Why take chances, after all, and prove all the horror stories of hiking the border true?”
My cousin Robb and I had hiked the first and southernmost passage of the Arizona Trail the year before without incident. Called the “Huachuca Passage” after the nearby Fort Huachuca Military Reservation, an early stronghold against the Chiricahua Apache Indians built in the early 1880’s and now a small U.S. army base, the trail switch- backed through low desert grasslands of mesquite and prickly pear for a little more than twenty miles. The only real problem we had encountered on that hike was deciphering the Arizona trail from a network of other tracks of uncertain purpose created by drug traffickers and those who simply sought a way out of abject poverty and violence to the south. Some of the “undocumented” as we preferred to call them formed “mule trains” conveying large bundles of marijuana and other contraband across the border from Mexico under the radar of the Border Patrol. They traveled in small packs to avoid detection, crisscrossing the desert but never leaving fresh tracks. Over time, the official trail lost itself in a web of boot prints and sometimes, bare footprints, making the job of distinguishing the official from the unofficial trail tricky. The trail was also littered with debris much like the aftermath of a crashed jetliner. Empty milk jugs used to haul water, soda cans, candy bar wrappers, Dorito bags, and occasionally spent cartridges from a rifle tipped us off that responsible hikers were not the only ones using the trail.
An experienced hiker should be able to complete this passage in four hours. Even after beginning early in the morning, we took over eight hours to reach our second car near dusk as we had left a vehicle at each end of the point-to-point passage. We had hiked a long distance, felt the soreness in our feet, the tightness in our calves, but Robb and I were proud of how we didn’t get lost, didn’t run out of water, and most importantly, how we had had the foolishness to ignore the urban legends of hiker abductions and murders along this section of the trail and reach our destination without seeing another soul. While feasting on granola bars, peanut butter sandwiches, and Gatorade, Robb and I talked about reconvening over spring break to hike the second passage of the trail, Canelo Hills East, before the summer heat drove the Sonoran desert into a torpor that arrested the senses.
This time, my cousin and I decided to ask our wives to join us. Robb’s spouse, Karen, declined the invitation. She was a real estate broker and had to meet with prospective buyers. However, my wife, Margaret, an avid hiker, readily accepted. We even decided to take our dogs along for the exercise, my cousin’s dog Lady, a small brown dog with the moxie of a pit bull, and our two dogs, Jasper and Emma, a Queensland Heeler and Jack Russell.
The three of us studied the trail map weeks in advance and decided to bypass the second passage in favor of the third, the Canelo Hills West Passage. Robb and I had decided that although we had safely hiked the first passage, we might also have been a little lucky, and the idea of putting a little more distance between us and the Mexican border seemed like the prudent thing to do. Why take chances, after all, and prove all the horror stories of hiking the border true? Better to play it safe, hike with our dogs and as was Robb’s wont, pack a small firearm. Just in case.
Furthermore, the Canelo Hills westward passage was five miles shorter than the Huachuca mountain leg of the trail and reportedly an easier hike, at least according to the Arizona Trail site map. After climbing a saddle at an elevation of over five thousand feet, the trail entered Meadow Valley, continued west through Redrock Canyon, and passed a cattle tank, coursing through hills dotted with scrub oak and manzanita while tracing the outline of a forest service road and continuing on for several more miles before ending at the post office in the small town of Patagonia. Another reason for taking the westward leg of the Canelo Hills passage: ending our hike in Patagonia, a town of fewer than one thousand people, where we could end the day drinking margaritas and eating homemade tortilla chips and salsa at the Wild Horse Restaurant. The town was also a haven for birdwatchers who roamed the Sonoita Hills with expensive binoculars and cameras attached to mega-zoom lenses, sporting Eddie Bauer shorts and Audubon t-shirts. A culture of bed and breakfasts, resorts, art and souvenir shops selling crystals, sand paintings, native American tapestries, turquoise jewelry, and fine art for the higher- end tourists, had sprung up to support the indigenous and imported tourist economy.
