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Real Life Adventure(Published in the Big bend Gazette, October 04) This is Real Life Adventure Travel…By Sharon CollyerOctober 15, 2004“A person commits a federal felony when he knowingly assists illegal aliens due to personal convictions…”—Federal Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 8, USC 1324 (a) (1) (A) (iv) (b) (iii)“We treat some human beings as weeds. Just as we may decide that a particular plant is in our way, we sometimes deem whole groups of human beings in the way, threats to our livelihood, security, or prosperity.” –from the essay ‘Weeds’, by Susan J. TweitMckinney Springs, Big Bend National Park, October 10th , 2004:This afternoon, somewhere between answering the day’s seventh phone call and handling my computer’s total melt-down, I had a brilliant moment of clarity. As I massaged my throbbing temples with trembling fingers, wondering why my life was out to get me, my brain’s resident voice of common sense suddenly and forcefully whispered, “Get out of this house. Now. Don’t think about it, just go. Run!” Immediately, I awoke my napping partner with sharp commands, “Wake up! Let’s go! We’ve got to get out of here!” Between us, we managed to pack the truck in about twenty minutes with all the necessary goods for a night out in the desert: a cooler stocked with frosty beers, Coca-Colas (in case we run out of beer), water (in case we run out of Coca-Colas), a pack of chocolate bars, pretzels, apples, crackers, peanut butter, bagels, cheese, a big hunk of some sort of pork product, camp chairs, a tent, pillows, air mattresses, a huge comforter and two fat books. Add to that about a dozen odds and ends and a full tank of gas, and we were ready to escape the drudgery that modern life had bestowed upon us. Two hours later, on a car campsite along the Old Ore Road in the National Park, we sit sprawled on soft chairs, cooler between us, lazily swatting the mosquitoes that dare land on our faces, arms, legs. Fending off the tiny whiners is a small price to pay for the luxury of the moment: cold brew in hand, quiet conversation and a drop-dead view of the backlit Chisos during sunset. The night is a priceless reminder of what’s real in our lives: along with the rest of humanity, we become so wrapped up in jobs, friends, music, hobbies, and social responsibilities that we forget why we chose to live in this remote corner of the Chihuahuan Desert. A night under the stars away from the phone, the computer, people, and most of our earthly belongings, in the company of skunks, javalinas, spiders, and scorpions, renews our vision, resets our goals, and gives us some breathing room from the rest of the world. I reach for another Snickers bar as a shooting star lights up the sky. Mckinney Springs, Big Bend National Park, October 11th:Early morning sunshine filters through the mesh screening of my tent-built-for-two. I breathe deep in the brisk morning air and stretch; orange ribbons of light stream across the sky. I crawl out, followed by my groggy companion, and we work the kinks out of our body by strutting around our little campsite. As my partner sings and taps on his belly for percussion, I brush my teeth using the windows on my truck’s topper as a mirror. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him waving at the ridge behind me. He doesn’t skip a beat in the song. “Hey-hey-hey, oh yeah, guess what, oh yeah, there’s someone up there watching us, oh yeah, he’s looking straight at us, yes he is, yes he is, I’m waving at him right now, yes I am, yes I am, he’s waving back, yes, he’s waving back, hey-hey, he’s coming down to see us…”.I hear a faint clatter of rocks and debris rolling down the hill and into the wash behind us. The fine hairs on the back of my neck prickle up in warning. I mechanically continue to brush my teeth, although I am far more interested in the new developments going on behind me. We are many miles away from the paved road or another campsite. Tourists rarely wander away from their vehicles for fun in this type of environment. It’s early in the day, and we haven’t heard any cars pass by us. Who is this person? I still don’t turn around.The man’s reflection gradually appears in the window I’m using; a dark figure carrying a small backpack and clad in oversize clothes carefully makes his way down the steep and disintegrating incline. Reaching the bottom, he disappears into the wash that separates us from the ridge; I rinse my mouth and glance at my partner. “I don’t think this is a casual hiker,” I say. “I think you’re right,” replies my mate.Pretty soon he reappears, trudging up the wash’s embankment closest to us, approaching fast and smiling warily. He gives us a visual once-over and speaks, “Ey, son de la Migra? Ah?” We answer in a simultaneous “No”. Nervously, he explains that after watching us for a while from behind a bush, he figured we weren’t with the Border Patrol. “But you can never be too sure,” he clarifies in highly accented Spanish. He is slender, very slender, a small frame evident even under baggy clothes. Perhaps about seventeen, a trace of whiskers on his upper lip, ragged sneakers on his feet. Sun-bronzed skin. Hispanic features. Palpable nervousness and shifty-eyed distrust. Measured desperation in the tight voice. One small battered backpack. No water jug. He asks us to point the way to Marathon.