In This Wilderness: Notes from the U.S-Mexico Border

At the time of his death in 2009, Macho B had stalked the southwestern borderlands for sixteen years. He was the only known remaining jaguar in the United States, and also believed to be the oldest of his species living in the wild. Although sightings were rare, motion-sensing cameras set up to monitor wildlife activity captured some of his sleek ramblings. In one of the photographs, Macho B’s face looms in the foreground as he approaches the camera. His eyes glow radioactive in the flash and his coat is a constellation of spots scattered over an impossible orange.

In 2008, anti-immigration initiatives were in full swing under the Bush administration. The Department of Homeland Security had secured a 5.5 million-dollar budget to, among other things, construct a border wall impassable to humans and animals alike. Militarization efforts on the U.S. side of the border were already encroaching on the desert wilderness, and conservationists became increasingly worried that the proposed border wall would further fragment the habitat of the endangered predator.

We know that Macho B ranged freely between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora, but it is impossible to tell how frequently he crossed the border. In order to construct the wall through the jaguar’s known territory, the Department of Homeland Security would have to navigate the Endangered Species Act, which addresses actions that might affect the crucial habitat and survival of a listed species, and wildlife agencies stood to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding if they could monitor his migration routes. Still, trapping any jaguar can be dangerous to the animal’s health, and it was decided that capturing the aged Macho B would be too risky, too politically volatile.

 

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Forty miles north of the Mexican border, the swath of desert is interrupted by Tucson’s southern subdivisions. Trailer parks and cul-de-sac neighborhoods are cast like nets from the interstate. Retirement condominiums and suburban tract housing give way to dusty aluminum trailers, flanking streets with names like Wrangler Road and Welcome Way. The green of a golf course appears obscene against the dry earth surrounding it.  

Driving southwest from Tucson, I pass miles of open desert, speckled with yucca, barrel cacti and mesquite. The trees are so dry you can break green limbs with a tug. The barbed stems of an ocotillo spindle toward the sky, fan out around a single axis, with fleshy green fiber coursing like muscle between the spines. After rainfall, the limbs are covered in tiny green leaves, with bright orange flowers perched atop each limb. When moisture wanes, the leaves disappear, and the plant returns to its skeletal state. Sandy soil and the ocotillo’s shallow root system make for a delicate existence. A roaring ATV, stomping javelina, or tumbling rock easily uproots them. Fallen ocotillo lie like giant squid washed up on the beach. 

From the interstate, I turn onto Arivaca Road, passing through Amado. A long, ornately western steakhouse called the Cow Palace sprawls on the corner. A large statue of an angus bull stands atop the red and white pinstripe building, surveying the parking lot, where lanky cowboys in Wrangler jeans and pearl-snap shirts mix with tourists. Across the street, the old Longhorn Bar and Grill protrudes from the dirt in the shape of an enormous bovine skull. The plaster face glowers under two monumental horns. Its nose cavity gapes huge and black, housing the double-door entrance. At night, the eyes glow orange, lit from inside.

Two miles past Amado is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement checkpoint. Border Patrol agents mill around next to a large military tent. Traffic cones funnel northbound drivers into an area where vehicles are inspected. If everyone in the car appears to be of Caucasian origin, it’s often a simple interaction. 

“Everyone a U.S. citizen?” 

“Yes.” 

“Okay, move on.” 

If a vehicle’s occupants do not fit that description, they often endure a much lengthier confrontation. A recent study by People Helping People, a group of Arivaca residents, determined that Latino drivers are 26 times more likely than white drivers to be required to present proof of identification. Regardless of political leaning, many locals are opposed to the checkpoint. Brown-skinned ranch hands working on any of the large cattle operations south of the checkpoint face interrogation every time they drive home. Latino parents with teenage kids are stopped and frisked while returning from camping trips. 

In addition to the harassment, many locals resent feeling as if they live in a war zone. With the increase in border militarization, people who were once drawn to the desert for its solitude must now interact daily with armed law enforcement personnel. Helicopters and unmanned drones hum from horizon to horizon. Border Patrol trucks and ATV’s roar up dry streambeds, through backyards and gardens. Armed agents gallop on horses, scattering both migrants and cattle. Some environmentalists, however, support heightened anti-immigration efforts, arguing that migrants leave trash on the trails, polluting the desert.

