It’s one of the most heated issues in American politics right now. So hot that President Trump has declared the border wall a state of emergency. In what they call an act of solidarity, on January 25, a group of highliners from the U.S. and Mexico worked together to build a bridge between the countries. This was during the longest government shutdown in history. Their highline was a 300-foot-long highline connecting Big Bend National Park in Texas with Parque Nacional Cañon de Santa Elena in Mexico. See what compelled them to drive 30+ hours in the middle of shutdown in this interview with highliner Corbin Kunst and filmmaker Kylor Melton.
What was your goal with this adventure?
Corbin: My goal was to have the highline be a symbol—and it’s a pretty powerful one. It’s literally connecting the two countries, literally making a bridge. The slackline community is a global one. Not many people know that it’s a network of individuals around the world. It’s a pretty tight-knit global community.
I guess my intention was to have the highline be this symbol for the rest of the world, to show that regular people don’t necessarily agree with our governing bodies, and that we don’t want to isolate ourselves from other cultures and other countries. We want to have relationships with other countries.
Kylor: We’re in a time of so much conflict and so much division. Our hope with this was to tell a story, and to, in an act of solidarity, have two groups of people from two different lands come together, and stand for something that they believe. And show that cultures can cross those imaginary lines that try to divide us.
Who is the other highliner in the video?
Corbin: In that global community, something that’s really cool about slacklining is we have festivals and gatherings all over the world. So, I know the Mexican team. I assembled them, and I knew most of them from just going to Mexico myself, and them visiting me in the United States. We’ve met up in other countries, as well. So, most of the team was all people that I knew and trusted. The Mexican highliner is Jaime Marrufo.
We need more of this in our world, don’t we?
Kylor: Yeah. And the coming together. I’m so over politics, like left, right, Democratic, Republican, whatever it is. The issue is about people bringing together, and not about separation and division that our culture tries to push forth.
Corbin: I would say that inherently, this might look political, and in a way, it is. But in the project itself, we were trying–our intention was to come at it from the humanitarian front. Like no matter what, I think people will look at it in whatever political view or lens they may have.
But for us, as much as possible, we didn’t even talk about politics at all. It was mostly just about how we want cultural exchange, and it’s not good for anyone or any country to isolate themselves.
What would you guys think if Donald Trump paid any attention to this?
Corbin: I would love if he tweeted about it!
That would draw some eyeballs to your video!
Kylor: The hope is that it can gather enough attention that it can just stand for something. It doesn’t have to be political. It doesn’t have to be like “Oh, we hate the wall,” or anything like that. It can just be like “We’re just people coming together to tell a story of unity.” You know?
First of all, was there anything illegal about what you guys did?
Corbin: The park was still in shutdown, when we arrived there. On the U.S. side, we were in Big Bend National Park. On the Mexican side of the park is Santa Elena. It’s basically the Mexican equivalent of public lands, like forestry.
So, our intention was to do this in the most respectful way possible. I wasn’t out here to blatantly break any laws or rules. I did so much research, and talked to so many people; attorneys, lawyers, immigration specialists, people who worked in the park and in the surrounding areas, really so that we could do this without breaking any rules.
So actually at first, we weren’t sure how we were going to do any of it. As it came together, we realized that we weren’t actually doing anything illegal. So, that was really, really special, and really cool.
It took a lot of planning, but yeah, I think we did it in a really good way.
Did you have to sneak into the park? Or because it was closed, there was nobody there to stop you?
Kylor: No. We actually got river permits. We did everything as legit as we could. We didn’t even come in from the park. We came in from above the park, and then paddled into the park. That’s how you normally do that in the canyon.
Why did you pick that canyon?
Corbin: We were paddling the section known as Santa Elena Canyon. Like Kylor said, we got our river permit. The U.S. team entered from the U.S. side, and the Mexican team entered from the Mexican side. The river is the border there.
Kylor: The river is like knee-deep, and like 50 feet across. There’s no border. There’s no anything. It kind of blew my mind, this whole time. Because we see so much conflict about the border wall, like smuggling drugs, cartels, all of this stuff. But it’s simply a river and a canyon, you know. It’s just a natural feature, a natural wall.
I suppose where you were, you didn’t see the caravans of people trying to cross into the U.S.?
Corbin: No, no. We were in the chillest spot of the border. Most of the stuff that you hear about on the news is in high traffic areas like Tijuana, Juarez. And these areas, they’re usually in Arizona. There are places where people cross most of the time, because of the natural landscape. It’s more flat and accessible for people, even though it is still harsh terrain.
Where we were was literally like up 2,000-foot tall canyons. And it’s a national park on both sides.
So, for the border itself, it’s actually really, really chill there. It doesn’t feel as militarized as like places in Arizona, because the terrain is so harsh and so kind of inhospitable for traveling.
No one is really suspecting that people are going to be crossing at this area, because it’s pretty impassable. It’s also a recreation area for people on both sides.
Now, on the U.S., of course, it’s much more of a recreation thing. On the Mexican side, people aren’t encouraged to recreate. A lot of Mexicans don’t even really know about the park. They don’t know that they can access the river, and go on river trips. They don’t have any outfitters that are supplying gear or guides, or anything like that. Their tourism infrastructure is non-existent on that side. So, that’s kind of the dynamic of it.
