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1-Day: A Border, Both Sides Now

    A whirlwind day that varies, delights and can't help but satisfy. Heading out early it's westward ho to visit the Barton Warnock Environmental Center, the eastern office of the Big Bend Ranch State Park. Beyond the bookstore and 2.5 acre desert garden, the Center boasts one of the most complete and sophisticated interpretive displays on the natural history and cultural attractions of the region. The Desert Garden has considerable information on the local plants used by early inhabitants for food, shelter and medicine (in case we all get separated at some point). The Center provides a great knowledge base for the rest of your trip.
    A mile away to the west we pass by the formerly old settlement of Lajitas, that we'll explore and explain upon our return. Immediately following the road squeezes in next to the river, narrowing, twisting and turning, climbing and descending, always presenting a new vista at each. Labeled one of the "Most Scenic Drives in North America" by National Geographic, it parallels Colorado Canyon, where the river's forces (and dynamite) have provided the only passage. Continuing on a bit is the old movie set Contrabando, featured in a number of famous movies (some even good). Though damaged by flooding in 2008, the empty saloon, mission church and haciendas still echo with the Hollywood history that so easily comes to mind. A few miles further west is the exceedingly steep La Cuesta or Big Hill that tests transmissions and power ratios of most any vehicle. Be glad your not on a bicycle.
     Leaving the State Park, the terrain softens and becomes agriculturally centered as we pass through the area/settlement of Redford. Known from the late 90's for the mistaken shooting of a local teenager by US Marines on anti-narcotics patrol, the tragic incident changed how many locals view the situation, as well as the operational protocols of enforcement agencies. A few miles away is the measuring station of the International Boundary and Water Commission that arbitrates the always contentious issue of irrigation water allocation for both countries.
    Further west we pass by Fort Leaton before arriving in Presidio, the "hottest town in Texas", and that's not figuratively. Even so, it's recognized as the oldest continuously occupied and cultivated area in North America. Known from the Spanish days as La Junta de los Rios- The Junction of the Rivers, this is where the Rio Conchos enters and reinvigorates the Rio Grande, giving rise to the sister city on the Mexican side of Ojinaga. We'll double check our passports, park next to Border Patrol, and walk across the International Bridge (yes, it's safe).
    Ojinaga (or 'OJ' to many) is about five times the size of Presidio at about 30,000, and is one of the most remote and least used crossings on the US/Mexico border. It's about 600 miles between crossings, and so far the violence plaguing Juarez and elsewhere has spared 'OJ'. Also absent is the traffic, long wait times and commercial sleaze associated with larger crossings. Mariachi music and brightly painted buildings will grace our walk the mile to the Plaza, the town square flanked by City Hall with dramatic historical murals on one side and the simple 18th century red-tiled church at the end. Many goods and service a dramatically cheaper here, leading to some of the same medical tourism influences found elsewhere. Many gringos from Terlingua and the region come for dentistry and prescriptions drugs. Tequila is pretty cheap too. Lunch will be in a local cafe, with hopefully the eclectic establishment Fausto's open for perusal. Run by Eduardo Holman, the city's unofficial tourism officer, he also administers the informative and exhaustive website It's a fascinating cultural experience for so easy of a visit, but our feet are probably by now starting to point us back toward the US. A quarter's worth of pesos for each of us on the Mexican side gets us back across the bridge to clear US customs. 
    Now it's time to retrace the River Road, this time though exploring just east of Presidio, the Fort Leaton State Historical Park. Started in 1848 by an Indian bounty hunter, the massive adobe fortress served as a trading post and the location of the oldest continuously cultivated land in the US. Also the scene of tortured tales and family feuding, the interpretive displays in the nearly acre labyrinth structure contrast with the peaceful atmosphere of the two short desert nature trails. Hopefully upon exit the sun is reaching a point to provide golden backlight for the beautiful road ahead. A couple of pull-offs and quick scampers that we passed by yesterday warrant attention today.
    Back over the Big Hill and a few more miles and we'll again exit the east end of the river road, to stop this time at the former border trading post of Lajitas. Named for the flat limestone rocks that made crossing the river here considerably easier for horses and wagons, the storied history of Lajitas ranges from being the western crossing of the Comanche War Trail, to cavalry outpost during the Mexican Revolution, to formerly favored location for trade in both directions of products legal and otherwise. Its latest association is with that of the American tradition of resort development, though reality has not been entirely congruent with the visions of successive developers. Authenticity has a way of succumbing when corporate goals become, "image" and "theme". From actually being a trading post and watering hole, to the first incarnation of the late seventies attempting to compete with Palm Springs, to the more recent "The Ultimate Hideout" destined for the rich and pretending-not-to-be famous, the most recent ownership has vowed and is making strides towards basing its economy in much greater part on locals. Beyond the kitschy faux boardwalk, the restaurant and bar do offer value and quality. We can decide to whet the whistle or not, but definitely a look around is in order. The setting is quite nice, and the contrast between original and new (and associated topics), inexhaustible. Whatever we do, we're but a stone's throw from, "home".



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