BORDER BLUES

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Regular visitors to this blog know it’s usually image-heavy, without too much text. This time it’s the other way around. There’s a story I can only hint at here, an important one. If you’re interested, follow the links to learn more. And if this isn’t your thing, be assured that next time I’ll revert to the usual emphasis on photography.

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In a recent post I featured cacti and other unusual plants at Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona, which I visited in January.  As much as I enjoyed the extraordinary Sonoran desert landscape, I could not ignore our troubled border with Mexico, which forms the monument’s southern edge.

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Being present at the border brings home everything you hear in the media, and more. International borders are political concepts, often drawn for colonial interests that ignored existing human, cultural and ecological realities. These territorial boundaries directly impact the land, the people, and even animals and plants in unexpected ways.

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On the US – Mexico border it’s obvious that living standard inequalities butt up against each other. We know that communities on either side offer different opportunities and face different challenges. Some of those differences were heightened for me when we drove down a park road parallel to the border. Thick smoke from fires on the Mexico side obscured the way ahead on a road littered with trash which had drifted over and gotten snagged on the rough vegetation.

And more than smoke and trash drift across this border.

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People have been crossing this border to find a better life for a long time. Many will cross illegally and will find work as farm laborers, in service positions, in construction. They will likely stay and contribute to the US economy.  Some will cross to sell drugs here – another path out of poverty.

Back in the 1990’s I managed the grounds on an estate outside of New York City and worked with Mexican men who were probably undocumented.  A pleasure to work with, the men I knew were reliable, friendly and above all, able and willing to do hard labor. It’s become a cliche in America to say that Mexicans do much of the labor that people born here are unwilling to do and I suspect there’s quite a lot of truth to that.

But that’s just one side among many of a complex issue.

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For years there wasn’t much to impede illegal crossings at certain sections of the border with Mexico. In the 1990’s Border Patrol attention increased at urban locations, pushing people to the fringes, like the wide open desert lands of Organ Pipe. With little but barbed wire holding people back, smuggling grew into a huge problem. Organ Pipe became known as America’s most dangerous park. In fact, much of it was closed after Kris Eggle, a park ranger, was killed while pursuing drug cartel men in August, 2002.

Two years later a barrier that keeps vehicles out but allows animals to cross was erected. Humans can still walk across but the barrier has reduced problematic vehicle traffic. Significant increases in personnel were made, surveillance towers were built, and things steadily improved. In recent years there has been an overall decrease in illegal border crossings.

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The double vehicle barrier above extends for a short distance, then continues as a single barrier along the road out to Quitobaquito Springs, a welcome if isolated slice of green in a sea of camel-colored sand. For thousands of years the spring and adjacent pond have been important landmarks to people living here and passing through. Just a few hundred yards away, busy Mexican Federal Highway 2 connects points east with Tijuana, to the west.

The area around the spring was closed to most visitors for years because of smuggling, but it’s accessible once again. I know our experience as American tourists was nothing like what people trying to cross into America illegally experience here. Too often, Mexicans and Central Americans trying to cross under the radar are not prepared for the harsh conditions in the desert. It’s 99 degrees F right now, on a mid-May evening at 6:15pm. Imagine the heat on a summer afternoon.

People die here. Sometimes they are misled by traffickers who promise a short walk across the desert to a pick-up spot that can’t be found when the time comes. Like I said, it’s a complex situation.

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Many visitors to Organ Pipe stick to the scenic Ajo Mountain Loop near the Visitors Center, which we took our first day at the park. Wanting to see more, we had ventured south the following day on Rt. 85 to the turn-off for Quitobaquito Springs.

We saw only one other car on that mid-January weekday. It wasn’t a rental car or an RV – it looked like a local car. Two people were inside, driving at a brisk pace on the gravel.

We reached the parking area, where another sign greeted and cautioned us. The roar of trucks barreling down Mexico’s Rt. 2 made it easy to orient ourselves as we walked to the spring.

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A lone coot swam in the pond. Mourning doves called and last year’s leaves crunched underfoot.  We traced a narrow creek back through the desert to a wash, then lost the creek in the brush. Wandering away from the spring, we came upon a mound with a  gravestone. It stood all by itself in the desert, miles from any habitation.