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In early February of 2009, two agency wildlife biologists set a snare with the stated intent to capture a bear or a mountain lion, but the snare was baited with scat from a female jaguar in heat. The lead biologist then jetted off to Spain to visit his girlfriend, leaving his partner to finish the project. On February 18th, 2009, Macho B was found in the snare. They shot him with a tranquilizer dart, took vitals, fitted him with a GPS tracking collar, and watched as he wobbled woozily away.

 

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From the checkpoint, Arivaca Road winds through the desert, two dark lanes twisting southwest for twenty-five miles towards the small, eccentric community. Green and white Border Patrol vehicles cruise lazily in the open roadside flats. Large white buses park at the mouths of dry streambeds, dirt and dust flowing out onto the road in an invisible flood. The buses belong to Wackenhut, a private company contracted to transport arrested migrants from the desert to immigration detention facilities. There, they will serve up to sixty days in privately owned prisons, charged with felony illegal entry before being dumped back across the border in Mexico. This newly acquired criminal record will make it impossible for future naturalization. 

Arivaca Road turns sharply right and trickles into Arivaca proper, a town of roughly 700 people, eleven miles north of the Mexican border. Surrounded by cattle ranches and open desert, the area is the site of a now-defunct hippie commune that has made the area a destination for idiosyncratic outcasts. Arivaca’s population is a pluralist mix of old-time ranchers, hippies, primitive-skills gurus, and conspiracy theorists. People who thrive on scarcity. 

Rusty trucks slowly cruise the main drag: 300 dusty yards lined with stucco buildings and adobe storefronts. The Arivaca Mercantile, green trim startling against brown cinderblock walls, serves as the only grocery store and also the only gas station. The only bar, La Gitana Cantina, is across the street.

Inside La Gitana, locals sip sweaty beers and gossip with voices scratchy from Pall Malls and decades of dust blown past clenched teeth, collecting in vocal cords and chest cavities. Tanned skin like rawhide. Tough women with long, gray-flecked hair step rigidly around the pool table, cues in hand. Men in cutoff T-shirts sit at the bar, scowling under greasy baseball caps, thirty years of engine oil, calf dandruff and grime shoved under their fingernails. Desert people. 

One wall of the cantina is blanketed in photographs of Arivacans who have passed away. Another is adorned with hand shears, hay hooks, and fence pliers. The rusty artifacts of ranch life that still numb the pad between thumb and forefinger, daring blisters to rip open before turning to callous. Another wall displays a collection of felted cowboy hats with crown tips like two parallel peaks, or vaquero style with wide, flat brims. Little paper price tags hang delicately from each item. Next to the hats, a faded wooden sign hangs above the door, claiming the establishment is the oldest bar in Arizona. I choose to believe it.

In the empty lot next to La Gitana, a woman named Virginia serves Mexican-American street food from an outdoor kitchen. Hers is arguably the best restaurant in downtown Arivaca, and eaters huddle under picnic table umbrellas with sautéed onions, bell peppers, and carnitas, served on corn tortillas with salsa and lime. Every once in awhile, a Border Patrol vehicle cruises by. Some grumble into their food, others don’t seem to notice. Arivaca doesn’t have a police force, but a roving deputy passes through every couple weeks.

The complexities of the situation on the U.S./Mexico border have drawn in outsiders from various backgrounds and political leanings, and the only time I see the sheriff, I am sitting shotgun in a huge Dodge pickup belonging to a humanitarian aid group called No More Deaths that leaves gallons of water on migrant trails and provides medical attention to those who are injured while crossing the desert. One of the long-term volunteers, Celia, is driving.

“Nobody likes it when the sheriff is in town,” she says.

“What does he do while he’s here?”

“Oh, you know, pulls people over for no reason. That kind of thing.”

I look out the window, and catch a glimpse of the sheriff in his crisp navy suit and holstered gun. He is standing between two folding tables covered in garage sale items, holding up what appears to be a small portable stereo. He shakes it around a little bit, then brings it close to his face, as if trying to see inside. We drive on.

