Border Talk 6

A good writer does not ask questions on the page, instead she answers them:

I have had nothing but questions since the caravan of asylum-seeking people gathered in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Do I write about …

The people coming up from Honduras and Guatemala?

The proposed wall?

The illegal immigrant children locked up by our government?

The parents separated from their children?

The influx of border crossers here in our backyard?

The toll this is taking on Border Patrol Agents?

The toll this is taking on people seeking asylum?

The effect this is having on our rural border community?

The free pass the cartels have to move drugs along the border because Border Patrol Agents are stretched so thin?

The problems at the Port of Entry at Antelope Wells?

The government shut down?

A good writer does not include her process on the page, instead she begins with her subject. This may include an assertion or thesis:

hondruasI don’t know where to start. My thoughts are a jumbled mess. We live seventy-five miles from Antelope Wells Port of Entry, half that distance as the crow flies. A place on the border most folks never heard of before the caravans coming from Central America showed up. It is a border outpost a hundred miles from a hospital and grocery store. In the summer the temperatures can reach 110˚. This time of year, it can dip into the teens at night. Often 300 people at a time are crossing at this tiny dot on the map, and it’s taxing everyone from ranchers to Border Patrol Agents; illegal immigrants to medical service employees. It’s where seven-year-old Guatemalan girl Jakelin Caal crossed with her father and died shortly afterwards. It’s where three days ago a man with a flesh-eating bacteria was identified before being taken to a hospital for treatment. Those of us along the border have been warned to lock our doors. There are simply not enough Border Patrol Agents to spare. The drug cartels are having a field day moving drugs through the wide open, unprotected desert, and we are smack dab in the middle of it.

I should be afraid except we haven’t had any problems here at the ranch since this all began. But then I hear about neighbors who are finding dozens of illegal immigrants in their barns and Border Patrol Agents who are sick on the job fearful of what they may have contracted. Those who work for our volunteer ambulance service are working the border. If something happens to someone in the community, we’re on our own. Border Patrol busses loaded with unfamiliar faces are disrupting this otherwise quiet, desert landscape. Our president and some of the news outlets make it sound like we are living in a war zone. If we are, I’ve seen no evidence of it. That said, we are locking our doors. Admittedly, most of us down here are a bit edgy.

 A good writer writes what she knows:

honduras2I lived in Honduras back in the early 90’s. As an idealist, I thought I would help people less fortunate; give back something in return for all I had. I hadn’t even pulled my luggage from a heap in the corner of the San Pedro airport before I needed help, and it continued to be that way for the duration of my stay. I needed help with Spanish. Help with transportation. Help with a messy bureaucratic system. Help with shopping for food, asking for directions, finding a place to live. Help with finding a doctor, a dentist, and a pharmacist. I was the proverbial babe in the woods, and if it wasn’t for the kindness of others, I wouldn’t have lasted a week.

As the rhetoric continues to heat up over, “What do we do with these people?” I find myself sharing memories of living in Latin America. While in Antigua, Guatemala, I partnered with a medical student, Chris, who was working with a government sponsored program to inoculate children. The first house we visited wasn’t a house at all, rather a blue tarp secured at the corner of a concrete wall in the back of an empty lot where a divorced woman and her four children lived. Inside the two-sided structure was a small table, two chairs, a propane hot plate set on a shelf next to a few canned goods. Against the far wall was an ancient dresser and a double-sized mattress. An old car missing its wheels sat not far from the structure and contained everything else the family owned. The kids, shy and curious, smiled at us as Chris asked the mother for her children’s birth certificates. I looked around the small space thinking how insensitive this guy was asking for things this poor woman clearly didn’t own. Before I could nudge him, the mother produced a manila envelope from the top drawer of the beat up dresser. Proudly she handed it to David. Inside were the birth certificates along with family photos. I felt my face flush with shame. I had equated poverty with ignorance and lack of caring for family.

One day I missed the last bus out of the campo (a farming community) in central Honduras with no way home. A woman I’d worked with on a rural health project asked me to stay with her family for the night. I didn’t want to impose, but I had no other choice. A room divider made from flour sacks sewn together and strung tightly around a wood frame, something found in most rural homes, split the one room house in half. After a delicious meal shared with her husband and five children, her two daughters moved the divider to the front of the house while the woman unwrapped the finest cotton sheets I have ever seen from layers of yellowed tissue paper and made up the family’s only bed. I knew the sheets had been a wedding gift and had never been used. When I protested, she said it was an honor to have me as her guest. I slept in a room the girls made spacious for me while the woman and her family lay crowded together on blankets covering the dirt floor.