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Jose Lorenzo Sestier, the Frenchman who died here in 1900 at the age of 74, was a shopkeeper – yes, once there was a store in the area, selling food, clothing and mining supplies. It was a moving sight, this hand-lettered grave marker overlooking lonely desert hills that roll on for miles to a ragged horizon of dark purple mountains.

There were more signs of humans.

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Discarded water containers, a common sight, reminded us of those who came to this place in more desperate circumstances than ours.

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A helicopter buzzed off to the east. We had seen plenty of Border Patrol vehicles and passed checkpoints so we weren’t surprised by a Border Patrol helicopter – until it was directly over us. It circled closely to get eyes on us. We gave a slight raise of the hand – not enough to indicate trouble, just enough to show we were OK and meant no harm. The helicopter dipped and circled away.

Feeling uneasy, we returned to the car. We hadn’t seen anyone since that one car on the road out to the spring and they had disappeared.  We decided to head back to the highway.  Along the way we relaxed a bit and curiosity pulled us to a detour down another park road. Storm clouds threatened and an odd looking flag waved in the distance. We pulled over, walked towards the flag, and found this:

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Emergency water. It was left there by Humane Borders, or Fronteras Compasivas. Their mission is “to save desperate people from a horrible death by dehydration and exposure and to create a just and humane environment in the borderlands.”  They are volunteers who recognize a need for humanitarian assistance in this harsh environment.  On their website and printed on a brochure I picked up later, is a map showing locations in Arizona where human remains have been recovered. The map is pockmarked with red dots, each evidence of tragedy.  I stared at the red dots for a long time, trying to make sense of it all.

There are initiatives to try to identify remains but the spreadsheet on Humane Borders’ website tells a grim story: many remains are never identified. Too often, by the time remains are found the bones have been picked clean, clothing is long gone.

Not far away we found another emergency station offering a red call button with instructions in English, Spanish and O’odham, the language of the indigenous people, the Tohono O’odham – the Desert People (formerly called the Papago).

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The solar-powered tower holding the sign can be seen from a good distance, like the flag attached to the water barrel.

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Some of the undocumented border crossers who perish in the desert wind up at County Medical Examiners offices. As of 3/20/17 the Maricopa Medical Examiner had over 200 sets of remains, at least half are probably people who crossed the border illegally and died in the process. Illegal crossings have dropped overall in the last ten years due to tightened borders in places like Tijuana/San Diego, but people still try, and still die trying.

A difficult and moving article about undocumented crossers can be found here, along with an excellent series of photographs documenting the items left behind and the places where remains were found.

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On the way out of the park a Border Patrol car passed us and motioned us to a stop. The officer rolled down his window and “chatted” with us, carefully sizing us up, asking questions in a casual way that didn’t fool us for a minute. We wondered if he was after the people we passed earlier. Maybe he was checking to be sure we weren’t there to make a deal with them. It’s complex.

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Back on the main road to Ajo where we were staying, we took one more detour. We headed down Highway 86 into the Tohono O’odham reservation.  Tohono O’odham people lived here long before the US – Mexico border existed. Now their land straddles the US-Mexico border, dividing them in two and profoundly disrupting their lives.  It’s their land, severed by our border.  At least that’s one way of looking at it.

Roadside memorials, bleak in the overcast January skies, dotted the road. We saw few houses on that stretch of road.  I learned later that drug traffickers pass through tribal lands at an alarming rate, leaving trash and tempting tribe members (whose average income is way below the rest of the state) with promises of quick money.

Even if they are an enrolled tribe member, a person who lives on the Mexico side can be deported while visiting on the US side. It’s a risk that prevents people from visiting friends and engaging in activities that would preserve the culture of the Desert People.

To which nation do they belong?

US/Mexican border issues are especially ironic when a reservation resident hears a knock on the door from a desperately thirsty man crossing the border to find a better life in the US, or when the family dog brings home a human bone.

 

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We’ll see what happens if an attempt to build Trump’s wall is made here. The Tohono O’odham people are understandably against further incursion into their lives.

