We are traveling from Seattle WA to Austin TX and have discovered that our AC units are not working. In Arizona the temperatures reached 111 degrees Fahrenheit. Life is now no longer about seeing Bryce or Zion or the Grand Canyon – it’s about getting from one watering hole to the next before tempers flare. Sometimes we’re successful; Solomon and I took a shower fully clothed at 60 mph and at a 6,000-foot elevation. The water came out hot, but we stepped in front of an open window so that even the hot air would cool us in our wet clothes. Other times we’re not so successful and our dog Ruby, lying in front of an open window with her tongue lolling, models the most civilized behavior.
We arrived at disappointingly named Lake “Pleasant” and I walked inside the office to book a campsite, asking permission to bring Ruby in so she could lie on the cold tile. Both the women at the reception desk were Latina. Trying to appear casual, I commented,
“It’s hard to imagine life could get so bad that you’d walk across this to escape it!”
I was embarrassed to find myself starting to cry in front of these women, neither of whom responded verbally, but gravely watched me, nodding. Food, water, and shelter are fundamental in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and having all three in jeopardy put me in a desperate, vulnerable state.
We were given camp site 152, a couple hundred yards from the lake. In the midst of settling in, Ruby skulked away, then bolted for the water. Solomon and I chased after her while Patrick continued to get the RV set up. The rest of the day, when we weren’t floating in the lake, we were dumping milk, meat, and produce that had gone off – the frig simply unable to compete with the onslaught.
The relentless heat continued throughout the night as the lowest temperature was in the mid-90’s. In a last ditch effort to get some sleep, I jumped in the lake in a long sundress and didn’t towel off before flopping onto the bed. The next day was equally, hopelessly hot, and as we drove, I looked out at the parched and hostile landscape.
What kind of hell would drive a Central American woman to leave her home on foot with her children and walk across this . . . not for just an afternoon, but for hundreds of miles, where every resident of the land has fangs, spikes, stinger, or a gun?
A few days earlier, we hiked Red Canyon, elevation 7,400 feet, in Bryce National Park. We asked questions about the trail and packed ample water and snacks. I tested our cell phones, confirming that there was, indeed, no network. Even with my husband along and an obvious downhill trek back to the road and help should we need it, I found myself mulling strategies in case Solomon encountered a scorpion, a rattlesnake, a scree slide, a sprained ankle. If he went around the bend ahead of me, I picked up my pace involuntarily and breathed easier when he came back into view. I kept an eye on clouds passing overhead, in case of rain or flash flooding. We got back after dark and regardless of the enjoyable hike and spectacular views, I was relieved to see the lights and have my son safe.
I can’t begin to grasp the trauma if my only chance of keeping my son safe would have been to send him through that canyon alone.
In the hit musical Miss Saigon, the title character, a Vietnamese woman who has a child by an American soldier, chooses to send her young son to the U.S. alone in order to give him a chance at a better life. The current equivalent of that situation is the thousands of unaccompanied children who have arrived at the U.S. southern border since 2014. During that summer, struggling to get my husband to the U.S. through legal channels, I was horrified when I randomly clicked on a link and saw a woman proudly sporting patriotic American garb, chanting, “not our kids, not our problem!” I was stunned a few days later when a woman my parents invited over for lunch after church vehemently echoed the sentiment. It never occurred to me that someone of any faith could hold, much less have the gall to voice in public, such a callous response to children in need.
In Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, the title character, says,
“I never use the words HUMANIST or HUMANITARIAN, as it seems to me that to be human is to be capable of the most heinous crimes in nature.”
It seems to me that to judge a woman who is desperate enough to flee on foot or send her children alone across a wasteland as a mooch or a drug dealer or even as merely “illegal” is heinously inhumane. What has debased American culture to the point where “humane society” refers to how we care for vulnerable animals and not for vulnerable people?
So, while Solomon and I went into an air conditioned store, my South African husband, knowing his wife was on the edge of her ability to cope, Google mapped every body of water within 500 miles. I was keenly aware and not just a little ashamed of my privilege, that we had the option and the resources to choose a more northerly, hence, a cooler route.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the series by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gandalf says of the verminous Gollum,
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”
Considering that we as American citizens have the political and economic power to quite literally “deal out death,” before we believe the latest derogatory headline about Central American women or children arriving on the U.S. southern border, perhaps we should try walking outside our homes for just one hour in triple digit heat. Or turn our air conditioning off for a day and not take our children to a swimming pool or the beach. Perhaps this tiny experiment in empathy would spark a more humane response.