I crossed the border to visit Boquillas del Carmen, a tiny rural village next to the Rio Grande in the prinicipality of Ocampo, in the Mexican state of Coahuila. The town was recently featured in a New York Times article in which the reporter visited border towns to portray life on each side. At the time, Boquillas was suffering from the U.S. government shutdown; it’s largely dependent on tourism.
The U.S. makes it simple for its citizens to venture to the other side. I had taken my passport along on my trip to the Big Bend area of Texas, just in case something strange arose, such as a need for prove my citizenship. You never know, right?
A few days before my trip began, the shutdown ended and the passage to Boquillas opened up again. I hadn’t planned on going over, but a few days into my trip I decided I could fit it in, and, why not? I had never been south of the border, and it was a quirky opportunity.
On the day of my crossing, I drove through Big Bend National Park to the little southwestern style Border Crossing Port of Entry building.
I went in and showed my passport to the agent. He looked through my backpack. OK, that’s it. I was approved to go.
“How do I go?” I asked the agent. “Through that door and follow the path to the river,” he pointed. I stared at The Door. The magical door to the other world.
I returned to my car briefly to figure out what to wear and take, and then walked excitedly back to the building. I gave a nod to the agent, ensuring he remembered just seeing and approving me, and opened The Door.
I found the dirt path and walked the short distance to the river bank. I looked across. There it was: Mexico. The storied rowboat that I had read about awaited me.
The Rio Grande is narrow and shallow here, facilitating friendly relations and easy passage and trade between countries over the past centuries. Even the customs agent had seemed easy going and not too concerned about anything.
The boat trip lasted maybe two minutes. I admired the oarsman’s strength and wondered whether he was the only one who had to make the round trips many times a day, every day of the week.
On the Mexican bank stood many local men, who waited to take visitors by burro, horseback, or pickup truck into town. I opted for a burro, after seeing most tourists on them.
A couple of firsts: first time in Mexico, first time on a burro (or donkey, as they are interchangeably used).
My guide was selected for me, by a process unknown to me, and he then selected my burro. Daniel was my guide and Machete was my ride.
I hoisted myself up to the animal’s back. It was not an easy task.
The saddle was hard and the walk into town was sometimes bumpy on the dirt track. If a truck was coming down the road, Daniel would shout “Burro,” and Machete would move over. Again, I wondered how many times in a day or week that Daniel did this. I paid $5 for the boat ride. I paid another $5 for the burro ride. How much did Daniel get to keep? He did not own the burro, so I imagine there is a big cheese somewhere who owns the burros and “employs” the guides.
When we got within sight of town, it was time for me to dismount, so Daniel could tie up the burro where he could rest, and we could walk up the hill.
I did not ask too many questions of Daniel, but I did learn that he was born there and has lived there all his life. It’s a hard life, I’m sure.
But the village, with a population of about 100, is run entirely on solar energy!
Daniel gave me a tour of Boquillas, during which we passed very modest homes, a couple restaurants, a bar, a grocery store, a school, a health clinic, a customs office, and the solar energy facility. I was amazed at that, and happy for the residents. I especially liked the colorful buildings.
In front of many homes, along the street, there were tables filled with handmade crafts. It seems everyone makes the same items: small beaded, wire-framed figures of ocotillo cactus, roadrunners, spiders, scorpions and such, and embroidered objects and T-shirts.
Many items proclaimed No Wall and No Al Muro. I wanted to get something with that message, for sure.
One surprising feature of my tour was a look at some sand dunes. I have seen sand dunes before, so I wasn’t too enthused when Daniel offered to show me theirs. But, when we got to the viewpoint, yowza! It was stunning.
It was lunchtime and I had to choose a spot to try the local cuisine. I settled on one and sat outside with Daniel.
We both enjoyed “Mexican” Cokes, made with Mexican sugar, the owner proudly pointed out. Another first for me! I offered to buy lunch for Daniel, but he declined. Another American couple sat at a nearby table.
While we waited for our food, we tourists stepped inside the small eatery to check out the crafts for sale. Women were busy in the small open kitchen, making our food. There were T-shirts and religious items, along with table cloths and food items. When I spotted a shirt with a burro, I had to get it. Machete would live on once I returned to Seattle.
It was easy to see how tourism is the life blood of Boquillas. I couldn’t buy something from everyone there, but I could help in my small way. I tried not to seem like the typical American tourist, and I hope I succeeded. I had purchased a couple items from a woman near the other end of town, and then after meeting Daniel’s wife and young son, I bought a couple more from them.