Wandering through Ajo the next morning I came across a graphic representation of a nation divided painted on an alley wall:

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And this:

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The flyer pictured below was posted on a billboard. It references the three-nation complexities of this region.  Fine print on the left says:

“We stand together in cultural solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our environment, our rights, our safety, our health – recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”

                                  MEXICO   –   TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION   –   USA

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That chilly Saturday in January local residents were selling vegetables at the farmers market. We bought artwork from a man who makes prints from fish, breakfast burritos fresh from a local woman’s kitchen and pastry from a baker.  Then we headed north to Phoenix, to catch a plane bound for Seattle. We missed that flight, but three long weeks later, we finally made the flight home.

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Borders and immigration are fraught topics, like many subjects in public discourse these days. Simplifying and polarizing do not help; the complexities involving three cultures and deep history would benefit more from a nuanced, intelligent and compassionate approach.  It’s been interesting to learn about the ways Organ Pipe National Monument is intertwined with the human struggles that surround and overflow into it. Getting a sense of how an entire culture is affected – a culture that called this land home well before “America” and “Mexico” came along – that was a truly eye opening experience.


55 comments

  1. A very thought-provoking post, Lynn, both well written and beautifully photographed. I don’t pretend to know the answers to the immigration or drug problems but I do know that the proposed wall is not the answer.

  2. Was there a sense of desolation there? Even though there is beauty, I picked up heavy vibes while looking at the images. The flag for emergency water was especially touching…or the flag that led the eye to the tank; it’s the tank that added a touch of goodness to the scene. thank God for the Good Samaritans of this world.

    The double fence was sobering, and it seemed to shout – to me – WRONG! It seems to wrong – all borders seem wrong.. it goes against the natural rhythms of our planet, almost as if those borders break invisible energies/vital energies.

    When you reflect on those images, you are also reliving the events that led up to your detour. You also, through very sensitive ways, remind us to open our minds and hearts and ponder what it’s like for those who are not so fortunate..

    It’s been a very challenging year for you, and I hope that the rest of the year smiles on you.

    • Yes, it can be a desolate place, and we were there on mostly dull, cloudy days – which certainly made it easier to walk around! Thank you for your thoughtful comments, as always.

  3. We lived in the greater Phoenix area for almost 10 years and agree wholeheartedly that there are so many facets to the issue. There isn’t a panacea, and it’s frustrating to see one promised. (And for the promise to be believed.)

    We’ve met many undocumented immigrants and we’ve seen both sides of the coin. But it’s certainly not enough to forget that at the end of the day there is a basic human struggle that we all share. It’s sad that we seem to be getting further and further away from seeing each other as the same.

    For what it’s worth, I, for one, would love to see more of these. 🙂

    – Lynn

    • It’s interesting to hear your perspective, having lived there so long. Perfectly put: “There isn’t a panacea.” Re the polarization – let’s hope it runs its course before too many more years of craziness produce too much conflict and destruction. (As for more posts like this, this doesn’t come easily so ???) Thanks for your support, my namesake friend! I appreciate it.

  4. Please don’t apologize for writing about such a topic on this blog. One of the things that sets your blog apart for me is that you not only show your gorgeous and intriguing photos, but you usually also include an essay that gives context and further depth to the story connected with the photos. Your photo essays are educational, evoke emotion and give me a deeper understanding of the time and place. This essay was natural and essential to the time and place of your photos. I like that you created two essays on the different aspects of the same place – one more centered on this aspect. But this story is ingrained in the environment you documented, and it would be strange to edit it out of the photos completely.
    You didn’t have to go to such depth to be open with that duality of landscape, but I thank you for doing so. Your time in research and consideration of so many aspects is appreciated. With your permission I’d like to reblog this to my site. Would that be ok?

    • Sheri, so nice to read your complimentary words! As homogenized as our planet is becoming, I believe geography is still very relevant. The land, with all its ins and outs and particular qualities, affects us more than we are aware. Separating ourselves out, or ripping our narratives from their context yields stale, tasteless fruit.
      The research after I got back was fascinating. I only wish I’d spent more time there and had the opportunity to talk to more residents. That would tell a deeper story, wouldn’t it?

      Yes of course, reblog, and thank you for that, and for pushing me to clarify my own thoughts. Dialog is good! 🙂

  5. By the way, the lone coot in the pool is such a beautiful image. It somehow symbolizes for me, the beauty of what has been and what will remain regardless of the principalities that come and go.

