Ska Summit, 2003 (Part 4)

This is the final installment of my four-part series on a concert festival I went to when I was twenty. For the first entry, along with a more detailed explanation of why I’m posting such a thing, go here.

I Ran All The Way Home (Doo wah doo wah doo)

The conversation the next morning consisted almost entirely of groans of exhaustion and pain. We were all sunburned (I think Dan, Joe, and me took prizes for the worst), and Andy had sprained his ankle somehow, and the everyone was sore from eight hours of dancing and standing on concrete. We all wanted to go home and talked Dan out of bungee jumping, but had to stop for souvenirs at the World’s Largest Souvenir Shop, and eat breakfast (steak for breakfast! Okay then, Vegas) so it was past 10:00am by the time we got going.

Conversation faded in and out, mostly restricted to what needed to be talked about. We would stop for gas and get out and talk a bit and get revived, but as soon as we got back in the car the conversation would fade away. We were all tired and kind of cranky, too tired even for post-ska exuberance. But it was stored away, we’d take it out and think about it and then put it away.

“We should do this again next year, only spend more time in Vegas.”

“Catch 22 needs to play next year.”

“And the Mad Caddies. And Less Than Jake.”

“And the Pietasters.”

“And the Smooths. Well, if they got back together.”

“Or did a reunion show like Attaboy Skip this year.” (If there’s any former members of the Smooths reading this, one more tour, please, just one.)

We got through Utah without incident, hitting 128mph in Andy’s car and passing a van that had “Ska Summit 2003” written on the back window in soap. As soon as the sun sank behind Utah, I fell asleep.

 

One Week Later

April 6, 2003

I finally got a decent night’s sleep on about Thursday (we’d driven back to Denver on Sunday). I’m writing this sitting at Action Shot’s band practice. Life is back to its regular routine. I told everyone my Ska Summit stories, but left out the total exhaustion part because that’s not what sticks in your head. The image that comes to mind is the Toasters onstage, Bucket (guitar player/lead singer) bobbing back and forth on the balls of his feet like he does, his eyes shut against the bright stage lights; Jack Ruby (other lead vocals) rolling around onstage and throwing things at Sledge. Sledge looking angry and then, at the last minute, breaking into a grin. Dave Waldo, the keys player, hoisting his keyboard onto his shoulder like a boombox. The saxophone player and the trombone player dancing, holding their horns away from their bodies; the people around me gently bumping shoulders as we danced.

Ska Summit, 2003 (Part 2)

This is part two (er, obviously) of a four-part series on a concert festival I went to when I was twenty. For the first entry, along with a more detailed explanation of why I’m posting such a thing, go here.

Welcome to Sin City

Las Vegas, NV

By the time we make it to Vegas, the mountains behind us were turning purple and the sky was going dark. My first glimpse of Vegas was full-blown, lit up, neon lights going. A little overwhelming for a kid who doesn’t even like the neon sign on top of the Quest tower in Denver.

We made it to our hotel room around 9:00 and we’d been in the car for thirteen hours. We were all tired and cranky and slightly delirious; I was so hungry I was lightheaded. We didn’t think it would be worth it to try and find the ska party at Julian’s, so we met up with my friend Lori and found dinner. Then we went out wandering on the strip.

I think Las Vegas is a sort of corrupted Disneyland for adults. I mean, what kind of grown man builds a hotel shaped like a castle? (I know, I know: a rich grown man.) Vegas is some kind of weird alternate reality. Does it always have that smell?

In front of the New York New York hotel was a small group of anti-war protesters holding signs and handing out fliers. Behind me, a big beefy tourist muttered to his companions, “Oh great, more protesters. Just don’t say anything.” Then as soon as we were past them, he started talking about them, how sick he was of protesters, they don’t know anything, they’re stupid. I was so mad I could barely talk, but I managed to say, “I like how you can mock them behind their back but won’t say anything to their face.” I realize humanity will never come to a consensus on anything, and I don’t care if people disagree with me as long as they show some degree of respect for my viewpoint. But don’t talk shit about people behind their backs. All that proves is that the kids on the street corner, handing out fliers, putting their opinions on display, have more nerve than you.

Okay. Off my soapbox now.

Not much else to say about the strip, I guess. The water fountain show in front of the Bellagio was awesome. That pool, I think, has more water than the entire state of Colorado. And again, there is a hotel shaped like a castle. A castle.