After we settled on the stretch of trail that we would hike, we turned to the logistics of the trip. Unlike hiking the entire length of the Arizona trail, an eight hundred mile long point-to-point squiggly line that bi-sects the state from Agua Prieta, Arizona to Page, Utah, walking a segment of the trail means leaving a vehicle at the beginning and end points. Hikers use this same technique when hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim. In this instance, a larger hiking group typically splits into two smaller groups that move in opposite directions. In that way, both groups find a car waiting for them at their destinations. However, since we wanted to hike together and there being only three of us, we decided to drop one car off at the town square in Patagonia and drive the second vehicle southeast to the Canelo Hills West trailhead. Margaret and I would spend Saturday evening with Robb in Tucson and the three of us would rise before dawn to drive to Patagonia where we would drop off his car and proceed in ours to the trailhead. After we had celebrated our accomplishment with food and drink at the Wild Horse late Sunday afternoon, Margaret and I would drive back to Phoenix where we lived to ready ourselves for another week of work, stocked with another hiking story for anyone willing to listen.
The weather of mid-March prophesied well for us. Hiking the summer months was out of the question when temperatures could easily soar above one hundred ten degrees during the day while rarely dropping below one hundred at night. The winter months could also be bitterly cold at night as the sun dropped in the sky, the day’s warmth rapidly disappearing like water through a sieve, increasing the chances of hypothermia. But March offered the right balance of sunny, warm days and mild evenings, warm enough to camp outside in a down-filled sleeping bag without a tent. Mild weather aside and the desert being the desert, a land of unpredictable extremes, radical changes in weather had taught us to prepare for the unexpected. Robb and I would wear external frame backpacks and carry pup tents and sleeping bags. We had unexpectedly been forced to spend the night in the desert once before with nothing more than the clothes on our backs to keep us warm. Only a hot campfire had saved us from the bitter cold. Margaret would pack most of our supplies. This included assorted trail mix, bananas (not too ripe or they would turn to mush in the backpack), venison jerky, granola bars, hard salami, a small chunk of cheese, and hard rolls. And water, plenty of water.
Hiking the summer months was out of the question when temperatures could easily soar above one hundred ten degrees during the day while rarely dropping below one hundred at night.”
Tonight, Karen was concerned about our hike.”
The rule of thumb for hiking in the desert is to carry one gallon or four litres of water per person per day, more so in extreme heat. We also had to factor in three dogs, none of which weighed more than fifty pounds, but dogs of any size can consume an impressive quantity of water in extreme heat. We would all wear Camelbaks, a synthetic water pouch with a long hose that draped over the shoulder for easy access, capable of carrying seventy ounces of water, approximately two litres, and belts with clips to which we could attach water bottles containing the rest of the water we would need. Finally, Robb and I would carry gallon jugs of water for the dogs. In order to keep our loads as light as possible, remembering that serious backpackers consider the value of every ounce they carry, we decided to leave the water filtration system at home. The trail advice for the section we would be hiking said not to count on finding any water along the trail. The cattle tank, of course, was off limits because of the risk of giardia, a parasite that can cause severe diarrhea and dehydration once it has entered the body, typically when a hiker drinks water contaminated with feces. Such as cow dung. But we felt we had more than an ample supply of water, and the weather the day of the hike wasn’t supposed to be beastly hot.
The evening before the hike, Margaret and I joined Robb and Karen on their back patio, enjoying the prismatic Arizona sunset. I refused offers of beer, deciding instead to hydrate my system and drink a gallon of water, a tough call since I had spent many a pleasant summer evening visiting with my cousin and his wife as we easily went through several six-packs of beer in one sitting. Tonight, Karen was concerned about our hike. A story in that morning’s Tucson Citizen reported a shooting along the trail, a section close to the area where we would be hiking. Three hikers it seems had stumbled upon a band of “undocumenteds.” No one knows for sure exactly what happened. A forest ranger discovered three bodies about twenty yards off the trail several days after the hikers had been reported missing. Their bodies had already started to decompose, at least as far as the examiner could tell. The coyotes, you see, had gotten to them first.
