Border Road

Posted on: January 30, 2014

The end of the world is near.

We are driving southbound on I-80 toward Bisbee, Arizona. My husband Matt drives while my parents and I stare silently out the windows. Matt and I moved to Tucson nine months ago from Portland, Oregon, and my Seattle-ite parents are our first visitors from the homeland. They watch the miles of desert flit past with wonder, asking me the same questions I used to ask them about the mountains and trees as a child. What kind of cactus is that? Why do they only grow on hillsides? How much rain falls? Are we close to Mexico yet?

“In Bisbee, we’ll be twenty minutes from the border,” Matt tells us. He points to the hills in the distance, hunched lower than the Pacific Northwest crags that wallpaper my memories of all life before now. These are rounder, sparser, taking the hottest and coldest temperatures the earth is capable of churning in stride. “I know I’ve gotten calls from the truck out here before.”

This is the reason we’re here. Matt’s company creates mobile surveillance units for the government, used to watch the drug-runners skittering through the nothingness. The invisible line in the Sonoran sand separating America from Mexico, comes into focus when you are close enough to touch it. The hills, the dust, the agave, the sunsets flamboyant enough to put neon to shame, they don’t end where we drew the line.

We pass the gaping Lavender Pit mine across from old Bisbee, which folds like steps to the bottom of the earth. The day before our Bisbee trip we walked through the Tucson Desert Museum’s Ancient Arizona exhibit, with a wall of alien minerals glowing in the almost-dark. Blocky chunks of malachite, like coral from an otherworldly sea; wulfenite, an amber cluster that looked like butterscotch shards; and alcoves of azurite that were like gazing into an alien cave. I imagine each piece carried up the steps, wonders one by one stripped from their home, leaving nothing but dusty ledges and a pit no one felt inclined to fill. A blue road sign tags the crater’s mouth as a “Roadside Viewpoint.”

Around the corner, the GPS throws up her hands. “Due to insufficient data, navigation has been lost,” she tells us.

Fortunately the town is miniature, and our destination appears through the road’s next bend. A smattering of tent canopies in a block-sized park making up the local farmer’s market. Unlike the superstar farmer’s markets I left behind in Portland, the ones crammed with Food Network featurette food trucks and famous chef demonstrations and corporate “artisan” bread overlords, most of these booths didn’t even have signs. The fancier professionals broke out some poster board and Sharpies to announce their Gluten Free-ness to the passers-by, but most let their tabletop wares seduce alone. Olives cured in local oil, sourdough breads studded with jalapenos and goat cheese, tortillas so warm and puffy they seem to hover. While I am mesmerized by steaming bundles of fresh tamales, my dad wanders over to a man and a woman I assume to be his elderly mother. They sit next to a grill crammed with golden bundles.

“Chile rellenos,” Dad says, and I know he has won the Find of the Day game. He offers me a bite, and the kerchiefed woman’s eyes light up as mine roll back in my head.

“This is the best thing I can remember eating,” I tell her, and she grins twenty years off her face. I want to follow her away, to learn how to make just, exactly, this. I’m dying to discover whatever magic exists to make the batter so light and yet crunchy, the chile pepper snap, the cheese to ooze without gushing. But the world for me ends twenty minutes away.

“I could get a passport,” I’ve told Matt a half-dozen times. With each mention he gives me a look I can read with eight-years-together couple telepathy. We’re not going to Mexico; it’s not South America Disneyland. He thinks I expect to be serenaded by mariachi down curls of brick street unfurling into piazzas full of piñatas and flamenco dancers. I want to refute the image, to tell him that I know that Mexico isn’t a cartoon playland with chile peppers. But in his mind, my desire to visit is proof enough that I don’t understand what’s at the end of the Arizona highway at all. This is the view of a man who watches criminals smuggling into hills, who has heard every horror story the border patrol agents are at liberty to share. It is the Mexico of news snippets and grainy indie films, of machete executions and white slavery.

And then there are my co-workers and new neighbors, the ones who talk about having to head down to Chihuahua or Sonora on the weekend for a niece’s quinceañera or a grandmother’s 94th birthday party, the concept of driving south as breezy as heading a couple hours north to Phoenix. They are not kidnapped and beheaded upon arrival. They aren’t thrown in jail as bribes are wired back home.

“That’s because they’re Mexican,” Matt reminds me. “And you’re not.”

Then suddenly, my insurmountable boundary makes sense. After all, the U.S. doesn’t open its gates for curiosity. People aren’t welcomed over here to sample local cuisine, take selfies next to road signs, poke around at the art. I have a place; I need to know what it is. I need to stay on my side. The road isn’t pavement. It is contradiction and friction and complication and politic and personal, and I am incapable of understanding.

I drop the subject, but then when I’m alone with my no-judgment laptop, I set Google Earth on our house in Tucson. I grab the screen with the little cursor hand, and drag the map down, down, through whole blank screens of desert, until I reach the United States-Mexico thick gray line. I reach down, where the streets turn into calles. There is a grocery store. A fire station. Tons of dentist offices. Gourmet coffee café. Cities, people, lives further down the stretch, across the line in the sand.

Written by: Tabitha Blankenbiller
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

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