The grass grows steadily, towering over us until we can no longer see the San Pedro Trail. My partner and I hadn’t seen anyone else that day and it was peacefully quiet. We can only hear the bees buzzing, ignoring our presence among the thicket of yellow flowers growing wildly across the trail. It was still early in the afternoon and we already had an eventful morning – dodging thorny bushes cutting both our arms and legs, navigating muddy streams covered with overgrown grass, surprising a few jackrabbits from their homes, and getting startled by two rattlesnakes lying across the gravel path.
We continue taking detours on and off the trail until we finally reach the border that separates Arizona from Mexico. We bike a few feet from the San Pedro River where the wall stops for a moment along the low riverbed. A white border patrol car sits idly close by but doesn’t seem to care for us. We look past the car and see a wall of 60 ft, steel beams continue row upon row until disappearing into the blue Coconino mountain range.
Standing there dirty and sweaty with my loaded bike, I move closer to the cold beams and look up at the massive wall. I can’t pinpoint the feeling I am having, but it feels uneasy and familiar. Then it hits me, and I am suddenly taken back to six years ago. It is March 2013, the air is cold and thick. There is white snow on the ground and soldiers surrounding us. Their stern faces show no emotion by both the below-freezing temperature and the crowd of tourists visiting the Joint Security Area, the only part of the Demilitarized Zone where North Korea and South Korea stand face to face. I remember hearing a woman’s voice. She shares her story of crossing the border from North Korea. As she speaks, I look at the border with the lush green trees powdered with snow towering over its walls. I try to fully grasp her experience when she says she left her family behind, but I have no idea what that is truly like. All I could feel was that her story was immensely powerful and deeply sad.
Fast forward and I am once again at a border. I am no longer in my birth country but in my home country. This time I see tall cacti and desert bushes surrounded by hard-packed sand. And now, I don’t have someone to share their story of crossing the border – of a sister, brother, mother, father, and person leaving their family behind while risking their lives for a better one. Even though this is the grand finale of a two and a half month bikepacking trip on the *Wild West Route – all I can think of is how I am still a ‘tourist’, and of how privileged I am to navigate these politically complex areas so freely.
While reflecting on all of this I look once again at the wall, stick my middle finger out and turn my bike around to head home.
The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area is a particularly politically complex area for many reasons. The conservation area has about 40 miles of the upper San Pedro River, and the river is a special place because it holds the state’s last free-flowing desert river. The river’s stretch in the southern San Pedro Valley is home to 84 species of mammals, 14 species of fish, 41 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 100 species of breeding birds. It also provides an invaluable habitat for 250 species of migrant and wintering birds and has archaeological sites representing the remains of human occupation from 13,000 years ago.
The San Pedro River is also one of three sections to be approved across 60 miles of desert along the Arizona border that is federally protected land, others include Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Conservationists strongly oppose the wall for breaking fundamental environmental laws. BLM says a fence blocking the seasonal flows during the monsoon could damage riparian habitat, and erode the San Pedro’s channel and banks. The agency cited 21 threatened and endangered species that could be affected by wall construction or related surveillance lighting. Despite all of this, the walls are approved and construction is already underway.
Now all of this is depressing news for sure, but there are organizations and people who are still raising awareness about this region’s complex political history. One person is my friend Sarah Swallow, who will be hosting a second Ruta Del Jefe event in February 2020. Ruta Del Jefe is not just a bicycle race but it raises awareness about the environmental threats and humanitarian crisis affecting this region. As Sarah puts it “Our privilege to travel to ride bikes in beautiful places, necessitates our responsibility to understand the history of the region we ride, what is special and unique about them, what the threats are, and how we can make a difference.”
So keep an eye out for registration at the end of this year and if you can’t attend, please consider donating to any of these 5013c organizations.
*The Wild West Route is by Bikepacking Roots, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the growing bikepacking community.