Robb, a placid and quietly intelligent man who rarely displayed any extremes of emotion, reassured Karen that we would be further from the border this time, accompanied by three dogs, the best alarm system in the world, and most importantly, he would carry a revolver. Finally, against his desire to hike with only the most basic of tools, he agreed to take his cell phone and GPS. By this time the plan was in motion, our minds made up, the cars packed, the alarm clock set for four a.m. Robb had set up the coffee pot for three-thirty. I woke up before the alarm the next morning thinking I was the first awake but Robb was already in the kitchen eating his pre-hiking breakfast of sardines and saltine crackers. He believed that having adequate salt in your system was as important as hydrating. Margaret soon joined us in the kitchen, choosing an apple over sardines. Karen still slept even through the yelping and barking of our dogs as they spun in circles and leaped at the front door. We had nothing more to do than grab our coffee cups, clamber into our cars, and head for Patagonia. Our goal was to be on the town square by five a.m. and at the trailhead an hour later. That would return us to Patagonia by late afternoon, in time for happy hour and margaritas. And should the Wild Horse be closed for some reason, and things did happen unexpectedly in the desert, Robb stored a cooler of beer on ice in the trunk of his car.
I loved the tawny rolling hills of southern Arizona, the grasslands punctuated with alien-looking century plants, the Chiricahua Mountains I imagined looming off in the distance. The first light of day brought the cooing of doves and the twittering of desert wren. A soft wind rattled the desiccated leaves of fountain grass as we stopped along the way to empty our bladders. We arrived in the early morning light, and the town square was deserted except for the Santa Cruz County sheriff’s car, parked in front of a long abandoned gas station. The sheriff was nowhere in sight, nor was there a sheriff’s office. We moved quietly as Robb transferred his gear to the trunk of our car. Lady, Robb’s dog, rode shotgun on Robb’s lap while Margaret took the back seat with Jasper and Emma.
We had driven several miles down a forest service road before realizing we had missed the turnoff to the trailhead in the grey light. The dirt road was easy to miss, the only marker being a cairn built by hikers over the years. They frequently built these piles of stones to indicate the direction of the trail at junctures where the direction of the path was unclear. More than once Margaret and I had relied on cairns, a kind of early GPS system made of sandstone, to find our way out during previous hikes. Turning around, we found the dirt road to the trailhead that was less than a mile long. There were no other cars in the pullover. The dogs piled out and sniffed the ground for squirrel and rabbit. Double-checking our backpacks to make sure we left nothing behind, we hoisted our backpacks, locked the car, and discussed for a moment whether we should leave a note behind indicating how many people were in our party and the details of our hike. Deciding to remain anonymous in case the wrong people stumbled upon our car, we took our first steps of the trail and headed for Patagonia.
The beginning of a hike has always been more enjoyable for me than the ending. At the beginning, I’m well rested, my boots are well polished and oiled, my stomach is full, and I usually have a piece of classical music playing in my head, such as a Bach cantata I had listened to the night before. Hiking for me is meditation if I approach it mindfully. I focus on my breathing, shrug off pestering thoughts about work and finances, and simply admire the landscape around me. I usually take a camera with me much to Margaret’s annoyance but in this case, I left it at home. I wanted to witness my surroundings through my own eyes, not through a zoom lens, and pay attention to the sounds and smells of the desert, creosote being especially pungent after a desert storm. I gave little thought to what might lie ahead, carefully placing one foot in front of the other, feeling the rhythm of my stride, testing through my shoulders the distribution of weight in my backpack in case an adjustment was necessary. On every hike I had ever taken with Robb, he was always in the lead. He’s tall and lank like me, but his stride is longer and he quickly disappears ahead. I used to worry about falling behind and would lift my feet and begin to jog, but after once losing my balance and stumbling in haste down the trail to Havasupai Falls, gashing my head on a rock, I had learned to hike at my own speed. I told myself, hiking is not a competition, hiking is communing with nature and the self.
