Run Over

Small towns in the Big Bend area brace for an onslaught of Mexican trucks rolling their way thanks to NAFTA

But all this depends on the complete Mexican highway being built. The Ojinaga bypass is just one leg of an ambitious plan by Mexican engineers to build an improved corridor all the way from the Texas border to the Pacific Coast. By 2006 or 2007, Mexico hopes to have a truck route connecting Ojinaga to Topolobampo, a deepwater port on the Gulf of California that is an emerging hub for Mexico's Asian imports.

If that happens, Mexican planners say, the trucks arriving in the Big Bend, hauling goods from Taiwan, Korea and Japan, could be counted in the hundreds of thousands a year, changing the region's karma completely. Once in the United States the 18-wheelers will go north up the winding two-lane U.S. 67, through the Chinati Mountains, past the Shafter ghost town, Elephant Rock and into Marfa.

From there, the trucks either can go east through Paisano Pass to Alpine or north to Fort Davis. In each case, they will rumble through the centers of tiny West Texas towns neither designed for nor accustomed to heavy truck traffic. And nowhere immediately north of Presidio will they be welcome.

Eastbound U.S. 67 going through Alpine, Texas, offers only two lanes for traffic, and local residents there worry that the opening of the new highway being built in Chihuahua will jam and pollute their quaint town.
John Davenport/San Antonio Express-News/San Antoni
Eastbound U.S. 67 going through Alpine, Texas, offers only two lanes for traffic, and local residents there worry that the opening of the new highway being built in Chihuahua will jam and pollute their quaint town.
A teen-age boy rides his horse down what soon will be a super highway cutting a wide swath through the Chihuahuan Desert connecting Mexico's west coast with Presidio, Texas. Texans have mixed reactions to the notion of large volumes of Mexican truck traffic passing through the Big Bend area.
John Davenport/San Antonio Express-News
A teen-age boy rides his horse down what soon will be a super highway cutting a wide swath through the Chihuahuan Desert connecting Mexico's west coast with Presidio, Texas. Texans have mixed reactions to the notion of large volumes of Mexican truck traffic passing through the Big Bend area.

"A thousand trucks a day will have a devastating effect on Marfa. We're a little tourist town. Folks come here on their way to the Big Bend National Park or the McDonald Observatory," says Teresa Todd, the Presidio County attorney, who lives in Marfa (population 2,500). "The thing I'm real concerned about is regulating hazardous materials. That [U.S. 67] is the road of death. We have so many accidents on it. If we have 1,000 trucks a day coming through, how are we going to regulate it?" she asks.

Todd says that although talk about the truck route has been heard for sometime, until recently not everyone took it seriously. The reports of highway construction in Mexico have changed that. "People thought, 'Oh, the Mexicans won't get it together,' but from all appearances, they do have it together, and we don't. It's just sort of dawning on us. Oh, shit. This is about to get really bad," she says of the truck traffic.

In nearby Alpine, a loosely organized group of activists called Tourists Not Trucks, or TNT, is pondering the strategy of linking arms across U.S. 67 to block arriving Mexican trucks.

"I don't know anyone in Alpine who is in favor of it. We've done petitions and letters asking for anyone who likes the idea to come forward, and so far no one has spoken for it," says Pam Gaddis, a TNT member. "For a while we've tried to communicate our concerns on this side of the border, but it seems the future is in the hands of the Mexicans if they build the road."

Out here, where the air is clear, the spaces are wide, and the deer and the antelope do indeed play, often in plain view by the roadside, there is a sense of a special place.

In Alpine, there are no Wal-Marts or mini-malls. Instead, ranching, tourism and Sul Ross University provide the jobs, and principled individualism is a way of life.

In Marfa, which wears the well-appointed look of ongoing gentrification, cultural foundations outnumber feed stores. Here a visitor can buy the Sunday New York Times, drink a cup of fresh espresso or a glass of French wine and view some modern art in a local gallery.

The late Donald Judd, a minimalist sculptor known for his burnished aluminum boxes, bought Fort Russell in Marfa and made it into a showplace for modern art, including his own work. In May, more than 400 critics, scholars and admirers traveled there to see a symposium on the work of artist Dan Flavin and to tour his complex fluorescent light display. The show consisted of 336 colored lights arranged in narrow white rooms.

Many Texans, both locals and visitors, consider these towns, and the surrounding Big Bend region, to be sacred ground, rich in history and natural beauty and unspoiled by development. Few can see the addition of tens of thousands of diesel-belching Mexican trucks as anything but degradation.

"A lot of people have put a lot of time into protecting this area. We want this area to be pure," says Kari Todd, 51, of Alpine. "I live here for health reasons. A lot of other people live here for health reasons, as well. I think of it as the last good place in the United States."


Looking back, it was only a matter of time before the next attempt would come to exploit Connelly's visionary West Texas route. The logistics and the lines on the map are too alluring.

In the century and a half since, others have tried to establish a viable trade route through the Big Bend to the Pacific. Among them was railroad impresario Albert Kinsey Owen, who in 1872 visited Topolobampo in search of a shorter rail route to the United States.

Owen invested 30 years of his life in the venture and then passed the idea along to Arthur Stillwell of Kansas City. Stillwell already had made a name for himself by constructing a line from Kansas City to Port Arthur, which bears his name, and he was receptive. But Stillwell's subsequent attempt to link West Texas and Mexico by rail failed. The Mexican Revolution intervened, and between Pancho Villa and Stillwell's unforgiving New York City financiers, his plan to reach the Pacific Coast was doomed.

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