Hiking Cormac McCarthy’s Western Wilderness During an Immigration Crisis

Raksha Vasudevan on Coming Face-to-Face With the Myths that Make America

The stories hadn’t prepared me. I’d expected barren land, the “razorous plane” of Cormac McCarthy’s books, flat-cut for violence. Instead, the Chihuahuan Desert of southwestern Texas appeared like an endless, whimsical garden: huge green succulents crowned with delicate purple knobs or creamy white blossoms. And before me, the Chisos Mountains rose like dark fingers, some curled, others outstretched, both supplicating. The terrain was otherworldly, yes, but also welcoming, a strange and better planet than where I’d come from.

Why here? I wondered. Why did McCarthy choose this place? And then, of course, why did I?

*

That night in the tent, I flipped through my dog-eared copy of Blood Meridian, the book that first rocketed McCarthy to fame. With my headlamp on, I felt again like the ten-year-old reading that book for the first time. I’d been in bed in India then, using the small flashlight we kept for when the electricity cut. I don’t know how the copy found its way into our house—maybe my Appa bought it at the market, picked out its crimson cover from the stack of paperbacks yellowing under the Madras sun. I couldn’t imagine it was my Amma’s, who preferred Jane Austen or Arundhati Roy, narratives leaking with class tensions and slow-fermenting desires. Such stories bored me: I wanted shoot-outs, blood and guts, hard straight gallops from a single action to a world transformed.

Blood Meridian, following an unnamed man’s entanglement with a vicious gang haunting the Texas-Mexico border, had all that and more. Like the mango pickle I ate straight from the jar, I gobbled down the book’s images of the American southwest: the “vast world of sand and scrub,” plains of pumice, wagons and mules, blood-red skies, lizards with “leather chins flat to the cooling rocks.” It was like nothing I’d imagined, let alone seen.

But like the pickle, the story eventually burned my throat and upset my stomach. The murders, rape and scalpings gave me nightmares for weeks. As those faded, a longing to see those sites grew in its place. I was a shy child, never playing sports, rarely going outside. Photos from that time show a girl turning away, burying her plump cheeks in the folds of her mother’s sari. But imagining myself in hostile places made me feel braver, as if entering them would cure my angst of being in the world.  

Now, two decades later, I’d been in America for two years on a visa that would expire in three months. Of course, by now, I could see my Western fantasies were irrational and archaic, built on a white male mythology that left little space for women or people of color—for people like me. When they do appear in McCarthy’s work, it is as the other: Mexico is a foil to white America, in which Mexican women are hypersexual and therefore objects for “conquest” by white cowboys.

To be unwelcome in a place, yet not allowed to leave—it was almost laughable. This is what it is to be an immigrant.

But also, I was tired of being rational, of working toward dreams I wasn’t even sure were my own. I’d gotten a job in America—the long-standing immigrant dream—and it was making me miserable. My completely white workplace in mostly white Denver was a setting so subtly hostile that, at times, it left me breathless. There was no aggression; instead, there were smiling questions about when I’d cook Indian food for the team, or more seriously, if I’d like to draft a diversity policy for the company. To this job, my visa was tied; renewing it and remaining there there seemed as unbearable as leaving and starting over again.

Partly as reward for survival, for all the times I chuckled when I felt like breaking—something or just breaking apart—and partly as escape, I decided to visit those places I’d fantasized about, even if—or perhaps because—I could never quite picture myself in them. Surely after experiencing those, the rest of America wouldn’t feel so alien. Or, I wouldn’t feel so alien in America.

McCarthy’s Western novels, all of which I’d devoured as a pre-teen, are set in the borderlands of America and Mexico, a zone too vast to cover in the few days of vacation I had remaining. A friend from Texas suggested Big Bend National Park.

“But it’s not the easiest place to visit,” he warned. “No campfires, and usually at least one person dies every season from dehydration.”

The internet told me that temperatures in Big Bend could fluctuate 100 degrees in a day, that it received the fewest visitors of any national park, that even when its springs and rivers weren’t dry, they were unsafe to drink. Each detail only confirmed my choice, painting in the grim landscapes I’d long ago sketched in my mind.

Fittingly, the drive from Colorado to Texas was like entering McCarthy-land. Straw-colored brush, giant oil pumps and tankers, a few “dirt for sale” signs. Huge tumbleweeds blew onto the road.

“Turn left,” my phone said, an Indian accent lilting its English. Before leaving, I’d changed the voice setting to “Indian.” The familiar intonation soothed me.