    • It’s not a very good picture of a coot, since the bird is so small, but I’m glad you mentioned it. I’m glad the image conveyed a mood. Nature is so much more reliable than we are, isn’t it?

      • It’s a great picture of a ‘lone coot’ since in this case the context is more important than the detail of the bird, I think. Nature is indeed more reliable, though not necessarily less ruthless.

  6. Thanks, Lynn, for a beautifully written report on our border with Mexico. In addition to your images and writing, I admire your courage in traversing land that is fraught with danger that comes from so many different angles, e.g., drug smugglers, insects and animals, extreme heat, lost bearings, the border patrol, etc., etc. How did that impact your mind state as you explored the region and what precautions did you take to ensure your safety?

    • Thank you for chiming in and asking good questions. First, I wouldn’t walk OR drive (on certain roads) alone at Organ Pipe. Too many years in NYC – I’m no dummy! 😉
      Second, we were there at a cool time so no worries about heat, and it was cloudy to boot. We did not venture far enough from the car/trail to get lost. We took normal precautions, having read the signs pictured above, but didn’t know as much as I found out later. So there was a smidgen of innocence!
      I felt an undercurrent of fear and that created some anxiety but not enough to stop us, just enough to keep us closer to the well-traveled tracks. Smugglers are more likely at night and further away from the road, I think. And I think it was a little cool for rattlesnakes, too. I make noise or throw a stick ahead of me if I think I’m in a place where I might happen on one. Of course the time I did was here in Washington, right on a rock by the trail, fully visible yet I didn’t see it. But the snake left first.

  7. A very interesting story.We always hear about the border with Mexico and Trump’s stories about a wall,but I never really gave it a proper thought.You have really placed an in depth article,that makes me understand the situation much better.We have more or less the same problems in South Africa.Millions of illegal immigrants flooded our borders and now we have to cope with terrible social problems.It is a nightmare!

    • I’m no journalist, but it’s good to hear that you were able to understand some of what’s going on here a little better after reading this. It’s a problem in so many, many places, because there is such great inequality. And the disparities between the haves and have-nots seem to be widening. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Very interesting photos and writing, Lynn. I appreciate the compassion and empathy in your words and your reminders that the situation is complex. I find it touching, the way you weave your story and photographs together, bringing to life the texture of the fabric created by the overlapping of the geological/botanical landscape with the human sociopolitical landscape. I was happy to see that some people had set up humanitarian aid and that others were addressing the issues with colourful visual art. It is interesting how much the cactus spines look like the barriers with x shapes.

    • Such wonderful comments, I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Like I said above to Sheri, I believe geography is still very relevant to our lives.

      Yes, it’s admirable that people have stepped out of confrontational or us-them roles to simply respond as humans. That’s beautiful.
      There was an entire alley full of art. The town, which is small and remote, has a small arts community, too.

      Cactus spines becoming the X’s in the barriers! Watch out – the desert is getting to you! 😉

  9. A powerful post, Lynn, with very compelling images. For some reason, the flattened discarded water bottle affected me – beautifully shot, fraught with meaning. Thank you for such a thoughtful and compelling piece.

    • I was wishing I had taken more photos of discarded water bottles but maybe this one was enough. I so appreciate your thoughts, Lynn, thank you. And happy long weekend! In the garden maybe?

  10. As so often, the border stories are sad and discouraging. All the more important to report of what is going on. As Lynn (yes, the same as you – composerinthegarden) writes; it’s a powerful post with telling photos.

  11. You certainly find a way to tell a story or convey a feeling with your images. In this case the words add so much context. There seems something so wrong with these artificial borders and the misbegotten “war on drugs” that’s done nothing but exacerbate the situation. Trump’s wall doesn’t contain a single drop of empathy. How did we ever come to this?

  12. Thank you Lynn for describing the border issue(s) so clearly. It really is a very complex problem for which there is no single, simple solution. Certainly extremist political responses are not the answer. I suspect more might be gained by addressing the causes rather than the effects.

  13. What a sensitive and compelling story you tell, Lynn, in both words and photographs. I had no idea there was any humanitarian aid. It’s good to know even if those good souls can do little to affect the greater situation. My heart went out to the native people you tell about. Complicated, yes. Thank you for sharing your prodigious gifts.

