The Magic that was this Journey

Friday, March 4, 2011

7. 3/4/2010 – East by SouthEast

I’ve been on the road for a month and a few days and have gone a bit more than 3,000 miles.  More than half of this time I’ve spent in deserts, traveling east by southeast (and, by the way, were we happy to see bodies of water again!).  Even the Central Valley area of California is a desert, albeit one that has been transformed from to rich farmland through the miracle of irrigation. The miracle of irrigation is also part of the reason why great and mighty rivers, like the Colorado, are no more than trickles in culverts by the time they reach the Pacific Ocean.

There are four things ubiquitous to the deserts I’ve traveled, no matter if one is talking about Southeastern California, Southern Arizona, Southern New Mexico or Southern Texas:
  1.  Plastic grocery bags snagged by cacti, fence posts, what have you and blowing in the wind. They are everywhere and I am not exaggerating.  They seem to be a statement of contemporary Americana, one that I’m resisting interpreting.
  2. The wind (oh, how difficult it is to drive a vehicle with a relatively high profile and virtually no aerodynamic elements in high and gusting winds – especially when other desert dwellers/travelers are accustomed to moving at fast speeds (the Beast is happiest at 60 mph, tops – the speed limits in these desolate deserts run between 70-80mph. I had to sit out two wind/dust storms: one in the Mojave and one in Alpine, Texas.
  3. Dollar stores, either Dollar General or Family Dollar, or both (often across the street from each other). Every small town, particularly if the economy is as arid as the land and air, has one or both of these stores.  It is not true that every town has a Walmart (more on Walmart later). If we are going to be protesting how national chains are destroying small town economies, we should be looking into these companies. And, of course, the fast food chains. 
  4. The Border Patrol.
Apparently so many illegal aliens (what a term) try to enter the country every day/week/month and/or untold amounts of drugs are smuggled across the border to justify the most law enforcement personnel that I have ever seen in one area.   (Actually, many people believe there aren't enough Border Patrol agents and that the agency has suffered terrible post-911, when more federal money went to combat terrorism.)

The Border Patrol is background image (and sometimes the foreground) of my trip through the Southwest.  Travel days, particularly those in the more deserted parts of the Southwest, would go by with me seeing a few semi-and pickup trucks, perhaps a few other RVers and scores Border Patrol vehicles/agents.  They were often parked by the side of the road, usually at the gates of ranches. I saw a few officers using long sticks to poke at reeds on the bank of a small river.  I saw a Border Patrol truck dragging a large metal object through the brush (?). I saw 10 or so agents unloading a boat at the Amistad Reservoir (made by a dam on the Rio Grande and sharing a border with Mexico).  There were another 3-4 trucks in the parking lot, idling, waiting for something (I think they were watching my suspicious lunch consuming).  I went through two checkpoints in Arizona (was temporarily detained at one – a story to be told in another medium) and one checkpoint in Texas.  At each checkpoint there were 25-30 (or more) agents working, along with dogs. At the third checkpoint, I was questioned by an agent of Hispanic descent who spoke with an accent, as if English was his second language.  He works for the Border Patrol, keeping out those who are likely like his ancestors (I’m spinning a tale here – I don’t know if he is first generation US citizen, I’m guessing).  He was the first, and only, Border agent of color I saw. I passed several Border Patrol regional headquarters and was astounded at the fleets of trucks and boats. And, I'm telling you, I saw hundreds of Border Patrol vehicles on the road over the few weeks I spent in the deep Southwest.

According to a May, 2010 Washington Post article (Slevin, 2010), a part of the border in Arizona, called the Tucson sector, is a particularly busy section.  In May, 2010, U.S. authorities captured 687 illegal immigrants in one 24-hour period and apprehended 168,000 from December, 2009-May, 2010.  The article also quotes an official saying that officers have “close to daily” contact with smugglers with guns, likely associated with drugs (ah, that must be what they thought I was – an armed smuggler!  I know I look the type). The article also states that there are about 3,200 Border Patrol officers working in the Tucson sector (and I saw more evidence of the Border Patrol in Texas than in Arizona!), a 262 mile section of the border of which 210 miles are fenced. As I observed this spellbinding, yet tragic, phenomenon, I found myself repeating what many folks I’ve talked to about government have said to me about other matters: “is this a waste of taxpayer’s dollars?”  For me to ask this is a pretty serious question; I refuse to call myself a taxpayer (which I am) because I refuse to have my relationship with government be primarily one of exchange, e.g., I give you my money and you give me something back for it.  Citizenship to me is much bigger than paying taxes (and I am, by the way, aware of the irony of using the word “citizen” in this context).  Is there not a better way to deal with the illegal immigration problem?

