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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

West of Sasabe, Day 1 (Day 6 of BorderVenture)

I returned to Sasabe the evening of Friday, April 1st to continue the BorderVenture.  I got in much later than planned, thanks to a scenic detour inspired by an accident blocking both southbound lanes of I-17.  Apparently a semi truck transporting cattle somehow inverted itself on the highway and spewed mutilated cows all over the asphalt.  Never a dull moment in Arizona.  So I'd been hoping to cross the border that evening and stay with Miguel and Gloria again, but the Sasabe Port of Entry closes from 8pm to 8am everyday because it is used so little (most other Ports of Entry are open 24/7 as far as I know).  With all the businesses also closed by the time I got to the U.S. Sasabe, I was forced to car camp near the town.  I found a pullout for a dirt road and just reclined the front seat, accepting that I would only get around 5 hours of sleep anyway- no point in getting too comfortable.  I was awoken shortly after by Border Patrol headlights piercing through my car.  I of course suspected this would happen at least once.  After a short conversation, the somewhat bemused but friendly agent recommended that I go through the gate and drive a ways up the dirt road in front of me, saying that I'd be less likely to be bothered by other Border Patrol agents if I went that way.  He also said he'd radio ahead to tell others I checked out ok.  I was awoken five more times that night by Border Patrol.  After a while it was just kind of comical, and I certainly don't blame them- they're just doing their jobs in the end.  The last one to wake me up had to actually come and knock on my window, the headlights and spotlight no longer enough to wrench me from slumber, and then proceeded to engage me in a 10 minute conversation about hiking in the area, trying to convince me to hike up to the saddle of Boboquivari Peak (see below), an impressive looking mountain to the North, rather than hike along the border.  Certainly tempting.  But that is all to say that I wasn't exactly feeling fresh the next morning.

I struggled out from my car around 6:15 that next morning and began stuffing my face and my pack with an assortment of food I'd bought from the Flagstaff Safeway on the way out of town.  I was feeling a little disgruntled about the whole 'dead cows obstructing traffic thing' throwing a wrench into my plans and preventing my from buying some of those salty peanuts 'con limon' that I'd grown to love so much over the past weeks.  They have a harsh bite, but they're delicious and wildly addictive.  All packed up, I drove the car into the U.S. Sasasbe and parked it in a church parking lot with a prominent note on the dashboard, in English and Spanish, saying I was hiking, when I would return, and asking the reader to please not damage or take my vehicle.  Just hopin' for the best there...

By about 7am I had begun the ole run-walk routine along that all-too-familiar metal and concrete monstrosity we call the border fence.  

Maybe 3 or 4 miles west of town, the border started making its way up into the mountains and the fence abruptly ended once more.   Funny thing that is.

And once more I was hiking cross-country through the mountains without a trail.  Not ten minutes later, as I was hiking quickly up hill and struggling to dodge the many flesh-rending plants of the Sonora, my peripheral vision caught something different, maybe something worth looking more closely at, and I did so just in time.  My first rattle snake of BorderVenture!  Barely avoided stepping on the damn thing, and it was kind enough to give me the warning rattle what would have been several seconds too late had I not seen it when I did.  It seemed this was going to be an interesting day.  (see my friend below).

Upon reaching the top of that first hill (mountain), I was afforded a better view of the surrounding landscape, and was able to spot a ridge line headed in a westerly direction that I was hoping would offer some easier cross-country travel.  A quick traverse around another mountain and I arrived on the ridge, and sure enough, there was a beautiful little migrant trail.  This thing looked like the Forest Service maintained it (they don't, I assure you).  I call it beautiful in part because it was headed mostly in the direction I needed to go, and any trail greatly eases travel and reduces the likelihood of you losing flesh to the murderous vegetation surrounding you.  The trail soon brought me to what appeared to be a heavily used migrant camp pictured below.