Ska Summit, 2003 (Part 1)

I’ve been going through boxes of old papers (and thinking that someday maybe I’ll go through the Documents file on my computer), seeing what I can get rid of, when I came across this travel journal from 2003 written on looseleaf notepaper. Originally, I was going to just type it up and store it on my hard drive, but I decided to post it here for a couple reasons. One is that I wasn’t actually a bad writer when I was 20 (when I was typing it up I did clean up some grammar/sentence structure things, but really not that much). I’m a little disappointed that I’m not a demonstrably better writer 13 years on, actually. I feel like I should be embarrassed by my 20-year-old writer self, but skill-wise, she’s still pretty close to my 34-year-old self, I guess. The other thing is that I considered myself to be a pretty timid and non-risk-taking teenager/adolescent/young adult. I was never a sneak-out-at-night-and-go-drinking teenager. My friends and I never bombed down I-25 at 110 miles per hour with the music as loud as it could go just to see if we could (well, there was that one time…). But I was reading this and realizing, I did some potentially stupid things, I just didn’t think of them as stupid at the time. And still don’t think of them as stupid, which is maybe partly why I identify as a non-risk-taker. But impulsively driving to Vegas with five other kids and sleeping in a hotel on the strip and going to a ska show? Potentially dangerous. Potentially dumbass kid thing. It was weirdly reassuring to know that I was a dumbass when I was 20.

So, here it is. Broken up over several entries, I’m sure. Also I don’t have pictures to go with this because I didn’t have a digital camera in 2003. Use your imagination, I suppose.

 

Part One

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Colorado

Friday, March 28

6:00am


A god-awful hour for high school and college kids. We–Andy, Dan, Joe, Kyle, Nick, and me–met at King Soopers while the sun is still streaked across the sky in purple and orange. A quick run through the store to grab donuts, beef jerky, Mountain Dew, coffee, and water; another quick stop for gas, and we’re on our way.

It snowed on Thursday night and Colorado was cold and windy, the highway slushy and wet. We piled into two cars with a walkie talkie in each. Most of the first several hours were spent trash talking each other through the walkies.

The quickest road out of Colorado going west is I-70, which climbs through the foothills and goes up and over Vail Pass, and then slides down the other side, into the mesa country of western Colorado and then out into Utah. People live all along it. It’s the road skiers take to most Colorado ski resorts. Mining towns are littered all along it (or, more accurately, it was built along the old road that connected mining towns to Denver). It’s our way out of Colorado, and almost all the way through Utah, until it dead-ends at I-15 and we turn south.

We had to stop in Vail because the slush kicked up so much dirt behind the cars in front of us that Kyle’s car ran out of windshield wiper fluid. We tried to get to an exit but Kyle ended up pulling into a turnout–he couldn’t see at all and was hanging his head out the window, Ace-Ventura style.

If you’ve lived in Colorado for a long time, like I have, and spent a lot of time camping and backpacking and skiing in the mountains, like I have, the mountains develop a personality. They’re huge megalithic chunks of rock that alternate between not caring if you live or die, and actively trying to destroy you. There is no such thing as friendship with the mountains–the most you can hope for, if you know them well enough, is a sort of benevolence. Everything you need is there, if you know where to look, but the mountain won’t help you find it. It’s put it there, and that better be enough. You don’t think about jet streams and cold fronts in the nature, it’s more like nature being in a bad mood. Once I was one an eight-day backpacking trip. It rained for six of the eight days. By the fourth or fifth day, we were tired of the mountain and cursing the weather gods, because it felt like they were toying with us. That’s what the mountains do: they toy with you. It can be beautiful sunny weather at 11:00 in the morning, and by 1:00 it’s raining and you’re hiding from lightning and digging in your pack for long underwear. Beautiful and stunning landscapes hide loose rocks that can sprain your ankle (a minor injury, normally, but potentially lethal when you’re twenty miles from the nearest road and nobody knows where you are). The mountains are full of deer and elk and everybody wants to see them, while avoiding attracting the attention of a cougar or a bear, forgetting that the supposedly harmless herbivores kill more people every year. What’s beautiful is dangerous, the seemingly harmless can be deadly, and only bitter experience can teach you the difference. That’s what the mountains have taught me.

Humans’ attitudes towards the mountains vacilate between changing it, controlling it, and leaving it exactly the same. We build towns and highways, carve trails, put houses on hilltops. We chop trees and control the animal population, which can no longer control itself. But then something happens that’s out of our control, like a wildfire that destroys thousands of acres of vegetation. It’s a vicious and brutal process, but a natural one, part of the mountain reforging and renewing itself, keeping a balance. Given time, the landscape can renew itself, but humans are impatient. We don’t give the mountain any time anymore. After a forest fire we go in and plant quick-growing seeds that will take root and lessen the eroding. Back and forth, hot and cold, that’s how the mountains are. You learn to live with them because they sure as hell don’t care if they live with you. And they won’t ever be subdued.

