I have been trying to make myself document an account of my time in Arizona with No More Deaths but continue to encounter the obstacle of my own resistance. I don’t know where this resistance is coming from and thus am unsure of how to overcome it. I am going to attempt circumnavigating it, following the first impressions that rise wherever they may lead.
From the vantage of the “twin peaks,” in the early evening, the Sonoran desert looks lovely; peaks and valleys clothed in soft brown fur; subtle shifting hues. I’d climbed the peaks with a small group of fellow campers—Becky, Larkin, Cat, Sarah, Christina—with the hope of catching an elevated view of the setting sun. It was with some reluctance that I made the hike having just bathed for the first time in several days. At camp we bath via the “sun shower,” a plastic bag with a hose attached that is hung from a mesquite tree. Privacy is provided by a blue tarp stretched taut, attached to two poles. The bather stands, or squats rather, on a bed of carefully placed large red rocks collected from the crumbly hillsides. To the left is a “toilet” (a plastic bucket with a toilet seat set over top) that is to be used for #2 only (you’re on your own for the rest). Straight ahead is a patch of brambles, the drop of a valley, the quick ascension of a hill that breaks into incessantly, brilliantly blue sky. Birds sing and flutter near. I am the Eve of Arizona, naked and unashamed.
I was glad to share this hilltop sunset with others content to be quiet, to be in their own moment, while still it is a moment shared. My heart felt close to the skin of my chest, beating quickly. Emotions fluttered and throbbed but I couldn't identify what they were, what they were telling me. The landscape seemed imperturbably perfect. I could walk around the small circumference of our perch and piece together a 360 degree view of the desert that I’d spent half a week driving and hiking and sleeping in. It occurred to me that somewhere between the mountain ranges that laced the horizon was the Chavez trail that I’d patrolled the day before.
Generally a patrol begins with a drive, twenty to thirty minutes on roughly carved dirt roads that connect ranches and barren land and lead us to water drops. After checking the drop and leaving more water if necessary, we continue on foot, carrying backpacks with food, medical supplies and more water. NMD volunteers have created regular areas where we leave large deposits of water, far enough from the road that it is not readily visible to ranchers and border patrol, close enough that we don’t have to walk far lugging gallon jugs of water. A water drop could have anywhere from fifteen to fifty gallons of water depending on how “active” a trail is. Active trails are those frequently traversed by migrants. Activity is gauged by how quickly our dropped water is consumed, how much evidence there is of people passing and whether or not any migrants have been encountered by volunteers as they patrolled the surrounding area. At times a drop can become dry within a matter of days. Other times not a gallon has moved. Sometimes the water jugs are slashed or crushed. This is something that I didn’t want to believe happened until I came across it myself. It’s hard to imagine what would motivate one person to destroy another person’s chance of survival, but it happens, often.
Summer days in the desert are always brutally hot, but on the Chavez trail I felt the oppression of the heat and the relentlessly present sun magnified. Here the mesquite trees grew low to the ground. The only plant life with any height were the leafless Ocotillos, spindly and prickly and providing no shade. The ground was treacherously rocky and seemed eager to role an ankle and bring a weary body to the red dust. Navigating this path I noticed an empty bottle of Electrolit. This is a Gatorade like drink. The bottles decompose quickly in the sun and are easily crushed under foot after a few hours of exposure. This bottle was fresh, resilient, evidence that not long before me, another was present. This was the closest to a migrant that I had felt all week. I did not encounter sojourners in the desert during my week but evidence of their presence was abundant. The land was littered with discarded sweatshirts, pants, underwear, hairspray, bags. I found a Spiderman backpack. A volunteer who was with me picked up a child’s shoe. The sole was worn off completely, in its place; the insole of an adult shoe had been sown. Someone else picked up a handmade book, colorful pages were blurred by the rain and the sun but there were remnants of drawings and soccer stats written on the pages. There are people out here. I knew this before but did not feel the truth of it then as I do now. There are grown men and women, little children, individuals together and alone. People on a journey with entire lives encased within their flesh, stories that intertwine with others—husbands, wives, sisters, brothers—stories that intertwine with me.
The setting sun slunk from subtlety to brilliance, bright orange embracing the elegant edges of lavender mountain ranges. During the day, I can hardly bear the desert or Arizona in general. The thought that people choose to live here bewilders me. But in the early morning and in the evening I am converted. “This is the most beautiful place,” I say to anyone who will listen. And it is, in that moment. Yet, it is composed of harsh cruel things: thorns, scorpions, rattlesnakes, dehydration, burns, inhumanity, injustice. Amongst those harsh cruel things though are delicate, enduring beauties: brightly colored flowers, breath-taking views, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, perseverance. The contradictions of the desert and the complications of immigration are like microcosms that illustrate the confounding juxtapositions of creation and destruction, helplessness and empowerment, of mercy and cruelty that comprise life on this earth. A sense of awareness settled over me. My feelings were ambivalent. I sat feeling quiet, whole, grieved, appreciative and hopeful.