On Monday we crossed the border from Mexico to the United States at Laredo, Texas. This is the same border crossing we used in August 2015 to get from the US to Mexico to begin our year-long overland adventure. We would have liked to take a different route back to see new things but our second choice of crossing, at Brownsville, TX, is only accessible by Mexico Route 101. This road was recently dubbed the most dangerous highway in Mexico by NPR due to the proliferance of kidnappings and carjackings by bandits and organized crime gangs. We thought that being left naked in the desert would be a bad way to end our year of overland travel, though honestly, everything we have with us is threadbare from a year of constant use so would likely have no value to anyone. Only Wesley, our 1985 VW Westfalia, which has a brand new coat of paint and sparkles like a Kristy McNichol smile from “Little Darlings” would attract any attention.
So we chose Laredo again. And even though we’ve done many border crossings since last August and they’ve lost their intimidation factor, we were still a little nervous because of the 20 kilos of pure Colombian powder, the two migrants, the satchelful of weapons, and the copy of "The Great Shark Hunt," Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo commentary on American politics that we had in the roof box.
Things got even more interesting when we pulled up to Aduana (Mexican Customs) in Nuevo Laredo (on the Mexican side of the border) to cancel our temporary vehicle import permit. The line was longer than anything Tony Montana would have contemplated and the temperature was 115 degrees. To ratchet things up a notch, we got conflicting advice from Mexican Customs officials about whether we needed to have our passports stamped out of Mexico (we opted for the stamp). Finally, with our paperwork complete and after a possibly illegal U-Turn against oncoming traffic, we found ourselves in another long line to cross the bridge over the Rio Grande to the US.
By this time Wesley’s temperature gauge was reaching extreme levels and despite turning the engine off every chance we could, the red warning light started blinking just as we put our nose onto the bridge.
“That’s good.” I said. “It means it’s working. It’s not a problem until the red light stays on.”
"Screeeee!!” said Wesley in a high pitched voice which turned out to be engine coolant bursting from the hose that led from the coolant recovery tank and spilling onto the hot pavement of Puente Internactional II like so much green blood. Ah, the irony. After 12,000 miles and eight countries Wesley had staged a temperature tantrum on the threshold of America. We had overheated and there was nothing we could do but turn the engine off and wait for it to cool down.
In true rat-race fashion, though, cars immediately started cutting the line in front us. Nobody stepped out of their vehicles and paused for a moment of silence, came to offer us condolences, or even blinked an eye. After all the mountains Wesley had climbed, all the narrow streets it had navigated, all the deserts it had crossed, all the memories it had given us over the last eleven months, this felt like a slap in the face. So, rather than sit there and be a spectacle, we put Coconut behind the wheel and J, R, and I stepped out of Wesley like proud parents and pushed.
Despite our best efforts, though, we couldn’t push fast enough to keep the gap with the car in front of us tight enough so that people couldn’t continue to edge in. Heartless bastards! Then, further solidifying the respect we feel for the country and people we were leaving, a Mexican woman stepped out of the air conditioned car behind us and put herself between us and the car in front like a linebacker stepping into a hole between the tackles that was there only a moment before. Now we could inch our way towards the border like everyone else!
After several minutes of this situation, another Mexican offered to pull in front and tow us with a rope. This worked perfectly until he ran out of gas and had to remove the towline from his rear bumper, where it was attached to us, and place it on his front bumper so another Mexican guy he had flagged down could tow him.
By this time, though, we had pushed and been pulled to within thirty yards of the checkpoint (no longer thinking in meters as measurements in our minds went from metric to imperial halfway across the bridge.) However, the final approach was up a slight grade and Coconut, who was now pushing so she wouldn’t get arrested for driving underage, slipped because she couldn’t get enough purchase on the oil-slick tarmac to push Wesley across the finish line. The moment of truth had come. R turned the ignition key and Wesley roared back to life. R gunned the engine to finish strong but just as we were about to throw up our arms so the tape could break across our chests like we had run a 14,000 mile marathon, the customs officer put an orange cone down and walked away. Shift change.
R turned off the engine rather than idle and we waited, flushed and sweating like drug mules; adrenaline and fatigue mixing together. Coconut was so exhausted from the experience of being thrust behind the wheel to steer the van across an international border that she said she felt like crying. J was as red as a tomato and R and I felt time stand still like we were waiting in line at the grocery while the cashier changed the tape to give us a receipt. Rather than peruse the celebrity gossip magazines, we should have rehearsed her lines.
Except for a few miles in North Carolina and Alabama, and two hours the day before, I had driven Wesley the entire trip. We expected that I would be behind the wheel when we made our final border crossing and I had practiced how I would answer certain questions, not because we had anything to hide, but because some of them are open-ended. When the officer asked where we were coming from, we didn’t want to launch into a paragraphs-long narrative about our last twelve months. We wanted to be as concise, yet as honest, as possible. R was not prepared.
US Customs Officer, “Where are you coming from?”
R, “Uh. Mexico.”
"Where in Mexico are you coming from?”
“Uh. We drove all over. This time we were in San Miguel de Allende for about a month.”
"You were in Mexico for a month?”
"This time. We were here for about three months before.”
"You’ve been in Mexico before?”
“No, this was the first time.”
Pause. “Where are you going?”
Pause. Officer pokes his head into the driver’s side window and eyeballs Coconut and J in the back. “Do you have any illegal contraband in the vehicle?”
“No. We checked the website last night and ate all of our fruits and vegetables. We have some cheese and salami.”
“Any weapons or alcohol?”
"No. We have a bottle of mezcal and some fruity kind of liquor that we brought from a vendor along the side of the road.”
In retrospect, R’s answers were so contradictory that no international smuggler would ever utter them, but so nonsensical that no border guard worth his weight in salt could let them go unchecked. The officer walked into his little glass booth and came back with an orange slip of paper that he stuck under our freshly painted wiper blade. “Pull forward to secondary inspection. An officer will direct you where to go.”
We pulled forward and an officer directed us into a garage where various other vehicles were in various stages of being inspected. One family parked next to us had all of their luggage on a table and two officers were opening suitcases, trying on dresses, and snacking on yucca chips. Another vehicle was being driven around by a US Customs officer and everywhere officers were walking around with those mirrors on a pole that you can use to look up girls’ skirts.
Oh boy, I thought. We’ve been living in this van for a year. They are bound to find something. A stray firecracker. A pocketknife. A withered piece of fruit. Which one of us should go to jail? I figured they should take R because she was driving, and really, it made financial sense for us because I have the higher paying job.
Fortunately, the officer tagged to inspect our vehicle didn’t appear to want to be bothered. He asked a few questions which I helped answer (i.e., Where are you coming from? We spent last night in Monterrey), got us out of the van, and poked around a bit in the living room before telling us we could go. I heard him ask another officer if he had made any lunch plans. Since it was about 4 in the afternoon and the guy had apparently not yet eaten lunch, he must have had other things on his mind than looking for contraband on a family of four from Virginia.
Fine with us. We drove away without anyone welcoming us back to the States or mentioning Wesley’s eyelashes - which were a big hit at all our other border crossings. We used dead armadillos as mile markers (I’ve seen hundreds of armadillos but have yet to see a live one) and drove a ways into Texas before stopping to rent an overpriced hotel room at a Days Inn. Just another spectacular day in our year of overland travel.