I took some care in planning our road trip back to New York. The I-15 – I-70 route was by far the prettiest but it would be foolish to assume no snow in the Rockies in the middle of February. I chose against going back on I-40, the road we took to California, because it was in the path of the rain we were fleeing in LA. Besides, Flagstaff was on I-40 and I had no desire to drive through the snow that was likely to be on its roads. That left I-10, which added miles to our trip but was far enough south to avoid snow, and the weather report—at least for the western states—predicted clear skies and dry roads.
The only impediment to getting out of town was the traffic, which clung to us like unwanted lint all the way to Palm Desert. After that we were able to test the boundaries of our engine and ability to avoid speed traps through the Mohave and southern Arizona. By nightfall we had reached Tucson and were ready to call it a night. There was just one problem: the first four motels we stopped at were booked up. This seemed odd. Yes, it was President’s Day Weekend and a time to travel, but there was nowhere to go and nothing to do in the nearby surroundings. Our original plan to stop and see friends nearly Las Vegas was thwarted for this very reason. But at least there you had the lure of gambling and shows. Here there was just scrub yucca trees and truck stops.
Five miles off the Interstate we found a sign for a hotel in a little town called Wilcox. It sounded promising, The Royal Oaks Inn, and we hoped against hope that not only would it have rooms but was also pet friendly. It did, but the place was neither Royal nor had an oak tree in sight. It was one of those motels that had its heyday before the Interstate was created and had done nothing to redeem itself since then. The one thing in its favor was that the heat worked and the proprietors looked kindly on our dog.
The next day also brought clear skies and little traffic and by noon we were approaching El Paso. Our plan was to cut across Texas and Arkansas and meet up with I-40 at Memphis, and El Paso was our turning point. But a few miles short of the city our GPS told us to exit on to a state highway in New Mexico. This too was odd, I thought. We double checked with another GPS program, and it told us the same thing. So far on this trip we had driven through road construction, and even the largest project was able to make it work with just a lane closure or two, not an entire Interstate. This couldn’t have anything to do with road repair., I concluded.
My mind jumped to the next logical conclusion. We were near the border. Our president has just issued a National Emergency two days earlier. So this road closure must have something to do with that. My assumption was justified a few minutes later when I saw that the road to Juarez, Mexico, was closed as well. The exit was blocked not by a wall but by six hefty construction vehicles parked side by side across the roadway. It didn’t seem like much of a blockage as it would have been pretty easy for all those Mexican criminals to simply walk around them. But what do I know?
We followed the signs for the detour and eventually made our way back to I-10. I thought we had successfully navigated ourselves away from any more hindrances. But a few miles later there was a large sign overhead: All vehicles must stop ahead.
This must be one of those agricultural checkpoints, like the ones California has at all its borders with the rest of the world, I thought. Most of the time they waved cars through without a second thought and I imagined that was what was in stake for us. I also thought our New York plates would provide some insurance that we were just traveling through and not worth their time.
Then we grew closer and I could see the line of red brake lights ahead of us. Everyone was stopping. A few feet ahead I saw the sign: United States Border Patrol. Never did I imagine that by taking the southern route we’d be faced with a border check, especially one that was a good 25 miles or so north of the border. But here we were.
There was another sign that indicated we should secure our pets. Did that mean they were planning on full inspections of every car that passed through here? I thought first about the time when I was a teenager on my first visit to California and the border agents seized a bag of oranges that my sister had taken with us on a short ride to Tijuana. My mind scanned the bag of snacks in the back seat and relaxed, realizing that our propensity for eating junk on the road paid off. There wasn’t a piece of fresh fruit in sight.
Then a shiver ran through me. As we neared the front of the line, could see two German Shepherds being held on tight leashes by two border guards. What would they do with us? Did we have to secure our pets because they’d be entering the car and see my twelve-pound dog as lunch?
I grabbed Rocky’s collar and held him close. I also worried that he—being a dog who had no understanding of his size—would try to intimidate these giant dogs with his menacing bark and we’d have a fight on our hands. Who knew how many other German Shepherds were out there, trying to keep our country safe from rapists. I could spot only those two from my vantage point but there has to be much more. After all, we were in a state of emergency.
Then I got another disturbing thought. Those New York plates of ours were actually a red flag to these people. No one would be crazy enough to be driving from New York to Texas in the winter for pleasure. They’d have to conclude we must be up to no good and would definitely mark us for full inspection, maybe even a full body inspection as well. Did my plan to avoid the weather backfire? Nothing like this would have happened on I-40.
Slowly we crept forward and before my mind went to the hundreds of migrants that had to have been stuffed in the semi next to us, we reached the front of the line. The two guards I had spotted earlier were the only agents there. Where were the hundreds of soldiers that had been sent down to the border? They weren’t here. The two German Shepherds were the only dogs around also, and up close they didn’t seem as menacing as the image I conjured in my mind. Nevertheless, they did have good working nostrils and I steeled myself for what might happen next.
My husband lowered his window slightly as we reached the first agent. He smiled and waved us forward. I thought he was sending us to the agent in front of him, but this other man also smiled and wished us a happy day.
That was it. No inspection, no questions, no wondering what we may have been hiding under the blankets in our back seat. No search of our glove compartment or questions about what a New York couple was doing in Texas in February.
I looked to my right and saw another agent casually waving the semi along without making it stop either. How did he know he wasn’t letting a trailer full of fentanyl or those migrants into the country? What was the point of having this border stop if everyone was allowed to pass through? Weren’t we in the midst of an emergency? Wasn’t the border a hotbed of murderers and rapists that had to be stopped at all costs?
On the other hand, maybe these agents of the US Border Patrol knew something that I didn’t. Maybe they didn’t see every vehicle and every person as an enemy of the people. Maybe there was no national emergency after all.
These were thoughts that stayed with me for the next 1500 miles, as we sped through Texas and Arkansas and into Eastern Standard Time. We managed to dodge the storms that were blowing eastward across the country and had dry roads all the way to our house. The only snow we hit was on our driveway.
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