Statement of Purpose and Intent

On March 12th, 2011 I began a 400 mile trek along the Arizona-Mexico border from Agua Prieta to San Luis Rio Colorado, an adventure with a purpose I am calling BorderVenture.

Through BorderVenture I hope to raise awareness of border issues, expose exaggeration of border violence, combat the racial profiling, discrimination, and often outright racism that seems prevalent of late, and to record and recount personal stories of people living near or trying to cross the border. I will record my experiences and stories in this blog, and hope to have them further covered by supportive media, organizations, and other websites and blogs. I plan to aggressively publish my experiences through media outlets, interested groups, the Internet, and through whatever other avenues I am able. I will write tirelessly and advocate my findings to all who will listen, publish, and share them.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Brief Interlude

Writing these blog posts in a retrospective fashion is strange.  My journal notes are essential (I have a terrible memory for the purposes of story-telling, I generally have no memory for details) but I do not write blindly from them.  They help to put a timeline to my memories and give them structure, but by just looking at what I’ve written- the handwriting, the words I used, the sparseness or fullness of the entry- all vividly evoke my thoughts, experiences, emotions, pains, and elation.  Looking back through my entries, I remember everything, vividly.  I thought that the days would blur together, trudging through the desert alone, but every day remains vivid in my mind.  These desert memories are different; they are as clear as the desert sky, and searing as the desert sun.  Perhaps that is why to this day my pulse quickens, my throat tightens, and my eyes fill with water every time I think about people trying to cross that damned desert.  I’m not an emotional person, and if you ask some friends and ex-girlfriends, they would probably tell you that is an understatement.  But I have seen what it is like out there, I have seen how unforgiving and uncaring the desert is, I have walked on migrant paths that have and will continue to take the lives of unknown numbers of people.

I’m on a plane headed for Phoenix right now, stuffed into the window seat on the left side of a Boeing 747, sitting in comfortable discomfort.  This is probably as uncomfortable as many people ever get (just behind the walk from the air conditioned airport through the Phoenix heat to their air conditioned car), the kind of stuff they will bring up in conversation with friends and family for the next few days.  The screaming babies, the kids kicking your seat, the fat old guy whose gut is spilling over into your seat, generally being stuck in close proximity to other humans you don’t know and don’t want to know.  I’m reading the book The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea. It is an account of a tragedy that occurred on the Arizona-Mexico border, a story of death and unimaginable suffering.  The Devil’s Highway is a notoriously deadly and heavily trafficked immigration route between Sonoita and San Luis Rio Colorado, using the Mexican Highway 2 that runs parallel to the border as the jumping off point to cross into the United States.  A group of approximately 30 immigrants and 3 coyotes departed from Sonoita one early summer afternoon, and only 14 survived long enough to be saved by Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies.  I’ll just quote here a bit from Urrea to describe how these men and boys died, describing the six stages of hyperthermia: heat stress, heat fatigue, heat syncope, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.  He writes,

“Heat Stress.  Everyone has been tired, or even dizzy, from walking in the heat.  Everyone has been sunburned, sometimes quite badly.  And many people have suffered the swollen fingers, feeling like sausages, and the stumbling at the tail end of a hot hike.  This is where it begins.  General discomfort, nothing heinous.  A little heat rash.  Headache from the glare. Thirst… The heat becomes personal.”

“Heat fatigue…Your head sweats, your neck, your skin blows a fine mist like steam to regulate your heat…Your scalp burns along the part in your hair… Your cheeks, your neck burn.  Your eyelids burn, too.  And the tips of your ears.  Your lips are not only burned by sun but by wind; they become dehydrated, and they get rough and flaky, and you keep licking them to try to wet them, and they get sanded until they crack and bleed…The desert’s air, like you, is thirsty.  It’s sucking up your sweat as fast as you can pump it, so fast that you don’t even know you’re sweating… Every breath dries out your nose, your sinuses, your mouth, your throat… Your spit turns to paste.  Your mouth tastes nasty, so you take another little drink…  Your lungs, now, are leaking moisture to the vampire air.  Your tears leak into the sky—eyes dry and scratchy.  The fluid in your lunges helps transport oxygen through tissues into the blood.  Less fluid, less oxygen.  You breathe harder, you get drier.”

“Heat Syncope.  You have a fever, though it’s a fever imposed from the outside.  Oddly, your skin is getting colder.  Your face, even if you’re a Mexican mestizo, turns pale.  It gets a little harder to talk.  When you go to lick your cracking lips, your tongue is dry and sticky… Suddenly your water is gone.  You can’t remember where you dropped the jug.  Dizzy.  Where’s the water?  … Your heart beats as though you’ve been running.  You think you’d better take a break… Desolation has begun to edit you.  Erase you.”

