Sam Firman
Written by Sam Firman
Published on 15th April 2019
15 min read

With tensions running high over the US-Mexico border, Sam Firman hears from Claire Wernstedt-Lynch and Tenny Ostrem about their experiences hiking 2,000 miles through a geopolitical hotspot

Claire Wernstedt-Lynch and Tenny Ostrem met on the Appalachian Trail, in 2013. In 2016 they began planning a major joint adventure: Walk the Border – a first ever through-hike of the US-Mexico border, from San Diego to the Gulf of Mexico. Their 175-day, 2,000+ mile traverse of one of the world’s most debated political and social frontiers began just over one year after Donald Trump’s election, and finished on May 12th, 2018. Claire and Tenny have since been touring Hike the Line, a film documenting their journey. At the recent Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, they reflected on the walk itself and the thinking behind the project. It was a fascinating conversation, spanning much of what we’re passionate about here at Adventure Uncovered.

Adventure Uncovered: So, you met on the Appalachian Trail. How did Walk the Border come about after that?

Claire: We were talking a lot about adventuring, and wanted to do the Continental Divide Trail. Then, with everything going on in our country, and some of the tensions that are really prominent right now, we both felt really uncomfortable about peacing out for six months. Tenny texted me one night: “What do you think about hiking the US Mexico border?” I think she thought my first my reaction would be, “Absolutely not!”

Tenny: I felt like I had to participate in the conversation our country is currently having. I couldn’t just disappear into the wilderness.

'I felt like I had to participate in the conversation our country is currently having. I couldn’t just disappear into the wilderness.'

AU: In what detail did you plan the 175 days?

Claire: We had our route and used Google Maps and zoomed in as much as possible to calculate mileage. It was also really important to us that we were not trespassing; we really didn’t want to disturb the places we were going through. We planned the first 750-mile chunk down to the day. We were also concerned about where to sleep – partly because we wanted to make sure we had permission, but also security and safety was a big issue. If you think about illegal activities that happen on the border, most take place at night. And water – that was the other big planning thing.

Tenny: A lot of it was calling this organisation or this person on the border to gather as much as possible.

Claire: Also, I think this trip was unusual in that we didn’t necessarily want to be right on the border at all times, because part of our purpose was to interact with people and move through communities. So being on the actual border kind of limits your ability to do that in some ways.

AU: You almost followed the social border?

Claire: Exactly. It wasn’t about getting to the destination in the quickest way possible; it was almost like the longer we took to get there, and the more circuitous a route we took, the better.

AU: To what extent did you organise which organisations to engage with?

Tenny: I knew someone that dealt with some border issues, which was really helpful. We started word of mouth. The next person would be like, “Oh, you should talk to so and so.” Once we got on the border, we were constrained. We couldn’t get anywhere because we were on foot. Sometimes it was serendipitous. We happened to run into the founder of Border Angels on the first day. His name is Enrique Morones. He has been working his entire life on these issues, and is a kick-ass guy. We were so fortunate. He’s probably the reason we did the trip, even though we were doing it!

'There was a lot of fear about. What is our purpose in doing this? Are we making it harder for the people that are living in this area? We didn’t want to be ignorantly blundering through and creating problems.'

AU: Why was meeting him so important?

Tenny: A combination of things. Claire and I both struggle with whether it’s our place to talk about, or how we should be involved with this issue. Enrique is very knowledgeable about this, and he was basically like, “Every single person is important in working on this problem.” It just gave the confidence that we’re one more voice in this conversation that might be able to create positive change. He lit a fire under us!

Claire: He said you can spend your whole life waiting for the perfect project, or right now, today, you can start doing something and not worry that it’s not the perfect thing to be doing with your time. But just trust that it’s something, and that other people are doing their little something, and that it’s enough and just do it rather than wait. That freed me a little bit from a lot of my fears.

AU: What fears did you have?

Claire: Neither of us is from the border. We don’t speak Spanish. We are white. We don’t have that personal connection to a migrant story, which is a very foreign experience to both of us. There was a lot of fear about. What is our purpose in doing this? Whose lives are we trying to improve? And are we making it harder for the people that are living in this area? We didn’t want to be ignorantly blundering through and creating problems.

AU: Did you have any particular aims or messages you wanted to convey in terms of the political and social dimension of the trip?

Claire: We really felt, just like anywhere else in the world, there would be mostly just pretty good people. It was an act of faith, walking through and being like, “We trust people.” If you can focus on positive stories and positive interactions, you can really realise this isn’t some scary area so different from everywhere else. It is very political, the border right now but that wasn’t the purpose so much, to take a partisan stand. It was more to really see how people are people, and are pretty good.

'If you can focus on positive stories and positive interactions, you can really realise this isn’t some scary area so different from everywhere else.'

Tenny: It’s in your best interest to come to every single person with as much belief in them as possible, because they are helping you out.

Claire: When someone helps you out, you can’t really deny their humanity. You can’t write them off.

AU: I’ve certainly found that with hitchhiking on many occasions: people with what I consider abhorrent views have been outstandingly hospitable to me because my identity didn’t threaten their worldview. On that note, I wanted to ask: to what extent do you think being women influenced the trip, or influences adventuring generally?

Claire: It was in many ways an asset. Certainly being white was an asset, because we were viewed much more positively by the people we were interacting with. Our stereotyping was different. And then being women too: we’re pretty much the ideal person to have a positive interaction with law enforcement, right? But the confidence to do this was really hard as women. I think there’s a tendency if you’re a woman to think it’s not your place to be doing something that other people haven’t done. You’re waiting for someone else to do it first. Finding that confidence to be like, “I have a purpose here, and I believe in myself.” It’s hard to overcome that. And then all the negative feedback we got from people in our lives – the fear that they had for us as women. You’re trying to deeply care about the people in your life. And to kind of say, “This is more important than the fear that you feel” is really hard.

