What Do You Do Down Here?

I am often asked by people who visit the ranch, “What do you do down here?” They look around and wonder how it is we survive. “How far is your closest neighbor?” they ask. “Is there a restaurant around here? What do you do for fun?” Ron and I are generally too busy to give a proper answer to any or all of these questions, but if folks are ready to put on a pair of work gloves and help out, we are happy to share our story.

The truth is I am guilty of asking these same questions when I am driving through small towns or down the Interstate. I wonder where people shop for groceries and what kids do when they are not in school. I think about broader issues like health care, education, and employment. I find myself creating stories about the people who live in these places, and there is a sense of bewilderment in my scenarios. I should know better because the people in these rural towns live like I do. Except I don’t know them. I don’t see them at  Valley Mercantile or at the Fourth of July parade. I don’t attend their school functions or writing groups. I have no history with them. They are strangers so I can make them into whomever I see fit. Instead of admiring the garden in a local park, I may see run down homes and think the whole town is poor. Instead of complimenting the cook on a great meal in a local restaurant, I may gripe about the terrible service. It’s easy to paint a community’s story with broad strokes when you have nothing invested and everyone is a stranger. I don’t want this for you or for my community when you pass through, so I’d like to share what the last month looked like down here along the border:

Animas High School Spring Play. Dinner and a show!

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Animas High School graduation Class of 2019! Twenty-three graduates and over $700,000 in scholarships. Yes, we are all proud of these young adults!

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Two open mic nights. One in Sierra Vista, AZ at Broxton’s Coffee and one in Rodeo,NM at the new Sky Island Grill and Grocery. We have amazing talent in our communities!

IMG_20190601_183929 (4) IMG_20190517_192937  Open mic Portal June 1, 2019

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Open mic June 1 , 2019

My dear friend Denise Hoyos and I went up to the Chiricahua Mountains for a little bird watching and got caught in a rainstorm until a nice gentleman took us back to my truck. We had lunch at the Portal Peak Lodge Store and Cafe where a couple from North Carolina helped us identify some of the birds we saw.

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rede cardinal Mexican JayI

I went up to the annual Cave Creek Garden Party in the Chiricachua Mountains in the Coronado National Forest where I met wonderful neighbors and had a terrific lunch sponsored by Friends of Cave Creek. On my way home, Ron called. Three of his fly buddies flew into the ranch to spend the night. The winds were too strong to fly back to Phoenix. We set them up in my studio, and then we all headed back up to the mountains for dinner at the Portal Lodge and dancing. Entertainment was provided by Al Foul and his band. Al’s from Dudleyville. I’m not even sure that’s on a map!


And to answer that question about what it is we do down here, well, we do a lot!

The Road Not Taken, Again

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Google Maps recently put our ranch on the road to El Paso. Logistically this doesn’t make any sense at all, yet several people have ignored the signs leaving our tiny town of Animas: Warning! No Service Ahead, Pavement Ends Next 20 Miles, End State Maintenance. They have ignored reason and instead have followed Google Maps’ prompt to turn left onto the dirt road that leads straight to our cattle guard, a mile off the pavement, and into our driveway. And they have ignored our flailing hands as they drive around the property looking for the road that will take them to the great state of Texas. One woman nearly ran over our dogs as she barreled down our runway toting a camper trailer behind her pick up. Ron finally caught up with her on the four wheeler and found her so flustered, she nearly toppled the trailer as she cranked the wheel 180 degrees to hightail it out of here. Last night while we were getting ready for bed, moving truck pulled in. Ron ran out in his pajamas to find out what the hell was going on. A few minutes later he came in shaking his head. “That guy was looking for Nogales.” Impressive, I thought. Nogales is a border town 193 miles west of here.

