I’m driving, and driving feels good: for the last week, I’ve been in McAllen, Texas, spinning my wheels–figuratively, literally, too. One afternoon, navigating rush-hour’s vanguard, I’d chanced a look in my rearview mirror. Behind me in the road were lug nuts. This was suspicious, because when I’d driven over that spot a split second before, there hadn’t been lug nuts. So I decelerated, and my rear driver’s-side wheel fell off. I swore, flipped on the hazards, hopped out on the sidewalk and dialed the mechanic whose shop I’d just left. “And where are you?” he asked. I looked around. “Across the street from Our Lady of the Sorrows.” Life is a tragedy; life is a comedy. It could have been worse. I was essentially stopped when the wheel fell off. No other vehicle was involved. I was wearing a dress, a valuable asset in quickly acquiring roadside assistance anywhere, but especially in south Texas. Almost immediately, a truck had pulled over, three men had hopped out. None of us spoke the other’s language, but in some situations–this being one–words beyond “thank you, gracias!” are not really necessary.
And so after all this, and the aftermath, it feels good–real good–to be driving again. Yes, some parts are a bit unnerving: every bump in the road or the oddly mechanical remarks from Great-tailed Grackles reignite the trauma from the wheel falling off. But I’ll get over it.
My plan is to camp at Boca Chica Beach. Texas has this great thing going where several beaches offer free camping–free of cost, of permits, of oversight, of authority…It’s a very Texas concept, you see…and Boca Chica, the mouth of the Rio and a vantage on Laguna Madre’s tidal flats, offers great birding, too. Tens of thousands of shorebirds–at least!–use the area on a daily basis in winter or migration, and the road out is quiet; undeveloped; a great place to see the emblematic raptors of south Texas’s Gulf Coast Prairie. (Harris’s and White-tailed hawks, Aplomado Falcon, Crested Caracara…)
Brownsville (and Matamoros, its Mexican congener) is the last city downriver on the Rio. My explorations are never just about birds–the less-natural history is as much a part of a place as the natural. And so I take a loop through downtown, lower the windows to let the energy of the place come in. Brownsville. Its population, combined with Matamoros, numbers nearly 1.4 million. It was a battleground during the Mexican-American war (~1846-48), and during the Civil War, it was a port where Confederate troops smuggled cotton to European ships to evade Yankee blockades. In fact, the Civil War’s last battle–May 1865, 34 days after Lee’s official surrender–was fought on land between Brownsville and Boca Chica. Today, Brownsville is 93.2% Latino. With 35.7% of its population below the federal poverty line, the city is also one of the United State’s poorest. Headlines like “School board leader sentenced in corruption scheme;” “Former Texas sheriff sentenced to more than 24 years in corruption case;” “Culture of bribery taking root in south Texas;” and “Study: Hispanics don’t vote in RGV due to poverty, corruption, disconnect with candidates, lack of discourse” abound.
Brownsville. Pawn shops, bail bonds, dubious establishments doling bad loans, boarded and barred windows, narrow streets, and tall dark buildings. The air smells of decay, sin, and sewage. I dig its lack of sterility. Trees are dressed in rainbows of plastic bags and the cemeteries behind them wear Easter finery of similar hues–it’s Good Friday, a big day in the Mexican-American cities along the Mexican-American border. Brownsville, where, earlier in the week, Elon Musk announced donations amounting to $20 million (for Cameron County Schools) and $10 million (for Brownsville’s “downtown revitalization.”) Culture of bribery taking root in South Texas… a population of 35.7% below the federal poverty line…
Now, it’s time to head to Boca Chica, where–also earlier in the week, suspiciously–Elon Musk and co. blew up a rocket, Starship, over the tidal flats and State Road 4. The shrapnel spewed out for more than five miles, some of it landing in the sensitive tidal habitat of Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge. So I head out in that direction, trade downtown’s urban slot canyon for the Big Open of Gulf Coast prairie. State Road 4 is a Raptor Road. Though you won’t find this defined in a conventional dictionary, I’m sure some of you know the type: raptor roads travel through windswept spaces, are a little sparse on vegetation but well set up with prominent perches. Here are some examples of raptor roads: those that cut through the Hay Flats south of the Soo, where Rough-legs top utility poles and Snowy Owls liven up sagging bar roofs. The state highways through New Mexico’s Cibola Grasslands, where Ferruginous and Red-tailed hawks trace roadbeds where–though the city’s still a couple hours’ drive away–Albuquerque’s radio stations come in clear. Raptors have a certain charisma. They’re big, but so are gulls and vultures, and most of us don’t gravitate to those in the same way. Raptors are wind masters, but so are shorebirds and terns. I think it’s more that they’re a bird of prey–they kill things to live. Of course, we too kill things to live, with a more deleterious outcome, but the manner in which birds of prey kill is direct, necessary.