While I stared out the window for a good four hours thinking about all this, the mountains slid past us, the highway threading between and around and through the peaks. We held our breath going through tunnels (except for the Eisenhower tunnel, which is too long) and listened to music. Traveling to a show, getting there is half the fun. You listen to music and in the back of your mind is the thought, “By this time tomorrow I’ll be hearing this music live and it will rock.” As for me, I don’t have a lot of friends who will tolerate ska, let alone seek it out. Dan and Andy are the only guys on this trip that I really know, and everyone else is friends of theirs.

When we stopped at a gas station in Grand Junction, Andy helped himself to some of Dan’s CDs in the other car. We weren’t five minutes out of the gas station when Dan came crackling over the walkie talkie. “Hey fuckers!”

“Yes, bastard?” returned Andy.

“Do you have my CDs?”

“Define ‘have’.”

“Are you holding them in your possession, asshole.”

We couldn’t answer for several seconds because we were laughing too hard. Finally Andy managed to say, “Well, maybe.”

“Fuckers.”

We turned up the music and held the walkie talkie up to the speaker.

Utah

Stupid Utah.

The first impression that I have of Utah is a big blank tan expanse of nothing. The sign that says “Now Leaving Colorful Colorado” is painfully accurate and it seems like not only have you left Colorado, but all the color as well. The sign that said “Caution: Eagles on Highway” caused some discussion. Eagles doing what? Something dangerous?

We also spent some time in Utah seeing how fast we could get Andy’s car to go. I-70 in Utah is long, flat, and empty, and there’s nothing to hit (except eagles, apparently). We got up to 122mph before fear got the better of us. Best not to die a horrific fiery death before the Ska Summit.

We stopped in a town called Green River for gas and lunch. One thing I’ve observed about people: if you’re a freak wandering around alone, no one takes any notice of you. I can wander around Denver by myself in all my punk/ska clothes and nobody cares, except sometimes to ask polite (if silly) questions. “Toasters? So you like kitchen appliances, eh?” “Avoid One what?” “H2O? I also like water.” But when you’re part of a posse of freaks, people are a lot more likely to fear and despise you–and a lot more likely to show it. In Utah, a bunch of spiky, blue- and red-haired freaks wearing trench coats and patch-covered hoodies, are trouble. The ladies at Burger King wouldn’t speak to us, the customers all stared at us, and the gas station attendant wouldn’t sell us cigarettes.

Our growing feelings of dislike toward Utah increased when Andy, Brian, and Nick were pulled over by an unmarked state trooper. He didn’t use radar, didn’t check the ownership of the vehicle, and told us there was snow and ice on the (totally dry) mountain pass, and that they might crash and “not know what happened.” (“Wow, we seem to be at the bottom of a canyon. How’d that happen?”) What’s more, Kyle, Dan, Joe, and me in the other car kept going and pulled off at the next exit, but Andy and them didn’t. We wasted an hour trying to find them. Stupid Utah.

2015 Backcountry Half Marathon–Highlands Ranch, CO

bcwhr

Straight up stole this picture from Google.

I originally wrote this to post on a running forum, but I’m reposting it here.

Let us first cover the many ways in which I am a dumbass, which will hopefully lead to people understanding that I know that I am a dumbass and maybe not call me a dumbass in the comments too much.

  • I was barely half trained for this half marathon. My longest training run was 8 miles. I got caught by time, mostly (and my own dumbassery). I ran my first half in May of this year (Colfax Marathon in Denver), and over half-trained for that half. Maybe even three-quarters trained! If nothing else, I now have a couple of race times that should be easily shatterable if I ever get around to wholly training for races.
  • I noticed like 4 days before the race that it was a trail run with a 900 ft change in elevation. Did I do any of my training runs on hills? I surely did not. So on the one hand, this made me feel better about my 8 mile pitifulness, because clearly even if I’d gotten all the way to a 13.1 training run and done an amazing taper and nutrition plan, I would’ve been unprepared. On the other hand, I can’t recommend enough that you read the fucking packet and materials they send you. Like, even just once. (I was a little bit thrown by them calling themselves the “Backcountry Wilderness” half, when it was neither backcountry nor wilderness, but rather suburban open space, but still. Read your fucking race materials, people). Luckily I have an older pair of trail running shoes so I wore those (for stability) and just resigned myself to blisters (which I got. I tried to head them off by using Dr Scholl’s moleskin. Don’t use that stuff. Total garbage. Fell off my feet before I even took off. On the bright side, at least I didn’t try to run with moleskin floating around in my socks.)
  • Failed to fall asleep early enough the night before.
  • Forgot to bring a coat or any extra layers to wear while I was hanging around before the race waiting for the start. I was fine once I started running, but it was 30 degrees with a nice crisp wind.
  • Didn’t bring hydration with me. I don’t usually bring hydration, even on long runs; I hate carrying stuff when I run so I make sure I’m well hydrated before I leave my house and then I drink water when I get home. But I definitely would’ve benefitted from carrying a water bottle yesterday. I spent a little extra time at the aid stations drinking water (slowly) and even drank the free Gatorade even though it is sweet and gross and tastes like syrup and makes me more thirsty.

