[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Extreme Simplicity,” and other books. He leads survival skills and ethnobotany field trips. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]
In October of 2018, news reports tell us that a large group of people from Guatemala are fleeing from their country worried about the violence that may befall them if they stay there. They have moved north and passed through the border of Mexico, their large numbers overwhelming the border authorities between Guatemala and Mexico. They have reached Mexico City and are moving north. Their purpose is to flee the violence of their homeland. They are attempting to mostly walk a few thousand miles to get to what is perceived to be the Promised Land of the United States.
Now, just think about this for a minute. Think of what it really takes for you to walk a mile to the local grocery store, buy a few things, and walk back home. If your grocery store was more than 5 miles away, your shopping trip would be nearly an all-day event for most of you. Why? No one walks anymore. Though bicycling has been slowly increasing in the urban areas, even bicycling is not commonly used for everyday transportation. Urban Americans drive!
The ability to walk from place to place as a normal part of daily life has long become a lost skill, along with cooking one’s own meals. Just like most people don’t cook from scratch anymore, nearly no one walks. So from the American urban point of view, it’s simply unbelievable that a large group of people – which though mostly men, does include women, children, and elderly – is attempting to walk several thousands of miles. Consider if you had the prospect of walking from Los Angeles to San Diego. You’ve probably driven the two-plus hours drive to San Diego. But walking? What path would you take? Could you carry enough water? Where would you go to the bathroom? Would you be able to find a safe place to sleep at night? Would there be safety in numbers? What if your feet start to hurt? What if your shoes literally wear out?
There are several lessons that can be derived from this so-called caravan from the south.
For one, the average American is completely clueless about the harsh conditions that beset so many people every hour of every day in so many countries. If your money was worthless, and it was challenging to earn an income, and your life was constantly on the line due to changing political situations, you would live in fear and without hope for the future. These are just the tip of the iceberg of reasons why mass numbers of people have chosen to pick up and move. But let’s face it – the average American rushes from job to job to school to home, completely preoccupied with getting ahead and the various pleasures that make life seem worthwhile.
Students of Southwest history should take some practical lessons from the fact that people can and do walk hundreds, if not thousands, of miles when drought and political fighting have compelled them to move.
Of the many “mysteries” of history, one is the movement, and fate, of the Anasazi who lived in the American Southwest, and built thousands of extant structures throughout the sprawling landscape of New Mexico and Arizona. It was a society which travelled long distances on foot. We know they built long straight roads, and we know that chocolate was found at Chaco canyon, evidence of a trade connection way to the south in Meso America.
The Anasazi knew how to build from the local materials, and they mastered pottery, making fabrics with the loom, agriculture, and even canals to bring the water to the crops. They were only peripatetic when they had to be, when situations compelled them to move. Skeletal evidence suggests there were at least two distinct peoples living in the Anasazi landscape, and the various long-distance moving probably was a result of lack of water, as well as civil conflict of the population. There was brutality in the end, as the last of the people apparently moved south again, back to Mexico, to Pacquime, and beyond. The record is open to interpretation. But people moved everywhere, on foot, with whole families, carrying what they could. When they settled again, they set to work employing their technologies to create the things that were once again needed. Craig Childs does a masterful job of re-tracing the hundreds of miles of foot traffic of the Anasazi in his “House of Rain” book.
Others in history have travelled long distances on foot. Of the many mysteries of the Americas includes what happened to the Maya? When the cities were emptied, many are unaccounted for in the skeletal record or other records of migration. Look at a map. They walked north, or sailed north.
What happened to Cahokia, the site of the second largest pyramid in North America, in Illionois? Archaeologists believed that, for some reason, the city emptied and they all departed. There are many bits of evidence to suggest this, detailed by Timothy Pauketat in his book, “Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi.”
We know that people of the past walked, and eventually walked great distances. With them, they could only carry the most basic essentials, living off the land as they walked, using their skills and knowledge to create a new life when they arrived somewhere better. “Iceman” is evidence of this tradition – he was the traveler found in Northern Italy, having been buried in the ice for 5000 or so years. His gear provided modern archaeologists with an insight into how people of the past made such distant treks.
There are many ways to interpret a large group of people coming into the country where you are living. One interpretation is to view it as an “invasion,” and to respond with fear. Ancient Rome had a few such invasions that spelled the end of the Empire.
As of this writing, we have no idea how far the current “caravan” will get, since it would be hard for even the hardiest to live off the land of the desert to their north, not to mention the difficulty of a thousand-plus people doing so. Still, if you live in a country where—despite its weakness and pitfalls – everyone in the world wants to get there, you should be thankful that you live in such a place. Such a place as the U.S. is not perfect, but people want to come here because it has a somewhat stable economy, and their work can mean something and their money will not all be taken away. It has somewhat fair and ethical legal system, where the equal implementation of laws is not strictly about who you know. In this place, it’s still possible to create a business for yourself, and to provide a service that others want and need.
Those who come to the Promised Land to just get something for free will be less satisfied and fulfilled than those who come with the burning desire to create a life that they simply could not do so in their homeland. We don’t yet know who will be rebuffed, or welcomed.
Nevertheless, we should view this as a page of living history. Simultaneously, as the Thanksgiving season approaches, Americans should take the time to learn more about the uniquenesses of our system, so that we do not “lose it” through our ignorance and complacency.