PRESIDIO, Texas--On April 2, 1839, a caravan of Mexican traders led by Missouri merchant Henry Connelly left Chihuahua City in search of a more direct trade route to the north than through El Paso.
Accompanied by 50 Mexican dragoons, Connelly and his company marched northeast through the Chihuahuan Desert past the rugged Peguis Mountains. After arriving at Ojinaga, they crossed the Rio Grande to Presidio and continued northward.
The expedition reached Arkansas a year later, before turning back along the same route with 80 wagons of commercial goods and an American equestrian circus eager to perform in Mexico.
But Connelly's bold gambit failed. Because of the extreme rigors of the trail and tariff difficulties with Mexican customs at Ojinaga, the trade trip was never repeated.
And for more than a century and a half, El Paso has remained unrivaled as Chihuahua's gateway to El Norte. But now, another ambitious plan is under way to open a trade corridor over Connelly's old wagon tracks. By next spring, Presidio and the Big Bend should feel the impact as Mexican trucks begin arriving in the United States along the new route. "It's not a question of whether the trucks are coming, or if we want them or not. The trucks are coming," says Barry Sullivan, the city manager of Presidio. "It's like Field of Dreams. Mexico is building the road, and they will come."
The new international truck route has every likelihood of commercial success. It is equally likely to bring unwanted change to the Shangri-la ambience of the Big Bend, and many here view the road with loathing.
"It's purely bad news from the standpoint of what we prize about the area. We prize some things more than money, and one is this lovely place," says Brewster County Judge Val Beard, who lives in Alpine, an easygoing, uncluttered town of nearly 6,000 that lies on the new truck route.
"A year ago we had people saying, 'We're not going to have this.' But stopping a major highway is exceedingly difficult. If [Mexico's] timetable holds and they do shift their truck traffic, we are liable to have a five-star mess," she says.
A century and a half after Connelly's failed expedition, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are commercial behemoths, swollen and soiled with maquiladora commerce. Their 2 million residents live astride an almost imaginary international border.
One hundred thirty miles down river, Presidio (population 4,200) remains a sleepy backwater port, known only to visitors to Big Bend National Park just to the east, and to Ojinaga, its unspoiled Mexican sister city just across the Rio Grande.
Alone among Texas border cities, Presidio remains untouched by the heavy hand of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Here there are no traffic jams, truck stops or customs warehouses. Nor are there many jobs. "It's a poor town. Most of our workers go somewhere else to work. There's hardly any agriculture left. There's just a few onions," says Edmundo Nieto, 82, owner of a local store.
If anything, NAFTA set Presidio back a few strides.
"Most of our trade was with Mexico, but when NAFTA came in, we lost all that. Now they can get anything they want in Mexico, in Chihuahua. My business went down 50 percent. We used to sell a lot of appliances, but no more," Nieto says. The town wears the dusty, weary look of long-term benign neglect. Just a few years back, Presidio got its first sidewalks; many of its streets remain unpaved, and alfalfa still grows a block from downtown.
"We're the last untapped crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border," Sullivan, the city manager, says.
But a new highway bypass is being cut through the desert south of Ojinaga, and by early next year, when the first convoys of heavy Mexican trucks begin arriving, Presidio's dog days will end. The 75-mile bypass will get truckers around a nasty stretch of canyons just south of Ojinaga that for a half-century has effectively blocked commercial traffic from using the route. The new bypass is just part of an overall Mexican highway project designed to transform Ojinaga into a major border port for exports to the American Midwest and East Coast.
"It's a big project and an expensive one, but it's part of the infrastructure improvements that Mexico has to make to take advantage of NAFTA," says Alberto Beltran, a Chihuahuan state engineer, during a tour of the project. "When the highway comes through, it will put some life back into this place," he says of the small Mexican towns on the route.
It will also liven things up considerably in Presidio. Last year, fewer than 10,000 Mexican trucks crossed here, a tiny fraction of the 730,000 that entered El Paso from Ciudad Juarez or the 1.5 million that crossed at Laredo.
How many will arrive here next year? In five years? In a decade? No one knows, but it is the stated goal of Chihuahua Governor Patricio Martinez to divert much of the truck traffic now going through Ciudad Juarez to Ojinaga.
Some people believe Presidio eventually will be counting trucks by the thousands per week instead of thousands per year and that in a decade or two, it could rival El Paso or Laredo as a commercial port.
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.
"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.