“Marathon! Amigo, you are about seventy miles…100 kilometers away!” I exclaim. “Do you think I could get there in three or four days?” he asks. “You mean if you walk the whole way?” I respond incredulously in Spanish. “Well, you’d have to walk pretty fast, and hope you find water on the way there. You would have to avoid being seeing by anyone else, and that would be pretty hard once you leave the dirt roads. If you travel off-road, the terrain is really hilly, so your best bet is to walk along the roads until you hear a car coming. And right near Marathon is a Border Patrol Station. I don’t know how you’ll get around that.” He allows himself a moment of pensiveness, and processes the information. Then he asks, “I don’t even know where I am…I got here by following footsteps going in the same direction. Which way is Marathon?” We turn around and point north. I grab a notebook and pen and draw him a map. “Okay, you follow this dirt road up for about maybe nine miles, and then hang a left on a better dirt road and follow that for two miles. When you get to the pavement, go right and keep going for about 55 miles. If you’re still alive, you’ll be in Marathon.”I hand him some food, but he asks me to wait. “I left my water jug at the spring so that you wouldn’t be suspicious if you were Migra. I’ll be right back.” We watch him climb down the embankment and into the wash. We stand motionless and in total silence for many minutes after he disappears. I take a deep breath and sigh loudly. I turn to my partner and say, “I bet he isn’t coming back.” He looks at me and contradicts, “I bet he is”. I frown, “You think? Why?” “We offered him food,” he replies, “And besides, he’s probably watching us right now,” “Right now?” I casually scan the area with my sight, searching for a pair of eyes peeping from under a bush. “Sure, why not?” he shrugs, “He was watching us before, right? I wouldn’t worry about it. He’s probably checking us out. Making sure we don’t radio someone.” We try to act nonchalant, puttering around and starting our packing ritual by dismantling the tent. Soon, we hear footsteps and panting.Our friend shows up, trailing a dripping water jug. “It’s cracked,” he says, “Do you have a lighter I could borrow?” I hand him my purple lighter, and crouch next to him to see what he was up to. He stuffs pieces of shredded plastic bag into the dripping fracture, and melts the pieces with the lighter. As he checks the seal, I notice two tiny shadows swimming around in the jug. I peer into the murky water, and find a pair of tadpoles darting frantically from one side of the jug to another. Disgusted, I try to take the jug from him. “Hey! You’ve got two tadpoles in there! You can’t drink that water! Here, take our water…this is fresh, clean water. Take our canteen as well.” He manages to stuff the canteen into his backpack, which holds only a denim jacket, a pair of jeans and a deck of cards. No food. No hat. No sunglasses. No identity.He hands back the lighter. “No way, man. You keep it. And wait a second…” I ask my partner in English if I could give him some of our food stash. “Sure, anything you want,” he says, “We have more than enough.” Now loaded with two Snickers bars, crackers, pretzels, an apple and a hunk of cheese, our friend is fidgety and ready to go. We review the directions for Marathon one last time; I try hard not to confuse him, but fail: “You take a right, no wait, a left, and then a left, no, no, a right…” I’m relieved he has the map. He thanks us humbly and gratefully and sets off, picking a route about 100 yards to the right of the road, quickly disappearing into the landscape. We hear the rocks he dislodges as he scrambles up the hill. Then, he is gone. Silence. We stand there thoughtfully, contemplating together in the cool mid-morning air. I cross my arms and chew on my bottom lip; my companion starts to sing again and drum lightly on his belly. Panther Junction, Big Bend National Park, October 12th, 2004:Today, I’ve thought often about our friend…where is he now? How far has he gone? Has he gotten caught? Has he slept? Does he have any water? Or food? Is he lonely? Has he changed his mind? Has he given up? Or is he determined, above all other things, to start a new life no matter how many miles of hard desert he has to cross, no matter how many dangers he faces along the way?And the question that resounds loudest in my head is: did we do the Right Thing? It depends who you ask.According to the Federal Immigration and Nationality Act, it is illegal, among other things, to “assist an alien who is illegal in the U.S. by sheltering the alien”. The ‘sheltering’ need not be clandestine, and the law covers aliens arrested outdoors as well as in a building. It is also a violation of the law “for any person to conceal, harbor, or shield from detection in any place” an illegal alien. ‘Harboring’, for these purposes, means “any conduct that tends to substantially facilitate an alien to remain in the U.S. illegally”. It is also a felony to “encourage an alien to come to or reside in the U.S. knowing the fact that the alien’s entry is in violation of the law”. And, it is definitely illegal to “encourage an alien to remain in the U.S” or to “knowingly assist illegal aliens due to personal convictions”. So the law states.Penalties upon sentencing include criminal fines, imprisonment, and forfeiture of vehicles and real property used to commit the crime. Then, did we Break the Law? It depends how you interpret the law.Did we ‘shelter’ or ‘harbor’ the alien? After talking to National Park Service and Border Patrol officials, the answer is: No. ‘Sheltering’ and ‘harboring’ apply when one willfully hides an alien for an extended period of time so that said alien can avoid detection. Did we ‘encourage’ our friend to remain in the U.S. by drawing him a map and giving directions? Again, no. Apparently, ‘encouraging’ and ‘giving directions’ are very different sets of circumstances. But, did we or did we not “assist an alien due to personal convictions”? Well, yes, of course. We have a universal ethical responsibility to help those in need, particularly if they are hungry, thirsty or lost. Did our food and water donation prove