So many people I talk to, no matter where they land on the political spectrum, think about themselves as taxpayers, and not as citizens.  And, they are pissed off at the way their taxes are being spent.  For every person that is pissed off that so much money is going to “undeserving people who are feeding out of the public trough,” (particularly immigrants, illegal or otherwise) there’s another person who is pissed off that we are not taking proper care of folks and are cutting services. One woman said that the churches won’t provide the safety nets government used to provide and that government was shirking its responsibilities. We proceeded, then, to have a conversation about how local churches (in Arizona) were allowing cell towers to be erected on their properties to make much needed money they no longer have because times are tough and people can’t/won’t tithe to the degree they can when times are good.  So, it may not be so much that churches and faith-based organizations won’t provide safety nets, but that they can't. Of course, for every church that attempts to erect a tower (which can be cleverly disguised as a palm tree!), there is a neighborhood/community NIMBY movement to try to stop them from doing so.  
I use the term “pissed off” for reason.  People in the Southwest are pissed off about illegal immigration and what the government is, or is not, doing about it. It is further polarizing the Southwest at a time in which we do not need more polarization and incivility. Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 has pitted communities and family members against each other in Arizona.  And, it’s not just the infamous SB 1070 that separates people – Arizona is “angry again,” according to a New York Times February 26th editorial.  According to The Times, these recently passed through Arizona legislative committees:  

  • A bill to chop up the 14th Amendment to deny citizenship to children born in Arizona to undocumented mothers.
  • A bill requiring hospitals to check every patient’s citizenship status, turning doctors and nurses into the immigration police.
  • A bill to deny education to undocumented children by requiring proof of citizenship to enroll in any public or private school.
  • A bill to criminalize driving by illegal immigrants, and to evict them from public housing.
Across Arizona, New Mexico and in Southwestern Texas, the issue of immigration simmers beneath the surface of every conversation about government.  In Arizona, although Tucson is closer to the border and part of the problematic sector, the southern part of Arizona is talking about succeeding from the state and becoming the 51st state, Baja Arizona. In a February 24th Arizona Daily Star (Tucson) article, David Euchner, Libertarian and Public Defender said:

Republicans were swept into office nationwide on a promise of helping to fix the economic and spending problems. Meanwhile, every bill we’ve heard about here is either anti-abortion laws or anti-Mexican laws. These are not laws that are geared toward solving the real problems that we have.

Interestingly, given the conservative nature of the state and the great divide between the north and south (hmmm…this sounds familiar…) and the apparent distraction of the legislature and governor, the Arizona citizenry did make progress over the past year toward solving the real problems they have, mostly economic. Miraculously, the people of Arizona believe that both increased revenues and decreased spending is needed to deal with their budget crisis.  On February 20, 2011, Phoenix-based The Arizona Republic published their first annual report on an initiative, “Arizona 2020,” which the paper began last year.  Working with state-wide subject matter experts, the paper identified the key issues the state will face over the next decade and explored “pragmatic, practical ideas that could help the state achieve progress in a decade” (McKinnon, 2011, p. A17). 

The issues identified through the initiative are issues most all states are grappling with: Real Estate (key recommendation: slow the progress of foreclosures); State Budget (key recommendation: raise taxes to reduce budget deficit); Government Reform (key recommendation: better align priorities with what the public wants); Economic Strategy (key recommendation: attract and keep new businesses/jobs); and, Education (key recommendation: reduce high school drop-outs; encourage more students to finish college/career training).  And their last issue is an issue particular to the Southwest: Rethinking the Border (key recommendation: attract more business and tourism from Mexico—Mexico is the world’s 13th largest economy and Arizona’s top trading partner).

The Republic reports that very few gains were made this past year. SB 1070 setback relations with Mexico, although Arizona mayors are working to change that. For every issue, it was one step forward and two steps backward. What is most remarkable to me is that voters in Arizona approved a temporary 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax and “rebuffed attempts by the Legislature to divert money from programs for kids and land conservation.”  This shows an appetite for tax increases that many in government think no longer exists amongst citizens. And, this happened in one of the most conservative states in the country.

Perhaps the most dramatic and moving conversation I’ve had, so far, was with two women I corralled at their workplace (in Texas).  Before I even asked them my research questions they said, “oh, you’ll love this, we are complete opposites.”  I asked them my first question, “What comes to mind when you think of government.”  The first woman said “corruption, too much of government is controlled by others.” The other woman said “government is no longer for the people. Basically, it’s just people trying to get away with as much as they can.” Neither woman, as it is with almost everyone else I’ve talked to, distinguish between politics and administration.  As far as they are concerned, the “illness” of government is everywhere, federal/state/local and elected as well as administrative officials. 

Can you tell from these opening comments which woman is liberal/progressive (and radically so) and which woman is conservative/progressive (and radically so – a member of the Tea Party which, by the way, held a convention in Phoenix while I was in the state)?  I couldn’t tell and their agreement about what is wrong was telling.  They were, themselves, surprised at their agreement.  When it came to what they want from government or what we should do, they no longer agreed.  And the conversation, at that point, became acrimonious. Their answers were like many of the other answers I’ve received: the liberal woman thought that government was corrupted by big money and corporations; that government is no longer compassionate or empathetic. That government no longer cares about the people.  The conservative woman thought that we needed to wipe the slate clean, politically and administratively, and start all over again with governments that only performed constitutional duties, and let the free market  do what it does best and stop restricting our liberties.  One of the women said that government was no longer honest, trustworthy or ethically-bound (do you know which said this?). She said government does not understand what we want from America.