Blaming his bankruptcy on "the cannibals of Wall Street," Stillwell ultimately lost control of the project. And although the South Orient line was completed decades later, it has never reached its potential. The idle line, now called the Texas Pacifico, is being leased from the Texas Department of Transportation by a Mexican railroad company that hopes to restore it to service. But Stillwell's line soon may be eclipsed by a highway project called La Entrada al Pacifico, which has been promoted since the early 1990s by business groups in Mexico and West Texas.
"La Entrada al Pacifico is essential to opening Texas to the explosive marketplaces of the Pacific Rim and East Asia. Topolobampo is an attractive alternative to the crowded Port of Los Angeles. Having more trucks use the border crossing at Presidio eases pressure on the overburdened international crossings at El Paso," reads a piece of literature promoting the project.
Backers of La Entrada see it as both logical and inevitable. "This is a century-old idea. It's not something we dreamed up. It's the shortest route from the Pacific Coast to the heartland of the United States. I think it saves 500 miles over going through Los Angeles," says Buddy Sipes, a Midland oilman. "It's nothing new. It's just that now people are realizing it's going to be a reality."
Ready or not, it is only a matter of months before the Mexican trucks begin rolling across the two-lane bridge into Presidio, Sipes says.
"When the trucks come onto the U.S. roads, the Texas roads, it's gonna make an impact on them. Their sleepy little lifestyles will end for a while unless they get bypasses around their cities," he says. "I'm afraid they're gonna sit there and say, no, no, no, until the trucks start coming. There is no way they can stop the trucks from coming down their main streets without providing an alternative," he says. Sipes is a member of the Midland Odessa Transportation Alliance (MOTRAN), which has been pushing for a north-south trade route through West Texas since 1993, a year after NAFTA became law.
The group started out using the acronym MOTA until it learned this was Spanish slang for marijuana. It then switched to MOTRAN, which means nothing in either Spanish or English. MOTRAN's early hopes of convincing state highway officials to complete a four-lane highway south from Lubbock to Midland have given way to more modest ambitions.
The La Entrada al Pacifico plan calls for routing Mexican traffic through Presidio and north to Fort Stockton, Odessa and Midland. The U.S. highways would be improved as the traffic load dictates. MOTRAN founder Charles Perry of Odessa believes the region, now dependent on the declining oil patch, will benefit from becoming a major trade link with Mexico. He and others have worked closely with government officials in Chihuahua and Sinaloa who were quick to begin investing in their end of the multistage project. Besides constructing the new bypass south of Ojinaga, engineers are widening other stretches of highway to Chihuahua City and planning new construction all the way to the coast. The critical link is a planned four-lane highway over the 7,000-foot Sierra Nevada. It would connect the states of Chihuahua and Sinaloa, but so far this ambitious highway has not received necessary federal funding. If it is built, Mexican truckers will have an improved highway all the way from Topolobampo through Chihuahua City to Ojinaga. "I wouldn't be surprised if 10 years from now, there are 1,000 trucks a day coming in through Ojinaga and Presidio. It could have a significant economic effect on Midland and Odessa if our local people develop the infrastructure," Perry says. Other bold projections from Mexico suggest as many as 4,000 trucks a day when the route is fully developed in a decade or two. But, Perry says, for the small Texas towns on the route, there is little to look forward to from La Entrada al Pacifico.
"Marfa and Alpine are too small and are not major hubs. The only one between us and the border we think will benefit significantly is Fort Stockton. It sits on [Interstate 10] and will have some possibilities for warehousing," he says. For all their efforts, the MOTRAN group has not convinced either Texas or federal officials to spend a dime on improving roads and services on the U.S. side in anticipation of the truck route.
Despite numerous green highway signs marking the designated route of La Entrada al Pacifico, so far the state highway officials have adopted a wait-and-see approach.
Mexican officials, on the other hand, are going full-speed ahead and are optimistic the entire highway will be built in the next five to six years. "We have talked to the businesses in Sinaloa. Right now they send more than 100,000 produce trailers a year to the East Coast of the United States. Once the highway is complete, they will then go to the port of Presidio to save a lot of time," says Miguel Calderon, director of the state industrial board for Chihuahua. "And this doesn't include the traffic from the maquiladoras or from the Pacific Coast. And also there is traffic from Torreon and Durango that could go through Ojinaga."
Calderon says talks are already beginning about adding a second bridge in Ojinaga or widening the existing narrow bridge that connects Mexico with Presidio. In late May, Joaquin Barrios, head of highway planning for Chihuahua, traveled to Austin to give a presentation to Texas Department of Transportation commissioners about progress on La Entrada al Pacifico.
