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The Confluence of Two Worlds

The Confluence by Ted Grussing The Confluence by Ted Grussing

There are places which are meant to be hard to reach, difficult to climb, even life-threatening to attain. Those places remind us, both those who reach them and those who refrain, what it means to be challenged, to have succeeded and to have failed.

In a century in which we have gained the ability to build a road, bridge, or transport to just about any place on Earth, this does not mean that we should. We must maintain the hard-to-reach places as hard to reach, for when our body carries us to the peak of a mountain, to the far reaches of a river, we are reminded what it means to be the human animal. We are far more than the hi-tech shoes, quick dry pants, and micro-fiber tops that we wear. The skin made raw, the loss of breath, the pain in our side, that is what makes those hard-to-reach places come alive.

Grand Canyon Escalade proposal Right now, there is a proposal to deliver to the bottom of the Grand Canyon as many as 10,000 people per day by way of a tram. This serves no purpose other than to make money for those who have invested, at the expense of the very people who are native to this land.

The pending change to the ecology of the confluence of those two rivers will be yet another story told in hindsight, heads shaking as we realize what we have done in the name of tourism and making money. But the untold story, the one that has no data to support the claim, is that every time we convert a journey into a ride, we take from our children’s imagination, another source of inspiration stolen from our collective memory. What will we aspire to if all challenges are removed, if those few remaining, isolated places are instead the site of a restaurant?

If Grand Canyon Escalade resort is ratified by the Navajo Nation, it will radically alter the very way in which we view and enter one of this planet’s greatest natural treasures, a sacred place for us all.

To learn more, visit the Grand Canyon Trust and Save the Confluence. Then get involved. Let the National Park Service and Navajo Nation know this is unacceptable, that the Grand Canyon should be preserved.

By |2017-08-12T05:46:18-04:00September 7th, 2016|Out of America|Comments Off on The Confluence of Two Worlds

In the Void of Education – Part 3

This topic begins with Part 1 and follows Part 2.

Mixed Vocabularies
At lunch on the second day of my Wilderness First Responder training I sat across the table from a class mate, a young man (I will call him Matt) who was sharing some of the challenges his brother faces in the Texas school system. In particular, he finds it very frustrating, as a history teacher, to teach both the Christian creation story and evolution / cosmology as competing theories for how the Earth, solar system, and universe were formed.

He is always walking a fine line in the respect that he wants to teach his students to be critical thinkers in the shadow of an administrative and parenting body which fear straying from a Christian foundation. He is a history teacher, not a theologian, as Matt made clear.

Matt took another bite of his lunch time carrot, shook his head, and asked how this kind of rationale could possibly continue in this modern world.

The woman to my right (I will call her Shelly) immediately offered, “The kids need to know both theories!”

I knew better, but could not help jumping in, “Are you also suggesting they teach the Navajo, Sioux, and Mayan creation stories? What about the creation stories of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians? I am all for that, as a broad cultural education is always a good foundation. But it seems our schools do not allow for this much focus on the mythos of the human species.”

She responded, “No. I am talking about the Biblical story and evolution. If you are going to teach evolution, you need to also teach what the Bible teaches us.”

“Science and creation stories are not competing–they are not even in the same category.”

“Sure they are. Both are based on history.”

Matt was chewing the last of his carrot, “Sure. History is stories and facts about people and places and events. Some of them are supported by records outside of the Bible.”

Nodding, I quickly added, “The Bible offers an account of people who likely did walk the Earth. But to say the Bible, or any creation story gives an accurate account of how the Earth was formed, or how life has evolved, is misleading, taking away from–.”

Shelly cut me off, “They are just theories!”

I hesitated, and decide a prop would be more effective than words. I picked up a book and then let it drop to the floor without saying anything. I looked at Shelly, then reached down, grabbed the book, and lifted it to the height of the table. I dropped it again. Reached down, grabbed the book, lifted and dropped it again. I did this four or five times more.

“Nine point eight meters per second per second. Every single time. Unless the hand of God interposes a miracle, or the total mass-density of the Earth spontaneously changes, this book will always fall to the floor at the exact same rate over the exact same period of time.” I paused. “And yet, gravity is just a theory.”

“What’s your point?” Shelly asked?

