Water drop

Water Drop

A blue plastic milk crate, turned upside down, with two dark rocks atop. Inside the crate are white plastic water jugs, obviously torn open and empty. The crate is sitting on stony ground, with desert vegetation in the background. There is also a rumpled white Red Cross blanket lying on the ground in the background.

By Mikal

December 13, 2023

No people have walked this way for a while.

The six empty water bottles, stashed under an overturned milk crate, were left here full about eight months ago on a previous supply trip. In the intervening hot season, the bottles degraded in the withering Sonoran desert sun, becoming brittle, crackling into pieces when we lift the crate. Two of the gallon-sized bottles have been damaged by wild animals — “animalized”. A shred of plastic protrudes from the handle-hole in the crate where some thirsty creature had managed to get its paws, snout or beak between the crate’s rigid plastic gridwork, pierced a bottle and attempted to pull it out.

Near the crate, under the scraggly mesquite, a few unopened, flip-top bean cans lie about, probably originally left eight months ago as well. Their labels are still readable and the food inside is likely still edible. A couple show bite marks of an animal large enough to fit the can in its maw and strong enough to make tooth dents where it tried unsuccessfully to puncture the steel. 

Nearby, several rusty, empty cans lie randomly in the sand, paper labels long weathered off, their pop-top lids carefully removed. These were opened by human hands sometime in the last couple years and provided desperately needed liquid, salt and calories for a long journey across the desert. People have come this way before, just not recently.

The three of us are volunteers with Ajo Samaritans, one of numerous groups doing similar migrant aid/desert aid work along Arizona’s stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. (Note that while I am an Ajo Sams member, I’m only speaking for myself, not the group, and reporting solely on my personal experience and observations.) Each group has a different focus and practice, but most work loosely together. Ajo Sams’ specific activism involves hiking water and other life-saving humanitarian supplies into remote parts of the desert wilderness. 

The Sonoran Desert landscape often feels hyperreal, a place of awe and wonder, but its magnificence hides a terrible truth: hundreds of migrants die each year attempting to cross it on foot. Or, rather, it is a place where hundreds of human remains are found each year. The desert hides its bodies well and only the desert itself knows the true number of deaths. We are doing our small part to deprive the desert its due.

Two hikers are seen walking through coarse desert shrubs with first light hitting a mountain range in the background. To the hikers' left are two crosses, one pale yellow, one lavender, marking the spot where two dead people were found.
Ajo Samaritans volunteers on the way to a water drop on December 13, 2023 pass crosses marking where two migrants died.

Today’s supply hike finds us on public land, north of the U.S.-Mexico border, in the general region of the currently-closed Lukeville, Arizona border crossing. We arrived here after a 45 minute, early morning dirt road drive, followed by an hour and a half cross-country hike from the nearest access road. For a migrant, this spot is only reached by a long, treacherous night’s walk from the border. We have similar water drop sites to the south and north, on well-defined migrant trails, but no idea how the trails connect through this area. We’re investigating this location, a logical travel route, as another possible emergency water and food drop site. From our spot on this small pass, depending on the route taken, it is another 40-60 mile hike across desert wilderness to Interstate 8.

We can tell that this route hasn’t been used in months, at least. The trail is faint at best and all human traces are old. The few artifacts we do find — a discarded hoodie, hat, shoes, an aluminum soda can — have all clearly been here over the summer at least, maybe a year or more.

Hungry travelers would’ve opened the still-intact canned beans had they come through since the beans and water were left here last spring. At first glance, it seems that no one made use of the bottled water, that it all drained from broken bottles into the sand, but we can’t really be sure since migrants often will drink what they need, transfer the remainder to the sturdier, black plastic jugs they usually carry, and neatly replace the crate over the empty bottles. In that case, the emptied bottles would have degraded as expected after a summer in the sun, the milk crate and sparse vegetative cover of the mesquite bush not providing sufficient protection. The desert sun eats everything, if given the chance.

