Migration stories from HCN readers

We asked our readers for their favorite migration stories. These three stories were printed in the magazine and sent an Osprey Transporter 65 Technical Expedition Duffel bag

  1. Coyotes and concepts
  2. Grullas
  3. Migration and My Accidental Ancestry

 Thank you to Osprey Packs for their sponsorship!

Read all the migration stories here:

Coyotes and Concepts

By Frank Sturges

The coyote moved at a trot. Constantly checking her surroundings, she glanced over her shoulder and continued across the road, darted under a fence, and disappeared. 

Across the West, similar scenes play out regularly. The sight of a coyote seems mundane to many — perhaps brings excitement to travelers from back east, or rouses disdain among those who vilify this and other predators.

Yet this particular coyote caught my eye. Not for anything she did, but for the road she happened to cross. Halstead Street. In Lincoln Park. In Chicago. 

Our own route had started back in Boulder, Colorado. We were on the road as traveling trainers for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, talking about backcountry ethics, recreational impacts and protecting the places where people play. We were in a permanent state of motion and migration, camping or crashing on couches, always moving on to the next event, the next talk, the next adventure. 

On that particular stretch, we had traveled from Colorado into the Dakotas to talk about minimizing impacts at Minot Air Force Base (home to nukes), ventured into the Boundary Waters of Minnesota (an inspiration for the Wilderness Act), and eventually arrived in the urban heart of the Great Lakes. 

That coyote we saw, or rather her ancestors, might have travelled a similar arc from the mountains through the plains to the city, through public lands and toxic threats and human impacts. 

Our own migration was moving west to east. Reverse homesteaders, spreading an idea: the idea that your personal choices, your personal ethic, matter when it comes to protecting the environment. 

It’s hard to make an idea migrate. But that was our goal, telling people that a single choice you make as an individual still means something despite staggering climate and land-use changes — adapting a concept born in Western wilderness to resonate with people who might never climb a fourteener or land a cutthroat trout or carry bear spray. 

Migration is about crossing lines. But those lines have blurred, faded and disappeared. The frontier closed well over a century ago. The wildland-urban interface is an intermingling of worlds, the place where wildfire can transform from friend to foe. And technology obliterates urban-rural divides. 

We should be more like that coyote. As divisions melt away, we must encourage ideas to migrate. Our wilderness ethics must become our everyday lives. Our frontier myths must meet our modern realities. It’s time to check over our shoulders, think about all we know and have learned, and move on to what’s next.

—Frank Sturges, Boulder, Colorado, and Chicago, Illinois


By Leeanna Torres

Each year, the grullas arrive by the hundreds, settling over the valley’s farm fields, seeking shelter on vegetated islands of the Rio Grande. But the year my boy was born, I missed their lone, throaty calls, sitting instead inside dark rooms, trying to bond with a new life brought into the world. 

Santiago was born on a Friday; after 17 hours, they had to cut him out of me, my petite frame too small for his entrance into this world. 

My migration into motherhood was not an easy one. 

The year my boy was born I was not a witness to the grullas’ autumn arrival. Instead, I was confined indoors, and my newborn and I fought with one another. He cried for milk; I lacked sleep. He struggled to gain weight; I struggled to hum a song soft enough to soothe him. Autumn waned, shadows of the grullas seen from my window as they fed in the terrenos nearby. 

The grullas did not notice my slip into depression. No, this migration into motherhood was not easy. 

Cranes are members of the family Gruidae, long-legged, long-necked birds, consistent and familiar visitors to this valley, wintering in my father’s fields since I was a child. 

The fall I migrated from “biologist” to “mother,” the grullas arrived as always, but my relationship to this place had changed, priorities had shifted. My boy and I struggled to know one another. 

In November, two months after the birth, I as driving down Highway 47. There, in her roadside yard, bundled-up with beanies and coats, I witnessed as Leah Berry twirled her infant daughter, outside, child and mother in a joyous and generous ballet. Am I seeing things? Is this real? I slowed the car, did a double-take. Leah twirled her baby in her arms, a winter afternoon, lovingly confident, strangely stunning. And at their back were the grullas, gray-coated cranes feeding in the field beside the house.. I thought: Will I ever reach a similar place of acceptance? Will the grullas’ presence ever calm me into such a motherly stance? 