Then it was time to head back across the “big” Rio Grande. We collected Machete and I hoisted myself up again. I turned and waved “Adios, Boquillas.” When we got to the river, the boat was waiting, with the other couple already seated. I dismounted, said goodbye to Machete, thanked Daniel and started to walk toward the boat. Suddenly Daniel said, “My tip?” I was startled. I had not even thought of a tip! I quickly went to my wallet and found a few dollars.
Back on U.S. soil, the couple and I looked at each other and were sad that our little adventure had ended. We chatted about how we wanted to do more traveling.
I kept thinking I should have given Daniel a much bigger tip. He had walked me round trip, in the sun, on the dusty trail, showed me all around the village, sat while I ate, and allowed me to take his picture. Because the residents take only cash, I had spent most of my small bills, so I didn’t have much to give except a large bill. I wondered if the burro owner pays the guides at all.
The experience was definitely worth it and I recommend it to anyone who is going to Big Bend. I’m sure visiting Boquillas for a brief excursion into Mexico is a much more personalized and authentic experience than crossing the border at, say, Juarez or Tijuana. And it reinforced the knowledge that we Americans are so lucky to be able to cross borders freely, to come and go, while others are not so fortunate.
Less than 100 years after Americans won independence from the British, way up in the Pacific Northwest, a little-known squabble took place between the two. In the late 1800s, Americans and British soldiers averted actually firing on each other.
A Bucolic Setting
San Juan Island, sections of which today are part of a National Historical Park, had a pleasant temperate climate, and farming, fishing and timber opportunities that appealed to several nations. In the 1800s, it had been visited but not yet claimed. Eventually, ships from England and the U.S. mainland brought military contingents to occupy the territory. Both staked claims to the island and in 1859 they agreed to jointly occupy the island, separated at the 49th parallel, until the water boundary could be settled.
The Land Divided
English Camp occupied the northwest end, while American Camp occupied the southern tip. Soon, British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company located a large sheep farming operation there. In time, other farm animals and agricultural operations were added. The large Belle Vue Sheep Farm was a strategic move on the part of the British to fully establish their claim to the land.
Underlying tensions persisted between the two. The Americans tried to tax Hudson’s Bay but no taxes were paid. Though both countries had military camps at opposite ends of the island, things remained relatively calm between the two communities. Officers and their families even visited with each other.
Changes in the Wind
Summer 1859, everything changed. An American settler shot and killed a pig belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company. He claimed that the pig had wandered onto his property and, therefore, he shot the trespasser. Though the pig’s owner, who ran the HBC operation, made little fuss about the incident, things escalated rapidly. The time is known as the Pig War crisis. Tensions continued to simmer, with more and more American settlers coming to the island, many squatting on HBC land.
The British wanted the American settlers removed from the island, but American officials said no way. British warships sailed to the harbor, while troops at both camps multiplied. Both sides stood their ground but no war ensued.
Finally, the disputed water boundary went to arbitration by a third party – Germany. An arbitration panel settled the boundary between Canada and the island, and the San Juan Islands became American possessions. In 1871, the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Washington, and a year later the British left the island.
The Pig War had ended diplomatically and peacefully.
Today, little remains of the two camps but visitors can wander their spectacular landscapes.
Birding at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in Hoquiam, Washington, I walked from the parking area to the trailhead, past these old structures at the little Bowerman Airport.
The absence of people and planes, and the starkness of the hangars against the surrounding landscape and big sky drew me to photograph them.
The blue and white buildings; the blue and white sky; white building and white flowers.
Last time I was out here, the restaurant was still operating and was bustling with hungry customers. The retro décor and classic diner menu were lots of fun. Back then when my birding group stopped there for lunch I thought, what a strange place for a restaurant. But now I see it was likely a sort of landmark that drew birders, pilots, as well as locals for good food and company. Now, it was closed, enhancing or perhaps causing the atmosphere of abandonment.
Part of the Port of Grays Harbor, this airfield has one runway. The facility has fuel, a pilot’s lounge, rental hangars, and is touted as “jet-capable.”
The hangars have seen better days and I wondered whether there were any planes inside. What could be the purpose of the oddly shaped roofs?
I don’t know how often planes use the airport, but nearby, birds and birders flock to the wetland habitat at the wildlife refuge. Particularly in spring, the salt marsh and mudflats host thousands of migrating shorebirds. Raptors also are drawn to the abundance of prey.
This landscape is a magnet for wings of different sizes and shapes.
If Trona Pinnacles looks like something out of a sci-fi flick, that’s because it has indeed served as a backdrop for several movies. You might have heard of some of these: Star Wars, Star Trek V, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes.