There is a correlation between the dependence on technology and our dwindling common sense that I fear is not being studied or addressed. The more we rely on our smart phones, lap tops, and tablets, the less we trust on our own good judgement. And I think we are all guilty of it. Not to the degree that I would turn off a paved road to get to a major city, but still. Last week Ron and I met my sister Kelli and her husband, Carl, along with another couple in San Antonio for Saint Patrick’s Day. Ron used flight software to get us to a local airport. We used the Airbnb app to select a place to stay, another for restaurant recommendations, and the Uber app to get around town. For our willingness to count on technology, we meandered up and down the river walk while Google and Visa tracked our every move collecting data on our preferences from what we like to eat to where we like to shop.

signTotalitarian novels like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were the canaries in the mine warning us of what was to come. Whether it’s succumbing to Big Brother— i.e. Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc.— as Winston does in Nineteen Eighty-Four or rebuking it as John does in Brave New World, we are at a crossroads. I can’t imagine pulling out a map or asking for directions any more than I can getting lost in an unfamiliar city. But there is a price to pay for the ease and convenience of technology. As we become more dependent on apps, social media, and search engines to make our lives easier, we are whittling away at our free will. When a big yellow and red sign reads: Warning! No Service Ahead, it is time to turn around regardless of what your phone may be telling you.

Apps like Goggle Maps are available to assist us, not to replace us. As Robert Frost reminds us in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” in the end, we are gifted a discerning mind:

… Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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.



Ghost of Christmas Past

Family photoBefore childhood memories surface of loading the station wagon with presents and heading up to Green Bay to spend Christmas with a gaggle of cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandmas who cooked delicious meals and my grandpas who complained about all the ruckus, there is this memory:

I am six years old and my parents take my younger sisters, Kelli and Missi, and me to Gimbels department store in downtown Milwaukee. It’s an ornate corner stone building with storefront windows decked out in Christmas scenes. I stand in awe as mechanical reindeer tilt their heads and carolers blink their eyes and part their small, oval mouths in unison as the music, piped through speakers, reaches the streets. We walk in the store where Christmas trees and miles of garland twinkle with lights. I am pretty sure we have arrived at the North Pole.

Gimbels 2We have been promised a train ride, and I’m disappointed because we have to first sit on Santa’s lap for pictures. The line of parents and squealing kids wraps around the cosmetic counter. Missi, who is two years old, sees Santa and starts wailing. My dad utters, “For Christ’s sake,” before disappearing into the crowd of shoppers; leaving my mom alone to tend to the three of us.

After we cajole Missi through a tearful introduction and photos with Santa, it’s off to the train! My dad mysteriously reappears and up a crowded escalator we go. Another line, but this time my dad stays with us. He loves trains and above our heads an engine the size of a sofa followed by four or five brightly painted tin cars jerks and sputters along a metal rail attached to the ceiling by giant bolts. This is an engineering feat, my dad tells us. Kids wave from the train cars. They look scared. My sisters and I are wearing matching Holiday dresses my mom sewed for us. I yank on my white tights. I hate anything confining on my body. Watching the train circling above me, I want to tear off all of my clothes and run out into the cold. I can’t get on the train. It makes no sense to me. Trains belong on the ground. The line is moving and soon my mom will let go of my hand so that my sisters and I can ascend a set of white-washed, rickety stairs that will take me to my death. I pull on the cuff of my mom’s coat. She bends down and straightens the collar on my dress. “What is it?” she asks.

I point to the train. “I can’t go on that,” I say.

She is smiling. “Of course you can,” she says. “You’re a big girl.”

She gives me a little push toward the stairs. I am now in charge of my sisters. I look behind me. My parents are waving. Climbing the stairs brings me closer to the ceiling. I tug again on my tights. It’s very hot and I bite my lip to keep from screaming. You’re a big girl, I think as a lady in a white sweater ushers us into one of the little train cars. You’re a big girl, I reason as the car jerks and I hit my head against the icy tin. My sisters are looking at me. They will cry if I cry, and my parents will blame me for ruining Christmas. You’re a big girl. You’re a big girl. You’re a big girl, I tell myself until it’s over. Family Photo 2

