All posts by Olivia Messenger

Looking back, moving forward

We’ve been back for several days, but I still find myself regularly thinking about everything that happened in Texas. Even though we were only gone a week, it feels weird to be back. Being able to wake up in the morning without a mission and a day of hard work planned out feels wrong. Driving through Indy traffic and being surrounded by people and buildings and the bustle of a big city feels overwhelming. There was an aura of peace and silence in Falfurrias that is difficult to find here. While I wish our expertise wasn’t needed in Falfurrias, I want to be back in the field searching and helping in any way I can.

I grew immensely as a person over the week. I’ve been living a bubble of privilege, and, after everything I experienced over the week, I feel unsettled. Simply being born where I was born grants me so many freedoms and opportunities that people are willing to die for. It isn’t fair. A life is a life, and a border shouldn’t change that. While I know it is probably a pipe dream to wish for a world where borders don’t matter and people are seen as equals, I refuse to give up hope that it may one day be a reality. As long as there are people like Eddie, Don and the Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery Team, and Dr. Latham in the world, I choose to have hope.

Seeing the work they do and how they put their heart and soul into helping migrants makes me want to be a better person. To work towards a brighter future. And to be the best I can be in the field in order to help as many people as possible. This trip really solidified that this is the type of work I want to do. It’s easy to get wrapped up in classwork and academia, but actually applying what we’ve learned, and learning things that no classroom can provide, has made me a better person with a clearer view of the world we live in.

Even though the trip was physically and emotionally exhausting, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I feel like our team is bonded in a way that most people wouldn’t understand. Yes, we were friends before the trip, but, after spending so much time together, we’ve become more like family. We sass and nag, but we also laugh and really talk. We learned so much about each other that wouldn’t have come out in a different environment. We saw each other’s highs and lows, and, by the end of the week, we were functioning like a well-oiled machine in our searches. Words weren’t always needed; we worked as one unit. I know my teammates will go on to do great things, and I am excited to see where life takes each one of them.

I know I will forever treasure the memories I made on this trip. I hope I get to come back in the future to continue helping Don and Eddie with the amazing work they do in trying to make the world a better place.



Hot and Humid Day 3

Everyone was on the struggle bus for the beginning of day three in Falfurrias. We were all sore and tired and not ready to get out of bed. But, we did. And promptly stepped into the soupy, muggy, 98% humidity that was outside our door. By the time we left the hotel, the temperature was already higher than it had been the previous two days. After a quick breakfast of Whataburger taquitos and a compass check, we were on our way to the South Texas Human Rights Center to meet up with Eddie (South Texas Human Rights Center) and Don and Ray (Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery Team).

Day 3 Team Photo

While we waited at the South Texas Human Rights Center for everyone to arrive, Tanya managed to get one line from the song Everyday by Buddy Holly stuck in everyone’s heads. I’m pretty sure I heard everyone singing or humming it at some point throughout the day. Once everyone arrived, we set out to begin our day of searching. We started out in the area where Oakley had been alerting yesterday to see if we could find anything.

South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, TX

Unfortunately, the hot and humid weather meant an increase in bugs and other animal activity. Anyone who knows me knows I absolutely hate bugs, especially spiders (you can’t trust anything with that many legs). But, Dr. Latham introduced us to a super fancy trick: the spider stick. We all looked like we were in Harry Potter waving our wands (sticks) around in front of us to break through the webs. I’m pretty sure Alex saw a snake at one point too, but he wouldn’t point it out to me because I also hate snakes (you can’t trust anything with no legs, either). Mid-search, we had a pack of javelinas that went running through our search party. Luckily, they were only sows and piglets, so they ran away from us in the other direction.

Kids sit in the back!

After a thorough search of the area, we only found older evidence of migrant travel in the area. We didn’t have Melissa and Oakley with us today, so we don’t know if Oakley would have picked up on any scents, but we felt pretty confident there was nothing beyond the old rusty cans, bottle caps, water bottles and empty fruit cups that we found.

Discarded water jug

As we moved onto our next location, Don pulled over to pick up some empty water jugs along the road. He said they were from several different time frames, indicating migrants may be or had been moving along that path relatively regularly.

Once we arrived at the next search location, Don took a minute to show us everything he carries with him in his Jeep. He could very well be a modern day MacGyver with everything that’s in there! We also took a minute to wave and moo to the cows that were nearby – something we did every time we saw a single cow anywhere. Sadly, they didn’t wave back. Don also brought out a drone with an infrared camera to see if any heat signals could be found. At one point, Izzy thought she was tracking migrant footprints in the dirt, only to realize she was tracking Eddie! We again found older evidence of migrant activity, but nothing recent enough to indicate this is an area of interest.

Don’s drone

I view not finding anything as both a positive and and a negative. The scientist and forensic anthropologist in me is excited to find things, but, at the same time, I feel guilty because finding something means a migrant is or was suffering. I also worry that us not finding anything means we searched in the wrong areas while migrants were in distress in other areas. Logically, I know it is impossible to know and check every route, especially when they change frequently, but the thought of someone possibly dying in another area because we chose the wrong spot to search or they took a new route is upsetting. A life is a life. It shouldn’t matter where someone comes from. Everyone needs help sometimes.

As we were all hot, sweaty, and tired after the hours of searching, we decided to call it day. We loaded up in Gloria, the best minivan ever, and headed on back to the hotel. As we were leaving, we even saw a roadrunner (beep beep). Now it’s time to eat the best cake ever (mocha tres leches) and get some sleep. A great way to end our day!

Very judgey cows wondering what we’re doing



Almost time

This semester was a whirlwind of highs and lows, and it felt as if January would never come. I was so busy running around trying to wrap up the semester that it took someone asking me what day we fly out to realize the trip is just around the corner. That was also when the anxiety and panic set in. In a little over a week, I will be in Texas having an experience that I know will change many of my perspectives of the world.

I am the type of person who loves to know what to expect and is terrified of being unprepared. I have been slowly packing all of the gear I think I will need, as well as the things previous team members have suggested. I feel somewhat prepared but also wholly unprepared at the same time, and I have come to accept the fact (and actually become excited) that I need to be ready to face, explore, and embrace the unexpected. While I know I am just a tiny piece of a very large puzzle, the ability to make a difference in at least one person’s life makes the entire trip and the work we do worthwhile.

Reading through past entries on this blog and speaking with prior team members makes me excited to have my own experiences. I want to meet new people and hear their stories. I want to work with the people I have heard so much about, and see how we – as forensic scientists – can work in a humanitarian context. I am also excited to apply what we have learned at school, learn new techniques, and work with the team. This experience will form lifelong relationships and memories that I cannot get anywhere else. And, hopefully, the knowledge and experiences I can share with others after the trip will bring more attention to the crisis occurring at the border.

I know the trip will be physically and emotionally challenging. While it looks like the weather will be decent during our stay, I still need to prepare myself for the thorns, burrs, scorpions, spiders, snakes, etc. we may encounter. I believe I can handle the vegetation, but I have never been a big fan of creepy crawlies. I am also concerned and a bit apprehensive about how covid and the recent uptick in cases will impact our plans. However, if there is anything the past year and a half (or has it been longer?) of the pandemic has taught me, it is that we need to be flexible and recognize that we are all facing our own hardships. Everything may not (and probably will not) go according to plan, and that is okay. Plans change, but as long I remember to not stress about the small stuff, I know I can face whatever is thrown my way.

As I sit at home and run through my checklist once again, I remember that all of the challenges I face are nothing compared to those the migrants are facing. No matter what, I am excited to see what happens in the coming weeks.