News from Walt Michael
Founder & Executive Director
Common Ground on the Hill

Photo: Pam Zappardino

Click here to read about Walt Michael in Carroll Magazine

Greetings!  On this page of our website, I write about things that I have been doing in relation to our work here at Common Ground on the Hill.  People often ask me, "What do you do the rest of the year, when Common Ground on the Hill is idle?"  Well, the truth is that we are never idle, always at work and taking part in our extended community, building bridges and checking in on exciting projects.  I hope you will look at this page from time to time and see what we are up to.


Return to the Borderlands

January 22nd, 2013

I am writing this account as I fly back to Maryland on a night flight.  I am tired and tempted to save this task for a day when I can find a quiet moment to recollect and write.  However, my sojourn is still vivid and raw.  I owe it to the souls who are in the desert this very night to tell their story as best I can.  I have just spent five days in Arizona in the Sonoran Desert with the Green Valley Samaritans.  It has been four years since my first of now three visits (scroll down for my initial account), each one an immersion in the goings-on of the borderland, a recurring tragic passion play of human aspirations and physical journeys, profound disappointments, unnecessary deaths, all driven by the hope for a better life ….. or just a life.   

Very little has changed in four years.  There is more fence on the border and migrants must therefore go to more remote and therefore dangerous areas of the desert to attempt the crossing. This also means that the journey is longer and on more rugged terrain.  Drug cartels have increased their hold on the Mexican side of the border. The Border Patrol is in full force, riding the borderland and rounding up those people attempting to walk to the north.  Helicopters rule the sky and canvas the ground.  High-end electronic surveillance equipment blankets the desert.  Mounted Border Patrol agents comb the arroyos on horseback.   And still the people come, walking in hope, in danger, against all odds.  They walk from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, crossing many difficult borders.  If they succeed in crossing the US-Mexico border, five days and nights just might get them to Tucson.  And then what?

People are still dying in the desert.  From thirst.  From exposure.  Freezing alive in the cold. Baking to death in the sun.  The crossing is so perilous that attempting the walk alone is inviting certain disaster.  At the same time, anyone who falters must be left behind lest the group be discovered in this fright-filled journey to the north.  Often, it is those who have been left behind who are discovered by the Samaritans.  If they are found alive, their wounds are attended to, their thirst is sated. But the journey never ends.

Those who are returned to or caught by the Border Patrol go through a process that eventually brings them, hundreds of them a week, in handcuffs and shackles, to the Federal District Court in Tucson, to process through Operation Streamline.  Resembling a slave auction, migrants are sentenced to various jail terms en masse. Once time is served, generally anywhere from 30 to 180 days, the prisoners are returned to the Mexican side of the border.  Often this happens in the dead of the night when Nogales comes alive with criminal activity.  No place to run, no place to hide. Men, women, children, are dumped across the border.  During the day, the Jesuits run a soup kitchen called The Comodore.  Migrants can enroll to have two meals a day for a period lasting no more than two weeks.  After that time, they are on their own.

Yesterday was Inauguration Day.  While our nation rightfully and joyously celebrated our democracy as a fulfillment of Dr. King's vision, my heart was heavy.  In this bustling yet unacknowledged borderland, my thoughts went to José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, a 16 year-old unarmed  boy who was shot  seven times in the back and head by Border Patrol agents.  They fired, unprovoked, through the fence into Mexico, Jose's country.  My thoughts raced to Josseline Jamileth Hernandez Quinteros, a beautiful 15 year old  El Salvadoran girl who froze in the desert and was found lifeless by the Samaritans.  I wondered where the 68 people I saw in court two days ago were now.  As the Inaugural Ball coursed through the evening, I thought about the souls who at that moment were wandering the freezing desert in the darkness.

I don't think that Dr. King was at the Inaugural Ball.  His work was already fulfilled there.  I believe that he was in the desert, walking with the migrants.  Will we, as a nation, as a world, walk with the migrants?  Or will we do what has been done year after year ~ ignore and forget?   Whenever the migrants might cross your mind, remember that at that very moment, there are souls walking the Sonoran desert.  They are walking toward you in hope.



Ellen Elmes
Painting Mountain Soul

Photo: Richard Anderson

"The Town of Clintwood, The Ralph Stanley Museum and Dr. Ralph Stanley requests the honor of your presence for the unveiling of a series of paintings.  Ellen Elmes, an art professor at SWVCC, has created a series of paintings depicting the songs and music of Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers.  These paintings will de displayed in the Community Center adjacent to the Ralph Stanley Museum, as a permanent collection."