By contrast, the group that organized the run, the HRCA (Highlands Ranch Community Association) was quite efficient and organized and on top of it. This is the 7th BCWHM, and they sign up about 1000 runners (I was number 1089, so probably one of the last to sign up, which I did in early September). Leaving the starting line was pretty casual and easy (they had us sort ourselves into 4 heats, which worked well for me and the rest of the tail-end charlies, anyway, I don’t know how the fast runners felt about it. There were timing mats at the start and the finish and chips in the bibs). The first two miles or so were on road/pavement, but then after that we got into the cow pasture/open space, and by mile 5 it felt like how I imagine “trail runs” (that is, a hiking trail, going through trees and up and down hills and stuff). Race volunteers had gone through a day or so before and put up lots of orange cones with arrows to keep everyone on the correct course, mile markers every mile, yellow cones over gopher holes, hay over the worse mud holes, bright pink ribbon over tree roots half obscured by autumn leaves. There were only 3 aid stations (I could’ve used more, due to my previously mentioned dumbassery), but those stations all had plenty of water, preemptive S&R guys and paramedics, and a fair number of people saying lovely encouraging things. Also I was glad they were still cheering and encouraging people even though at that point they’d been doing so for at least two hours, because of how near the end of the pack I was. (Seriously, if you’ve ever been the person standing on the side of the road clapping and cheering, thank you for that. I don’t usually acknowledge it because I’m concentrating on running, but I hear it and appreciate it.) The only hiccup I saw was that they didn’t order enough portapotties to be at the starting line, with the result that the line was really long and they delayed the start of the race by about 5 minutes to give everyone a chance to get through it. I heard some runners saying they were just going to walk home, pee at home, and come back, because that would be faster than waiting in line.

The people who were running around me were also great. People were running in little clumps and taking turns leading. Someone would step off the path to walk for a bit and I’d pass them, and then we’d trade places when I started walking and they had started running again. I noticed that when I passed people, a lot of them would say (with however much breath they had available at the time), “Good job, go, go, you’re strong,” which was a little weird but also really encouraging. I guess I respond a lot to people saying I’m doing good.

I swung in and out of my “zone,” as it were. There were times when I felt like i was on a regular run, had good energy, was pacing myself, and could run forever. Then I would just as quickly swing back down into “this is hard this is hard why did i do this it’s too hard i am a dumbass.” A lot of this was related to the hills. Much of the first five miles were uphills with some flats or short downhills; then around mile 5 there was a big fucker, then it went back to ups/downs until about mile 9 when there was a REALLY big fucker that me and almost all of the other tail-end charlies that I could see around me walked up. Mile 10-13 was when I finally felt like we were going more down than up. By that time, I was still running because every time I stopped to walk I felt sort of quivery and hollow inside, and the feeling wasn’t as bad when I was running. I tried to listen to my body and walk a little bit even early in the race (because I knew I’d have to walk eventually and didn’t want it all to be the final 4 miles), but still, probably pushed myself a little too hard.

It was so pretty! The leaves here are still turning, so everything was gold and red, and it was a little on the crisp side, but the sun was bright and the sky blue blue blue. When you got to the crest of a hill there were clear views of the mountains (as well as of Denver and all its suburban sprawliness). I also really like when you get to the top of a hill and you can see a lot of people running in front of you. And it was quiet except for the breathing noise of me and my fellow runners.

One of the most hilarious moments was when I was running through a stand of trees around mile 7 and heard a noise from somewhere in front of me. It sounded like Chewbacca, and for a second I was afraid I was going to run up on some kind of rogue moose (there’s moose in Colorado, though I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one coming down from the high country the way the bears and deer do). So I run along, prepared to take evasive action, and I come around the corner of a stand of bushes, and….yep. Totally a dude in a Chewbacca suit, standing on the side of the trail, doing a most excellent Chewbacca roar and high-fiving runners. I saw him later, walking back to his car, still wearing the suit but having taken off the head. He had a Corgi on a leash.

My time for my first half (in May) was 2:33. My time for this one was 2:46. So, lots of room to improve, but also not nearly as bad as I thought it would be, considering my training level and my level of hill preparedness. Post-run lunch was biscuits, gravy, cheesy grits, and beignets from Lucile’s. Then there was a beer and watching of Battlestar Galactica and drinking water  for most of the afternoon. I feel pretty good today, sore in my quads, but not nearly as old-man-staggery as I’ve sometimes been in the past. The times report that I saw this morning said that 870 people finished (out of 1000 or so), 460 females and 410 males. The winning time was 1:17:29 (male) and 1:30:33 (female).