After a brief food-stop at this camp, I kept on trucking down that glorious path.  Not more than 10 minutes later, I looked up (my eyes are often transfixed on the ground in front of me when I'm trying run so as to not break an ankle) and saw several men standing in the shade of some mesquite trees.  I stopped, and with my heart pounding, announced I was a friend and was there in peace, showing both hands and waving with one.  I could see tension in their bodies and doubt in their faces, but only for a moment, because seconds later they realized that I really was just some dumb white boy in the desert alone.  One of them waved back, still appearing a little mystified, and as I walked up, one of them asked (in Spanish) what the hell I was doing out there (in so many words).  With a stupid grin and broken Spanish I explained what I was doing and why, and after a little more conversation, all were laughing and joking (I of course only understanding maybe a quarter of what was being said).  It was this time that I leaned on what I perceived to be a tree trunk without really looking at it, but it was very quickly made clear that it was indeed not a tree trunk but a large Saguaro cactus.  Ouchies.  I explained that I was headed first to Sonoyta and then to San Luis, and one remarked in a somewhat concerned tone, "that's a long way," but after asking where they were headed, I told them that they had much further to go than I.  They were headed to Tennessee.  They had some friends and family there that had work on a farm for them, and were traveling there to work for about two years to save some money and subsequently return to their families in Mexico.  Their first stop was to be Arivaca, a town at least 40 miles away through rugged mountains and open desert with no reliable water sources.  I asked them if they needed anything- water, food, medical supplies, anything- they said no.  I told them that I was going to keep following that same path for a while, as long as it was headed west anyway, but one of them hurriedly remarked that there were bad people, mafia (cartel), if I kept going down that path, and that they could kill me.  This was obviously concerning news, and I asked some awkwardly formulated questions to clarify where they were and they anxiously talked amongst themselves.  After a few minutes of confusion, we clarified that I could take the path around the next mountain but no further, I would just need to head north from there.  They told me I would see more immigrants that way (I didn't ask how many, though in retrospect I probably should have) and said that they should get moving.  They wished me safe travels and I wished them good luck and urged them to be careful, and we parted ways.

Maybe 20 minutes later I broke off from the eastward path, greatly appreciative of the advice I'd just received, and headed north toward a small pass between two mountains on another well-defined path. I reached the top of the pass and my jaw dropped; ahead was a "train" of maybe 25 people hiking north on the same path I was following.
 After the recent news I'd received, I was a little concerned with who this people might be.  I studied them closely (as closely as my vision would allow), and saw nothing suspicious- no large backpacks that might be stuffed full of drugs, no guns, and no one that seemed particularly fit or well prepared for a desert trek.  So they were probably not with a cartel- they were probably just the immigrants the other group had said I would encounter.  I decided to hang back regardless about what I had surmised simply because it was such a large group, and I watched them for several minutes until disappear over another hill.  Continuing on, I realized they had headed up another valley that was to the northeast, so when I found another path that was headed more to the north I veered that direction.  This way I wouldn't keep running into that group.  Not ten minutes later, I saw another group of people standing in the shade of some more mesquite trees, and all around in the surrounding valley I started to see "structures", branches of trees and cacti piled in small tent formations to give shade.

I could see more people hanging around, and one man walking alone.  They appeared to be immigrants, but again considering the advice I'd been given, I decided to avoid them if I could.  I kept my head down and walked quickly and concertedly, figuring that running might inspire some concern in anyone that saw me.  After a few moments it became clear that the man walking alone had seen me- he was now walking in a direction so as to intercept my path.  This was concerning behavior- most immigrants wouldn't go out of their way to greet a stranger, especially one with a large backpack like mine, in the middle of the desert.  It was dangerous business.  But maybe you wouldn't be concerned if you thought you had the upper hand in such an encounter.  But I watched him as he approached- he was a little overweight, he had no backpack on, nothing in his hands, and no gun that I could see.  I figured if nothing else, I could outrun him if I had to.  As we neared one another, I waved at him and he waved back in a casual but friendly manner.  I took this as a good sign.  He stopped where he was and I walked over, eyes searching the surroundings for anything suspicious.  The decidedly jovial man greeted me, erasing most of my suspicions.  Just a big, friendly, curious guy in the desert, who I will call Carlos here.  Conversation (involving my awkward Spanish) ensued; he was headed to California for work- he had a brother there that would help him, he was with a group of about six other men that had hired a guide to get them through.  I told him my story- Carlos was impressed with my undertaking, saying it was a noble cause.  After about ten minutes we wished one another luck and parted ways.  Strangely enough, this was not the last time I would see Carlos.

I soon cleared the next hill and I could see in the distance the familiar crosses of steel that form the vehicle barriers of the border.  When I reached the border I saw that I had just intersected eastern most section of the barrier and road on the western side of the mountain range- a fortunate encounter, as travel would be much easier and quicker now.  I was making good time, it was only 10:30 am, and I was already through the major barrier of the day.  "It should be smooth sailing from here," I thought to myself.  Silly thought that was.  I've since realized that there really is no such thing as "smooth sailing" in the Sonoran Desert.  But the road did allow me to move much more quickly and efficiently, and I was now entering the Tohono O'odham Reservation. 