November 21, 2010

So read the invitation that arrived in my office here at Common Ground on the Hill.  At long last the moment had arrived!  I called longtime friend, Common Ground Advisory Board member and ace photographer Richard Anderson, inviting him to ride the nine hour drive with me deep into the heart of southern Appalachia.  We arrived to witness a glorious fall sunset over Jewell Ridge, spent the night with Don and Ellen Elmes in their mountaintop abode, and made the two and a half hour drive to Clintwood the next morning.

Milkweed Sunset on Jewell Ridge                      Richard Anderson & Don Elmes
The event was to celebrate the unveiling of eight large paintings, depicting the lyric and story of the music of the Stanely Brothers.  For over forty years, Ellen Elmes has been painting southern Appalachia - its people, its flora, its moods, its hopes, its despair, in short, its compelling and complex beauty.  Her paintings reside in homes, museums and galleries, as murals in communities throughout the mountains, and in the hearts and minds of the countless people who are depicted in her work.  In a large sense, Ellen's work has been a joyous affirmative mirror to the people of Appalachia.

Photo: Richard Anderson
Ellen & Don Elmes Unveiling One of Eight Paintings

As I wrote to our friend from Mississippi, Victor McTeer, "Ralph Stanley is to Appalachia as B.B. King is to the Delta."  Indeed, Ralph Stanley is the living epicenter of southern Appalachian music. Ellen's brush carried the heavy assignment of capturing the depth and range of the Stanely Brothers music, encompassing joy, love, exuberance, melancholy, despair, sorrow, faith, tragedy, the beauty of the mountains themselves.  This three-year project included interviews with Ralph Stanley, listening to the wealth of recordings of the Stanley Brothers as well as Ralph Stanley live concerts, and the huge task of telling the epic story of the heart of Appalachian music in eight paintings.  Ellen's amazing visual work now belong to the ages, illustrating the depth of the southern Appalachian experience. Common Ground on the Hill is proud to have commissioned this work.

Photo: Richard Anderson
Ellen Elmes

In the summer of 1966, I made my first visit to West Virginia as a student volunteer with the Student Opportunity Service of Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College, the residence of Common Ground on the Hill).  Ellen joined our teams in 1967, starting a life-long love relationship with the mountains and their people.  At the unveiling at the Ralph Stanley Museum, we were joined by our "Mountain Mother,"  Anna Bailey, whom we treasure beyond words.  She was our provider and protector as student volunteers, and continues to nurture us with her friendship, humor, kindness and wise counsel.

Photo: Richard Anderson
Anna Bailey & Walt Michael

This was indeed a day to remember.  I hope that you will visit the Museum, enjoy its top-notch B&B, and spend some time with Ellen's paintings.  Be sure to sign up early for Ellen's painting classes at Common Ground on the Hill.   As you might imagine, she is a student favorite around here!

Ellen Elmes, Ralph Stanley, Walt Michael & Don Elmes
at the Common Ground on the Hill Festival 2008
where Dr. Stanley receieved the first of eight paintings
as the
Robert H. Chambers Award
for Excellence in the Traditional Arts

Visit Ellen's Website

Visit Richard Anderson's Website

Visit the Ralph Stanley Museum Website





1st Hand Account 
The Immigration Crisis
Along the US-Mexico Border

From December 4 through 11, 2008, Walt Michael, Founder and Executive Director of Common Ground on the HIll was in southern Arizona along the US-Mexican border. During this time he participated in the work of the
Green Valley Samaritans,

who provide water, food and first aid to people in need.

Check in on this webpage for Walt’s updates
on his experiences along the border.

December, 2008
The Sonoran Desert

Hi Friends,

Last summer, Ted Ramirez and Michael Ronstadt of the Santa Cruz River Band asked me to come to the Arizona border in the Sonoran Desert.  The purpose of this trip was to observe the work of the Green Valley Samaritans, a humanitarian volunteer organization whose mission is "to save lives in the Southern Arizona desert." In my four days with the Samaritans, I came to a new and more informed understanding of what is taking place in the desert.  I hope that by reading this journal you will be encouraged to seek more information and think deeply and perhaps creatively about what is going on at our southern borders.

It will be helpful to the reader to go to the Green Valley Samaritan website before reading my journal.

I arrived in the retirement community of Green Valley on Thursday evening, where I was greeted warmly by my hosts, Shura Wallin and Rich Ramirez.  Shura was to become my mentor in the desert.  In four short days, she became one of my all time heroines, an immense energy of genuine concern, searing intellect, great experience and good will.  Shura was to make very sure that I learned what is happening in the desert. She is a small woman with a huge heart.  A warrior of the heart.


