Miles Walked: 0

There is only one way to understand the 1,933-mile line that divides our country from Mexico. Start at the beach and walk east until you hit the Gulf.

Imperial Beach: Mile 0

The Fence Between the US and Mexico

The fence starts about eighty feet out into the Pacific. It's made of metal pylons and looks like a procession of old telephone poles, each jutting about twenty feet above the waves. The pylons are spaced tightly together, and there's a sign warning of additional barriers below the waterline.

Once the fence hits dry land, it marches east across the beach, and then, on a little hill that begins where the beach ends, it changes. It becomes, in fact, two fences, a double barrier. Compared with the single-ply barrier on the beach and in the water, these two fences — sturdy square beams supporting tight rows of whitewashed steel spindles — look much more modern and formidable, like prison fences.

The buffer zone between the two fences is reserved exclusively for the use of the U. S. Border Patrol, with one exception: At the top of the hill, there is a little door in the northern fence, and a sign informs that twice a week, Saturdays and Sundays from “10:00 A.M. until 2:00 P.M., U. S. citizens are allowed to enter.

Then, if there happen to be Mexicans on the other side of the second, southern fence, the Americans are allowed to look at them and talk with them, though reaching through the fence or attempting "physical contact with individuals in Mexico" is prohibited. A portion of the American side of the visiting area has been paved with cement, in the shape of a semicircle, and there is an identical semicircle on the Mexican side of the fence.

The Friendship Circle

The official name of this place is the "Friendship Circle."

A big marble obelisk stands in the center of the circle. There is a break in the southern fence to accommodate the obelisk, and some additional fencing around the break to keep anyone from trying to squeeze through.

In 1851, some men from something called the International Boundary Commission placed the obelisk here. Back then, the Mexican-American War had just ended, and Mexico had agreed to surrender more than half its territory to the United States, including the places now called California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

The job of the International Boundary Commission was to come up with a map of the revised frontier between the two countries. They started here, on this beachfront hill, and installed the obelisk as their first survey marker.

Then they walked east, into the borderlands. So this morning I'm taking my cue from the men who planted this obelisk. I start on the beach. I walk east.

My plan is to stick to the border roads where practical, where they exist, where I can find them. My first chunk is the 350 miles that now stand between me and Ajo, Arizona, including the 120 miles of open desert that immediately precedes Ajo, a stretch called El Camino del Diablo.

And that leads to the final problem: water. One hundred twenty miles' worth of water weighs a lot more than I can carry on my back. If this were a century and a half ago, if I were one of those obelisk-planting surveyors, I'd probably have opted to bring along a mule.

Instead, I've got a baby stroller.

La Gloria: Mile 24

Feet digging, ankles stretched,
calves tight, knees bent,
back straight, shoulders up,
head down, arms out,
palms open, leaning forward,
into the handlebar.

Quickdraw Necessities

The handlebar doubles as a rack to hang things on and dangles my quick-draw necessities: a Garmin GPS, a thirty-two-ounce Nalgene water bottle, a Spot emergency locator beacon, and a can of Counter Assault Bear Deterrent pepper spray.

Otay Mountain

I look up, but I don't stop leaning. The stroller, if you add its own weight to the weight of all the gear and food and water inside it, weighs more than 120 pounds. The incline here, near the top of Otay Mountain, a dozen miles east of the beach, is steep, at least 45 degrees. If I stop leaning, the stroller will roll backward, over me, on down the slope.

The agent is standing on the top of the rise, looking down. He's holding a pair of binoculars.

"I saw you coming from a ways away," he says.

About the Border

The border is approximately nineteen hundred miles long, and there are approximately eighteen thousand Border Patrol agents tasked with protecting it. That's nine agents per mile. Of course, these agents aren't posted at strict and regular intervals along the line. They move around, they cluster, and sometimes they pursue leads or man checkpoints up to a hundred miles from the frontier. But still. If you're walking the border, you're going to see a lot of Border Patrol.

The eastern flank of Otay Mountain drops two thousand feet into a deep valley that runs north to Highway 94 and south to Mexico. I can see the fence, about a mile away, and some cars passing by on the other side of it. That's where they cross, the agent tells me. It's best to spot them as soon as they hop the fence, when they're exposed, because once they enter the thick foliage of the valley, they become a lot harder to see.

Yuha Desert: Mile 75

Every few miles, I'll run into an agent, who'll ask what I'm doing out here. Sometimes he'll ask to see the soles of my shoes. Agents spend most of their time cutting sign, which is to say, they patrol dirt roads near the border, looking for fresh footprints or other sign of aliens.

When they come across people who are not aliens, they often ask to see the soles of their shoes. That way they won't later confuse native sign for alien sign.

Let me make my prejudices clear: I love Mexico.

I lived in this country for a couple of years when I was a kid, and I used to go back all the time. I love the language, the food, the pace, the people, the temperature.

Let me make something else clear: Mexico scares me.

The last time I visited, I was driving around a small city with an off-duty police detective, and the car we were in was his own, and he wasn't wearing a uniform, and he was just cruising at first, relaxed, a big tough guy spinning stories about some of the scrapes he'd been in, but I'll always remember the jolt that went through his body when at a stoplight he suddenly realized he'd left his wallet with the badge in it lying open on the dash, and how fast he scrambled to snatch it and hide it away, and the look on his face as he shot glances at the other vehicles stopped at the light to see if anybody had noticed.

That kind of fear is contagious.

And I hate it, how this fear works its way into my experience, how it becomes as tangible a part of the background texture of Tecate as the uncatalyzed exhaust or the swollen-titted dogs or the snakeskin boots or the sweet little old lady who gives me directions to my hotel and then says,"Dios te bendiga" as I'm walking away.

Because if you scrape away the fear, if you dig through it, or just look past it, all the best parts of Mexico are still here.

All American Canal: Mile 100

Imperial Sand Dunes: Mile 135

Yuma: Mile 156

The Road Into El Camino Del Diablo:
Mile 180

El Camino Del Diablo: Mile 220

The Road Out of El Camino Del Diablo:
278

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