“I don’t understand,” choked the voice on the telephone. “You left him? You left him in the desert?”
In Spanish, the phrase for “I’m sorry” literally means, “I feel it.” I clamped my trembling hands between my knees. Tried to steady my voice. The hot phone hummed between my ear and hunched shoulder. “I feel it,” I told her. “I feel it so much.”
Walter and I drove back in silence, first rumbling over rocky desert trails then slipping onto smooth, wide roads. I turned my face towards the window, folded my arms over my chest, swallowed. As we coasted off the highway I felt a hand on my knee. I looked at the pale, almost translucent skin, the blue veins spider-webbing beneath. I saw the neatly trimmed nails, the dull gold band. The hand attempted another feeble pat. “Honey, in rehab they call this falling off the pink cloud.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and, looking for cops, flicked it out the window. “We sure fell.”
It was my last day with the Samaritans—a humanitarian group based out of Tucson, Arizona that patrols the desert borderlands looking for, and aiding, migrants in distress. I had been working with them for three months as part of a semester-long program on Border Studies. One night a week, I convened with the other Samaritans in the natural wood and wrought iron sanctuary of the local Presbyterian Church. I was by far the youngest member. Most were grey-haired, hybrid-driving, story-telling veteran activists. Instead of parking themselves in California or Florida to golf, eat and sun away their golden years, they had come to Arizona, moved by the ever-climbing border death rate, itching to act.
At these meetings, each team reported on their patrols from the week: how many border crossers they encountered and where, what condition they were in, how many Border Patrol agents harassed either migrants or Samaritans. Then, an enormous desk calendar passed from lap to lap. I could only patrol on Wednesdays and Saturdays. So could Walter.
When I timidly slid into a pew at my first Samaritans meeting and Walter turned and beamed at me, I wasn’t sure if he was an old man or an old woman. Large glasses sat lightly on his soft, wrinkled face. Snowy hair fell to his shoulders. A teal polo sagged over his chest and belly. It was his voice, his New England growl, that clued me in. “Hello my dear,” he said, then extended his hand. “Walter. Walter Collins.”
We always met in the church’s parking lot at 7 a.m., when the desert had not yet shaken off its nightly chills, to load the Samaritans’ 4-Runner with water bottles, electrolyte drinks, granola bars, socks, sweatshirts, first aid kits and a GPS. We would pick a route for the day, a section of the desert to traverse. Walter always drove first so I could sip my coffee. My bleary, streaky vision finally solidified into wakefulness as we left Tucson’s concrete for the craggy mountains and arid valleys just south of the city limits. We sped west under the immense, cloudless sky, watching the car’s thermometer climb past 90, past 100. We pulled over to walk the migrant trails, quartz glittering between the rocks under our feet. My sweat stung as it rolled down my dry temples. Little brown roadrunners darted across our path. Scraggly bushes grabbed at our pant legs.
On most trips, Walter and I saw no one—only one saguaro cactus after another standing at attention. We also saw ghosts: torn and faded sweatshirts and backpacks abandoned at known pick-up points, brittle plastic bottles that shattered at our touch, footprints.
When we encountered a border crosser, everything unfolded as I had been told it would. We spotted people walking on the side of the road—usually men, in a pair or alone, weighed down by a backpack and clutching an empty water jug. We pulled over the car. A wall of heat, thick, heavy and unforgiving, hit us as we stepped out to meet them. Warily eying the Los Samaritanos sign on the car door, they approached. Using the phrases I’d committed to memory, I asked them how many days they’d been walking, where they hailed from, if they hurt and where. We offered them the contents of the trunk. They looked into our eyes and thanked us. We shook hands, warned them to stay off the main roads and wished them the best. Sometimes, watching them continue their interminable march North, I felt a pang as we revved the engine and flipped on the air-conditioning. I forced my eyes from their retreating backs and busied myself noting the incident in the official log, checking the right boxes and circling the location on a map.
On nearly every trip, we stopped at the same tiny coffee shop off the highway, a desert institution with wooden benches, hand-painted signs and half-hippy/half- cowboy clientele. Walter always insisted on paying for my coffee, always shook his head, exasperated, when I protested. He would meticulously unpack the lunch his wife had prepared him: tuna sandwich and a Tupperware of sliced pears. Always the offer of a pear wedge with an affected French accent: “D’Anjou, cherie?”
Once, while leaving water bottles on a migrant trail, our ears started to hum. The faint whirring grew louder. Walter shielded his eyes and scanned the clouds. “They’re buzzing us.” My hair whipped my face as the helicopter circled above. Walter raised his fist skyward, extended his gaunt middle finger. He grinned when they roared away. “We aren’t breaking a single law,” he muttered. Then, looking at me, he recited the Samaritans motto: “Humanitarian aid is never a crime.”
