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Travel

We Talked to the Man Walking the Length of the US-Mexico Border

The first leg of Mark Hainds's journey—1,010 miles of Texas borderlands—is the subject of a new documentary, La Frontera.

by Ted Hesson
Oct 4 2016, 3:59pm

Mark Hainds on his trek across the Texas-Mexico border

When Mark Hainds set off to walk the length of the Texas-Mexico border two years ago, it wasn't to make a political statement. Mainly, he just wanted an escape.

Hainds, a forestry expert in his mid-40s, was feeling overwhelmed by dual positions as a researcher at Auburn University and the Longleaf Alliance, an Alabama-based nonprofit organization dedicated to studying and preserving the longleaf pine ecosystem. So he left, to "get away from the modern world" for a while.

He began the trip in El Paso on October 27, 2014, and hiked 1,010 miles of Texas borderlands over a seven-week period (including a one-week hiatus to return to Alabama, where he wrapped up some teaching duties). During his trek, he encountered a group of recent border-crossers, drug smugglers, cowboys, a few other hikers, and a daily dose of Border Patrol and law enforcement agents.

The journey, chronicled by documentary filmmaker Rex Jones, will appear in an hour-long documentary La Frontera, which will be available online beginning October 7. But Hainds's journey doesn't end there: On December 21, he intends to walk the remaining length of the border from New Mexico to California. Hainds believes he'll be the first person to walk the entire length of the southern border.

We connected with Hainds ahead of the release of La Frontera to hear about the first border walk and what he expects when he hits the trail again at the end of the year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mark Hainds and two of his "Compadres" on Old Mines Road. All photos courtesy of Mark Hainds

VICE: Where did you start the first border walk?
Mark Hainds:
I started at International Boundary Marker Number One in El Paso, Texas. That's where they laid in the border between us and Mexico, and they've got a big marker there. And then I followed the trail or the road that was closest to the Rio Grande all the way to Boca Chica beach in the Gulf of Mexico. I followed the Rio Grande, but I cut off horseshoes and stuff. If you followed every twist and turn, it's like 1,200 miles. I walked 1,010.

To help me out, I had what I called my "Tex-Mex Compadres," who were volunteers, friends of mine, who came out for a week to two weeks at a time, to bring me food and water and to pick me up when I needed to be picked up. So there were about a dozen different people who visited me over the course of the walk.

We've heard a lot about the possibility of a border wall lately. How do people feel about it down there?
Rex Jones, the documentary filmmaker who traveled with me, interviewed [everyone from] right-wing libertarian ranchers to Spanish families that have been there for multiple generations. Almost everyone said that further construction of the wall is the dumbest thing we could possibly do with our funds. From right-wing to left-wing, they were all against further construction of the wall.

A lot of people don't realize it's already there. I walked along large portions of the wall. You cross hundreds of miles. And there are urban areas where it probably makes a lot of sense, but then you hit the center portion of my walk, you start getting in what's called the Big Bend area, and everything to the south of that is called the despoblado, which in Spanish basically means "abandoned zone." The locals there, they don't call the agents the Border Patrol, they call them the "Boredom Patrol" because there's nothing for them to do in the center of that range—there's nobody coming across. So why in the world would you spend billions of dollars putting up a wall there?

Did you run into any trouble along the way?
Yes. I mean, it's the border. It's 1,010 miles. There is no path; this is not something like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. I had to make my own way, which meant I had to take the trail or the road that was closest to the border. In many cases, they're called public roads, but they might be blown out or impassable using vehicles, so I would walk 60 or 100 miles between human habitation. In many cases, it was remote and so rugged that the Border Patrol doesn't go very far down those roads. They patrol the edges because if you head in there, you're by yourself, and there's no way for any backup to get there. I walked through smuggler zones and stuff.

How did you know they were smugglers?
There was one encounter that I know for sure. I had been dropped off in the early morning by a friend, one of my Tex-Mex Compadres. He drove off, and I was standing in the road basically adjusting my backpack and getting ready. I was a few yards away from an intersection, and when I looked up, there was a car parked in front of me.

I thought, That's weird. And then the trunk popped open, and I thought, This is not good at all. A bunch of guys ran out with boxes and, really fast, they jumped out of the brush and were stuffing this car full of dope. I was just standing there in the middle of the road. In the process, one of them looked up, saw me, and pointed in my direction, and they all looked at me. So that was pretty scary. That was on Old Military Road. It's a major smuggling area. The governor, I think it was Perry at the time, had put hundreds of state patrol down in that area, so they were all over the place. Every five or ten minutes, I was coming across a state patrol, but the smugglers were still bringing it through, right in the middle of all that.

What is that area like?
That was on Old Mines Road, an incredibly remote section between Eagle Pass and Laredo. It's a 100-mile stretch that's paved on the ends, but most of it is just a washboarded dirt road. So you're walking Old Mines and the only traffic that we came across, the only people that you see are the oil and gas workers. That was at the peak of the oil and gas boom. They were working kind of on the ends of Old Mines Road putting in wells. And the Border Patrol. But in the center—about 50 miles of that stretch—there was nobody, except for basically undocumented people coming through there.

The Border Patrol said there's no signal in that area, and it's just too dangerous—they couldn't communicate well—so they didn't even work the center of it. The road is lined with high fences. Much of Texas out there, the main use now is hunting, so they have high fences along the road. And you can see where the fences have been almost demolished by all the people coming and climbing over, all the way up and down the road. It's just every post, someone's been over it. And when you get out on the ends, you see even articles of clothing tied up on the tops of the fences.

Mark Hainds at the marker for Pecos, Texas, about 200 miles east of El Paso

You mentioned Border Patrol. What was your experience with them and other law enforcement agencies along the way?
Once I was in a populated area, it averaged about one interaction a day with law enforcement. That was all branches—from the Border Patrol, sheriffs' deputies, the Texas state patrol, multiple interactions with all of them. What was interesting to me was how little communication there was between the branches of law enforcement. And then the Border Patrol divides everything into sectors, and it might be 100 or more miles between sectors. I would hit a new sector and ten minutes later, the Border Patrol would be there. "Who are you, and where are you going?" And I'd tell the story. Another ten minutes later, I'd have to tell it to another agent, and sometimes this would happen two or three or four times over a fairly short period of time, and then they would put it out—however they shared it, on the radio or at their briefings. Then for the next 80 to 100 miles, I'd see dozens of them, and they would just wave, because they knew who I was. But I hit the next sector, and it started all over because there wasn't communication between sectors. Overall, I was really impressed with my interactions with law enforcement along the way.

What are you expecting with the second half of the walk? Will it be harder?
It's so much more remote, and it's going into more mountainous territory. I had some time in the mountains in Quitman Pass, but this is going to be a lot more remote, a lot more mountainous. And I'll be going at higher elevation in the winter months. On virtually every level, it's going to be more difficult.

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