Hiking for me is meditation if I approach it mindfully.”
Suddenly, I heard the dogs barking ahead, and then the trail suddenly grew still.”
I quickly lost sight of Robb. Margaret kept a comfortable pace twenty yards ahead of me, and the dogs kept a divided allegiance between the front and the rear of the line. Jasper and Emma would occasionally run back to check on Margaret and me but would just as quickly turn around and race ahead to find Robb. Lady, like her master, would mind her own business, running off into the brush to flush out quail or rabbit. We followed this pattern for the first few hours, regrouping occasionally to give the dogs water and take a swig from the canteen. I had noticed since the beginning of our hike when the sun first rose above the mountains that the air felt warmer than I would have expected at that hour of the morning. The weather forecast had called for highs in the low eighties, but what I was feeling suggested a higher temperature. That didn’t bode well for our water supply. We would have to measure our water carefully including how much we gave to the dogs.
I had lapsed into reverie as I sometimes did when driving the long flat stretch of I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson. Large stretches of interstate would slip from my mind, twenty or thirty miles at a time, as I gazed at the peaks of mountains past Casa Grande. I walked carefully, measuring each step while watching for sharp stones in the trail or a rattlesnake coiled along the path. On a previous hike I had stumbled upon a herd of javelina stirring in an arroyo where they preferred to congregate (Javalina give off a musky odor that you smell before seeing them if you see them at all). Desert guide desert books warn hikers to respect bands of javalina and keep a safe distance, especially during breeding season when the mother, highly protective of her young, has been known to charge intruders.
Suddenly, I heard the dogs barking ahead, and then the trail suddenly grew still. I caught up with Margaret at the next bend in the trail where we stopped and listened. Cicadas rattled in the brush, a bird cried plaintively somewhere in the distance, a buzzard circled silently overhead, but otherwise, the desert hid in the noonday sun. Margaret and I crept along until we caught up with Robb. He was kneeling on the trail and turned quietly to get our attention, finger held to his lips. He pointed ahead along the trail. We saw nothing at first but slowly heard soft footfalls. Suddenly, three Mexican men with dark angry faces popped into view. They carried enormous burlap bales on their backs and each man carried a carbine rifle slung across his shoulder.
I thought about the article about the dead hikers that Karen had worried about the night before. My first impulse was to ask these men if I could buy a little pot from these strangers who were carrying large bundles of marijuana on their backs. These were swarthy looking men with menacing faces who resembled the mug shots of murderers and kidnappers on the post-office’s Most Wanted posters. They were about fifty feet away and they appeared to be trying to figure out what to do with us. I watched the hands to see if anyone went for a rifle.
Suddenly, Margaret blurted out “Bienvenidos!” Robb blanched. We were perhaps going to make the five o’clock news after all. Three days later. Not knowing what else to do, I smiled and flashed the peace sign. The dogs were smarter, cowering behind our legs.
Our time was not up, however, not this time. We moved to the side to make room for the pack of men who slowly passed us, giving. some of the most menacing glares I had ever seen. Like the white lightning I had once witnessed in New Mexico, a dramatic visual effect without sound, seen but not heard, they passed by us as silently as Indians in the deep woods. I now regretted not packing my flask to calm my nerves. I usually took one filled with tequila to sip around the campfire on overnight hikes. But we weren’t going to camp that night, and I didn’t consider drinking while hiking safe. Still, a good stiff shot to loosen my throat would have been welcome after being within a few feet of death. Robb, Margaret, and I stopped for a moment to discuss what had just transpired. If we bumped into one mule train, what guarantee did we have that we wouldn’t encounter an even larger group of men who were even more menacing, further along the trail? By this time we had gone too far to turn around. The dogs whimpered a bit, waiting on us to make up our minds. I poured water from the jug into the palm of my left hand and gave our dogs some water. Taking swigs from our canteens, we proceeded on without further discussion.