My first bout of malaria struck while I was staying with an American nun up in the mountains in central Honduras. When the fevers made me delirious, she didn’t know what to do. Leticia, a woman from the church, and a curandero (healer) came to the house. She made me strong teas from local plants to sip and kept my skin cool with damp washcloths. But mainly she sat with me and prayed. After a few day and no improvement, she arranged to have me taken to a doctor in Sulaco, a village an hour away over a bumpy dirt road. There Esteban, a doctor I had worked with in a cholera clinic, gave me an IV of electrolytes. For two days he sat by my bed reading the paper. When I mentioned he should go home, he smiled and said he liked the quiet. Leticia and Esteban saved my life.

This is what I know of the Hondurans. I was treated with respect and as a friend. No one ever asked me for money or for something of value. I didn’t meet a single person who took drugs or sold drugs. Instead I met hard-working people who were trying, like most of us, to provide a good life for their families.

I returned again in 1998. By that time the military police had all but been replaced by a civilian police force. In a few short years, I saw how this change was whittling away the spirit of the Honduran people. Strangers no longer looked at me and smiled when I went into a store or walked down the street. Folks kept to themselves on busses and in public spaces. Casually dressed men carried pistols in holsters on their belts. I went to a police station in Tela after my wallet was stolen and immediately regretted reporting the incident. There were men handcuffed to chairs, others laying on the floor handcuffed to desks. I was asked to write what happened on piece of lined paper. When I asked who was in charge, a tall man wearing a button down shirt and black jeans brandishing a pistol laughed, “Supongo que soy yo.” I guess I am.

I saw it then, a systemic weakening of the Honduran spirit. People were fearful. There were rumors of gang activity in San Pedro Sula and the capital city, Tegucigalpa. The cartels are moving in, I heard from old friends. It seemed Honduras was ripe for the picking. I left knowing I would never go back.

The caravan is made up of asylum-seeking folks like the divorced mother with four kids carrying her children’s birth certificates, the woman who graciously offered me a bed, and of course, Leticia and Esteban. They are beaten down and scared for their lives. What do we do with these people? We begin with compassion.

 

 

Border Talk 6

Illegal Warning SignMy friend Kirsten Allen and I drove up to the Huachuca Mountains, which butt up against Mexico in the Coronado National Forest in southeast Arizona. It was eleven o’clock when we parked at the Brown Canyon trailhead, gathered our gear, and headed out on a day hike. I’d forgotten to bring a hat and felt a bit ill-prepared when Kirsten produced a snazzy, purple boonie hat from her pack. Binoculars at the ready, we spotted our first bird just a few minutes into the hike. It was going to be a good day.

Kirsten is the publisher and editorial director at Torrey House Press in Utah. She was in town as a guest presenter at the annual Cochise Creative Writing Celebration in Sierra Vista. We were taking the day to unwind after the event. The weather was perfect, the conversation easy, and we were excited to explore the area.

The Brown Canyon trail is both hilly and rocky, and though I wouldn’t try it on a mountain bike, it makes for a great hike. At a water trough where the trail splits, we continued on rather than head back to the truck. About three hours into the hike we came to the Hamburg Trail and Brown Canyon Trail intersection where new trail signs had recently been posted. Up until then I had felt confident of where we were, but now we were faced with several choices. We were down in a canyon where it was difficult to determine cardinal directions. The path to our left was narrow and crossed a dry riverbed of rocks. The trail heading right was wide and well-maintained. I hadn’t been up that way in a couple of years and told Kirsten that my gut said we should take the groomed trail.

We started off and were soon climbing. The grade increased every few hundred yards then descended and crossed the stream. I thought as long as we followed the river, we would find our way out. The sun dipped, filling the canyon with moving shadows. At some point I realized my gut had betrayed me. I was in unfamiliar territory. Kirsten and I stopped and discussed our options. We’d been hiking for hours. To go back the way we came meant spending a great deal of time navigating the trail in the dark. There was also the matter of returning to a spot where I knew we might run into illegal crossers from Mexico. We checked our phones. Kirsten didn’t have a signal. The little hiker on her Google map hadn’t moved. My phone had service, but was low on battery. I called my husband to see if he could text us a map. It was hard to describe exactly where we were. We both had spotty service. “Face the setting sun,” he said. “Stick your right arm straight out from your side. Hike in that direction.” I was grateful to hear his voice and for the instructions.

