What the river defines.
What the river defines.
By: Jay Brida
Photos: Getty Images, Jay Brida
The people here share a river, a culture and a history. But their present isn’t the same. The realities of the people who live by the river banks are as fluid as the water. On a Mexican map, Matamoros and Acuña border the Rio Bravo. Del Rio, sitting just across from Acuña, is on the Rio Grande. As with a lot down on the border, it’s a matter of perspective.
Over the course of three and a half days, I drove the river in a 2015 Audi A4, exploring against the flow, meeting it in the marshlands near South Padre Island and following it, more or less, to Big Bend. The A4 had ample power, which was helpful in what felt like the American Outback, the navigation was easy to follow, and I could enjoy the almost eerie silence—even when driving. This was a remote destination, following the river and making my way to Big Bend, but I felt plugged in with my A4.
The river is a reality of nature, but it’s just as much a fluid state of mind, a fascinating place—both beautiful and tragic, mundane and magical. It is one of the major birding centers in the world, for animals that don’t care about borders. It is the permeable boundary of many cultures and represents something just out of reach for so many. It was worth the drive.
After the drive from Austin and an evening on South Padre Island, I drove into Brownsville, parked in sight of the international bridge, grabbed my passport and walked into Matamoros. On both sides of the bridge, there was steady foot traffic—part of the daily commute for thousands of people. Here, the river was more politically real than physically, as it was little more than a brownish trickle below a heavily fortified, fenced-in bridge.
On the Mexican side of the bridge was a small commercial district and a nice residential neighborhood just off the main artery. At a small park just before you reach the bridge back to the States, a piece of striking art commemorates this little corner of Mexico, where it is difficult to not notice the clutch of armed authorities walking around the square, surveying the human and auto traffic at the border. I paid my quarter to cross back, received a quizzical stare from the official who asked what I did in Mexico, and told him, “Starting a story.” He laughed and waved me through.
Dating back to 1848, Brownsville’s downtown is a historic district with blocks and blocks of Gulf-crafted architecture. It was buzzing, with streets of stores with signs in Spanish and English. Circling back to my A4, I passed a participatory mural where two halves of it posed a thought in English and Spanish—“Antes de morir/Before I die”—and provided space for people to answer it. Among many responses, some sincere and some sincerely vulgar, the most common seemed to be “To find true love,” written in both languages.
I tried to stay as close to the river as possible, which meant I drove the A4 on U.S. Highway 83. From Brownsville, this rolled very close to the water, through farmland that provides us much of our produce in the winter, including spinach, grapefruit and kale. The traffic matched the speed limit exactly; along with the rapidly changing speed-limit markers, it was a telltale sign of a road with many speed traps. Luckily, my A4 also posted the current speed limits on the dashboard screen, which helped me maintain good relations with the officers I passed.
Just off the road itself, also known as “The Texas Tropical Trail,” you often see long stretches of enormous metal stanchions—the very real border wall—on your left as you drive north and west. These are interspersed with large farms, palm groves and tiny hamlets to the south of the larger population centers of the Rio Grande Valley—Edinburg, McAllen, Pharr, Harlingen—where large populations of “snow birds” have escaped the cold in places like New York and the Dakotas.
It’s apropos, then, that other kinds of birds—the avian species—are held in the highest esteem at the far end of the valley in a small town called Roma. Just west of Rio Grande City, Roma is home to a branch of the World Birding Center, which has eight more sites scattered throughout the region.
This part of Roma, a national historic district, rests on a bluff that overlooks the Rio Grande. It was here I saw my first Greater Roadrunner—an appearance that impressed the center’s proctor, even if my mind went immediately to cartoons. The bird evidently scurried into the center’s courtyard a couple of times that day, along with scores of sparrows and a couple of Green Jays. Roma rests on the migration trail for millions of birds, so they see all kinds at the center.
The center has an annex on the bluff, about a block uphill, where you look over to Ciudad Miguel Alemán in Mexico. It’s beautiful in Roma, the historic buildings calling back to the time of the Spanish Empire, of which the city was a northern colonial settlement, built as a planned community in the mid-1700s. Throughout the 19th century, the town served as a hub for trade. Like many older towns around the border, Roma has been part of Spain, part of Mexico, part of Texas and now part of the U.S., all within a century.