 

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We turn off the main road heading out to the group’s base camp, a jumble of lopsided campers, industrial canvas tents, and towers of milk crates containing gallon jugs of water stacked under tattered tarp awnings. A solar unit hums next to a giant flagpole. At the top of the flagpole, a pillowcase hangs limp. Camping tents bleached from the sun are nestled in a manzanita grove. Some have little moats dug around them, the handiwork of industrious volunteers who were around during the monsoon season. 

    One of the larger tents is full of medical supplies, which are used to give emergency care to those who are lucky enough to stumble on the camp. The tent has seen years of patients. Patients who were carried into camp by others, their urine thick and brown, lips swollen, eyes yellow from dehydration. Patients who jump at the drop of a fork, who cannot speak about the night without breaking. 

    In December, temperatures drop dangerously low as soon as the sun sinks below the horizon. Before experiencing the desert in the winter, I had never fully understood the expression: like night and day. One patient, a man with shaggy black hair who was wearing a dusty hooded sweatshirt, said that two nights earlier he and another man had been sleeping sitting up, their backs propped against a rock ledge. The patient said that in the morning, he had opened his eyes and turned to the man next to him, had said his name and told him it was time to go. But the other man would not wake up.

In this remote wilderness, there are times when the desert is so deeply silent that whispers can be heard for miles.

 

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In the days following his capture, Macho B’s health declined dramatically. One of the Fish and Game employees left steaks in the vicinity of the ailing cat, on one of his known paths. Twelve days after this initial capture, the agency attempted to take him back into custody due to his declining condition. Predator control specialists stood at a distance and shot a dart filled with Telazol, a hallucinogenic tranquilizer. It bounced off the spotted coat, discharging anesthesia as it flew through the air. The next day, they treed him with hounds. A helicopter hovered nearby, while a man with a tranquilizer rifle hung out the open door, aimed, fired. 

 

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On a brisk morning in January, another volunteer and I load up one of the trucks, affectionately called the Ex-Pat. The engine is outlasting the body. Originally white, it now boasts a red hood, one blue door, and a red tailgate. The dashboard is disintegrating, leaving a trail of pens rattled down through the engine cavity and deposited on the dusty gravel. My GPS is attached to a long loop of parachute cord and hangs around my neck like a large necklace, lest I absentmindedly try to set it on the dash while we’re driving. Water, medical packs, blankets, hiking gear, and cases of granola bars are jumbled in the bed with a spare tire, a shovel, and a tow chain. 

Catherine and I are scouting an area in the Cerro Colorado Mountains where human remains have recently been found to discern if leaving gallons of water here could help to prevent more deaths. The remains have been recorded by Derechos Humanos, a Tucson-based organization that has developed a mapping system called the Arizona Recovered Human Remains Project. More commonly referred to as the Death Map, it is crowded with little black dots, each representing a place where somebody has died, and is accompanied by the Death List, which has the names and ages of the deceased. There were 2,771 remains recorded between the years 2000 and 2014, roughly 170 to 280 per year. It’s suggested that this represents only half of the actual number of dead. 

The Cerro Colorados are a small, rocky range northeast of Arivaca, and appear to be one of the less imposing features in the area. Like most of the region, the terrain can be deceiving. The land is covered in combative plants that do not want to be touched. Prickly pear speckles the hillsides and small, brightly colored rainbow cacti poke up between rocks. Acacia, a leafy bush with thorns like kitten claws, gives way at higher elevations to amaranth brambles that snag the skin and clothes. More cacti. Millions of cacti. Forests of cholla are covered in barbed and crosshatched iridescent yellow spines that draw against each other when you try to pull them from your skin. Removal is nearly impossible, unless each spine is cut and pulled separately. Even then, a cut spine will often cause the whole mess to roll downward, imbedding more barbs, until you’ve shaved the plant bald. The barrel cactus has barbs so thick they last well after the plant has died and the meat has rotted away. Mats of spines in the shape of the living plant lie on the ground, suggesting abduction. 

