For the five previous days, I had pushed myself beyond exhaustion to move the raft 40 miles down a river with only half the minimum water needed for boating.
For five days, I often had to drag my boat loaded with provisions over rocks because there wasn't enough water in the river to float. Three times I had to dredge new channels with my paddle so I could have enough water underneath just to drag the raft. It seemed I had walked more through ankle deep water than I boated.
For those of you who don't take seriously the warnings that our Rio
Grande's future is imperiled, consider that 10 years ago when I first boated
this section of river -- which provides Laredo all of its water -- the
river flowed at 2000 cubic feet per second (CFS). Due to the continued
drought in West Texas and Chihuahua, plus the increased demand for water
population growth along the river and its tributaries' corridors, the river now flows at about 200 CFS.
In 1992, the Rio Conchos, which historically has provided the majority of water that reaches Laredo in the Rio Grande, added 1750 CFS to the flow.
However, now it adds only 20 CFS or slightly more than 1 percent.
Imagine turning at your tap at home and getting only 1 percent of the water it currently serves.
Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley complain that Mexico - in particular
the state of Chihuahua - is violating the binational river treaty, which
is intended to ensure that residents on both sides of the border have sufficient
water for their personal, agricultural
and commercial needs. But Chihuahua cannot release what it does not have.
We already know the Rio Grande on longer reaches the Gulf of Mexico, but are we prepared for the possibility it may no longer reach Laredo?
On Day 6, when I finally reached the hot springs at San Rocendo Canyon, I was so physically drained from the effort of paddling, pushing and dragging the raft downriver that I had to take a day to recuperate.
I was laying clothes out to dry that I had just washed in the springs when I heard footsteps, and then a man -- the only person I would see for 17 days -- emerged from a cattle trail through the riverside huisache trees.
This man, Antonio, a 47-yeer-old father of six, was walking front his home in Muzquiz, Coahuila to his work in a town in Texas, a walk which took him one week, moving night and day over terrain the least hospitable for walking. He, like I, preferred to travel alone.
We decided to camp together and spent the evening around the campfire trading stories. Antonio told me this was his 11th timee he had walked via this same route, and despite the hardships the desert and mountains presented, he liked it because it was the least patrolled by la migra.
I learned that he always walked when the moon was waxing so that he could have light to walk at night. Once he crossed into the U.S. he could not burn fires to stay warm because that would make him an easy target for the Border Patrol. He slept on the ground without a sleeping bag or blanket until he became cold, then resumed walking in the moonlight to warm up.
For the seven-day walk, he carried seven cans of food, and he ate one each day, at mid-afternoon. He also had a change of clothes, one gallon of water and perhaps 30 key limes.
"Con estas pocas cosas," he told me, "completo el viaje."*
To Antonio, walking for sevens days and nights to go to work was routine and he thought no more of it than we would think to commute to shop in San Antonio or visit family in Monterrey. This time he had returned home only to have a tooth pulled; then he spent 12 days with family while waiting for the moon to wax.
When Antonio and I parted the following morning -- he to ascend a 1,000 foot canyon slope through thick cacti growth and I to float a river supplemented by the inflow of the many hot springs -- I was no longer feeling sorry for myself.
In contrast to Antonio's trek, my 17 days battling down the shallow Rio Grande were comparative leisure.
For the next 10 days, I pushed down river, scraping through all the major rapids, admiring the natural wonder of the river canyons and the wildlife.
My concerns were no longer personal but focused can the fate of our river and my new friend Antonio. No matter what demands our dying river give me, the demands that walking the desert gave Antonio were far greater.
Antonio had suggested that we might meet again at those same hot springs next December, but I told him I didn't think there would be enough water for me to do the trip again. Antonio grew thoughtful for a moment, then Calculated that I could always walk from La Linda in only two days if I walked day and night.
He seemed to take the possibility seriously for a moment, but then with a faint smile added: "Pero con todo respeto, Amigo, los gringos son malos para caminar."**
* I do the trip with just these few things.
** With all due respect, my friend, gringos don't like to walk.
Text and photos by Keith Bwoden.
This article originally appeared in the Laredo Morning News, Sunday, January 13, 2002, Section D.
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