A scrubby desert bush with sun-damaged, torn old clothes draped over it and hanging to the ground. There is also a "Puma" branded hat in the dirt and a damaged metal can of beans.
Clothes abandoned by travelers at the first drop. The hat reads "Puma." The can of beans shows signs of "animalization", where a creature of the desert tried unsuccessfully to bite through it.

After a short discussion, we all agree: this is not currently a well travelled path that needs priority attention, but could potentially become one in the future, given the volatile nature of border politics a short ways to the south. Between us we’ve lugged in six gallons of water, plus some canned food, granola bars and clean socks. We decide to leave half the water here under the crate and continue on to investigate a nearby site that also makes sense as a likely waypoint on a desert traverse.

Two small black plaid cloth shoes sit next to each other on rocky soil with a desert landscape in the background. The brand visible in white letters on the outside is "fashion."
What is the story behind these and all the other shoes in the desert? Maybe they had spares and discarded these? Usually discarded shoes are trashed, but these and some others have been perfectly serviceable. Shoes always feel so weirdly intimate and out of place here, like you can feel the owner's presence.

The next site is similar in its lack of recent use. There is a crate already there, under a palo verde bush, left from a drop long ago and long since emptied of any supplies. We leave the remaining three water bottles, plus a small, snap-top, rodent-proof bucket filled with canned food, snacks and socks. Sometime in the next couple months, a group will repeat today’s hike and check the drops. Based on whether or not the supplies are used, we might begin regular replenishments or possibly remove the crates and supplies for use elsewhere. Our priorities are always with known, high-traffic areas where supplies are clearly needed. These can change suddenly and for no apparent reason. A line of drops may be getting heavy use for months or years and then…nothing. This is why exploratory hikes are a regular part of our work.

We had originally been a group of five, but two had to cancel at the last minute.The larger the group, the more supplies we can carry. This becomes more important on longer, more difficult hikes, but is less important on exploratory trips. Today we all went “light”, only carrying two gallons each and a small portion of other supplies for the eight-mile round trip.

A desert scene at dawn. A hiker is seen in side view carrying a backpack through scrubby desert bushes, past a woody, dead cactus trunk. There are large saguaro cactus in the background and a distant mountain range far beyond them.
Morning light. Today's hike was mostly flat terrain like this, for about 8 miles round-trip, the main hazard being stepping on cactus spines or twisting an ankle. In the summer, rattlesnakes and heat are additional risks.

The aid we leave varies with the season. In summer, where heat and dehydration can easily kill a human within 24 hours, water is survival, so that becomes our priority. Most drop sites have two milk crates that will hold six gallons each, and a 5-gallon snap-top, animal-proof bucket that we fill with snacks, electrolyte powder packets, and more substantial foods in pop-top cans like canned tuna, beans, Vienna sausage and fruit salad. (Once, we ordered a pallet of “pop top” beans that weren’t in fact pop tops, so we had to leave can openers at the drops.)

On a 60 mile cross country hike with limited water and supplies, blisters that prevent further travel become a life-threatening injury, so we include new socks in the buckets. In the winter, hypothermia becomes an additional life-threat, so we often leave blankets. Water is still always the heaviest thing in our packs.

A small black plaid cloth shoe sits on rocky soil. The brand visible in white letters on the outside is "fashion."
Fashion. Desert. A person stood here and now does not. I hope they made it.

It is technically illegal to “abandon personal property” on any public lands, but this being humanitarian aid in a corridor of death overrides anti-littering rules, both legally and morally. We have legal rulings in our favor and a seeming policy of noninterference by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We don’t hide what we’re doing. Any official from any agency who sees us or our group’s vehicles knows 100% who we are and what we’re up to, though the actual act of leaving supplies takes place deep in the desert, out of sight. 

Border Patrol generally ignores us and we, them. They have no law enforcement jurisdiction over U.S. citizens hiking on public lands. In my only encounter with them on our way into a drop a couple years ago, they told us to be sure to contact them if we see any illegal immigrants. We assured them we would, then continued up toward the canyon, carrying water jugs in hands, milk crates strapped openly to backpacks. Sure, bro, we’ll let you know if we see anyone. Promise.

