Planet Desert

In 2004, I got a small glimpse of the unseen (and sporadically reported) desperation along the rugged Arizona borderlands when I wrote this small piece on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Nothing’s changed. Yes, billions have since been spent on militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border, but to what end?

As this wrenching blog post by Michael Wolcott at High Country News attests, abundant human tragedy still stalks the Arizona desert.

Here on this militarized edge, with its checkposts and spy towers and aerial surveillance, much is revealed. Old notions crumble. The might of the U.S. security state is rendered irrelevant by poor people in sneakers. The shrill debate over immigration is drowned out””by helicopter traffic and by the silence of mourning. Instead there are mere facts: a $500 million-dollar wall and triple-digit temperatures; human desperation licking at finite resources; cartels, coyotes, and luckless poor people dying on the rocks.

The spectral scenes I witnessed five years ago are similar to those that Wolcott describes today in a remote canyon outside Tucson:

Scores of cheap nylon backpacks, heaps of abandoned clothes, empty tins of chilies, sun-bleached plastic jugs, dirty socks hanging from tree branches. Dainty lace brassieres. Stick deodorants, lipsticks, plastic combs, and half-used tubes of toothpaste. A pair of blue satin panties with rose appliqués. Wads of black plastic garbage bags piled against boulders, partly buried by storm-washed gravel. A child’s tiny toy boat.

Wolcott’s guide surveys the heap of trash and says, “This has been cleaned up since the last time I was here. It was knee-deep then.”

When you view scenes like this, when you see such personal items, it’s impossible not to wonder what happened to the people who left them behind. In my head I ran through likely scenarios that, like the images of the trash, stayed with me for months afterwards.

Wolcott’s mind leaps to similarly sad musings:

I look at the packs and know that, for each one, a person has walked away. Who got lost? Who got raped? Who has been deported and is, right now, buying another backpack?

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