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Day 5: Hot Blooded

“Uncharacteristically hot,” the radio host said as he reported today’s weather in Falfurrias. My thoughts? If it’s going to be uncharacteristically hot for Falfurrias, then it is definitely going to be uncharacteristically hot for us. And the weather did not disappoint!

We began our day bright and early in order to avoid as much of the afternoon heat as possible. We rolled in to Whataburger to get our breakfast taquitos (yum!) before the sun was up, and by the time we made it to the ranch to begin our search, the clouds were providing a nice cover from the sun, keeping the air (relatively) cool for the first couple of hours of our day. I jokingly declared that if I kept my sunglasses hooked to the front of my t-shirt, the skies would remain overcast for the rest of the day. Of course, true to Texas form, I spoke too soon and the sun quickly peeked out from behind the clouds, and with it the temperatures rose.

Sunny skies and dense thickets
Sunny skies and dense thickets

We covered a significant amount of ground while searching on the ranch, bobbing and weaving our way through the spider- and tick-infested thickets, keeping our eyes peeled for any signs of migrants that may have crossed through the area. We were looking for things such as personal effects that may have given us clues as to the last whereabouts of anybody passing through, trails that may have indicated higher traffic areas, and, of course, any signs of human remains that may need to be recovered. As the day wore on, the temperature rose, and our feet grew weary from walking on the sandy terrain for miles, so we decided to head in a bit earlier. The UIndy team, along with Eddie and Jeff, decided to take advantage of the extra afternoon time to take a trip to Roma to see the Rio Grande River on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Systematically searching in the sand
Systematically searching in the sand

Dr. Latham, Haley, and I had all previously taken this trip in May 2017 and so we were delighted to be driving through Rio Grande City to share this experience with our rookies, Rachel and Angela. We also remembered how much hotter it was on the Roma overlook, despite being just over an hour south of Falfurrias, and this time was no different! Roma is a great little town directly on the border, with some gorgeous colorful buildings and one of the world’s greatest bird sanctuaries. It also provides access to some stunning views of both the U.S. and Mexico sides of the Rio Grande River, with the sheer drop offs on the banks of the U.S. side reminding us of the many obstacles facing those who are attempting to cross the border. After spending some time gazing out across the overlook in the hot sun, we were all ready to cool down. Eddie suggested we stop by a snow cone stand on the way back to Falfurrias and we all happily obliged. With the menu mostly in Spanish with small, difficult to see pictures, most of us took Eddie’s advice and ordered the “Mangonada,” a deliciously fruity frozen beverage with a little chili powder kick!

One of the colorful buildings with intricate benches
One of the colorful buildings with intricate benches
Angela on the rocky overlook
Angela on the rocky overlook
Mangonada!
Mangonada!

With our refreshing beverages in hand, we headed back to Falfurrias to plan for our final day in Falfurrias. Today was a great day, and I think we all feel refreshed and invigorated to begin early again tomorrow to cover some more ground on the ranches and repair some more water stations across Brooks County. I can’t believe we only one more day left for this trip, but already feel so grateful for this experience and for all of the experiences and opportunities that we have been able to share with Eddie and Don.

Erica

Draining Our Batteries Under the Texas Sun

What a day! Today our group of five split into two groups, each with different goals. I went with Dr. Latham, Angela, and Deputy Don to begin searching a 1,500 acre area of a Ranch, while Erica and Rachel went with Eddie to repair the first water stations that were placed on the Ranch in 2013. The South Texas environment is very unforgiving. It is extremely harsh. This morning at 7am, it was 77 degrees Fahrenheit but 92% humidity making it feel much warmer than it was.

