The 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest north of Silver City on the border of New Mexico and Arizona is a hiker’s paradise. Ron and I flew friends up there for the day to scout for elk. Shadowed by tall pine trees, patches of snow, and cool temperatures, the forest was a welcome change from the desert heat. It was morning; the dew had melted making it easy to recognize tracks and scat.
Ron headed off down a ridge in search of elk while our friends, Nancy and James Brady from Anchorage, and I wandered through the woods armed with binoculars and cameras in hopes of capturing moments of wildlife. James took the lead while Nancy and I chatted quietly; all of us stopping occasionally to locate the source of a bird’s whistle or to ponder animal tracks left in the damp ground.
On our slow, meandering hike, we saw wild turkey and a dozen elk. A curious kit fox climbed high onto a branch of a pine tree to observe us. The trail we’d started out on dissolved as we pushed on. Midday, the sun found its way through the trees and warmed our backs. Being avid hikers, it was unusual to roam freely without a destination or deadline in mind.
To the west, we met with a ridge, where at the bottom, the sandy clearing of a seasonal riverbed was shrouded by trees and brush. We were about to turn around when James noticed a Mexican gray wolf some thirty yards away. In silence and awe, we watched as the wolf combed the area with its head down picking up the scent of its surroundings. Its thick, long coat blended in with the landscape, making it difficult to spot as it paced the riverbed. Being upwind, the wolf didn’t sense our presence. James slowly raised his binoculars. Later, he would tell us the animal had a reddish collar that Nancy and I were unable to see with the naked eye. Like us, the wolf moved with confidence and ease. Then it was gone. We remained still for several moments, while our primal inner workings aimed to make sense of the experience.
My days are filled with school work. In between grading papers and answering emails, I keep our daily lives on track. And when there is time, I write. It’s the life most of us live—rushing to finish one task to make room for the next. But, for an instant, I lived in the present when, on a perfect day in the wilderness, a wolf crossed my path reminding me I only have now.
Wolf photo courtesy of dreamstime.com
I’ve been cycling the borderlands for years. My old route is 120 miles west of here on Highway 90 in Arizona. It’s a north/south bound road that takes folks heading out of towns like Sierra Vista, Huachuca City, and Benson to Interstate 10 and beyond. I used to park at a Shell station on Highway 82 and ride Highway 90 going north. Two miles out of Whetstone is a checkpoint manned by Border Patrol Agents who stop vehicles and ask the driver and passengers if they are US citizens. I rode through the checkpoint hundreds of times and never experienced any problems; however, I often saw people waiting out on the hot asphalt while agents inspected vehicles.
I was never stopped by an agent. I didn’t fit the profile: middle-aged white woman wearing bike shorts, a turquoise windbreaker, and helmet. I could have made millions smuggling cocaine and heroin in my sports bra. The ride is a cyclist’s dream. The ratio of hills to open road is perfect. The Whetstone Mountains and canyon lands are gorgeous. The wide, smooth shoulder make riding a breeze while cars and trucks whiz by at 65 mph.
When we first moved out to the ranch full time, I rode Highway 9 headed east toward Hatchita. Missing my old stomping grounds, I found this new route thwart with problems. The shoulder is too narrow; the terrain too flat, and there is wind—lots of wind. Out on Highway 9 without any traffic to speak of in vast, open country, I felt vulnerable. What if I stumbled across drug runners? Or was bit by a rattlesnake? I worried how long it would take a medevac helicopter to land if I were in an accident, and who would find me?
It didn’t help that Ron asked me to stop riding as the dangers I had conjured up were real. We live three hours east of Tucson and three hours west of El Paso. Even with medevac, a minor injury could turn serious. Drug trafficking is a real threat out here. In 2016 the Border Patrol Southwest Border Sectors apprehended 11,526 people concealing marijuana. That’s mainly who we see coming through this area. Men with eighty pounds of dope strapped to their backs.
After several months of taking my chances, I parked my bike in the garage and left it there. As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m like a border collie without a job when I don’t get my exercise. Ron and I make up the party around here. There is no place to go when tensions run high, so we needed another plan. For months my husband suggested I get an indoor bike trainer. The idea sounded ridiculous. More time went by, and he presented me with the trainer as a gift. We set it up in the man cave where it faces south, toward the border.
I ride at night after dishes are done, the dogs are fed, and it’s just me with Lyle Lovett or Earth, Wind, and Fire on Pandora. I miss the rhythm and challenges of the open road. My thoughts lately are consumed with the rhetoric surrounding illegal immigration. Drug runners versus honest people looking for work. Our friends and family who have lived in the States illegally for decades versus illegal traffic crossing our property. People asking for food and water versus criminals toting drugs, stealing vehicles, and harming our neighbors. Deportation of lawbreakers versus parents leaving their children behind.
