By Lauren Villagran / Journal Staff Writer - Las Cruces Bureau
Monday, May 16th, 2016 at 11:45pm

Beware those stories from the border, especially from that corner of New Mexico called the Bootheel, that sketch a black-and-white picture. Ranchers outraged over border security. Sportsmen riled over access to public lands. Border Patrol struggling with a lack of resources.

I’ve written these stories, and they have been true, but they have left out some fundamental knowledge: that the border is at best a fuzzy gray line where two countries and two peoples rub shoulders, sometimes cozily, sometimes not, and things are rarely simple.

A Bootheel rancher whose place has been broken into multiple times in recent years and who has spoken out about border security problems keeps bread, bologna and water bottles in an outdoor refrigerator.

The fridge was there in the past for migrants heading north in search of work. Now the fridge is more often raided by drug mules after they’ve trekked the Bootheel’s rugged mountains for days, dropped off their loads and are heading back to Mexico hungry and parched.

A Border Patrol agent tells me: “That rancher complains about security, but just when we are about to catch drug mules who have become tired and weak, they refuel at the rancher’s watering hole.”

The rancher tells me: “That’s the way I was raised. Just feed ’em and water ’em and send them on their way.”

It was the good Samaritan thing to do when you knew the people were poor and desperate and looking for work. Now it’s a safety precaution so the drug runners – potentially armed – don’t break into homes to steal food. The drug mules may be poor and desperate, too, but they aren’t innocent.

The rancher says: “The guys who are coming over the border aren’t the same as the ones who were looking for work. They are cartel guys. They are wearing camouflage. They are packing guns.”

The bologna is in the freezer, by the way, so they won’t hang around and make a sandwich but take the provisions and head on.

A sheriff’s deputy talks about the drug scourge and the effort it takes to intercept the loads carried by these drug mules. Then he marvels for a moment at the backpackers’ perseverance. He uses the word “amazing.”

He has seen them literally sprint the last mile to the interstate after walking seven days over perilous mountain ridges carrying 50-pound sacks of dope – including at night, with no flashlight. He is tasked with helping apprehend guys like these, but you can hear something like respect in his voice.

(It’s worth stating that drug mules aren’t big-time traffickers. They work for wages. In the business of the drug trade, they supply the heavy lifting of logistics services.)

I’ve made it seem again like the Bootheel is some wild country populated by ranchers and border agents and drug runners. It does seem that way sometimes.

At other times, the country seems peaceful and heartbreakingly beautiful. Hawks flying cerulean skies. Ridges that rise like the backbones of sleeping dinosaurs. Windblown grasses visited by wild turkeys and pronghorn antelope.

A water scientist told me the first time he saw the Bootheel, he “immediately wanted to lock it up and throw away the key.” A hunter and wildlife advocate called it “the land that time forgot.” Or as the people who live there say, “This is home.”

Sometimes it is the kind of place where a gray-haired couple can share the same side of a booth in a small-town restaurant and eat cheeseburgers for lunch.

The kind of place where Border Patrol agents speak fluid Spanglish among themselves.

When locals turned out by the hundreds in Animas earlier this year to make noise about border security, no one called for a border wall.

At the southern end of Hidalgo County Road 001, better-known as the Cloverdale Road, you know Mexico is in the not-so-far distance. It’s hard to tell from this vantage point where one country ends and the other begins.