February 10, 2021 428 PM
I’m walking up a lonely canyon wash on a cool early Sunday morning in late January. It’s a big, beautiful, dramatic, but relatively unknown canyon, that has inspired several personal trips over the past year. On each visit I’ve pushed farther and farther in, always finding more to explore. Despite it being on public land, I seem to have had it pretty much to myself. Or so I thought. Now I’m realizing, based on some solid evidence, that I’m not the only one who’s been here lately. And I begin to wonder if I’m not alone.
If you know me well, you might have heard me talk about my hikes and trail runs here, or perhaps you’ve been among the dozen or so friends who’ve joined me. There’s no established trail in this canyon. But the wide, mostly dry gravel wash makes for nature’s perfect trail. Like the flowing waters that formed this canyon over eons, I follow the path of least resistance. And as I come across more and more signs of recent human activity, I get an uneasy feeling that I’m not the only one who’s been using this route. And this has me glancing over my shoulder.
I’ll soon explain what it is that’s putting me on edge, but first I want to better convey the beauty of this canyon, which I’ve explored maybe seven or eight different times before today. My hike begins in a wide wash that drains towering mountains in the near distance. The farther in I hike, the more dramatic the canyon walls become, eventually rising up 1000 feet above the canyon floor on both sides. In these walls, the layers of volcanic activity are stunning in form and texture, ranging in color from pink to white to brownish red with some brush strokes of turquoise. Seeps and streams surface intermittently along the canyon floor, revealing that, even in dry stretches, water is flowing just beneath my feet. The occasional cluster of skinny cottonwood trees stand tall and drink deeply from these hidden waters, their leaves rustling in the cool breeze. In warmer months, zone-tailed hawks will fly in circles above me, crying out in alarm as I hike beneath their nests perched high in the cottonwoods.
After several miles in, the brown volcanic walls suddenly narrow and form a slot canyon, a place where the sheer walls are much taller than the canyon floor is wide. Winding through the darkening corridor, I can hear the sound of flowing water bouncing off the smooth rock walls.
And then rounding the corner, a hidden oasis in the desert is revealed. Cool, clean, clear water flows abundantly here year round. Small gurgling waterfalls trickle down into pools that reflect the narrow slice of blue sky above. At the end of this slot canyon I come to the emergence of these spring waters where maidenhair ferns grow around large boulders lodged between the narrow canyon walls. Beneath these boulders, the cleanest of water is gushing out at perhaps 10 gallons per minute. It’s at this source that I’ve learned over time that I can drink all I want, unfiltered and untreated, a wonderful gift from the desert. It’s a magical place.
After scrambling over the boulders and out of the slot canyon, the stunning canyon scenery continues steadily for another few miles before the canyon suddenly splits to the left and the right and later fragments into a labyrinth of lesser canyons and dry washes that climb up in elevation.
On a cool day, I could spend all day peacefully ambling through this canyon and never tire from the mostly gentle terrain, the stunning geology and the peaceful solitude. But this time is different.
On this particular morning, my senses are heightened and I’m paying more attention to what’s going on around me. I keep coming across pieces of trash that weren’t here the last time. Lots of it. Empty plastic bottles everywhere. Black trash bags caught in the brush. A packet of caffeine pills. Lots of socks. A few facemasks. A pair of womens jeans. Gloves. Other pieces of clothing. A whole lime that looks relatively fresh. A Gatorade bottle, a Coca Cola can, and a variety of other food packaging. And even before glancing at the Spanish that’s on every single label I come across, I already know in a general sense where it came from and how it got here.
If there was still any question that this is an immigrant route from Mexico into the U.S., it’s the carpet shoes that lay all doubts to rest. Under rock ledges, in bushes, on the canyon floor and in shallow pools, I find 16 discarded pieces of carpet that had been wrapped around shoes like booties. These carpet shoes are commonly used to prevent travellers’ tracks from being detected and pursued by authorities in the dirt and sand. The impressions of hiking boots can be made out on the inside each piece of carpet.
