What would you pack if you were about to set out on the most dangerous journey of your life? I was forced to think about that on my hike in Coronado National Forest, Arizona, last weekend. I had planned a birding/hiking trip before a meeting in Phoenix. Because of a freak snowstorm, I wound up at a trailhead less than three miles from the Mexican border. As I started my hike, I spotted a backpack washed up on the side of a creek and I froze.
This backpack had a stronger impact on me than it might for most people. You see, my dad’s parents immigrated to the US from Bolivia. I’m half-Latino, and I’ve always felt a connection to the culture. During the last three years, I’ve connected to immigrant Latino communities near me and met a lot of people who have crossed the border legally and illegally. So when I hear about deaths or abuses on the border, I think of my friends.
Although mortified by the backpack, I needed to know more about it. I looked around to make sure its owner wasn’t nearby, and up close I saw evidence that it had been in the creek for several days. So I moved it away from the water and began to look inside for clues about its owner’s identity.
So again, what would you bring on the most dangerous journey of your life? Here’s what this person did: A toothbrush, toothpaste, gum, one liter of water, two loaves of whole wheat bread, two packets of American cheese, one can of mayonnaise, one can of sliced peppers, two cans/packets of tuna fish, a hoodie, a beanie hat, a long sleeve cotton shirt, a trash bag, two packets of powdered electrolytes, and a head of garlic.
A few of the contents in particular struck me. One liter of water??? For an arduous trek across desert and mountains where people die of dehydration every year? The electrolyte packets echoed this danger. Just a hoodie and no gloves in an area where the low last night was 20 degrees?? And garlic? Why garlic?
As I examined these items, uncomfortable questions came to me. Who was their owner? Why did his backpack end up in a creek? And where the hell was he now?
The backpack also made me take a hard look at my own life and culture. It made me think about my privilege. I had packed more food for my 11-mile hike than this person had for a much longer and more dangerous journey. It made me ashamed of the millions of dollars American hikers splurge on ridiculously expensive and unnecessary outdoor clothing, equipment, and food. And I thought about mobility. I had come to this spot for pleasure. The backpack’s owner had probably been forced here by poverty or violence (which my country probably had a large role in creating).
As I stood there, a sweet, cheerful bird call woke me from these thoughts. I looked up, and in the tree above me was one of the most beautiful birds to grace the United States with its presence. His jet-black body flashed bright white as he flitted about. On his chest and stomach was a patch of red so vibrant that it seemed to glow. It was a Painted Redstart, which turned out to be an eerily appropriate bird for this moment.
Painted Redstarts live mostly in Mexico, but a tiny portion of their population migrates to Arizona to breed. The first time I saw one I was a 14-year-old in Arizona obsessed with seeing new bird species. The second time was 11 months ago in central Mexico, where I was visiting a friend’s family to learn about life and culture there. Now, standing above the lost backpack an immigrant, I watched this bird for a third time with an entirely different perspective.
To this bird, the border matters so little that it doesn’t even know it exists. When it gets too cold in Arizona, he can retreat into Mexico’s warmth without a thought. When it warms up, he can fly north to take advantage of abundant food sources in Arizona.
Here’s the kicker: when Painted Redstarts are found in the US, we celebrate them. Thousands of birdwatchers flock to Arizona every year to see Mexican species like the redstart. We admire their beauty, savor their exoticism, and appreciate the journey they’ve made to our country.
Why can’t we treat immigrants that way?