When I stopped for gas, I checked my phone for updates on my Green Card application. A Green Card would replace the visa that was tied to my job, freeing me to stay and work anywhere in America. But my status on the US Citizenship and Immigration Services site just read, as it had for months, “Case Received.” With denials of all immigration applications increasing under the Trump administration, anxiety had been spider-webbing through my body. In the past months, as my visa expiration date approached, I’d lost nine pounds and was sleeping half that number. This trip, I hoped, would take my mind off worst case scenarios—endless waiting, denial, deportation—but also prepare me for them: if I had to leave, I wanted to experience the America I had first imagined as a child.

Entering Big Bend, nothing appeared as I’d imagined: the land was far from desolate. The campground was nestled in a basin circled by emerald cliffs; golden cottonwood trees shaded the campsite. I breathed in the scents of sagebrush and oncoming rain. As I pitched my tent, bleary-eyed from the 16-hour drive, two lizards started croaking to each other and continued until I crawled inside and—for the first time in months—instantly fell to sleep.

*

The next day, the ground was damp outside the tent, air sticky sweet from overnight rains. The December sun was already high; I hurried to don my hiking gear, fill my Camelbak and three water bottles. I’d planned to hike the South Rim, a twelve-mile loop around the Chisos Mountains. But to get back before dark, I’d needed to leave at sunrise.

I was glad for the trail’s steep ascent, for my need to scale it quickly—for the interruptions to questions I couldn’t answer.

At the trailhead, I paused at a plaque describing the construction of the park’s 150 miles of trail: A year after the park was established, 200 young men, 80 percent of whom were Hispanic, arrived to work in the Chisos Mountains. I blinked. Re-read. A nation built at least in part on the labor of immigrants, now striving to eject as many of them as possible. When would I stop being surprised by that? And that sensation of something inside me being scraped out—when would that stop?

I was glad for the trail’s steep ascent, for my need to scale it quickly—for the interruptions to questions I couldn’t answer. I tried naming the plants I passed: yucca, sotol, prickly pear, lechuguilla. I’d first encountered the latter in McCarthy’s

The Crossing almost 15 years ago. At 15 myself, I’d had to look it up in my father’s encyclopedia, a leather-bound tome that smelled like him, like chai and tobacco, like home. My eyes stung. I refocused on the lechuguilla, which looked just as deadly as the encyclopedia’s description: long, swordlike leaves with serrated edges, a tall black stalk sprouting above, bearing dark, dead flowers. The stalk grew so quickly that it exhausted the plant’s resources, killing it. I remember being struck by that even at fifteen. But only now did I understand the metaphor: striving towards something—the sky, a new life—can be devastating, even (perhaps especially) when you get the thing you wanted. I’d dreamed of America for so long; now here, the gnawing sense of not belonging, combined with not knowing how much longer I could stay, felt ruinous.

Four hours later, after succulents gave way to oak and juniper, after the air grew thin and cool, I finally arrived at the summit, a stunning and disorienting sight. Walls of rock dropped two thousand feet below me. Wind-twisted pinons clung improbably to them, sprouting horizontal. I sat on the rim for a while, watching shadows of clouds move over hills that unfolded softly below me like green chiffon, unfurling into the unseeable distance.

“Where those blue islands trembled and the earth grew uncertain,” McCarthy wrote of land and sky converging in Blood Meridian. Like here, except here felt no more uncertain to me than anywhere else in this United States, strewn with cliff-edges of doubt for those from elsewhere. I stood up.

Walking back, the sky darkened to plum and then charcoal. Starved, thighs shaking, I splurged for dinner at the lodge when I finally returned. The Yucatan-style pork came roasted and served in a banana leaf. As I ate, I thought of the rice and sambar my Amma used to serve on large banana leaves in India. I’d sit on my father’s shoulders to pluck the leaves from the plantain tree in our garden. When my parents announced a few months ago that they were selling the house in Chennai, I’d barely reacted, too caught up in my own potential displacement. But now, loss splintered me, a hairline crack stretching across my chest. Would I ever again live someplace where I belonged utterly—that I could claim as birthright?

Nauseous, I put my fork down and looked up. Many people were on their phones. The  lodge must have Wifi, I realized. I hadn’t had cell reception since entering Big Bend and hadn’t missed it but now I too grabbed my phone, nearly panting as I waited for the USCIS website to load.

Still no updates.

I sank back into the wooden chair. Until these past weeks, I hadn’t known how the absence of change could devastate. I dropped my phone into my backpack—threw it, really—and flagged the waiter to order a cocktail.

*

Hours later, I woke with an achingly full bladder. Stumbling out of the tent, I squatted down to pee when I looked up and nearly tumbled over. The sky was spectacular, so thick with stars I couldn’t distinguish individual points of light.

“The great diamond of Orion and Cepella and the signature of Cassiopeia all rising up through the phosphorous dark like a sea-net.” The line from McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses had sizzled in my brain when I first read it, the idea of the heavens and ocean fusing into one, collapsing the world in between and all its disquiets. I raised my hand, pointed my finger. Orion, Cepella, Cassiopeia…

Under a sky like that that, all earth appeared liminal, ambiguous. Borderless.