“All of science is based on theories. But in our English language, ‘theory’ has a negative connotation when in fact theory is an integral part of the scientific method and foundation to all we know about the universe around us. If a scientist is able to disprove what we know about gravity, and show with repeated accuracy that his or her revised theory is more accurate, then it will be adopted in place of the former. That’s science. Far more wrongs than rights. Even when a model is supported by repeat experiments across the scientific community, it can always be overturned by newer, more accurate models.”

“Do you believe in evolution?”

“No. Absolutely not. I don’t believe in any scientific theory. There is nothing to believe in, which was my original point. Science is not religion.”

Shelly responded, “But you have faith in the theories?”

“Not blind faith, no. I respect the process by which theories are reviewed and analyzed by the community of biologists, chemists, and physicists. But what is most important, I know that I can reach out to the community, either via the publications or directly to the individuals who have conducted the research, and ask for exacting explanation—”

“But the Bible provides explanation!”

I continued, “—explanation which can be reproduced by anyone who has access to the tools or a working knowledge of the math which provides foundation for the models.”

At this point I grew uncomfortable for the energy in around this table was escalating quickly. I looked at Shelly, back at my book, and said, “I’m sorry. I should not have jumped in. I really need to study. We simply cannot take this conversation to any meaningful place with the limited time remaining in our break.”

“Why?! Why doesn’t anyone want to talk about this?”

Matt looked at his hands, shaking his head.

I took another breath. “We need a common vocabulary, a shared understanding before we can even begin to have this conversation. That assumes we have a similar education. I don’t mean to be rude nor arrogant, but that is the truth.”

Shelly was visibly unsettled, as is often the case when personal beliefs are challenged. She pushed, “So, what, you think we came from monkeys?!”

Ugh. I hate it when people say that. It is not only completely wrong, but instantly demonstrates a total lack of education on the subject of evolution.

Shaking my head “No. Certainly not. We did not come from monkeys.” She was momentarily satisfied. I continued, “We are the product of divergent evolution from a common ancestor which is now extinct. Chimpanzees and Bonobos are both our cousins, each equally related to us and to our shared, deceased relatives.

“So where are they? What proof do we have?”

“Dead. Like dinosaurs, they died out as all species eventually do. Like we will some day in the not so distant future, on the cosmological scale. As for evidence, the body of knowledge and data is growing every year. More fossils, more tools, improved understanding of the climate at various times. In fact, we now believe our shared ancestors were more human than ape-like.”

“But there are so many gaps! So many missing pieces!”

“That is old data. In fact, since the human genome was sequenced along with tens of thousands of plant and animal species, we now see far fewer gaps in the evolutionary tree. Contrary to the data we had as little as twenty years ago, it appears evolution moves at a relatively slow pace, with momentary quantum leaps in which a great deal of progress is made.”

Shelly was cooling down a bit. So was I. We were entering a nearly normal conversation and I was sharing things she had clearly not heard before. She asked, “So, … so what does it mean, that we evolved from something?”

I grabbed a piece of paper and pen and drew a few figures to support my next statements. “Have you heard the statement that we share a certain percentage of our genetic code with other animals, like chimps or … even a grapefruit?”

She smiled, “A grapefruit?”

“Yes. Something like twenty five percent of our code is shared with a grapefruit.”

She nodded, “I heard that before.”

“It’s like a software library with various routines. They can be assembled in various orders to produce completely different applications. But underneath, a lot of it is the same.”

I paused.

“What’s crazy is that something like ninety eight percent of our code is disabled, literally turned off. It’s the stuff that we no longer need and so it simply doesn’t get activated any longer.”

“What do you mean? How do we know?”

“By capturing the messenger RNA, which only copies active genetic code for specific protein production, we can differentiate the total DNA code base from that used for a specific, functional expression. No need for the cells to copy all the code, right? –only the parts needed to make a liver or muscle or bone.”

[I have since read-up on the topic of “junk DNA” and learned that while 98% of the human genome is noncoding, there appears to be some biochemical function to much of it, perhaps as a regulatory agent, even if not to directly build functional cells. More at wikipedia.org/ and nature.com]

At this point, another of our classmates had sat down to the table. She was listening intently, absorbed in what was obviously an intense conversation.