“Heat Cramps.  Now you’re officially in trouble.  Your body has been dumping salts.  Without salts, your muscles can’t function… Muscle cramps kick in.  Your legs suddenly ache.  You get clumsy.  You tumble.  When you fall, you hit rocks, cactus, gravel.  Your hands are skinned, your knees abraded.  A little blood steams away.  If you cry, you make an infinitesimal investment in your own death… Your throat clicks when you try to swallow.  Your abdomen clenches on you… Eighty percent of lost walkers can still be saved if the Migra spots them.  You can recover with water and an IV.  Even the Migra’s famous air conditioning could save your life… But if the Migra doesn’t find you, you’ve stepped onto the lip of the death spiral. Your options for salvation wisp away like steam.”

“Heat Exhaustion.  Your fever is spiking now, and as with the flu, you have gotten more and more ill.  Headaches.  You get nauseous, you want to vomit.  If you vomit, you lose more fluids.  You are not only clumsy, but enervated.  Your body is weak, and your will is slipping.  Your tongue is wood.  You could give a damn.  Your heart pounds, loud in your ears.  Your breathing is shallow and fast, and each breath dries you further.  Eyelids scrape across eyeballs as dry as pebbles.  Your skin is icy; you might shiver… Your fluid level has dropped—there’s not enough to fill up the container of your body.  Your heart beats faster, trying to suck up some blood from the internal drought.  Cardiac arrest hits when the pump overstrains itself and blows up.  Those in good shape will, sooner or later, faint… First you get tunnel vision.  You might hear echoes.  Your body falls on burning ground… You can get second-degree burns from lying too long on the ground… You are confused; your memories are conflated with your dreams.  Walkers see demons, see God, see dead relatives and crystal cities.  They vomit blood… Sooner or later, you understand that you have to drink your own urine.  You piss in your hands, or in whatever container you might have… If you’re really lucky, someone might piss in your mouth… That first urine is pretty good, as urine goes.  It is still relatively clear… The next time through, that same urine has picked up more filtered impurities, and it is a little darker now.  Saltier.  By the third round, it is orange.  It smells bad.  Then dark orange.  Then pale brown.  Then a darker and more poisonous brown.  It looks like a foaming Guinness stout.  By the time your effluent is black, you’re doomed—even if you wanted to, you probably couldn’t drink it.  It stinks of fish.  Your body would retch.  There is almost more bio-garbage in it than water.  The last stage of hyperthermia begins.”

“Heat Stroke.  Your blood is as low as it can get.  Dehydration has reduced all your inner streams to sluggish mudholes…Empty vessels within you collapse.  Your sweat runs out.  With no sweat, your body’s swamp-cooler breaks.  The thermostat goes haywire.  You are having a core meltdown.  Your temperature spikes—you hit 105, 106, 108 degrees.  Your body panics and dilates all blood capillaries near the surface, hoping to flood your skin with blood to cool it off.  You blush.  Your eyes turn red: blood vessels burst, and later, the tissue of the whites literally cooks until it goes pink, then a well-done crimson.  Your skin gets terrible sensitive.  It hurts, it burns.  Your nerves flame.  Your blood heats under your skin.  Clothing feels like sandpaper.  Some walkers at this point strip nude… Once they’re naked, they’re surely hallucinating… Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves.  They break down and start to rot.  Once rotting in you, they dump rafts of dying cells into your already sludgy bloodstream.  Proteins are peeling off your dying muscles.  Chunks of cooked meat are falling out of your organs, clogging your other organs.  The system closes down in a series.  Your kidneys, your bladder, your heart.  They jam shut. Stop. Your brain sparks. Out.  You’re gone.”

Flying over the arid Southwest recalls memories of planning for BorderVenture.  Peering down from above, the aerial, birds-eye view is reminiscent of my days of staring at Google Earth imagery for hours. First pondering whether it was possible, then planning out where I could get water and food.  Picking out ponds, checking the dates of the imagery.  July 2006.  Was that a wet or dry year?  Was the water in that pond seasonal runoff or well-filled?  Was it only full from a recent monsoon storm or was it left over from winter rains?  It had been a very dry winter this year on the border- would any of these ponds and cattle tanks have any water at all?  And then there were the roads and the paths.  The roads are much clearer here from the plane- they are paved, and the landscape is lusher, there is more contrast.  Would the Border Patrol be patrolling all those borderland roads?  Would there be anyone out there at all?  Talking to people that lived and worked down there helped to give a clearer picture.  Sure, if you stay on the roads, you’re probably eventually going to run into Border Patrol out there somewhere.  But it is No Man’s Land.  It is one of the greatest, most terrible wildernesses remaining in our country.  There are very few places you can go that you can feel so alive and be so close to death.

