Exploring the Southern Border in a 2017 Ram Power Wagon: San Diego to Nogales
In part one, we drive from the California coast to Arizona's Sonoran Desert
We see the plume from 10 miles out, the long, white-sand road billowing skyward. There's barely room for one truck let alone two, and we know we're in for a stop long before the agent slows his green-and-white truck. There's no one out here but buzzards, Border Patrol, and us.
We shove the 2017 Ram Power Wagon off the road to make room and drop our windows to give the guy a better view of who and what's inside. The air-conditioning vanishes immediately, replaced by dust and viciously dry heat.
The agent is in the waning days of his young years. His close-cropped hair is light brown, strands of gray gleaming along his temples in the Arizona sun. The corners of his eyes are creased with constant narrowing. He's fit. The muscles along his jaw ripple as he chews a piece of gum. He does not introduce himself.
"You guys have a gun?"
We're on the burning edge of the United States, halfway across El Camino del Diablo, a 250-mile stretch of Sonoran Desert that's part of one of the oldest trading routes in North America. It's the same road that was first heeled by Native Americans a millennium ago. Spaniards from the Coronado Expedition followed in 1540. And now us.
We tell the agent we don't have any weapons, and his brow shoots up over the gold rims of his glasses.
"Why the hell not? Jesus, you're two miles from shit-ass Mexico right here. You should at least have a rifle. Hell, two. That truck would make somebody a pretty trophy south of the border. You know what I mean?"
The United States isn't a country that knows its borders. There's so much of this place, and it feels like we can go anywhere without the burden of declaring our purpose or submitting ourselves for inspection. Many of us will live our lives without even glimpsing another country. It is an amazing, wonderful, tragic fact of being an American.
The westernmost border marker sits behind two layers of fence on the American side at Border Field State Park outside of San Diego. We were there two days ago. The primary barrier is 18 feet tall, made of the concrete and rusted steel, and it became the border's hallmark in 2006 when President George W. Bush's administration built some 700 miles of it at an average cost of $2.8 million per mile. It wades out into the Pacific Ocean and comes to a stop just this side of the break. The waves have no problem making a mockery of the steel standing there. They halve themselves on the fence as they slide to shore, saltwater foaming and dancing between the slats.
For decades, a barbed-wire fence stretched between the two countries. Border Patrol erected the first physical barriers in 1990, starting with around 14 miles of fence between San Diego and Tijuana. Twenty-seven years later, the barrier between the two nations is far from homogeneous. It changes with the terrain and the demands faced by Border Patrol. A few miles east, it withers to a lower structure of stacked corrugated metal plate, each rusting section marked with a three- or four-digit code for easy identification.
There are hundreds of remote miles along the line, inaccessible by anything other than helicopter or hiking boots. Hundreds more require a capable vehicle—one with ground clearance, four-wheel drive, and plenty of range. It also must have enough cargo room for additional fuel and water plus all the spares and recovery gear you might need when you're the only person for four hours in any direction. Enter the Power Wagon.
The Power Wagon is at home everywhere we go, perfectly camouflaged, as appropriate for meetings with federal agents as with reclusive ranchers. Perfectly American.
It has not deviated from its work-horse mandate since Ram resurrected it in 2005. With its body on a boxed frame and three-quarter-ton stick axles front and rear, its only real concession to automotive evolution is a set of coil springs. There's a brawling 6.4-liter V-8 up front, an unflappable six-speed automatic transmission bolted behind it, and a manual-shift, two-speed transfer case lurking ahead of the rear driveshaft. It is the last of the truck world's old guard, unapologetic in ancestry and execution.
There are more modern pickups that are more comfortable or more capable off road but none quite so well-suited to run its fingers down the full length of the U.S. border. To explore the forgotten line. The truck is massive, giving us a clear view of everyone's roof rails as we lumber an hour east out of San Diego to Tecate, the next closest port of entry.
The Mexican town of the same name is pressed so close to the border we could smell a hundred suppers cooking from our position on the dusty northern access road. We heard children laughing and playing, nothing between us but 30 feet and a few sheets of steel. Anyone with even an ounce of determination could be over the low fence quickly. It wasn't until the border began climbing its way through the rocky desert that it switched back to the more formidable version of itself. We wound our big truck up the rutted and twisting forest road that runs to a mountain known as Tecate Peak just in time for the first low wisps of marine layer to scrape their bellies on the hills around us.