I leaned forward and smiled, “Did you know that some humans are born with a tail?” She looked at me, Matt, and then Shelly, nodding.

Shelly responded, “What?!”

The new girl smiled and raised her hand slightly, “Um, I was one of those. I was born with a tail. They had to cut it off.”

I could not believe my luck, for it is quite rare depending on if it is just soft tissue or includes vertebrae. Since this conversation, I learned that all mammals have a tail in the early stage of embryonic development, measuring roughly one sixth the total embryo length. It is absorbed in normal development, in humans. The record, however, is for a human tail with five extra vertebrae at birth.

Shelly look perplexed, but intrigued, “I had never heard of that. So what does that mean?”

“That we have code which is old stuff, capable of generating tissue, digits, organs we no longer use or need. We carry with us our heritage, in our cells. It’s all there. And that is how we have more recently, more accurately compared ourselves to other animals, to learn what we share and what differs.”

I paused, took a bite of my bagel and sliced apple which I had nearly forgotten to eat.

“Look. There is so much more to this, so much we know about the world around us, and it is all out there, if you take the time to read and search. Or you can choose to believe that the dinosaur bones were placed in the earth by the devil, to confuse us, to trick us into believing in something other than the biblical creation story. If this were true, then every embryo tail is a trick too.”

Shelly wanted more. She dove back in, “But, but that doesn’t explain the origin of life, or how—how the universe formed.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“So how do you explain that? Where did the universe come from?”

“That is an entirely different topic.”

“No it’s not! That is evolution!”

I was a bit caught off-guard, surprised by her lack of understanding on the matter, “No. I promise you. It is not.”

“The planets, the stars, –the big bang is all about evolution!”

I took a deep breath, “Shelly. With all due respect. You are wrong. The theory of evolution is entirely about random mutations, survivability in a given environment, and subsequent reproduction of those living things most suited to the given conditions.”

Matt confirmed my statement.

Shelly was clearly upset, having her understanding undermined.

“But, but what do you call it then? I mean, that is what we were taught, that evolution was the history of everything.”

“I am sorry if that is what your school taught you. But the formation of the universe is studied through astronomy and cosmology, even geology applied to extraterrestrial bodies. Completely different sciences than molecular biology.”

She started to argue again. I cut her off, frustrated, “Just look it up. I promise. Look it up when you get home.”

The class activities resumed shortly thereafter. I was exhausted, emotionally drained. It is so challenging to have these kinds of conversations because they are heavily charged by belief systems, fear of having religious faith challenged, undermined.

The Definition of Science Lost
The point of this story is not to disprove god, or God, or Goddess at any level. Each person must make the choice as to their faith in something that cannot be proven.

The point is that our school system is failing to provide a proper foundation in the sciences, to even provide a proper understanding of what science is. We hear far, far more about how science and religion do battle in church, in the schools, even in the halls of Congress (which is terribly ironic given the reason this country was supposedly founded in the first place).

Science is not a religion. It is not something to believe in. It is a method, “a method for systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” (Oxford Dictionary).

We are a species which has for countless thousands of generations looked to the world around us and the skies over head and asked, “Why does this happen? How does that work?”

When multiple people come together to study a particular phenomenon, they must agree to a basic set of rules for how to investigate and report their findings, else they cannot share a common vocabulary and therefore, will not be able to test, validate, disprove, or share their findings.

The simple measurement of how fast a book falls to the ground can be modeled in simple algebra by any sixth grader who has a good stop watch, a measuring tape, and a few objects that don’t break when repeatedly dropped multiple times (as you will want to prove that a tight ball of foil, a rock, and a book all drop at the same increasing velocity, independent of the apparent weight on Earth).

An extension of the same principals, with far more complex observation and math allows us to determine if in fact there are planets orbiting distant stars, and through the diffraction of light, an accurate measurement of the gases in their atmospheres.

That is science. No one will worship the results nor should anyone who has faith in a greater power argue with the results unless he or she is willing to directly observer or reproduce the tests of their own volition. It is not the intent of science to take away God, even if many scientists have chosen this path of their own accord. It is the intent of science to understand how things work.

