Recently I had an opportunity to stick my toes into the Rio Grande. The river is no longer the formidable barrier it once was, and it can seldom be rafted, but the mud along the bank still squishes. Birds still swoop at the surface, turtles still dive into it, the water still moves downstream, and it still smells like damp desert. I still love it.
We have a history, this river and I. Thirty-three years ago, I saw it for the first time. It might have been its historical significance or cowboy movie memories, or the surreal beauty of the land it divides, but I had goosebumps at first sight. And I fell in love, not just with the Rio, but with the rugged, wild terrain on both sides of it.
This Florida girl, accustomed to sandy beaches, lakes, crystal clear streams, swamps, and more greenery than is healthy, fell hard for the Big Bend country—everything about it. The immense open spaces with nothing to block the view, jagged peaks, hidden forests, steep canyons, and the widest sky I had ever seen, spoke to me in a way nothing ever had.
At the time, my familiarity with Mexico pretty much began and ended with Speedy Gonzalez cartoons and of course, all those insulting stereotypes from old westerns.
I stood at the top of a nature trail at Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park. The idea of a foreign land “right over there” was even more intriguing than the famous river. From the top of the trail I could admire both sides, the mountains that stretched out in all directions jutting towards the sky, the vegetation growing along the banks, and then I spotted a man, a Mexican man, dressed all in white and wearing a wide sombrero, hoeing in a garden in Boquillas, Mexico. Ordinary, you might say, but my heart rate sped up and I got a little teary-eyed. I wanted to laugh and cry and dance at the same time. And I had no idea why.
How would I have known that I would meet, fall in love with, and marry a Mexican man? Or that my future self would learn to speak Spanish and cook Mexican food? Or, that without question, I would take in a chubby little Mexican boy and raise him as my own? If you had told me I would stay up until two in the morning making tamales with my mother-and-sisters-in-law on Christmas Eve, I would have thrown up my hands and sworn there was no way that would ever happen.
I have spent so much time in Mexico it has become as much a part of my life as my country of birth. I’ve attended weddings, quinceañeras, funerals, births, and deaths—and more dances than I could ever count. I’ve wandered its shores, explored its mountains, and camped in its wilderness. I love its people with all my heart.
How would I have known then that I would go to work for a river outfitter and enjoy the work so much I would eventually own the company? I would raft all the canyons and most of them more than once, on trips guided by some of the most fun and life-loving people I have ever had the pleasure to know. Every river adventure was different and each held its own magic. There was always something new to learn or to admire or some side canyon to explore. After sumptuous dinners and campfire conversation, we would fall asleep under a ribbon of stars or stay up late to watch the full moon illuminate the canyon walls.
It runs in my veins now, this muddy river. Who knew it would be so hard to drag my toes out of its mud?
Many thanks to Molly Dumas for the photo!