I’ve been home now for a little while, and everything seems out of place. I was only gone for a week, but coming home to my apartment and seeing everything exactly how I left it before I headed to the airport felt very weird. While the week went by fast it was so full of activity and new experiences that it felt more like a month than a week. Before heading to Texas I had a lot of hopes and wants, but I don’t think I fully knew what I was in for. I hoped that we would find someone and be able to do a recovery, I hoped that I would be able to handle the tough days full of walking in rough terrain, and I hoped that I would gain something from the trip that I wouldn’t be able to in other places. Luckily all of my hopes came true, though not necessarily in the ways I expected. We were able to make three recoveries, I definitely made it through all of our search days (though I was quite sore after a few of them), and I’ve learned so much from all of our experiences.
Going in I knew it was going to be tough, but I figured most of the difficulties would come from the physical work we would be doing. Dr. Latham warned us about the emotional toll this work can have on people and while I was cognizant of this, I thought I would be able to deal with it more efficiently than I did. While we were in Texas there isn’t much time to process what you are doing. We wake up, go to breakfast, finish packing our field bags and then we’re out the door heading to our next location. When we get done its shower time, dinner, a debrief with Dr. Latham and then looking through the pictures from the day and we’re off to bed. It wasn’t until I got home and could finally lay down in my own bed that I really thought about what we had done this past week. Three families will now have more closure, and be able to bury more of their relatives, even though we didn’t find every skeletal element we found more and impacted those three families in a positive way.
Before I went to Texas I was thinking very selfishly. I was hoping I would find something more so because then I could say I found something, and I wasn’t thinking about the impact it would have on others. I was thinking it would be cool to go to a different state and get to see parts of their culture that I haven’t experienced. Now that I’ve returned home, I think back to our trip to the Don Pedro Jaramillo shrine and reading the heartbreaking letters left for him, and finding socks out in the middle of the brush with little hearts on them or seeing your favorite snack wrappers littering the ground around a tree out in the middle of nowhere. There are so many aspects of the trip that will stick with me forever, reminding me of how other people live and why we make the trip down to help. I never would have guessed just how much work we would be able to accomplish in a week, and as tired as I am I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’m so proud of my teammates and I for using our knowledge to do something good and productive, and I’m incredibly grateful to have gotten to work with Ray and Don who taught us so much, not only about the work we were doing but about how to be a good person and to use your skills to help others. I’ll never forget our hotel breakfast meetings, flying an infrared drone on the side of the road, playing with Socks during our water breaks and getting teased by Ray and Don. Most of all, I’ll always remember the work we did and what we were able to accomplish together.
Day four started off very similar to the past few days. We’ve gotten pretty set in our routine at this point. It’s funny how quickly we’ve settled into life at the hotel and how to prepare for a day in the field. It feels like we’ve been here for a lot longer than four days, and at the same time its gone by so fast. It feels like we’re just getting started and now we only have two more work days to look forward to. We got up and were joined by Ray and Don for a hearty hotel breakfast. We all feel a lot more comfortable with each other after a few days so we joke and chat while we drink our emergen-c and eat our fill of oatmeal and cereal. The plan for today was to search alongside a couple backroads and then head out to a ranch for the afternoon where Don had found skeletal remains in the past. As we headed out we got to see more of the area around Falfurrias and enjoy the plethora of goats, dogs, cats, and nilgai that roamed the area. When we arrived at our first location we set out in a loose line search, focusing mainly on each side of the road, peering under cacti and trees searching for water bottles, backpacks, clothing or skeletal remains. Our search there only led to a backpack and an old shirt. When we find backpacks or clothing we typically search them for anything that can help us know who is passing through and make sure they are accounted for, things like IDs, passports, photos with names or phone numbers, etc. Any that are in good condition we hang on a nearby tree, both so others who are searching know it’s already been searched, and so those who are passing through can grab anything they might need. As we searched our second road, we began to hear gunshots in the distance. The purpose of many ranches in the area is hunting, so this wasn’t surprising, but because we didn’t know which way they were shooting or how close they were, we decided the best course of action was to stop this search early and move to our next location just to be on the safe side.
As we arrived at the next ranch, we paused for a snack break and to search the nearby mots (mass of trees) while we waited to ensure the hunters would be done for the day. Immediately we could see just how much debris was in the area, and Dr. Latham called us into the middle to point out some of the stuff we haven’t seen before. There were tuna packets, fruit cups, electrolyte drinks and juice cans spread all around. They looked fairly new, and we’d seen this kind of thing before in our other searches, but there were also some other things that were new to us. Many of the water bottles were spray painted with black or dark green paint, to prevent the clear plastic from reflecting light and giving them away.
We also saw medicine bottles, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a cracked phone missing its battery and sim card. Dr. Latham explained that this spot is probably a staging area where the migrants would get picked up, so what looks like garbage to many can also be seen a transition point in their journey, where they would have freshened up, ate, drank water, and prepared themselves for whatever the next step in their life would be. I can’t imagine the emotions and thoughts that would be running through their head as they waited here.