Without science we would not have cures for disease, synthetic fabrics, combustion engines, cell phones, computers or TVs. To disclaim science, to not teach science in the schools is to send us back to a time when we believed epileptic seizures were invoked by demons. Sadly, this continues today. I know a woman whose brother died because her parents believed they could pray for his cure. When I contracted malaria in Kenya in 2009, as I sat shivering, unable to even open my fingers to dial a phone, I was told I had failed to pray hard enough, that it was my fault. The woman who told me this was holding a cell phone in her hand. If only she could understand the painful irony in what she shared.

Separation of Church and Proper Education
If you believe in a greater power, then I offer that God did not give us brains only to ask us to turn them off. What’s more, the inner workings of the biological and cosmological universe is far too miraculous to be ignored, to not be explored by a species as intelligent as humans.

If you believe, then rejoice in its complex beauty. If you do not, then rejoice in its complex beauty just the same. But for God’s sake, do not hinder a proper education. It is suffering enough as it is in the U.S. A foundation for critical thinking is the most valuable thing we can give the next generation, over and over again.

For those of you who have read this and find yourselves uncomfortable, perhaps in the camp of a literal translation or on the fence, concerned you may be eternally doomed for dismissing the Bible as an historical account, I encourage you to read one of the most respected theologians of our time, David Lose.

Why, then, should anyone be dismayed that all the archeological, historical and, most importantly, genomic evidence ever collected points to the implausibility that two persons named Adam and Eve once lived in a paradisiacal garden and gave birth to all humanity? Because the recent hubbub about Adam and Eve—and the increasing number of Evangelical Christian scholars who don’t read their story literally—isn’t actually about our supposed ancestral grandparents. Rather, it’s about authority, insecurity and the fear of chaos.

More on “Adam, Eve & the Bible” at the Huffington post.

This topic is continued in Part 4.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:37-04:00August 10th, 2013|Critical Thinker, Humans & Technology, Out of America|0 Comments

A Day at the Pool

I took my kid to the public pool yesterday. First day it was open this year. More people than I expected as the water was not quite warm. But once you got in, it was fine. Hot sun. Cool water. Great way to spend the day.

About an hour past noon, from my pool side chair I noticed another kid splashing water in my kid’s face. My boy splashed back, laughing. The other kid’s father noticed and jumped to his feet by the side of the pool, a half dozen chairs down from mine.

“Hey! Leave my kid alone!”

My son was not certain who was being yelled at over the noise of the public pool.

“What do you think you are doing? Don’t be splashing like that! You’re gonna get in trouble,” he added

My son got it this time. He looked at me. I looked at his father who was strapping on a holster and gun over his swimming trunks.

Oh shit. Here we go, I thought.

I called to Tom, “Hey, son, come on out of the pool. He isn’t worth the trouble.”

“What you mean ‘he ain’t worth the trouble’?” his father asked as he turned toward me.

“Hey man. It’s not worth a fight. Just two kids splashing, right?”

“Yeah. It’s worth it. Your kid’s a punk ass.”

“They were just playing. It’s water. It’s what kids do. It doesn’t hurt.”

“It doesn’t hurt? No. Maybe not. But you disrespecting my kid? That hurts.”

He lowered his hand to his hip. Is he going to shoot me? No way. That can’t fucking happen. No way. Not in public.

He took a few steps closer. I could see that he had been drinking and was not in a clear state of mind. Why they let him in with a gun is beyond me. But that’s Arizona law.

I called out, “Tom. Get out of the pool. Let’s go!”

“That’s what I thought. Fucking pussy.”

“Yeah. Suppose so.”

“What’d you say?! Hey! What’d you say to me?!”

He lunged forward, stumbled, and knocked me to my back. He tripped over my prone legs and fell on top of me, his pistol drawn and in his hand. When he put his arm out to brace his fall, the gun went off and there was silence. No one in the pool moved. Then a woman screamed.

“No! No! Oh my God no! My baby! You shot my baby! You shot my baby!” She ran to the edge of the pool and jumped in, screaming hysterically she choked on the water in attempt to find her feet, fully clothed.

The man rolled off me and to his side, looked over me to the pool where red water was mixing with blue. My legs, shoulders, and arms struggled to find purchase while a knot grew on the back of my skull. I could not see clearly but I recognized my son’s voice as he ran up to me, asking if I was ok.

