This morning I head to the Warsaw and California drops off Ruby Road with Davey, Jacques, an eighteen-year-old Frenchmen learning English, and Mary, a kind, confident Catholic Worker. Davey explains that our first drop is at the end of a rigorous up hill hike. He promises it will be the only hard part of the day, and the worst of it will not last more than 30 minutes. I calm myself with the thought that 30 minutes sounds manageable.
The first half is an easy walk along a rocky wash, and I feel good. I carry two 1-gallon jugs and 2 cans of beans in my backpack—18 extra pounds, but then the incline starts and doesn’t stop. I trip and fall. The weight of my pack throws me forward. Well-meaning, Jacques advises me to walk slower.
This trail is very overgrown, and I am introduced to Mala Mujer (bad woman), a bright green plant with large starred maple-like leaves detailed with white veins and white polka-dots washed from bud to base in white sharp hairs. It might be pretty, except for that when I brush against one I can feel a multitude of hairs run up and down my leg creating individual sharp pains all at once. Somehow it reminds me of being electrocuted, and I slow my stride to carefully step over or around every Mala Mujer I see. She is a demon plant.
We keep moving up. I’m out of breath, and it is clear I’m out of shape, and can't move at the same pace as everyone else. I get a twinge of shame.
I feel the cool of water work down my lower back and into the seat of my pants. “You have a leak,” Davey says. Grateful for this, I stop to remove the gallons off my back and examine the damage. I don’t see anything.
“We try not to carry them in packs because they can break easier that way. We want to avoid that.” I take one out and continue up.
A few more few feet and I start to stumble. “It’s just at the top of the hill,” Davey reassures. I squint into the direction he refers to search for this “top,” but I don’t see it, and it doesn’t come. Water is still leaking down my back.
I have a soaked butt, I’m the only one struggling, and I feel stupid.
I stop to take out the second jug, but again, no visible cracks. Without word, Jacques takes it from me and charges up ahead. His eighteen-year-old energy makes my 31 years feel worn.
I keep moving, slowly. My legs start to give out, and I must brace a hand against my knee to hoist myself up. The sun is beating me down. I feel a heaving in my chest.
“I need to stop.” The whole group halts.
I try to settle my breathing, but it’s hard. I try to drink water, but my hand shakes spilling it down my chest. After a couple of minutes, I feel the exhaustion and panic subside as it has done every day before, and I’m ready to go again, but no more than another 10 steps and I’m on the verge. A dizzy fantasy of throwing down my one gallon to the rocks, pushing off my pack, and plopping on the ground like a six-year-old having a tantrum fills my mind. I want to throw a fit. I am ready for a fit.
“I can’t do this!”
“It’s here! We’re here,” Mary calls from 20 feet ahead and it’s like I’m in a joke. Davey tells me to rest where I am as he takes my last gallon to the top. So close, I suck the tears back into my eyes and trudge my way to the drop—a cluster of gallons sitting in an elbowed pass beneath the shade of a mesquite tree. A barbed wire fence cuts right through the bottleneck of five trails heading down four different slopes.
“You guys are awesome! Getting this drop is so important because as you can see we are hitting many trails. We have a chance of reaching a lot of people,” Davey says. I have no emotion about this. We find evidence of slashed gallons by Border Patrol. I have no emotion about this either.
I sit my soggy ass down on the ground and allow the feeling of failure to soak in, to numb me.
Davey passes us sharpies to write messages on the water. These are meant to communicate to migrants that the water is safe to drink. For two days I’ve been trying to find a symbol that would convey what I want to say to those walking, a symbol that will give them hope, a symbol that they will know without doubt. Below the mesquite, I decide on an image and draw a line figure of the Virgen de Guadelupe with little flowers at her feet and the words, “Que dios lo bendiga.” Yes, the Virgen is hopeful. The Virgen can help me.
"SAMARITANOS," in reference to The Good Samaritans, another humanitarian aid group, is a word migrants have told NMD they trust.“I’m sorry I’m so serious right now,” Davey says. “I’m just really worried over things at camp, but I want us to be able to laugh. It’s good to have fun. I don’t want this to be so hard.” I would welcome a laugh, but there is nothing to laugh at.
Over the course of the day, I fall a total of three times, and on the last one I jam the heal of my palm into rock and sprain my hand. It stings and I don't want to focus on it, but the entire day stings. Davey bandages up my hand while Mary and Jacques carry gallons a quick walk from the road.
“Today is a bad day,” I say.
“Oh, I’m sorry." He finishes wrapping my hand. Fighting the urge to give up, I walk over the bank on the side of the road to meet Jacques and Mary at the final drop. I feel a need to see it, to finish.
Before going to camp we stop at Ruby, an old rusted-out mining town with a lake that is less lake and more pool surrounded by a white sand beach created by the mine’s mineral deposits. It is some kind of surreal mirage.
We take off all our clothes and jump in. I have never done such a thing, but I haven’t showered in days, and the water over my naked skin is soothing (I have just checked an item off the bucket list). Mary, Davey, and Jacques take turns jumping from a rope swing. Jacques doesn't pull up high enough and the three of us in the water gasp at how close he is to the rocks. He plunks in and bounds back out with a big smile and I look of "what?" We laugh.
I float on the cool surface and try to wash this feeling away that sits with me, not heavy, but haunting: if I can’t do this, what am I here for? Why did I come?
The desert is una Mala Mujer I've walked directly into.