The long, quiet, uneventful stretches of road gave us ample time to share our life stories, and though Walter had nearly four times more life to recount he indulgently asked about my studies and my plans. Steering with one hand, I neatly lined up the dominos of my future. A successful senior year, graduation, travel, work for a newspaper. My time with the Samaritans, my “understanding” of immigration, would surely give me an edge in the hiring process. The notes and photos I’d be amassing could easily morph into a gripping series. All this hands-on experience would look wonderful on my resume. I enjoyed the way “border reporter” rolled off my tongue. Things had never made more sense than they did flying south on Sasabe Road. Many weeks passed, and soon it came time to climb into the 4-Runner with Walter for a final desert patrol.
We had barely left dim, still-sleeping Tucson when we saw a Border Patrol vehicle parked by the side of the road, and pulled over to investigate. Two boys sat in the dust, their faces streaked with grime. The agents stood many yards away, not facing them, chatting and laughing. The boys were uncuffed, not restrained in any way.
We asked the agents for permission to speak with their apprehended quarry. They shrugged. “Sure, sure.” I approached and knelt beside them to hear their story. The taller, darker one did all the talking. They were both sixteen years old, both from Veracruz, Mexico. They had become separated from their group in the night, when a Border Patrol helicopter caused the group to panic and scatter. The smaller boy had bloody scratches all over his arms. From groping his way among saguaro, ocotillo and prickly pear cactus in the moonless night, his friend explained. I dug in the first aid kit for the disinfectant spray. He silently held out his arms, winced as the medicated mist coated his skin. The taller boy downed the electrolyte drink we offered in a few seconds, the neon red liquid running down his chin, but politely refused another one.
For the first time, the smaller boy spoke. The voice that came from between his cracked lips sounded rusty, little-used. “Where will they take us, when they take us?” A year ago, I would have been able to say that he’d be bused back to the border that same afternoon. Now, Arizona’s “Operation Streamline” puts a portion of the day’s apprehended migrants on trial, jails them for a period, and then deports them. If they’re caught re-entering, they already have a criminal record, and can sit in tax payer-funded prison for several years. Some migrants get “streamlined,” some simply deported as before. I couldn’t say for sure which fate would meet these boys.
Walter stood behind me, shifting his weight in the gravel, eyes on me, on the agents, on our car. I felt a light tap on my shoulder. “Tell them they’re our brothers,” he said. Dijo que ustedes son nuestros hermanos. The boys looked at their feet. The first prodded his sanitized scars with mud-encrusted fingers. “Tell them…tell them…” We didn’t know what to tell them.
I drove the next leg. The road stretched ahead of us, endless, squirming in the noon heat. We counted the Border Patrol vehicles aloud as they sailed by. “They’re thick as thieves today,” said Walter, clamping a cigarette between two long fingers and patting his shirt pocket for a lighter. I managed a smile.
We were setting out gallon jugs of water on a trail, nesting them between the dusty rocks of a dry riverbed, when a young man burst out of the foliage and cheerfully strode up to us. “Hi, good morning,” he said in perfect, accent-less English. He was sweating through his black shirt, and eagerly shed his pack. He grinned at Walter and me as we blinked and stared. We shook hands, exchanged names. Walter. Alice. Ramón. We refilled his near-empty jug. Between sips, he explained that he had been living in Phoenix with his wife, a U.S. citizen, for 22 years. One day, leaving work, he was asked for papers, arrested and immediately deported. His wife was hysterical when he finally called her, days later, from Mexico. Now he was making his way back to her, facing the desert’s cruelty alone because he couldn’t afford a guide.
We gave him water, food, fresh socks for his raw and blistered feet, several tablets of ibuprofen. Walter knew of an unofficial safehouse in a small town just nine miles north, a trailer owned by a sympathetic rancher where migrants could spend the night before facing the next phase of their journey. He pointed it out to the man on a map, told him the name of the woman to ask for when he arrived in the town. Ramón nodded, frowned, started to speak then bit his lip. We waited. Finally: “Could you drop me there?”
Walter sighed, put a hand on Ramón’s shoulder. The creases in his face seemed to deepen. “We can’t. We can give you everything but a ride.”
I pulled Walter aside. “It’s just nine miles,” I hissed.
“Honey, if we were caught…” he took off his glasses and rubbed them with the hem of his shirt. “You and I would go straight to jail, to begin with.”