The migration into motherhood is not easy for some of us — an unspoken truth. But the grullas return, always, a constant, a reminder, as calm and consistent as love itself, from fall to early spring, feeding in fields we pass again and again, unknowingly, even unwillingly, until at last it’s migration time once again.

Leeanna Torres, Tomé, New Mexico

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Migration and My Accidental Ancestry 

By Keith Evans

Modern interest in personal ancestry rarely investigates the reasons behind this ancestry. As I look back at the circumstances surrounding my ancestry, it has become clear that fate played a bigger role than “relationships made in heaven.” The migration of many early Americans did not always go as planned, and so traveling families were placed in “accidental” locations and set the foundation for many ancestral lineages.

The Evans family was located in Missouri until the Civil War, when some of the family joined Quantrill’s Raiders to plunder and murder Jayhawks across the border in Kansas. Thus, when the war was over, some of my ancestors were run out of Missouri. My great-great-grandfather migrated west to Pueblo, Colorado, and became a Pueblo County employee.

 When my great-grandmother was a teenager, her family traveled by covered wagon, pulled by oxen, westward across the Great Plains. When they reached Pueblo, an early snowstorm had closed the mountain pass, and their plans to migrate to California were changed. They had to do something to survive the winter in Colorado, so they opened a restaurant. By the time of the spring snowmelt, the restaurant was thriving, and many of the people returning from the California gold mines were talking about their terrible experiences. This is how the stage was set for me to be a Coloradoan instead of a Missourian or Californian — more like “fate of circumstances” than carefully planned destiny. 

I believe that many family lines are determined by fate or accident. Circumstances set the stage for my grandfather and grandmother to meet in an “accidental” restaurant, as neither branch of my family planned to settle in Pueblo. 

Growing up, I benefited from the stories of migrating by covered wagon from Kansas City to Pueblo. My great-grandmother said she rarely rode in the wagon; rather, she virtually walked across the Great Plains. She told stories of trading oxen milk for water at the few ranches they encountered. She delighted in the “little bird with the yellow breast” that sang “hotter than hell today” as the wagons passed. I can still hear those “words” in the song of the Western meadowlark. 

As I look through my genealogy at names like Kremsbow, Brainard, McGiven, Kenton, Hammond and Evans, I am proud that this particular migration became part of the great American “melting pot.”

Keith Evans, Pueblo, Colorado

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It was too late

By Brian Satterwhite

I sat on the tailgate of my truck, drinking my third cup of coffee. It was January in Ajo, Arizona, and it was hot out. My bare-feet were hanging down, and I thought, "What I am doing back in Ajo?" It's a former mining town that's 30 miles from la frontera of Mexico and the United States. 

I first came to Ajo in July 2017. I was a volunteer with No Mas Muertes, a humanitarian aid organization that offers water and medical attention to migrants who are attempting to cross into the United States. This January afternoon, I went back to Bandeja Well. It's an old windmill powered cattle watering tank, 10 miles from town. 

The cattle tank looked the same. I remembered climbing out of our truck with the other field workers from No Mas Muertes the summer before. A few of us went to the windmill and climbed the ladder up. The metal rungs had been almost too hot to hold, but from the top the purple desert was endless. 

Operating under the credo "Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime," we loaded gallon jugs of water in our backpacks to go on our final water drop of the day. We leave water caches in hopes that migrants find them, wondering if they do. We had returned and already started our old pickup, when we saw a man lying under the water spigot of the cattle tank. He hadn't been there when we left. 

He was shirtless, barefoot, and his skin was charred. We ran over to him, yelling, "Amigo, amigo, amigo!" Nothing. I touched his face. He was dead. I asked another volunteer if he wanted a hug, because I needed the embrace. It was over. 