Canyon walls surrounded us. Looking up, trees glowed from the cliffs, and we assumed the sun was behind them. We each stuck out our right arm and continued uphill in the direction we had been going. When we had climbed high enough to nearly reach the tree line, we stopped again to take in our surroundings. This time we saw the last bit of sun hanging in the sky. Facing the sun, I again stuck out my right arm. Kirsten and I knew instantly we had been hiking in the wrong direction—and had been for two and a half hours. Kirsten was out of water, and I only had enough to ration. We were no longer interested in bird calls or the trees that had previously caught our attention. It was time to get the hell out of there.

Something happens to the psyche when the sun goes down. Vulnerability bubbles to the surface clouding rational thoughts and the ability to make good decisions. Checking my watch against the setting sun, I knew we would be faced with new challenges when we reached the trail intersection, the place where I had made the mistake of taking us in the wrong direction hours before.

Heading north down the trail, we noticed an open backpack and a camouflage shirt turned inside out. I told Kirsten to keep moving. She isn’t from the borderlands, but she understood the danger. We were not afraid of the dark, lions, or bears, rather the two-legged creatures who travel the mountains at night carrying dope on their backs. I texted Ron, Found evidence of smugglers. Get us out of here! However, I didn’t send it. On one hand it seemed ridiculous to be so afraid. On the other, I imagined someone jumping out in front of us and me hitting send before my phone and backpack were taken at gunpoint. I imagined helicopters flying overhead with spotlights shining down on us and Border Patrol agents calling out our names. I imagined a stranger’s hand over my mouth, a deep voice whispering, “cállate.”

After a traumatic fifty minutes, we arrived back at the Hamburg Trail and Brown Canyon Trail juncture. It would be another hour before we reached the parking lot at the Ramsey Canyon Preserve, where I hoped we could fill our water bottles before walking another two miles on a county road to my truck. The sun was long gone before we came to a spot on the trail I recognized. It was a steep climb out of the riverbed over large rocks. I’d left my glasses in the truck and still wore my prescription sunglasses along with Kirsten’s headlamp to navigate the trail. Kirsten’s sunglasses remained perched on the brim of her hat and our binoculars dangled around our necks. Our hips and legs ached as we hurried up the trail after the sound of snapping branches startled us.

A text came in from Ron. If you’re not down by 8 pm AZ time, I’m sending in troops. Seriously. RSVP receipt of this message. I hated being the damsel in distress. I hated that primal fear all women wear like a second skin. We were on the border at night in a mountain range known for illegal traffic. Feeling exposed and small, I kept my head down. Kirsten seemed lost in her thoughts as well.

FB_IMG_1524405550300It wasn’t until Kirsten and I reached the preserve around eight o’clock that something wonderful happened. Hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, our friendship transcended into new territory—a sacred place where teasing and giggles rescued us from our fear. We had weathered the storm, conquered our demons, slayed the dragons, and we had done it together. This was our war story. Depleted of any pride, we knocked on the door at Ramsey Canyon Inn where a kind gentleman from Michigan gave us a ride to my truck.

All the amazing adventures of my life have been unintentional. I prefer making plans to avoid surprises. In the desert summer heat I carry sunscreen and a cooler of ice filled with plenty of cold water in my truck. I stuff a blanket and jacket behind the seat when the weather turns cold. My hike with Kirsten may have been harrowing, but it reminded me I need to leave room for the unexpected. I would have missed out on so much had the day gone as planned.

 

 

Border Talk 5

2017-10-08 08.44.10Ron missed the call from a Border Patrol agent while we were in town last week. We didn’t think much of it at the time, but when we came home the next day to find tire tracks leading up to our gate, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. We live at the end of a mile-long dead end dirt road. People generally don’t just drop by unless they are lost. I thought back to the call from the Border Patrol agent and wondered if there had been illegals crossing our property while we were gone. With much to do, I shook off the notion as I hauled in groceries, cleaned out the cat litter box, and fed the animals. At some point I realized Ron hadn’t helped carry in bags from the truck. I put the groceries away and threw in a load of laundry all the while wondering where he was. Soon my imagination got the best of me, and I worried he’d run into someone out in the shop or the airplane hangar. After I peeled potatoes for dinner, I grabbed the pistol I keep in our bedroom and went looking for him.