The man pushed him aside, knocking him over as he found his own feet again. He started to realize what had happened, looking at his gun as though he had never seen one before.

Everyone was climbing out of the pool, save two life guards who dove in to pull the girl from the water. Even face down I could see that she didn’t have a chance, dead before she ever had a chance to drown.

The father’s kid was in shock, frozen in disbelief. His father was yelling at him to get his things. His voice rose as it was becoming apparent he intended to leave.

Two other men and one woman pulled guns from their day bags and blankets, warning him to not move. He didn’t listen, grabbed his kid, waved his gun at them and turned to run.

Two more shots were fired. The father fell to his knees. Everyone else lay flat on the concrete, the life guards holding their heads just above water at the edge of the pool, abandoning the girl’s body for their own safety.

The father turned to fire back but was hit a third time in the head. His son came alive again and screamed so loud people looked up from their prone positions, thinking he had been hit too. Tears streamed from his eyes as he ran to his father’s body, holding his bleeding, limp head in his hands.

He looked to my son Tom. I will never forget the look on his face.


It didn’t have to happen this way. There was no real danger and no reason for guns. But it nearly became reality, were it not for the second year vetoed by the governor of Arizona, keeping court houses, senior centers, public buildings and swimming pools free of firearms … for now.

Charles Heller, co-founder and spokesman of Arizona Citizens Defense League, said the group “expected better from someone who was rumored to be an ally of freedom.”

“We wish she would show more respect for Arizona’s constitutional provision about the right to keep and bear arms,” he told Reuters, moments after learning of the veto.

I am not against owning firearms, for hunting is a traditional means by which healthy, natural meat may be placed on the table for those families willing to work a little harder than driving their SUV to the local grocery store. If you feel the need to protect the interior of your home with a gun, it is not my place to dissuade you.

But the intent of this bill makes no sense. Nothing good can possibly come of this law. There is not a single scenario, not a single example in which everyone, anyone being allowed to bring a firearm into a public arena makes sense.

To defend the Second Amendment for the sake of defense alone is to tell the parents of the children and the children of the parents in a story not unlike that which I have imagined, that the Constitutional Right, written two hundred years ago in a very different time, is more important then the lives of those who will die.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:42-04:00April 17th, 2012|Out of America|0 Comments

Homeless in Austin

Shot in January of 2009, this 48 minute autobiographical film tells the story of Luciano Mendez, a man who has been without a home for many years, often living on the streets of Austin, Texas.

His story is familiar–a childhood fraught with the pain of a broken home, violence, alcohol abuse, and self destructive behavior. He lost his mother and father to cancer; his daughter grew up without him. He has never held a job for long, forever challenged by alcohol and drugs.

Luciano also speaks of forgiveness at the side of his mother’s deathbed, acceptance of his brother, and love through the pain. Luciano shares moments of powerful insight to his own behavior as he moves to change over time.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:42-04:00December 10th, 2011|Film & Video, Out of America|0 Comments

A Prison for Women and Children

Last year, two men showed up in Benson, Ariz., a small desert town 60 miles from the Mexico border, offering a deal.

Glenn Nichols, the Benson city manager, remembers the pitch.

“The gentleman that’s the main thrust of this thing has a huge turquoise ring on his finger,” Nichols said. “He’s a great big huge guy and I equated him to a car salesman.”

What he was selling was a prison for women and children who were illegal immigrants.

“They talk [about] how positive this was going to be for the community,” Nichols said, “the amount of money that we would realize from each prisoner on a daily rate.”

But Nichols wasn’t buying. He asked them how would they possibly keep a prison full for years — decades even — with illegal immigrants?

“They talked like they didn’t have any doubt they could fill it,” Nichols said.

That’s because prison companies like this one had a plan — a new business model to lock up illegal immigrants. And the plan became Arizona’s immigration law.

This is, in my opinion, where the American system breaks down. It does not take a political analyst nor a philosopher to recognize the moral implications of a law put in motion to create jobs at the expense of the lives of other humans.

To read or listen to the entire report, visit Prison Economics Help Drive Arizona Immigration Law.

