Section 1: San Diego to Calexico
James had offered to pick us up from the hotel in the morning, so we got an early and bleary-eyed start. Neither of us are the most accomplished early birds but this trip is definitely challenging that! We drove with James, and fellow Border Angels volunteer Han, to a gas station to rendezvous with the others. There were about 10 total, plus the two of us. Everyone was remarkable. Just the best group of warm and open hearted people willing to donate their time to making the world a better place. Each person had a different story and reason for being there - some were immigrants, or the children of immigrants, others found inspiration through their church, and others just felt like it needed to be done. Everyone else in the group had done many water drops before, and we felt honored to be included in such a positive and energetic mission.
After all the introductions, water purchases, and last-minute pee breaks, we caravanned to the trailhead, where we immediately began climbing. With all of our water, plus the two gallon jugs we carried in for the drop, we had 18 liters, 36 lbs! Maybe the heaviest load either of us have carried. That climb was tough. It didn't help that every single person we were hiking with was literally the most interesting person we’d ever met and we barely had the breath to ask a question. Luckily we stopped often, to look at interesting things and to reconvene. We were able to stash the bags about a mile in at a turnoff we’d be returning to on the way back. Not sure if we would have kept up otherwise!
When we made it to the border, James showed us the “fence” that marked the line. Unlike the imposing wall that we’ve seen since San Diego, this area just had a simple barbed wire fence running along the border. It had been cut down in several places, likely only days after it had first been erected as a grazing boundary in the 90’s, according to James. The fence was pretty pathetic looking, to be honest, and such a contrast to the militarized feel of the wall closer to the city.
James asked us to consider why such a low-tech barbed wire fence hadn’t been fixed in the 20 years since?
Several in the group helped model the question as they stepped easily from one country to the other, now you’re in Mexico, now you’re not. On our way in, we'd seen plenty of signs of passage, and the trails that migrants use to move through the Jacumba wilderness can be seen by satellite. It’s no secret that migrants use this area to enter the US.
James went on to explain that Border Patrol and the government are well-aware that migrants cross through here and that the fence is practically nonexistent.The brutal desert terrain does act as a deterrent, which they count on for border security (crazy that we’d rather have a dead body than an undocumented migrant). But ultimately, as James argued, they don’t really care if migrants do make it across the border. Undocumented citizens provide an endless source of cheap labor, and add to the consumer base of the US. They can’t receive any benefits or take advantage of many federal services. They have no voice and no voting power, and have limited ability to influence the political landscape. And while there may be a political and cultural advantage to preventing their migration, there isn’t necessarily a financial one. This stuck out to us. Money talks. Whatever puts the most money into the pockets of the Powers That Be is gonna be the system in place.
After listening to James, a couple of the others offered their own comments and stories. Han, who came here on a student visa then obtained citizenship, shared her own story about the process, and the experiences of others that she had known. She made the valuable point that many undocumented citizens choose to stay undocumented, despite having the opportunity to become citizens.
If they can lead a low visibility lifestyle and play their cards correctly, why take the risky chance to jump through legal hoops when it’s working as is?
A relative of hers, for example, had lived in the US for decades and married a US citizen. His citizenship was then taken away from him when ICE discovered that he’d been married before, long ago in his home country, and had failed to obtain the documents for a legal divorce (difficult to do in an unstable country that lacked reliable bureaucratic institutions). Apparently this happens: folks get citizenship and then it’s taken away! It’s not surprising that people are wary of moving through the official channels when something can so randomly derail the entire process.
As we talked, we distributed our gallon water jugs throughout the area, with messages of love and hope written in Spanish. We had Lisa, an incredibly charismatic and engaging woman about our age, to thank for the English to Spanish translation on the bottles. She had an immediately obvious kindness to her and a ton of stories to share. Her own family member had experience with the difficulty of physically crossing the US border. Lisa now adores traveling to Guatemala, where her family ties originated.