Sunrise on Cage Ranch
Sunrise on the Ranch

We started conducting line searches in one pasture of the Ranch at about 8am. The goal of a line search is to spread evenly apart and search a relatively large area of land for bones. All of the areas we were to search today were quite heavily wooded, and thus it was extremely difficult to stay in a straight line. We made several passes across the pasture and found various animal bones. After feeling like we had covered the first area, we moved on to the second across the street. This area was more heavily wooded than the first. Again, we spread evenly apart and attempted to conduct a line search. Our efforts to stay in a straight line were futile, however, due to the large amount of trees in the pasture. At one point I actually found myself lost in the brush. I couldn’t tell which way was out from the brush I was under and I couldn’t spot any of my team members nearby. I couldn’t hear them talking either. I saw a path, which is frequented by migrants, and began following it. I quickly found myself on the road several meters away from my teammates. While I was in absolutely no danger because I had water and teammates who care about me nearby, I felt a slight panic in the pit of my stomach. I cannot imagine making the journey that a migrant makes. When you are standing in the middle of the Texas brushlands with the sun relentlessly beating down on you, it is extremely difficult to imagine making a long journey without any sense of direction, let alone such a journey without any food, water, and the fear of being seen.

Conducting a line search
Conducting a line search

Dr. Latham, Angela, Don, and I walked for about an hour and a half before we had to take a break because we felt like we were going to pass out. We drank bottles and bottles of water and Gatorade and we were still extremely uncomfortable and totally exhausted by the end of the day.

Taking a quick break to cool off
Taking a quick break to cool off while           driving through the Ranch looking for      our next search

This experience in South Texas thus far has been extremely eye opening and wonderful, but at the same time heartbreaking. Every step we take on the Ranch, we wonder if someone could be near us hiding, dying, or deceased. We wonder if our attempts will be successful or not. And I am constantly thinking about my future. I admire Dr. Latham for many reasons and one of those reasons is her tenacity. She doesn’t give up when it is 120 degrees and 99% humidity. She doesn’t give up when we don’t find anything on our first try. And most of all, she doesn’t give up hope; hope that we are helping in this migrant crisis both at an individual level, and a crisis level. When I traveled to South Texas last May with Dr. Latham, I learned so much about the dead. I enjoyed my time a great deal. This May, however, I have learned so much about the living. It is one thing to talk about a crisis, and an entirely different thing to walk through it.

Walking back from our search
Walking back from our search

Tomorrow we will continue our searches on the Ranch with renewed hope and excitement and recharged batteries!

Haley (with contributions from Angela)

Day 4: Divide to Conquer

We started and ended our day with a “divide and conquer” plan of attack. In the morning, by splitting the team in half so that one could search while the other repaired water stations. At the end of the day, by tackling the grocery store run at breakneck speed before going to get food at one of the few restaurants still open until 10pm here.

Erica painting new barrels
Erica painting new barrels

Erica and I were on the water station repair team with Eddie.  After painting a handful of new barrels and running to Walmart for 100 gallon jugs of water (we had to ask for a pallet of cases), we loaded up the truck and headed out. After the huge accomplishment of the whole team building 13 stations on Monday, the three of us were pretty proud of ourselves for doing a route refurbishing and refilling 12 existing stations.  Although Eddie had checked it just last week, we still ended up putting out 30 jugs of water – which means the barrels are well placed to be seen and used by migrants. Since most of the barrels were put on the route almost 5 years ago, we also spent a lot of time updating them: replacing barrels, cracked lids and dried out ropes, and stabilizing them with T-posts while taking down old flag poles for repair back at the STHRC.

Tuesday has been both the hottest and longest day we’ve had yet, starting with our alarms going off at 5:30 am. Wednesday, predicted to be even hotter, will start bright and early at 5am so we can get out on the ranch and continue searching as soon as there’s enough light.

Day 4!
Day 4!

You can tell we’re halfway through the trip and starting to feel it, in the quietness at mealtimes and in the car as everyone conserves their energy and thoughts. For me, the mental strain is almost as strong as the physical – but while my body can be replenished fairly rapidly with food, water, and shade, being hyper-alert and mentally active for such long periods of time leaves me snatching moments of peace and quiet when I can find them to just “be”, without trying to remember all the things I feel like I keep losing track of, or constantly watching the brush for signs of human presence.

Two more days of work, and then a day of travel.  Though it will be tough, I have no doubts our energy and sheer tenacity of will will carry us through these last few days.  Wish us luck!

Rachel