We departed Post Ciudad Juárez this past Thursday and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border for the last time into El Paso, Texas, officially ending my third Foreign Service tour.
In mid-November, I connected Veterans Day, a Mexican holiday, and one day of leave to a weekend, which equaled five days off. I crossed the border and took another solo road trip, this time across Texas to San Antonio and Fort Worth. In San Antonio I visited the Mission San Antonio de Valero (better known as the Alamo), Missions San Jose and Concepción dating back 300 years, and the city’s famed Riverwalk. I actually liked the Riverwalk so much I went there both during the day and later at night – thanks to my awesome AirBnB tiny house hosts who let me know the city would be turning on the holiday lights my first full day in town.
After a couple nights I headed to Fort Worth to see my friend K, who had visited us in El Paso in May during a trip home to Arizona to see her parents. K and I served in Peace Corps Macedonia together 18 years ago, and lived near each other for a handful of years in DC after I finished grad school in Australia. She was also a bridesmaid in my wedding, but this is the closest we’ve lived to one another in years. V and I had stopped by her place on our way to Juárez during the pandemic summer of 2020, and I was determined to make it back out there.
A couple of weeks after we returned from our Iberostar vacation, I sat in my office tangled up in bureaucracy and my to-do list. Finding myself in need of solace and something to pull me into the future, I scrolled quickly through AirBnB options for the weekend. A bunch of cabins in some wooded mountains caught my eye. I remembered Cloudcroft, NM was less than 120 miles away. Doable for a short hiking trip, and startlingly, we’d not been there yet. My boss, born and raised in El Paso, had told me about the town of less than one thousand inhabitants the year before. Sitting at an elevation of almost 8,700 feet above sea level, nearly a mile higher up than Ciudad Juárez, there the golden desert landscape transformed into a green alpine coolness we’d never seen in the southwest. I texted V, “Want to get a cabin in the woods for an overnight this weekend? There are pine trees.” At first he didn’t believe me. I didn’t mention it might be cold. Then the affirmative answer came back pretty quickly.
In October we had our first visitors to Ciudad Juárez – my dad and stepmom L. My dear friend K visited last spring, but stayed in El Paso because she was road-tripping around the southwest with a big dog and no Global Entry card; my dad and L were the first to actually come into Juárez. When I suggested several months ago over the phone that, pandemic depending, V and I were planning a fall trip to Playa del Carmen and they should come with us, I didn’t think they’d necessarily want to go that far into Mexico or spend that much money doing so. It’s over 2,000 miles southwest of Juárez and on the Caribbean Sea where we’d spent our 2013 honeymoon.
But I hadn’t considered two things. One, my dad had made frequent scuba diving trips to nearby Cozumel over the past 30 years and was familiar with the area. And two, that 18 months of pandemic isolation had made them just as lonely and excited as we were about vacationing in a luxurious venue with ocean, sand, and unlimited cocktails, particularly after they’d relocated from the California coast to rainy Washington state in 2018. It occurred to me that not seeing them between August 2019 and October 2021 due to the pandemic is about the length of a standard Peace Corps Volunteer service – definitely too long to not see your parents, especially at this age.
To my delight they not only agreed, but made reservations. We decided first they’d spend a few days in Juárez with us, and then we’d fly south together. Then we all crossed our fingers that the pandemic wouldn’t interfere. Somehow in the luckiest streak of a rough 2021, I got boosted and they visited during what I now see was the lull between the Delta and Omicron variants.
Serving at U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez as a Foreign Service posting has had the unique benefit of proximity to the United States: El Paso, Texas is less than five miles away. Ciudad Juárez and El Paso in many regards feel like one city. If you read about the history of this area and in particular the resolution of the Chamizal dispute in the 1960s over 600 acres of disputed border territory, you will start to see how the geographical, historical, social, and economic ties in the second-largest U.S. border community (behind San Diego and Tijuana) have been tightly interwoven over hundreds of years. And despite the border closure to non-essential travel between March 21, 2020 and November 8, 2021, those ties remain strong.
However, proximity doesn’t always equal easy or convenient access, even for the most privileged of us. FSOs could be forgiven for being lulled into complacency routinely traveling back and forth between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso when it feels like a run across town, only to be slapped with the reality of it actually technically being diplomatic travel to and from your country of assignment across an international border. This is highlighted only when something goes wrong and you realize, this would have been a lot easier were I only driving across town. Here are 10 examples (plus one bonus) of times going across town was more than I bargained for during the last year and a half.
The first week of October, we took a long-awaited trip back to New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Albuquerque is about 280 miles due north, or four and a half hours away, and it was a first visit for both of us. From the first time I saw a postcard of hot air balloons floating over Albuquerque stuck to my nana’s refrigerator as a child, I was mesmerized. Fortunately, after weather foiled several attempts to balloon in New Zealand in 2006, I got to experience hot air ballooning with V during our diplomatic assignment to Australia in 2018 – in Canberra where we lived and over New South Wales’ Hunter Valley as we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary.
