“What does permanence mean to you these days? What makes a space or time home for you?” wrote my friend. His question came after spending months out hiking the Continental Divide Trail and a question I’ve essentially spent the past few years of my life rotating around. But the most consistent and comfortable place I’ve found is outside, alone, in the middle of nowhere. Such places constantly teach me perspective about the space my feet occupy. Sometimes these places are pleasant and peaceful, sometimes these places force me to stroll the depths and dark spots of my mind, and sometimes they shake me with unexpected profundity that the land itself holds. I asked my friend the same question in return, his answer I will save for the end.
Recently I took a trip that explored the idea of “place” as it not only related to me, but to a broader perspective of many other people. I decided fairly spontaneously to travel the length of the Camino del Diablo. For those unfamiliar with this road it has made recent headlines as one of the “natural barriers” on the Mexico/US border. It cuts across the Sonoran desert from Ajo, Arizona west of Tucson to Yuma, Arizona near California, paralleling the border. I had planned to bikepack down the road, but was slightly worried about getting stuck out there. I drove my truck instead, opting for hikes along the way (not that getting my truck stuck out there would have been a better scenario). There is no reliable water source on the road (save for the tinajas, or natural rock bowls holding water, that are hidden in the mountains) so I could at least carry plenty of water in a car.
The Camino lies primarily in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. I went to the visitor center in Ajo to get a permit, but the office, because of the government shutdown, was closed. A sign, however, said you still had to print a permit online. So I went to the local library. The permit is free and includes watching a safety video that warns you of illegal immigrants, drug smugglers, and not to touch any metal objects you see because this area is right next to a military bombing range. I got the permit and then tried to figure out which road out of Ajo led to the Camino. All I had was a very vague pamphlet that showed the Cabeza Prieta but not how to get to it. I asked around town at the grocery store, a restaurant, the library, and no one seemed to know. It was actually like they didn’t even know the area existed, shrugging and saying, “Not really sure where that is…and I’m a local!” Hmm, I thought, kind of odd. I texted my roommate who had been there the year before and luckily he was able to give me directions.
I started down the road coming first to a purple flag on a long pole. It was a big jug of water left by Humane Borders. The flag also marks one of the rescue beacons which are out there for immigrants who are in distress. I continued down the road to the first designated campspot marked on the pamphlet. I had downloaded some maps to my phone so I could at least tell which mountains I was near. As the sun set I hiked up to a nearby peak. Balls of cholla immediately latched onto my shoes, penetrating into my toes. I used a couple of rocks like salad tongs to pry them off. As I picked my way through the crumbly granite rocks and cacti I noticed a piece of trash. I picked it up. Some version of Carnation Instant Breakfast but in Spanish. The trash multiplied as I went up and then began to include belongings: a jean jacket, backpacks, woven blankets, socks, a burlap coffee sack. Cans of food and tuna packets were shoved between rocks. I stood on the top looking down at the stuff surrounding my feet, ignoring the view of the vast Sonoran and its many mountain ranges rising from the desert floor. I finally turned my gaze to the horizon, the shadow of the mountain cast east in the setting sun. The sky was aglow in a brilliant orange. It was beautiful, but my mind was in a very melancholic place thinking of all the people who have sat on this very summit. All the people who traveled a long way to an uncertain future.
I picked my way back down to my truck getting there just before nightfall. I made dinner and pulled out my sleeping bag to lay under the stars. A couple of border patrol trucks drove by, not asking anything of my truck with Colorado plates. The sky was dotted with more stars than I’d ever seen. But it wasn’t the stars that occupied my thoughts. It was the darkness in the silhouettes of the mountains that my eyes latched on to. Was there anyone out there right now? I stared hard for a long time, my eyes and ears more alert than ever. Actually, my ears felt like they were ringing as they strained against the silence. I was getting tired and suddenly I felt uncomfortable laying out on the ground. I conceded to sleeping inside my truck, closing all the windows on my topper, to have some sense of safety.
I should say traveling alone is also not recommended out here. Although, the travelers out here are trying hard to avoid contact with people so really there is no immediate danger. It makes you feel a little on-the-edge nonetheless. An edge that would definitely be softened if you had someone to talk to.