Our first day started by meeting up with Shura and two other Samaritans, Harry Smith and Rev. Randy Mayer of the Good Shepherd UCC We climbed into the Samaritans' 4x4 and rode south on I-19 searching the desert for migrants who might be stranded in the aroyos (dry stream beds) near the highways.   These people would have crossed the border at Nogales or Sasabe and walked for perhaps three or four days and/or nights to make it this far north. It is estimated that an average of 1,000 immigrants are captured in the Arizona desert every day.  In this year alone, 183 migrants have been found dead ..... men, women, teenagers, children.  Many more have been found wandering aimlessly or down on the desert floor unable to proceed.  It is fair to say that an unknown number of people have never been found.  The desert floor reaches as high as 140 degrees in the summer, and the night brings extreme cold.  The hundreds (if not thousands) of walking trails are littered with discarded clothing, empty water bottles, blankets, shoes, backpacks, even an occasional baby stroller.  We found many such articles as we called out "sommos amigos!"  This would let those in hiding or in big trouble know that we were Samaritans, with water and medical help at hand.  Throughout the day we searched, always scanning both sides of the road while driving, looking for any sign of someone in trouble.  I was keenly aware that we might happen upon a person in dire need of help, or even worse, a person beyond help.

Gradually we made our way closer and closer to the border, taking Arivoca Road to Arivoca, a small town and outlying community in the desert, long known for its artists as well as its gun-toting militia types.  A strange combination of attitudes to say the least.  We made our way over miles of hilly rough dirt/rock roads to the No More Deaths Camp.  This camp runs full tilt in the summer, staffed by mostly young student volunteers who camp in the rough, running path patrols, leaving water in the desert, searching for people.  At this time of year (winter), the camp is empty, but the shrine to those who have died in the desert remains, constructed of items found in the desert.  it is a sobering reminder of the gravity of the plight of the migrants.  Throughout the desert, Samaritans have placed water stations, powder blue-colored barrels that are marked by blue flags on twenty-foot poles, beacons for those who might be within sight.  These are the oases of the Sonoran desert. As well, Samaritans place gallon plastic water jugs along the paths.  The hundreds of empty jugs that I saw throughout the desert attest to the thirst of the migrants.

After leaving the camp, we drove to the home of well known and celebrated author Byrd Baylor, a free spirit and long time quiet conscience in the desert.  Her house is always open to whomever might pass through  ... whether migrants, Border Patrol Agents, rattlesnakes, roadrunners, you name it. Many a thirsty and hungry person and creature has found solace at Byrd's desert abode.  Her voice and presence is highly respected in the desert.  When she is off lecturing far and wide, her house remains open to all.  The Border Patrol keps its eye on Byrd.

After leaving Byrd's house, we drove south to Ruby,  an old mining town, where Sun Dog is the caretaker and guide.  The mining camp is long since inactive, but migrant trails abound.  Sun Dog told us that a number of migrants come through his area.  When the Border Patrol comes near, the migrants merely trek 300 yards to the east or west of the position of the Border Patrol ..... which is usually riding the roads, unless they are not on the trail of migrants they have spotted, at which point they might mount horses and search on horseback.  If caught, the migrants are arrested, handcuffed and taken to buses run by the private contractors, Wackenhut, known for horrible human rights abuses. The Wackenhut buses transport the captured to a variety of destinations, including jail, the Nogales Processing Center and the Mexican border. The Border Patrol, in my limited experience, in general, are cordial, well mannered and respectful agents who are there to do their job.  Before leaving Sun Dog's house, we see a picture of a recently photographed jaguar, a recent returnee to the Arizona desert. (I wonder if the border fence will impede the jaguars as they attempt to repopulate Arizona?) In the near distance, we see Tascosa Mountain and the further distant Chimney Rock. We drove out of Ruby and soon encountered a Border Patrol vehicle.  A brief conversation with the officers reveals that a group of migrants had been detected in the area, and officers were hot on their trail.  We realize that migrants are in the area, and that we might encounter them.

Soon we were hiking a winding, climbing and challenging trail in California Gulch. It's a well-worn path, but a difficult climb for me because of the altitude.  Along the way we found a number of backpacks, water bottles, etc., and evidence of a migrant camping spot, where it would appear migrants would hold up in the shade until night, when they would drop down to easier paths near roads.  While climbing, I slipped and was spined by a century plant, taking a needle in my forefinger.  It helped me begin to realize what the migrants experience as they walk through the desert at night .  The desert is an unforgiving and very dangerous place.  Three days later the needle finally worked its way out of my finger.  We topped the trail, affording us a profound view of the mountainous desert.  We descended the trail and got back in the Samaritan 4x4, driving the long road back to Green Valley, always peering into the desert, looking for stranded souls.


