Tuesday Sampler: The Man Who Talks to Strangers

We were deep in the backcountry of Big Bend National Park, a land back of beyond, and we went with Jesus across the river to Boquillas. Read an excerpt from my Memoir of Sorts.

WE MET JESUS on the road to Boquillas. He says little, smiles less, and would rent you a donkey for a dollar. Crawford and I gaze across the harsh landscape of barren earth, seldom touched by the rain, battered by boulders, laced with volcanic ash, and thick with cactus thorns, and the donkey is worth a hundred dollars, but Jesus has mercy.

Jesus only charges a dollar.

He is small, as thin as a reed growing out of the Rio Grande, and his shirt is torn. It may never have been new, not in his lifetime anyway. He is twelve years old and much wiser, but not yet wise enough nor old enough to escape the little Mexican town of Boquillas on the far side of the Rio Grande.

He speaks Spanish, a little English, and mostly money. His pants don’t fit. And the sun-scorched sands do not burn his bare feet, which are as tough as boot leather but not nearly as polished.

Jesus has been waiting for us. He stands on the banks of the Rio Grande, beyond the boiling river of mud. Around him, the donkeys are braying and fussing or cussing or whatever it is that donkeys do when they get hot and tired, and they are certainly hot and tired.

They must be. Crawford and I are hot and tired. So are our families.

The land has been baked and bleached, the color of dry bones, and it is as tempting as the thorns on the ocotillo plant. It is on foreign soil. We have driven out of the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National park that morning, then traveled east until the big iron bar across a narrow highway hinted we had come to the end of the road.

It looked like the end of the world. A small sign says Boquillas Crossing. A larger one announces with official gusto: Persons arriving from Mexico with a vehicle and or baggage mdse must report to the U. S. Customs. Failure to do so will subject you to penalties.

The nearest office on the American side of lizards and cactus and rocks is in Marathon, ninety-seven miles away. Another is nailed to Presidio, only a hundred and four miles across the mountains. Few bother to ever check in. Fewer still even read the sign.

They don’t read English too well anyway, and they hardly ever carry baggage. They don’t own any mdse either. For them, it is a long and daunting walk across the harsh badlands to work, provided they can find jobs. A desert lies between them and a paycheck.

Jesus makes it quite well. We follow the footpath down among the willow trees to the river’s edge where Jesus is waiting. Through his eyes, I’m sure, we are the ugly Americans.

Crawford has arrived with his wife Faye, and his children Stan and Deitra. Linda walks with me. Our son Josh hangs close. He’s five. He’s thirsty. We are the outlanders. We are a parade of strangers.

The land is even stranger.

Jesus Morales has just escorted a small band of Houston missionaries out of Boquillas, shuffling along behind their donkeys in case one of them balks and needs a little encouragement to continue the journey.

Jesus and the donkeys understand each other. He speaks their language. He can kick their rumps with either foot.

The missionaries, all women, gather at the river, then climb one by one into a small, wooden rowboat as Pepe frantically begins bailing out water with a rusty yellow oil can. Their dresses are long and plain, their bonnets shading their faces from an unforgiving sun. He and Jesus row them across the Rio Grande as they pray and sing the last stanza of a hymn.

“There’s gonna be a baptizing tonight,” one of the missionaries yells as she wades ashore.

“Where?”

“Right here in the Rio Grande.”

It seeps with mud. It may wash away sins, but it won’t get as much dirt off as he leaves behind.

“We come down every year,” the missionary says. She is smiling broadly. “The women teach Bible school over in Boquillas, and the men do construction work.” “How long do you stay?’ “Until we baptize somebody in the river.” She smiles. We smile with her.

“What do the men build?” Crawford wants to know.

“They dig water wells. They even put in a washateria down on Boquillas creek. This year, they built a dental clinic. But the winds are real bad down here. The roof has blown off four times this week.” I look at Linda. She grimaces.

Crawford turns away. He wants to laugh.

Faye won’t let him.

The missionary starts to walk away. I can’t resist the question. “What do you do when there’s a drought, and the Rio Grande runs shallow.” “We hold our baptisms anyway.” “Where?” “In the horse troughs.” We climb into the small wooden rowboat and, again, Pepe begins frantically bailing out water with his rusty, yellow oil can. He is younger than Jesus, wearing a smile that is infectious. His dark hair is close-cropped against his head, and a faded blue tee shirt hangs down over his denim shorts. He is barefoot. He’s the sailor. Pepe doesn’t have to worry about the hot sand beneath his toes. We begin the precarious journey across a river of mud, ankle deep in water that will miss the baptism that night. A few years ago, we would have ridden the little donkeys across the Rio Grande.