I first drove to the Pinnacles in 2005, during a visit to Death Valley National Park. I had set aside part of one day to make the drive to the somewhat remote area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. But it took more than an hour to get there, and I had made arrangements for an afternoon horseback ride at Furnace Creek, back in Death Valley. By the time I got to the Pinnacles, I had about a half hour to spend there if I wanted to make my ride. I peered at the Pinnacles from a plateau that overlooked what I thought was a rather limited formation. There was a steep-looking road down to the Pinnacles, but I “there’s no way I’m driving down there,” I decided. I quickly snapped some photos from the parking area and sped back to Furnace Creek.
There would be a return trip in my future.
A Closer Look
It wasn’t until January 2017 that I made it back to Trona. I had planned to spend unlimited time there, doing lots of photography and some hiking. I lucked out with a dry day. This time I had rented an SUV, so I had high clearance, though a car could make it.
I drove south through Trona, and spotted the Pinnacles, rising like the Emerald City out of the desert. I arrived at the turnoff for the Pinnacles about 10 miles later. At the corner there are some interpretive signs about the human and geological history of the area.
I lingered there, reading and then taking some photos of the landscape and trains resting on the tracks. There were some cool cloud formations that also caught my eye.
The five-mile dirt road to the landmark had received recent rains, so it wasn’t as sandy as I remembered. When I arrived at the plateau that overlooks the monument, I realized the drive down the hill to the Pinnacles didn’t look so bad, and saw other vehicles, including a huge RV, down below. How the heck did that RV make it down the steep drive, I wondered. You have to realize that the Pinnacles lie in a basin. To really experience them, you need to get down there. The drive down the gravelly slope was so easy, I felt silly.
And then, I had my real surprise! Trona Pinnacles is expansive! You can’t even see all of it from the plateau. Narrow dirt paths snake around more than 500 formations. I had no idea how much I missed on my previous visit.
Towers and Dumpy Cones
Like their cousins at Mono Lake, the pinnacles are tufa formations, which are primarily calcium carbonate.
At Trona, they’re distinguished by age, elevation and shape. The northern, middle and southern groups were formed by different ice ages.
The shapes range from towers and tombstones, to ridges and cones. Towers are the tallest, rising 30-40 feet, while tombstones are “stubby and squat,” rising 20-30 feet.
Ridges are “massive, toothy runs” that can be seen in the northern and middle groups.
Finally, cones are the smallest, reaching only about 10 feet high, and they are “dumpy and mounded.”
On my visit, I concentrated on the tallest and most interesting formations, which turned out to be among the northern and middle groups.
The sun was out; there were some spectacular clouds to add depth to the scenes. The only problem was the WIND. This was my fourth trip to Death Valley and never before had I experienced such winds. I was not going to abandon my photography plans, so I soldiered on.
Each time I got out of the car, I had to fight hurricane-like gusts. I was afraid the wind would snap off the car door! I had to use all my strength to close the door. It goes without saying that any hiking was out of the question.
During my visit, I saw only a couple other cars, and I suspect it’s not heavily visited.
A Wealth of Minerals
You can spend as much time as you like at Trona Pinnacles. It’s fairly easy to access, unfenced and free of fees.
Don’t expect much from the town of Trona, beyond a convenience store and gas, if you need it. With a population of about 1,900, it’s a sad little “blink and you miss it” hamlet that is centered on the mining activity in dry Lake Searles. The name of the town comes from the abundant mineral trona, one of many extracted by Searles Valley Minerals. Lake Searles once held water, eons ago, but as it slowly evaporated, the water left behind many minerals. In the 1800s, the dry lake became the scene of many mining operations. First, there was borax, famously being carted out by 20-mule teams. Later there was an Epsom salt operation, and now, a multitude of minerals is produced, including salt, borax, boric acid, and halite.
The natural landmark lies in Searles Valley, just south of Panamint Valley, and isn’t far from Naval Air Warfare Center China Lake. It’s also within the California Desert National Conservation Area.
I’m honored that my photo, Mystical Light, has been accepted for the 1650 Gallery exhibition, Light and Shadow. The LA gallery show opens April 23. I made this image at the architecturally fabulous Milwaukee Art Museum.
I’m also happy to share that my photo Desert Sunrise has been accepted for the upcoming Black Box Gallery show, Taking Pictures: 2016. This image, viewable in the online annex gallery, was made at the historic Twentynine Palms Inn, where I stayed near Joshua Tree National Park. In addition to the park, the inn grounds and buildings are picturesque.