I would really recommend this race for any Colorado runners, especially if you want something smaller but still really well-organized, and with a motivated (though also smaller) crowd to watch. And especially if half marathons are your thing (they don’t have any marathon/5k/etc options, at least not that day. I believe the HRCA puts on other races of other distances, and a mountain bike race). My suffering was all of my own making. I now want to train on some hills and come back next year and truly conquer the course, which I guess is how runners get sucked into continuing to run.

The Border Wall

image

I wrote this in about 2007. It originally appeared in my zine Spandrel #2. It was before the unattended migrant children that came through in the summer of 2014, before the Tea Party halted all useful talk about our immigration system, before the cartels and the murders got really bad. It has since been published in an e-book. Some of the stuff in the essay (like the minimum wage) is out of date.

The drive south is cold and windy, because the heat doesn’t work and because a crash dented the passenger side of the VW bus, and as a result there’s gaps in between the windshield and the frame of the car for the wind to whistle in through. I huddle in a slightly sheltered corner, staring at what I can see of the scrubby Arizona landscape in the light of the bus’s headlights. Jason, driving the VW, tells me about the tunnels that run under the highway we’re driving on—drainage ditches that stretch under four lanes of blacktop. There are probably people down there right now, he says, waiting out the night, hiding from the Border Patrol. It’s cold. A bad night for crossing the border.

Between 1810 and 1850, the Underground Railroad in the American Southeast smuggled between 30,000 and 100,000 slaves to freedom in the American North and Canada. Escaped slaves moved alone or in small groups by night, assisted by a select few who knew the route. They didn’t know the way, had often never seen a map, but they journeyed through hundreds of miles of hostile territory, dodging authorities, bounty hunters, and dogs. They risked dying of hunger and exposure, and all for the smallest chance that they might find freedom at the end of the line. As many as two out of three didn’t make it.

Today in the American Southwest, there is a different kind of Underground Railroad. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America pay money to guides to bring them across the border. Migrants who cross the border have a long walk with a choice between the rock—the mountains—or the hard place—the desert—over which to cross. It’s a five day walk from the border to Tucson, and it’s impossible to carry enough supplies with you to get yourself there.

Jason and I pull into a roadside campsite in Nogales, about 100 yards on the Mexican side of the border, next to a customs station where we’re spending the night. I am introduced to Miguel, the gangster who controls this part of the border. Everything that crosses the border in this town illegally—drugs, guns, tropical birds, people—crosses because of him. He knows the gringos, the federales, the Border Patrol. I imagine that very little happens that he doesn’t know about or doesn’t want to happen.

When I meet him, he is a mild-mannered, quiet-looking Mexicano who is shorter than me, wearing jeans and a coat that look like they came from Wal-Mart. I try to reconcile him in my mind with the Al Capone character that’s been described to me, and I can’t.

Migrants pay coyotes roughly $2,000US to cross the border (or about $20,000 Mexican). Minimum wage in the United States is $5.15 an hour. In Mexico, if a person is making about $10US a day they’re doing pretty good. Most people have help crossing the border from friends and family who are already here.

Migrants pay $2,000 to cross the border. How far into the country they come depends on the coyote and on how much the migrant pays. Migrants aren’t always knowledgeable about US geography, or living in the open, and they don’t have maps. There have been incidents of migrants dropped in Tucson and told they were in Phoenix, or within walking distance of Miami. Unconfirmed reports of migrants dropped in the Mexican desert and told they were in Arizona.

They break limbs jumping off freight trains. They die of exposure, dehydration, or hypothermia. They drink bad water in the desert. They come equipped with nothing but what they can carry and their own considerable determination. They get caught by the Border Patrol and deported, and return and get deported again. And still they come.

There’s an underground network to crossing the border, but unlike the conductors on the Underground Railroad, the coyotes are motivated by money, not by their conscience, and not all of them can be trusted.

It’s a bad night to be crossing the border. I shiver in my sleeping bag and I can’t sleep. Maybe it’s the cold, maybe it’s the coffee I drank before we left Tucson, maybe it’s the floodlights that we’re sleeping under, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m under this cold Mexican sky, with federales on one side and Mexican gangsters on the other, and I’m separated from my home by a fifteen-foot high wall of steel and barbed wire and heavily armed men with Black Hawk helicopters, humvees, and guns.

