Among the ways a border is powerless is in staving off the wild spread of fire. On May 21, 2019, a blaze ignited in the remote town of Santa Elena, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from the historic district of Castolon in Big Bend National Park. It incinerated everything in its path.
The Big Bend had gone through a wet winter, which ushered in a spring superbloom. This part of the semi-arid Chihuahuan Desert, normally yellow and erosive, was quickly scattered with wildflowers. Texas bluebonnets lined the dirt path that forked from the paved one and led to Castolon. The Indian paintbrushes, dizzying swatches of crimson, swayed on either side of the Rio Grande—the US-Mexico border— looking like families waving to loved ones. The prickly pear cacti were transformed, too, bearing flowers that were pale pink, yellow and paper-thin.
The invasive buffelgrass, an African native introduced to Texas during the 1940s to combat overgrazed rangelands and to give the cattle something to eat, shot up in fistfuls, creeping around the perimeter of Castolon’s buildings, among them the historic latrine and former army barracks, now home to La Harmonia Store and the Castolon Visitor Center. The buffelgrass had been a concern for some time, along with the cane and saltcedar, two other species brought in to address resource depletion and that had, in effect, become problems themselves.
Buffelgrass, in particular, posed a fire hazard; it burned bigger, faster and hotter than native desert vegetation. Fire didn’t stop it, either. After a burn, the buffelgrass spread, continuing to choke out native species. Due to federal funding cuts and understaffing, the buffelgrass issue—once a priority for the park—had since been tabled.
Weeks after the bloom, a stretch of hot, rainless days turned the flowers into fuel. The grasses became tinder that surrounded the town’s historic structures, as combustible as a path of gasoline. The still mornings seemed to intensify the scorch, and by late afternoon, the temperature rose to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and above. Humidity levels didn’t surpass the single digits. Then, suddenly, the still air became a vortex of wind, carrying dust that pirouetted skyward.
The fire that started in Mexico quietly burned through the night, building intensity as it crept to the banks of the river. For a moment, it remained there, its gold light reflected on the surface of the Rio Grande, whose silty waters were low from lack of rain and decades of depletion. The river, though, proved to be no barrier to the growing fire, and on May 22, the blaze crossed the border.
For the past two decades, most people who visited Castolon and La Harmonia store were RVers and other park tourists seeking provisions, some coming off the river after a float, thirsty for a cold drink.
The store, a long, rectangular adobe, sold snacks and sundries, including a variety of park tchotchkes and memorabilia. Amid the scant provisional offerings were historical artifacts set atop shelves and cabinets; the old post office boxes remained, too—reminders of the store’s long lineage and the ideals upon which it had been founded. La Harmonia store hoped to be what its aspirational name suggested: a place where people, regardless of their background, could come together in commerce.
And that’s what it was, before 9/11 became the catalyst for turning the US-Mexico border into a frontline of the so-called War on Terror. The store had a history of serving both sides, and at one point, it was a critical resource for all those who lived in the Big Bend region.
To read the rest of Sasha’s story, buy our print edition to the US National Parks today.
Sasha von Oldershausen is an Iranian-American writer and journalist, who writes about immigration and diaspora. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Harper’s and the Paris Review.