When I was sitting there in the Papago Farms Border Patrol Station, Day 7 of BorderVenture, I thought about some of these things.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

BorderVenture Day 7: Part 1

I woke up slowly the next morning, the sun just starting to brighten the horizon around 5 am.  I sat in my sleeping bag for a good while, eating my breakfast (almonds and raisins, some Gatorade, and a cliff bar) and sort of mentally exploring the body's pains and stiffness, judging whether any of them merited real concern or not.  Satisfied that they did not, I realized that sunrise was quickly approaching, and with the forecast in the 90's for today, I needed to get moving while I it was still cool out.

I struggled from the seductive grasp of my sleeping bag and began staggering about my small "camp", quickly realizing how stiff and sore I really was.  Walk it off, Evan, walk it off.  It was actually kind of chilly out, so there was additional incentive to get moving.  Not minutes later I heard a truck coming down the nearby gravel border road.  Moving at cruising speed, the Border Patrol agent passed me before seeing me standing on the side of the road.  As he slowly came to a stop and started to back up, I had to wonder how these guys ever caught anyone.  Most of the immigrants that they do catch must be in pretty rough shape already.

He was a nice enough guy, and gave me some fairly vital information.  You see, I used Google Earth for planning the majority of this trip, the satellite imagery telling me where I could find towns and water sources.  The water sources, often small cattle tanks, I knew not to count on with water being so tenuous in the Sonora anyway, and it had been an incredibly dry winter there.  The towns I was sort of counting on, but many of them are so small you can't find information about them.  It just so happened that the next town I was counting on for water, Serapo's Gate, was in fact abandoned.  I questioned him further, "Wait, you mean there is no one there?  I could see a bunch of houses there.  Could I still get water there??"  He replied, "Nope.  No one there, and no water, just a bunch of walls with no roofs."  Well that just sucks.  I ended up topping off my water from the agent's supply.  I'd been carrying a gallon jug since yesterday (proudly, just like the immigrants do), first half full of water and then half full of Gatorade thanks to the agent the night before.  I was thankful to have that extra water capacity now that it was going to be much further to the next place to refill.  That next place would be Papago Farms, maybe around 20 miles as the crow flies, where there was a couple active farms and a large temporary Border Patrol station.  Unfortunately, Papago farms was about 5 miles north of the border and would require a fair bit of bushwhacking and cross country travel to get to it without having to go many miles out of my way following the dirt road.

I thanked the agent for his help, and went on my way.  It started out as more of a hobble, but as I warmed up a bit and the blood began to circulate to my extremities, I graduated to a slow jog.   Around this time is when I would start to do my "running math" for the day- to try to figure out how long it would take me to get to my destination and the intermediate stops through the day.  The most optimistic figure was the 10 minute mile.  This is running at a fair pace (especially for carrying a 30ish pound pack), and I would realistically only achieve this if I was feeling really damn good.  That would put me at 6 miles in an hour.

Sounds slow, right?  If I'm just out on a run in Flagstaff, it's much more common for me to run anywhere between a 6 to 8 minute mile pace, but that is for a shorter distance, and I get to go home and sit on a couch and stuff my face with food when I'm done.  You see, the name of the BorderVenture game was all about conserving, which was also one of the greater bits of uncertainty.  I had to strike a very fine balance between covering as much distance as I could as quickly as possible and still being able to do it all over again the next day.  Exert yourself, but not too much, because you still need to be able to move again tomorrow.  What am I capable of, and how much can my body recover each night, and can my body adapt to this routine so that I'm healthy and strong enough to do it over and over again?  Tough call.  The slowest calculation was the walking time, 3 miles an hour, or 20 minute miles.  This was reserved for rough terrain, off-trail travel, and for when I was feeling really haggard.  The most realistic calculation was 15 minute miles, 4 miles an hour.  This works out to half walking and half running.  Generally there was quite a bit more running than walking, but with stops to eat, to take pictures, to look at maps and the GPS, to talk to Border Patrol, etc, it usually worked out to more around 4 or 5 miles an hour.  So it was probably going to take me 5 hours to get to Papago Farms, but if I put in a concerted effort, I could get there in 4.

