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Songs across the Rio Grande: Geology interterm trip to Texas raises border issues

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – This was the second Geology class group to south Texas that has not been able to cross the border to Mexico without the risk of a $5,000 fine.

Professor of Chemistry Richard Zerger led the trip, the fifth time he has made it part of the Geology interterm class (which runs every other year) since he began teaching at Bethel in 1995. Other places we went were to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, the Texas hill country around Fredericksburg, and Austin.

There were three occasions where our group visited the border, each one very different. The one that will last the longest in my memory is the Boquillas Canyon hike in Big Bend National Park

Walking down to Boquillas Canyon, the first time we approached the U.S.-Mexico border at the Rio Grande, we heard singing from the other side.

“It made our experience along the border much better, hearing Victor’s singing echoing through the canyon,” Sam Gaeddert, sophomore from Hutchinson, commented.

As we climbed over a ridge, we could see three men watching as hikers came past the little stands where they were selling goods to help their children obtain school supplies, according to signs placed near the stands.

Victor and his friends had set up a little hut on the Mexico side and from what I could tell sang there every day.

“It is hard to imagine being in the position Victor was in,” Gaeddert said. “Yet he seemed content with his life. He was happy to see people and gain attention for himself.”

These stands had a note and an empty bottle for people to place money in after purchasing the goods.

It is illegal for any transaction to occur at the border. Any Mexican caught on the United States side will be shipped 100 miles down river to the nearest official crossing and let go back in Mexico.

Any U.S. citizen runs the risk of being fined for purchasing the trinkets. It did not appear as though this was a heavily patrolled area or that any transaction here would run much risk of being caught.

The most fascinating part of the hike was actually seeing one of the men cross the river to retrieve the money on his horse twice within an hour.

“I thought something was a bit off when I saw Victor cross the border with no fear of being caught. I wish I could have held a conversation with him,” Gaeddert said.

None of the men who sat on the Mexican side appeared to have any real desire to live in the United States, which may be part of the reason this area is not heavily patrolled. Another reason could be because the closest town on the U.S. side is more than 100 miles.

Another observation Gaeddert made was that when we held interactions with people closer to the border, the people were more intent on listening to what we had to say.

“Life is not as high-paced near the border as it is in other locations,” Gaeddert stated.

While we were in the park, there were almost no Border Patrol trucks. As soon as we drove outside park limits, there were trucks everywhere.

The stark difference in border patrol made me think about why we as Americans are so concerned with borders and why a man cannot trade across the border when it is a more viable market than his hometown.

Other students in the Geology class were Josh Chittum, junior from Demorest, Ga., Aaron Clement, sophomore from Manhattan, Nathan Dick, freshman from Baldwin City, Drake Engleman, freshman from Manhattan, Natasha Esau, sophomore from Hutchinson, Kelli Kroeker, sophomore from Hutchinson, Alex Roepke, freshman from Waterville, and Caleb Stephens, freshman from Lawrence.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

Aaron Voth is a senior from Hesston, majoring in communication arts.

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View photos from the trip.

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