Letter From The Desert: Give Us a Desert Without Borders

black vultures in a saguaro on the Mexican border
Black vultures on a saguaro at the Mexican border. Photo by Chris Clarke

In summer, walking becomes more difficult. At least during the day. When it’s above 105°F here, unless you have prepared yourself physically, emotionally, and probably spiritually, a short routine walk — like the mile and change the dog and I generally do twice a day — is an ordeal. An expedition, in the 19th century sense in which it is not assumed everyone who embarks will be coming back.

We walk at night more often than usual these past weeks. Night walking is a year-round pursuit, mind. Going out without benefit of flashlight to navigate by starshadows is a worthwhile pastime any time of year, and in the winter it’s more likely that any randomly chosen walk time will fall at night anyway. There’s just so much more of it then.

But now we venture out late, after 11:00 pm. The day’s heat has dwindled to a mere 89°F or so, almost bracing. The breeze refrigerates the sweat in the back of my shirt. On the southern horizon, just skimming the ridgeline, is a bright constellation that appears to have a sharp hook at the top. The Scorpion. The mountains hide the Scorpion’s striking tail, but not its heart: a bright red star that one might at first mistake for the planet Mars.

It is not Mars, though, and we know that this not being Mars is ancient knowledge because the Ancient Greeks named it “not-Mars,” or the “Rival of Mars”: Ἀντάρης, or Ant-Ares. Antares. The Ancient Celestial Opponent of the God of War watches over the deserts to the south.

Some years back I walked along an imaginary line in the desert to the south, the air temperature likely well in excess of the 115° I’d seen a couple hours earlier on a thermometer hanging in the shade, calculating the capacity of my water bottle out of nervous habit despite several gallons in the truck a hundred yards away.

To the north, the Sierra Pintas glowered. Black in the mind-numbing heat, they vanished over the northwestern horizon and kept going, following the curvature of the earth. Or perhaps that was a trick of the intense shimmering air. North of the Sierra Pintas, I could just make out the south end of the Bryan Mountains through about 11 miles of overheated saguaros and ocotillos. Follow those mountains and within about two days, depending, you would meet their continuation in the Mohawk Mountains, and from there it is a mere 30 waterless, baking, deadly miles to Interstate 8.

Harris' hawk above the Cabeza Prieta
Harris' hawk above the Cabeza Prieta. Photo by Chris Clarke

All in all, the trek would be like merely taking my mile-long dog walk and – instead of retiring at the end to lie panting

warning sign at the border

on the tile under the swamp cooler — tacking another 59 or so miles on to the end, with only the water you can carry. Slogging through gravel and sand and shimmering heat for at least ten days, all the while avoiding detection by the Border Patrol or other unpleasant types. And being aware of the ever-present possibility of betrayal by the men you paid to guide you across, who are always one reversal away from taking your money, taking your water, taking violent liberties, and then taking their leave. And going through all this in the hope that once you reach the highway, you will manage to get a ride into the city without being found out. Where phenomenally lucky you then gains the chance to clear tables, or harvest cotton, or mow lawns in Phoenix whose each square meter drinks each day ten times the water it would have taken to save the lives of those you left behind you, collapsed and staring dully skyward in the Growler Valley.

I stood there and imagined making that trek, or more accurately tried to imagine it, and I felt unequal. I spent a minute or two desiring to meet the kind of person who could make that trek. And then I remembered that I had met them, in bars and at stores and restaurants and at work and at parties, that I had met them almost every single day of my life, since the Clinton administration fortified all the safer places to cross without documents: San Diego, El Paso, Nogales. The Clinton administration started the American tradition of shunting teenagers and young mothers and children into the Sonoran Desert’s hottest outback on the assumption that if enough of them died, few would follow.

If that assumption bore fruit it was entirely Strange Fruit, and all that came after was merely intensification and elaboration, even the most horrifying of news over the past weeks, with slack-souled, venal men using children as hostages. Atrocity has been piled on atrocity. In 2017 migrant deaths in the desert spiked with 50 documented fatalities in just the first weeks of July, a startling number for two reasons. The recorded deaths are surely only a fraction of the actual deaths. And this spike happened as undocumented migration actually slackened. Fewer people are migrating across the border, but a much higher percentage of them are dying. In 2017, for every five people setting out across the desert toward Gila Bend or Dateland, one or two died.

map of border migrant deaths
Known border crossing fatalities, 2014-2017. Map courtesy International Organization for Migration

The heart of The Scorpion bleeds over the southern deserts. The Anti-War Star stands witness to our war on the poor. We have looted these two continents for centuries. Quien siembra vientos recoge tempestades.

These are the kinds of people I want as neighbors. They have shown they can persevere. They have shown devotion to those they love. They have walked through the valley of the pale shadow of death and yet embrace joy.

They should not have had to make that trek. The Border is itself an atrocity, a meaningless abstract flag waved to stoke hate by people who have never been within a thousand miles of the place. The Border is a lynching rope and we would do well to cut it down, to cut it asunder, to relegate it to a receding, mortifying historical obsolescence.

Let people escaping tyranny come here as they will. (Let us rid this place of tyranny as well, as part of our usual obligation as hosts.) Let people seeking opportunity come when it knocks. Let families separated not just by orange tyrants but by decades of quiet warfare and endless miles of summer desert reunite as they wish. Let the workers go home for Christmas and weddings by assuring them that they will be able to return safely afterward. Let the desert return to the wildlife, the visitors, the Native people who have been tending it since long before James Gadsden drew a line in the sand and called it real. Let Antares gaze down once more on a landscape of joy and peace.

Let that demographic shift happen, and soon. Let us, at long last, be neighbors.

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