In Albuquerque we opted not to fly this time, due to cost and the inability to socially distance from other people in a hot air balloon basket. Instead we watched the 49th annual dawn Mass Ascension spectacle from the ground as more than 600 hot air balloons launched from a 78 acre field. This also gave me a better chance to see and photograph the balloons instead of being absorbed with our experience and logistics. While in town, we also visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, stumbled into a fall festival at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, and went hiking at two of the three Petroglyph National Monument sites – Boca Negra and Rinconada Canyon.
In early September, less than two days after I returned from a nearly 3,000 mile solo road trip to California, I turned around and went on another road trip; this time with V, and much closer to the borderland, three hours away to Carlsbad, New Mexico.
We wanted to celebrate the Labor Day holiday weekend by visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In a three-day flurry of outdoor pandemic-safer activity, we also visited Sitting Bull Falls in the Lincoln National Forest, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park, and the Pecos River Flume and Heritage Park. The latter is featured on “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” as being “The World’s Only River that Crosses Itself,” and not even a sudden and hellacious storm thwarted our exploration of it.
One of my favorite things about serving on the U.S.-Mexico border has doubtless been the proximity to places in my home country I have wanted to visit. My experience traveling in the American southwest has been so limited there will be no way to check everything off the list this tour, but getting out to Carlsbad Caverns was something I really wanted to do.
If the first two days of my August road trip north and west carried a “fury road” theme as I mad maxed it across the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada, putting 1,279 miles between me and Ciudad Juárez in less than 37 hours, the following two weeks held a sweeter and more nostalgic appeal. From the pine tree-studded Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California to the beaches of San Diego, my first trip to my home state in just over two years was a time to slow down and do as little as I wanted. More importantly, I got a chance to spend a little time with some of the people who I love the most and who I hadn’t seen in far too long.
Since I was old enough to drive, I have always taken road trips. It was not unusual for me even at the age of 17 to drive for five hours between my mom’s and my dad’s houses, either alone or with my younger brother in tow. I later went to college in San Diego eight hours away, and when I didn’t fly home for holiday breaks, I would drive overnight, alert as an owl, burning up the road north after going to class all day and working all evening. I’ve maintained this affinity for driving throughout my adult life, taking any opportunity possible to get behind the wheel. Unlike friends and acquaintances who prefer to snooze the miles away and let their partner do the driving, there is little tedious about driving to me; I love every minute, every technicality, the precision of every operational movement.
So when I decided to take my first real vacation since summer 2019 to see my family in California and celebrate my brother’s 40th birthday, and did not want to expose myself to airports and air travel during COVID-19, the idea of driving the 21+ hours and nearly 1,300 miles alone did not faze me. It actually sounded like a welcome chance to get away and clear my mind from what has been a difficult period for most people, and particularly for those juggling the pandemic against health challenges and demanding on-call work.
Over the last couple of months as spring has turned into summer, I have found solace spending time outdoors. While I have deferred real hiking in well-known places, the dry heat and flat desert-like walks over the border in El Paso have provided me with a number of things I need: the mood-lifting and weight loss benefits of exercise, continued healing from spinal surgery, arthritis relief, fresh air, and safety and solitude away from others.
Back in early May, my husband V flew to North Carolina to see his eldest daughter A graduate from college. Being less than seven weeks beyond major spinal surgery where healing of my bone fusion was critical, I was sadly unable to navigate a trip like that to attend. Each member of her graduating class only had a couple of tickets to share with friends and family, anyway, and she was unable to invite to the ceremony many people I’m sure she would have loved to share that important life milestone with. I attended virtually from Mexico, cheering from a hard-backed chair.
For me in early May, I was moving fairly slowly, had some difficulty getting up and down, and was not permitted to lift more than five lbs. I had been back at work since mid-April and in physical therapy since the end of April though, and the mental and physical haze of weeks of bed rest and the shock of the operation were beginning to lift. After spending a long work week in the office and coming home to an empty house night after night, I was ready to be somewhere else. I decided to take a Mother’s Day trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico; at about an hour and 40 minutes away from Ciudad Juárez, Las Cruces promised fresh air and a chance to change the scene while making some use of my new and fragile body. In other words, to feel like me again.
Two weekends ago, V returned after an eight-week work trip to Washington, DC to help me celebrate my birthday. As if that weren’t great enough, the Columbus Day holiday also made it a three-day weekend. Longtime readers know what that means – a road trip out of town. But socially distanced and in the great outdoors, given the current situation.