Shura and I meet at 8 AM and drove toward the Nogales border. Our mission was to bring medical supplies, food packs and clothing to people on the Mexican side of the border.  At a Methodist church parking lot, we opened the provisions shed and packed up our 4x4 with supplies.  Parking at the border, we loaded up two push carts with supplies and walked across the border to the tent where people are given aid and sustenance.  They were both people readying to cross the border and those who had been returned to Mexico with no hope of crossing the border.

I met a man who had lived for 23 years in the USA.  While riding his bicycle without a light at night, he was arrested by the police and put in jail.  He spent 9 months in jail, and was then deported to Mexico.  While in the United Sates, he had worked a number of jobs, at times working as a foreman in painting large buildings.  Most recently, he has worked as an electrician.  He told me that he likes to work, it is all he wants to do.  He has a wife and child living in California, where he was arrested for riding his bike.  Today, as we spoke, he clutched his various papers, hoping against hope that somehow he could make his way back to central Mexico, where he hoped that a brother he had not seen in 23 years would take him in and allow him to get back on his feet.  He hopes that perhaps in a year he can try to gain legal entry back into his home of 23 years.  He pulled a bible from his sack and told me that he studied about the bible while in prison, and that it has been helpful to him.  At this point in his story, he turned his head from me and began to weep.  He had no clue as to how he was going to get out of Nogales and make his way to his brother's home.  No way to make a phone call.  Stranded with nothing. At this point, my gift of water and food seemed at best a feeble gesture.

I met another young man who told me his story.  By this time we had walked to the Comodore, a soup kitchen run by nuns who work along with the Jesuits. Juan was young, bright-eyed and articulate and I could tell he had the respect and admiration of his fellow travelers. He had lived and worked in Lake Tahoe for a period of time.  His three year old daughter and young wife were waiting for him to return.  I do not know why he was now in Mexico; perhaps he had been deported, or perhaps he had returned to Mexico to visit famlily.  In any event, here he was, on the border, ready to try to cross and travel back to Tahoe to be with his young family.  He and three other young men, two of them from Honduras, were preparing to cross the border that night. There is safety in numbers, so people planning to cross the border often form-up in small groups.  Being alone in the desert with a vague sense of where to walk is a recipe for disaster.  Another man in another group was a classical musician, whose family awaited him in Colorado.  I took no pictures on the Mexican side of the border, but you can imagine the faces of these young men, anticipating a run toward freedom through a hostile environment.  Running against the odds.

After doing what we could do for the day, we packed up our medical supplies, etc. and crossed the border back into the USA.  All I could think about was the many people I met on this day.  No matter what you have heard about the border and the realities of illegal immigration, unless you have seen this in person, you can't imagine what goes on, how beautiful these people are. 

At 7 PM, it was concert time in Green Valley, at the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ. I was emotionally drained from the day's experience, but ready to play some music and tell some stories.  Before making this journey, I thought hard about learning some songs about the border and issues of immigration.  After a lot of thought, I concluded that the best thing I could offer was to sing songs that reference images of home and separation and hard times, no matter from what circumstance or culture. The brotherhood of man.  A recent pilgrimage to visit old friends in Appalachia weighed heavily on my heart. My family's part in the Underground Railroad is always present in my perspective on today's world, especially as it relates to the plight of the migrants.  So, songs such as Hello Stranger, Legacy and Stepstone made sense in the context of what is happening at the border.  It was a memorable night of music.  I was joined by old time banjo and fiddle wizard Dan Levenson who winters in Tucson! The Santa Cruz River Band showed up and performed, as usual, a stellar set of music from the Southwest.  We all sang Tom Paxton's "Ramblin' Boy" for the finale, with Rev. Randy, a fine musician, joining us.      As always, I was buoyed by the power of music in community.

I went to bed that night thinking about the young men at the border, who by now, must have attempted their run toward their waiting families. Had they escaped detection?  Were they lost and cold?  Were they alive?  My concert was an inconsequential and priveleged activity in the face of the reality these young men were facing.

Two days after returning to Maryland, I received this email from Shura:  "Hi Walt, Remember Juan from the Comedor?  He tried again and, once again, was returned.  His 3 friends were taken into custody.  More despair!"



Walt Michael
Founder & Executive Director
Common Ground on the Hill


To Recommend Common Ground on the Hill to a Friend, click here!

Subscribe to our mailing list

Powered by Robly