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‘No more deaths’: A victory for ‘trail angels’ and migrants

A sparkling refraction caught my eye one steamy, summer afternoon several years ago, when my son Tom and I were hiking Vermont’s 273-mile Long Trail from Massachusetts to Canada.

Submerged in a chilly, mountain stream, a six-pack of soda glinted tantalizingly. A note propped on the mossy bank: “Help yourself.”

“Trail magic!” I exclaimed, reaching for a can.

Such gifts from “trail angels,” dropped off anonymously as goodwill gestures, have been a longstanding tradition in backpacking communities. These welcome offerings provide much more than refreshment; they restore faith in human kindness.

I thought about that can of soda last week when I read about a federal court decision overturning the convictions of four women who left jugs of water and cans of beans in an Arizona desert as part of a humanitarian relief program for migrants.

Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick, all affiliated with the No More Deaths ministry of Tucson’s Unitarian Universalist Church, had appealed last year’s guilty verdict on charges of entering a federally controlled refuge without a permit and abandoning property. Hoffman also had been charged with operating a motor vehicle on a restricted access road, in the 803,000-acre Cabeza Prieta Wilderness near the U.S.-Mexican border.

Migrants often perish of dehydration and heat exhaustion while attempting to cross this scorched terrain in the Sonoran Desert; in 2017, the year the aid workers were arrested, 32 sets of human remains were found on the refuge, USA Today reported.

The four women had faced up to six months in prison and $500 fines for their “crimes.”

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Márquez called the aid workers’ actions “exercises of their sincere religious beliefs,” adding that the government “failed to demonstrate that application of the regulations against Defendants is the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling interest.”

Good for the judge, and shame on law-enforcement authorities for making the arrests and trying the case in the first place.

Let’s for a moment ignore the emotionally charged issue of border crossings, legal or otherwise, and consider the message our government conveyed in cracking down on the volunteers: We’d rather let people die of thirst — even those who may be breaking the law — than allow them to set foot in our country, and punish anyone coming to their aid.

This is a far cry from Emma Lazarus’s inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The church group hailed last week’s court ruling and vowed to continue its mission.

“The reversal of convictions is a victory for all people of conscience and righteousness who seek to end the death and suffering in the borderlands,” member Alicia Dinsmore told USA Today. “People continue to die every day on Cabeza Prieta and we will continue to act on our moral imperative to do this vital work.”

To be sure, the moral imperative to assist refugees fleeing brutality and poverty is considerably more compelling than helping out a couple of backpackers.

Indeed, the concept of “trail magic” is largely foreign to those who haven’t spent much time backpacking, as Derick Lugo points out in his new, enormously entertaining book, “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker.”

Lugo, a young black man who, before setting out on a 2,184-mile backpacking trek from Georgia to Maine, had been a standup comic in New York, was mystified and suspicious when he first encountered free food.

“Why would someone leave treats on the side of the trail? I’m bewildered as I stare down at an apple pie with a note that says, Take a piece. You deserve it … you’re a thru-hiker. If I ever came across a baked good on a sidewalk before thru-hiking the AT, I would simply stroll right past it, assuming it was trash. To be clear, I do believe most humans are good and are capable of kindness, but for someone who doesn’t even know me to suddenly give me a gift? Surely there’s a catch,” he writes.

Nope, no catch, other than the implied instruction: Pay it forward.

Tom and I wouldn’t have collapsed without those cans of soda; we carried ample food and water, and every day or so came to a road crossing from which we were easily able to walk or hitchhike to a grocery store.

And unlike refugees fleeing their homeland, if we grew too weary we could easily have hitched a ride, hopped on a bus or called home for a lift. Still, it was satisfying to gulp a cold beverage on a hot day.

The world could use a few more trail angels — in the mountains and along the border.

 

 

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