I cannot stop thinking about my time in Texas particularly because my closest friends and family keep asking how the trip went. They gave me shocked faces as I described how we searched 3-5 miles a day through thick brush, dodging cacti thorns. They were unsettled when I talked about the amount of anxiety I held walking through tall grasses because of the rattlesnakes. They were mortified when I mentioned the stampede of javelina pigs that passed us or how we could hear the howling of coyotes some afternoons. I cannot emphasize enough how it really feels like everything in Texas is trying to kill you.
At the same time the Texas terrain holds so much beauty and wonders. I have never seen so many butterflies in my lifetime and stumbling upon a leaf cutter ant highway was so neat. Everyone kept making fun of me because I would get so excited ANY time we would encounter cows, calves and deer. I admired all the parts of nature that I do not encounter all the time and it was awesome to have Don there to teach us more about the terrain
Words cannot describe how grateful I am to have been a part of such a unique, life changing experience. I am so sad that this is my last time writing a blog post for the beyond borders team because I graduate in May. I have learned so much and I leave with lots of great memories. I am so proud of the team I got to work with. It was empowering to see how much we progressed throughout the week. Every day (sung to the tune of Buddy Holly) we got better when it came to staying in line and maintaining the same pace while we searched. There were times were we would engage in unspoken communication, signifying just how strong the team was.
I am grateful to have crossed paths with individuals that have dedicated a big portion of their lives to make change and advocate for human rights. One of my favorite parts was getting to hear everyone’s backstories and learning about how they ended up choosing to participate in humanitarian work. For the most part they described it as difficult but rewarding work. I leave this trip with so much inspiration. Inspiration to continue to be involved in any way I can by simply bringing awareness to the issue at large.
The mornings usually start off the same: we wake up, get our gear ready, chug vitamin C packets and have some sort of breakfast. Today, it was gas station tacos. Sure when I type it out they might not sound the most appealing but do not knock it until you try them. They are surprisingly delicious, with homemade tortillas, and very filling so thank you Stripes (Laredo Taco Company) for providing them. Deputy Don White and Melissa met us to have a brief meeting on our plans for the day, which was to search a specific pasture on a ranch where a migrant went missing several years ago. This area was their last known location and had been searched by our team extensively previously. But there has been no success in locating and recovering the missing individual. Recently Don learned the pasture extended further south than our original search and suggested we go back to extend the search. I have learned that several challenges exist when working search, rescue, and recovery in South Texas. Optimally rescue/ recovery personnel are given GPS coordinates to get to the last known location a distressed migrant was located, but there are instances when coordinates are not available and all they are given are brief descriptions of the surrounding area. These descriptions usually consist of “landmarks” such as water pumps, oil pipelines, pasture names, etc. that are similar within and throughout several ranches. I cannot stress enough how everything looks the same and how this truly does not narrow locations down. It is comparable to searching for a needle in haystack… except the haystack is actually dangerous and consists of pointy thickets and brush. Don moved me when he described that this particular case was “unfinished business” to him. His persistence has not allowed for him to give up on finding this individual even though several years have passed. He wants to bring some sort of closure/ peace for the family in the form of returning their loved one.
Line searches can actually be quite difficult and require lots of practice to execute correctly. It seems simple at first glance, but people fail to recognize the amount of things that are going on all at once. For instances, we as a team have to make sure to be in straight line AND keep the same (slow) pace with those around us. This, I have learned, is hard to accomplish in the Texas terrain as hills exist or the particular path that I am walking might have thicker brush to get through than my teammate. There are also spiderwebs and pencil cacti that like to snag clothing and skin (so much pain) to watch out for. All examples that will naturally slow the flow of the line search. At the same time, we have to continuously look at our wrist compass to ensure that we maintain the same direction. All while sticking to the main goal of scanning the ground for clues that might give us insight of migrant travel or remains themselves. Multitasking at its finest!!!
Today was different though, on top of all the physical obstacles mentioned above, there were mental barriers that I was trying to fight off. At one point I remember feeling overwhelmed and ultimately discouraged because I kept thinking about how looking for remains truly is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The areas we are searching within span thousands of acres meaning that individuals can be anywhere (tis one pasture alone is 1500 acres). To overcome this, I decided to focus on the importance of covering ground, no matter what the amount is. We can mentally check off a certain section of the ranch as not containing remains or physical evidence that can add to an identification. A sort of “no stone goes unturned” attitude provided relief.
