On our third day of riding on the Southern Tier, we reached the Mexican border close to a town called Jacumba Hot Springs. Previous to the trip, my focus had been on finding a place for the group to stay each night and so the idea of hot springs excited me. I love water, being by it and more so being in it. But the Jacumba Hot Springs Spa and Resort no longer wanted traveling cyclists to camp there, and so I had realized we would have to ride on to Brawley where we had a local contact with the parks department who’d let us camp by their cattle arena facility.
I lucked out of the third day’s cycle vs. drive-the-van rotation with Jared once again and got do the day’s ride that had us pedaling right by the present wall with Mexico, a tall red fence. I was fascinated by the wall and the world around it and couldn’t help but be briefly brought out of the bike bubble I had already entered at the start of the trip, a bubble that had its own rhythm and intrigues but kept me separated from the drama, tweets, and daily news cycle that had already become the norm of the new Trump administration.
Cycling gives you a perfect view of the world as you travel. Cars get you there faster, but they are really little different than planes in transporting across miles without any immersion in the geography, the culture, or the people whose worlds you pass by. I-10 is a bubble itself, revealing almost nothing about the states its passes through. Walking, on the other hand, is the total opposite, but it is so slow that your observations are not as sweeping perhaps, though I really know nothing about trying to traverse the country on foot. On a bike, though, you are part of the landscape. You see the countryside like the wolf or deer on its daily jaunt. You cover 50-70 miles and observe and compare town to town and the lands between. The trees reach out to you with opportunities for shade, the grasses show you the direction of the wind, the clouds provide needed relief from the sun and are themselves a grand canvas of beauty, your rolling screen saver each day. In the towns, you find food and water. But its really the people and their homes and businesses that trigger your imagination as you wonder about their lives, their communities, their struggles, their daily routines. The interactions I have with the store clerks, the other customers, the guy picking up trash on the road, those are the little jewels that get me even closer to the worlds I pass through, moments of personal intimacy, gifts to my soul.
And so cycling by our present wall with Mexico, I was fascinated. I passed several properties as I got closer to the border in California that piqued by interest where their odd and quirky decorations of patriotism. Were these Americans flexing their muscle to those trying to invade our country, saying we will toughly defend our nation from you southern invaders.
Later just east of El Paso, we stayed with David Cantu in a WarmShowers place, his home that he opens up to traveling cyclists. David is real West Texas, living about 15 miles east of El Paso. The Rio Grande is within walking distance of his home. His family routes stem from the native Americans who had lived in the area for centuries and others from below the border, a mix of Spanish and indigenous peoples. He is trying in his small way to keep the culture and history of his people alive in San Elizario.
I asked David about the homes flying American flags. In rural Georgia where I live, I associate those flying the flag, not just on Memorial Day, as America-first people. The US flag has become like the confederate flag that flies on homes in the South, a defiant stand against the “others” threatening what is perceived as the American way of live under attack, meaning the American white of European-descent way of life under attack. I thought the same would be true along the border and was thus surprised when David told me that for the most part that these were people like him flying the flag, showing their pride in being Americans and often their support for their military sons and daughters. I thought then of the names and faces that PBS would display in silent each night on the PBS NewsHour of those who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan and how so many of those faces were of men and women of color, a color besides white. What did I really know about those people back in Jacomba Hot Springs with their quirky displays of patriotism. It is too easy to prejudge, thinking we understand others when we are all more complex than we ever know.
Trump’s budget was released today. “A New Foundation for American Greatness” is its absurd America First title. In his America, you cut budgets for the poor, from health care, from food stamps and disability payments and student loans to make the country great.. In his America, you make the country great by spending our country’s money on bigger military and a massive wall with Mexico. The towns around the wall with Mexico are poor and depressed. I wonder who is in there now buying up property to sell to those needing land for their wall construction
businesses and temporary housing for those building the wall. Like often happens, I’m sure there will be small pocket of locals who profit greatly from an infusion of money into their communities. There will be others who get jobs from the wall construction. But there are others who will be in uproar as the feds try to confiscate their land for building. There are already passport checks points all along the roads close to our Southern boarder. I passed by several on my bike. For those living their lives there and not just passing through, there already exists an eery military police state presence that doesn’t seem normal to anyone from some other part of the country.
Later in west Texas as we descended from Sanderson, TX, toward Del Rio on Hwy 90, the closest road to the Rio Grande. The river winded back and forth like a snake in that part of the country. The land was desolate, with steep mesas and scrub cactus-covered hills, hot, bleak and very windy. The day we cycled form Sanderson, TX, the winds kept increasing as the day went on. The day’s route was long at about 80 miles, but it was the last twenty miles that killed us. From Langley to Seminole Canyon State Park, the winds picked up to 30-40 mph, directly in our faces as we tried to climb up hills through cut-outs in the canyon walls. Those last twenty miles should have taken us two hours. With such a strong head wind, we were barely making 3 miles in an hour. As usual, I was in the back sweeping and had caught up with Fuat hours ago. He was having back/leg pain and struggling. I got in front of him to pull him the best I could by blocking the wind for him. The wind was incessant, the strongest head winds I’d ever ridden in. It was easy to be discouraged.
But we had it easy. We knew there was a place to stay up ahead, and that as long as we stayed on the road, we’d be found. We were running out of daylight and knew we wouldn’t make it to camp. That 20 mile ride was going to take six hours instead of two. We wanted to call the van and get sagged back into town, but there was no cell signal. Still, we knew the van would eventually come and get us as it eventually did. The tandem couple had already been rescued when Jared and Evan reached us. When we eventually reached camped, everyone had a story of struggle and bike despair, but we were all safe.
Back when we were on the road, I couldn’t help but think of those trying trying to make it overland to the US across the Rio Grande and then across the wasteland we were cycling through. At one point when Fuat and I were taking a short rest from the wind, I remember telling him, “We are not going to die. We have enough water.We are not going to be captured by Border Patrol and put into an detention camp for illegal immigrants where the lights are never turned off.” More than reassuring either him or me, I was reminding myself how easy we really had it. Our circumstances trying to cycling that day were arduous and exhausting but the day would become a story, a feat we had accomplished. We weren’t risking our lives because our entire lives were so bleak that we had to flee our homes and families to get to American and its dream.
What is this Trump wall really about? Those who come over our border are desperate. They take endless chances with their lives. If they have the strength of will and body to make it here, perhaps we should listen to their stories and value the courage they have to have to get here. Who amongst us would risk what they have now for such a journey. How dyer would our circumstances have to be take the chance to travel hundreds and hundreds of miles over incredibly arid treacherous terrain and at the mercy of coyotes, wolves, and snakes. There would be no convenience stores to grab some more water at, or bike angels bestowing small gifts and smiles on you. Instead, there’d be dry creek beds, temperatures from 90-120 degrees, ruthless smugglers, the fear of border patrol agent.
My heart is sad thinking of this wall that Trump wants to fund and build. What is in his heart? Is there no love there for others, empathy for their plights, understanding of our shared humanity?
What a different and unfriendly world it must be to live with such aggression, anger, and fear of others and such self-importance. And how dangerous for all of us it is to have a leader as him and with so many cheering him on.
[Of course, that leads me to another blog post to come because it’s not so easy to group people like we want to….some of my closest and most supportive connections on my Southern Tier trip with good, smart, and special people were Trump supporters, while my worst companion was an anti-Trump man.]