This morning, when I went outside as I always do to greet the day and smell the desert, the full moon sat on the mesa perfectly balanced, just touching. Like a crystal sphere on a draped table waiting for its scryer. In a second it was gone and replaced by the sun. Gracing my day with her blue skies - celebrating – for today I ride in Mexico.
The boat rocks as we step in and find our seat. The river is smooth this morning and our mounts wait patiently on the other side tied to a tall mesquite. Nearby a mixed herd of burros and horses stand saddled under a river cane structure of stucco columns and steel rails. The sand beneath their feet striped like a woven blanket as the sun rises over the Rio Grande.
Placing one hand on the saddle horn I stretch to reach the stirrup, slide my foot into the tapadero and hoist my 5’3” frame up – no easy feat on a horse named Long Legs - stirrups must be adjusted. My companions now mounted, we ride toward town along gritty roads, across the dry arroyo and up toward the stables.
Color lines the street in this dusty, primitive, remote pueblo cloaked in faded yellow, green and terracotta. Paint that has lived long beyond its natural life. We amble past tables laced with embroidered bags and aprons, hanging like streamers of papel picado at a young girl’s quinceaera. Hand-made ceramic mugs burst forth with flowers and flourishes in colors of sunset. Scorpions and roadrunners of twisted copper wire and beads rest next to woven bracelets.
Boquillas means “little mouths” in Spanish, a nod to the numerous streams and arroyos cascading from the Sierra del Carmen into and along the Rio Grande, many dry now. Although the official crossing opened in 2013, the land here knows no border and at its lowest the river only serves as a watering hole for the horses, bear and other critters crossing back and forth between Texas and Mexico. At its fullest it runs like strands of thick braided hair, each lock fighting the other yet growing stronger with every plait.
Moving east and out of town the road widens into open ground. We trudge across dunes of loose sand mixed with juniper and scrub brush, sinking a bit with each step. The Rio snakes its way behind gently pushing us forward along the path.
Scattered hearths and remnants of long-ago encampments litter the desert - the remains of the original Boquillas town. Once an active silver and lead mining community with a population of 2,000, now a single tram tower across the river and dispersed foundations its only legacy. The eye of a small cave gazes down on us from the hillside and I wonder how many children busied themselves in that perfectly formed fort oblivious to the demands of the adult world. More than a few, I hope.
Our path narrows and we wind our way through the lacings of branches and brush, a tangle of creosote and mesquite gasping and fighting for moisture and root-room below, along the river edge and through a small arroyo where we pause to let the horses drink. A breeze kicks up and I brush the hair from my face as a monarch butterfly floats past. A fitting tribute to the souls who used to populate this area. More than just a surface or barren land, there is a depth here further than the eye can see and the ears can hear.
Approaching Boquillas Canyon rock melts into water and we are flanked on each side by the gently sloping bajada topped with steep cliffs. Limbs reach into the narrow trail as if claiming it for themselves, scraping my boots as we pass. I shift slightly to avoid the thorns and the saddle squeaks beneath me.
Pulling back the reins at the base of a large mesquite tree we stop, tie the caballos then hike our way through a waterfall of loose rock of every shape and size to a small hollow capped in crystals. A cave inaccessible by any other route – legally at least. A miniature version of the famous Cueva de Cristal in Naica. Across the river, cars slowly wind their way along Park Route 12 as travelers visit Boquillas Canyon on the US side.
How long have you been riding I asked our guide, Chalo. My whole life, he says. We lean against the limestone walls and slide to a seat for a short break, feasting in the warmth around us. Paying respects to the place itself. To the hard-working horses and burros knee deep in tourists, the restaurants keeping us full, and the shifting sands working their way through rock and scrub to muddy this incredible river. But mostly to the people of Boquillas - proud of their town and their way.
And it’s a common theme here, not just in Boquillas del Carmen but throughout the region. An area where people once passed freely across the river, family and land on either side. Full of ranches, wax mines and impassible trails. The caballos, burros and vaqueros mingling with ranchers and homesteaders along the Big Bend building a life where only a four-legged hooved animal could have gone before.
Returning to town, we weave our way through the smell of barbeque and enchiladas. The flavor of Spanish hangs in the air like a radio wave undulating in the background. Nearby, goats range free and a horse stands in his trap. Children race stick ponies across main street – the only street - and the dogs live their own lives moving about freely and returning home each night at will. We ride past a horse the color of chocolate and marshmallow, through throngs of burros driven home for the night and are overcome by the sound of cowbells and a waterfall of tiny hooves.
Electricity came to the village a few years ago yet the closest gas station remains 160 miles down jostling dirt roads where it can take an hour to travel just twenty. The conveniences of modern society are simply a fog, drifting in and out with wispy fingers leaving no trace. Instead it’s the sweat of the horse, the smile of a child, the heat on your face and an air of bienvenidos which draws and locks you in.
As the day closes, I dismount and look down at hands callused from leather reins, dirt under jagged fingernails, and I know this is life - not the air-conditioned box or plush couch that waits for me at home, but this. Every smell, every scratch of a tree limb, every cloud of dust, every call of a bird reminding me why I'm here. By making me less, this desert makes me real. And I want to be real.