Well, it was probably around 6:30 when I started really moving for the day. After maybe an hour I passed through Serapo's Gate, and just like the agent had said, no chance of getting water there.  Glad I'd topped off the ole water supply, I continued on through the desert.  I was quickly approaching some more mountains, and it soon became obvious that I'd be passing through them in order to reach Papago Farms.  I was having a bit of a hard time that morning, feeling pretty sore and tired from the previous day’s effort, and I was feeling a bit isolated, hopeless, and alone.  Now normally I hate Steve Jobs and his Apple products, but I was particularly glad to have an iPod at the time.  I’d taken it along so that I’d have a way of accessing wireless internet and sending photo updates along the way, but also in case I needed some musical distraction.  I don’t normally run with music- I prefer to be in company of my thoughts, and I feel like it throws off my breathing and foot cadence- but it was certainly a welcome distraction.  After listening to some old school Goo Goo Dolls (to my credit, the come from my home town), I found the song Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap.  Between the hormone-rollercoaster of my body’s coping mechanisms and that haunting, autotune-masterpiece on repeat, I was high as a hippy at a Dead show.  Unfortunately, as the highs get higher, the lows get lower too.  I ran on, pondering the life, a failed relationship, and what the hell I was doing alone in the middle of the desert. 

The road soon took a turn northward away from the border, and I could see that the border fence ended just a half a mile away on the side of the first mountain it ran into.  I perched up on top of the border fence for a better vantage of the area.  You see, it was often flat enough, and the cacti and mesquite trees were tall enough, that you couldn't see farther than a couple hundred yards at a time.  But from my perch I was able to see that there was a drainage headed through the mountains in a northwesterly direction, just the way I needed to go to reach the Papago Farms.  Bonus.  Good bye road, see ya on the other side (I knew from the crappy road map I had that the road would go a good handful of miles out of the way to dodge around the mountains, so we parted ways).

I soon found my way into the drainage, and it turned out to be a fairly significant pathway for gravity-propelled water (a stream).  It being the Sonora, there was of course no water there, though I'm sure it would be very impressive when (if?) it rains.  I tried running in the creek bed itself for a while to avoid the grasping, flesh-rending vegetation, but the sand and gravel were too soft- it was costing too much energy to run through, not to mention I kept getting pebbles in my shoes.  That sounds like something small and just annoying, but if you don't keep the sand and pebbles out of your shoes, you're asking for some serious blisters and pain later.  So it was back onto the flood plain for me.  There was several meandering cattle paths that gave me some respite from desert thorns and spines, though I still stepped on (and immediately regretted) several cacti.  I don't think I mentioned it yet, but I started running this segment of BorderVenture in a different pair of shoes.  Pair 3 of BorderVenture (haha) was the New Balance Minimus, a minimalist trail running shoe.  By minimalist I mean it has relatively minimal cushion, protection, or support, little or no raise in the heel, and are really flexible.  They are meant to imitate bare foot running with some small bit of protection.  I love them (how could I not- the shoes I started with tried to kill me, and the second pair I had to cut the back off of one shoe so that it didn't rub on my inflamed heel), they really are great though (though they could be a little more durable...), but I quickly found out that the soft foamy-rubber sole and tread does little to stop cacti spines or mesquite thorns from piercing your foot.  So it just became that much more important to actually watch where I was going and where I placed my feet.  But it was a compromise I was fine with, especially for a minimalist shoe that was comfortable for me and wasn't trying to detach my foot from my leg.

I eventually made my way out of the mountains, following some immigrant paths on and off until the drainage spread out into several smaller channels in the open desert.  Some of the tracks I was following looked fairly fresh, so I kept my head up and my eyes open, hoping that if I did run into someone they wouldn’t be dead, dying, or want to make me dead.  I reached the final bit of substantial topography, a small hill just beyond the mountains, and went partway up its side to catch of view of my path to come.  I could see what I assumed to be the Papago Farms Border Patrol Station in the distance, a large steel tower rising above several smaller buildings, so I reset my compass bearing to shoot me straight at it.  I looked at my GPS to see how far I still needed to go as I stuffed my face with a Clif bar and some peanuts con limon.  It seemed that I should reach the station right around noon- perfect timing- I might even be able to score some real food if I was lucky.

