West Texas has few dots on its map,
so a general store proclaiming a freezer meant I had to stop for ice cream.
Turned out the store also had WiFi, so we became fast friends, which is how
Texans like it. In all my travels, I have yet to meet a Texan I didn't
So it was that Debbie told me the
story of Lajitas.
Across the Rio Grande is the
Mexican village of Paso Lajitas. Every weekend for generations, Mexican farmers
would cross the rickety bridge to bring fresh produce to their Lajitas stands
of lashed mesquite poles. In the evenings, gringos would make their way across
the bridge to fiestas. Both villages had friends and relatives on the other
U.S. Customs ended these ancient
customs after 9/11. The terrorist attack required all international border
crossings to be monitored by Customs agents. With barely a hundred people on
both sides of the river, the budget wasn't there for Lajitas.
Somber faces on both sides watched
their friendship bridge destroyed. Although the local sheriff protested that he
couldn't remember a single cross-border problem, he was told that he was to
arrest any newly illegal aliens and fine any Americans $5000 for a crossing.
Passports or not, there was no authorized crossing for hundreds of
Lifelong friends were reduced to
shouting across a river or texting. An annual goodwill fiesta was scheduled as
a kind of protest during winter when the Rio Grande drops to a sleepy few yards
wide. This fiesta includes a battle of the bands that pits mariachis on one
side against banjos and rockers on the other. At the end, a human chain forms
from both sides, holding one another, wading waist deep, until they meet in the
middle. Embracing would be illegal, but holding hands across the great
contrived divide is allowed.
Not content to leave alone the
absurdity of politics, the folks of Lajitas hatched a plan. They ran a goat
called Henry Clay in their mayoral election. Although just a ceremonial
position, Henry won. Every year, the few citizens of Lajitas present their
thoughts on our political leaders by re-electing Henry against the few humans
who dare to run.
The townspeople built a pen for
Henry next to the general store, and Debbie introduces him to visiting
dignitaries like me so Henry can demonstrate his fondness for beer. In all his
terms in office, Henry has yet to say anything stupid.
The charm and affability of Lajitas
was to revisit me personally in a way I didn't suspect when I set out on my
next adventure. I threw in with two recent college graduates, Karl and Steve,
who planned to kayak down the Rio Grande through the Santa Elena Canyon. They
were expert whitewater kayakers and were gracious enough to put up with what I
could do. The put-in was Lajitas.
As the pictures attest, the scenery
was majestic, culminating in 1500 ft (500 m) tall cliffs towering above water
as narrow as 50 ft (17 m). Over the next several days, we would not see or meet
another human until we arrived near the haul-out.
Lots of exploits, which is why we
do adventures, but the saddest happened the second day. The river was low so
the rapids were safe, shallow affairs. I unleashed both of my dogs so they
could swim free if we overturned. Perhaps because of the roar of the water or
the rocks bonking the kayak, Rocket, to honor his namesake, shot off the bow
and flew over to a nearby bank.
Once in a while, Rocket gets
spooked like a horse, and just runs until he gets tired. I pulled over and took
off after him, expecting to find him panting under a bush.
The day wore on, and Karl &
Steve joined in the search. I thought of the coyotes, snakes, peccaries, and
even cougars that would appreciate a snack dog. My "Rocket" cries grew louder
and more frantic.
As the sun drifted lower, I almost
stepped on a rattlesnake, and the three of us had to agree that if Rocket
didn't want to be found, or was no longer to be found, that further searching
was pointless. I whispered good-bye to my travelling buddy. Karl & Steve
gave me some space to grieve as we paddled away. That night, I gazed into our
campfire imagining Rocket watching us from his hiding place, drifting away and
leaving him alone to the wilderness.
Days later, back in Lajitas to pick
up cars, I made the rounds asking if anyone had seen Rocket. We all agreed that
his odds were slim, particularly since he had jumped to the Mexican side of the
river and would need to swim across the Rio Grande to get back. I drove off,
hoping Rocket was learning Spanish and guarding chickens.
Debbie, however, did not give up so
easily. She put up the standard "Lost Dog" notice in front of her general
store, and stayed ever ready to alert any kayakers.
So it was that Debbie called me
hundreds of miles later to announce that a certain small wetback had defied
U.S. Customs and strolled into her store. Rocket was famished but uninjured. No
one could guess how a city dog had pulled it off, but he slept that night fed
and warm. I turned the RV around and started driving.
The next morning, I learned that
Debbie had fallen for Rocket and he for her. She had lost an old dog months
ago, and it became clear to both of us that Rocket would have a better home
with her. Besides a heart as big as Texas, Debbie had a fine fenced garden, and
all of West Texas as a back yard. With his predisposition to get spooked and
run, we decided that Rocket returning to a moving target like the RV was asking
for his demise.
I sometimes remember Rocket curled
up in the sleeping bag with me, but I know he's now loved and happily wandering
with the Mayor of Lajitas.