    • If you learned a little something from this (I sure did by going and then researching) then I’m happy. There are several different organizations providing aid, just in that area, which is good. The Tohono O’odham have suffered enough, but the problems of the people who were here before Europeans are so serious and longstanding, and get so little press, that I can’t imagine how things will get better for them. Not an upbeat reply but there you are.

  14. Sobering stuff, my friend, and very illuminating to read – never hold back from writing more of the same/similar at any time. The thought that there is no panacea is very true, I very much worry about our times. Years ago I worked (as a geologist) in fierce Arabian deserts and certainly took far more risks than I should have. But I remember that help and hospitality were core parts of those Muslim peoples’ beliefs and lifestyles – they had to be, because anyone in trouble out in those wastes was really in trouble. Upon meeting people, we were invariably invited in for coffee, dates and conversation, a memory that has always remained with me. And I remember us forgetting to bring matches to light our petrol cooking stoves – we got around this by shorting sparks off our vehicle’s battery! But we met a vehicle full of locals and gave them a lot of money for several boxes of matches – we’d been ripped off, but – fine! But several days later we met the same vehicle again – and they’d been down to the coast, spent all of our money on boxes of matches which, on their way home, they were bringing back for us. Once more, something I will never forget.

    • What a great story, Adrian, and I’m sure you have many more. I’ve heard of that legendary hospitality and the reason – or one of the reasons – behind it. More evidence to bolster my contention that geography still matters! 🙂 People reflect their surroundings in interesting ways, even in an increasingly westernized, homogenized world. Thanks for that story, and the encouragement.

  15. I am not well aware of the political problems between USA and Mexico. But anyway, to create a wall will definitely be a threat to the beautiful landscape. The images remind me of the starting point of Pacific Crest Trail (Which I saw in a movie). And something new and really interesting information for me is O’odham and the people who speak this language.

    • A major underlying cause of the problems is the disparity between incomes and living standards in the two countries. That’s something I’m sure you see frequently in your country. And yes, the Pacific Crest Trail starts not too far from this area, also in desert – unless you begin in Canada! 😉
      Thank you for commenting, and I’m glad you learned something new. The Tohono O’odham have a very interesting culture, which is very intertwined with this land, where they have lived so long.

  16. One of the first things that caught my attention was your note about the imposition of political boundaries across cultures. I first experienced that in West Africa. The Kpelle tribe, with whom I lived, extends through Liberia and Guinea, but also reaches into Sierra Leone. The primary allegiance is to the tribe, and the imposition of borders across traditional travel routes was (and probably still is) considered foolishness. Crossing a border around there could be as interesting for a Liberian as for a westerner.

    I’m also sensing that any talk about “the border” is simplistic. Much of what you describe sounds quite different from the issues here in Texas. There are similarities, of course, but human smuggling probably is less of a concern now than drugs, and the movement of the Mexican gangs and cartels into the state. There are places in Houston that are well known as hubs for drug traffickers, and the intra-gang violence is bad. There have been some infamous shoot-outs between gangs on the freeways. It’s not the norm, by any means, but it happens. In the valley, cut fences are common, and I know people who have found headless corpses on their land. That’s not the norm, either, but it happens. When you find that in your back yard, the thought of a war on drugs seems a little less misbegotten.

    I was a little surprised to see the border patrol listed among the “dangers” of the land. I know some find the idea of being stopped while traveling offensive, but I never have. They often work as much as a hundred miles in from the border, and seeing one of their vehicles is a reminder that they, too, put their lives on the line for our country every day. Can there be abuses? Sometimes there are. But they’re not the norm, either.

    I suppose the only other thing I’d mention is that my work in boatyards and on the docks means that my co-workers often are from Mexico, Salvador, Guatemala, and so on. Most speak English, some don’t. Some have green cards, some have become citizens, and I’m sure some are relatives of relatives who are of “undefined status.” But it’s interesting to hear them talk about the issues, too. Many of them are as adamantly opposed to illegal immigration as anyone else. They came in legally, worked hard, gained a foothold,and now are seeing their jobs lost to illegals who will work for half of what they make. It’s painfully ironic that many of the Americans losing jobs to illegals are doing the work that many say Americans wouldn’t do.

