Nearly 2,000 miles of hot, dry and mostly inhospitable terrain, the United States’ border with Mexico is not a top tourism destination.
It is a landscape in which one is more likely to find people who are compelled to be there: immigrants crossing into the United States illegally; growing numbers of Border Patrol agents assigned to police and secure the area; vigilantes hoping to stanch the flow of illegal migration; and activists working to support it.
Paul and Nick Pineda, a father and son duo from the Seattle area, have set their sights on the border for another reason: They plan to walk it in its entirety, specifically for the unique challenges it presents.
Part political activism, father-son bonding trip and outdoors adventure, their journey began Wednesday at the southern edge of San Diego, the latest of a small group of trekkers drawn to the border for a complex and emotional mix of personal and political reasons.
Hikers have long found meaning by leaving the comforts of the civilized world to walk vast stretches of land — the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails in the United States or Spain’s Camino de Santiago — as a way to journey within and experience the world without.
But the Pinedas’ journey is more than a personal challenge; it is a political statement, one of an increasingly common type, meant to show that the border and the people trying to cross it — subjects of intense attacks and aggressive policies meant to curb illegal immigration — are not something to be feared.
In El Paso, a cadre of elected officials, from former Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke to the city’s Republican mayor, have sought to rebuke Trump’s characterization of a border in “crisis.” In Nogales, Ariz., the town’s city council unanimously passed a resolution in February to formally condemn six rows of razor wire the U.S. military installed on an existing border fence next to neighborhoods and schools.
The Pinedas decided that the best way to make their point about the border was to walk it.
“I started thinking about how the border is being represented,” Pineda, 58, said about the inspiration behind the trip. He said he was particularly concerned about Trump’s plan for a border wall. “For people south of the border to be feared, that’s a huge concern."
The trip has deep personal dimensions for Pineda, the co-owner of an investment firm in Seattle. He grew up in El Paso and his four grandparents, all from the Chihuahua state in Mexico, crossed into the United States in the early part of the 20th century.
The Pinedas’ journey will not be without dangers. But those dangers are less likely to be the kind found in a political ad and more likely to be the absences of basic human necessities: a lack of people, support stations, shelter and water.
“The biggest risks are physical ones, from the elements and the trek itself,” Pineda said. “And certainly water is a risk in the desert part.”
They plan to hike in three stages. The first will take them from the Pacific Ocean, south of San Diego, to Nogales, Ariz., some 400 miles to cover in just under three weeks. That’s 20 miles per day. Then they will fly back home before attempting the second leg.
While they’re in California, they’ll pass by a town every day or two. But the trail, which weaves through a mix of federal and private land, grows remote in Arizona.
There, the Pinedas will hit Camino del Diablo, the Devil’s Highway, a trail that stretches more than 100 miles and was walked by Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, and gold seekers for hundreds of years. It’s now more popular with ATV riders.
‘The same fervor and fear’
Writer Luke Dittrich hiked the western stretch as part of a feature he wrote for Esquire magazine in 2011. Canoers and kayakers have traveled the length of the Rio Grande, from its origin in southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. And Mark Hainds, an educator in Alabama, walked the entire border in parts between 2014 and 2017. But Tenny Ostrem and Claire Wernstedt-Lynch, two 27-year-olds, are the only ones to have hiked the entire length in one go, according to Outside magazine.
Most, including Ostrem and Wernstedt-Lynch, were drawn by similar reasons to the Pinedas.
Former Daily Beast correspondent Bryan Curtis said the purpose of his adventure was “to paint the U.S.-Mexican border as something more complex than what it had become in some Americans’ imaginations: a region so awash in violence that Obama would send 1,200 National Guardsmen to police it” and that, with any luck, he “would see a small slice of the border as it really was.”
Dittrich said in an interview that the border was a budding political symbol when he hiked it in 2011 — the focus of some vigilante groups at the time like the Minutemen Project — but it was not quite the potent national flash point it is now.
“There was a lot of the same fervor and fear,” Dittrich said. “It’s just the conversation is louder now and more ubiquitous.”
Dittrich said he made it through Camino del Diablo, where he estimated he was not near a water source for a week, but only by carrying on a cart the food and gallons of water he needed. At least 7,500 people have died crossing the border between 1998 and 2018, including 283 last year, according to statistics from Border Patrol.
There are other challenges along the way — a rugged landscape spiked with boulders, canyons and rivers. A seemingly ceaseless array of Border Patrol agents. And large, foreboding “No trespassing” signs on fences.
Ostrem and Wernstedt-Lynch also rejected the notion that the border was a lawless and dangerous place went they traversed it in November 2017. But even within that frame, the two women, experienced hikers who met on the expert-level Appalachian Trail, felt their expectations were challenged by the trip.
For one, they imagined a bunch of surly ranchers yelling at them to get off their property, shotgun in hands. Instead, they found a warm community of people who would often invite them for dinner, a water refill or a night at their house.
The border towns they passed through were not the down-on-their-luck way stations they imagined. They were thriving cities stitched together from communities on both sides of the border — Laredo, Tex., and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico; Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico — where international commerce was evident. Today, the border has 47 ports of entry on land through which about a half-million trucks, cars and pedestrians enter the United States each day.
They knew they were going to interact with Border Patrol — they estimated they saw agents about 10 times a day — and they expected an aggressive posture. What the women found were courteous professionals who offered them water and inquired about their purpose each morning, a message they communicated down the line, so they’d be left alone after that.
“A lot of the stereotypes we had going into this have really been rearranged,” Ostrem said.
It was an example, they say, of the privilege that their passport and their fair skin afforded them.
They published a digital diary, documenting personal struggles and triumphs. They recount an afternoon spent distributing water with the nonprofit Border Angels, the relief that came from the support given by family and friends who rafted supplies down the Rio Grande as they walked in Texas, and stories about their three encounters with migrants.
They had resolved to steer clear as possible from any migrants or smugglers in the area, and the closest they got to either was because of a lost phone. Ostrem had to backtrack to find it. She heard some rocks slide nearby and saw a person.
“He was kind of hunkered down in this kind of protected position; he didn’t want anything to do with me,” she said. “And it was one of those moments where you’re like, ‘You’re more scared of me than me of you.’”
Dittrich, in the part of the trip he did, said his biggest surprise was that he didn’t see a single person crossing the border.
Creating a record
Paul and his son, an aspiring filmmaker, are documenting their trip on Instagram and Facebook, and they may write something longer or compile the videos into a documentary when it’s over. They don’t know when the second leg will start, but they hope the whole journey will be done within two years.
Pineda foresees the possibility that border politics will influence future legs of the trip.
“It’s a negotiation with my wife,” he said.
Dittrich for his part never completed his trip as other projects kept getting in the way. He noted that not all of the insight he gained along the way was lofty and grand.
“It was physically really arduous,” he said. “The importance of foot care ended up being one of the lessons I took away.”
Clarification: This article was updated to reflect that Tenny Ostrem and Claire Wernstedt-Lynch were the first hikers to cross the entirety of the border in one go. Mark J. Hainds hiked the border in segments between 2014 and 2017.