwhacking. You would have to rely on the sun, or a compass, or the course of a stream bed to escape the monotonous maze. On horseback or foot, it would be a terrain of nightmares. You could never farm there, would be an idiot to try homesteading. Low, hazy gray-blue skies dragging across an undulating, sweaty, gray-green mess of mosquito-infested thornscrub. Occasionally, a road cuts into the biomess, bone-white tracks gleaming into the infinitely distant confluence of gray-green and gray-blue.

You could hire the best advertising firms in the world and they would fail to put a romantic spin on this land. The city of Del Rio, along with its siblings along the Rio Grande, seem to be narrowly holding a beachhead against an onslaught of bristling vegetation. Without modern technology—bulldozers, wells, window screens—this environment would crush the life out of us. That may, ultimately, be what makes it beautiful.


Chisos Basin, TX

Doc Doug, Bill, Fred, and Fred sit on the porch of the Terlingua Trading post. From the shade, they gaze out across a receding valley. Far in the distance, across the Rio Grande, sawtoothed mountains are gauzed by haze. A fire is burning somewhere on the border, Bill says. He spent his morning supplying burritos to the Diablos, an elite group of Mexican wilderness firefighters who are allowed to cross the border with impunity. Bill is retired from the park service—he first met the Diablos seven years earlier—but he is far too energetic to stop working. He still volunteers coordinating slurry bombers, but today he has been stuck on burrito-duty. Years later, he still knows most of the Diablos and this latest fire has made for an impromptu reunion. Tonight he is going to bring dinner to their campground and, one suspects, they will sit in the superheated desert air trading stories over a few bottles of what Doc Doug calls "ice cold medicine."

The porch does not belong to Doc Doug, but it is hard to imagine it being of any value without Doc Doug sitting on it. He's an institution in his own right. Doug has a formidable white beard, a sweat-stained do-rag cinched on his head, and the sort of cobalt-colored eyes that appear in hackneyed literary descriptions far more often than in real life. Having put in several years of camping and a stint living in an old school bus, Doug is a bona fide desert rat. He's also an urban refugee. Three decades ago you could have found him living in Houston, making money in an electronics job, and generally having a bad time. So he made the decision to quit, to unplug, to relax. To a society that is neurotically obsessed with quantification, Doc Doug is a categorical failure: he doesn't clock 70-hour work weeks, his investment portfolio is a case of beer, and he probably couldn't give a damn about his blood pressure. And he doesn't need to—he seems immensely happy and profoundly relaxed, enjoying a state of mental health rarely seen in wage slaves hurrying between offices and suburbs. The Doc decided to trade a life based on quantification for a life based on minimal work, conversations on a porch, and a few beers after noon. Is he crazy? Are you?



Lajitas, TX

The Prada store is just north of Valentine, Texas. It sits by the roadside, surrounded by overgrazed pasture lands and a few rusted windmills. On display, you will find a series of delightfully uncomfortable shoes and gaudy handbags from the 2005 model year. You will not be buying these shoes and handbags, however, because the store's door is welded shut. Unsurprisingly, there is an art colony nearby—Marfa. Surprisingly, it is an art colony with a sense of humor.

Presidio, TX was founded in the 17th century by the Spanish. Its history is as long as it is unimpressive: remote, underpopulated, and occasionally abandoned out of fear or boredom. Today, little has changed. If the town ever possessed Spanish charm, it has been bulldozed or burned off the face of the Earth by a punishing sun. Yet Presidio endures and the yard full of broken lawn chairs looks weirdly appealing over at the two-tone double-wide known as the "Big Bend Motel." Emerald and banana, a color scheme you have to smile at.

TX170 is one of the nicest roads you'll find in America. It traces the Rio Grande from Presidio to Big Bend, bobbing up and down hills, making hairpin turns, and steadily winding deeper into tall, brown-red canyons. The Rio Grande oozes nearby, but it could scour the asphalt blemish off the landscape with the strength of a few good rains. Mexico lies across the river—dark, bulky hills and little else. A Border Patrol SUV perches on a knoll overlooking a marsh choked with salt cedar and desert willow. His air conditioning is blasting and he seems placid and relaxed. The Rio Grand has been so thoroughly bled by agriculture that it is easily waded across, but nobody has bothered with border fences down here.

The desert appears empty of people, but clusters of bee hives hide down canyons and amongst creosote bushes.

The Ordinance Man's life has a strange resonance with The Year of Living Dangerously, except his stories are set in Fiji and lack Sukarno's murderous antics. He had the turbulent expat romance, the mastery of a skill, and the awareness of having lived through a Moment. And not merely of living through a Moment, but of shaping a Moment. If an author had been writing about the Ordinance Man's life, he would have ended after the Moment, with barely enough time for reflection and a tidy conclusion. But life seldom leaves us with clean literary endings and the Ordinance Man has lived three uneventful decades in the shadow of the Moment. He still looks back nostalgically. Good things have happened since, he admits, but nothing has approached the Moment's emotional power.

