Border Odyssey (University of Texas Press, 2015) takes readers on a drive toward understanding the U.S./Mexican border. Author Charles D. Thompson Jr. traverses barriers and roadblocks, chronicling his conversations with ordinary people, activists, border officials and anyone else who will answer his questions. In this excerpt, Thompson contemplates two words of two writers who influenced his travels.
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John Steinbeck’s books about agricultural workers, including The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, and Of Mice and Men, have been seminal to my understanding of farm work. But his book Travels with Charley, a tale of his cross-country trip with his dog, is the one that most helped me understand my odyssey. He went on his journey, he said, because he felt distant from this country. Though he had worked as a farmworker advocate and written dozens of works that captured the 1930s as well as anyone, Steinbeck said he was out of touch. Without travel, writing dies, he said.
Steinbeck wrote, “An American writer, writing about America” needs to soak in more than one can learn from “books and newspapers.” A writer has to get moving. Though he had traveled much while young, he had lately lived too much in one place. “I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass, the trees, the sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. . . . In short, I was writing about something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal.”
In 1962, Steinbeck left in his truck “Rocinante” to see the country. Rounding the West and heading south to Louisiana, he drove directly into the land of blatant racism. There he picked up a hitchhiker who spewed epithets. Steinbeck stopped and made him get out, and the man screamed “Nigger lover” at him as he drove away. Steinbeck would continue through the South, ending his sojourn at Abingdon, Virginia, near where I grew up.
Steinbeck would have understood our trip, though not many others did. No travel guides would have dared recommend it. Tour groups had canceled their itineraries anywhere near the border. The State Department had renewed travel warnings for the entire border region. Friends cautioned us to avoid the risk. Family members wanted reassurances about our safety, and some asked hard questions we couldn’t answer. But I listened to the quixotic voices like Steinbeck’s instead. His plan had been simply to hop into his truck and circumnavigate the nation without much of an itinerary. He called his journey “clear, concise, and reasonable,” and then named his truck after Don Quixote’s horse and began to wander the countryside, a knight errant. He said, “After years of struggle, we find that we do not take a trip, but a trip takes us.” The struggle he referred to is one with ourselves, as happens when we try to give up control and trust in the motive even when everything else is shaky.
I remember using the phrase “good fences make good neighbors” a few times in casual conversations back when I was first starting our farm. I must have been drawn to the cliché’s apparent nod to self-reliance and ownership, its allusion to agriculture and the hard work that farm fences symbolize. I thought I agreed with it. But in 1985, shortly before the Latino men started working for me, I read Robert Frost’s full poem, “Mending Wall.” Frost states, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and quotes his neighbor saying, “Good fences make good neighbors,” but then he calls it into question. “I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: / ‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it / Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. / Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out/ And to whom I was like to give offense.” I had been completely wrong about the line. If you build a fence for anything other than cattle, Frost believed, you contain as much as you keep out.
When I returned to the poem again in the context of our border travels several decades later, I realized that the “something there is,” complex even for Frost to put into words, was why I was going south. That “something” urged me on with the same heartfelt feeling that made Ronald Reagan’s memorable “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” resonate with so many Americans.
Though many times our country had failed miserably at promoting freedom here and abroad, President Reagan’s speech at the Berlin Wall had been a shining moment that touched on America’s best ideals. What citizen could disagree? We stood for tearing down walls between people. Something there is—deep down in America, in Americans—that doesn’t love a wall. Travel is more our style. If nothing else, we, “the huddled masses, the wretched refuse of teeming shores,” know what it means to be on the move. Our dreams are in motion.
This excerpt is from Border Odyssey: Travels along the U.S./Mexico Divide (copyright © 2015 by the University of Texas Press) by Charles D. Thompson. For more information visit the University of Texas Press.