This migrant's Mexican ID lay on the concrete wall of the cattle tank, left there for us to find. He was a year older than I am, 29. His fellow migrants had dragged him there in hopes we would find him. But it was too late. 

We agreed to wait for the sheriff's office to take custody of the remains. After night fell, a volunteer offered to say a prayer. Some stood and some knelt next to the man’s remains as the Lord's Prayer was recited in Spanish and English. 

The next day, we went into the desert hoping for a different outcome. The desert didn't grant us that.

Brian Satterwhite, Bandeja Well and Ajo, Arizona

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The Peripatetic Pelicans

By Troy Davis

When it comes to wildlife migration, the state of Utah is paying attention. The biologists of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, along with academic and nonprofit partners, track animal movements on a statewide basis. Other states are investing in the same knowledge, but Utah’s ambitious plan is to be inclusive: to track a wide variety of species and make that information easier to see than ever. 

The long-distance movements of elk and deer are often famous. The activities of other animals, like the stream-bound wanderings of fish, are more modest. But other species put the well-known travels of long-legged ungulates to shame. Case in point: Meet the American white pelican. These stately birds use their 10-foot wingspans to carry them far and wide from where they were banded, on the tiny isle of Gunnison in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. 

In the past, scientists kept track of the far-away pelican sightings (in 10 different states, including Texas, California and Iowa) with pushpins on topographic maps and in spreadsheets. New technology, both in terms of web-based mapping applications and the small, lightweight “backpacks” worn by the birds, has resulted in the Division of Wildlife Resources’ “Pelitrack” website. The website receives a constant flow of data from the birds and translates that information into a colorful, dynamic map. 

Now the real-time locations of birds are available to anyone, at any time. Point your browser here and you can see that, in July of 2018, for instance, the pelicans christened Iris and Winona were hanging on Mexico’s western coast, while Pedro made the jump westward to Baja California. Meanwhile, Bianca, after spending some time in Guadalajara near Xena, made her way back to a reservoir near Las Animas, Colorado. The paths of the perhaps less-adventurous birds show that they explored nearby Idaho and found the reservoirs of western Nevada. 

This real-time information — and the unprecedented, unrestricted online access to it — is inspiring children and adults alike. The reception been largely positive, and at least one school has decided to stream the Pelitrack site in its library, for the students to consult when they’re curious about the current status of their favorite bird. We at the Division of Wildlife Resources hope that the adventures of these pelicans will provide stories for years to come.

Troy Davis, Utah and beyond

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Migrating, then and now

By Jane Shafroth

I caught my first view of the Colorado mountains while waking up on a train from Chicago in 1976. I moved from England to Colorado the following summer to attend the University of Colorado, and 41 years, two children and 40 years of marriage later I am still here, still loving the mountains that I first saw on John Denver specials on the BBC. My children are fifth-generation Colorado natives. I have become a good skier, hiked several fourteeners and rafted the Grand Canyon. I lived for a year away from the state on a sailboat on the Atlantic Coast and in the Bahamas, and a year back in England, but I am always drawn back to blue skies, mountain lakes, majestic mountains, snow-covered peaks and rushing streams.

In order to emigrate, I had to prove that I was not a criminal or a Communist (yes, that was actually a thing in those days), did not have tuberculosis or a venereal disease. This entailed way too many trips to the U.S. Embassy in London. But it was easy, compared to the journey current migrants are undergoing. I was white, educated, engaged to a man from a family who had lived in Colorado for generations, a man whose great-grandfather had been a congressman, senator and then governor of the state. Who is to say that those credentials are any more deserving than someone who is fleeing poverty, war, marauding gangs or climate change — or simply wishing for a better life for themselves and their family?

I could afford to fly into this country and to travel to the London embassy multiple times, but many immigrants today do not those advantages. I admire the courage it must take to hit the road, to flee their situation and head out to find a better life. Yet we reward them by putting them in jail and taking their children from them. I look back on how impatient I felt with my migration experience, and I realize now how insignificant it was.

