By Ashley Lodato
I remember the first time I spent a Christmas away from my family. (Incredibly, I was in my mid-20s by the time this occurred.) I was working for Outward Bound in southwest Texas in the Chihuahuan Desert, near the Big Bend National Park, along the silty ribbon of Rio Grande that serves as the US-Mexico border.
This was before 9/11, before ICE, before the Homeland Security Act, before helicopter patrols and detention centers and fences and walls. Along this remote stretch of river there were hundreds of border crossings every day in both directions, as Mexican citizens waded across the river, or ferried in small rowboats, or rode donkey carts to jobs on the northern side of the border, and American citizens took these same conveyances across the Rio Grande to the southern shore to visit family and friends, or eat lunch in one of the numerous open-air cantinas situated on high bluffs in tiny Mexican outposts. There were, of course, one-way border crossings as well, always from south to north. As we canoed the river or hiked across the desert, we’d occasionally see traces: a lone sandal, charred tamarisk sticks, scraps of T-shirt fabric impaled on a lethal lechugilla.
Boundaries were fluid back then. Not the U.S.-Mexico border, which had distinct topographic delineation, but the other boundaries: the lines we drew around families, and social groups, and friendships. One such boundary defined us, the 20 or so Outward Bound staff working in Redford, Texas, that winter season. While not a haphazardly assembled group, we were also not an intact one, having been brought together by jobs and circumstance and a common desire to explore wild places that soon became special to us.
That Christmas of 1995 we gathered at two weathered picnic tables outside our cement-block lodgings for a potluck dinner. No turkey or goose — none of us had an oven big enough for even a small bird — but someone had made the drive to Presidio to get a couple of roasted chickens-in-a-bag, and we shredded the meat onto pillowy soft tortillas, prepared that morning by one of the local women. With avocados fresh from a nearby grove, cabbage from the farm across the road, and homemade salsa, the spread was so simple as to be laughable compared with a modern American Christmas dinner, but it seemed a feast to us.
We sat under the desert sky as the light faded and the horizon turned purple, until we could only make out the spiky outlines of the creosote and ocotillo and mesquite surrounding us. We talked about our families, and what they were probably doing right then, and how although it was odd not to be with family, it was also liberating. Because we realized that whatever paths our lives ended up following, we could stretch our boundaries, open our arms to people special to us the same way we had opened our arms to the untamed landscape that drew us together that year, encompassing not just the families we were born into, but also the ones we now chose to create.