that we committed a felony? The black and white world of law (thankfully) doesn’t see it that way; this regulation applies only when one routinely and knowingly helps aliens cross by consistently using ethical, moral or religious values as the reasoning behind the illegal action. Thus, as far as The Federal Immigration and Nationality Act is concerned, we did nothing wrong. The Feds won’t come after us for allowing a solitary skinny sun-bronzed seventeen year-old illegal alien to continue on his way undetected on U.S. soil. We broke no laws, rules or regulations. We won’t be fined, arrested or incarcerated. Our belongings won’t be confiscated. We won’t be questioned. In fact, no one seems to be too concerned about our actions on that gloriously sunny Monday morning. It’s a good thing, as well; I would have a hard time explaining this transgression to my employers from the federal county jailhouse.The question remains, however, from the ethical standpoint: did we do the Right Thing by not contacting Border Patrol or any other authorities to perhaps save our friend’s life from the unyielding desert?Hundreds of illegal aliens die along the U.S.-Mexico border every year from dehydration, starvation, sickness and poisoning. Many others are beaten, tortured, raped and murdered before they reach their destinations. No one really knows how many actually survive the trip. Even those who manage to disappear safely in U.S. soil face extreme prejudice, segregation, harassment, beatings, physical and sexual abuse, not to mention paranoia and the constant fear of deportation. Most realize that the U.S. is not the ‘promised land’ it’s made out to be. Will our friend become one of the ‘desaparecidos’, the lost? Or will he beat the odds, finding that any situation on U.S. soil is better than the social and political situation he left behind in Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, or wherever he came from?Or, will things get so bad for him ‘out there’ that he will willfully turn himself in, relieved that the chase is over? Illegal immigrants often turn to U.S. authorities when the going gets bad. Immigration agents will process the individual through the maze of laws, enter his name into a computer, and possibly fine him. If the alien is in need of medical attention, he will receive proper care first and foremost, and then processed as usual. He will be taken to the closest official Port of Entry, and deported. At that point, he falls under Mexican laws and jurisdiction. Generally, this means he gets to go home, wherever home may be, or was, at one time. Only after repeated crossing offenses is the individual incarcerated on U.S. soil, to be sent home only when jail time is complete. Again, did we do the Right Thing?By not taking action and contacting authorities, did we, perhaps, help our friend die? Or, were we correct in assuming that he had a right to determine his own path, to take responsibility for his own future, to decide the outcome of his own life? I suppose we’ll never know. As of this writing, 867 illegal aliens that crossed into U.S. soil through Big Bend National Park have been caught this year. I wonder who #868 will be. Here and Now, Anywhere, Anytime“We have more than enough”, my partner had said that Monday morning at McKinney Springs. True words, these are. We certainly have more than enough of everything we could possibly ever need to survive. Clean and safe, I gaze around the comforts of my home from the sanctuary of my own life. Pictures of myself, my mate and my friends decorate the white walls. My phone, my computer, my books are close at hand. My cat sits on my lap. My flowering hanging plants sway in the breeze. My fridge is full, my water is good, my clothes are plenty. I am not cold, I am not hot. I am not hungry, or thirsty, or lost. My discomforts seem insignificant, my troubles irrelevant, my pains trivial. I have forgotten what was driving me crazy some time ago.Ironically, to ‘get away from it all’, we hid out in the wilderness by camping quite comfortably, equipped with the best gear, food, drink and added luxuries money can buy. We brought our books, camera, stove, lights, and music. We ate, we drank, we read, we laughed, we hiked, we slept, and we drove out in the morning without a care in the world. We had the nerve to call this ‘roughing it’. Somewhere, out there, there’s a scrawny Spanish-speaking young guy crawling in and out of desert drainages, trying desperately to avoid thorny plants, poisonous animals, detection by the Border Patrol and possible death or dismemberment. He carries with him the clothes on his back and a small backpack. The backpack contains a jacket, a pair of jeans, a pack of cards, a purple lighter, some food, a canteen, a small hand-made map and the shredded remains of a blue plastic bag. He is crossing at least seventy miles of rough terrain in the Chihuahuan Desert with beat up tennis shoes and no hat or sunglasses. He has no First-Aid kit. No water purifier. No sleeping bag. No flashlight. No compass. No money. No identity. Within him, however, he carries his most valuable assets: the burning desire for a better life and the instinctive will to survive.Now that’s what I call real life adventure travel. Addendum to “This is Real Life Adventure Travel…”Mark Spiers, Chief of Law Enforcement of Big Bend National Park, comments that although it is not required by law to report illegal aliens within the Park boundaries, it’s certainly not acceptable to ignore a person in need. If you do see an illegal alien crossing the desert, the Park prefers that the individual be reported, primarily for his safety and the safety of Park visitors. It is easier to save a live body than a dead one. What would you do?
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