I set off with my new bearing, but it was becoming oppressively hot.  I noticed after running for a while that I was starting to feel a bit funky and overheated, so I was forced to slow down to a walk, only running for short periods to avoid overheating.  I was still doing okay on water, but I would definitely need to refill before attempting to make it all the way to Ali Chuk/Menager’s Dam.  I was probably still a little ‘loopy’ from the heat, and maybe didn’t have all my senses about me despite feeling relatively good, but when I was maybe a mile from the dirt road that would pass by the Border Patrol station I felt my sunglasses fall out of the top compartment of my pack.  I stopped to grab them, taking off my pack to put them back and my heart skipped a beat as I realized my GPS was no longer where it should be.  I frantically tore apart my pack to no avail- I had lost my GPS.  It had everything in it- my planned path, all the small towns, houses, water sources, ponds, everything.  And I didn’t have any sort of good map with me.  I started back, going maybe 10 minutes before I stopped, frustrated with myself and battered by the heat of the sun.  I had no idea how long ago I had opened the pack- it could have fallen out anywhere, and my tracks would be hard to follow.  That, and I couldn’t stand the thought of backtracking an hour in that heat, just to have another hour to get back to where I was and still have to make it to the station.  Either realizing or fabricating the futility, I turned around once more and headed for the station GPS-less.

Did I mention I was frustrated with myself?  How the hell do you lose your GPS??  I didn’t even care about the monetary value, but it felt like the whole BorderVenture was up in the air again.  How was I going to know when my turn off the border road was to take me around the mountains and into Ali Chuk?  How would I know where potential water sources were, or how far I was from the next town?  How could I have been so stupid and careless to lose my GPS?  Between thoughts like these and the oppressive heat, dark times were had as I walked onward.  After maybe another half an hour I reached the road and discovered that I had cell phone service.  I placed a phone call to a good friend to relay my situation and get some external feedback.  I wasn’t convinced my brain was in a fully logical and unbiased place from which to evaluate my situation.  To my dismay, he echoed my concerns about the safety and feasibility of continuing on without the GPS, but we decided we would talk again after I got some information from the Border Patrol Station.  Another half an hour or so and I was outside the fenced compound, walking toward the gate as a Border Patrol truck rolled up in a cloud of dust.

He, of all the Border Patrol agents I’d encountered, seemed the least surprised to see me out there, but extended a cheerful greeting and said to follow him on in to the compound.  We’ll call him Bill.  Bill seemed to be in his early 40’s and had the air of a seasoned veteran. He had a cool, easy, casual demeanor of someone who had seen some serious shit; the kind of guy that would be really hard to surprise.  The first thing he asked me was “What do ya need?”  I replied, wearing something between a grimace and a grin, “I could use some water and some information,” not wanting to ask for food but hoping that it would be offered to me.  I have this thing- I won’t ask for help unless it is for something I need, not for something I only want.  This probably held me back from receiving a lot more help when I was planning, preparing, and undertaking BorderVenture, and I knew it at the time, but I can be a bit stubborn and foolhardy, apparently to a fault.  That is all to say that I needed water and information.

The usual small talk ensued as we walked toward the main building at the back of the small compound- What are you doing out here?  Why?  I could sense that this guy had a good head on his shoulders, and regardless of his personal beliefs, wouldn't take offense or be irritated with why I was out there, so I gave him the full rundown on what I was doing there.  Many other times for the sake of brevity and ease I would just say I was hiking the border and let them fill in the blanks.  If they were curious and probed further, I’d explain more.  I just laid it out there to this guy, and he asked me some more pointed questions about it, but sort of let it drop off as we entered the building.  Sweet salvation.  It was dark inside- it took a minute for my eyes to adjust- and it was air conditioned.  I decided that I would be content if I just stayed there forever.  The little demon on the shoulder whispered something about how nice it would be to just hang out there for a while and catch a ride north with the next Border Patrol agent headed that way.  Bail.  Just go for it- it isn't safe to continue on.  My internal battle raged as Bill left for the bathroom and I engaged in small talk with another BP agent, this one younger, maybe mid to late twenties, who was relatively new to the agency.  We’ll call him Todd.  I also told him my deal, and he just seemed a little surprised that I was out there doing what I was doing alone.  Death on the border certainly isn't something new for Border Patrol agents, in fact, they probably know more about it than anyone else.  Todd asked me what I had to eat while I was out there, so I told him about my sufficient-but-not-very-exciting dry food diet.  He immediately responded with, “Do you want a sandwich?”  I answered in the affirmative, barely resisting the urge to shout “F#ck yeah!” and he proceeded to grab me sandwich materials from his fridge.

The room was dark, cool, and relatively comfortable.  I sat at a tall round table that would seat four on bar stools, and there were maybe 3 others like it.  Behind me were maybe 5 refrigerators and a doorway to the kitchen, and in front of me were a big flat screen television and a couple couches arranged around it.  Over to my left was a computer station with a particularly large monitor, and when I asked about it, Todd explained that it was for the camera they had mounted on the station’s tower, another one that detects heat signatures in addition to being ridiculously high- powered.  The building was a strange blend of comfort and business, somewhere between a military base and a college dorm suite, but compared to what I’d just been experiencing, it was all comfort.