Before dawn, unable to take the cold anymore, I crawl out of my sleeping bag and pull on my jeans and shoes and coat. Someone has built a fire, and as I hop out of the van, Jason comes over and meets me. Four of the people at the fire—a man, a woman, and two small kids—are part of a larger group who have huddled all night in a nearby ravine, waiting for the signal to try the border. The other four men who have arrived are coyotes who brought the woman and her kids up to get warm. These coyotes, Jason assures me, are some of the good ones.

With all this in mind, I approach the fire. The woman—who is my age or even younger—looks at me for a moment, her eyes dark and exhausted. Her kids look maybe three and five, and are wrapped in a sleeping bag that Jason took off his bunk. We exchange no words. The coyotes ignore my presence completely. They are young men, again perhaps my age, and are engaged in a raucous and enormously funny conversation that I don’t understand because I don’t speak Spanish. One of the coyotes goes out of his way to stand between me and the fire, blocking me from the warmth, moving to the left to block me again when I move to the left to move away from him. I think about saying something, about moving forward so he can’t move sideways without stepping in the fire, but ultimately, I say nothing. You don’t belong here, he’s telling me not so subtly, and I can’t in all confidence say I disagree.

The sky in the east has started to lighten when there’s an invisible signal from somewhere and the woman and her kids leave the fire to make their try for the border. The coyotes at the fire don’t go with them. At the critical point, the border itself, the coyotes don’t go with the immigrants. The woman and her kids will meet another coyote on the other side.

The coyotes hang around until full daylight, when a semi-truck piled high with bales of hay driving past our camp fails to clear a power line. The telephone poles are pulled askew, there is a loud crackling noise, a lot of cursing in English (from me and Jason) and Spanish (from the coyotes), and the truck continues on, leaving the power lines dangling just low enough to snag any car that comes down the road. Jason goes to tell the federales (the wing of Mexican law enforcement that is sort of a combination Border Patrol/FBI) and the coyotes take off. Some policemen come, and someone that looks like an electrician, but they wander around and talk and then drive away, leaving the power lines dangling across the road.

In 1961, East Germany began construction on what was not, they insisted at the time, a wall. Tired of the drain on their economy because of East Germans leaving the Soviet Bloc every day to go to work in higher-paying West Germany, and frustrated by the 2.5 million people who had defected in the sixteen years since the end of World War II, the Wall put an effective halt to travel between the democratic and communist halves of Berlin. Any East Berlin citizen who tried to cross the wall was killed by the East German guards, and in the Wall’s twenty-eight year existence, probably fewer than five thousand souls managed to cross it illegally. The Wall was guarded with booby traps, armed guards, watchtowers, anti-tank tetrahedrons, and self-firing guns to keep people on the Communist side. Far from being the idyllic system of government that the Communists claimed, it turned out that they had to forcibly contain their citizens to prevent them from fleeing. When the Wall came down in 1989, symbolically reuniting Berlin, it was seen as a victory for freedom and democracy, and one of the final blows to the Soviet system.

Also in the 1960s, when the Berlin Wall was going up, American soldiers were fighting Communism in the backwater jungles of Indochina. Fighting to keep Korea and Vietnam from falling into the control of guerilla fighters, the Americans strafed the jungle and tore it down to build army bases and camps. After clearing land for airstrips, however, the ground was still too soft for planes to land, so the jungle was paved with corrugated iron sheets that could be picked up and moved to wherever the planes needed to land.

In 1975, when the American presence in Vietnam ended, one of the things that the Americans packed up and took with them was their iron landing strips. Ten years later, after the victory of democracy in the West and the end of the Cold War, the United States decided to build a wall of their own in an effort to stem the economic stress that immigration puts on rich countries when people flee from their poor country. To build it, they brought the sheets of iron they’d used to try and defend democracy in VIetnam and divided the sky with them, then lined it with barbed wire and armed guards. The Border Patrol uses the same unmanned aerial vehicles, motion sensors, infrared detectors, radar, and wireless communication systems that the US Army is using in Iraq. The fence cut towns in half and separated families. Whether they have actually decreased illegal immigration—as the Berlin Wall succeeded in doing—is another question entirely.

There was a time not so long ago, Jason tells me, when the “wall” was just an eight-foot-high chain link fence. People crossed to go to work in the morning, then went back to their homes at night. Illegal immigration was common, but few people stayed in the United States for long periods. People played volleyball games using the fence as a net. Then the wall went up, fourteen feet of steel and barbed wire. It pushed migrants trying to cross the border into rural areas (and increased mortality rates drastically) and forced them to stay in the U.S. for longer periods, since crossing the border is more dangerous and more expensive than it used to be.