Now I live in a tourist town whose hospitality and service industry relies heavily on migrant employees. They are hard workers and entrepreneurs; one local Walmart employee from Africa works two other jobs to send money to the needy family he left behind, and he also saves money to visit them once a year. These are not criminals, rapists or gang members. Lately I have wondered if I still want to live in a country that has become so unwelcoming to those in need, one that can elect a president who appears to be governing for only 1 percent of the population.

Then I look out of my window and see a mountain with just a trace of the snow that is normally left in July, streams that are not flowing the way that they used to, a lake whose level is going down daily so that lawns can be watered in a city. There are a lot of issues to deal with right here in the beautiful land t I call home. I am proud of the way my state and my congressman, who is now running for governor, care about public lands. But there is a lot of work to be done to save our Western way of life, so that future migrants can share the life I have come to love in my adopted home.

Jane Shafroth, Colorado

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A long walk to work

By Tom Taylor, Martinez

In 1976, I met an illegal migrant who had taken a job in Martinez Canyon in central Arizona, where a lead and silver mine had been reactivated. He came to the job by way of communication with a coworker who was also employed in the mine. The mine was located in the Mineral Mountains, about midway between Superior and Florence, Arizona. Manuel Delgado had walked all the way from the Mexican border. He described his travels — walking at night, sleeping and seeking shade in the day, traveling with just a few tortillas, a water jug and the clothes on his back. Manuel was unique in my view; though he had "mestizo" ways, speaking Spanish and with a haircut, he was a full-blooded Tarahumara Indian from Chihuahua's Barranca del Cobre, or Copper Canyon. Somehow, he had ventured into the wage culture from his own Tarahumara culture. Manuel was not new to illegal migration — he had crossed the border and worked multiple times prior in the U.S. — but his method of arrival was always the same: He walked the entire way to work in Arizona. When I met Manuel in 1976, he was in his mid-50s, but he was still pounding those feet, long distance, on earth!

Tom Taylor, Martinez Canyon, Pinal county, Arizona

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By Leeanna Torres

Carved in soft detail, the wood of the retablo depicts St. Joseph and Jesus this way: Joseph sports a dark moustache and beard, while a 10-year-old Jesus is wide-eyed and smiling. The two of them — middle-aged father and enthusiastic sonc— are depicted as New Mexican men “cruising,” the window of their blue pickup truck rolled down. Despite their solemn divinity, the two are depicted as ordinary people, happy people. 

This retablo hangs on the wall of a Santa Fe coffee shop, a detailed carving, an image in wood. 

Retablo derives from the Latin word retrotabulum, for “behind the table or altar.” Retablos of Hispanic New Mexico evolved into a portable altarpieces for missionaries journeying far from home. Today, they continue to evolve. 

In this coffee shop on Santa Fe’s Galisteo Street, the Divine is depicted cruising, a softer piece of art than the bloodied and sad-faced Jesus most often seen in this famous art town. 

I look around the coffee shop and notice I am the only brown person in sight. I sip coffee from a porcelain cup, trying to imagine this place before it was a city, before cultures, history, art, and money made it into what it is today. 

What would my Nana think of this retablo? St. Joseph & Son eases into a softness rarely depicted, carved into a modern-day image. Does this retablo speak to the holy, or does it disregard it? Is a retablo simply a form of “depiction,” or is it an invitation to what is santa, what is holy? 

Here in this coffee shop, I migrate from thought into humor, from reflections on race and art, to culture and place. St. Joseph and his Son are depicted in a retablo, light-hearted, soft. I migrate from sentiment into something more obscure. This retablo invites migration — migration into a softer santa

Just up the street is a high-end clutter of internationally known fine-art galleries, with names that are wonderful Southwest clichés — Adobe, Dark Bird, Sage. In this town — between coffee, retablos and art too expensive for me to own — I migrate into a different kind of belief. 

My West is an amalgam of tradition and beliefs, a blending of the inviolable old and acceptable new. The retablos of New Mexico prove that there is still room for optimism. They are maps through our ever-changing West, a place big and wild enough for cruising Saints.

Leeanna Torres, New Mexico

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