The next day I continued driving down the road. You cross through a rocky, lava field bright with yellow and purple wildflowers. There must be something in the volcanic soil that makes them grow so well. The road was rough here. I wished I was on foot, such roads are really not enjoyable to drive and I would definitely be seeing and hearing a lot more than my water jug sloshing in the seat behind me. The road then got very sandy, cutting deeply into the earth with banks rising two feet on either side and bushes that obscured all sight. I was wondering what I’d do if another car was on the road: one lane and no way my truck could get up the bank. Luckily border patrol trucks are much bigger and turns out have no trouble off road.
Eventually I reached the next designated campspot behind a caravan of white-haired, well-aged ATVers. One of the guys came over to me, “Wow. I think it’s great you’re out here. Brave of you.” I smiled and laughed nervously, pretty certain that brave could be translated to stupid in this situation.
“Single, white, female travels the Camino alone. Gets truck stuck and dies out of her own naivety,” my obituary would read.
And besides, I’m not the brave one, the people crossing this area by foot in search of a better life are the brave ones.
I said to the guy, “This place makes me sad…thinking of all the lives that are lost out here.”
“Yeah,” he said getting a furrow in his brow, “but they make that choice.”
“Do they? I’m not sure,” I said and told him about all the belongings I had seen on the mountin yesterday.
“Well you are certainly seeing more than we are.”
We bid each other fare well. I decided to go for a run down a dirt road that cut into the Camino. The hawks soared between the rocks. The Saguaro stood tall on hillsides—looking an awful lot like people from afar. It really is a beautiful place. True wilderness. No powerlines, no cell phone service, and mountains everywhere. Seeing flowers in mid-winter is also nice…and the warmth of 75 degrees. Daytime, or daylight, also makes you feel better here.
I got back to my truck and drove another couple miles down the road to a more scenic location to camp. I took my bike off the rack and pedaled down the road to catch the sunset and take some photos. I got back and started making dinner in the light of my headlamp. I heard a car off in the distance. Eventually the border patrol truck pulled up, shining his light toward me.
“Is that you with the bike?”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Just checking, we don’t see bike tracks often,” and he drove off. They don’t ask many questions of white females out here which definitely had me thinking of my place in the social realm.
I made dinner and then sat on the ground to read a book. Suddenly a series of loud booms echoed in the distance…the military range. The sounds didn’t help to ease the tension in the night.
The next morning I set out to hike another mountain. I was marveling at the monarchs fluttering around on all the bushes when the sound of a helicopter cut through the breeze. It was headed south, flying very low through the mountains. I think it must have seen me as it made a sharp turn my direction. It flew over and circled above my truck and then flew off. I realize they are doing their job but you can’t help but feel unwanted.
I scrambled up the crumbly granite peak I was near. The rock down here is interesting. It looks inviting but the gravel shreds your hands. It also has eroded into pockets and caves which held nothing, fortunately, but bighorn sheep scat. The bighorns are actually one of the main reasons for the wildlife refuge. I took my time up on top of the mountain, sitting in the warm desert sun. This place doesn’t warrant speed, in my opinion, but observation and stillness.
I eventually got back to my truck and drove further down the road to the edge of the Cabeza Prieta boundary, deciding to stay one more night. I was the only car on this section. I knew because the road had just been smoothed out (the border patrol drag chains of tires behind their cars to level out the sand in order to make sighting footprints easier).
I made dinner and took some photos as the sun went down again. I was learning something in the discomfort here, or at least feeling things that I honestly haven’t felt in a long time. Things that I felt only slightly on my thru-hike this summer. It’s hard to completely articulate.
As I was sitting out there in the grips of the dark silence, I wrote a letter to my friend as a way to distract myself a bit and feel like I had someone to talk to. I described much of what I wrote here and I also described how I felt in that moment. I felt lonely, quite honestly. I take a lot of pride doing things alone and have grown quite used to living a solo life. But more overwhelming was the fact that I was also feeling the loneliness of the people who travel through here. An even deeper loneliness I will probably never fully understand. My eyes welled up. Only one other time I can think of has a place, a landscape, moved me to tears.
I then thought of what my friend wrote in his description of home, “At it’s deepest meaning home is something that brings comfort & creativity while also being itself protected. To clarify: home is something that no one can take away. It is yours in all of the wonderfully selfish ways. It is un-taxable, invisible as it is a concept.”
I wanted to go home to a more comforting place and I wondered if the people crossing the border would ever find that home.