I round the corner of a large canyon and look down at my GPS. Every hundred yards the topographical lines marking elevation gain become increasingly close together, jutting and twisting into one another, indicating impassability. 

“This can’t be right,” I say.

Catherine looks down at her notes, “That’s where they’re marked.”

“This is crazy.”

“We can go back if you want.”

I don’t want to go back. But if you want . . .”

“Let’s just try it.”

“Okay.”

The trail winds up through the canyon, snaking through boulders and undergrowth. About half a mile up, we see a small outcropping of limestone, and behind that, the round curve of a backpack and the sleeve of a sweatshirt. Two cans of tuna are tossed to the side, along with a small water bottle. She and I have a similar grave thought.

    My father once told me that if you have to look at something horrible, you should try not to look at it straight on. If you focus a little bit off-center, the brain won’t attach itself to the image so firmly. It will be easier to forget, and you will be healthier for it. Catherine throws off her pack and runs toward the rock. I clench my jaw and move forward, slightly averting my gaze. She gets there before I do, calling back, “Just clothes.” 

“Just clothes” happens a lot in the desert. 

“Just clothes” can mean a lot of things.

We continue on, following the trail. For the last 400 yards, we use our hands to grab onto rocks, struggling upward. We reach the top, shirt collars soggy with sweat. An immense flat sprawls below us, and beyond that, the mine. The mineral rings around its giant geometric mesas and plateaus look like a life size, three-dimensional topographical map. The lights can be seen almost all the way to the Mexican border, acting as beacon for those heading north. The trail is starting to make sense.

Mountains punctuate the smooth landscape, jutting upward as if pushed with a giant finger from underneath. From the summit, I watch two Border Patrol helicopters bob in front of me, thousands of feet above the ground below us. The machines seem whaleish, with a wide tail and ovoid body. Black tinted windows cover the pointed nose, and the doors form three black spots along the gleaming white side panels.

 

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Baboquivari, Atascosa, Huachuca, Santa Ana, Sierrita, Cerro Colorado, Warsaw, Roskruge, Table Top, Dead Man. I say the names out loud while I’m hiking, trying to memorize each area. Baboquivari Peak, a giant metamorphic thrust jutting from the jagged Baboquivari range, is the easiest to remember. The head of Baboquivari is eerily omnipresent, mischievously poking out from behind interior ranges. It is the center of the Tohono O’odham universe, and also serves as an important landmark for migrants. In Sasabe, a border town on the Mexican side, street vendors sell Baboquivari brand water bottles, specifically manufactured for the journey. Each jug has a blue, rectangular sticker with a picture of the peak on it. If you match the picture on the sticker up against the Baboquivari ridgeline, you will always be heading north. The gallon water jugs are made of sturdy, black plastic. Regular milk jugs are flimsy, and the opalescent white glows in the desert night.

 

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Women are especially vulnerable in the desert, facing repeated assault by guides or other men in their groups. Rape is often considered part of the price, and many women take birth control pills before the journey, as a precaution. 

One warm, January day, I hike up a steep ridgeline, fractured with jagged rocks and loose earth. I try to imagine what it would be like to hike in the dark. My backpack is heavy with six gallons of water and cans of beans. The weight drags me down as I scramble over a small limestone escarpment. I glimpse something white at my feet. A woman’s bra. 

I reach the top of the ridgeline and begin removing jugs of water from my pack. A few yards away, the leg bone of a cow dangles from a tree. It’s strung up with a pair of bright orange women’s underwear, the bone looped through the leg holes. One some trails, there are entire trees draped with stained and ripped undergarments. Cruel bragging. I untie the underwear and push them into the side pocket of my backpack.

That night, after the campfire is a glittering bed of coals and everyone else has gone to bed, I take the bra and underwear out of my pack. I carry them balled tightly in my fists toward the boulder outside of camp that serves as an altar for those who’ve been lost. It’s ringed with items found out on the trails. Shoes, torn backpacks, baseball caps coated in dirt and sweat and cactus barbs. Animal bones, bleached by the sun. In the center, broken votive candles and a cluster of white wooden crosses.

