No camping experience in the Southwest is complete until you are surrounded by Border Patrol agents, guns at the ready.
It happened to me a few nights ago. I was driving across Texas on Interstate 10 (which bisects Texas horizontally). I was driving someone else's car, and it was packed with stuff. I can't afford motels every night, and I prefer not to sleep sitting up in the driver's seat, so camping is the way to go. In the open desert where there's no threat of rain or insects, I just blow up a $12 air mattress, throw a $9 sleeping back on top of it, and I'm good to go! The photo above shows my set-up near Tombstone, Arizona, where I got a perfect night's sleep. (Also see my photos of Tombstone.)
How do I find a place to camp? In Nevada and Arizona, that's no problem. These states consist largely of public land, where there are few restrictions on camping. Just grab a patch of desert and it's yours! In Texas, I figured I'd do the same thing. West Texas is even more desolate than Nevada, so there ought to be plenty of land to go around.
However, there were two things in Texas I wasn't counting on. First, nearly all land in Texas is private, even the most desolate parts. It's heavily fenced in with "No Trespassing" signs on nearly every gate. Secondly, the Mexican border seems to cast more of a shadow in Texas than it does anywhere else, precisely because the land is so desolate. Because there is hardly any civilization between the border and I-10, I-10 effectively becomes the border, and it is heavily patrolled by the U.S. Border Patrol.
I found this out the hard way when I chose a camping spot near Van Horn, Texas, in the middle of nowhere but about 100 miles from the border. I was on a local highway about 10 miles south of Van Horn and I-10, and the sun had just gone down, so I thought I should choose a campsite while I still had some light. My intention was to sleep in the open like I did in Tombstone the night before.
I found what looked like a disused dirt road off the main highway. There was a gate, but it wasn't locked and had no "No Trespassing" sign on it, so I opened it and drove inside. (In Nevada, gates are common on public land and are only intended to keep cattle inside, and I claimed the same analogy here.) It was nearly dark and there were no house lights in view, so I assumed this gate was merely an access point to range land and no one would notice me for the night. I found a flat area near the gate and out of sight of the highway, and I set up my mattress and sleeping bag there. Then I sat in the car and worked on my computer for while.
About an hour later, when it was pitch black, I heard the gate open a few hundred yards away. Then I saw a line of flashlights heading my way.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Border Patrol," they said.
There were about five Border Patrol officers and the county sheriff himself. They were courteous and never drew their weapons, but I got the third degree. Who was I? What was I doing out here in this remote location? I was told that this was private land. I was trespassing and would have to move along. They said there was no problem with my spending the night in any of the official state rest areas along the highway (although I didn't ask I could set up my air mattress).
The landowner had called me in. Apparently, he had used the same gate shortly after I did, saw my car and called the sheriff. The sheriff then called the Border Patrol for backup. Anywhere else, the matter would have been handled by the landowner himself speaking to me, but apparently in this border region everyone is on edge.
"Don't you feel afraid out here?" asked the sheriff.
"Why should I?" I replied. I pointed out we were 100 miles from the border.
The sheriff said there were narco-traffickers and illegal immigrants who wouldn't hesitate to kill me if they came across me.
I brushed it off at the time, but after I left the area and started driving again, I began to think about it. Yes, this could be a risk anywhere in West Texas. If the Border Patrol is heavily patrolling the main corridors, the illegals are going to be choosing obscure and indirect routes, and if I happened to be parked on one of them, I'd be toast. It's not that anyone cared about me personally, but the car would make a nice getaway vehicle.
So where should I camp now?
It was about 10pm when I was interdicted, and I was wide awake afterward, so I had a couple of hours to resolve the problem. After the Border Patrol let me leave, I got back on I-10 going east. My first aim was to get out of this here county, so I wouldn't encounter that particular sheriff or his deputies again. After that, I was faced with a dilemma. In Nevada or Arizona, I would simply take the next freeway exit in the open desert and look for a place to camp just beyond the lights of the freeway. I felt protected by the hugeness of the desert. In Texas, however, there were all those fences and gates, and even when I found I place I would normally camp, the specter of the desperate Mexican narcotraficante entered my mind. There were plenty of desolate freeway exits in West Texas but none where I felt safe.
There were, however, plenty of official rest areas and picnic areas along the highway, spaced about every 40 miles. I actually feel comfortable sleeping at most rest areas. I felt reassured by the presence of long-haul truckers spending the night there in their cabs. Texas actually allows overnight parking at most of its rest areas, but I couldn't sleep well in the car and the picnic areas were marked like this....
"No Sleeping on Tables or Benches" it said. Notice, however, that there's no sign saying you can't sleep under the tables or beside benches, so that's what I did. I stopped at an unlit picnic area where a dozen trucks were parked for the night. I chose a covered picnic shelter like the one above, since there was a threat of rain.It was dark enough that no one would see me, and I doubted narco-traffickers would hold any picnics here. I blew up my air mattress on the concrete pad beside a picnic table and put my sleeping bag on it. Since it was dark and I was parked a good distance away from my valuable car, I felt that my odds of survival were about the same as staying at the Motel 6--which is all I really ask in life.
Just before dawn, my BlackBerry alarm woke me, then I packed up and left before anyone was the wiser. I got about 6 hours of quality sleep. Mission accomplished!
Texas is a LONG drive, about 1000 miles stem-to-stern. I spent a night with relatives in Austin, but I needed to camp again in East Texas. I chose this abandoned farmhouse...
Still, this campsite was hard to find at night, and as I headed east there would be even more fences. East of the Mississippi, it's pretty hard to find abandoned farmhouses like the one above. Where could I reliably find a free campsite? (Stay tuned for the answer.)