Gala, Pink Lady, Jonagold, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Honey Crisp, Granny Smith, Fuji, Braeburn, Cripps Pink. Can you taste the sweetness and feel the crunch?
Washington state is the apple-growing leader nationwide. You’ll see proof of this if you drive around Yakima Valley or Wenatchee, where the orchards are concentrated. The other top regions are the Columbia Basin, Lake Chelan and Okanogan.
I wanted to photograph orchards in bloom for a while. I thought, rightly so, that huge stands of trees covered in white blossoms must be a sight to see. Not just apple trees bloom in the spring, but also pear and cherry. I had written off finding cherry orchards and focused on apples. Pears, if I found some, would be the ice cream on the apple pie, so to speak.
I had driven around Wenatchee once, so I knew there were many orchards there. In fact, the town has an apple visitor center, where you can learn all about the state’s sweet crop. But Wentachee was a longer drive from Seattle than Yakima, so I scouted out some areas near Yakima last fall, and found an ideal spot in Zillah.
My gut told me this could be the time, but in order not to miss the blossoms, I needed to go have a look. To Zillah I headed. It’s about a two-hour drive through shrub-steppe country. There‘s a nice rest area near Selah with a view of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams where I usually stop for lunch. There was a clear view of both peaks.
After my break I headed on to Zillah. But before I got there, I began to see orchards in bloom, and whitish blobs covering the hillsides in the distance. It took a minute to realize I was seeing apple orchards in peak bloom!
I made a quick decision to take the next exit and find the road that was closest to the orchards. I was just ahead of Zillah, but I knew I didn’t need to continue on. I wouldn’t find anything better.
It turned out I had arrived in the little town of Buena, and buena it was! This is not a ritzy area and the homes are very modest, but it seemed that even the smallest plot of land had a mini orchard on it. Apples are lifeblood here, or at least, a sideline.
I found a main road that stretched north to south, with orchards in view. I turned off to a side road to get closer to the trees. Along the way I found a big old abandoned house and just had to stop to photograph it. Large trees cast soft shadows on the grass in the bright sun. A hundred years ago it was a grand house, surrounded by farm land. Now its windows were gone and the inside all graffitied up. I wondered how such a once-grand house could get to this state.
That the house was left to stand was evidence of someone’s respect for the past, or a simple lack of money either to fix it up or tear it down. What happened? Who now owns the property? Perhaps the last owner died without family who could take over. Perhaps someone tried to sell it and gave up. Why had no one rescued it before it fell to vandals? The locals must have a name for it, maybe “the haunted house,” or “the Smith house,” or “the big house.”
But I had to move on and find my orchards! I scanned the landscape as I drove, and spied an orchard up a side road that looked promising. I turned around and headed up the hill. Beautiful orchards on either side of the road came into view. I pulled onto a dirt drive and got out of the car.
As I was admiring the landscape, I could hear what sounded like a hawk nearby. I looked around and finally looked up. Overhead were four red-tailed hawks, perhaps two pairs, wheeling around and squawking. What a treat!
Across the road and along the irrigation canal was another orchard. Mt. Adams loomed to the west.
Upon close inspection of some blossoms, I noted that bees were happily buzzing from flower to flower. I wondered if the orchard owner had rented bees. I didn’t notice any hives, but I guessed that bees must be rented every year to pollinate all the trees.
When apples are harvested, they’re loaded into traditional wooden boxes, which hold 40 lbs. of fruit each. You can see these in big stacks here and there. On average, the state harvests 125 million boxes every year. Washington grows 6 out of every 10 apples eaten in the United States, and its apples are enjoyed in some 60 different countries.
Though the varieties that we export are a paltry drop in the apple crate when you learn there are 7,500 varieties of apples grown around the world. Apples arrived in the new North American world with the colonists.
Apple History and Lore
Archeologists have determined that apples have been eaten as long ago as 8,500 years, according to the Washington Apple Commission. Apples are said to have originated in Central Asia millions of years ago. So Adam and Eve might not have been the first to indulge.
Various notions and legends about apples have been passed down through generations. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” We also say, “as American as apple pie.” Putting apples in a pie may be American, but now we know apples themselves are hardly American.
We have our folk hero, John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, whom we imagine lived humbly, dressed shabbily and went barefoot, casting apple seeds everywhere he went. In fact, he was a nurseryman who collected seeds and raised trees.
Crunchy, sweet and juicy. Red, pink or yellow. The next time you bite into one of nature’s wonders, think of the growers who nurture their trees and the countless laborers who hand pick the fruit every year so you can enjoy it!