Texas is a big state. We all know that. It’s part of the state’s mystique and a source of pride. I was lucky to be driving in comfort. From Roma, I made my way to Del Rio to sleep for the night. From there, I was going to head to Marfa—which is on a completely different wavelength than Brownsville, Roma or Del Rio. It’s not near the river, but it is a great staging area for the Big Bend drive I was going to make the next day.
Marfa started as a ranching town, which began its transformation when the classic movie “Giant” was filmed in and around town. More than a decade later, in 1972, it became an artistic destination when Donald Judd set up shop there. His sculpted boxes started a movement, and now—along with nearby towns like Alpine and Marathon—it is a bohemian enclave of seasonal residents, jet-setter drop-ins and bemused locals. A number of Judd’s properties in Marfa still exist, with a handful run by the Judd Foundation and open to visitors.
Isolated on high plains, Marfa has several galleries, a contemporary art museum in a renovated gas station, a wine shop attached to a yoga studio, the classic Hotel Paisano and now a boutique option called Hotel St. George. The town hosts a couple of very high-end restaurants, one particular dive bar—Lost Horse Saloon—and a festival season, when bands and artists come out to play rent houses. It also has a boutique trailer park and, famously, a Prada store—which is really only an art installation 26 miles from town.
Marfa is about 50 miles and a world away from the prosaic needs of those at the border. The right cards, the right cargo. But still, it’s close. It’s part of the draw and allure. Yet, as the infamous “Marfa lights” attest, it may yield deeper mysteries of the less terrestrial sorts.
In a state of legends, Big Bend provides more than its share. It’s the area “west of the Pecos,” where Judge Roy Bean plied his trade. It’s the spiritual home to outlaw country artist Jerry Jeff Walker and his friends, who made the album “Viva Terlingua” named for the iconic silver-mining-community-turned-hipster-outpost that sits in-between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park.
South from Marfa, you plunge into spectral lands, jagged peaks and odd sights. Just south of town, I came across a field with camels in it, across from a fantastically exclusive hunting reserve. I took U.S. Route 67 toward Presidio, Texas, to take in both the national and state parks which ended, of course, at the Rio Grande. By this point in the road trip, I was used to the vastness, the lack of traffic, the long spaces between towns, or what passed for dots on a map in this part of the world. Even by these standards, this was vast.
When you reach Farm Road 170 at Presidio, you turn southeast and follow the road that follows the river. Here, it feels magical. The topography at Big Bend Ranch State Park is massive. Cliffs, canyons and rocks blend in with the fertile land near the river to give it some green amidst the dramatic grays, browns and blacks. There are few cars, so sometimes you have the road to yourself for minutes on end.
Here, of course, I noticed the handling and engineering of this supremely crafted vehicle, but then I would stop on the side of The River Road just to walk or take a photo—and the silence became something even bigger than the experience. Just off the road, the river flowed. There are no barriers, beyond the mountains and rocks that define the valley, so you can walk to the river, jump from rock to rock and, in seconds, be in a different country even though you are really in the same place. There are signs, periodically, that warn you not to do that very thing, so you’re left with your own moral dilemma.
After a time, I reached Terlingua, its funky general store and its striking cemetery filled with silver miners whose luck ran out with the integrity of the tunnel. From here, I drove east again, through Big Bend National Park, where you’re warned of bears and big cats in the higher, slightly cooler mountain passes. Just off the road, there are natural hot tubs on the river, where you could soak after a long day’s hike. And there is desert, too—long, hot stretches of the park that sear you, even on a cool day.
Slowly, I drove back to crowds. The Audi A4 made the journey in a hardier state than me. After seven hours from Big Bend, I made it to San Antonio—and even though I was now nowhere physically near the border, it was obvious just how arbitrary the designation is. San Antonio isn’t “the border.” It’s a blend, a collection of influences that has hoisted six flags in its 298-year history.
That’s the real truth about the border. If history is a guide, the border changes. The Rio Bravo or the Rio Grande—whichever you call it—is just a geographical presence. Right now, it’s the legal standard between two countries. But the culture, whichever side of the river you are on, is something different and eternal. It’s a shared experience, built by bridges of real and metaphorical spans.