It's so strange to see the fence slink its way over the horizon, baffling to grasp the meaning of it. That we are allowed here but not there. It only gets more bizarre a few hours east, where the line slips its way through the Algodones Dunes.
Authorities have found 110 tunnels since 1990. the most recent discovery began in Nogales, Mexico, and stretched 43 feet into u.s. territory.
They make up the largest dune ecosystem in the U.S., looming 300 feet above the desert floor in places. The dunes are home to the impossible fence, one of the triumphs of the second Bush administration's barrier.
It isn't fixed to the earth beneath it because there is no earth to fix it to. The yellow sands move and wander with the desert wind, consuming or shifting otherwise stationary objects. Instead, the fence floats on top of the sand. It's made of 16-foot-tall, concrete-filled steel tubes attached to wide, triangular steel bases. The sections are chained together, rocking and swaying.
The Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area can flood with 200,000 visitors at a time, all of them packed against the border. Fleets of buggies and full-size trucks, ATVs, and motorcycles roam America's Sahara on a busy weekend, but we found only one RV at the Buttercup Ranger Station when we arrived there midweek. Just three guys on quads taking a break from work to play in the sand. We lowered our tire pressure, they gestured in the general direction of the fence, and we set off.
The big Ram floated along, up one dune and down the next, our windshield filling with a rotating view of sky and sand. When we ran out of valley, we had a decision to make: Retrace our steps or push farther into the dunes.
It was late afternoon. The sun had already begun to long for the low horizon to the west, and although it was still miserably hot, the truck's shadow grew at our feet. Without a map or a clear indication of how to navigate the sand, we should have turned back. We didn't. We idled our way farther south, climbing the long slope of a massive dune before coming to the crest to find a sprawling bowl on the other side.
"I think it's a big solution. Talk to Border Patrol. They're all for it. They can't handle their job. They need help. A wall will help them. They also need more guys. You can still get over a wall. "
I broke the one golden rule of sand travel in a big, heavy, full-size truck: Do not stop. All 6,996 pounds of Power Wagon sank immediately. This is not a machine without a few tricks up its sleeve. What it lacks in intelligent crawl mode, it makes up for in hardware, including locking differentials in both axles. With the truck in 4WD Low, lockers engaged, and traction control off, I tried to ease the Ram out of the situation I had put it in. We only sank deeper. We had to push the sand back to open the doors.
The Power Wagon holds fast to its three-quarter-ton duties. It can tow nearly 10,000 pounds, almost two tons more than the Ford Raptor. It uses the same electronic sway-bar disconnect system as found on the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, and the clever Articulink knuckle in the three-link suspension design up front allows for an impressive amount of articulation, but it's a work truck first and a toy second. That tow rating is a product of stiff springs, and old damper technology does nothing to sweeten the ride. The Power Wagon still uses Bilstein 4600 shocks, likely in an attempt to keep operating costs low, but in an age when Fox external bypass units are common sights on production off-road rigs, the dampers show their age.
Likewise, the Power Wagon sits on Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires that don't do much to help the big, heavy truck off road. They're aggressive and loud, and while they're fine in mud, they lack the versatility of other all-terrain options. They're also small, measuring out to around 33 inches tall and 11.5 inches wide. By comparison, the Raptor's stock tires are a full 2.0 inches taller and 1.5 inches wider.
None of that explains why I buried the truck in the sand less than a mile from the Mexican border, but I had plenty of time to think about it as I shoveled. It was quiet and hot, my nostrils full of the rare and unmistakable smell of silica, my sweat-slicked skin gritty with grains of California.
We hadn't been at it long when the three guys from the parking lot showed up, ripping up the big dune on paddle tires like it was nothing. After a communal acknowledgment of just how stuck we were, they introduced themselves and began digging.
Chandler Macomber, Dutch Conner, and Joey Soto all live in Tucson. Soto's from Nogales, Arizona, originally, the even cadence and pronunciation of the local dialect clear on his lips. He spent some time as an Army engineer in Afghanistan before catching some shrapnel in his back and being sent home to his family, he said. He showed us the scars, deep purple pocks and gouges in his tan skin.
We took turns with the shovel. It looked bleak until a Border Patrol agent rode up on a quad. He said he wasn't supposed to help out in situations like this, but he went and found a fellow officer with an F-150 EcoBoost anyhow.
The Power Wagon comes with a 12,000-pound Warn winch, and with the Ford as an anchor, the truck clawed its way out of the hole I'd dug. Our savior agents were kind enough to keep their amusement to low smirks as they waved and rode off. It was getting dark, and our headlights played over the sand as we worked our way back to the parking lot, the quads racing up one dune face then another as we went.
