With a quick nod from the Mexican Customs agent leaning back in his chair with his feet propped up on his desk, I head south across the border on the dusty dirt road into Sasabe. I’ve got my camera bag full of large-format gear, Polaroid film and the chemistry to process the negatives along with a tripod, and another bag to carry other supplies, including a sweatshirt and coat. I want to stop into town before heading out into the desert to get a couple of jugs of water and some energy bars for later. There’s nobody around as the sun is already high above the horizon, but I can feel the eyes watching me from the shadows.
It is already so hot.
The Super Coyote market is not far into town, and it’s pretty quiet inside except for the music of corridos gently filling the room from the speakers of a cd player behind the young girl stationed at the cash register. The shelves are stocked mostly with canned and packaged goods along with some basic produce. The refrigerated cases are at the back and are half-filled with Gatorade, Red Bull and various flavors of Pedialyte next to the eggs and milk. I grab a couple of half-gallon jugs of water, which appear to be pretty popular items as there are only a few left. Outside, I load one of the jugs into my bag of supplies and decide to carry the other one.
Before heading out, I drink some water.
The dirt road heading west is lined with small ranch houses, which all seem quiet. Every now and then a dog comes out and starts barking, only to realize that the energy expended in this heat just isn’t worth it, and they end up returning to the shadows. There seem to be a lot of things happening in the shadows besides the dogs resting as I continue to feel the eyes watching.
I stop and drink some more water.
Just as I pass what seems to be the last set of ranches, I cut off on a trail that leads north and northwest. Not far along the path, there’s a collection of dead livestock and horses scattered about, exhausted of life from the heat. The air is suffocating. Each breath I take is lodged in my lungs. Even the flies that would normally buzz around such a place are wise enough to rest.
I drink some more water.
The first half-gallon jug is done and I toss it in with all of the others scattered around.
The sun is high and doesn’t seem to ever move as I keep making my way along the path that meanders both north and west. There’s only the maze of paths going in all sorts of directions. Off in the distance, I notice a pickup truck bouncing along as it struggles to traverse the open desert of rocks and scrub. Two men jump out from the back with a large black packs strapped to their backs. They move quickly north while the truck turns around to return south. As I’m out here to photograph migrants, I start moving in their direction to intersect them at some point, but within minutes, the truck is returning north and and the two guys are heading south, except they no longer have the packs strapped to their backs. I take cover under a scrub brush, as it is clear these are not migrants looking to cross themselves, but rather, merely dropping off a pickup, most likely marijuana. They jump back into the truck, and I watch the truck disappear before coming out from under the brush.
It is so hot.
I drink some more water.
I pick up a path that is now heading directly west. It is littered with all kinds of discarded clothing and personal items. Shirts. Hats. Bras, panties and underwear. A new Colgate toothbrush. Old Spice antiperspirant. A hair comb. And empty half-gallon jugs. It becomes so hot in the desert that hyperthermia can occur within a short period of time to the point where it can become so overwhelming, you just want to rip your clothing off. This is the primary reason migrants are dying in the Sonora desert.
It is so hot. I want to strip naked.
I drink some more water and then some more water.
And now, the second half-gallon jug is done, and I toss it in with all of the others scattered around.
I keep walking and keep walking. West. Tired and hot. I’m carrying too much stuff and have too many clothes on. I feel so wet and salty. And thirsty. And even more thirsty. And then, an unopened 32-ounce bottle of water lying just off the trail. Then a bottle of orange-flavored Pedialyte.
And so, I keep walking and walking. The sun has now left the desert and dipped below the horizon though it is still hot. I find a desert scrub brush that is a cocoon of branches and has a soft matting of dirt on which to rest upon. It is quiet and peaceful.
Under the cover of branches, I mix some of the orange-flavored Pedialyte with the bottle of water I have scavenged, but the attempt to quench my thirst is disrupted by the sheer awful taste of it. Now, I just have a bottle of warm, putrid water, but it’s all I have so it will have to do. With the sun having already set, the desert landscape is dissolving away, darker and darker from sight while above, the sky gets brighter and brighter as the moon nearly fills it with the company of stars in all directions, even South and North.
At this point, it’s too late to get back to the Sasabe Port of Entry, which is now approximately 12 miles away. Wandering around in the Sonora Desert in Mexico (or in the United States for that matter) is probably not a good idea, so I curl up and rest in my cocoon of branches and dirt.
Self-portrait in Sonora Desert, 12 miles west of Sasabe Port of Entry, Sonora, Mexico, 2004
I am so alone.
Eventually, the moon parts ways with the stars, and it becomes incredibly dark. The calm and silence of the desert is now broken with the sounds of vehicles rumbling and dogs barking off in the distance. I can hear the snap of steps in the dirt but can’t tell if they’re coming from a person or an animal.
It is getting so cold.
I try to sleep and for a couple of hours because I’m so exhausted from anticipation. I’m actually able to get some rest and get lost in the slumber of a dream. But then, there are more snaps of the dirt. I can’t take it anymore – the uncertainty and unknowing presence of someone or something out there.
Quickly, I emerge from the safety of my natural cave and head north. Within a few moments, I easily cross the barbed-wire fence and start following the array of trails created by both humans and cattle north and east back towards the Port of Entry. I’m hoping that a Border Patrol agent is nearby so I can be intercepted. At least the Ford Bronco will be warm and filled with the aroma of hot coffee. But nothing, just more walking and more walking until I finally make it to a paved road that is headed east.
It is so cold.
As the sun is beginning to rise and I continue to walk, the Border Patrol must be having a shift change with a number of their vehicles passing me by without hesitation. I don’t understand – I’ve got two packs of unknown gear, my clothes are dirty, and I’m wandering alone. Am I the only one that thinks this is all just a little odd? And yet, no one stops and I just keep walking.
It is so cold and I’m so tired.
Finally, I’m back where I started – the Sasabe of Port of Entry – but this time, in the United States. No one pays me any attention as I load the gear up on the back of the motorcycle. Riding north on Arizona Highway 286, I drift in my thoughts as I look out onto the desert.
I just want to go home.
Institute for Peace and Justice Galleries, University of San Diego | Transparency in light box, 48 x 72 x 2 inches