Day 35, the last day of our Pacific Coast bicycle tour, was different from most for more reasons than just its finality. Instead of a skanky no-tell motel, we stayed in a big-city downtown hotel (where we’ll also R&R for the next three nights); instead of riding point-to-point we rode an out-and-back route (19.2 miles to the border, and weirdly 18.9 back the exact same route, the difference due to Einsteinian relativity, perhaps); and in just a few of those miles we were catapulted from affluent and preppy San Diego to the barren and heavily fortified Mexican-American border.
After being stuck on the third floor of a Best Western Plus for a few minutes due to a broken elevator, our last riding day started with a 15-minute trip to Coronado Island on the San Diego harbor ferry.
Once on the island, we caught a bike path that took us past downtown shops, yacht basins and golf courses, past the iconic Hotel Del Coronado, and then southward out along a narrow spit that stretches between ocean and bay for miles through dunes and marshy grasslands, past hotels, gated enclaves, and ecological reserves and wildlife viewing areas on the bay side, and fenced-off US Navy property on the other. There were quite a few fellow cyclists, mostly Lycra-clad and riding hard; none of them were going where we were going. The day was mostly sunny with a light northwest wind.
Once we turned off the bike path in Imperial Beach, it was a whole different scene. The homes and businesses were humbler, the streets still wide but badly in need of repair, and within a few miles we had left the service-station fast-food suburbs and were riding through rural scrubland, the vast but dry Tijuana River estuary, with a long steep deserty ridge in front of us that we soon realized, as the rough road made a sharp right turn to the west, was Mexico. Almost in a instant, it felt like, we were a hundred miles and maybe as many years from sprawling, touristy, glittering hi-tech California.
A few more miles and the road turned to sandy gravel– we’d reached the end of the line, the so-called “Mexican-American Friendship Park,” which didn’t feel very friendly at all.
There was a small picnic area, and relatively well-maintained bathrooms, but it was anything but park-like. Soon we realized that it felt–and apparently functions–more as a prison visitation site. Just beyond the “park” there was a lane of pavement which was–several sternly-worded signs told us–off limits. No one allowed on the pavement except for border patrolmen. David tried to step closer for a look and a blank-faced BP agent in mirror shades stuck his head out of the official vehicle that had been idling near us: “you’re not supposed to be there.”
On the other side of the forbidden road was the “wall,” a high barrier of graphite-colored metal staves conforming to the slope of the ground and extending some distance into the ocean. Beyond that, a small DMZ between this barrier and another just like it twenty yards farther south. Signs warned of rattlesnakes, and bad water.
The space between the two barriers is called, again euphemistically, the Friendship Circle and Bi-National Garden. It was neither friendly nor a garden (and also not circular, actually). That space, heavily secured, is apparently open for four hours on Saturday and Sunday, during which periods family members separated by the border can visit under what is no doubt strict and ominous supervision. While we were there, a passenger van pulled up and disgorged an armed female BP agent and a group of Americans, on some kind of tour organized by the BP’s public information office. Before he was shooed away, David heard the agent reciting statistics of attempted crossings, apprehensions, other incidents. The tourists peered through the southern barrier the ways visitors at a zoo peer into cages.
On the other side of the walls, sliced and diced by the spaces between the fence posts, can be seen the stream of everyday life: cars and buses and walkers and joggers, homes and apartment buildings, a big outdoor amphitheater, a lighthouse, and a busy highway heading east. It might as well have been in another dimension. Over all loomed a tall tower festooned with lights and cameras. Just a few dozen yards down the embankment, the Pacific waves crashed into the end of the fence that extended 50 yards or so into the surf.
We had expected … what? Champagne and high-fives? A welcoming committee? Surfers? A brewpub? There had been something festive about the Canadian border 35 days ago: green grass, roving groups of tourists, a towering monument, cafés and gift shops, a distinct absence of fences, razor wire, and other obvious enforcement. Here, we suddenly felt like we’d ridden onto the set of a spaghetti western. Except that in this moment the sinister mood at the southern border is all too accurate an indication of a painful reality. Rarely have we felt so uncomfortable and vaguely threatened as Americans on American soil–or, indeed, as Americans almost anywhere in the world.
35 days ago at the northern border.
Now, almost as a second thought, we took a few selfies, acknowledged that we had reached our goal, hugged each other, looked around one more time at the eerie, otherworldly, depressing scene, and walked our bikes along the sandy road back to the pavement for one last ride, a steady 19 miles into the wind, back to San Diego.
Day 35: 38.1 miles (inexplicably), and 487 feet in 3:11.
Still to come: a few retrospective posts, lists, and final thoughts.