“I don’t care!” My skin burned.
“Well, the Samaritans would be shut down. Do you care about that? We’d be called human smugglers. Discredited. Then we couldn’t help anyone.”
We looked over at Ramón. He sat on a rock, round face tilted skywards, eyes closed. Walter took one of my hands in both of his and lowered his voice to a whisper. “He’ll make it. I know he will. He’s healthy. He has plenty of water. His English is wonderful. He’s just nine miles from the safehouse.”
The desert swam around me. I could feel its heat rising through my sneakers, crawling up my legs, pumping through my blood. Walter watched my contorted face. I breathed slowly several times, then nodded. I approached the man. Sat beside him. Tried to explain. He nodded, expressionless, then asked me to call his wife—to tell her that I saw him, that he was okay, that he’d call as soon as he made it to a city. He recited her number. I scribbled it down and promised I would call. In Spanish, I wished him good luck.
We stopped in the tiny desert town of Arivaca. Walter ran in to use the restroom, and I took the slip of paper out of my pocket, ran a finger over the ten tiny digits. I took a deep breath, letting the hot air rush through my lips and swell my abdomen. I dialed. The ringing bleated in my ear. “Aló?” Tripping over my words, I explained who I was, my encounter with her husband. Concentrating on making my adjectives and nouns agree, I relayed his message to her. I lamely listed all we had given him: water, food, medicine, advice.
My bumbling monologue met static-charged silence. Then, evenly, she asked where we lived. When I told her the Samaritans work out of Tucson her voice became lower and more metallic. “And you couldn’t have driven him there? You left him? You left him in the desert?” I began reciting all the reasons Walter had just given me, but now they sounded not only flimsy but insulting and cold. I trailed off, unable to explain to this woman I’d never meet why we had made the conscious decision to abandon her husband to the whims of the Sonoran desert. “I feel it so much,” I pleaded. Another long silence. Her voice returned, dull and hollow, to thank me for my time.
I took a long shower that night, letting the hot water pelt my tender, sunburned skin. I leaned my forehead against the slick tiles and shook with sobs. I clawed at myself with words. Coward. Murderer. I had left the house that morning proud to be a law-abiding citizen and an objective reporter and returned ashamed to be either. All the clear demarcations of my life — legal and illegal acts, right and wrong, balanced and biased —had become blurred in the desert heat. For weeks after it took effort to smile, to bear up my end of a conversation. I spent a lot of time alone. I pushed food around my plate. In perfectly average, pleasant situations, I struggled not to cry.
But I couldn’t sustain my mourning forever. My program ended and I left Tucson soon after. The physical distance helped put the desert behind me and move forward in other activist work. I didn’t confront that day until almost exactly a year later, and now, as I attempt to make sense of it, I realize what I’ve lost: the names of the young boys, exactly what Walter said to console me, the precise crossroads and highways and natural landmarks that mapped out our trip. The details have slipped through my fingers. The hot desert winds have blown them away.
What I haven’t lost is the outrage, the grief, the paralyzing helplessness combined with a fire to do something, anything. I’ll never know if that man made it out of the desert and into his wife’s anxious embrace. A lot can happen in nine miles.
That day didn’t leave me any tougher. Long after I thought I was “over” what happened, I was asked to speak about my time on the border to a college immigration class. Halfway through recounting my last Samaritans trip, my voice broke, my face crumpled, and I had to excuse myself from the room. I called Walter in tears, closed my eyes as his voice—with its comforting, beard-like rasp—told me how important it is for people far from the border to see my pain, as it brings immediacy the issue. I felt his smile through the phone. “Keep doing what you are doing, my dear, and let the tears flow.”
I joined the Samaritans to be able to write with more nuance on immigration, not knowing I would be pulled, against my will, into the narrative. That day, everything shifted from neat black-and-white to murky and grey. My studies and reportage had not prepared me for Ramón’s face as we flipped on the air conditioning and pulled away, for his wife’s steely voice in my ear. As painful as it is to return to that time and place, I continue to think about Ramón—about all the Ramóns in the Sonoran desert. I still communicate with Walter, though I haven’t seen him since that day. He talks about moving on, letting go, but I can’t let go of the moment that—more than any other—motivates me to work for a world where the work of the Samaritans isn’t necessary, where no one has to cross a deadly desert in order to eat, work, live or love.
Originally from Santa Monica, California, Alice Ollstein works a journalist in Washington, DC. She has reported on politics, social movements and immigration for Free Speech Radio News , WAMU-NPR,Telesur. She now works for ThinkProgress.