I admit I am a walking, talking dichotomy. I am at once a woman who seeks adventure and craves travel, as well as a woman riddled with anxiety.
I have crossed many country borders in my travels and have had a few hiccups—like the time I was pulled aside, searched, and questioned for crossing the Egypt/Israel border with both a Bible and a Quran in my backpack. They were confused as to which team I supported and didn’t take kindly to either one, but I survived that incident unscathed.
Something about this border crossing was different. I think partly because something about being in Tomás made me feel especially vulnerable. A gray school bus is hardly inconspicuous and could possibly make us a target. But a target for what? Robbery? Kidnapping? Worse?
We had read every travel article and .gov website and all told us to stay away from the Laredo, Texas/Nuevo Laredo, Mexico border. The articles all warned about the dangers of getting caught up in the activity of the cartel mobs that ruled the area between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey, Mexico, a long four-hour section of highway. Since 2021 there had been over seventy cases of travelers being kidnapped and murdered in that lawless span. Thankfully we read the Colombia Bridge crossing, a forty-five minute drive from Laredo, was a much safer option, so we decided to cross there.
A campground in Lake Casa Blanca State Park outside of Laredo became a staging area to prepare for the crossing. From there, we made multiple trips into town to make copies of driver’s licenses, both domestic and international; passports; bus title and registration; and immunization records. We also got rid of all contraband such as lotions with CBD, all produce, meats and cheeses.
We had read that it was possible, but up to the border patrol’s discretion, to take plants across, but not soil. I did not want to lose my pothos that I had loved and nurtured for years and that had been with us since the beginning. Her lovely, vining stems had had grown at least five feet in length, and I had trailed her carefully and securely beneath the above-bed cabinets. We spent over an hour painstakingly rinsing all the soil from her delicate roots and repotting her in a Tupperware container of water to ready her for border approval.
The date was set. We would cross into Mexico on Monday, September 25th. On September 24th we made one last run into Office Depot, where they had come to recognize us, to get more copies made, as we had learned we must have both color and black and white.
Satisfied we were ready, we set off for one last night at the campground. Once on the freeway the engine began to sputter and choke. We pulled off and stopped at a Dollar Tree to pick up necessary paper products and let the engine rest. Afterward the engine refused to start. My anxiety grew wings and soared. When Tomás finally started, we choked and sputtered our way back to the campground.
My imagination already had us broken down and surrounded by cartel somewhere between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey. Would we be killed? Likely. Two old gringos would not be much use as mules, but Tomás, he would be highly useful. I imagined him being stripped and used for the transportation of drugs. The blood of dealers who had crossed the cartel would stain his beautiful faux-wood floors. Eventually bullet holes would riddle his sides before he would be crushed in a hydraulic compactor and abandoned. The imagination of someone who suffers from anxiety finds the worst-case scenario and holds tight to that. Oh. My. Lord. We could not possibly cross.
Luckily for me, Kevin agreed, and we booked one more night at Lake Casa Blanca.
Kevin is highly skilled at—well, everything—but is a novice at diesel engines. Even so, the next morning he traced out wires, checked all fuses, swapped parts, and fiddled with just about everything that could be causing the problem. By that afternoon Tomás seemed to be his old self again and we decided to take a fateful test drive.
Heading out of town, everything seemed to be fine, so we got on the freeway that would have taken us to the Colombia Bridge crossing had we crossed the previous day. After about a half an hour, we decided to turn back and exited the freeway. As fate would have it there was a beautifully ornate Visitors Center just as we got off. That was where we met Cristina.
Cristina greeted us with a warm welcome from behind the desk at the Visitors Center. Her black hair hung to her waist and shone like silk. Although she couldn’t have been much more than five-feet tall, she appeared statuesque behind the glass partition.
We explained our plans and she gave directions to the Colombia Bridge crossing and then added, “This route will add forty-five minutes to the drive to Monterrey.”
Kevin and I exchanged glances, I knew we were both doing the math. Considering we had vowed to make it to our campsite in Monterrey before six, and with no idea what the border crossing would be like, an extra forty-five minutes to an hour additional drive time was considerable.
“Why don’t you go through Nuevo Laredo?” she asked.
Kevin explained about all the warnings we’d heard, but she didn’t appear alarmed.
“I take my mother across that border every month,” she explained. “We get her medications refilled, have lunch, and then come back to the U.S.. We never see or hear of any trouble. Just be sure to stay on the toll roads, they’re safer. And never drive after dark”
We thanked her for her help—she was the first person to encourage that route—and returned to our Lake Casa Blanca campsite. We had a lot to consider.
“I think we should go Nuevo Laredo,” Kevin suggested.
Although my anxiety was at its peak, I couldn’t disagree with the logic. Nuevo Laredo had toll roads which would mean more traffic and that meant it would be better patrolled; going through the Colombia Bridge border meant forty-five minutes or more on a deserted highway until we finally connected to the toll road. Although everyone had said the Colombia Bridge route was safer, it suddenly felt vulnerable.
“Okay,” I agreed reluctantly.
