I know right away that Karl Hoffman is a good guy because of how happy his animals are. When we pull into the driveway of his Arizona ranch, two of his horses come out to greet us like giant, overgrown housecats. They stick their noses into the car window and chin the door.
Anyone who treats their animals well enough for them to enthusiastically greet cars has to be a good person.
Karl himself is not far behind his horses, opening gates for us while bellowing “Good morning!” with gusto. Karl’s mustache, almost matching the brim of his cowboy hat in breadth, fluffs out, bouncing when he talks like twin fledgling chickadees considering flight for the first time.
“You guys need anything?” he asks, his mustache flapping happily. “Coffee? I’m gonna get you guys some coffee.”
Karl generously lets us use water from his well. Here we clean, rinse and refill our water jugs; when we leave here, we have three vehicles loaded to the gills with gallon jugs of water. These we leave for anyone and everyone lost on the desert trails, particularly the migrants who could otherwise die in the arid wilderness.
Karl moved to Arivaca — a border town of just 200 residents — because its isolation and location on the tenuous, changing American frontier appealed to him. As a kid, he’d always hankered for the West, and the ease with which he now wears the role of rancher shows how well this environment fits him. Karl is also a photographer, dedicated to documenting all aspects of the current U.S.-Mexico border situation.
“I’m friends with everyone out here,” he says. “Border Patrol, they’re good guys trying to do their job. You guys, you’re an inspiration, saving lives. The majority of the Mexicans that come here are caring and considerate people who just want to work and return to their homes and families in Mexico.”
Karl’s lens — one of attempted objectivity and documentary — is important in this area of crisis and conflict. In a region marked by barriers, Karl’s attitude is significantly bipartisan.
The majority of Arivaca’s inhabitants are low-income people who, as Karl puts it, “live by their own convictions.” Many came here for the privacy, searching out the most far-flung reaches of the United States; borders all over the world have traditionally been the frontiers of society — the no-man’s land. Today, though, their privacy is all but gone. Checkpoints, surveillance and barriers mark the border now. Though surrounded by wilderness, it is impossible to forget about the drawn lines.
“I came here to get away from it all, get off the grid,” says another border resident. He presides over an abandoned mining town just south of Arivaca. But even as the caretaker of a ghost town, ostensibly as isolated as isolated gets, he is subject to the growing militarization of the border — and the impossible-to-ignore presence of the migrants.
“I was hoping for peace and quiet, and suddenly I’m in the middle of everything,” says the ghost town caretaker. “These days, it’s hard to be alone even out here. So many border patrol, so many migrants. We’re caught in the middle of a serious conflict.”
The physical walls are everywhere and easily visible: steel barriers, high-tech surveillance systems, gates and fences. What’s harder to see — and the strongest of all — are the internal walls put up in the hearts and minds of the diverse inhabitants of this frontier.
Our mental walls are ones we are capable of tearing down or fortifying. Yet it is hard for people to distinguish between the fences of geography and the lines between different human lives — even when in a place where cultures and heritages have intertwined for generations.
“I’m here to document what’s happening on the border,” said Karl, “so that future generations can see what’s gone on here.” Certainly, the border is an unusual place. It is the periphery of the United States, a harsh desert land where more than just two countries meet.
As we leave Karl’s ranch, I think again of how refreshing his attitude is. You can travel within walls without making more of them in your mind. This, then, is perhaps the most important struggle of all: to remember that, despite political, economic and racial divisions, real class differences and the boundaries of geography, we are all people.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures and to e-mail questions to her, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com