It’s Good Friday. Christ died for our sins. A pocket gopher dies so that a White-tailed Hawk lives. Boca Chica, low on the food chain, is easy prey for someone like Elon Musk. A Tesla costs more than two times Brownsville’s per capita income. …a population where 35.7% live below the federal poverty line… Boca Chica might die because of our sins. Wasn’t it Jesus that said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven? Elon Musk is one of the world’s richest men. And Jesus? Inconvenient to the State, he was crucified.
I know State Road 4, have been down it a few times. It takes you past Brownsville Dump, where the intermittent presence of Tamaulipas Crow has solicited the intermittent presence of birders; you pass by Palmito Hill, that site of the last civil war land battle; there’s the southern terminus of Old Port Isabel Road, where one can find nesting Aplomado Falcons and–after a rain–thick clay ruts that defy extrication. It’s after a rain and I’ve had enough vehicle issues already this week, so I drive on past.
Aplomado Falcons are medium-sized falcons: smaller than a Peregrine, larger than a Merlin. They’re rakish–snazzy orange pantalones, moody gray back (plomo in Spanish means lead), long black handlebar moustaches. Like most falcons, they’re built for speed, not comfort. Aplomados are widespread through central and south America, but the United States’ last wild pair bred in 1952. A captive breeding program–raptorial charisma worked its charm–has been successful. Since 1977, more than 1500 captive-bred chicks have been released. In 2019, the 500th wild chick was hatched. It’s no unreasonable demand to visit Texas’s gulf coast prairie to seek the thrill of an Aplomado hurtling through a land where its passage is cartographed by the cries of flushing shorebirds. Other birds of prey are far easier to see on the Boca Chica raptor road. But the Aplomado Falcons are–once again–there.
Around 2014, a different type of falcon was slated for introduction to the Big Open of Hawk Road 4. These falcons were SpaceX’s (That is, Elon Musk’s) Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, and their introduction was sanctioned through an environmental impact statement done by the Federal Aviation Administration. This would have been a great story lede, falcons and falcons, all that, but Elon Musk soon decided to instead launch Starship rockets from Boca Chica. And while Aplomado Falcons reliably fly, Starships have reliably blown up. Elon Musk reliably breaks rules and gets away with it.
Good Friday is a gray day: low ceiling, wet air. Moody. Vegetation is green, sometimes succulent–prickly pear; Spanish dagger. Marl roads vanish off into shallow pans where little clusters of shorebirds feed; scurry; rise–this landscape is critical to tens of thousands of wintering and migratory shorebirds, and among other things, the area hosts the world’s highest density of wintering Piping Plovers, which are endangered. Reddish Egrets dance, too, on the tidal flats, hoping their choreography will land them dinner. Reddish Egrets are a vulnerable species, too, with a large segment of the population supported by Laguna Madre and Boca Chica. I think back to the last time I was out here, 2019, with Tripp. That day as well was moody–perhaps, that’s the way of the flats–emerging from the fog was this huge futuristic facility. SpaceX. It felt like we’d stumbled onto some movie set, and we pulled over to gawk. Security guys, then, pulled over to find out what exactly we were doing, and we asked the same of them: “They’re building a launch pad…building a spaceship!” The incredulity was mutual.
Now, two years later, I’m back, confronted by a flashing roadside sign: “SPACEX TESTING ROAD CLOSED 7-NOON.” It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, and it might also be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a civilian to get down to Boca Chica. Not one for being told what to do, I proceed anyway. The Raptor Road is not in its full glory today: just 5 Harris’s Hawks, 1 White-tailed Hawk, and 1 Crested Caracara. It’s just after 5 p.m.; a surge of vehicles, released from the SpaceX holding pens, charges west towards Brownsville. In these I get a much better tally, 438. State Road 4, once smooth and quiet, has become so full of potholes it rivals the bad byways of Michigan, Maine, Chicago–you know, the places that source part of their identity in such matters. I wonder about roadkill pre SpaceX, and how it compares to roadkill now.