Nearly fifty years have passed since that awful day, and yet I can still smell my mom’s perfume and see my reflection in my dad’s horned-rimmed glasses. It was the early 70’s. A scary time for people like my parents wedged between the moral codes of the fifties and those of a new generation. We were at war in Viet Nam, the summer of love at Woodstock was still fresh in people’s minds, and bands like the Rolling Stones and The Who were rallying young people to do unthinkable things. It would have been easy for my parents to tuck their little family away someplace safe until things cooled down, but instead we were encouraged to be a part of the world rather than hidden from it. We are living in scary times now, and part of me wanted to shut the doors on Christmas this year. Between the political rhetoric, the devastating wildfires in California, and my beloved border torn asunder, it just seemed easier to pull the curtains and turn off the lights.

But then there is Ron’s granddaughter, Ada; a little beam of light who is looking to us to make her world magical this Christmas. Tuesday she and I are baking cookies. I bought all the glitter and sprinkles I could find. We’ll drink hot chocolate and dance to Christmas carols. I can’t think of anything that would bring me more joy right now.

Many of us have a scary train memory that creeps up during the Holidays. If you’re feeling a bit blue right now, you may borrow my mantra, “You’re a big girl”, while you search for that special thing that brings you joy this Holiday Season.




Every Breath You Take

green heartI had a health scare recently while in bed reading. A heavy pressure filled my chest, my arms went numb, and I broke out in a clammy sweat from head to toe. Given where we live, I knew it would be hours before I could make it to a hospital. As I lay contemplating my options, the symptoms disappeared. When it happened again a few days later, this time while on my bike, I was scared and called a friend and local volunteer EMT, Jared Fralie, who suggested a few options. My mom was in Scotland, and I had planned to go feed her cats in Sierra Vista later in the day. Instead of waiting, I took an aspirin and hit the road, promising Ron I would go to the hospital as soon as I got to town. During the two and a half hour drive to Sierra Vista, I felt fine and thought a trip to the emergency room was a bit dramatic. I called my sister Missi who is a paramedic, and a friend who recently had open heart surgery. Both agreed I shouldn’t wait until morning to see a doctor.

It was after dark when I arrived at the emergency room, which is in a busy, rural Trauma III hospital. The staff and medical team were friendly and accommodating, but this isn’t a heart center. As long as I wasn’t dying, there wasn’t much they could tell me. The no-nonsense emergency room doctor admitted me into the hospital citing an irregular EKG as the problem. I spent the night in observation where I was woken often to be poked and prodded. In the morning, I was delighted to have two of my former college students assigned to me, one a nurse, the other a CNA. I also met a young resident who asked a lot of question and then suggested maybe my problems were hormonal or maybe I had low blood sugar, and as he put it, “If you were my mom (Ouch!) I would tell you to eat a piece of candy.” At this point I seized the opportunity to use the ridiculous conversation we were having as a teaching moment. We went through my symptoms again and this time I asked questions. After we finished, he admitted he didn’t know what was wrong with me.

As I remained calm, the less civilized part of me wanted to throttle him. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African-American and white women in the United States. Our symptoms can often be more subtle than that of men. We may complain of indigestion, or a sore back rather than grabbing our chests as though a locomotive has passed through our bodies. And yet, here was this young doctor parroting the long held attitudes and beliefs of his mentors—beliefs that diminish women in the eyes of the medical community. As recent as the 1970’s, I may have been given a diagnosis of hysteria  or melancholy and prescribed Valium. In 2018 I should expect more and was deeply troubled that, as a middle-aged woman, I had been systematically erased by archaic ideals and practices that date back to ancient Egypt.

