Mariposa Gate, Nogales, Monday, July 15, 2013: I roll slowly through Mariposa, not winging my way to Mexico like those famous beautiful glowing-orange Monarch mariposas, though my 2002 Marlin bike is bright yellow. My knees, legs, shoulders, and back are actually okay, but I’m drenched in sweat and I’ve got aching wrists, saddle sores even with my under-armour padded shorts, and an infected gash on my shin inflicted by one of my bike’s pedals. A hiker asked me if I’d biked into lechugillas, also called shin-daggers because the low-growth, spiny leaves can turn your flesh into chopped lettuce (the meaning of the Spanish name of the plant).

Exhilarated, I call out “Buenas Tardes” and am greeted in beautiful Spanish by La China, a trilingual (Korean, English, Spanish) border patrol guard who tells me she likes her apodo given by the Mexican guards, even though she’s not Chinese. I’ve just arrived across the border to look up my Mexican contact for a month of teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) for an Educación MunicipalProgram for children in Nogales, Sonora. Daily I will bike over the line to Nogales, Arizona to teach two more courses for adults, sponsored by The University of Arizona and The Chamber of Commerce.

My dreams were dashed long ago about how long it would take to bike the 800 miles south from Ogden, Utah, to the border. I discarded more and more possessions along the way. I'd recently met a Guatemalan one afternoon heading the other way north, lost in the Arizona desert and dreaming for Los Angeles, abandoned by his expensive coyote guide who had told him it was tras la loma (just over the hill). Actually, of course, the next city was Tucson, not LA, still 50 miles away. I'd learned the hard way how difficult it could be to pedal a four-minute mile on my bike, 15 miles an hour, meaning I could handle a distance like that in 3-5 hours, of course on paved, relatively flat roads. But walking with a backpack under a penetrating sun through desert terrain, you would be lucky to keep going at 2-3 miles an hour, which would take a full day, or maybe NEVER because the human body just can’t keep going without gallons of water, rest, food, and shade.

White House Canyon Road, July 12, Friday, late afternoon: I was halfway along this dirt road connecting Highway 83 and Highway 19, the only route in the U.S. signed in kilometers instead of mileposts. I was now just 48 kilometers from the Mexican border (about 30 miles). I’m a biker, but I’m also known disdainfully by some purists as “a piggybacker,” because I’d shaved off half of my 80 mile trip beginning at the Laos Transit Center in Tucson by catching the Sun Shuttle. This mini-bus has a bike rack, and a bus fare of only $1.50, transporting me in air-conditioned splendor all the way to La Posada Community Center in Green Valley, just a couple of miles from the trailhead. I’m not a bike mechanic so I don’t like to take apart my bike and put it in a box, like you have to do for other shuttles like the state-wide Arizona Shuttle Service.

According to an organization called “Friends of Madera Canyon,” a support group for a famous nearby birding and natural habitat site, White House Canyon has nothing to do with the President but was named after a sheepherder, Walden, who built the first house in the canyon in the 1870s. It was later spruced up and the adobe structure painted a bright white.

Walden was a lucky guy to have such a place all to himself! A Dr. Seuss scene will forever be etched in my eyes and heart: a veritable herd of 15 or 20 jack rabbits, leaping through an opening between ocotillo, lechugilla, and prickly pear, their incredibly long ears and back legs flowing into a blood-red sunset. Humans like me pass through here too, as proclaimed by this sign in the Sonoran desert wilderness:

TRAVEL CAUTION
SMUGGLING AND ILLEGAL
IMMIGRATION MAY BE
ENCOUNTERED IN THIS AREA

I’d just spent a month on a stint with the Samaritanos, joining a multi-generational cast of characters following the trails of migrants dreaming of our country from as far away as Tierra del Fuego. Samaritan team members included a young Tucson legal clerk, a Tohono O’odham water expert, an Oregon anthropologist, an internationally-known dancer/actor, and many, many other unique personalities, including Brother David, a monk who walks the desert in his long brown Franciscan robe. Ed McCullough, Emeritus Professor of Geosciences at the University of Arizona has computerized a database of the many Sonoran trails that migrants follow from Nogales, Mexico north to Tucson, points east and west. McCullough teaches Samaritans how to read “way points” on GPS units to locate the trails and strategically-place water drops designed to help save lives. Every year 200-300 people die in the Sonoran desert, one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies in our country, the last ten years dubbed “The Decade of Death.”

I’d met Carlos, my fellow Guatemalan Maya traveler, just to the east of my current location when I was with a Samaritan team including myself, Dr. James Dolph, historian and documentary photographer, and the anthropologist, Consuelo. Though young and fit, Carlos was confused and suffering from heat stroke in the late afternoon sun. While gulping down the water we gave him and filling up his backpack with food and fresh socks, he told me the sad story of his 1000 mile journey from Guatemala where earthquakes had left him with no way to support his wife and two children. After paying a coyote4,000 dollars he had saved and borrowed, he and a group of 15 others were abandoned in the desert. This was his third day stumbling around lost, and just before we found him, he had lost track of his friend hiking with him. Because of his condition, we decided to take him in our jeep to get medical treatment at a “No More Deaths” Camp that Consuelo had visited before.

The migrant-support camp was run by a cadre of college students and other young people who had constructed a surreal-looking collection of tents, old camper shells, and a M.A.S.H.-like, tarp-covered kitchen/rest area. Carlos and a Mexican migrant suffering from temporary blindness from sunstroke were quickly treated like kings, with ice bags for their head, neck, and shoulders, water, and food. An on-call doctor from Tucson was consulted for medical advice. The campers organized a team of hikers to search for Carlos’ friend.

The Road Home: Gunnison to Payson, Utah, Wednesday, August 21, 70 miles in one day: I know, I know…people run 100 miles in a day. But for me, it was my fastest, longest stretch, and I just made the last Utah Transit Authority Bus at 7:52 pm, connecting to our wonderful Front Runner Light Rail from Provo to the Ogden station, swapping stories with others on the special car designated for bikers . . . then one last victory ride under midnight stars to my own Cielita.


In Las Ruinas Circulares, Jorge Luis Borges describes the long, painful journey of a professor who visits a remote country on a strange mission to dream another human being into existence, only to discover through the circular ruins of what he believes are his ever-failing attempts, that he himself is the one who has been dreamed by others. The self-understanding and change I sought on my biking pilgrimage came as I released myself to magical gifts of place and people waiting for me all along. Dreams would become reality as soon as I made the decision to start pedaling.

Tim Conrad, September 2013