Tenny: It’s really frustrating to be like, “Why am I still thinking I’m naive?” Or, “It’s not my place.” Or, “Why is it so easy for everyone to question my skillset?” I have got the skillset to fucking do this. And it’s really bizarre to me that I’m questioning myself based on other people’s speculation. That’s a very woman thing to do.

AU: You mention in your blogs the constant signs of life on the border, probably of illegal migrants. What feelings did that evoke?

Tenny: There wasn’t a good way to deal with that. We just had to walk past it, you know, and maybe have this idea or this story put together about it. But, what was that helping? What was I doing in that moment? I felt like my hands were tied.

Claire: It was like alternate realities right next to each other. We were moving through the same space, but had no interactions. It was almost like a ghostly presence. We never spoke to any migrants; we were very conscious of not wanting to make their journey more difficult. Even though we were moving through the same landscape, our experiences were completely different. We had Border Patrol looking out for us and talking with us, and had no need to remain hidden. We were moving during the day; everyone else was moving at night. I don’t feel any closer to their experiences, having done this trip, other than I can physically picture what spaces they are moving through.

AU: We use the word ‘adventure’ almost exclusively in association with people who have the choice to go and have an adventure, and glorify danger and risk to sell things. But there is a humility to this trip: in your shadow there are people doing the same journey with a completely different, more dangerous mode of experience. It is such a stark example of how we should temper what we mean by adventure.

Tenny: Exactly. I was there because I chose to be there, and they can’t be anywhere else because of the violence going on in their countries.

AU: What did you learn about the border that surprised you?

Claire: People live their whole lives, and they have a normal life, and it really isn’t that big of a deal. That was a surprise. I thought everyone would be super sensitised to the border.

Tenny: There are so many stereotypes that were torn down. Even Border Patrol: I think we had a different opinion of how our interactions with them would go. All of our interactions with them were very peaceful. And we talked to a lot of ranchers. We had a lot of fears of the person to come out with a shotgun and tell us to get off their land, but they were all some of the most generous people that we met – had this real affinity for their land; they just cared for the physical landscape a lot.

Claire: So many people live really entwined lives with both sides of the border, like working in one country and going across every day, or sending their kids to school in one, or going to the hospital in one or having half their family living on one side.

Tenny: Also a lot of the border towns were liberal or democratic. That was a big difference.

Claire: Most people living along the border either grew up in Mexico or have had family historically. A lot of people know a migrant or are one themselves. Although Mexicans are not who are crossing right now; I should be careful about my language with that.

Tenny: Yeah, it was like net zero migration in 2012 and 2013.

'Walking is such a beautiful way to simplify and really look at what’s going on.'

AU: What impact do you think walking as a mode of travel had on your experience moving through that space?

Tenny: When you choose something that isn’t just tied to victory and the destination and a lot of those human things, it’s amazing what it can make accessible to you. There is a humbleness to it. Walking is this way to move and feel that physicality and the environment and your senses without being blinded by being the coolest because you adventure.

Claire: You also feel a deeper appreciation for the things around you. It’s much more pleasurable when you’ve had to work to get it.

Tenny: Our society tends towards doing as many things as possible, and constant stimulation. It’s really important to make some space in your life for something that’s very simple, so you can really get a clear understanding of what you need personally, and also what’s happening around you. And that was particularly important for this border issue, because it’s so complex – so big and overwhelming. Walking is such a beautiful way to simplify and really look at what’s going on. Why am I scared of this person I’m talking to on the border? Why am I reacting to them?

AU: I can imagine that humility and appreciation being important with a trip like this – walking providing a very particular perspective on interactions with Border Patrol etc. How as walkers do you ensure you realise the social as well as the personal benefits of walking?

Tenny: It felt really brief, often: you would have a conversation and really connect with someone and then move on. But everything they said we would come back to, and compare it, you know, five days later. It was an accumulation of stories, knowledge, things that people had given us. That did really make it feel like a social thing.

Claire: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how social issues and personal issues don’t have to be separate. There is this quote by the activist Lilla Watson. She said, “If you are here because you want to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are here because you see your liberation is tied up with mine, let’s get to work.” I think a lot about that in the context of this trip. This was very personal for me, and all adventure is mostly about what’s happening internally, and comparing it to your life and your issues and whatever. But that is your entry point into caring about other people.

Tenny: An activist in California, Anita Nicholson. She’s a really powerful person who works on this every day. She said, “Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely about what you learn, but it’s also about what you do with what you’ve learned.” That was a cool way to think about adventure.

AU: That does beg the question: what comes next?

Claire: I’m really interested in being in a city right now, and not just being on my own, and trying to develop some communities and be working on issues that a lot of other people are working on. Adventure will always a part of my life, and the Continental Divide Trail, I’ll do that. In terms of social adventuring, I’ve not figured out what the next one will be.

Tenny: I’ve been thinking a lot about what adventuring is to me – and a lot of it is adventuring of the mind: getting out of your comfort zone, out of your stagnant routine – and drawing from a lot of those things that are integral to adventuring, like the movement or the confidence or the freedom.

You can learn much more about Walk the Border on the website, which includes detailed blogposts and beautiful photography documenting most of the journey, or on Instagram.