At the beginning of the morning I had wanted the hike to last forever. The weather was sunny and warm and the desert looked like a beautiful diaphanous jewel placed on a piece of felt. Food and water always tasted better on a hike, even if it only consisted of beef jerky and a handful of cashews. And civilization was somewhere far in the distance, lending that feeling of self-sufficiency that always overawed me on a good hike. But now, I only thought of getting to the Wild Horse alive where we could count our blessings over frozen margaritas.
Adding to my worries was the rapidly heating day. Robb had a small temperature gauge attached to the outside of his backpack and it already read in the upper eighties. The dogs had gone through one jug of water and were well into the second jug that I carried. We had also emptied three canteens between us. Robb called a halt to discuss the water situation. We confronted the ethical dilemma now posed to us: who got the last of the remaining water, we humans or the dogs? We agreed to drink as sparingly as possible and give water to the dogs only if they appeared to be panting heavily.
By this time we were more than half way to Patagonia with less than half our water remaining. The mid-afternoon heat began to envelop us as the desert had grown quiet. The trail became more diffused as a multitude of tracks began to confuse the trail. At several junctures where the trail suddenly veered off in an unexpected direction, one of us would trace the footsteps and return with a scouting report, usually one of a false lead. This muddle of footsteps slowed our progress considerably and increased our thirst that was only heightened when we finally reached the cattle tank we had read about. No cows were in sight, but the surrounding land was worked bare and the ground was covered with a thick carpet of dung. A sign posted on a rail warned hikers that the water was not fit for human consumption. Being lost in the desert under a relentless sun without water, I thought death was at hand. I had seen photos of the bloated bodies of undocumenteds attempting to cross the Mexican-U.S. border with insufficient water. Many had hung themselves by a belt from a saguaro rather than die of thirst.
The sun began to lower in the sky and both jugs of water were now empty. We estimated that we were down to a few litres of water between us. At best we had gone ten or eleven miles with another five to go. Suddenly, the trail had emptied out onto a vast expanse of ground marred by a confusion of foot prints. A recent rain had turned the area to mud and the free ranging cattle had made the ground indecipherable with their hooves. We could no longer read the signs of the trail. Robb pulled out his GPS from one of the pouches on his backpack but the battery had gone dead, drained by the heat. His cell phone wasn’t much better, giving a weak signal on a low battery. Now we faced a potentially greater danger than the one we had faced that morning: dying of thirst. We hadn’t seen a trail marker in over an hour and the fear that we had somehow lost the true path was real. We could be one mile or ten miles from our destination as far as we knew. Our only real choice we had was to retrace our steps to the cattle tank, fill our canteens, boil water over the campfire, and pitch our tents for the night.
Suddenly, the trail had emptied out onto a vast expanse of ground marred by a confusion of foot prints.”
A large beam of light suddenly danced around on the ground about us.”
Allowing ourselves one last sip of water, we turned around and began to head back. The cow tank still stood lonely when we reached it. Corrugated steel was nailed to the sides of a large wooden tank the rim of which came up to my shoulders, almost six feet high. A dilapidated ladder leaned against the side. Robb climbed up first and looked off to the right. He spotted a spigot emptying into the tank out of the reach of any cattle. The source of water was unknown, but we decided that this water had to be safer than water touched by cattle, even after it had been boiled. It took almost half an hour for each of us to fill our bottles and canteens as the last light of the day melted into a violet sunset and then into darkness. Wanting to make our hike out the next morning as short as possible, we decided to hike by moonlight as far as we could until we found a suitable place to camp. Robb figured he had enough charge on his phone to make one last call to Karen and tell her we were hunkering down for the night. Before we began the hike out, Robb climbed to the top of the ladder to get a signal and made the last call on his battery. I could tell by the way Robb was gesticulating that the call wasn’t going well. He waved his free arm like a disapproving conductor of a high school orchestra. Karen wanted to call the Border Patrol and have us rescued. Robb told her not to bother. He knew that several hikers who had been rescued after getting lost in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix had been charged thousands of dollars for the helicopter ride out. None of us wanted to spend that kind of money for a rescue. We had enough water now to last us until we reached the car at the trailhead and jerky and a little leftover trail mix for dinner. Robb had neglected to mention to Karen the party of Mexicans we had bumped into that morning. The hike back was a solemn affair. The trail and the desert had beaten us. I cursed the trail association for a poor job of maintaining the trail. I cursed the undocumenteds for their total disregard of the desert. I even cursed the other hikers who hadn’t left cairns to mark the way out. Finally, I felt downright stupid for a lot of reasons, including our reliance on technology that had failed us. Lewis and Clark had managed to navigate the Columbia River with a few simple tools like a compass, telescope, and quadrant. A short hike of sixteen miles now seemed longer than the Columbia that stretched over twelve hundred miles before us.