The area immediately to our north was about 5-10 miles of tough terrain before it bottomed out at a major interstate. It was an area that people had died in before, and by dropping the water, Border Angels hoped to prevent unnecessary death. As hikers, we have a great respect for the life-or-death power nature can wield. People have saved our lives by sharing water or food or shelter, and we were happy to be a part of a similar effort. We have the technology and resources to prevent this kind of death, and it is wrong not to use it.
Once all of the water had been distributed, we started the hike back to the cars with a much lighter load. After hiking as just the two of us, it was awesome to be with other people. A strenuous hike in the heat of the day became infinitely more bearable doing it as a group with a shared mission (a metaphor for the philosophy of our project). When we reached our discarded packs and the turn-off for our hike, the others agreed to hike a little further and see us off. We all made it to “Smuggler’s Cave”, a cool little cave that has an entire history of old campfires, graffiti, and past meals etched on its walls. After resting in the shade and offering a final round of encouragement and prayers, our group said their goodbyes and walked off into the distance. Back to being alone.
After feeling sorry for ourselves for a bit, already missing the company of such an inspiring group, we got back to the business of hiking. Tenny has hiked in this kind of terrain before and has experience with navigation, which we desperately needed (although her strategy mostly consisted of blindly pushing forward with unrealistic enthusiasm). The wilderness is mostly just a pile of boulders - some tiny, some the size of houses - strewn in a jumble throughout a series of interlocking canyons. We spent the next several hours scrambling down a boulder wash, thoroughly exhausting ourselves, losing some skin, and ripping up our gear.
Did we mention butt slides, leaps of faith, and dangling in full body extensions from a ledge?
Fun but definitely, definitely hard. There were signs of the migrants everywhere, old water bottles, suitcases, clothes, cans of food, etc. All the evidence served as a helpful indicator of where to go, as we followed footprints and other signs around the rock. We barely maintained a mile per hour pace. It is impossible to imagine children or the elderly taking this route. In the dark.
We could see our destination - a wide, flat expanse that several canyons emptied out into - long before we actually arrived. In the way of canyon hiking, it seemed “just around the corner” for the entire day. When we finally made it, exhausted and frustrated with ourselves and each other - it was almost dark. We set up the tent and wearily began to assemble supper, when we saw a headlamp approaching down the same wash we’d come in from. This was not a good feeling. We hadn’t seen anyone all day, and aside from the migrants, we had no idea who would be out here. The hiker flashed his/her headlamp at us, seeing our light, and clearly adjusting course to head our way.
We both stood up, ready to...something. Run? Pepper spray? Push our emergency help button?
As the person neared, he called out to us and we were able to identify him as Border Patrol. Apparently, he had heard us scrambling through the wash miles before, and had followed on foot, trying to catch up. It was gratifying to see his exhaustion and sweat - we weren’t the only ones! We were also impressed. Up to this point, we’ve only ever seen Border Patrol in cars, and this guy clearly had some gumption. He explained that there are different Border Patrol rotations, and that the Jacumba Wilderness was known for being one of the harder, more elite postings. We can attest to that. We thought that the difficult passage meant that only the truly desperate would attempt it, but he disagreed, telling us that “the rougher the terrain, the rougher the people.” Interesting.
We felt bad that he’d chased us pointlessly, but he was in great spirits, and pretty interested in our trip. Not at all the political aspect, which he made no attempt to engage with, but rather the adventure aspect, and the backpacking. We talked trail and gear for awhile, while he called in his location and waited for a pickup. He seemed like the type who enjoyed the physical and logistical challenge of being in the wilderness, which is an interest that we can relate to. He talked a little about safety and gave us the standard warnings, but was also realistic that we’d “probably be ok.” All in all a really nice guy. Maybe it’s just these Californians, but so far we’re getting a schooling in our stereotypes about Border Patrol.
Eventually he departed, after calling in our location, and we finished eating and getting ready for sleep. We know that people are probably out here and every noise has us a little twitchy but we’re both too tired to care that much and it’s easy to pass out. The distant sound from the highway provides a comforting background to all the other desert noises and we’re both asleep by 7pm, our earliest bedtime yet.