This was an odd predicament to find myself in. I have no doubt I would shoot someone who tried to hurt my husband, animals, or me. I’ve had my life threatened and know what I am capable of. But it’s a part of life down here I would rather not have to deal with-this underlying fear that I might look up from my garden or walk around the corner of an outbuilding to find someone standing there prepared to do me harm. After walking the property, which seemed an eternity, Ron appeared carrying a long stick. He’d been out looking for rattlesnakes that may have come in close while we were gone. He looked down at the pistol at my side. “You’ve been gone forty-five minutes,” I said. “I got worried.”

The next day two agents stopped by to inform us there had been activity at the ranch while we were gone. The men joined us for coffee and banana bread, then asked if they could take a look around. The illegals they had caught the day before had dropped bundles of dope somewhere nearby. Ron and a friend went to harvest honey while the agents combed the property on their ATVs. I went out to water trees, and by the time I came in, the agents had left and I was home alone. A twinge of vulnerability set in while I did chores, but I consciously dismissed it so that I could get on with my day. There was too much to do. I couldn’t just lock myself inside the house and pull the curtains.

Despite illegals on the border or criminals in our cities, most of us are resilient and are able to carry on with our lives. Trouble seems to happen when we give in to our fears. That’s when we begin to lock our doors, avoid eye contact with our neighbors, and withdraw from the people who care about us. I heard today that the FBI is setting up a billboard campaign in hopes people will come forward about the shooter’s motives in the Las Vegas mass killing spree. I’ve been asking myself if knowing Stephen Paddock’s motives is really all that important. The damage is done, isn’t it time to move on? To heal? But at the core of our humanity we need the question answered. If he was just a regular guy who opened fire, then what prevents any of us from doing the same? Until he is culled from the proverbial herd, we won’t rest. In the meantime, it’s important to our well-being to leave the curtains open to let in the sunshine.

 

Border Talk (Part 4)

StockSnap_MUTRARWBJC (1)Last week, 3,600 pounds of marijuana were seized by Border Patrol agents about twenty miles south of the ranch. The bales were stashed in the back of two pickup trucks covered with camouflage tarps. Three people were arrested, and one man got away. This is the report the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) shared with the public in their statement. The rest of the story is the stuff legends are made of.
Once the trucks were discovered, Border Patrol went in search of the smugglers. Soon we learned someone had stolen a prized horse worth thousands and expensive tack to boot. The owner wanted his horse back. Local ranchers and cowboys saddled up and went looking for the drug-smuggling horse thief. My husband and a friend took to the air hoping to spot the outlaw.
Meanwhile, a phone chain rivaling a PTA bake sale was underway to warn local community members. Figuring the smuggler traveled back to Mexico, it took some time to realize he’d ridden north. A quarter mile from our place, he cut fence on his way down the valley headed for I-10. Over the next several hours, many fences were destroyed as he rode just east of the local highway. He bedded down at a neighbor’s ranch for the night, where he fed and watered the horse before continuing on. The following day, a few folks remembered seeing someone riding through open country. Eventually, the smuggler made it to the interstate where he surely caught a ride. The horse was recovered in a pasture several miles south of the highway, most likely making its way home. The stolen tack was found on the roadside.
This story will be told with varying degrees of fact and fiction as it morphs into a local legend. Remember the time that drug smuggler stole a horse and got away?  Over time, the details of the story will fade as legends are designed to make us feel invincible. But today, we are concerned for our neighbors. We understand the repairs to fences will cost ranchers time and money. We recognize the toll on Border Patrol agents who put their lives on the line every day. We contemplate the proposed border wall.
If history is any indicator of the effectiveness of walls, Washington will soon be erecting an eyesore on the landscape as another costly example of government’s lack of foresight. The drug smuggler’s story is fascinating because of the lens in which we currently view the border. A bad guy got away, build the wall! In political debate and even in some social contexts, the wall sounds like a good idea. None of us want criminals sneaking past law enforcement and infiltrating our communities.
The psychological costs are far greater than anything Washington has up its sleeve. Feeling overwhelmed by big issues, we build our own walls; oftentimes relying on the opinions of family, social, political, and religious networks as brick and mortar. Fueled by fear and uncertainty, these barriers can cause us and others harm.
Build the wall. Don’t build the wall. Either way, it won’t stop the drugs and illegal immigrants from coming into this country. The problems are complicated and require mindful solutions to repair the destruction caused by a history of threats and empty promises on both sides of the border.
The street value of 3,600 pounds of marijuana pales in comparison to the cost to this valley, our communities, and beyond no matter how fantastical a story the outlaw left in his wake.

Border Talk (Part 3)

bike 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.
southAfter 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.