Maybe an hour of running later, I ran into (not literally) a functioning windmill that was pumping water into a large storage tank.  Happy to find a sign of civilization out there (though the cattle were much less happy to see me), I took the opportunity to chug some water and top off my water bladder.  I could tell that others had filled their water bottles here as well.  If only someone had strategically placed one of these every 15 miles along the border...
Moving on, I could tell in my GPS that I was getting close to the first "town" I would encounter on the reservation, and sure enough, I soon could make out a water tower on the horizon.  An hour later, noon now, I walked up toward the first house I came too.  They had a couple dogs that sure barked a lot, but were kind enough not to bite me.  The owners were not home, so I figured they wouldn't mind if I used the spigot on the side of their house to top off my water again.  It was getting hot, definitely in the 90's just like NOAA had said.  This was one time that I had really been hoping the weatherman would be wrong.  My water was refilled, but at this point I was really hoping to get some conversation, advice, a shady place to take a siesta, and maybe even a bit of food for lunch.

So I went to the other houses.  There were probably only eight or so there anyway, but no one seemed to be home.  Finally, the last house I approached I found people.  A teenage boy was on the porch with his dog.  I waved and approached casually and he called inside his house.  His mother came outside and asked, "what are you doing here?"  I explained I was hiking and was just hoping to get some water and maybe some food.  She said that would be alright.  It was an awkward time, but I waited on the porch, talking a bit with her three teenage boys and she made me a couple ham sandwiches.  I explained what I was doing out there, and they didn't seem to care too much either way, but I was just happy to be getting some real food.

They sent me off with two ham and cheese sandwiches, a popsicle, and two bottles of water.  Incredibly generous treatment of a white guy that probably shouldn't be where he was.  I ran along, excitedly eating my popsicle as I went.  As I left town I saw this sign along the road , and I couldn't help but find some ironic humor in it all.  I kept running along the border road until about 1pm, and having eaten both ham sandwiches as I ran, I stopped in the shade of some mesquite trees on the side of the road for a siesta.

While I tried to catch some Z's and avoid the hottest part of the day, I saw three Border Patrol agents and met two.  The first agent came rolling up maybe 15 minutes after I'd settled in (I'd even set up my tarp for some extra shade).  He was...enthusiastic? about my plans to run across the desert.  He kept saying, "you're crazy man", and remarking on how he couldn't believe I was out there alone, asking if I was scared, etc.  Nice guy though.  The next Border Patrol agent rolled up maybe an hour later in one of their paramedic trucks.  Also a nice guy, he was a bit more curious as to my motivation to be doing what I was doing, so I told him my intent to raise awareness for deaths and social injustices of the border.  He was good at staying impartial, and he commented on the fact that a lot of groups like No Mas Muertes come down and place water, but he said that someone should be teaching the immigrants how to properly sterilize water they find in the desert.  He said that most of the rescues and recoveries he had done were because the person had become sick from drinking contaminated water.  He said that many try to "ceviche" the bad water by squeezing lime juice into it.  While I can imagine this might kill some of the bugs, you definitely need something stronger to make the water safe.  The last Border Patrol agent came by just as I was packing up to start running again, and he either had heard I was there and didn't feel the need to stop, or just didn't see me, because he just blew right on by.

By the time I got moving again, some light cloud cover had started to build and was kind enough to give me some respite from the sun.  It was still pretty damn hot though, and just like my previous days on the border, the late afternoon was certainly the most challenging part of the day in regard to my mental and emotional state.  I blame mostly biological reasons- mild dehydration, insufficient electrolytes and calories, oppressive heat and sun, basically the body is stressed and wants you to stop- but the afternoons were the hardest.  I always found myself wanting to quit, thinking about how easy it would be to just tell the next Border Patrol agent that I was done, that I didn't feel well and needed to get out of there.  But I didn't.  I always managed to find a grin when I encountered someone, just a little something to convince them and myself that I actually did feel fine and was not in a dire situation. 

Anyway, as the day wore on, I realized three things: I was feeling much better as it was getting cooler, that I still had to go over or around a mountain that day, and that there wasn't a border fence or road that went over it like I had thought.  Mixed bag.  At this point, I wasn't really looking forward to more bushwhacking through rough terrain- it had already been a long day.  But trudge along I did.  As I neared the mountain I could see there was a farm just south of the border fence in Mexico, and there was a functioning windmill.  "Bonus!", I thought, I can refill water there before going through the mountains- it should get me all the way to the next town with a comfortable amount of extra water should any problems arise.  So I hopped the fence (quite easy to do here).  It turned out that, though the windmill was a-turnin', it wasn't bringing up any water, and there wasn't anyone around.  I hung out in front of the house for a bit while I took down some calories.  The house was obviously not lived in anymore, so I felt it was ok to use one of their old metal chairs to rest my tired legs a while.  Lightly refreshed though wanting more water, I hopped back over the fence and continued on.