The wall is peppered with graffiti and murals trying to give border crossers a taste of what they’re in for. There is one portrait of a migrant worker on his knees, about to be shot by a man looming over him with a gun. The caption says “Arizona.” A dollar sign with wings. La frontera es grande porque estamos en sus rodillas (The border is big because we are on our knees). Deporte la migra (Deport the Border Patrol). Si yankee es un terrorista.

Jason and I leave the roadside camp in early morning to go get breakfast supplies for the deportees who will be arriving soon, driving along a road that runs parallel to the border. On our way into town, we also pass a cemetery, which is a riot of color and flowers and decoration. Ribbons are laced through the fences around the family plots. There are silver pinwheels several feet across spinning over tombstones. Mexicans apparently take good care of their dead, and though this is utterly unlike any American graveyard I’ve seen outside of New Orleans, the colorful graveyard somehow makes me feel less like a foreigner.

Deportees are dropped off just this side of the border, usually thirty or forty at a time, regardless of where in Mexico they’re actually from (and, sometimes, regardless of whether they’re from Mexico at all). They carry everything they own with them and shuffle flatfooted because the Border Patrol takes everyone’s shoelaces (and does what with them?). We give them food, which is far from fancy—tortillas and beans, or Wonder Bread and baloney—but the deportees take it anyway. Jason and another volunteer named Ramón have medical training, and they circulate amongst migrants who have been hard hit by the desert or have gotten hurt along the way. I hand out sandwiches for a little while, and then circulate among the crowd, explaining in my broken Spanish that I have sheets with the addresses of shelters in the area for folks who have nowhere to sleep tonight and small, wallet-sized card with the phone number of the Mexican consulate and an explanation of the rights people have in the United States, be they natives, citizens, immigrants, or deportees. A few take the shelter lists, but everyone wants the consulate cards. Everybody wants to know their rights. I hand them out as fast as I can, trying to explain what they are and practicing my one decent Spanish phrase: “Mi español está muy mal. Lo siento.”

They don’t say much to me. They’re tired, it’s obvious that I don’t speak much Spanish, and I can’t imagine that their experience with the American Border Patrol has left them with much energy or motivation for trying to make new friends with the random American chick who’s greeting them. They rest for awhile, eating and talking and drinking hot coffee, and then they gather their bags to go, raising their hands in farewell. Adios. They walk south into Mexico. Jason tells me that most will cross the border again; he knows one man who has been deported eight times now. If you’re from one of the southern Mexican states, it’s easier to try the border again than it is to try and get home.

One of the volunteers at the camp—a Mexican who was deported and stayed here, at least so far—takes a break between busloads and crouches on his heels some distance away and smokes a cigarette. He sits on top of a small rise, his back to me, staring out at the fence, the Border Patrol, and the scrubby hills of los Estados Unidos. I ask him, later, if he wants to go back to the United States, and a smile flashes across his face. “Sí.”

In this rhythm, the morning passes, waves of deportees and border crossers interspersed with periods when there’s no one at camp but the volunteers. Jason tells us about the history of this camp and what they’re trying to do, and shares stories of border crossers he’s met. We talk about New Orleans and Louisiana and the loss of the coastal wetlands on the Gulf Coast. We tease Ramón about secretly being a woman. We watch the federales chase a man who left his car and whatever illegal item was inside of it and make a run for it—back into Mexico, oddly, not out of it. One of the volunteers shakes his head on hearing that the man fled south. “If he ran into México, he not going to make it,” he says matter-of-factly. “He a goner.”

We spend the morning there, and then it’s time to go, to get in line at la frontera and be interviewed by the Border Patrol. Much to Jason’s surprise (and mine too, given the hippie van we’re in) we are not searched, and thanks to the federales’ willingness to take bribes and let cars cut in line, we get through the border in less than an hour. And then we’re back in the States, which of course looks exactly like Mexico until we’re about five miles over the border and we come upon a Holiday Inn and a Conoco station that’s filled with white people who look like they want to visit Mexico but don’t want to stay overnight there. Something in my head relaxes, because now I’m back on my side of the wall, and even though this side really isn’t any less dangerous than that one, simply by virtue of language and long habit I feel more able to cope with this side. I don’t know if it’s like this for the migrants, if, in spite of their determination and obstinacy and their persistence in getting on our side of the wall, they don’t feel a tiny sigh of relief when they find themselves back on their side of it.

H2O Go

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I originally wrote this in like 2006. It was published in one of my Spandrel zines, but I decided not to include it in my e-book, so I’m posting it here for posterity’s sake.

1. Water is the only substance that naturally exists is gas, liquid, and solid form outside of a laboratory setting.

2. The adult human body is about 70% water. This is roughly the same percentage of the planet Earth that is covered in water.

