Inspired by a lifetime of living on the Rio Grande, Keith Bowden attempts to travel its full length from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, using a combination of canoe, raft, and bicycle. The route is fraught with complications, ranging from low water to drug smugglers, whitewater rapids, those crossing the border illegally, high swells on lakes, winter weather, and pollution. The Tecate Journals: Seventy Days on the Rio Grande recounts his journey, telling of the people he met and what he experienced.
Bowden’s love for the river and the land on either side of it comes through clearly, without having to resort to extravagant language. The capsules of those he met are one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. The kindnesses he received from both Mexicans and Americans and the professionalism of the Border Patrol personnel stood out. Reading the dire warnings of his friends was equally entertaining. His encounters with those illegally crossing the border were touching, troubling, and even humorous in a couple of situations. I appreciated that his tone was compassionate towards those crossing and understanding of those whose job it is to enforce immigration and customs laws; he treated a very complex issue with care and consideration rather than the soundbite debate we too often see at the national level.
Bowden’s prose is straightforward, except for some occasional passages that stray too far into the minutia of how to canoe through whitewater obstacles. I felt kinship with his love of nature and solitude, enjoyment of a good beer, and his dislike of how loud and jarring civilization is. Clearly, this was a meaningful and personal trip to him, and he makes it easy to stand in his shoes and feel some of what he is feeling.
One curious omission that would have substantially improved the book is any kind of photographs. He mentions taking pictures several times; where are they? I found myself Googling some of the canyon names to get a feel for their beauty, and I can’t imagine he didn’t have a striking collection of pictures from the trip. Some pictures would have been very welcome.
The Tecate Journals was an impulse purchase for me, and one I’m glad that I made. Like all good travel writing, I was both entertained and educated by Bowden’s account; this book is a good choice for armchair travelers who don’t mind the rougher side of both humanity and nature.