Borderlands: Riding the Edge of America by Derek Lundy – A Review

Borderlands: Riding the Edge of America by
Derek Lundy
Vintage Canada Editions, 2011, pg 421

There are two broad kinds of journalism: the dispassionate omnipotent writing that is standard in news papers and most news magazines; and the first person experiential story of exploration and quite often adventure. The latter type lends itself to travel writing quite well since the reader can substitute themselves with the narrator. That kind of journalism can also lead to stunts, or at least just a distracting preoccupation with the narrator. At its best, though, experiential journalism adds subtle insight  to reportage, offering little details that in a third person account would feel the wrath of the editor. Experiencing the little frustrations of daily life can be say more than just the broad facts of a story.

Derek Lundy’s Borderlands: Riding the Edge of America is one of the better examples of the second type. Lundy describes his journey along the United States borders with Mexico and Canada on a motorcycle. It is a journey that seems rather simple, but to actually stay as close to the US border is a difficult, annoying and dangerous endeavor. What Lundy is looking for is more than just a travelog of one’s many journey, but a deeper investigation into border culture and the way that shapes and repels part of American culture. He blends his experiences with reporting and history to create a fascinating cultural history of the US border and the politics of the tri-nation region now wedded through NAFTA.

One thing that makes the book worth reading is Lundy is a Canadian and the book is aimed at the Canadian market. The we, the us, the home country is Canada and though Lundy is always respectful to his neighbors there is always a questioning of the hardening of the border–really the militarization or police-statization of it (perhaps its the same thing). Over and over again he crosses the border, especially along the Canadian one, to find the border patrol searching everything he carries on his motorcycle in depth. Free time is not always the best thing. Its always more pronounced in the quieter crossings where the boarder patrol has more time on their hands to do a search. It rarely seems they ever achieve something. Over and over again he returns to the fear and paranoia that are part of the policy making on the border: the untrue story that 9-11 hijackers crossed from Canada (many of his interview subjects seems to think they did); that al Qaeda has crossed undefended borders; that if the US just was more serious about watching the border it could stop illegal traffic. It is these ideas that make every encounter on the Canadian border tedious, and those on the Mexican border part of a police state, where one cannot question the authority of those on patrol. To be fair, though, Lundy meets many Border Patrol officers who actually answer a few questions for him and show a human side. And he rightly points out that it is a dangerous job to be just sitting out there, one or two officers, in the middle of nowhere, uncertain who is coming along. In most of his encounters on the border with the patrol the agents would put their hands on the triggers of their guns when he approached, only letting go when he had taken his helmet off and explained what he was about. Then they would to tell him to leave because it was too dangerous to be on the border where the drug trade has such a strong influence.

Lundy is one never to follow advice to closely and repeatedly he finds himself battling with his motorcycle down some deserted road just to stay close to the border. These are places that days or weeks before there may have been trafficking activities or a gun fight. The book was written early in Calderon’s war and he mentions in an afterward that there are places that he would not go now. He doesn’t go into heavy details about the trafficking, just its ever present danger. The narcos are the biggest danger he faces, but the book is full of the difficulties of ridding a motorcycle cross country and some of his best writing describes the muddy roads, or icy passes he crosses, afraid he will crash at any moment, suffering in the cold or the heat or gale force winds. It is the mix of problems of the border with those of cyclist that propel the book and give it an air of suspense.

Ultimately, though the book would not be a success if it did not show the border issues in all their complexity. Lundy notes that the southern border has always been fluid and that those who still live along the border (with in 15 -25 miles) still expect the ability to go back and forth with ease. Many have families on both sides and it is common for families to have moved back and forth for generations. And for tribes like the Tohono their reservation straddles both sides of the border and has been particularly hard hit by the new efforts at border control (his discussion of the Tohono  is particularly distressing in the way drug trafficking has wreaked havoc) . On the Canadian border the same phenomenon exists. There are towns that straddle the border and families and tribes that expect that they should be able to move easily between. It seems the father one lives from the border, the more of a barrier it should be. Of course this was not always true.  Lundy understands, too, that immigration brings its own issues and does give a fairly mixed view of the issues. One thing he doesn’t see working well is the fence, which at the writing of the book was still being built. In stop after stop he notes how it is the laughing stock of the whole border region and how easily it is just to go around it or over it.

Lundy’s book is the best kind of travel-journalism. It is part adventure story, but at its core its a well written examination of the American crisis of faith that is the border, one that perhaps only an outsider could write.