As most of you know, Sunday was 10-10-10.

I'm not much for numerical signs but I do appreciate the aesthetic symbolism of such things.

There were global celebrations and shenanigans galore associated with this western cosmic odometer alignment and one of the better events was
One Day On Earth.

Film maker, beer brewer, musician and friend
Steev Hise decided to get some footage for the project down around Sasabe on the US/Mexico border and I went along for the ride.

Actually, I went along for the birds. 

If you bird then you know this is a great time of year for all things avian.

Along the way we passed Red-tail Hawks,  and Harris' Hawks, Rough-shinned Hawks and Cooper's Hawks. There were a couple of Kestrels,  a few vultures, some ravens and more seed eaters, fly catchers and warblers than I could identify.

To the west of the
Sasabe port of entry we improvised a bit on the wall then decided to check out Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (BANWR) , approximately 118,000 acres of habitat for threatened and endangered plants and animals.

And that's when things began to get strange, which also happens to be the new normal in Arizona these days.

When we first moved to Arizona about 16 or so years ago, one of the first places my wife and long-time cohort Jenniffer and I traveled to was BANWR.

Before we moved here all the birders we knew told us it was a "must visit" site.

And they were right.

BANWR is more than a national treasure, it's a global treasure and one of the few locations left in America where the possibility of the once wild
Sonoran Desert still lives on.

Unfortunately these days BANWR is better known for dead migrants, drug smuggling and lots and lots of guns.

For the most part you can thank the border wall, failed immigration policies and the puritanical war on drugs for that change in perception.

But this post isn't about a soapbox rant.

It's just a story about a meandering drive on a lazy Sunday morning in search of natural beauty on public lands.

We decided to take a dirt road into the lower end of BANWR with the intention of eventually connecting to the main loop leading to the visitor center.

There are few if any signs here, but the road is clearly marked on BANWR maps and I'd driven it before a couple of times.

Pulling in we passed a white SUV with windows rolled down. Inside were men in camouflage who watched us closely from behind dark sunglasses as we passed.

Steev turned to me and said "Huh. Did you see that? Must be hunting season. Or maybe that's the guard."

(Editor's note: For dialogue I'll be paraphrasing throughout this story. I wasn't taking notes and all of this is from memory).

We'd both heard
The National Guard was going to be setting up shop on the border and we talked about it before heading out that day.

But we figured their presence would have been a big show of force for media with all sorts of military stamped gear.

We continued down the dirt road deeper into BANWR, watching for birds, shooting footage of plants and insects and the ocean of grassy horizon. We waved to passing cars and a Border Patrol truck or two.

Eventually we passed a tent on a hill beside pale blue porta potties and what looked like a camper.

There was a sign at the entrance to the road that warned against trespassing and we made sure not to.

As I've said, Steev and I were just out for a drive and appreciating the Sonoran Desert.

Trouble was not something we were interested in.

Further up we passed another outpost with the same set up.

And then, after about a half hour or so, just past a virtual wall tower, we came to an intersection near a BANWR equipment shed.

There was another sign warning against trespassing at the building, but the road to the left and right was clear.

Yogi Berra once famously said-- When you come to a fork in the road:Take it.

So we did.

Steev turned left, heading north towards the main visitor center, past an ominous white t-shirt tied to a tree, and smack into the camp of three Guardsmen, dressed in uniform who were busy grabbing their M-16's and charging towards us, ordering us to halt.

Which, it goes without saying, Steev did despite the fact they never showed us identification nor asked us for any.

Again, we weren't looking for trouble.

We were civilians, looking for birds and stuff like that on public land.

A place specifically set aside for that exact purpose.

Once we pulled over, the conversation went something like this.

Guard #1 with M-16 at his hip: "You can't go through here."
Me: "We're just passing through."
Steev: "Isn't this public land? I thought we were on public land?"
Guard #1: "You can't go through."
Me: "No problem. You've got the guns, all we've only got are binoculars."
Guard #2: Smiles.
Guard #3: Watches from a few feet back.
Steev: "Are you sure this isn't public land?"
Guard #1: "No, this is private property."
Steev: "What? I don't think this is It's a national wildlife refuge."
Me: "And we're low on gas, I don't think we can make it back. We need to go forward."
Guard #1: "You have to go back."
Me: "You've got the guns."
Guard #2: Smiles
Steev: "We'll go. But I don't think this is private property."

And after a bit more conversation we drive away.

After that we wandered around BANWR some more trying to figure out where we were and how to get back.


I fumbled with the camera as we left and shot some horrible video, which is darkly humorous for the conversation Steev and I are having.

From a distance we watched the Guard watching us as we crested a ridge and I snapped a shot of their camp.

Along the way we got back into the flow of the rolling horizon, filming, listening, pondering.

Eventually we arrived at the visitor's center where a volunteer listened to our story.

He showed us a few maps and we noted where the incident occurred. He jotted down a few facts, reminded us to sign the guest book and handed us copies of the BANWR newsletter before saying adios.

Later that night I visited the BANWR website and at the bottom of the page saw a link stating: "
Portion of the Refuge Closed ."

Note: The BANWR map on the left shows "The Red Zone." The map on the right shows the approximate location where the incident occurred as detailed by the red box.
Following that link I discovered there is a "Red Zone" along the lower half of BANWR on about 3,500 acres near the border and we must have entered the refuge on a road which had been shut to the public.

However, not once did we see signs notifying us of this closure.

And all of the maps we saw at the visitor center made no mention of the closure although the road is clearly marked.

In addition, the location where we were stopped, as best we can tell, was beyond the "Red Zone."
And this story is not to place blame.

The National Guard we encountered were just doing their job and were likely newly deployed.

What I am more concerned with is how wrong the situation could have gone.

For example, instead of being a couple of lost looking middle age white guys with binoculars, what if our appearance had fit the generic drug runner or migrant profile?

Or what if we had legal weapons in tow for hunting or shooting?

What if instead of complying we decided to bolt from the area, concerned the men with M-16s who did not identify themselves were not who they said they were?

The "what if's" are endless.

But the point is, if BANWR is going to deem a portion of their public land a "Red Zone" and have the area patrolled by National Guard with M-16's, I'd think it would be imperative for the public to be made aware of where they can and can not go.

From what we saw, the potential for something going awry is great, now that the "Red Zone" is being treated as a defacto war zone.

A war zone lying within a tourist destination that encourages camping, hunting, birding and so on.

All that said, 10-10-10 didn't disappoint, and despite the birding-at-the-point-of-a-barrell wackiness, I still look forward to returning to BANWR. 

Red Zone or not, it is still one of the best places to bird on earth.

One Day On Earth raw footage selects (2 of 2 parts) from the u.s./mexico borderlands from steev hise on Vimeo.