U-C: What I See

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Sixteen Mile Day

It’s three a.m. when someone shakes me awake. It’s my third night sleeping in the desert. The moon has shifted, becoming a little bit larger each night than the tiny sliver it was when we began, but by three o’clock it has disappeared behind Baboquivari – the holy mountain a few miles to the west where the O’odham people believe all life originated. Slowly, the sixty or seventy of us begin to move quickly and quietly to pack our things, and grab a quick cup of coffee and a fistful of granola or a bagel. By four a.m., we’ve circled up for announcements, and formed a line – two by two – to begin the longest day we will face this week, sixteen miles and about eight hours of hiking.

We begin hiking in the dark, each person making out the shape of the one in front. In some ways, this is the kind of hiking that is the most authentic to the migrant experience. At this time of year, the folks who are savvy walk all night, preferring to encounter the dangers of cactus and rocky washes in the dark to the intense, brutal heat of the day. Our commitment is similar. We hope to be finished our hike by noon and then to huddle under tarps or the shade of mesquite trees through the desert heat in the afternoon.

By four thirty, though the sun has yet to break over the mountains to our east, we are walking in the soft, gentle light that is common in the early morning of the desert. We try to walk quickly, though our large group makes it difficult to move efficiently. By six thirty, the sun is fully visible over the mountains and now climbing into the sky as we leave the protected nature preserve that we’ve been hiking in for the first few days.

Now we’re walking straight north along route 286. On the website for Derechos Humanos, a human rights organization in Tucson that co-sponsors our journey, I’ve read the names of those who have died in the desert, and the places where their bodies were discovered. (http://www.derechoshumanosaz.net) Many, many of them have made it out to this road, only to die waiting for someone to stop and offer them aid. Just this week, we learned the story of a woman who fractured a bone in her leg, was abandoned in the desert, and somehow survived for more than three weeks, eventually crawling on her hands and knees to make it to the road.

We walk single file along the shoulder of the road, stepping further to the right each time someone in the back yells “car,” then back to the edge of the pavement when the vehicle has passed. Five out of every six vehicles that pass us are the Border Patrol, and after a few miles of walking in the increasingly hot sun, we arrive at a Border Patrol check point. It’s located about twenty miles north of the border on this road, similar to most north/south roads here in the southwest. All cars are stopped going north so that the Border Patrol can determine citizenship. As we stand in a long line in front of their trailer, several agents go down the line, questioning each person: “What’s your citizenship?” they ask. “U.S.,” most of us reply. “Where were you born?” the agents continue, and most of us satisfy their questions with our answers. Those with brown skin, however, are singled out. “Let’s see some I.D.,” an agent demands when the person in front of me says that he is from San Antonio. “Why do I need to show you I.D.,” the walker asks, “when no one else does?” “Hey man,” the agents responds, “if you’re from San Antonio, you know that you always have to carry you’re I.D.”

Eventually, the agents are satisfied that we aren’t smuggling anyone, and we walk on. We’re ten or eleven miles into the day now, and stopping every mile and a half to refill our water bottles. Each time we do, I give thanks to God. I’m drinking at least a quart of water per hour, with no thought at all to conservation. What if I was responsible to carry all I could consume? Most migrants I’ve met hike into the desert with with just a gallon jug of water in each hand, and maybe a small backpack with some cans of tuna fish and refried beans. Many of them will be in the desert for at least three or four days – and maybe for a week or more.

By eleven a.m., we still have several miles to go, and the sun is now almost directly overhead. The temperature is still only a little over a hundred degrees, well below what it will be almost every day starting a few weeks from now. My feet are hot, but I’m grateful that both Ben and I are blister free. I’m fighting a pretty bad heat rash that covers my legs, in spite of the fact that I’ve worn long pants all the time. I’ve been using 50 SPF sunblock each day, and I feel fortunate that I’m not burned. My muscles ache, but I began the walk in good physical condition and I’m feeling relatively strong.

As we finish up for the day just after non, I think about the migrants – probably as many as several hundred of them – who are spread out within a fifty mile radius of us. They’re likely to be sitting in washes under mesquite, hiding from Border Patrol flyovers, and more importantly, trying to keep from baking in the hot sun. Mostly, I expect that they’re trying to conserve their energy and not to drink any more than they have to, hoping to be well-prepared for another night of hiking in the desert.

You know, among the laws that God gave to the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness was the repeated admonition to welcome the stranger. They were both a wandering people themselves, and a people who understood that true security comes only in offering to share what little one has with those who are even more needy. Later, Jesus picked up on the same theme as he continually pressed God’s command to reach out to those on the margins. “I was hungry, and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger (read – without documents) and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me.” God is clearly invested in our commitment to live our faith by welcoming the stranger.

I’ve never felt that so strongly as I do today.