I stayed in Sierra Vista for nearly two weeks while I gathered information and made numerous phone calls to find a cardiologist. But the real reason I didn’t go home was that I was afraid. I thought, if I have a heart attack at the ranch, I may not survive given the logistics. This is a real concern for people in rural areas. Country living isn’t for the faint of heart (No pun intended.) and statistics prove it. Our urban counterparts have a longer life expectancy and have more physicians and specialists available. Those of us out in the sticks have more occurrences of diabetes and coronary heart disease. Given all this fresh air and open space, you would think we would all be happy, but unfortunately that’s not true. Young people in rural areas are twice as likely to commit suicide, and we have a higher drug overdose rate than city folks.

Going home meant I would have to face some troubling realities in our rural community as well, and Jared was kind enough to help paint a picture. Our volunteer ambulance service has five EMTs, some with more skills and training than others. Two of them have full-time jobs and currently, one volunteer is unable to work because of health issues. If I had called 911, Jared estimates it would have taken fifteen minutes for the ambulance to get to our house, given volunteers were nearby and available. Depending on my symptoms, I would have been transported to the hospital in either Silver City or in Deming, both of which are an hour and twenty minutes away. Among Jared’s numerous responsibilities, he also has the authority to decide when to Airvac a patient. After he makes the call, it takes approximately forty minutes before a chopper lands in Animas and then another forty-five minutes for a patient to be airlifted to Tucson or to Las Cruces.

Aware of what it meant to return to the ranch, I needed to know with some certainty I was out of the woods. So before I left Sierra Vista, I went for a hike in the Huachuca Mountains and gave it my all racing up and down rocky trails. In the end, I felt pretty good. Good enough to pack up and head home, yet I still worried. Ron was on an elk hunt, which meant I would be alone for a few days, but I wanted to get back to my normal routine and the dogs were getting antsy after being cooped up in the city. When I got home, I was greeted with another reality as two startled rattlesnakes scared me half to death. After barricading myself and the dogs in the house, I contemplated the heart monitor I was prescribed to wear. Is it worth it living out here, so far from town? I don’t know any more.

The last couple of days have been cold and stormy. Today the sun came out and with it dozens of finches that have flocked to the feeders I filled this morning. They will be with us through the winter trusting that the tall lady wearing flannel will keep them fed. For now they are a good reason to stay here. If they can survive the storm, so can I.

The Brown-Headed Cowbird Requiem

Marty and BethMy Uncle Marty, my dad’s only sibling, passed away this week surrounded by family in his home up in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Ron and I went back a few weeks ago to see him knowing the end was near. Marty was the keeper of our family stories. He had a knack of filling in the missing pieces with the best versions of our ancestors and of ourselves. This meant that sometimes the facts were altered like the broad strokes of a paintbrush hiding the dark colors with something brighter and better for all of us.

Unable to make the funeral, I yearned to be connected, so I picked up where Uncle Marty had left off. One of the last stories he shared was about our family’s history with Abbott Pennings, the founder of Saint Norbert College in DePere, Wisconsin. In Marty’s story, Abbott Pennings was a dear friend of my great-great- grandparents, Louis and Pheilomen (François) Colburn. Sometime in the late 1940’s when Louis was an old man, he donated his house and land to the college. The house was turned into a primate lab. Years later it was torn down, and no one seems to remember exactly where it once stood. Over the years I have collected other snippets of information. We were the distant relatives to Enos Colburn who has a park named after him in Green Bay. My great-grandfather Bearl Colburn was an inventor. My cousin Chad is the spitting image of our fifth great-grandfather, Jean-François d’Amours, Sieur de Courberon born in Kamouraska, Quebec in 1791.Jean Francois d'Amoiurs, Sieur de Courberon Past that I didn’t have a lot of information about my Colburn relatives. I grew up immersed in my mother’s big, fun-loving Irish Catholic clan. The Colburns by comparison were quiet, polite people consisting of my Uncle Marty and Aunt Linda and their two kids, my cousins, Tracy and Chad. My grandparents Bud (Heath) and Evelyn Colburn are long gone. Bud had a brother, Lee, and a couple of kids, but I only met them a handful of times. My grandma Evelyn was an only child. I remember her mom, my grandma Mamie, but she died when I was young. There were also two sisters, Verna and Glad, Bud’s aunts, who lived together in Milwaukee in a tiny house on 91st Street with a calico cat named Cookie. I loved all these people dearly, but with the exception of an occasional visit, they required little of me. I didn’t feel the sticky, messy glue of family when I was among them. Marty with his stories, colorful language, and sometimes raucous behavior made him the unlikely super hero that held us all together. In recent years, with the addition of nieces and nephews, and Marty’s frequent calls, I am grateful to the rekindled relationships I have with that side of the family, and with my sisters and their children.

