Water

Have you ever been so thirsty that desperation set in? That your next drink became your only thought?

I was a migrant moving north on my own search for a better life, and the earth I walked on was baked, bone dry and barren. I was an Appalachian Trail hiker, and all my earthly possessions fit in a 60-liter pack on my back. Though I had the capacity to carry four liters of water at a time, I’d been heavily influenced by the ultralight mentality in my research, and I routinely only carried two; I was in Pennsylvania, after all, and water is everywhere up there! But that year, water was dangerously scarce, even there.

We hikers had our coping mechanisms, of course. Using our trail guides, we’d meticulously plan, only taking shelter near a reliable water source – and only close to the trail; we were too lazy to do more. We’d top off on water each evening, drink a liter the following morning, and carry two full liters every time we stepped off. Planning for a liter of water every hour, this would generally allow us to travel three hours before we needed to repeat our water ritual: draw three, drink one, carry two. With a bit of foresight, we could plan our trail breaks near a brook, spring, or stream – stop less, travel farther. This generally worked to our benefit.

But sometimes, it didn’t.

One particular day stands out. It was a hot sunny day in central Pennsylvania, and the earth was parched: it hadn’t rained in weeks. I remember the grass, brown and brittle in the summer sun, the trail, a mix of sand and dust. I must’ve walked twelve midday miles without passing a single water source. Maybe I’d gotten cocky. I think that, more likely, I’d just run through it all; I routinely drank seven liters those days and still pissed yellow. Hydration is no joke.

When you’re walking like that, water is your everything. I remember the sinking feeling as I pulled up to a guide-designated source and found it dry; it would be four remote miles before I got another shot, and I was parched. Those were a painful four miles: my mouth became chalky; my skin, caked with salt; my body, heavy and slow. Most significantly, my mind, in a twisted meditation, fixed solely on the prospect of my next drink.  I could think of nothing else for miles.

The Appalachian Trail was an iterative exercise in gratitude, but never was I more grateful than I was then to reach water at my effort’s end. Looking back, I’m sure I could have pressed on, but I was certainly in no state to try: the mind does get its say. When you’re walking like that, even food is secondary; water is your only link to this mortal coil.

Latin American migrants are dying for want of water. We generally decent people are letting it happen.

Were I to write a Trail memoir, my focal point would be the people. The people who sat at the side of the road with a cooler of drinks and a bag of snacks, baking on the pavement, just waiting for a chance to give a guy a Gatorade. The people who left two chilled water bottles at the trail’s edge with a note: ‘We know you were low on water last night. Here are a few to get you through. Good luck! Be Safe!’ I never met those people, but they meant the world to me. I bet they knew it, too.

Better yet though, the day hikers who packed in way too much food, then ceded fresh fruit and veg to us stinky types at the end of their leisurely day – fresh is not a common hiker adjective, at least not as it pertains to food. I still smile at the memory of a bag of sweet peas kindly given; they were heavenly. But best, oh, the best: those who’d dedicated their lives to making the Trail what it is today.

Connecticut looms large in my mind: Greg of the Toymaker Cafe, who left corporate life to let hikers camp on his lawn and squat in his kitchen; Pat at the package store, who took the time to personally know me, then connected me with her friend in Salisbury, who was no longer listed in the trail guides; Maria, that friend, who’d been hosting hikers for thirty years in her home, who was 87 and going strong in her community, who met me at the door, insisted that I leave my wet clothes outside, and gave me a towel and a shirt to make it happen. Maria, who fed me physically, spiritually, intellectually. Maria, with whom I was vulnerable, honest, loved. Maria, who left an indelible impression on my soul.

I lingered there; I made the upstairs beds for her, broke my fast with her, sat on the porch and communed with nature with her. Not so many people can coax a chipmunk to eat out of their hand. Before I left, Maria had a chipmunk eating of my hand. I was most reluctant to leave her; I knew she was not long for this world, and I wanted more, more of her. My path, however, beckoned; I heeded its call.

Time and again, I have been blessed by angelic acts of altruism. Maybe the practitioners found moral fulfillment. Maybe those giving had also known need and were simply paying it forward. Maybe they were just Boy Scouts doing what they were told. Whatever their reason, they all thought beyond themselves, and I was the grateful other. To love one’s kin is human. To love mankind is divine.

You might imagine my dismay, then, to read that four humanitarian aid workers had been convicted for leaving water on federal land for people walking in the desert sun. In shadeless, draining, ruthless three-digit heat. For people who were dying.

Every media outlet has its angle, but this does not change the basic facts: every year, people walking north are dying of dehydration in Texas and Arizona, and every year, more come. To evade detection, they walk through remote, waterless venues. Cabeza Prieta is a remote and water-scarce national wildlife refuge through which migrants pass, and these aid workers entered it – without a permit – to leave them water. Customs and Border Protection officers, upholding the law, found the cache first and destroyed it. The four were found and held to account. They now face jail time.

Every year, all across the southern deserts and plains, men, women, and children are dying for want of water and a better life, and our national policy is simply to let it happen. That’s the humanitarian crisis.

Now, I understand that the magistrate who sentenced them was also upholding the law. Clearly, these aid workers did perform the acts of which they were convicted. Per the law, one of them drove onto a restricted area; four of them entered a refuge without a permit; and they all abandoned personal property: water – yes, water. For human beings. To quote the judge, they defied the ‘national decision to maintain the Reserve in its pristine nature.’ A nature out of which 127 sets of sun-baked bones were recovered last year.

These four criminal aid workers understand something that the law does not allow. Martin Luther King understood this thing. Gandhi understood this thing. Revolutionaries and gentle souls the world over understand this thing: that legality and morality sit on two unequal planes, and sometimes, the only way to act morally is to break the law. We have learned this time and time again across the course of history: our founding fathers, who tossed imperial tea into the harbor; our female suffragists, who spent months in dingy jail cells to secure the right to vote for every woman; our Civil Rights protestors, who suffered to make painfully plain the injustices of separate but equal. They all broke the law for the betterment of mankind.

Moral law is our birthright. Moral law knows that man is fallible, but that each and every human being has inherent and irrevocable dignity and worth. Moral law knows that the long arc of history bends towards justice, but there can be no justice without brave people pressing the outer bounds of man’s law. Moral law knows that to rise above the narrow confines of our inherently tribal minds is a transformational act of courage. Moral law knows that peace requires action. Moral law tends to the underserved. Moral law loves every other.

I don’t know how to resolve the problem of illegal immigration. I do know that it wasn’t such a big issue until we made it one – check out Radio Lab’s Border Trilogy for that story. I do know that prevention through deterrence does not work. I do know that, until we address the underlying issues that drive people to leave their homes, we will not stem the tide of migrants moving north. That means, among other things, checking our drug habits and giving a damn about our Latin American foreign policy. I certainly know that I can no longer sit on the sidelines of this issue. And while I don’t live close enough to the border to act myself, I can give my voice to raise awareness and my money to a cause I believe in. That cause happens to be diametrically opposed to the law as it now stands, and that’s fine by me; I know my own moral line. I will stand and be counted.

I turn 30 this month. This year, I’m dedicating my birthday to No More Deaths. I’ve already signed their petition to drop the charges levied against them. I may even elect to give monthly charitable donations to them – let the government see that on my tax returns. I, for one, am done.

Nobody deserves to die for want of water.

James

 

 

 

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