The guys set about getting a grill hot for dinner while we aired up the truck's tires. I asked them what it's like living in Tucson, a little more than an hour from the border.
"It affects our lives, you know, in so many ways," Conner said. "They come over [from Mexico] and take jobs. There's a lot of competition. They'll come and do it for a cheaper price, and they're not licensed."
"A lot of Mexican families have been here for 20, 30 years. I encourage them to do it right," he said. "But these criminals need to leave."
Is a complete border wall the solution?
"I think it's a big solution," Macomber said. "Talk to Border Patrol. They're all for it. They can't handle their job. They need help. A wall will help them. They also need more guys. You can still get over a wall.
Conner nodded. Soto kept quiet. I asked him if he agreed.
"There's never going to be a permanent solution," he said. "Somebody's going to build a wall, somebody's going to fortify it, but there's always going to be a way around it. Just like in Nogales. Nogales is full of tunnels. They say if there was ever an earthquake in Nogales, the whole town would fall."
Authorities have found 110 tunnels in the city since 1990. The most recent discovery began in the Nogales, Mexico, cemetery and stretched 43 feet into U.S. territory.
We'd be through there in a few days, we said, but only if we got moving. We couldn't say thank you enough for the hours of company and labor and for not giving up on the idiots who buried their truck in the dunes. So guys, if you're reading, thanks again.
We were still wiping sand out of our eyes the next day as we pulled to the edge of El Camino del Diablo. It isn't a place for the timid or the underprepared. It snakes its way through a spit of land so inhospitable it was turned into a bombing range. Every map we could get our hands on warned against traveling the route solo, but we were short on friends. We were also in the most capable three-quarter-ton pickup available.
We aired down again, and let the big Ram squeeze its way through the reaching ocotillo branches as the road wandered its way through rocky washes, over fine, white sand, and off into the jagged folds of the Tule, Tinajas Altas, and Gila mountains.
The cacti were dropping their flowers to the desert floor and bracing for the long, hot, dry months. The place is alien, the road lined with towering organ pipe cactus. Summer can bring temperatures of more than 120 degrees. If we were making this crossing on foot, we'd each need better than two gallons of water per day. There are wells, a few natural water tanks. They're marked these days, but they would have been difficult to string together 100 years ago. During the California Gold Rush, Mexican immigrants often fell to the brutal terrain, bandits, and native raids from Apache or Tohono O'odham. Historians estimate be-tween 400 and 2,000 people have died along the route since 1895.
There's no wall down there, just a low line of Normandy-style barriers. Despite being able to see the sun glint off windshields on Mexico's Federal Highway 2, we didn't see our first Border Patrol agents until clearing the Tinajas Altas mountain pass. The desert changes on the east side of the ridge. It grows flatter, the trail straight and sandy as it moves into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. That's where we met the agent who was so concerned about our lack of firearms.
It's a long road chasing through dry creek beds, scrambling over broken volcanic rock, and bashing through hundreds of yards of silt, the fine dirt spraying up over the hood and onto the windshield in giant opaque waves. It's a grueling test for the truck, one it passes just fine. It takes us all day and gives us plenty of time to stew on our Border Patrol agent's words.
"It's the Wild West down here," he said, just before rolling up his window and idling off.
Maybe it was once, but Border Patrol agents are more likely to die from their own vehicle than by cartel members. Of the 37 agents who have died in the line of duty since 2003, 20 were killed in some sort of vehicle incident, with car crashes making up more than half of that number. A boat capsizing and motorcycle, ATV, airplane, and helicopter crashes fill out the rest. Six agents have died of heart attacks in that time. Four have died of gunshot wounds—one of those was friendly fire. By comparison, 16 NYPD officers died of intentional gunshot wounds during that same period.
The sky explodes with color as we drive, lit with a sunset's depthless oranges and blues. The Sonoran Desert turns its mountains purple for us—honest-to-god purple like in the anthem. Gorgeous is a thin word for it.
The next day, April Ignacio tells us the sun sets on this place like it does nowhere else. She was born and raised within the Tohono O'odham Nation. It covers a swath of Arizona desert the size of Connecticut, stretching across three counties and as many Border Patrol sectors.