ChadWithin an hour of researching my ancestors online, I traced them back to the early 1500’s, Paris, France. My great-great-great grandparents, Theodore and Célina (Desmarais) D’Amours de Courberon, came to the United States from Quebec to Redford, New York in 1852 (where our family name was changed to Colburn) before they made their permanent home in DePere shortly thereafter. They had twelve children. I learned that Enos Colburn was my great-great grandfather Louis’s nephew. Enos grew up with seven brothers and sisters. The family was huge. A few more searches and I discovered there are still over 100 Colburn relatives living in and around Green Bay. I called my dad to give him the news. He was quiet, which is his nature. Then he said. “My God, I’m seventy-eight years old and didn’t know any of this.”

We speculated why his immediate family had been cut off from the Colburns. He said that when his dad, Bud, was born, my great-great grandma Pheilomen snatched him up and brought him to Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church to be baptized. “You see, Norma, my grandmother, was protestant,” he said. “She didn’t want my dad baptized Catholic. This caused quite a problem in the family.”

After that the two women never got along. It makes sense that Norma circled the wagons around her small family leaving her husband’s people behind. I don’t think my Uncle Marty knew much of this, and though I’m happy I was able to share it with my dad, I feel it came too late.

While the sorrow of my uncle’s passing catches in my chest as I water the garden or cook a meal, a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds have settled in the orchard, scaring off all the other birds. Cowbirds are parasitic. A mama cowbird either eats or kills an egg or two in perhaps a sparrow or a dove nest, then she lays her eggs leaving them to be incubated then raised by the unsuspecting mama bird. But there is another way to look at this. Cowbirds are like the character, Philip Nolan, in Everett Hale’s short story, “The Man without a Country.” In the story, Nolan, a US Army lieutenant, renounces the United States and is sentenced to live the rest of his life in exile aboard US Navy warships. In some cosmic way, God, Mother Nature, or whomever you may pray to, exiled the cowbirds to a life without a nest to call their own. Without a home, Nolan lived the rest of his life with deep melancholy for what he had lost. The cowbirds have found a way to survive as outsiders looking in. I understand these sentiments all too well.

Most of my family is still in Wisconsin, cold country dotted by forests and farmland where lakes freeze in the winter, and rivers cut their craggy paths into the earth like veins. As a kid I complained about the weather and swore one day I would move someplace warm. In my late twenties, I followed through with my threats and moved to Arizona, to the Sonoran Desert with its thirsty earth and vegetation armed with stickers and thorns, blistering sun, and rattlesnakes coiled in the parched grass ready to strike. There is beauty and danger in both places. I was born into one extreme only to seek out the other.

The days are getting shorter and as I reflect on family and my role in it, I feel so very far away from home. My body has never forgotten the change in seasons, the explosion of red, orange, and red wine leaves lighting up trees this time of year, the cool nights, the hunger for stew and mashed potatoes. I miss Wisconsin to my core and yet I belong here, too. Going home means leaving the desert, a place that has settled in my bones alongside the dark, cold winters of my childhood. I would long for the mountains, the sunsets, the open spaces if I left. Marty’s phone calls kept me tethered to another life and to possibilities. I miss him. Right now I feel like a woman without a country, a cowbird without a nest.

Photo #1- My Uncle Marty and me

Photo #2- My fifth great-grandfather, Jean Francois d’Amours de Courberon

Photo # 3- My cousin, Chad

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.