We are looking for signs of life, anything to indicate that there was migrant activity in the area we are searching and today we found a lot of material things. To a random bystander it might seem like piles of trash but these encampments hold such much information. We have been taught to look at labels to find the expiration date of food to gauge how recent they may have been left behind.
Any time we find backpacks or clothing we are instructed to look through the pockets to see if we can find any sort of identification that might prove to be useful in the future if this person had been reported missing.
I have to thank Don for most of the things that I have learned and picked up in the field. He is so eager to teach the team anything that he knows about the Texas terrain (examples include leaf cutter ants and their mounds, caustic beetles, deer breeding grounds, the list goes on…) or about what to look for in migrant movement patterns. I am in the works of trying to convince him to start a YouTube series called “The more you know *10 second pause* with Don” where he would discuss all of his knowledge. Today he taught me the importance of a black trash bag which I know refer to as the multitool of plastics. He explained that for migrants this can serve as a poncho for rain, as a cover from sun, ground sheet to sit on, tent/ tarp and in a worst case scenario can serve as an insulation blanket under sand.
We covered roughly four miles, took a lunch break and decided to switch gears to help Eddie refill water stations. Water stations, for those that might be new to the blog, are big barrels that hold several jugs of 1 gallon waters for migrants to take as they make their journey to their final destination. Fresh, clean water can be a life saver especially during times of extreme heat and humidity. These water stations are placed along paths that are suspected to be highly traveled by migrants. It was neat showing up to water stations and finding that there were one to zero waters in the barrel left, an indicator that they are being used. I rode with Eddie in his truck which was nice because we got to joke around and jam to Carlos Santana.
One of the first things we did as a team when we got back to the hotel was inventory all of the cool animal bones we found in the field while searching. I really do not know how we will get through TSA with the amount of bones we have collected but the challenge has been accepted. It is so awesome (sauce) being friends with nerds who enjoy bones as much as I do.
The morning of any travel day is always so hectic! It usually involves scrambling to pack last minute items and going over a mental list (several times) to ensure that nothing gets left behind. Below is an example of items that our team leader, Dr. Latham suggests to bring during days of search and recoveries. Not something you think about every day.
The team meets early at the Indianapolis International Airport. We haven’t seen each other since the beginning of December so it was nice to catch up and hear about what everyone was up to during the holidays. There was a lot of out-of-state traveling to see family, a majority of the graduate students in the human biology program are not from the Indianapolis area. It seems as though we all equally value any time off from school to be able to spend quality moments with family that we don’t get to see often.
Once we check in and go through TSA we grab a quick bite to eat and huddle to discuss soft plans! I refer to them as “soft” plans because anything is subject to change. It is important to have a rough outline to make the most of our time but, equally as important to remain flexible. I cannot emphasize enough how trips to the Texas borderlands are unpredictable. The only thing we can expect is the unexpected!
I got a window seat during our first flight with a destination to Dallas-Fort Worth airport. I look out the window to see snowflakes and think to myself how lucky I am to be escaping the 18° degree weather. I took advantage of the first flight to catch up on some sleep as I barely got any the night before.
Remember mentioning the need to be flexible at the beginning of the post? Well when we got to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport we were met with a delayed flight of two hours to San Antonio. We passed time by people watching, sharing jokes, and talking. We finally boarded, I played four rounds of expert level sudoku and the next thing you know we were landing in San Antonio. This is not our final destination though, we still need to make a three hour drive to Falfurrias. We accomplished such with the help of our trusty, fancy rental car that was not what we originally booked (another challenge) but turned out to be a pleasant surprise. At first it took several minutes of trouble shooting to get adjusted because it is a high tech vehicle. The rental is also very sensitive, it literally sounds like it is about to detonate if any seatbelt (even if the seat is not being occupied) is unbuckled. It is so nice though, there is lots of leg room and big windows to look out of and gaze at the sunset. Eventually the night sky took over and we were able to see a waxing crescent moon and the planet Jupiter.
During our roadtrip to Falfurrias, we kind of just scanned through different radio stations, singing along to whatever songs were playing. We also talked about several movies that have made us cry, and concerts that we have attended in the past. It has been such an amazing time getting to know each other more. We checked into our hotel and made our way to H-E-B, a local grocery store where we grabbed food, water, and snacks that we will be consuming throughout the week. After, we grabbed dinner at Whataburger which was so good… nothing beats the spicy ketchup! We ate in our room and had a group meeting where we discussed what the plan is for our first day and were assigned different roles to be in charge of while in the field.
All-in-all it was a very long, tiring but fun day. It is a little scary knowing that this is supposed to be the day we get the most rest. I remain excited to see what the rest of the week has in store for us!