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Along the bottom crook of Texas’s winding southern border, across from 1,282 square miles (3,320 square km) of protected land in the Chihuahua Desert, is the Mexican town of Boquillas. It is more of a desert outpost than town, with less than 200 people left from its days as a mining settlement in the late 1800s.


 Only a handful of shacks remain on a sun-baked bluff overlooking the mud-colored river. If the river is low, you might wade across, but otherwise the only way to get there from the U.S. is by lancha, or boat, which you reach by hiking through desert brush and pushing past six-foot riverbank reeds. Usually one or two little boats will be waiting, and for a dollar or two, the men will ferry you across the shallow, sluggish river to Mexico.


The first time I saw Boquillas, my boyfriend and I had spent a day in Big Bend National Park hiking through remote desert canyons, surrounded by the Chisos Mountains and arid land dotted by prickly pears and blue-green agaves the size of wheelbarrows. We unwisely spent a night without mosquito nets on the hard ground as tiny bats swirled overhead, and the next day we hiked to the river where a boatman took us over. As we approached, I saw a couple of deserted shacks without doors on an empty, bone-dry bluff. We hiked up a dirt trail and found a dusty road with a restaurant, bar and a stall that sold soft drinks and bananas. None of the structures had complete walls, and other than a few people hunched in the shade and some panting mongrels, there wasn’t much else. Supposedly, the only other Mexican town was an 11-hour drive away. We gulped down two bottles of warm Fanta and left, but I liked the little colony, whose only focus seemed to be the unrushed simplicity of waiting out the heat, surrounded by little more than land and sky.


A few years later I returned. There had been lots of rain and the river was high. Unsolicited, an elderly boatman gallantly carried me to his lancha, presumably so I wouldn’t get wet. The rain started to fall as we crossed, and by the time I raced up the trail, pellets of hail had joined the downpour. The town had a new restaurant, so I dashed in to check it out. There were half a dozen locals and three unshaven gringos sipping beers, all staring at the rain and hail beyond the edges of the roof. The unbelievable snippet of conversation I overheard—something about sticking around until the law cooled on the other side—added to the mystique of being temporarily trapped in an old mining town as the grey sky thundered overhead. In seconds it was over, and all of us stepped out to admire the sky as it brightened over the desert.

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