“We had to stop doing that,” Pepe explains.

“Why?” “It was uncomfortable. You might get wet.” I look at Linda. The water is up almost to her knees.

“Need help bailing water?” Crawford asks Pepe.

“It is a short trip,” he says.

We could have walked across.

A few years earlier, the round trip by donkey from American to Mexican soil was a quarter. Now, by rowboat, it is a dollar, and we fork over another two dollars per person to rent a donkey for the mile trek down a dirt path into downtown Boquillas.

The smart ones go with Jesus. It’s worth another dollar for him to keep your donkeys moving when you want to go, and it doesn’t, and it hardly ever does. The donkeys are brown and gray, streaked and stubborn, saddled and as comfortable as riding a ten-penny nail at a slow trot.

They’re gentle. They don’t bite. They don’t kick.

We’re at their mercy.

They can stay on the trail. They can wander through the cactus bushes and mesquite clumps. The donkeys don’t like the trail.

I wonder if Boquillas sells Band-Aids. I doubt it.

“I didn’t know the wind blew so bad in Boquillas,” I tell Jesus as the donkeys waddle up the narrow trail.

“It doesn’t.”

“The missionaries said it blew the roof off the new dental clinic four times.”

He snickers, a trick he picked up from the donkeys. “A tin roof is the only thing in Boquillas worth stealing,” he says matter-of-factly. “They put the roof on during the day. Somebody steals it during the night. The missionaries blame the wind. Nobody gets mad at anybody.”

“It looks like the people of your town are hurting themselves,” I say. “After all, the clinic was built for them.”

Jesus shrugged. “The dentist only comes once a year,” he says. “He don’t need a roof. It never rains.”

Boquillas looks like a ghost town that was too lazy to die. Perhaps, it died and nobody ever got around to letting it know. The village lies in adobe ruins, and the people live in the adobe ruins. At least, they eat and sleep there, pulling their beds–rusty springs with no mattresses outside at night to catch any breeze–cool or stale–that might drift in lost and dazed from the canyon.

We see a grocery store, a beer joint, and a restaurant. You can buy burrito filled with beans or tacos filled with beans, three for a dollar. They’re made from scratch by Mrs. Falcone, and they alone are worth the journey to little hamlet.

Mr. Falcone grins, his teeth capped with gold, making them the most valuable asset in Boquillas. He sells curios–onyx carvings, straw sombreros, leather belts, clay pottery, dull sabers, and lukewarm beer while his wife is out back, packing beans inside the burritos.

“Do you have any electricity here?” I ask him.

“No, senor.”

“Running water?”

“No, senor.”

“A doctor?”

“No, senor.”

“Any police?

“No, senor.” He pauses and his grin broadens, his gold teeth flashing. “We don’t have any problems either,” he says.

Boquillas has no cars, and the four pickup trucks are all seldom running at the same time. Most of the town’s hundred and fifty some odd residents work in the fluorspar mines. A few smuggle wax. Jesus herds donkeys and tourists and may be the richest man in town.

We ride away, easing past the small church with a tiny wooden cross that casts a much larger shadow in the dirt street and pause at the flagpole in the town square. It has no flag.

At the river, Jesus pockets the dollars we give him and leads the donkeys back toward the shade, or rather he drug his feet as they pulled him along.

“Should we tip him?” Crawford asks.

“I would.”

“Why?”

“You want to spend the night here?”

“How much?”

“How badly do you want to leave?”

Crawford walks over to the shade and hands Jesus a five-dollar bill. Before we climb on board, Pepe grabs his rusty, trusty yellow oil can and begins bailing water out of the small, wooden rowboat again.

“Are you going to the baptism tonight?” I ask Jesus.

“Maybe.” “Are you gonna be baptized?”

Jesus laughs.

“Only if the boat sinks,” he says.

It didn’t.

Boquillas would be quiet that night–with the possible exception of a well-meaning hallelujah or two. There’s not even the sound of a tin roof leaving town.

But then, the wind makes hardly any noise at all.

Please click HERE to find The Man Who Talks to Strangers on Amazon.

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