She's 35, her brown skin inked with images. Delicate lines thread from her lower lip to her chin. A dusting of dots trace from orbital to orbital across the bridge of her nose, partially hidden by thick-framed glasses. She says the tattoos are her tribe's traditional marks of feminine maturity. If a woman has those marks, she can endure the pain of childbirth.
"We're tired of our lands being militarized. We used to play cowboys and Indians. Now we play Indians and Border Patrol. "
She moves slowly, leaning back, the weight of a pregnancy on her heels. Her fifth child, a son, is set to arrive in less than a month. Her oldest is headed to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in the fall.
She's guarded at first. The reservation has been inundated with press inquiries from around the world following President Donald Trump's executive order declaring his intent to build a wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, a plan the Tohono O'odham opposes.
Ignacio is a prominent voice in Indivisible Tohono, a new group aimed at impacting state and federal legislation.
"You won't find anyone here who's for the wall," she said.
For years, the Tohono O'odham traveled easily between their northern and southern territories to see family, visit graves, and acquire water. The tribe has 34,000 members, 2,000 of whom live in Mexico. The tribe's movements changed 11 years ago when it agreed to allow the federal government to upgrade the border fence to heavy Normandy-style barriers. Now tribal members are restricted to one port of entry on the reservation where Border Patrol agents check tribal ID cards.
"We're tired of our lands being militarized," she said. "We used to play cowboys and Indians. Now we play Indians and Border Patrol."
She tells me how when her oldest son was 5, he came to the driver's side window of her car while she and a friend sat chatting inside. He knocked on the door, then recited the familiar phrase: "State your nationality."
"That's when your heart sinks," she said. "That's why we have to turn out lawyers and doctors. Our own people. We have to send them away to Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins, so they can come back and help us."
Her eyes flash fierce when she says the words, blazing among the blue dots of her tattoos, the ones that proclaim her strong enough to send her sons and daughters a world away so that they can come home and help.
But Border Patrol's efforts in the area have paid dividends. For years, migrants and smugglers saw the reservation as a weak spot in the border and exploited it for their gain. Border Patrol apprehended 85,000 undocumented individuals on Tohono O'odham land in 2003. Last year, that number was 14,000, thanks in part to the vehicle barriers installed in 2006 and the increased Border Patrol presence.
When we ask her for directions to the border, she hesitates before telling us that the Chukut Kuk District, the one closest to the border, is set to vote to only allow indigenous people on its land. When I ask her if there's a parallel between that impulse and the one to fortify the international line, she shakes her head. Activists from around the country keep calling, wanting to know how they can help resist the wall, but the tribe has no interest in hosting another Standing Rock. The reservation simply doesn't have the resources to support a sprawling protest presence, and the tribe doesn't want to be associated with what can happen when a crowd of visitors unfamiliar with the desert's perils get themselves in trouble.
"If anyone stops you, just say you got lost looking for the cultural center in Sells."
No one stops us. The Power Wagon is at home everywhere we go, perfectly camouflaged. It blends in on long and empty reservation roads. It is at home in the heart of dense city centers. It is as appropriate for meetings with federal agents as it is reclusive ranchers. Perfectly American.
Horses wander in and out of the low scrub that line the two-lane and hoof their way across the tarmac, foals prancing in the shadow of their mares as we push south. The road dissolves, the pavement giving way to rutted two-track. We stumble out of the brush and onto the service road that parallels the long line of steel barriers that stretch between the mountains. A few bent strands of barbed wire also mark the line. Game trails dotted with footprints work their way between the barriers here and there.
The border does not drastically change until we hit Nogales, where the concrete and steel fence returns. The city feels Mexican, more so than anywhere else we've been. It's everything—the brilliant flowers blooming in planters along the road, the smell of them mixing with dust and exhaust and meat on the grill. The handpainted business signs in Spanish. The miraculous chaos of it all, the roads packed with cars, most of them with Sonora, Mexico, plates. Houses and businesses push right up against the fence, American addresses on one side and Mexican on the other. Individuals on both lean up against the rusting slats and chat. They reach through to hold hands.
Uno: Customs and Border Patrol admits nearly 1,000,000 visitors, scans 67,000 cargo containers, seizes 6 tons of illegal drugs, and arrests 1,100 people—every single day
Dos: 60,000-plus: total number of CBP employees
Tres: $21.7 billion: the estimated cost of the wall promised during the Trump campaign
Cuatro: 167 percent: how much more the wall costs than a state-of-the-art Ford-class aircraft carrier
Cinco: 1,989 miles: total length of U.S. southern border