Later, I’d learn that Big Bend has one of the world’s lowest levels of light pollution. There are few places on earth where the galaxies are as visible. That night, I didn’t know that but crouched on the hard earth of the Chisos basin, I did feel something ease, a foot lifting slightly off the accelerator of anxiety. Under a sky like that that, all earth appeared liminal, ambiguous. Borderless.

*

The next day, already my last one here, I hiked to Boquillas Canyon along the Rio Grande river. Here, the main characters of All the Pretty Horses crossed into Mexico, starting an epic journey that would span two more books, eventually constituting McCarthy’s famous Border Trilogy. I’d saved this for last, the most precise place McCarthy’s words had transported me to, and also a “natural” border. I’d never seen one: all the borders I knew were decidedly unnatural, manned by unsmiling men in bulletproof glass booths.  

This was different. A brief climb over a low hill and already, I was strolling on river banks blanched white by the southwestern sun. The river too was pale, just a narrow ribbon of baby blue. On the other side, in Mexico, two men sat on wooden chairs with colorful textiles and pots carefully arranged around them. A small rowboat waited nearby, ready to transport the souvenirs to American buyers. The men stared expectantly at me. I raised a hand in greeting but kept walking.

Soon, the walls of the canyon, slate veined with quartz, rose up around me. A jaybird warbled and the sound bounced off the walls, birthing a dozen birds calling to each other.

On the other side, only a few feet away, three mules grazed on jade green banks, lusher than the side I stood on. Two hundred years ago, both sides would’ve been Mexico. Now, if Trump’s wall was built, it could cut right through this place, a notion that seemed all the more ridiculous and tragic standing here, amidst this galaxy of quiet greens and blues. The river, flowing silent and quick, was obviously meant to water animals and farms, not serve as an international boundary. McCarthy had gotten that right at least: his characters traversed borders as if they didn’t matter, which was probably accurate in earlier years. But his portrayal of these lands as barren and ripe for conquest now rang less true than ever, a willful blindness in the vein of Manifest Destiny. And I, in reading him, had conflated desolate landscapes with fearlessness, fueling a journey that brought me here, to a border as unnatural as the idea of America itself.

This was only reinforced an hour later, when I drove past a border post the size of a hot dog stand. There, I knew, visitors could show their passports and take a short boat ride to the Mexican village of Boquillas. I could not. While my Green Card application was pending, I couldn’t leave the country. If I did, US Immigration would consider my application “abandoned.”

To be unwelcome in a place, yet not allowed to leave—it was almost laughable. This is what it is to be an immigrant, I thought: perpetually straddling the border between belonging and not.

*

That evening, I started the drive back to Colorado, first stopping at a lookout at the park’s border. The sun was dropping between the Chisos and the Sierra del Carmen, creating a purple haze around the flat-topped buttes and jagged peaks sandwiched before and behind each other, their variations in size and shape staggering. It was beyond anything I could have imagined, with or without McCarthy’s books.

“He contemplated the wildness about him, the wildness within,” he wrote of one character gazing at the southwest landscape in All the Pretty Horses. I took a deep breath, trying to memorize the scent of creosote bush, the sight of rust-colored mountains, the hawks gliding above them. What if I never came back here? What if I did?

“In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments,” McCarthy wrote later in the same book. As I got back in the car, I felt the opposite, bridling with emotion, as fully fragile as the 10-year old who’d dreamed of the American southwest, of a braver self.

I wished encountering this country’s wilderness had cured my desire for it, but it was the place in America I’d felt closest to something sacred and, for a few moments, safe.

When I got within range of cell phone reception again, I, of course, checked the USCIS website. Still no updates. I put the phone away. Outside, desert shrub gave way to blue spruce and aspen. Stars appeared, far fewer than in Big Bend, but I’d expected that.

I wished encountering this country’s wilderness had cured my desire for it, but it was the place in America I’d felt closest to something sacred and, for a few moments, safe. Now, almost despite myself, I only wanted more, the reality of its wild lands infinitely richer and more wondrous than any myth. Or maybe what I really longed for was the self I’d glimpsed here: not braver necessarily, but able to hold both awe and despair at once, to encounter beauty and grief in the same landscape and not turn away.

Raksha Vasudevan
Raksha Vasudevan
Raksha Vasudevan is an economist and writer based in Colorado. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Catapult, The Millions, Electric Literature, NYLON, High Country News, Adventure Magazine, Hippocampus, Roads & Kingdoms, Entropy and Africaisacountry. You can find her on Twitter @RakshaVasudevan.





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