I stand, staring at the altar, my hands against my chest. I don’t pray. Instead, I beg, please. I say it again. Please. I push them down into one of the shoes and turn toward my tent.

The next day, a group from Chiapas comes into camp, among them two women and a young girl. One of them couldn’t keep up with the group, and the guide told her he was going to leave her behind. The others chose to stay with her. They had tried to drink water from a contaminated cattle tank and vomited for two days. On the third day, they were able to hold a little food. On the fourth, they ate nearly three pounds of corn tortillas. None of them ever spoke above a whisper. For days, it sounded like we had ghosts in camp.

 

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In the twelve days since his initial capture, Macho B had lost twenty pounds and developed an infection on his hind leg where the snare had dug into his skin. As the day progressed, he began to show signs of hypothermia. One of the biologists covered him with a sweatshirt and prepared for transport to the Phoenix Zoo. There, it was determined that he was suffering from kidney disease, and was euthanized immediately.

Later, the employee who had left the steaks sent an e-mail exposing the agency’s veiled intent to catch the jaguar, including the location of the trap and the bait used. Wracked with guilt, she described the scene after his initial capture. Macho B had clawed the bark from the mesquite that anchored the snare, had thrown his body against a nearby boulder, and fought until the snare closed impossibly tight against his hind leg. One of his teeth was broken off at the root, and the small tree was covered in hair and nails and blood. 

Before the capture, the lead biologist had said that a jaguar could nearly rip its legs off trying to escape a snare. 

 

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It’s Christmas day, and we only have three volunteers and one patient in camp. Beatriz is a tiny El Salvadoran woman in her mid-thirties, less than five feet tall. She keeps her long, dark hair in a ponytail centered in the back of her head. She tucks her hands into the front pocket of her sweatshirt, and her gold-rimmed teeth sparkle when she speaks. 

She had been crossing in a large group, mostly Guatemalan men in their twenties and thirties. She was barely able to keep up, and as one of only two women, her odds of coming out of the desert unscathed were low. She had separated from the others and wandered into camp dehydrated and sore. She was crossing to return to a job in Los Angeles, which she had left the year before to see her children back in El Salvador. She had enrolled them in private schools, hoping they’d be able to pursue medical careers. As their sole benefactor, she had to return to work in the United States to pay their tuition. I ask her what it had been like crossing eight years before.

“Much easier,” she says, “We just went to a city and walked through it.” I ask her if it seems like fewer people are attempting to cross than before. “Still a lot,” she answers, “But now it’s just much more dangerous.”

I ask Beatriz if she’s still been having trouble eating. She says she’s feeling less sick, but sleep is difficult. In her dreams, she is walking through the desert when her group is spotted from above by Border Patrol. The huge machines fly low over her head, cyclonic wind from the rotors spinning out dust and rocks. She tries to run away, shielding her face with outstretched arms. When she looks up, the others have scattered, and the helicopters have all turned into orcas.

    That night we gather for dinner. The small, wooden table is crowded with plates full of black beans, onions, and a stack of cornmeal pancakes stuffed with cheese called pupusas, a traditional El Salvadoran dish. Our centerpiece is a little cluster of items scavenged from around camp, likely found at the Arivaca dump, a place of garbage and treasure, swarmed with bees year-round. An old trophy with a chipped gold figurine riding a motorcycle pops a wheelie over two votive candles, their glass casings black with soot. Except for Beatriz, there is not a religious person at the table. We sit, blinking at one another, each trying to conjure words that might resemble a Catholic prayer. Instead, silence. Well, then.

 

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A few years ago, a black tomcat wandered in from the desert, padded around camp, and decided to stay. Volunteers named him Luther. His midnight fur is velvety and tight over powerful muscles. Luther comforts patients who are feeling the worst, winding his sleek body around their legs, jumping up to nuzzle a cheek or a throat. At night, he finds his way to where they’re sleeping, making sure that in the darkness, they won’t have to be alone.

    “Feel his biceps,” says Ayala, holding onto his paw and stretching out his arm. She’s sitting in a white, plastic lawn chair. Luther is perched on the lopsided patio table in front of her. The uneven metal legs are propped up with chunks of cinderblock, and you have to be careful not to set your coffee cup down too firmly.