Kylor: It was actually interesting, because at the put-in, a U.S. Sheriff came. He came to the Mexicans, and he asked what they were doing. They were like “Oh, we’re just taking a river trip.” He took a picture of them, and he laughed, and he walked away. He thought it was funny, because there’s no culture around that.
Corbin: Yeah. But the river is the border, and people have, in both countries, it’s both peoples’ river. So legally, we were actually doing everything within our rights. Like, the Mexicans have rights to their river, just as much as we do.
So, it was kind of a beautiful thing that that was our meeting point, and how we accessed the canyon, was that we came together from our sides, and then floated on this shared body of water.
Do you want to give us a quick play-by-play, like how one sets up a highline across a border like that? People always want to know how the one end gets to the other side.
Kylor: The rigging of the highline actually wasn’t too complicated. More logistically, the planning beforehand really was. But we paddled for a full day, and then we came to the perfect spot.
Corbin: Yeah. We paddled about 12 miles that first day, altogether. When we got to the spot that we saw were these perfect cliffs, and there were trails, kind of, to both sides. So, it was just the perfect spot, where we could access the rim of the canyon.
The Mexican team went to their side, we went to our side, and we dropped a tagline, like a thin piece of paracord, down into the river. Each team dropped a line all the way down, and someone connected that in the middle, in the river, and that’s how the connection was made.
In respecting the parks and the laws and doing it in the best way possible, another of example of that is, on the U.S. side, we were in Big Bend National Park, which has very strict rules about bolting. No bolting is allowed. So, we rigged our anchor all naturally, just off of the rocks there.
In this way, we were trying to do everything to where we were adhering to the park’s regulations.
The border experience was not like what we see on the news.
Kylor: One of the Mexican kids said something really interesting. It kind of profoundly impacted me. He said it in Spanish, so it doesn’t quite make sense in English, but basically he said, “We’re here at the border. What’s crazy is in our minds, there’s this border of these big walls that divide us and separate us. But in reality, there’s no border. It sits in our minds. It’s these imaginary lines that we create in our heads.”
It was really profound, because he was just standing there looking at it. I just remember looking up and seeing how powerful that moment was. You know?
Any last words?
Corbin: I just want to say, too, that I’m not trying to say that we – I don’t disrespect the Border Patrol or national security, or any of these issues that are going on. I actually have the utmost respect for policy-makers. It’s just a really interesting, very complicated subject in history.
So, I just want to reiterate that this was all done out of respect, but it’s a symbol to people of the United States and to the people of Mexico, and the rest of the world, that everyone benefits when we have good relationships with each other. The fear-based rhetoric of wanting to shut ourselves off from another country, it doesn’t do any good for anyone. Not economically, not socially.
It really stumps everyone, on both sides. I think it’s something like 60% to 70% of Texas’s economy is from trade with Mexico, so these are relationships that we need to foster. I think the biggest message is that we just wanted to show our passion is slacklining, and it’s a really powerful image of connection.
Kylor: Yeah. The visual message is very easy.
Corbin: We just want to inspire people to use their passions to connect with people from other countries and other cultures, and to use that as their bridge.
This immigration issue is so large, and slacklining and highlining is so small, that possibly some people who will see this video will have never seen the sport before. Do you think highlining can change peoples’ or hearts and minds.
Kylor: I think you get so many perspectives, you know?
True. Certainly from highlining, you see something from a totally new point of view.
Corbin: Well, it doesn’t always start with highlining. Slacklining is kind of a whole sport in the world of itself, now. There’s local meetups all over. Like I said, it’s small, but it’s a global network. Anywhere you go in the world, you can find a local Facebook page of some people who are slacklining in that city or in that region. So, it’s a beautiful way for me to travel.
I think that getting people who know nothing about slacklining, or maybe even aren’t like really outdoorsy people, I hope that this project that we did just kind of starts some conversations. I’m not trying to get people to even really understand what we’re trying to do.
But I think my intention was to have people, no matter what they think politically, at least to take a look at what we were doing, from just a humanitarian point of view.
Kylor: I think the greatest way to look at it is these are people coming together, to say something that they believe. I like using this as a medium for that.
Do you think there’s going to be any negative blowback?
Kylor: Probably. I mean, being real, probably.
Corbin: And I will say, in all of the research I was doing for this project, I talked to a lot of people who work on the border, giving aid to not only illegal immigrants, but people seeking asylum legally. It’s fascinating, because actually, there’s a lot of statistics out there saying that illegal immigration is at an all-time low. In ten years, it’s the lowest it’s been, from the southern border.
And that this whole national emergency thing, that we have a crisis on our southern border, is really a fallacy. I don’t really want to get into that, politically, with people, in maybe further interviews. I don’t need to go there, but it’s really evident that we’re not in a national crisis.
I think that that is a big thing that we can show in our video, that there are regular people on both sides, who want to come together. That’s the biggest point. We don’t need to fear the differences of other cultures. We want to celebrate our differences.
Kylor: And use them as a way to learn more about each other’s cultures, and be a part of each other’s cultures, and embrace that.