Robb had remembered an arroyo on the hike in that he thought would make a good place to camp for the night. A small grass-covered break surrounded by pinion and pine trees offered shelter from the wind and some protection in case drug runners walked the trail at night. They frequently did so to hide from the border patrol although thermal-detecting technology now made hiding in the darkness virtually impossible. The daytime heat was something else to escape. We followed the trail by moonlight for two or three miles until we reached the camping spot. The wisdom of bringing sleeping bags and tents now became evident. Robb has always pitched his tent quickly, even in the dark, as he now did while Margaret and I wrestled with tent poles and stakes. I suggested to Margaret sleeping outdoors in our bags but the idea of the protection offered by a flimsy nylon canopy comforted her. Robb was by this time already in his tent with Lady. He wasn’t eager to recap the day or plot our exit strategy for the next morning. Margaret and I did likewise and crawled into our tent with our two dogs.
I couldn’t relax, worrying about being mawed by mountain lions, brown bears, even the drug traffickers we had bumped into earlier in the day. Tossing and turning in my sleeping bag was impossible because with one dog next to me and another straddled across my chest, I was pinned down. All I could do was close my eyes, focus on my breathing, and pray for sleep.
The desert was still. I listened for coyotes yelping in the distance but heard none. I thought about how Huck Finn listened to the who-whooing of owls while waiting for a signal from Tom Sawyer but still I heard nothing. Then, somewhere far beyond, I heard a low murmur, almost like the sound of waves lapping up on the beach at the night. I nudged Margaret but she was asleep already and I didn’t want to look foolish awakening her. Now the sound grew louder, crescendoing from a low murmur to the sound of a hive of bees. There was no mistaking this for thunder; this noise was something manmade. I opened the tent flap and saw Robb standing in the darkness peering into the night sky. Margaret had awakened and I whispered to her to stay in the tent with the dogs. Robb motioned me over and pointed to the sky in the east where I saw a small collection of lights in the distance, one of them spinning, coming from the same location as the sound. The noise in the sky suddenly attached itself to the lights. A thunderous chopping noise crescendoed as the object slowly approached us until it hovered perhaps twenty yards above the field across the ravine. A large beam of light suddenly danced around on the ground about us. Robb pointed his flashlight at the light source and flashed it on and off, using the SOS signal dit-dah-dit. The beam jerked in our direction and locked on us. Like a couple of circus clowns, Robb and I danced around waving our arms madly. I flashed the peace sign for the second time that day at the blinding light source. The helicopter lowered itself onto the field opposite our camp, kicking up a large plume of dust and sand. Then we saw a disembodied headlamp move in our direction.
Robb gamely walked over to meet our visitor. Nothing much scared him anymore after working over twenty years as a legal defender in Tucson. I could see him talking to the figure while pointing in our direction. He then returned and gave us the “thumbs up” sign, then turned quickly to pack his gear. The Border Patrol, he said, would fly us back to Patagonia without charging us a dime. Margaret and I wadded up our tent and bags and stuffed them in rucksacks while the blades of the rescue helicopter whirled furiously, flattening the grass surrounding it to the earth.
