Posted May 18, 2020, 9:13 a.m.
Especially for TucsonSentinel.com
This weekend I reached 1,000 miles on my bike since the lockdown began without leaving Tucson. After 500 miles, I named the bike Rocinante after the faithful horse Don Quixote de la Mancha, for no other reason that I found amusing. Then it occurred to me that the real reason was that I wanted to occupy that place between fantasy and idealism, a place where I would take myself a little less seriously. Maybe here, or that’s the reason, I can get optimism and confidence that a pandemic can indeed deliver something new. Like many others, everything was canceled for me in March. I will tour the second book for “Empire of Borders,” an investigative journalism book that addresses the expansion of US borders around the world. I lost the program at the library, at the university, at the conference. The loss of the engagement at a crucial time or not a new book has become a painful vacuum. But the cancellation that made me most sad was the two-night train trip that I would take with William, my four-year-old son, to Portland in early April. I am happy to show him that there are many ways to travel besides flying. I don’t really care about her potential, at times, the tribulation of nobility in the ass. To excite William about our trip, I convey memorable moments from bus trips and other trains of my past, from Buffalo to Guadalajara, from Managua to Tucson, from Tucson to New York City. I told him about when I woke up on a Greyhound bus wrapped in Redwoods in Northern California. The bus left Oakland the night before a trip to Coos Bay, Oregon. When I opened my eyes, I saw giant trees entwined into the dawn fog through the window. It feels like I woke up in a great work of art, its beauty and splendor is so amazing. And that’s not all. Maybe it was only morning, dream state, or the fact that I had been on the bus since Buffalo, but that was their face. It was not a human face, but a wrinkled face and wisdom on the trunk that humbled me, as if I only knew a small part of what was happening, and I was only a fraction of something much bigger. I have waited years for this trip with William. My hope is almost Quixotic. I want it to be a pilgrimage, in the most traditional sense, where we enter one path and leave another. I took a loud cancellation.
A thousand miles on a bicycle – the equivalent of going from Tucson to LA and back – of course starts with mourning and melancholy caused by a pandemic, but there is also something more to it. It becomes a pilgrimage in itself. Maybe by not being able to travel at all, I can learn to travel again. Which brings me to the eagle. When the eagle first landed, I thought it might be a dove, a morning dove, a sparrow, a sparrow, a curved beak thief. Then I looked up. It was around 5:45 in the middle of April, there was a dreamy dawn sky and the birds had begun their song. I just turned off the radio which only has news about the plague. I am hungry for new perspectives, new thoughts, new perspectives. And I looked up and saw that the bird that landed was an eagle. I first thought of identifying an eagle – Cooper, maybe? – but his curious, gentle and beautiful face overwhelmed me for a moment before turning into more concentrated. Then it descends to the ground into bushes and after pigeons, though I’m not sure, because I only hear the commotion. I have seen eagles flying around the environment, but no one had ever landed so close, so early, as if in a dream. I have noticed that through a pandemic, I have learned to listen in various ways. I have tried to listen to what the virus says and, furthermore, what death says. But I also tried listening to William’s face when he wondered why he couldn’t take the train or play with his friends. To listen not only to people’s words, but also gestures, faces, tone of voice, and other layers of language, especially since so many wear masks. And to listen to protests against the lockdown, but not the level of the spectacle surface of weapons and flags waving the frenzy associated with Donald Trump, even though it can be funny or scary depending on the mood. I have tried listening to pain, not from a “divided state” but from a deeper dissatisfaction. In one photo of one of the protests in Phoenix, I focused on a man with a sign that said “I want my job back.” I didn’t know anything about him, but he didn’t fly the flag, showed off his gun, pointed at the camera, no Trump photos, just him and simple signs and messages. Viruses, if you listen, expose everything, and reveal the complex intersections of painful needs in this country and the world. Wearing masks in almost all public events, I have thought a little about what the Zapatistas said: we wore masks, they said, to be seen. If you listen, in all those tragedies, the virus also carries a poem.
So I wondered, what did the eagle say? I was reluctant, but I did a Google search on “eagle” and “meaning.” It felt rather cheap at first, like I was looking for some kind of Internet answer that was definitely inadequate or unsatisfactory. And even though that’s all, I like the answer. I learned that eagles are seen as messengers from the spiritual world. If you see it, it asks you to use “higher intuition and wisdom.” The universe, said another page, wants you to expand your “knowledge and wisdom”. I turned off the computer, that’s enough for now. Like most, I just left home for months. But when I did that I cycled in places that I never knew existed in the city where I lived. I rode along the banks of the Santa Cruz and Rillito rivers from south to north and to my surprise found a grocery store that only I knew how to go by car. And that’s just the beginning. I had gone south to Valencia Road, and then had no desire to stop and end up in an empty parking lot on the San Xavier mission at Tohono O’odham Nation. That day, if I was honest, I could keep going. I can bike to Mexico. One day I followed the path to the vast southeastern part of Tucson where suddenly there were rattlesnakes bathing in the sunlight that I missed. I stopped, turned, and watched the snake for a moment move its beautiful twist across the road with a kind of graceful and floating concentration. In the words of the Irish poet John O’Donahue, “Indeed, there are often whispers and flashes of beauty that allow people to survive on the borders of despair.” A few days after the eagle landed in my backyard, I sailed on the Santa Cruz Cycle Path. My one and a half year old Sofia was behind me in a blue chair, and William was on a pillow on a hooptie. We all saw the eagle fly next to us at the same time. It flew into the sky, then flew along our sides, parallel, as I peddled faster and faster creating a sensation that we were also uplifted, that we too began to soar. I wish the eagle flew but this continued, so I wondered if the eagle really accompanied us for the shining moment? For it also feels like our heavy orange semi-delusional bicycle has wings, as we pass through mesquites, cactus barrels, and palo verde trees illuminated by yellow flowers. We all started shouting with ridiculous and absurd excitement. Sofia pointed at the sky with her index finger. William shouted that it was with us! Fly with us! Eagle will come with us! He screamed so loudly and with such happiness that a woman in the street in front of us turned around and gave us a big smile. Then he looked at the big blue sky and saw the eagle fly with us and smile again. I don’t know what else to say about this, but for a moment we became one with the eagle. It doesn’t matter that we really don’t. Physiologically we fly. However fast, we have wings, we have claws, we soar, until the eagle curves and disappears into another layer of sky. Maybe I was where I wanted to be by naming my motorcycle Rocinante to begin with – between fantasy and idealism, hardly taking myself seriously. Maybe this is the pilgrimage I want with my children, to take the train with William. Maybe that was the way I handled the pandemic and thus was unknown (and hence death), only to find that all these horrors were also full of life. This is also a gift from a virus, if I can only make myself listen. As we entered the intersection, my perspective had formed wings and claws. And now informed by many couriers.
Todd Miller has been researching and writing on border issues for more than 15 years, the last eight years as an independent journalist and writer. He lives in Tucson, but also spent years living and working in Oaxaca, Mexico. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Tom Dispatch, The Nation, the San Francisco Chronicle, In This Times, Guernica, and Al Jazeera England, among other places. Fillers have written three books: Empire of Borders: Expansion of the US Border Around the World (Verso, 2019), Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (City Lights, 2017), and Border Patrol Nation: Shipments from the Line Ahead of Homeland Security (City Lights, 2014).
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