The situation at the U.S.-Mexico border with migration and asylum is complex, involving messy layers of local and global politics, economics, history and, increasingly, environmental pressures. I have been involved or adjacent to border issues for a few years now and whenever I think I have a handle on it, I learn something that completely upends my understanding. Anyone who offers simple solutions is a liar with an agenda.

 

For the purpose of understanding the Sams’ work and our hike today, there is an important distinction that needs to be made between asylum seekers and desert crossers. The people seeking asylum, the ones making headlines at the moment, typically cross the border and immediately turn themselves in to Border Patrol to begin the asylum process. Those who try to cross the desert are generally not eligible, so attempt the dangerous hike north to meet family or friends already here.

The land is beautiful, but responds mercilessly to errors. Getting lost, disabled by injury, illness or snakebite, or not bringing enough food or water can quickly leave someone in extremis. Delirious from heat stroke or hypothermia, exhausted and unable to continue, or wandering till they collapse: dying in the desert must be a terrifying ordeal. Finding a jug of water or some food and a blanket can mean life.

A close up of the bottom of a shoe. A needle-nose pliers is being used to pull a cactus thorn from the bottom of the shoe.
One of the many hazards of desert walking. Cholla cactus thorns can penetrate through a shoe. We always carry pliers for this purpose.

As of today, December 13, 2023, the press is reporting that the Biden Administration is considering even more restrictive immigration policies under pressure from extremist GOP lawmakers as a compromise (read: “hostage situation”) before the GOP will approve a bill that also includes an aid package for Ukraine and Israel. Right now, there are thousands of people per day crossing the border to seek asylum, many of them near Lukeville. There is a very real concern in the desert aid community that ratcheting down on the ability of people to apply for asylum will send many of them into the desert out of desperation. If this happens, even more people will die.

A black plastic one-gallon water jug is seen lying in sand and grass, partly hidden under a bush.
Empty. These water bottles are the type usually carried by migrants. They can be purchased in Sonoyta, just over the border in Mexico. They are durable and aren't reflective, important for people who may be traveling at night and need to not be seen. The desert sun eats plastic quickly. Based on how brittle a bottle is, you can get a sense of how long it has been there.

Most Americans don’t realize that the weaponization of the desert against immigration has been an explicit policy, maintained by both Democratic and Republican administrations. It is a barbaric, cruel and inhumane response to people trying to survive.

No one undertakes this dangerous journey lightly. The humanitarian tragedies at our border are downstream consequences of humanitarian crises in people’s home countries that lead them to migrate. In quite a few cases, the U.S. has a direct hand in the political instability and the climate instability that is pushing migration.

People will continue to come here, through the official process or across the desert at night. No amount of threats, wishful thinking or militarization of the border will stop this. We need reforms of our immigration laws and border policies, ones based in reality and underpinned by a recognition of a global shared humanity.  

In the meantime, we’ll keep providing water to strangers in the desert.

Two crosses, one yellow and one lavender, each about 3' tall and propped up with small piles of rocks are seen surrounded by desert scrub bushes. In the background, two hikers make their way through the brush.
Two of Alvaro Enciso's migrant death memorials. These can be found, sadly, throughout the desert where so many have died. His work can be seen on his IG account @aencisoart
A drawing of a hand holding up a gallon sized bottle of water, colored blue. The word "aqua", Spanish for water is printed on the bottle along with a black cross.
A drawing of a hand holding up a gallon sized bottle of water, colored blue. The word "aqua", Spanish for water is printed on the bottle along with a black cross.
A drawing of a hand holding up a gallon sized bottle of water, colored blue. The word "aqua", Spanish for water is printed on the bottle along with a black cross.

If you’re interested in helping out with desert aid work, you can contact Ajo Samaritans through the website. All work is done by volunteers. Donations cover food and water purchases and fuel and maintenance costs for our beat up 4WD rigs needed to access remote sites.

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