Tuesday, August 30, 2011

9 Days in the Desert: Day 3

Day 3: Josseline

Today I participate in a 4-hour hike through an area called Blue Grass with Mike, a soft-spoken and meticulous Catholic Worker, Jason (Mike’s foil), Lilly, and Ricardo, a young Latino L.A. punk. If you know me, you know the idea of me participating in a hike is comical. I have more than once exclaimed from a trail, f*@k this $h!t! But here I am stumbling over unclear paths, bushwacking half the time through heavy vegetation full of thorny plants and cactus that scratch at my legs and arms, and continually rolling weak ankles on loose rocks.

There is a lot of debris along these trails: empty tin cans, blankets, hats, water bottles, and one fresh footprint of a man, and at one point I get the eerie sense that the hills have eyes. I want to call out to whatever/whoever is close, but I don’t. If people are close, they will most likely not show themselves. They do not trust us even though we call out “¡Tenemos agua!” and write messages like “¡Buena suerte!” and a personal favorite, “Que dios lo bendiga” (my grandmother’s regular send off) on water jugs so they know they are safe.

Our first stop on this hike is Josseline’s Shrine. It sits at the bottom of a canyon where a group hills meet next to a wash sprinkled with small stoney pools that reflect the sky. Mike explains that when a person becomes dehydrated they tend to move to the lowest point and he gestures to the high walls surrounding us. He recounts Josseline’s tail as best he can: Josseline was a 15-year-old girl traveling north with her brother. When she became weak she urged her brother to go on without her. Later, a No More Deaths volunteer found her body while hiking on a regular patrol. Her shoes were off and her feet were dipped into one the pretty pools of water. They were able to identify her body by the pink shoes she had.*

This story consecrates the reflective pools of water at my feet.

The shrine itself is a white cross with her name written in script and painted with pink flowers. Rosaries adorn the cross along with a framed Virgen de Guadalupe tied by a pink ribbon and a photo of Josseline standing before a church altar. I’m taken by how small she is. Her body is thin in the way a young girl’s body can be before it begins to round and soften. It makes me sad to see this girl forever on the precipice of womanhood.

Back at camp, I feel the ache that has become my muscles and all I can do is lay still in our one hammock. A kind breeze comes through bringing with it an afternoon cloud cover from the sun. I’m thankful because camp often sits beneath a stagnant heat that is impossible to escape. I hear a group of people in the distance figuring out how to fix the torn tarp that shades our water supply, but I do not move. I can’t. My heart starts to beat fast and my breath shortens. I don’t think I can do this. I hate this! I hate hiking! It frightens me to imagine one more day of this work. For the 4th day in a row, I want to cry, but then somehow my body relaxes, and without warning my mind shuts off, and I fall asleep to the sounds of people fiddling with plastic tarps.

When I wake, a new Frankentent has been erected from old bits of tarp and all my anxiety has lifted. I feel strong again. It’s strange and wonderful how quickly the body can forget exhaustion and pain.

Once up, I walk over to the med tent to find our patients sitting out front under some shade. The woman has her foot up on a chair in care of her sprained ankle. She shows me where she lost a toenail. I tell her I have friends who like to run and it is common amongst runners (I guess I say it to soften any worry).

She asks me about my hike and I tell her it was tiring. She shares that it is even harder at night. They have no lights and can’t see the paths and don’t know what they might be walking into—cactus, snakes, rocks. She shows me the severe slashes that have created a red fleshy pattern on her arms as proof. My hike was nothing in comparison. I wasn’t running for my life. I wasn’t moving in the dark. I wasn’t being chased. I was allowed the opportunity to rest and regain strength without fear. I was allowed a rest.

I think about Josseline. All she probably wanted was to stop for a moment and let her feet cool in the water, take a moment to catch her breath. Maybe she thought she would be able to catch up to her brother. Maybe she promised him she would. Somethings make no sense like why Josseline, a young girl, was never allowed a safe place to rest.

*Some details in this story are in correct. Josseline was fourteen and her shoes were green, but this is how I first heard it. For a more accurate telling you can read this excerpt from the book The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands.

Here is an interview with the author Margaret Regan at NPR.

To learn how you can contribute to the efforts to end death and suffering in the desert, please go to the No More Deaths donation page.


  1. Is so unfair when young people die...

    As you know I am afraid of the ocean when I cant see whats around me.....but I had swim with sharks, sea lions and other exotic animals... and I shit myself (no literary of course) but I though...people do this for FUN...How can a place have so much beauty and be so dangerous at the same time...seriously!!! I feel you when you were admiring the beauty of the desert but with respect for all those tragedies...Scary when you think about it. Also when you hike for fun and people hike cause they need to...same action, different situations...so weird.

  2. Awesomely put, Cass. I think many people don't realize what "walking" through the desert for survival really looks like. It isn't your monthly Sunday hike to Griffith Park. Like you said, similar actions but a completely different context.

    BTW I love that you are here with me. I miss you. And thanks for the song post. I really liked it. I'm gonna say I understood about 70% haha.

  3. My movie reference..."RANGO" haha