State Road 4 is, today, closed so often that Cameron County–which houses Boca Chica and Brownsville–now has a dedicated webpage for SpaceX-related road closures. They need one: the road was closed yesterday, the day before that, the day before that, and it’s supposed to be closed tomorrow, too. This is a problem. There is a law in Texas called the Texas Open Beaches Act. One of the things it states is that it is public policy for there to be “free and unrestricted right of ingress and egress” to Texas Public beaches. But SpaceX gets special exemptions from this act–and still, the consequent closures exceed the amended permissible amount of hours. “It’s the poor people’s beach,” says David Newstead of Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program. “They’re not making political decisions.” …Study: Hispanics don’t vote in RGV due to poverty, corruption, disconnect with candidates…
Newstead occasionally surfed at Boca Chica when he was growing up along Texas’s Gulf Coast. Now, he manages CBBEP’s coastal avian research (focusing particularly on shorebirds and colonially nesting waterbirds). And, speaking with him on the phone Good Friday, he’s –justifiably–frustrated about this latest rocket malfunction. The grants that fund some of his projects are awarded with an understanding that a certain amount of hours and visits will be documented (in some instances every two days). His technicians haven’t been able to meet that threshold due to road closures. When I point out how convenient it could be for Elon Musk and SpaceX for research–research on vulnerable species that could guide the next environmental assessment, for example–to cease, Newstead agrees that this is a valid concern. There are many valid concerns with this project: Newstead references SpaceX explosion-caused fires that have happened in the adjacent Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and subsequent clean-up efforts, when SpaceX employees get vehicles stuck in fragile wetland habitat that they haven’t secured access to. He’s concerned that sensitive species like Snowy and Wilson’s Plovers are declining and abandoning parts of his research area at Boca Chica, though he hasn’t found damning evidence to connect SpaceX to this. He’s concerned that Elon Musk is breaking rules and getting away with it because he is charismatic and a cult personality.
The sign did not lie. Just past the SpaceX buildings, a cop is parked, flicking his lights at everyone who dares breach the line. No words are exchanged in this process so automated it seems barely human. So much for sleeping on the beach. I park up at the turnoff for Boca Chica Village. This 30-home enclave was built in the 1960s, and Musk has slowly been buying it out. This is done on the grounds of safety concerns for those who live there, but the houses that have now become SpaceX property are now used by SpaceX employees. When Tripp and I drove through in 2019, the driveways leading to Boca Chica’s low brick houses held old Chevy vans and pickups. Now, they have Teslas. And Musk plans to name the whole thing “Starbase.” Sending people to Mars, sending people away from their homes.
I drive back towards Brownsville from Boca Chica. To Musk, the place is vacant space, waiting to be put to some productive use. To a Wilson’s Plover or Reddish Egret or Aplomado Falcon–which all have comparatively narrow habitat requirements–the place is a refuge. With heavy traffic and heavy metals leaching into the soil, I’m not certain it will continue to be.
State Road 4 is a Raptor Road; driving it, I feel it’s me that’s the prey. I’m driving the speed limit, 65, but huge pickups blast around me even as we come up on Border Patrol checkpoint slowdown. The officer asks me, and this is a direct quote, “Are you a citizen?” “Yeah,” I say, to him, and that’s that. Then, out of earshot, I laugh to my windshield, “Everyone’s a citizen of somewhere.” We all share this world. We all look up into the same night sky that Musk is illustrating with satellites, so that people in rural areas can sign up for $99/month (+$499 setup) Starlink internet. We all should care about these things. Not long ago, Musk tweeted, “If we make life multiplanetary, there may come a day when some plants & animals die out on earth, but are still alive on Mars.” He says nothing about how this pursuit of life on Mars directly impacts the lives of the human and natural communities at Boca Chica. Celia Garcia, resident of Boca Chica Village, says, “People are kind of blind because they’re so excited about [Musk] sending people to Mars…Mars is 40 million miles away…he should be spending his money some other way to make this Earth a better place. We’re already in it…”