The sun is emerging more frequently as we start take the left branch and begin the last stretch before we reach the border.
There is no question that this trail is in use. There are signs of passing people everywhere, some old like a cloth shirt deteriorating into the debris in the stream bed but others fresh like a brightly colored Mexican toilet paper wrapper resting in the grass.
The feet that trod these trails both leave and return to family. Migrants seeking jobs may be hoping to pay for anything from food and shelter to housing and medical care. Some are cyclical, coming and going while others cross for the first time. As border security tightens, more and more are women and children come to join male relatives because they can no longer come back and forth between work and home.
There’s also traffickers, smugglers and mules who carry marijuana bales north under the constant watchful eyes of hilltop cartel scouts.
From footprints to cell phones, all of them leave traces on the landscape – but none of them are looking to get noticed.
It’s possible that, hidden and unsure of our motives, some of them see us.
And yet we see no one.
A lone, solid black cow stands like a solitary sentry marker just before the last bend. We give it plenty of space as but it never takes its eyes off of us and turns to face our backs as we pass.
Then I realize that two of the trees in front of us are actually posts, part of a barbed wire chain defending from either side and breaking at a flattened gate between them.
Carved on the right hand post, facing us and slightly above my eye line, are the letters “USA.”
This is the border.
We break here, pulling out our own water bottles and snacks to eat in the middle of a carpet of litter. There’s wrappers and cartons, a bottle of foot powder and a can of spray paint, and more of the ubiquitous metal cans and water bottles.
After miles of walking, a thick honey and oats granola bar is sweet and solid but I can’t take more than a bite without gulping water. The heat from the hiking and the sun is fading and I’m beginning to shiver again but the dryness distracts me from the chill between bursts of wind that erupt and whistle down the hills than just as quickly evaporate.
Bob tells us that he’s driven out with agents of Grupo Beta, a Mexican government aid agency, to the trail heads on the Sonoran side of the border and seen where border crossers begin to hike several miles away – possibly about the same distance from the border as our jeep is to the north.
We take our time, wondering if we’ll see anyone on the other side, but the solitude here is just as physical as on the rest of the trail. There’s no crowd or que hovering on the other side of the fence. The landscapes simply continues, more trees and scrub and slopes and scattered pieces of cacti and manzanita like that we’ve been hiking through on this side of the line.
With the granola bar acting as a battery jump, the ache that was starting to build in the back of my legs subsides and we start to talk about what might be down the right hand side of the canyon fork. We reshoulder our packs and head back to start the uncharted side of the canyon.
Bob has calculated a mile to a mile and a half will bring us to the border again, about the same distance as the right fork, and he’s correct.
We find even less fence here – but nothing else.
We head back to the jeep.
The Southside Presbyterian parking lot in Tucson is not the end of the day for us; there’s still the drive back to Phoenix. By the time we get out of the car the muscles in our legs and backs are feeling the strain of what turned out to be more than 10 miles of hiking on the uneven canyon bed. We did it all in weather that spun through sweats, chills, sun, rain and even, just before we reach the jeep, driving sleet.
We were prepared to meet migrants, Border Patrol, hunters or other hikers. We hoped for the best, but we were braced for medical emergences or confrontations with law enforcement – possibly even finding a body. After all, these are all situations Samaritan volunteers have faced.
But not every trip. Or possibly even most trips. Their goal is to be there as much as they need to be so that they’re there for the one time that matters.
And so they go out day after day after day. And those one times add up. It’s been a little over two years since I first hiked with Bob. In that time he’s hiked miles and miles nearly every week, mapping trails and tracking water bottles – and finding five bodies of people who’ve died along the trails.