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The Crossing : Whether Delineated by the Great Wall, the Blue Danube or a Chain-Link Fence, Borders Are What You Make of Them

October 20, 1985|JOHN McKINNEY | John McKinney hiked 1,800 miles while exploring a new route for the California Coastal Trail

I roll out of my sleeping bag to watch the sun come up over the Otay Mountains and illuminate the beach at the California-Mexico border. I wait.

And watch.

And wait some more.

The sun does not rise, at least not where I can see it, and shines only enough to chase away some gloom. A quarter mile, maybe half a mile west of my camp is the beginning of the California Coastal Trail. It's my job, on behalf of the California Coastal Trails Foundation, to pioneer a new trail connecting the state's remaining wild lands to each other and to those hikers willing to make an effort to visit them. But this morning, the trail is lost in the mist.

In dawn's gray light, the marsh birds raise a racket. A white-tailed kite circles over the nearby Tijuana Estuary. Gulls scavenge the tide's debris. As I walk oceanward, I dip into a ravine and soon lose sight of the horizon.

A woman's shout comes out of the mist.

In the bottom of the ravine I stumble upon a Mexican family--mother, father and little girl--ready to take flight. They appear frozen, like jack rabbits caught in headlights. When I walk closer they determine, after a hurried, whispered conference, that my green button-down shirt is not the uniform of a border patrolman. Panic gives way to uneasy smiles.

" Que pasa? "

My question is answered with more uneasy smiles. Obviously it's not going very well or they wouldn't be stuck out here in this no-man's- land, half a mile from the border.

I try English. "Where are you going?"

"Chula Vista," the man answers.

The little girl tugs at my shirt. " Agua? "

" Si ." I find my canteen, hand it to her. She gulps furiously, water trickling over her chin.

"Maria!" her mother scolds.

"It's all right," I soothe.

Maria hands the canteen to her mother. The woman hesitates, caught between pride and thirst.

"It's all right," I repeat.

She drinks, hands the canteen to her husband. When he tilts his head back I see 30 hard years etched in his face, 50 in his hands.

The canteen makes another round and is returned to me.

An uncomfortable silence settles over the dunes. This gringo can do nothing more for them. After exchanges of adios, I leave them to their fate--a successful dash under the cover of darkness to Chula Vista or discovery by Audubon bird watchers or arrest by the Border Patrol. " Dios consiente, mas no siempre, " the Spanish say. God provides, but not always.

As I walk toward the Pacific, the sun sneaks up behind me, enlarging from a tiny spotlight to a great floodlight. I emerge atop the coastal terrace overlooking Border Field Beach as the foggy curtain parts and a white light pours down on the borderland. I look to the limits of the clouds: Point Loma, Silver Strand, Tijuana River flood plain, the Coronado Islands.

A few million years ago the ocean inundated this land, wearing the peaks beneath into a nearly flat platform. This platform was later lifted out of the water by forces within the earth to form a coastal terrace. The remains of this terrace, battered by the ocean on the west and the Tijuana River on the east, resembles an immense, flattop aircraft carrier listing to starboard.

An empty parking lot sprawls across the stern end of the bluff top, ending at the chain-link fence separating Mexico and California. The flimsy fence surprises most Americans. Before visiting Border Field State Park they imagine a more militaristic border--a Berlin Wall topped with barbed wire, guarded with machine-gun nests. ("They gotta lotta damn nerve callin' this a border, Martha. This fence wouldn't hold chickens in a coop.") The wire fence extends only a little past the low-tide line, and northbound migrants could easily wade around it. Yet few cross here. The term wetback, as applied to Mexican migrants, originated in Texas, where they must cross the Rio Grande to enter America. Here in southernmost California, undocumented aliens prefer chancing the unfenced desert border farther east.

Next to the fence is the graffiti-splashed border marker; from a distance it resembles a 1/25th-scale model of the Washington Monument. When California became a territory at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, an international border became a necessity. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo dictated the location of the boundary, and survey parties from both countries were appointed to determine and mark the line. The federal government, anxious to secure its new border, quickly dispatched an American survey team from Washington.

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