    “You have to feel them.” 

I pinch the muscle above his cat elbow between my thumb and forefinger, give a good squeeze.

    “So strong,” I offer.

Ayala nods, satisfied.

    Nobody knows where Luther came from. My sister, Genevieve, who has volunteered regularly with the organization for five years, tells me that sometimes she thinks Luther is a man disguised as a cat. She’s tall and reserved, the sides of her head shaved, the back grown out long. She moves with certainty, stretching her arms languidly toward the sky. Cracking a smile, she squats down to pick up the little beast. 

Once, while driving from Arivaca to Tucson, Genevieve was passed on the highway by a sleek, black convertible. The man in the driver’s seat wore sunglasses, his dark hair slicked back, shiny with gel. The car’s custom license plate said LUTHER. As the convertible sped past, Genevieve picked up her cell phone and called the No More Deaths camp phone, panicked. “Is Luther gone?” she demanded. Hearing these community mythologies, I can’t help but imagine that Luther is Macho B in disguise, biding his time until he can return to his true form. 

It’s a hot day for December, and two Guatemalan women are in camp, fussing over him. They make cooing sounds and intentionally drop pieces of meat from the pan on the stove. Luther struts around, eating it up. He saunters over to a twisted mesquite, claws his way to the top and hangs from the top branch, arms wrapped around the gray limb. Back on the ground, he pounces after magenta songbirds perched in the low bushes. 

He pushes his empty water dish over to my feet and puts his paw inside the dry plastic container. Pointing. I reach down and take it over to one of the 50-gallon blue plastic drums marked Agua Potable. I hold the dish under the metal spigot and watch the water splash out. If Luther crossed the desert to get here, he has found his American dream.

 

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There are some in Arivaca who clench their teeth when Macho B is mentioned. Lips curl around cigarettes and toothpicks. The government had no right. They spit the words on the ground like chewing tobacco. He was a wild animal.

 

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I’m putting water near Table Top with Ayala and another volunteer named Lee. Today, Ayala is quiet and sharp, androgynous in a white undershirt and loose-fitting jeans. Lee is tall and slim, auburn hair tucked under a black baseball cap. None of us seem inclined to fill the silence with unnecessary chatter. We bounce along the dirt roads listening to the engine’s roar, the crunch of gravel, the yawn and creaking of suspension when we hit a rock or a hole. Early in the day, we check on our most southern water drop. 

Sometimes, we find a space where the jugs had been, or empty containers with blue, plastic caps littering the ground. We crush the bottles and put them in our backpacks, where they’ll find their way to a recycling plant. Sometimes, we find the jugs untouched, clustered together, an occasional rosary draped around a jug’s squat neck and with little handwritten notes of encouragement

agua pura

esperanza

buena suerta

    Often, we find that the jugs have been slashed. They lay scattered and empty with their caps still on, seals unbroken, the water slowly seeping through cuts made by ranchers or, more often, by Border Patrol. Three years ago, a No More Deaths volunteer found the body of a teenage girl who had recently expired of dehydration after passing two drop sites with slashed water containers. 

 

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Ayala, Lee and I wander down into a clearing and along a small stream, looking for the cluster of white jugs. It’s surprisingly lush, lined with eastern cottonwood and Gambel oak. Our conversation meanders. Trees and rocks and running water. Cows. Fences. Ayala looks down at her GPS and starts laughing.

“What?” I ask.

“We’re in Mexico.”

I look around. The landscape is continuous. There is no way to know. We turn around and step back over the imaginary line.

Later that day, we overestimate the daylight and hike back to the truck in the dark. The moon casts light bright enough to see by. We walk single file along one of the migrant trails, past fields of ocotillo standing black against the cornflower sky. A little herd of javelinas stampede around some small oak trees about thirty feet ahead and then take off up a hillside. Canyon walls loom overhead, casting shadows that become lost in the dark of a wash. We pick carefully through rocky soil and beds of prickly pear sprawling into the trail, listening for footsteps that are not our own. The air is cool, and deceptively still.