By |2013-10-08T20:55:35-04:00October 28th, 2010|Out of America|0 Comments

President, Professor, & Preacher Williams

Williams Syndrome
In an experiment, a group of children with Williams syndrome showed no signs of inherent racial bias, unlike children without the syndrome.

Without Fear, Racial Stereotypes Fail To Take Root
A few people are completely and utterly blind to race: children with a rare genetic disorder known as Williams syndrome …

Imagine for just a few moments what this world might be like if our leaders, our public officials, those persons who hold positions of power were required, by law, to have Williams Syndrome.

What if patrol officers and police chiefs, if principals, preachers, teachers, congressmen and presidents did not, could not distinguish between white, brown, or black?

How would the laws be written, how would the jails be filled, how would the monies be earned and distributed if CEOs too were unable to differentiate between you or me? What an interesting world this would be.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:44-04:00August 5th, 2010|Out of America|0 Comments

200,000 Job Openings

…. your hands are swollen. They’re cut up. They’re stained. And the women that oftentimes they’ll work on their knees and their knees are brown so they won’t wear skirts because they’re ashamed of showing that off to people. I mean those are just the realities that farm workers face every single day. So it’s a grueling effort, a grueling job that takes place and they get very little recognition for what they do. But the reality is, that if it wasn’t for them, we would not have food on our tables every single day.

An excerpt from an interview with Arturo Rodriquez, President of the United Farm Workers, which has created a program called Take Our Jobs!, inviting unemployed U.S. Citizens to take a stab at agricultural labor, helping put produce on the shelves of every grocery story in this country.

Take Our Jobs!
July 31, 2010
By Ariana Pekary, producer

“It seems so simple: if the complaint about increased immigration is that the new people are taking jobs from American citizens, then you should proactively hire legal citizens for those very jobs. That’s what the United Farm Workers union has set out to do with a program called Take Our Jobs. We’ll see how successful they will be at getting Americans to work in the 100-degree heat for minimum wage. Bob talks with the union’s national vice president Giev Kashkooli about the program.”

It was refreshing to hear what in this place and time I believe everyone needs to be reminded of–the U.S. food industry relies heavily upon a migrant worker population.

Not only are the migrant workers not “stealing our jobs”, but it is very unlikely that any U.S. citizen, in particular of the middle class, will be willing (or able) to work an entire season (let alone a few days) in the physically grueling condition that we all take for granted every time we purchase readily available fruits and vegetables in our local grocery.

Looking for a job? Minimum wage. 10-12 hours a day. No health benefits. 200,000 openings.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:44-04:00August 2nd, 2010|Out of America|0 Comments

No More Deaths


The controversy surrounding undocumented migrant workers is fueled by politics and economics, ethnicity and racism, social justice and international relations. As I am not an expert in any of these subjects, and have limited exposure through my volunteer work with No More Deaths, I will do my best to call upon my own experiences first, pulling in what data I have to support other than first hand accounts.

In subsequent entries to this “Out of America” category, I do hope to challenge some of the stereotypes and misinformation which surrounds this subject, answering questions asked of me and those which I have formed myself.

The following is my first entry, a story from just three hours out of three days on the border.

Of Boundaries & Borders
This past weekend presented an anomaly, a break from the intense late June heat with borderland temperatures in the high eighties or low nineties by mid-day and what felt like high fifties at night.

On my third day out, five volunteers for No More Deaths, myself included, drove for nearly an hour over very rough terrain, from bumpy roads to creek beds in which our four-by-four truck loaded with seventy gallons of water was routinely forced to a crawl, its driver carefully picking her way over basketball size boulders and steep, loose inclines likely impossible to pass without a low-gear transmission.

The desert trees clawed at the sides of the truck, the squeals of thorns and branches against metal and glass reminders that very little in the desert is soft, friendly, or welcoming.

En route to our final destination, we dropped a dozen or so water jugs several meters off the road at a designated water drop, and then packed food and water for migrants in addition to that which we carried for ourselves.

