We make sandwiches and fill our canteens before loading up the four-wheel-drive trucks with crates of gallon water jugs, Ziplocs full of high-carbohydrate food, bags of dry socks and medical supplies, plus our backpacks for carrying it all. Laminated topographical maps and portable GPSs, sunscreen and hats, granola bars and water bottles get shoved into pockets and clipped to bags. It is 8 a.m. and we will meet back at the No More Deaths Camp by 6 or 7 p.m.
We reach our first GPS waypoint marking trail access and tumble out of the cab, stretching our legs and arms after the bumpy 30-minute ride. I’m still sore from yesterday’s 8-mile hike over steep, overgrown terrain, but I know walking the trails will loosen me up. We find the trail and load up packs with water, food and socks. The GPS says the “water drop” waypoint is only 0.2 miles away, so we take much heavier loads than we would if we were hiking all day. We head down a mesquite-covered hill and into a dry stony creek-bed, then up through smatterings of cholla cactus and over rusty red earth.
A crate of untouched water jugs is surrounded by a dozen empties at the GPS waypoint. A five-gallon bucket sits overturned and bare inside. It is bittersweet to find a site like this. It is encouraging that the supplies are being found. It is encouraging that the jugs are intact and haven’t been slashed by the U.S. Border Patrol — which has been caught on tape destroying water jugs — or by local ranchers. It is encouraging that the food and socks in the bucket have been taken. Yet it is accompanied by the discouraging feeling that, somehow, we are not doing enough. How is it possible that there are people in the desert desperate enough to make this journey with so little, forced to travel through a place so remote and treacherous that they have to rely on Nature Valley granola bars positioned in the middle of the desert by a bunch of volunteers?
We write “agua pura” (pure water), “Buena suerte!” (good luck), “Hasta un mundo sin fronteras” (until a world without borders), and draw hearts and smiley faces on the jugs. I rarely draw hearts on anything in earnest these days, but out here the sentimentality of such a symbol rings more genuine than anywhere else.
We record what we found and what we are leaving and head back to the truck to find the other 11 “drops.” Some sites are as easy to find, some take us 20 minutes to locate with the GPS. Some are well used, some untouched. There is one remote site that is totally empty except for one blue plastic shred from a water bottle cap. Were the jugs and bucket taken by the Border Patrol? Or were the supplies well used? Has anyone come by who needed water and couldn’t find any?
We’ll never know. That is the reality out here. As much as we can speculate each step of the way, we won’t know the story attached to each hand that lifted a water jug to their lips. We won’t know who or how many passed this spot this week, month, year, or if they made it to their destination. On these trails, people don’t want to be found. Oftentimes, the only trace of humanity is an oxidized can or blown out sneaker rotting next to the packed earth of the trail. We can only hope that they survived the harsh environment of the Sonoran Desert with or without our help.
Part 1 of Goff’s journey appeared on Page 2 of the Oct. 10 Beach & Bay Press. Read it here