The visitor who had accosted Robb, wearing night-vision goggles and other high-tech gadgetry, helped us bundle up our tents and backpacks. All this time, the dogs remained amazingly calm, staying close to our sides. We gathered up our gear, leashed our dogs, and followed our alien friend across the ravine to the waiting maw of the copter. I lifted our dogs inside, helped Margaret climb in, and clambered in pulling the last of our gear behind me.
Robb was already strapped in just as I had seen soldiers lashed to the walls of bombers in World War Two movies. He looked tired but relieved. No sooner had we buckled in and gathered the dogs in our laps than the door slid shut as the copter lifted off the ground. Two more Border Patrol agents sat in the cockpit in an array of orange and green lights and computer screens. The dogs were lulled to sleep by our gliding motion as we headed towards a small cluster of lights, the only ones in the blackness surrounding us. The lights gradually coalesced into larger objects as I began to make out the shapes of a few buildings, then a small cluster of cars in the town square of Patagonia.
The helicopter touched down quickly but gracefully, creating a tower of dust in the few dusk-to- dawn lights of the square. The engine continued to whine as Robb climbed first out of the copter, clutching Lady to his chest. I slid out after him, lowering our dogs, and then helped Margaret step down. As quickly as the copter had landed, it lifted off and traced a bee-line towards the south, moving more like a small jet than a helicopter. Our gear was piled in front of a small group of men, two more Border Patrol agents and a stout looking man in uniform who turned out to be the Santa Cruz sheriff. Karen had called the authorities after all, and now we stood at two in the morning in the town square of Patagonia before several pissed-off authorities.
Robb tried to pre-empt our welcoming committee by appealing to their sense of pity. He explained that we had been ill-prepared for the unanticipated events of the day, the Mexicans, the vanishing trail, our lack of water, the technology that had let us down. One of the Border Patrol agents interrupted, however, making it clear that they were only interested in the “illegals” we had met along the trail, in what they were carrying, what their disposition was like, and finally, how we had made it out alive. A small group of hikers a few days before were not so lucky, we were told. Their bodies had been found dumped in a ravine not far from the section of trail where we had encountered the Mexicans, their bodies severely disfigured, the same hikers that Karen had read about in the paper. The Border Patrol could not explain why we too hadn’t been shot. The more bristly Border Patrol agent took our names and phone numbers and said we would be contacted in case further information was needed. Without another word, the two agents got into their car and drove off in the same direction as the helicopter had flown. The sheriff lectured us that we should never again hike along the Mexican border. We wouldn’t be as lucky the next time. Then he too got into his car and quietly drove off into the darkness.
Exhausted from our ordeal, the drive back to the trailhead to pick up the other car was quiet. Robb did explain that he had verified with the Border Patrol agent before our rescue that we wouldn’t be charged for our rescue.. Robb had never liked what the washboard in the road would do to the axles of his car and drove along gingerly back to the trailhead. We spotted the turnoff this time and found our car as we had left it. Margaret and I transferred the jumble of gear to the trunk of our car, removed our hiking boots, and put on our tennis shoes. We had to pick our dogs up and place them in the back seat of the car where they immediately curled up and fell asleep. I turned to shake hands with Robb and joked about how we needed to bring extra batteries on our next hike. I got behind the wheel of our car and Margaret immediately fell asleep as I followed Robb’s tail lights through the grey morning light. They grew smaller until they finally flickered out far ahead of me.
Why were we alive when we should have died? I turned this thought over in my head on the drive back to Phoenix. I had no answer and I doubt there was one to be had. I have always been a student of the unsolved mysteries of life, and I’ve felt uncomfortable in the presence of those filled with a cocksure belief in the false gods of certainties and absolutes. Well, there is only one absolute that I know of and we cheated it a few times somewhere behind me in the rear view mirror. Suddenly, hunger caught up with me and I remembered a Waffle House just off the expressway a few miles down the road where we could stop for an early breakfast of biscuits and gravy and scrambled eggs on the way home. I knew that the Waffle House would be open. The Waffle House was always open.