The five of us set out for the high saddle, likely over five thousand feet in elevation, two, maybe, three miles from the bottom of the wash where the truck was parked. Even with topo maps, a GPS unit, and two people who had been on this trail before, we found ourselves in a tight ravine, off course within thirty minutes from start. Such is navigation in this harsh terrain.

candles bracelet clothing childstoy

Stories in the Sand
As I have come to expect, there are signs of migrants in nearly every desert passage, high, low, narrow or wide, on or off the set trails. Footprints, water bottles, blown-out shoes, backpacks, and discarded clothing are clear signs of who has come and gone. The brittle nature of the bottles, sun baked degradation of the clothing, rubber, and plastics helps determine how much time has passed since those items were left behind when their owners passed through.

It is unlikely we will hike for more than ten minutes in any direction, on any trail, without crossing something left by a human in flight. There are running shoes whose soles are torn, ripped back, or completely missing; wing tips, penny loafers, cowboy boots, women’s high heels and children’s dress shoes too. We once found snake skin loafers with smooth leather bottoms mid-way up a very steep climb which was challenging even for me with proper, full hiking boots whose tread was designed for just such an endeavor. It was obvious that whomever once wore them realized the folly of continuing in what was likely his third or fourth day in transit from Mexico north.

There are countless thousands of stories to be told every month, millions over the years, the voices of passers by lost to the high desert wind but recorded in the trails themselves and in the personal belongings they have left behind.

The coyotes, the ones who are often paid to lead men, women, and children from south to north are, from the stories we have heard, often ruthless and without scruples.

“Victory trees” hold women’s underwear and bras to showcase those who have been raped by the coyotes, the others in the group helpless to do anything for fear of being misguided or left behind after paying incredible fees for the passage.

Everyone carries a backpack the size and style of a school book bag with thin shoulder straps and no waist belt. As the migrants are often told the entire journey is but two days walking at most, they bring little more than one or two small bottles of water, seldom more than a single liter if combined.

We have been told that on the first or second day over the border, the coyotes point to a distant glow in the night sky and announce they are but hours from Tucson. The migrants change into a fresh set of clothes, clean jeans and shirts, dress shoes and socks. They brush their teeth and hair, apply makeup and deodorant in order to appear less like migrants and more as locals, employed, and already embedded in our communities.

They drop the backpacks, soiled clothes, and toiletries in growing piles in shaded washes and then set off for what they are lead to believe is the final leg of their journey.

Three, sometimes five days later, they are without food, water, functional shoes, or hope. The coyotes long ago abandoned them, easily out-pacing their clients by day or night in order to return to Mexico and start again.

If they have a mobile phone, the battery is often dead or the coverage impossible but from saddles or peaks where they are also more likely to be spotted by the border patrol.

No, not all migrants come with coyotes. And no, not all are left to die in this manner. But the stories told are too often the same as I have shared, and the results repeated—giving up and heading back to the border, seeking the border patrol and suffering the consequences, or death.


At the time of this writing there are 128 confirmed deaths since October 2009 (one nearly every 24 hours over a given year) on the Arizona border. There are likely far more, but as these migrants are undocumented, coming not only from Mexico but from all reaches of Central and northern South America, and the vast desert able to hide bodies for years, or forever, the true count will never be known. The border is 2000 miles long, from Texas to California, and the total number of deaths each year estimated to be in the thousands.

Of Helicopters & Handcuffs
We reached the northern side of the saddle and stopped to drink and eat in the shade of a tree. But from the southern side of the saddle, we heard a helicopter, likely the border patrol in pursuit.

A few minutes later, each of us found purchase on the high rock ledges which lined the giant valley bowl, maybe a quarter mile from the helicopter which hovered too low. It swooped down to nearly touch the tree tops, rising, spinning, and moving completely around a large, high island in the middle of the valley.

Having been pursued by a police helicopter when I was younger (another story for another time), I can personally attest to the fear they instill, machines highly effective at scattering those caught in the wake beneath. The border patrol often uses the helicopters to cause groups of migrants to break-up, their chance for survival greatly reduced if no longer traveling as a group.

We were far enough into the desert to believe this was a reconnaissance mission only, or perhaps a training exercise as we were unable to locate any individuals on the ground and the area covered by the helicopter seemingly too vast to be focused on individuals.

And yet just moments after the pilot directed his airborne vehicle over our heads, the saddle behind us, and to the north, we saw four individuals emerge from a lower saddle on the west side of the valley island.