    I’m running on too long. I loved the post — both the images, and the words. And it really opened my eyes to how different the situation can be as you move along from Texas through NM and AZ to California.

    • A few of my responses are to comments, rather than to your post: e.g., the danger of the border patrol. And someday I’ll tell the story of getting picked up by the Coast Guard and ATF for suspicion of offshore gun-running. 🙂

      • It’s great to hear about your experiences, Linda, and your thoughts. You learned something in Africa that was new to me – it’s crazy, isn’t it? But certainly not easy to fix. And you have first hand knowledge of another side of the immigration story. There’s so much I don’t know!
        Drugs may be the primary problem now along the Arizona border, too – I’m not sure. What I read in a number of places is that human trafficking and illegal border crossings became more if an issue on Organ Pipe land after urban border crossing areas were tightened, especially in TX and CA. Again, there’s just so much I don’t know.
        The Border Patrol people we interacted with were professional and courteous, but their heavy presence, the stories about human remains, the warning signs, the reputation of Organ Pipe as recently the most dangerous park in the country – altogether it created a chilling feeling. That was countered by some friendly conversations and interactions with a variety of people in Ajo, where we stayed. It’s complex, isn’t it? Thank you for taking the time to write down your thoughts here, and I can’t wait for that story!

  17. I was reminded of Patti’s Pilotfish post about those who are close minded listening only to those who agree with them when I read your post Lynn. So many people have their minds made up about things without looking at all sides of an issue. It’s an immensely complex and emotionally-wrought issue that needs more than a quick answer. Good old John Lennon got it right – imagine there’s no countries….wouldn’t that be something?

  18. Reblogged this on Reality With a Twist ~ Books and commented:
    I found this post by my blog friend at bluebrightly thought-provoking, moving and well written. I was especially intrigued by the wrapping together of landscape, cultural and political climates. So often we separate things and dissect issues of various natures with a false and clinical disconnect, when our environment, heart and society are actually fully intertwined.

  19. Once again Lynn your words and photos have captured the essence of a place — in this case one that is facing immense challenges.

    Another area, less well known perhaps, that also suffers greatly from the activities of illegals, drug runners and the Border Patrol (La Migra) is Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. It shares a border with both Mexico and Organ Pipe National Monument. More than 90% of its 860,000 acres is designated as wilderness, making it the largest wilderness refuge in the lower 48.

    Human suffering is one element of a complex and contradictory situation existing along the border between Mexico and the US. The other is the huge toll imposed on a fragile ecosystem. Years ago as efforts to curtail illegal crossings near population centers were ramped up, they simply pushed the problem to the desert. Out of sight and out of many minds.

    Border Patrol operates two FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) on Cabeza’s main “road”, El Camino del Diablo, one of only 3 “official” roads (and that term is used loosely) in Cabeza. From these bases agents patrol in vehicles, ATVs, dirt bikes, on foot and by horse. The terrain is rough, rugged and dangerous. Tracking and sign-cutting are difficult. Because “aliens” — whether seeking a better life in America or working as drug mules — don’t follow these roads, neither do Border Patrol agents. The result is that thousands of trails now crisscross this once pristine and fragile portion of the Sonoran Desert.

    An article published in High Desert News in 2014 lays out this situation in stark detail. Clicking through the opening photos gives a quick overview of the many problems. http://www.hcn.org/issues/46.10/border-out-of-control

    It’s incumbent on each of us to become informed about issues, to read more than Facebook, to talk to people who don’t share our views, to go beyond bombast and simplistic answers. Thanks, Lynn, for raising our awareness. Your voice and insights are important.

  20. Sally, thank you for all this information. If we’d had more time, we would have gone over there – I read a little about Cabeza Prieta and was curious. You describe the problem well – better than I could. And yes, reading more than FB would be good! 😉 Thanks again for your contribution here; I appreciate it very much.

  21. As landscape photographers we tend to be very good at crafting the look of a place. It’s a little harder to communicate the feel of a place too. No matter where one stands on illegal immigration, the reality you have shown here cannot be ignored.

    • Rosemary, thank you so much for reading and commenting – I suspect (from seeing your Facebook page) that you have way more knowledge of this than I do, so your compliment means a lot. It is a wonderful part of the world, and it was very interesting to be there and think about all the issues with our borders.


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