Journalist Treks Along Entire U.S.-Mexican Border

The U.S.-Mexican border is 1,933 miles long. It is a tough land full of deserts and mountains. And it can be a dangerous area populated with gangsters and smugglers. It is also an area that millions of people cross every year to illegally reach the U.S. Luke Dittrich is a contributing editor for Esquire and is walking the entire border for a year-long series for the magazine. Robert Siegel speaks with Dittrich about the first part of the series that appeared in the May issue of Esquire.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The U.S-Mexico border is 1,933 miles long. It stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. It traverses deserts and mountains across four states. And Luke Dittrich plans to walk every mile of it.

Dittrich is a contributing editor for Esquire magazine. And so far, he has walked about 350 miles of the border. He wrote about that experience in the May issue of the magazine. And Luke Dittrich joins us now. Hi.

Mr. LUKE DITTRICH (Contributing Editor, Esquire Magazine): Hi. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Your article, your first article, covers the first leg of your journey, as you start at the Pacific and head east. But first, why? Why walk the border?

Mr. DITTRICH: My first memories are actually from Mexico. I lived in Mexico when I was a kid. And I also have always found sort of the borderlands region to be a fascinating place. There are stories down there that you really can't find anywhere else, and it's an important part of our country right now. And there's a tremendous amount of activity going down there that I wanted to see for myself.

SIEGEL: You brought along a GPS unit, a tent to sleep in, bear repellent and -I'd like you to explain this one - a baby stroller. Why?

Mr. DITTRICH: I wanted to be able to do the trip unsupported, which means that I didn't want to have to rely on other people to bring me water or other necessities along the way. And I knew that a portion of my trip was going to be across, you know, more than a hundred miles of desert where there wasn't any guaranteed water source. And the only way I could conceive of being able to bring, you know, the hundred pounds of water or so I was going to need for that stretch with me, was going to be to push it or pull it and not to carry it on my back.

And I happened to have had some experience with this particular brand of kind of jogging stroller that's fairly rugged, that I had used with my own daughter. And so, got one of those strollers and kitted it out, made it a lot more durable with sort of puncture-resistant strips and self-sealing goop inside the inner tubes. And it ended up being perfect. It held all my gear, all my water, all my food, everything I needed.

SIEGEL: Now, we can understand the danger of a lack of water and the danger of wild animals, smugglers, whoever else. But there's actually a part of this trip you've taken already where there was a danger, potentially, of explosions. I'd like you to explain that one.

Mr. DITTRICH: Right. I had to walk across part of the Barry Goldwater Air Force bombing range. And in order to get permission to do so, I had to sign all sorts of liability releases saying that I wasn't going to blame the government if they dropped bombs on me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DITTRICH: But I remember...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: That's some release.

Mr. DITTRICH: Exactly, you know. It's the greatest release I've ever read. Actually, it's remarkable stuff. And the reason they use it as a bombing range is because there is literally no one out there. And so I had these afternoons out there where these moments of pure kind of serenity were punctuated by...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DITTRICH: ...the sounds of these F15s roaring low across the desert towards me, and then, you know, breaking up and heading straight up into the sky.

SIEGEL: Now, this is overwhelmingly a solitary walk that you're taking, yes? I mean, you reach people and on occasion you find a place where people live or work. But for most of the time, you're just alone. Yeah?

Mr. DITTRICH: Correct, yeah. It's a long days of being alone. Your head, you know, your head does funny things. But I had a Kindle along.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DITTRICH: I had an iPhone, actually. I had a little solar panel that I put on the front of the stroller, and so I kept my iPhone charged with that and whenever I was in range, I would download podcasts.

SIEGEL: But since you're unlikely to bump into a lot of people on this walk along the border, and there aren't a lot of landmarks or fascinating buildings along the way or lots of historical markers, what's the learning experience here? What did you come away with after those first 300 miles or so?

Mr. DITTRICH: Well, you do run into people, and although there are these stretches of sort of nothingness, you are passing through a lot of significant border towns. But honestly, along with the people that I run into, there is something that I think is kind of a learning experience just about the sort of, the long stretches of nothingness, what a challenge it really is to seal off this stretch of 1,900 miles, especially when there's - you know, there is just this kind of endless pressure pushing people north.

It's kind of a consummately rational decision to cross the border, like it or not, because as soon as they do, their earning potential increases six-fold. If you happen to bring, you know, some cocaine with you, its value doubles as soon as you cross the line. I mean, there are just these pressures. So it's a remarkable sort of feat that we are attempting at this point to seal off that, you know, vast and largely empty stretch.

SIEGEL: Well, I look forward to reading about the whole trip once you've finished, and thanks for talking with us.

Mr. DITTRICH: Well, thank you so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Luke Dittrich, who is a contributing editor for Esquire magazine, and he's working on a year-long series walking the entire border between the United States and Mexico.

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