The vitality. The love. A world that was still changeable.

He feels irrelevant now.


El Paso II

The Franklin mountains: sandy, treeless, last gasp of the Rockies. They point directly towards downtown El Paso, driving south like the prow of a ship, cleaving the huge city in two—80% of the population on one side, 80% of the money on the other, the owner of a cheesesteak restaurant says. But it seems more like the money is in the mountains, not in the form of some exotic ore, but incarnated as hundreds of mansions. They perch on ridges overlooking downtown, their faux-Ionian columns and swamp-green lawns barking idiotically for attention over the blasted silence of the desert hills. Perhaps this is where Helen of Troy executives live. Perhaps they stare out at Ciudad Juarez—which looks so peaceful from 1,000 feet—and meditate on new product lines. "We call this one Harmony because of the way it brings together so many fragrances..."

Across the street from the chateaus, a stretch limousine has stopped at a scenic pull-off area. The rear window is down and hip-hop fills the air. Someone is getting capped or fucked or stepped-to when the back door opens and, like water from a hydrant, a mob of teenage boys explodes from the car and fans out across the sidewalk. They are wearing suits that look expensive but fit their gangly bodies with less grace than the polyester aura that enshrouded David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. They are badasses, gangsters, future celebrities and, from one of the safest cities in America, they, too, stare out at Juarez. What do they see?

Few people have the guts to admit what the man from Juarez admits. The hardest decision in his life was marrying his girlfriend after he got her pregnant. He was in school at the time but had to drop out to support her and their new baby. He wanted to be an engineer. He is a cook. He talks about the centrality of money to his life now, the endless worries about supporting other people. He has been able to do it and he is proud of his accomplishment, proud that his son is forging through school himself. But he knows that he, personally, is stuck. The career isn't getting any more glamorous, an opportunity was missed.

Would he make the same choices again? Have the rewards of family compensated him for sacrificing his personal ambition?



Given a second chance, he'd be rid of them.


El Paso

Tan Humvees crawl eastward along the freeway, their squat profiles reminiscent of river toads. Small knots of white-haired retirees have gathered on overpasses stretching from Tucson to the defunct cow-town of Benson, waving enormous American flags at the puny convoy. How did you spend your Thursday morning?

"Hi, my name's Ben. I'm a has-Ben!" The museum in Wilcox is small and quiet, like the town itself, except for the few moments when the Union Pacific's shrieking air horns and clattering boxcars shake windows and force Ben to cringe and adjust his hearing aids. Wilcox, like Benson to the west, was a mecca of ranching as the 19th century melted into the 20th. The steel rails across the street from where Ben sits used to carry locomotives here to load up thousands of cattle for slaughter in California or the Midwest. Now, of course, the train does not stop and Ben fiddles with his hearing aid as the bleached green China Shipping cars rattle into the distance. Amateurish paintings of solemn Indians vibrate on the walls for a few seconds after the train has ceased to be audible, then they rest.

A bowl of butterscotch candies sits in warm sunlight on the dusty desk by the window. Ben has been retired twenty-five years, married sixty-eight. Growing up on a ranch, he says, he knew what it felt like to be alone. And he didn't want to feel that way ever again. He graduated from high school in June of 1942 and was married by July. It was the obvious thing to do, hardly a choice at all. He's never had a hard time making a decision—period—and he won't budge from this stance. Eighty-eight years and no hard decisions.

Ben has been blown out of rooms by natural gas explosions on two occasions. Despite this, he still speaks glowingly of the natural gas company he worked for. Staying with them was also an easy decision, despite the risks. He would do it over again in a moment.

I think he is telling most of the truth.


An Idea Forms

View Summer 2010 Tour in a larger map


Delineation of Space

Got a new radio piece in the works. Three minutes about... walls. Lots of interviews. A little bit of free-association with the word "wall," questions about what makes a wall good or bad . All of my conversations took place at the anti-SB1070 rally last Saturday, though I spoke to a bunch of pro-1070 folks, too. I wanted a crowd that would be thinking about walls already, but I steered all of the interviewees away from the immigration debate. I'm trying to dip beneath current events and take a look at how we think about the delineation of space and the division of people.

When it comes down to describing walls, it's nearly impossible to tell the left from the right. For both groups, walls offer the same benefits and the same hazards. They offer protection to the fearful, but they also exclude, dehumanize, and tend to fail. The question is entirely of placement. You can't hear it, but one group is thinking about Berlin while the other thinks of Mexico.

More when the editing is finished...