This isn’t our first rodeo. Presidents since the Mexican-American War have dealt with our southern border issues. In 1977 Jimmy Carter gave the Undocumented Aliens Message to Congress. Much of what we are hearing today in regards to illegal immigrants and employment can be found in this speech, but as far as dignity and respect go, Jimmy Carter understood the human spirit when he said, “I have concluded that an adjustment of status is necessary to avoid having a permanent “underclass” of millions of persons who have not been and cannot practicably be deported, and who would continue living here in perpetual fear of immigration authorities, the local police, employers and neighbors. Their entire existence would continue to be predicated on staying outside the reach of government authorities and the law’s protections.”
Border issues impact all of us. Reform requires more than a broad stroke, one-size-fits-all solution. I peddle my bike to nowhere in the man cave because I fear encountering drug runners out on the road while our family and friends, who are here illegally, remain behind locked doors praying no one knocks.
Last week I ran into a friend who brought up the border fence. He seemed thrilled with the prospect. Said it would keep the illegals from coming over here to take advantage of our welfare system. I mentioned I’d been teaching on the border for over twenty years and didn’t know any immigrants, illegal or otherwise, who were on welfare. After that, the conversation died like it often does when two friends make a social agreement to be polite when complicated and opposing viewpoints arise.
I’ve heard this “illegals taking advantage of the system” argument before from other supporters of the fence, but I find it hard to swallow. I began my teaching career at an elementary school in Nogales, Arizona; a border town 200 miles west of the ranch. I taught migrant kids whose parents worked half the year picking fruits and vegetables here in the States and the other half in Mexico. Most of the families lived in tiny RVs or ramshackle single wide mobile homes on the edge of town in trailer parks owned by sketchy landlords. Parents worked long, grueling hours in the fields. Older children took care of younger siblings after school leaving little time for homework and extracurricular activities. The folks I knew would have benefited greatly from social welfare services, but to do so would have meant finding a ride to town and missing work to fill out applications in a foreign language. There was also the constant risk of deportation. At the end of the day, these immigrants didn’t have the resources or energy to scam the system. If they were lucky enough to save a little bit of money, a mother or father would purchase a fake Social Security card so he or she could work an honest job for honest pay.
Some years later I moved to Douglas, Arizona. My first job was as an English as a Second Language Instructor (ESL) at the community college where I still work. Most of my students came from Agua Prieta, a border town across the line in Mexico. Families scraped together what they could to send their children to college. For the students, it was a great privilege to be attending school in the United States. After 9/11, our program dwindled because of new immigration laws. Without proper identification, students could no longer attend classes. Dreams died, and I lost my job because of the decline in enrollment.
The college hired me back the following year as an instructor for a family literacy program where I worked in an old school on Fifth Street. Just five blocks from the port of entry, the fence was visible from my classroom window. My job was to help the women develop their English and job skills so they could find work in the community to help support their families.
I eventually moved to the Sierra Vista campus near the Fort Huachuca Army Installation where I continued to teach ESL for the college—this time to immigrants from all over the world. I supported these students while they built community and friendships around the common goal of creating better lives for their families.
I’m aware there are people who come to this country and take advantage of our system, just like I know there are people who were born and raised here who receive government assistance. Like so many times in my life, I avoided a conversation with a friend because I didn’t have the right words or maybe lacked the confidence to say what was on my mind, but I should have muddled through it. I have friends and family members who came to this country illegally. My nephew’s father is from Mexico. My husband’s father was deported to Mexico as a child during WWII when people were rounded up and sent back to their country of origin. The poet, Maya Angelo, once said her house was open to everyone, but that she would not tolerate anyone at her table who disparaged people because of their race, religion, sex, etc. That seems reasonable to me.
The proposed fence that is slated to go up in our backyard and the vitriol surrounding illegal immigration has left me gazing south out my kitchen window wondering what the hell happened to us. The actual border between the United States and Mexico is thirty-five miles south of our ranch. Several miles of paved road will get you only so far before you hit dirt. In dry weather, the ride is at best passable. Forget it when it rains. If you’re willing to risk your vehicle, the road takes you through some of the prettiest country this side of the Rio Grande. Cattle roam in tall grass and the rolling landscape is dotted with mesquite, desert oak, and yucca. Willow trees shade the enormous dirt water tanks and appear to wave at passersby on windy days. Jagged crags and deep arroyos remind visitors this is a rough, wild place. Deer, coyote, skunk, and pronghorn are easy to spot, while rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and bobcat live in anonymity.