When I pressed them about what they want from America, the conversation stalled. They became so uncomfortable about their differences, they could not continue with the conversation. They noted that they’ve never talked about what they called their “political differences” before; they were aware of their differences and agreed to disagree in silence.  They noted that this was the first time they’ve talked about these things with each other (they seemed to know and like each well – one was the supervisor of the other). One woman noted that she “never” talks about politics with anyone and was surprised she talked with me and her fellow co-worker.  She said “everyone has the right to their own opinion.” At that point, we started to talk about what we need to do in order to have these crucial conversations - that even though we are entitled to our opinions, we still need to talk to each other and decide what to do.  We need to have these difficult conversations in order to get to a point where we know what to do about what everyone agrees are deep and difficult problems.  The women and I then spent a bit of time processing the conversation so I could feel ok about being the cause of it (I really didn’t feel ok but I think they got to some crucial place by having the conversation – I hope it is not a place of long-term difficulty for them).

And, in Arizona, people are not having conversations about immigration; instead, they are having arguments and the discourse is becoming even more uncivil.   When in Tucson, I visited the shopping plaza where Congresswoman Gabrille Gifford and others were gunned down; everyone I talked to in Arizona wanted to talk about that event and all said that it was, of course, an anti-government action. And, while they were deeply saddened and shocked by it, they were not surprised given the tenor of public conversations in Southern Arizona.

All of this has me thinking, again, about crucial conversation and about John Forester’s new book, Dealing with Differences: Dramas of Mediating Public Disputes (here’s a review).  If I were to summarize what I’ve heard so far from folks (and I don’t want to do so yet!), I would say that future work of administrators is not going to be about putting into action what “The American People” want from government (we want too many conflicting things – sometimes we want the same things, but want to get there through remarkably different paths!). Instead, our work is going to be about mediating conversations amongst and between folks to get to someplace where action can be taken.

I’ve already gone on for far too long…no one wants to read a long blog entry.  To briefly explain the photos: after so many days without bodies of water (even the rivers are underground!) in the desert, when we happened upon the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers and Amistad National Recreation Area (SW Texas), everyone in this expedition was thrilled.  We spent far too short a time at Seminole Canyon State Park (Texas) and wasn’t able to tour the pictographs and other art forms that date back as far as 4,000 years.  We were, however, able to bike a great trail (well, I biked and the dogs jogged) and do some swimming (dogs swam, I got my feet wet – water was too cold even for a Pacific Northwesterner!).  Seminole Canyon left quite an impression on me – as the dedication (by the artist, Bill Worrell) of the amazing shaman mixed metal piece (The Maker of Peace) overlooking the canyon at the visitor center said, “the prayers of the ancestors are still heard in the wind.” No doubt.

The girls and I are already at the Gulf coast of Texas – next post: Man Meets Nature; Nature Meets Man.

ps – the Beast is performing wonderfully although, daily, something needs to be repaired.  A nice man I met at a dump station (I’m having all kinds of good conversations at dump stations) said “you are carrying around a home, rattling it down the road every day, over every bump and into every pothole.  Of course things are going to rattle loose.”  I thank him for his wisdom and the acceptance that came with it. And, average temperature: 72-75F.  I was actually thankful yesterday was cloudy because I needed a break from the sun.


  1. Great post... And yes...

    Nobody wants to read too many words anymore, but I'll always skim 'em all because you almost always have something smart to say.

    In the blogger world the standard for a paragraph is never to be longer than four lines and each handful of paragraphs needs a sub-heading in bold. I don't say this because you should, just so you know.

    Finally... The comment about arid and dry reminds me of how Wallace Stegner was obsessed with this truth. Ed Marston writing for High Country News explained it thus:

    "I couldn’t tell if he (Stegner) were angriest at the railroads and politicians who promoted land that couldn’t be farmed, or at his father for trying to farm it.

    Stegner told students there was another way. "Don’t deny or make over aridity; adapt to it, like the plains animals, with their good eyesight and mobility." Such adaptation, he said, "gives people the virtue of (living with) scarcity."

    To develop that virtue, he said, we must become patient, instead of thrashing about, squandering our energy and exhausting our land."

  2. Interwoven journeys, no escape from time and space. The early desert fathers (and mothers)wisely knew that running into the "solitude" of the desert was no cure for our problems, because we take our problems with us. The best we can hope for in the desert is clarity and an opportunity to work through those problems with (perhaps) fewer distractions. I just read Niebuhr's "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness" and was struck by his assertion that democracy thrives in a society neither too pessimistic nor optimistic. Right now, I think the U.S. is out of balance and growing too pessimistic--does that resonate, Cheryl?

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