We waited, listened, and thought we heard Spanish spoken. We called out to announce that we had water, food, and medical aid if needed. We waited again. Only the person in front continued forward, the other three falling back, or at least that is what we discerned from out distant perch without binoculars or scope.

We opted to move down into the valley to determine if our assistance was needed. Fifteen minutes later, we caught a trail and crested only two rises which followed the deep ravine bottom before we came across two border patrol officers, one in front and the other behind fifteen migrants, each handcuffed to the person in front and behind, save the single woman who was without restraints.

We announced ourselves as humanitarian aid workers, desiring to provide food and water. The officer in front stated we were allowed to proceed, but needed to do quickly, while the officer in the rear questioned the former about his decision.

Given the restraints on the migrants’ wrists, we opened the bottles and bags, helping each to what they needed in the moment, placing the remaining water and food in their backpacks. The lead border patrol officer instructed them to thank us, as a school teacher would a group of children after visiting the local museum or fire house on a field trip. Each had already thanked us, as is most always the case when we meet travelers in this place.

I quickly interviewed the young lady. She said she was without pain or need for medical assistance. By her account, they had been in the desert already for five days, and yet were but two days from the border for someone who knew the route.

As always, it is difficult to determine who might have been the coyote, if there was one at all. Given their slow pace, it is possible they were already abandoned or without one from the beginning.

In just five minutes time we had emptied our packs, attended to each migrant, offered water to the border patrol officers (who politely declined), and they continued to the saddle from which we had come.

This is the point at which I always break down. Perhaps with more experience I will become accustomed to the heightened emotions which are inherent in these interactions. I hope not, to be honest, for I do not desire to become cold to this heated place. The dirt on my face was changed to mud when the procession was moved along the trail back to waiting dog-catcher trucks and eventually, the Wackenhut buses. We kept our distance, not wanting to apply undue pressure to an already tense situation. Past the saddle, we believe the officers and migrants headed west while we continued north, back to our truck.

How some sections of the trail were traversed by people handcuffed front to back is beyond me, for I needed at least one hand on the ground in a number of places to steady myself over steep, loose sections.

It was just past noon, the sun gaining its highest, hottest position in the Arivaca sky. We didn’t talk much during our retreat nor the drive back. We had done what we could. Little more to say.


No More Deaths
At camp, those of us down for the weekend packed our things in preparation to head home; those just arriving received final training by one of the No More Deaths’ founders who in his mid-seventies shows no sign of slowing. Crates of water bottles loaded into the backs of trucks, food and medical supplies into backpacks, the afternoon sun again beat down on the desert trails.

It is unlikely that today, tomorrow, or this year will be the end, a time where there are no more deaths. Until then, migrants will continue to seek a better life, the border patrol will continue to give chase, politicians who have never been to the borderlands nor spoken with an undocumented worker (nor likely a border patrol officer either) will continue to debate the cost to the American people while volunteers place water on the trails.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:44-04:00June 15th, 2010|Out of America|2 Comments

Giving Birth Chained to a Bed

During her second night behind bars, the bleeding started. On the morning of October 14, she felt contractions. Her hands and feet shackled, she was in labor and ushered into a paramedic’s van by a detention officer who restrained her to the stretcher.

“That’s not necessary,” the paramedic told the officer.

“It’s my job,” the officer responded.

She thought she would be released from the shackles once she arrived at the hospital, but she wasn’t.

The officer chained her ankle to one leg of the hospital bed.

A nurse requested that she be freed to get a urine sample. But the officer suggested instead that her bed be dragged over to the bathroom.

Later she was changed from her jail uniform into a hospital gown.

“The officer chained me by the feet and the hands to the bed,” she said. “And that’s how my daughter was born.”

Baby Jaqueline was delivered at 9:25 p.m. and weighed 6.28 pounds. Chacón stared at her daughter as nurses cleaned her. It was a precious eight minutes, she said. But they didn’t allow her to hold the baby.

How could any government, local, state, or federal uphold such treatment of its prisoners? In what country did this take place?

Ask Joe Arpaio, Sheriff of Maricopa Country, Arizona, United States of America.

The complete story is published by the Phoenix New Times

By |2010-08-02T02:17:01-04:00December 24th, 2009|Out of America|0 Comments