In The Big Bend Sentinel just a few weeks ago, I read about the recent surge in immigration here in the borderlands of Far West Texas. Among other factors, winter corresponds with the most opportune time for low river crossings and long treks on long, cold nights through the desert. Immigrants, led by human smugglers, have been making brazen pushes across the border in large groups. And here it appears they’ve been leaving some things behind.
But long before today I already knew that this canyon is a moderately travelled route for those emigrating from the south. During my hikes over the past year, I’d occasionally come across various packages like dehydrated refried beans and other foods, the labels entirely in Spanish. I found a half-dozen tall bottles of water cached on the sides of the canyon that, for whatever reason, had been slipped into tube socks. But it was a relatively small amount of trash. This time the litter was everywhere and it was obvious. This canyon had been heavily trafficked in recent weeks.
I assume these fellow canyon travellers are moving under the cover of darkness, so as long as I stick to daylight hours, I tell myself, I have little reason to worry. But to be honest, on this day it’s unnerving walking this canyon alone, even in broad daylight. I begin thinking. What if I stumble across someone who’s destitute, injured, lost or out of food? What if, by chance, they’re smuggling contraband across the border and don’t want a record of having been seen? What if I find myself outnumbered by people in dire need of the resources in my backpack? Running through the possibilities, the mind can start racing. Especially in a remote wilderness. Especially alone.
For immigrants moving through this canyon, I assume the basic rules are simple: keep moving, don’t get caught and don’t die. And with that survival mentality, outdoor ethics like Leave No Trace principles that usually govern our parklands are understandably not even an afterthought here. Even so, one might think that a collective trail of trash strung out over 10 miles on publicly accessible land could tip off the wrong person.
I continue to find various discarded items as I hike along. On my way out of the canyon, having filled my arms and my backpack’s outer pouches with trash, I at last come across a large trash bag I’d passed by on my way in. With a sigh of relief I drop the trash from my full arms, bag it, and then bag more and more trash as I hike out the rest of the way. I do this out of respect for this beautiful remote canyon I’ve come to love and the sensitive springs and lifeforms it protects. And because those of us who enjoy public lands share the responsibility of stewardship, regardless of who’s left trash behind.
But over the course of my hike, I find myself going through a wide range of emotional responses to these anonymous travellers who left behind this trash. Fear of the unknown. Frustration of the seeming carelessness, followed by understanding of their desperate situations. And later, gratitude that these travellers had blazed trails through sections of catclaw acacia that had otherwise choked out sections of the wash, making my hike a lot less thorny.
I think about how different our motivations are for walking this canyon. There’s of course a gulf between immigration and recreation. I begin to wonder whether or not these people could be said to be “hiking.” I’ve always understood hiking to be a leisurely recreational activity, not something done in a desperate attempt to escape the impossibilities of life in one’s homeland. I wonder if they have the luxury of appreciating the scenic beauty of this canyon by moonlight, or if the inspired geography is just an obstacle to be overcome. When the human brain is in fight or flight mode, admiring the world-class beauty of a canyon isn’t top of mind.
With a 20-pound bag of trash slung over my shoulder, I slowly exit the canyon and make it back to my car, having experienced a far wider range of emotions than I had expected. My experience today was a bit rattling. It forced me to think of who these others might be that I’m sharing this canyon with. Where are they from? What are their stories? How long have they been walking? What has this journey cost them? What will be their fate in these borderlands? I’ll never know. And I’ll never see this canyon I love in the same way again.
Yet as I drive home in the golden hour of a beautiful sunset, my uncertainties begin to subside. I realize it’s not so much the humble immigrant crossing a river that I should fear. And amid all the complexities of these borderland realities for which I have no easy answers, I settle into a place of compassion for these fellow desert travellers. Compassion for those who’ve so lost hope in their homeland that they risk their lives to gain a new one. Compassion for those who’ve spent cold winter nights not so much hiking for their enjoyment, but for their survival. Compassion for someone in whose carpet shoes I’ve never walked a mile.
Thanks for following along, friends, and until next time, keep walking on the wild side.
Tyler Priest is a park ranger and outdoor adventurer in Far West Texas. When he’s not at work he can be found hiking, climbing, running, paddling or cycling his way across the Big Bend. He landed in Fort Davis in 2018 where he hangs out with his cat Chico while plotting his next adventure.