Twenty miles out, there is a small fork in the road leading west to a Border Patrol Station that looks more like an old mining outpost than a 21st century government facility. How to actually get to the border, to the barbed wire fence that separates the United States and Mexico at the end of the road, depends on who you talk to. There’s a sprawling ranch out that way. The folks who work on it keep an eye on vehicles like they do their cattle and for good reason. Like us, they live and work in an illegal traffic corridor.
Recently Ron and I packed up the dogs and some chocolate chip cookies I’d just baked and headed south. Using Ron’s binoculars, we followed a group of eleven deer ascending a rocky hillside. Sure footed as mountain goats, they disappeared over a ridge before I could take pictures. We stopped at a water tank where a friend said we’d find ducks. To our disappointment, they’d taken the day off. Ron pointed out a few old homes where ranch hands and their families live. The dogs barked at cows. A typical Sunday drive, until shadows settled on the landscape reminding us the sun was setting.
Out on the dirt road, we came to an arroyo with standing water and agreed it was time to go home. If we got stuck in the mud, it was a long and potentially dangerous walk back to the ranch. With no radio reception out there, the ride was quiet. I thought about the fence and the decisions being made that might very well impact our lives. I felt eyes on us. From the hills, shrouded in darkness, to the oval office, I wondered who would win this ongoing battle. The drug runners who hid from our headlights, or the federal contractors with orders from Washington to build the fence?
Last week we learned Border Patrol Agents had been picking up groups of mules (men and women packing drugs) just east of our place nearly every night while we slept. Even so, I’m torn on the subject. A fence will no more solve illegal immigration issues than the National School Lunch Program cures poverty for children. Of course I would like to see the bad guys stopped from coming across the border, but I can’t imagine sending a mother back to Mexico after she risked her life to be with her children.
At home I fed the dogs. It was clear and cold without a cloud in the sky. Too cold for anyone to spend the night out in the desert. The great horned owls that live up in our pine trees hooted from their respective perches giving voice to ominous thoughts of who might be out there just beyond the porch light. I flipped up the collar of my jacket and walked back to the house. Once inside, I locked the door behind me.
Last weekend while pruning, I contemplated a peach tree that had bloomed due to unseasonably warm temperatures. With over thirty fruit trees, why did just this one decide to flower? Surely the tree’s DNA must know this is risky business. It’s mid-February. The chance of snow and freezing temperatures is about ninety-five percent. Down here we don’t plant a thing until we see buds on the mesquites. That’s at least six weeks away. You would think a species that has been around for 8,000 years would know doing such a thing is dangerous.
The beauty and joy this one tree brought to our otherwise naked orchard on a cloudy day reminded me of Ron’s mom, Natalie, who loved being outside working with us. She would have picked up every branch she came across and scolded us for ignoring the tiny twigs at our feet. Natalie is in a nursing home now up in Phoenix; close to Ron’s brother. For many years she lived just up the road with her second husband, W.H. who also now lives in a nursing home. Natalie has Alzheimer’s and access to proper healthcare is a serious problem down here. The closest in-home nursing services are two hours away. Deciding whether to quit work to take care of family members or to place them in a nursing home is a common hardship most of us have had to face.
When Natalie was still at home, our schedule included plenty of breaks so she wouldn’t become bored and wander off. The last vivid memory I have of her helping in the orchard was after harvesting pecans. I set her up with three buckets. One with the pecans we had just picked, one for the husks, and one for the shelled nuts. We worked side by side, and when she got the hang of it, I went about my chores. About a half-hour later I checked on her progress. The buckets contained a hodgepodge of pecans and husks. When I asked her how she was doing, she raised a pecan and said, “I can’t remember where these go.” Instead of dwelling on it, I stacked the buckets on the back porch, and we went for a walk.
The disease was whittling away at her, and she’d become obsessed with picking things up off the ground. Bottle tops, pieces of wire, shards of worn glass, baling twine; anything that didn’t look like it belonged in the dirt. That day she picked up a rusted tin can and handed it to me. Looking confused she said, “I don’t know why I do this. I can’t stop.”
Searching the ground for tools we’d used throughout the day, I nearly ran into the low hanging branches of the peach tree. The wind was blowing hard and several of the blossoms were strewn throughout the orchard. I picked one up. Maybe, like Natalie, the tree didn’t know why it did what it did. I knew if she had been there with me, she would have insisted we work together to collect every blossom. In the house we would have set them in a bowl to admire.