I soon saw something strange on a hilltop in the distance, lying just before the mountain-obstacle.  It sort of looked like a cross on top of the hill.  Though it was a little out of the way to the north, I couldn't help but go see what it was.  As I drew nearer, I could see a faint road leading to a Border Patrol truck on top the hill. I thought, "maybe while I check out what is up on that hill, I can get some water from the Border Patrol agent too".  It turned out that cross-looking thing was actually another Border Patrol truck, but it was one of their camera/surveillance trucks, which can apparently detect heat signatures of people crossing the border from quite far away.

He had quite the vantage from his hilltop position too, but when I said he must obviously have detected me, he responded in an almost ashamed manner, "It is kind of windy today, it doesn't work so well when it is windy.  Once it dies down at night though it works pretty well."  I thought it was kind of funny that I was able to walk right up to this fancy surveillance truck and not be detected until I waved at him from 15 feet away.  We talked for a good while as I filled my water bladder and bottles from an extra gallon jug of water he had in his truck, making idle conversation and learning about his job a bit.  I asked, "Someone must need to be at this truck all the time, huh?", and he replied, "Yeah, they don't like when one of these trucks gets damaged, especially since they cost about $900,000 a piece."  "$900,000?!", I exclaimed, "How many of these truck are there?"  He answered, "Well, all of the border districts have one, and there is one just on the other side of this mountain."  I think he said that his district had six of them.  That is a lot of money for something with marginal functionality.  Anyway, I queried him a bit about the mountain I was to be negotiating pretty soon- with evening rapidly approaching, I wanted to figure out the easiest and fastest way to the other side.  He wasn't sure whether it would be faster to go over the shoulder of the mountain to the south or to traverse around the mountain to the north.  I had my suspicions that it would  probably be easier over the shoulder, but since I had already cut north a bit to check out the hilltop mystery, I decided to go around to the north.  I would soon realize my mistake- the north side of the mountain was much "bigger" than it had looked- it extended much further than I could at first see, and was heavily featured with steep gullies and pointy plants (surprise, surprise).

Finding myself alone again, but more alone in the sense that there was no longer a road or trail to follow, I decided to take advantage of my waning cell phone reception and call a good friend and my family before I lost reception completely.  It was interesting to navigate the gullies and pointy plants with a large pack while talking on a cell phone, but I proved to myself once more that I can indeed multi-task when necessary, and it was revitalizing to talk with friends and family.  The sun was setting in a rather spectacular fashion, but that also meant darkness was rapidly approaching and I was still a long ways from any road.

After a while I was quite happy I had a compass, and after losing quite a bit of flesh to the Sonoran vegetation, I found myself back on a dirt road that was headed south toward the border road.  I came upon a Border Patrol truck with no one in or around it, and assuming that this must be the truck of the guy manning the other surveillance truck on this side of the mountain, I called out for a minute.  I figured he would have seen me already since the wind had died down and it was night again, but I got no response, and after another hour or so of hiking with no Border Patrol trucks searching for me, I'm pretty sure he just didn't see me.  Funny thing that is.  I even had my headlamp on. No matter, on I went.  Once I reached the border road again I could see a truck and hear voices just south of the border in Mexico.  Seeing that it was dark and not necessarily an ideal time for cattle ranching, I speculated it was likely either immigrants or drug smugglers getting dropped off near the border.  I was kind of expecting there to be a Border Patrol truck waiting just on the other side, but no one seemed to care too much.  When I ran into another agent a little later, I asked about the truck and he didn't seem too concerned about it.  He was nice enough to force three bottles of Gatorade on me though.

The desert night is incredible, the stars spectacular, and I felt particularly inspired that evening, so I kept running until about 10:30pm.  The cool night air gave me some renewed energy, and the vivid stars gave distraction for the mind and enough light that I could run on the road without a headlamp.  I didn't see anyone else that night.  When I did finally stop, I threw down my tarp and sleeping bag on a small, open hilltop between two washes.  I put on a dry shirt, my fleece, and some fresh socks, I stuffed my face with some dry Ramen noodles (quite good really if you mash up the noodles and sprinkle the seasoning over them in the bag) and a protein bar, chugged some water and gatorade, and crawled into my sleeping bag.  I was only able to watch the stars for a few minutes before consciousness rapidly took its leave.  I don't think anything could have awoken me that night.

Stay tuned for Day 7!