"We see this as an industrial-type corridor that will increase development in all the towns it goes through," he told the TxDOT commissioners. In his presentation, Barrios used maps to outline the progress of work on the various stages of the highway from the border to Pacific. "The state of Chihuahua is very interested right now in finishing this great highway. It is the shortest way to the sea," he said.
A businessman from Sinaloa who also traveled to Austin said his government also has high hopes for the new highway. "Commerce follows natural laws. It takes the shortest route," said Mario Cadena of the Sinaloa Development Council.
"A minimum of a third of the traffic from Sinaloa will go up that route, not even counting traffic from Chihuahua," he said. "Right now we send 1,000 trucks a day to Arizona because we don't have good highways. Certainly, a lot of that traffic will go east," he said.
Despite all the talk of heavy truck traffic, TxDOT planners are skeptical. They have no plans to upgrade roads and build bypasses around the Big Bend towns likely to be most affected.
Instead, this fall, TxDOT will begin a study to determine the traffic needs of the region, with the potential Mexican truck traffic factored into the equation. Should bypasses be needed, it will take five to eight years to build them. "I see an increase in traffic, but nothing we can't handle with the infrastructure on the U.S. side. It's more than adequate for the next few years," says Manny Aguilera, a TxDOT engineer in El Paso. "Marfa is fairly simple to bypass. Alpine would be a bit harder because of the terrain. Fort Davis would be almost impossible, so the route would have to go through Alpine."
State Representative Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, is also unflustered.
"Is the truck traffic coming? Yeah, it's coming. Highway 67 is built along the Old Chihuahuan Trail, and by virtue of geography, Marfa and Alpine will get the traffic, but I'm not convinced we'll see 100,000 trucks a year," he says. "As far as I see it, I'm trying to protect and preserve the quality of life in these counties, while yet admitting we're in the 21st century and that we have to make accommodations."
Only in Presidio is La Entrada al Pacifico seen as anything but a curse. In a town where few people have good jobs, working in a truck stop or motel sounds downright attractive. And who knows, a little development might bring a permanent doctor, dentist and a pharmacy.
"We're talking about women having babies on the highway between Presidio and Alpine because there is a doctor here only once or twice a week," says City Manager Sullivan, who favors the truck route. "I think long-term it will be good for Presidio. It will develop hotels and truck stops, and an individual truck stop brings in millions of dollars."
But Sullivan says he is worried about Presidio being "run over." "I'm pushing like all get-out through every resource I know, state and federal, to get more action. If we get the roads, we'll be successful. If we don't, you'll see more little crosses between Presidio and Marfa. It's already beginning to look like a graveyard with all the people killed," he says.
The Presidio city manager reacted angrily to downstream opposition in Alpine on environmental and aesthetic grounds. "Alpine gets their government welfare check through the university up there. That's a subsidized state university, and it creates the biggest section of jobs. If that university left, there would be screaming for a truck highway," he says.
And although the sign at the city limits of Marfa shows a cowboy on a bucking bronco and reads, "Marfa is What the West Was," in fact, Marfa is what much of the West could never imagine being.
In the last two decades, it has been transformed from a tired old ranching town into a cultural mecca. Most of downtown is owned by foundations for writers, artists and architects, and crusty ranchers mix easily with pilgrims coming from as far away as Europe. James Shead, 35, of London, recently found himself in Marfa, drawn by the chance to see the work of artist Donald Judd, who created the Chinati Foundation. "This is like a pilgrimage really. I've admired his work for a long time," he says. Shead's first impressions of Marfa were also powerful. "Marfa is fantastic. There's a quality of light here that's very special. Last night we went up to see the Marfa Lights, which apparently, I did see," he says, referring to unexplained lights that appear on the horizon outside of town. He recoiled at the news of an impending heavy truck route. "This so-called progress is atrocious, isn't it?" he says.
Activists in Marfa already are preparing to do battle. "This is all about giving Midland and Odessa a deepwater port. The only people it will benefit is someone who's going to open up a truck stop or motel. For all the rest of us, it's noise pollution and traffic," says Gary Oliver, a local cartoonist.
"I'm very concerned about the character of this place changing. Groups of people are moving here for aesthetic reasons. The idea of a lot of truck traffic, as opposed to artists and tourists, is not what I want to see," Oliver says.
Citing past victories in regional environmental battles against creating waste dumps in Sierra Blanca and Andrews County, Oliver sounded a brave if lonely call to arms against the impending truck invasion. "These guys don't have any more money than the nuke-dump people had, and we beat two of them," he says.
Meanwhile, out of sight, three hours to the south, Mexican highway crews are laying asphalt, blasting rock and building bridges. And next spring, the trucks are coming.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.