The US/Mexico border falls on deserts. For the past few months, I have been walking along it in the Sonoran. My footsteps along National Park trails, rough wilderness roads, and through dry washes and prickly desert scrub intersect paths taken by people crossing the border on foot from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other places, toward hope of safe havens, reunification with family, jobs, and other reasons. This part of the border is a Death Zone, one far from urban populations and their infrastructure: kind people, tap water, shelters, pro-bono lawyers, air conditioning, cell service, hospitals, road signs. This is a place where people cross because US policies and Border Patrol tactics have made crossing elsewhere too risky, so the mountainous desert seems safer, until it isn’t.
This is one of those projects that is as small and useless as it is huge and important; right place and time make all the difference: hauling gallon jugs of water and canned beans on human backs (how pitiable a means of transport is a human back! how weighty a gallon on water!) a mile or two at a time from parked 4×4 trucks to place in crossing points of migrant paths far from other sources of aid, near polluted water points, or in particularly dangerous areas because of heat and distance and ease-of-getting lost in the sharp turning hills and valleys of terrain cut by erosive downpours.
Thirst. The heat and stress makes you sweat, too much exertion and you puke precious liquid. Drinking water polluted by cows or wild animal shit makes yours runny diarrhea. Advice on the far side of the border often tells people it is a 3-day walk: but get injured, get lost, get scattered from your guide by a BP helicopter that “dusted” your group, get left behind because you move too slowly, get lied to about the length of your route–who can cross these mountains in 3 days? And who can carry enough weight for more than that? At some point you run out and trust your body to be strong but they just aren’t strong enough sometimes.
So people die here. So good samaritanos place meager offerings of agua pura where we hope they will be found and used, where we hope they will not be slashed and emptied by sadistic hunters, racist vigilante militiamen, murderous Border Patrol agents (humanitarian aid is not a crime). Often they are; we come upon knifed and stomped gallons and cans and have to debate: leave more in hopes someone in need will find it before vandals do, or leave the area as a lost cause?
Taking a break from brutal hikes laying down water, sometimes people write little messages on the bottles. Strength, courage, may God walk beside you. Where we leave this water, everyone still has a long long way to go before resting. What would you write on an ephemeral offering, a token drop of water in a vast desert that may or may not be on someone’s route when they need it, that may or may not be destroyed before it serves a purpose?