We then moved into the first area Don had in mind for us to search. He explained what he had found here in the past and pointed out exactly where he made these discoveries. We then started walking to the brush, scanning the ground as we have so many times in the past few days. At this point I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t be able to spot anything even if I walked by it, the possibility that we’ve walked by someone’s remains and not even noticed terrified me. I knew clearing an area was just as important as finding someone, but I couldn’t help but question if we were doing things right, or if us being a team of rookies was the reason we hadn’t made any discoveries yet. It took about two minutes for our luck to change. Don called out for Dr. Latham and sure enough, the proximal end of an ulna was sticking out of the ground a couple feet from where we had begun our search. It was as if someone had lit a fire under us, we couldn’t wait to begin our search around this area to determine if there was anything else to find. It wasn’t long before I turned around and saw another bone sticking out of the ground, so we knew there was more here than just one isolated bone.
As much as we wanted to immediately begin searching for more in the area, we knew we had to make a plan. Dr. Latham examined the area and began giving us instructions. Before long we had cleared all the brush and ground cover of an area about 7 meters long. In the process we found more skeletal remains on the top but also more as we ripped roots out of the ground. This told us that we would probably find more if be dug down a few inches. That’s where we had to get creative. In the past, when teams would find skeletal remains they would all be on the surface, so there wasn’t a need for multiple trowels and digging equipment. We are limited in what we bring because Dr. Latham carriess all of our recovery gear in her backpack. In this case, the area we were searching was on an incline, meaning skeletal elements could have rolled down and had dirt roll down on top of them, making them a lot more difficult to spot. We weren’t going to let our lack of trowels slow us down though. After we formed a grid over the area to let us know where to search and were given our instructions, we did a quick search of Don’s Jeep and Ray’s Truck for what we could use. Luckily Don had a trowel and a small shovel we could use in additon to the one we brought, so we were all set. This was a new situation for all of us, and I can confidently say we proved my earlier anxieties wrong. We spent about four hours working on the area and by the time we had finished we were all covered in sand, sweat, and were very exhausted. We packed up all of our tools, hopped in the cars, and took a short drive to another spot Don wanted to show us.
Don showed us an area where he had previously found a woman who had gone missing. He explained that when she knew she was in distress, she first called her parents instead of 911 and that if she had called 911 in the first place she probably could have survived. Ever since he told us that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. Whenever I get into a difficult situation my first instinct is to call my dad. I just assume he’ll know what to do and can help me with any issue. Its such small decisions that can be the difference between life and death in these situations, it puts everything into perspective. I can’t imagine having to worry about being in a different country, trying to stay hidden while also surviving long enough to get somewhere safe. The next time my car breaks down, or my kitchen sink breaks, I’ll think about her when I call my dad for help. The difference is my situation is just an inconvenience, while she passed away because of that decision. I’m incredibly grateful to live the life I do and be able to help those in situations like hers.
We’ve made it to Texas! Starting with an early morning wake up, we all made it through security in Indianapolis with only two of our bags being checked (TSA questioned my bag full of quarters for laundry but after a quick check we were good to go). The rest of the trip went off without a hitch. We flew from Indianapolis to Dallas, and then from there to San Antonio.
For some of us this is our first time traveling to Texas, while others have been before and can give a little more insight into what we can look forward to in the next week. I can tell we’re all excited to finally be on our way. After several weeks of discussing and reading about what we’ll be doing we’re all anxious to begin, and our cross-country journey was the first obstacle in our way. We landed in San Antonio and after a very delicious lunch at Torchy’s Tacos took the 2 and a half hour drive to Falfurrias. Honestly the hardest part of our drive was playing tetris to fit all of our luggage into the minivan. We began our drive through San Antonio and into the countryside, passing Mexican restaurants, ranches, and oil refineries.
As much as I’m struck by how different Texas is, it still feels eerily similar to my own home thousands of miles away. Large expanses of trees, with tiny little towns sprinkled throughout and populated by family-owned restaurants, churches, and the occasional gas station. The food the restaurants serve is different and the trees are a lot different here, but it still has the same feeling of small town America that is surprisingly similar to how I grew up. My hometown is even about the same size as Falfurrias, it’s been really interesting to really see first person just how much variety can exist in one country. Driving into Falfurrias felt climactic. We’ve been preparing so much and it feels surreal that we are actually here now. Deputy Don White joined us for a preliminary meeting and dinner at Whataburger, where we talked a little more about the structure of Falfurrias and the work we’ll be doing this week.
It was at this point that I realized that we begin working tomorrow, and while that excites me it also scares me a little bit. So, after a late night run to the grocery store for food and supplies, and then another tour of Falfurrias as we searched different gas stations for a Styrofoam cooler, we’ve settled down for the night to prep for our first day. Prepping for our first day includes double checking the batteries in the camera, making sure the walkie talkies work, and triple checking our field bags to make sure we haven’t forgotten anything that could be important out in the field. I think the worst part of a new experience is the anticipation beforehand, so I’m ready to start the day tomorrow.