I was visiting my hometown of Del Rio, Texas, when my grandmother told me she had seen a drone flying over El Indio, a tiny village just east of the Mexican border, about 75 miles down the river. The newspapers that summer were filled with stories about the Predator drones poised to patrol the skies above the Rio Grande, but the date of deployment was not yet at hand, and in any case Predators ordinarily fly far too high to be seen from the ground, so I decided to take the afternoon to drive down to El Indio and investigate.
As a lone male in a rented minivan headed south on a remote stretch of border highway, I almost certainly fit some kind of profile. I passed several white pickups bearing the distinctive green stripe of the U.S. Border Patrol, but my first direct encounter with the authorities did not come until I pulled off the road to study with my binoculars a white speck that I had spotted high in the cloudless sky. It was not a Predator or any other UAV that I had ever seen or read about. It looked like a blimp. I put down my binoculars just as another of the green-and-white trucks pulled up. We both lowered our windows and I asked, in my best Texan, what that thing was floating up there in the sky. “It’s a weather balloon,” the officer said with a smile. I thanked him, and we both waved as I drove off, still headed south.
In El Indio, I stopped to buy a Dr Pepper and asked the old lady behind the counter, in my best Spanish, whether she knew anything about that white thing up in the sky. She did not. I decided to inquire at the post office, but it was closed. I was wondering what to do next when a minivan pulled up. I asked the driver if she knew what that white thing was up in the sky.
“It’s a satellite for the drugs,” she said. “My brother-in-law works for it.” A boy chimed in from the backseat that if I kept driving south I’d see “the building that controls it.” I thanked the woman and her boy and continued on my way. Border Patrol vehicles continued to pass me coming and going, and, as I neared the base of what I could now see was in fact a tethered blimp, one of those trucks quickly pulled up right behind me and showed no sign of passing. Although I was doing nothing illegal, I began to sweat. Soon I drove by a couple of white buildings, in front of which was a sign: United States Air Force Tethered Aerostat Radar Site.
That settled the question. The tethered radar blimp (I have since learned) is a relatively old surveillance device, part of a system deployed decades ago when drug smugglers were having a grand time flying over the border with their cargo. I’ve seen another aerostat on the ground in West Texas, near Marfa. Rumor has it that one of them got loose in a high wind and was blown almost to Oklahoma.
Having attained my goal, I was now confronted with the more urgent question of what to do about the Border Patrol vehicle that was so determinedly following me. I had never driven this stretch of highway before, and I feared I might drive for hours before reaching another human settlement. I spotted a place to pull over and decided to turn around. That’s when the flashing lights went on behind me. I stopped, several more trucks pulled up, and soon men in green uniforms were peering through all the windows of my vehicle. “What seems to be the trouble, officer?” I asked. “You turned around,” came the reply.
The lead agent was friendly enough, but he was insistent in his inquiries. He wanted to know what I was doing out there on a remote stretch of highway not far from Mexico. My explanation, that I had driven south from Del Rio because I was curious about the security infrastructure that had materialized along the border in the 25 years since I loaded up my car and drove off to college, struck him as implausible and weird. I fought the urge to become indignant, to assert my right as an American citizen to go where I pleased on a public highway. Instead I explained again that I was curious about that blimp up there, the aerostat. Eventually, after much discussion, it was determined that I had not committed a detainable offense, and I was permitted to continue on my way, at liberty.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.