The next morning Kevin awoke excited and animated; he showed no signs that he shared the giant pit that had lodged itself in my stomach. “I had an epiphany last night,” he gleamed.
Before I could say anything, he continued. “Do you remember when I took the bus to Matt in Battle Ground?”
“And he moved the PMD?”
The what? No.
Remember that he didn’t have a wiring harness long enough to reach, so he spliced one in?”
Not even a little
“I want to check something.” He jumped out of bed, threw on some pants and rushed out the door.”
“I’ll make coffee,” I said to the back of his head.
Within minutes he came back into the bus, “Come out here, I want to show you something.” I handed him a cup of coffee and followed.
He pulled out a bundle of wires and peeled back what appeared to be some sort of rubber shrink wrap that surrounded the bundle. Sure enough, in that bundle of tightly secured wires there was one that made no connection to anything.
“This is it,” he exclaimed. “This has been our problem all along, I’m sure of it. It’s an easy fix. If I fix this, are you comfortable crossing the border today?”
I swallowed back all my anxiety and resisted the urge to say I would never be “comfortable” crossing that border and couldn’t I just fly to Monterrey and meet him there. Instead, I said, “If you’re sure we won’t choke and sputter and die.”
He kissed me and said, “That’s my girl. I’m sure. This is it!”
Turned out that was it and we drove to the border control without any problems.
* * *
As we pulled up to the border crossing things were a bit confusing, but a man in an orange vest waved us out of the line that went through the border crossing and down a secondary road. As we passed him, I realized that he was not border security but rather a construction worker who was digging alongside the off ramp. Luckily, or unluckily ahead was a man with a flak vest and automatic weapon who guided us to what appeared to be a government building.
We parked where he indicated and got out of the bus. We were surrounded by official-looking, heavily armed men and women who looked genuinely confused as to why we were there.
In broken Spanish Kevin explained we were looking for immigration. He threw out words like Migration Forma, FMM and Temporary Import Permit, TIP, no look of recognition crossed their face, but when he said “inspección,” they finally responded.
“Inspección. Sí. Sí.”
Kevin opened all the doors to the bus. My heart sank at the thought of losing my plant. They boarded and looked around.
“Nice. Nice. This very nice.” Was all they said as they opened a couple of cupboards and ran their hands along the wall—they did not even glance at the plant. Then they stepped out and motioned for us to follow one of the men.
He walked alongside us and guided us to a separate building that was clearly marked as “Immigration”.
Once inside things went pretty smoothly albeit slowly. One counter at the far left of the building was where we filled out our immigration forms and paid a fee. Halfway down was a counter where we made copies of the forms and paid a fee. In the middle of the long building was a counter where we got Mexican auto insurance and paid a fee. At the far end we (well, Kevin, because only one of us was allowed at the counter) filled out the paperwork for the temporary import permit and paid a fee.
Once finished with the TIP we had to return that information to the insurance counter to have it added to our policy. After typing out the policy, the girl behind the glass asked us to be sure everything was correct. The email address was wrong, so that policy was torn up and we had to return to the TIP counter to get it corrected. It turned out to be not as easy as changing the email, the entire process had to be started over again.
While Kevin patiently waited, giving out all the information—again, I watched the clock. We had made a vow that if we weren’t on the road by 1:00 p.m., we would stay one more night at the campground and cross the next day.
The moment we exited the immigration building we were approached by a policeman who offered to give us an escort for the first twenty kilometers. When we hesitated, he added, “No charge. It is gratis.”
“Gratis?” Kevin asked to confirm.
“Si. Gratis for me. My friends at the other end may want a gratuity.” We declined the offer.
When everything was done and we were back on the bus, the clock read 1:04. We looked at each other, “Well?” Kevin asked. “Let’s do it,” I said.
We set our Google maps to Monterrey and took off to finally cross the border. We followed the map to the freeway entrance, only to find it blocked by a concrete barrior. We deduced that the smartest thing to do was to follow the semi-trucks, after all, they needed to get on the freeway as much as we did. We followed two of them for about fifteen minutes before they each turned down separate roads into truck yards.
That decision had led us into the city and onto a back road. Our map was useless and showed no other on ramps. Kevin made the genius choice to parallel the freeway heading back toward the border. Once we found an on ramp—even though it was going the wrong direction—we got on and followed it until we found an off ramp that in turn had an on ramp in the other direction. Confusing as all that was, we finally got ourselves onto the right road heading in the right direction. The time was now 2:30 p.m. and we were just leaving Nuevo Laredo.
Everything seemed to go smoothly until we had to make a decision. The road split. One direction said Monterrey “Cuota” and the other Monterrey “Libre.” We took Libre, then realized our mistake.
“Libre. That means free,” Kevin said.
“But everyone said to stay on the toll roads,” I reminded.
There was no ramp to use to turn around, the only choice we had was to cross through the dirt and grass expanse that divided the two roads. That is exactly what we did, jerking and bouncing the entire way. Once safely back on the toll road, Kevin reached over, took my hand, raised both our hands high and shouted, “Woohoo! We’re in it now, baby!”