3. 97% of the Earth’s water is oceanic. 2.4% is locked in glaciers and ice caps. Less than 0.6% of water is found in bodies of land (i.e., rivers, lakes, streams)

4. Water is found on meteors. It has also been detected on five of the eight planets in our solar system, as well as one of Saturn’s moons and several of Jupiter’s.

5. Given the right conditions, water can flow uphill. Water molecules adhere to each other via a hydrogen bond (this is why water has such strong surface tension and tends to stick together when it’s, say, running down your windshield in a rainstorm), and because it is a polar molecule. In plants, water is constantly evaporating out of the leaves. The evaporation of one water molecule pulls another to the surface, and so on and so on, so that water from the roots flows uphill via capillary action.

6. Given enough time, water can dissolve anything.

7. Water moderates the Earth’s climate. It can absorb large amounts of heat.

8. Water becomes less dense and expands upon freezing. This is why melting ice does not raise the water level in a glass.

9. Water is a byproduct of a forming star.

10. Ice and snow can sublimate directly into water vapor before melting into liquid first.

11. Blood is, in fact, thicker than water. But if you get dehydrated, your blood gets thicker, which is generally considered a bad thing.

I like water.

Bikes are Love. Hills are Death.

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I originally wrote this piece for a zine I put together in 2006 or so. These days, I actually really want a car, mostly because I’m job searching and in my city, the geographic considerations of how to get from Point A to Point B without a car and without having to take more than two buses is getting aggravating. But I’m going through my old stuff and feel kinda sad that so much stuff is just gathering figurative dust on my hard drive.

Oh, and I have a new bike. (Well, relatively new.) A steel Masi CX. It is much much nicer to ride than my old Mongoose. Although, I rode that Mongoose for more than eight years and never did get a flat, and the Masi gets flats ALL THE DAMN TIME because it is a sissy.

I used to have a car. I gave it away, to some friends of mine who were moving to a commune in Missouri and had no way to get there. After two years of paying $200 every six months to repair whatever new thing had broken, $400 every six months for insurance, $60 a month for gas and the odd $40 traffic ticket, I was broke. I didn’t have any money left for it. People say all the time that they can’t get afford to get rid of their car; I couldn’t afford to keep mine. My friends seemed shocked by my generosity, but really, I was just worried that I was passing my money trouble along to them.

So now I ride my bike everywhere. My bike is a purple Mongoose that I’ve had since middle school. I talked my parents into giving the bike new tires and a tuneup for my birthday (I’ve received the same bike for my birthday twice now), and now I roll along on the most energy-efficient machine mankind has ever devised. (Incidentally, I don’t know what kind of ridiculous armor-plated tires the bike shop gave me, but three years on I’m still waiting for my first flat.)

One day I was trying to figure out how to save some money so I could continue to live in the style to which I have become accustomed (which generally means eating every day or so), and I realized I’m a full-blown bike kid, checking out what other people ride, casting longing glances at the cute bike messengers that hang out on 17th and California, and generally hatin’ on cars, traffic, pot holes, and going uphill. I think of myself sitting in my old car—which was a Nissan Sentra—and all the space it took up, the thousand-plus pounds it weighed, just to get my relatively small ass to the grocery and back, and I wonder, how did I not feel absurd every time I drove that thing?

I loved my car when I had it, and I still harbor a certain affection that no human should ever hold for a machine. It got me where I needed to go to the best of its ability; and if the clutch pedal broke off once and the car stalled out a few times, at least it did it a block away from my house, and not while I was cruising down the highway. But the damn thing just cost too much money for me to love it like it deserved. Now I have my bike, which is a little heavier than I’d like (nobody’s perfect), but I’m way more fond of it than I was of my car. You want to borrow my car? No problem. Here’s the keys. Don’t crash. You want to borrow my bike? Not a chance. It’s mine. You might hurt it.

I like that I can’t do as much in a day with my bike. Actually, I can probably get about the same amount done, but I’m way less stressed because I don’t have illusions about how much I can get done. I like knowing what my neighborhood looks like. I like being able to smell the air and feel the breeze (by the way, you in cars have no idea how bad smog smells. Ew.) Going fast on a bike is so much more fun than fast in a car. I like having stronger legs, stronger lungs. I get to make fun of dorks in Spandex. I get to go faster than cars stuck in gridlock.

And riding my bike is just fun. Except for those first two weeks every year when my lungs are going to explode and my legs are turning to rubber and I think I just might be sick to my stomach if my heart rate doesn’t go down to something approaching normal, then it’s great. And after I bought long underwear for biking to work in 20-degree weather, it’s even better. Now I’ve memorized every available bike lane, and my brain possesses a fairly accurate topographical map of the city which helps me avoid hills (which are death). And I snicker at the indentured servants of Exxon-Mobil, waiting around to pay $3.50 a gallon so they can sit in gridlock every day.