When I was 18, four friends and I climbed through a fence in Mexico, forded a stream, and sneaked into the United States in the middle of the night. We didn't do it as a dare, or for the sake of adventure, or even to make some kind of political point about border security. No, there was no point to it at all because we did it entirely by accident. We were very young, very lucky, and impossibly dumb.
This is a true story.
At 18 years old, I spent a lot of time thinking about how when I finally died, newspapers would be obligated to say that a man was killed while jumping between moving cars or jumping between pine trees or jumping between stuff I hadn't even thought of yet. They would be forced to acknowledge my corpse as an adult corpse, and that made me endlessly happy. That's not to suggest that I came close to dying when I crossed the border illegally, but I hope it paints a vivid picture of irresponsibility that will act as the backdrop for the entire experience, and gives you a sense of the exact flavor of stupid you're dealing with. Please bear with me, I was just a kid.
Our freshman year of college, my friends and I decided we would go to San Felipe, Mexico, for spring break. We drove there in a Dodge Raider, which, if you didn't happen to see us on the highway that day, is essentially a metal lunchbox with windows and wheels. It's a two-door Tetris piece with a top speed of around 70 mph before the doors shake free. Our Dodge Raider deserved to be called a car about as much as I deserved to be called an adult, which was not at all. Still, five of us crammed inside at 3 a.m. with everything we thought we'd need in a foreign country (a stereo, some socks), and we drove for eight hours to the Baja coast of Mexico.
During the week we spent there, we slept in a hut at the end of a long, unpaved, and neglected beach road where windblown sand collected into piles like massive speed bumps, or, if you were someone who intended to die someday by way of jumping things, massive ramps. Each night as we'd head back to our tiny hut from town, we'd put on our seat belts, push the accelerator to the floor, and do our best to get all four tires of the car off the ground, because consequences were something only pregnant teenagers had to deal with, and because we were all pretty sure we might be immortal. While it was extraordinarily reckless, we found, even to our own surprise, that you can jump a Dodge Raider multiple times without the whole thing falling apart immediately.
Our car, to the credit of Dodge, returned our nightly launches of abuse with nothing but steadfast dependability; it stayed alive and functional the entire time we were in San Felipe. It wasn't until three hours into our trip home when, in the middle of the Mexican desert, something under the hood made a permanent sound and the whole front end erupted in smoke. We pulled over and let the Raider catch its breath, popping the hood and pretending to know what we were looking for. When the steam finally cleared, none of us had to pretend anymore: The engine block we had so callously mistreated was cracked down the middle like a broken heart.
We didn't have much choice but to stand on the side of an empty road, swatting mosquitoes and speculating on whether or not that was the kind of thing a mechanic could hot glue back together. Cellphones weren't nearly as ubiquitous then, and they certainly didn't work in the deserts of foreign countries, so we burned an hour throwing rocks and errant beer bottles and waiting for another car that hopefully wasn't filled with a family of murder rapists or something who were also on vacation.
Just before sunset, a nice man with a dump truck and a 6-year-old pulled over and offered to help. He wrapped hauling straps around the bumper of the Raider before tying them to his own tow hitch. He offered to take us all the way to the border town of Mexicali, but from there we were on our own. He also had an extra seat in his truck, and so I agreed to sit up front with him and his son, even though I spoke the least amount of Spanish and I am famously terrible with children.
We drove through the night for another two hours before reaching Mexicali. I offered what little Spanish I had as small talk, but it turned out that, no, neither of them knew where the library was or if there was water in the pool. The rest of the ride we just listened to the radio or the sound of my friends in the Dodge Raider pulling the emergency brake every time the rope gained a little slack and threatened to throw them into the back of the dump truck.
It wasn't until we were deep in the heart of Mexicali that our savior looked in his rearview mirror and said in slow, deliberate Spanish so that I could understand, "Your friends are gone."
We pulled over and jumped down from the truck to see that the ropes were still secured around the bumper, but that the bumper had given up on the Dodge Raider. It was dragging in the street behind us like a dog that refuses to walk any farther and demands to be carried. Everything I had of importance, including my passport and also my friends, were in the Raider. I was with a stranger in the middle of a border town at night with about seven dollars in my pocket. The little boy looked at the bumper, then he turned to me and laughed in my face.
Thankfully, the kindly man didn't abandon me at my weakest moment. Instead, he tossed the bumper in the bed of the dump truck and we climbed back into the cab and retraced our steps through the city. It took us about 40 minutes to find the Raider pushed drunkenly to the side of the road in a busy intersection. My friends were already pulling everything they owned out of the Raider. "I'm leaving it," my friend Jesse told me. "The whole thing is worth less than a new engine." The gentleman with the terrible son expressed interest in taking it off our hands in exchange for the ride. We consented and piled into the bed of the dump truck so he could drive us the rest of the way to the border.
A little less than a mile out from the station, our hero and his heartless son dropped us off on the side of the road and said they couldn't go any farther. We were pretty confident we could walk a mile with pillows, a boom box, and duffel bags under our arms, so we said our goodbyes and thank yous and then immediately got lost. We walked for what felt like a mile in what felt like the right direction but never stumbled across anything that felt like border patrol.
When we finally did see something that resembled a station, we opted to take a shortcut there, squeezing between bushes, jumping over loose boards in a muddy ravine, and climbing through the broken chain-link fence of a construction site. Between where we left the road and where we found it again couldn't have been farther than the length of a football field, but in that distance we inadvertently found the most accommodating illegal entry point into Calexico for probably hundreds of miles, and no one was there. The lights we had been aiming for didn't belong to a border station after all, but to a factory. By the time we found the legal point of entry and realized our mistake, we all just stood there looking at it, quietly deciding it would be too embarrassing to go back through a second time and explain why we were muddy, carless, and trying to get into the U.S. while already standing in the U.S.
"I'm glad no one shot us," Jesse said while we waited for our bus. We agreed that was our favorite part, but said nothing, because we were all eating french fries from the fast food restaurant next door.
It took us four hours to get to Los Angeles, and along the way I tried to extract some overall thesis from the experience, because I was a freshman in college and I thought that's what I was supposed to do with everything. I couldn't understand why the dump truck driver had helped us in the first place or why he circled back with me when we lost the car. I certainly never would have done that for anyone, but then again I didn't own a dump truck and maybe there was some code of ethics.
Or perhaps he found himself in a similar situation once. Perhaps he felt the same impulse as I did, an impulse so strong, it doesn't belong to each individual man but to all mankind, binding us together despite our cultural differences and the borders between us: The impulse to jump a car in the air until it breaks.
Or maybe he just felt bad because I almost cried when his son laughed at me. Man, I hated that kid.
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