Category Archives: Environment

Talking about the weather, terrain, flora, fauna, etc…

Day 5: Until Next Time

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The six of us focused diligently on our line search with each step we took into the sinking sand. The thicket was so dense that we could not walk in a straight line without compasses. The thorny bushes extended outward and clustered in groups; dangerously spiked tree-limbs slouched to the ground causing us to duck, twist, and maneuver underneath them to pass through. We could not ignore these spaces and walk around them or we weren’t being entirely thorough. What if a bone was dragged months ago by carnivores into a dense patch of vegetation out of plain view?

Wrist compasses to help maintain directionality.
Wrist compasses to help maintain directionality.

These areas are often too dense to see into from a distance. Our mental exhaustion was unquestionable. Our eyes swept the ground from left to right, alternating between farsighted and nearsighted focusing as we partitioned the different vegetation, rock, insects, animal burrows, and other potential safety hazards. We simply could not let our guard down during this process while we looked for human bone and any migrant’s personal affects. The wind was blowing violently which kicked up sand and further obstructed our vision. Our hats and glasses shaded from the sun but didn’t seem to block the sand from getting in our eyes, nose, and mouth and sticking to our Chapstick. The air was a humid 87 degrees for our last day of searches and dang did we feel it! Out here, it’s a different kind of beast.

Sammi and Tanya investigating the contents of abandoned backpacks, searching for ID and info.
Sammi and Tanya investigating the contents of abandoned backpacks, searching for ID and info.

During our first search of the day, Dr. Latham asked us to wait up while she investigated an area of interest. A minute later we all went over to discover that she’d found a recent camp-out. There were numerous backpacks. The fabric was fairly recent, so we unzipped them to find they were filled with non-perishable foods, prescription glasses, toiletries, electrolyte pills, fresh trash bags, and clothing. The trash bags are quite utilitarian: used for ground cover while sleeping, shelter, raincoats, blankets, and any other creative adaptation. You could sense the weight this had on our hearts once we realized these were signs of the recently living. We even found store-bought tortillas in some of the backpacks that just expired a week ago and were free of mold. A group came through here recently, far more prepared than most, and hopefully they did survive.

Following Deputy White to set up another line search
Following Deputy White to conduct another line search.

Today was our last day of searches and we had finally truly mastered our system. I am in disbelief that this is our final workday. We covered 5 miles of walking distance through extremely thick brush on 2 ranches. The average walking speed according to Deputy White is around 0.7/0.8 mph when conducting line searches through the South Texas thicket. Yet, he determined we were covering ground at about a rate of 1.7 mph. Deputy White has been conducting searches for decades, so it was invaluable to have his insight in the area. The technique seemed to be as follows: start with a coordinate of known migrant activity, or one that hadn’t been searched in a while. These could be prioritized due to 911 calls with GPS coordinates, some kind of insider intel, previously discovered pathways, or unsearched areas on a ranch that we had permission to enter into. Then spread out and sweep from east-west and west-east directions until you discover a sign or lack thereof. This is a vastly complex subject with various levels of involvement and organization, so we were largely there help out wherever we were needed. I wholeheartedly wish we could assist more often, but it’s all very complicated with this being private land.

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Dinner at Jalisco’s

Today has been my favorite day of the trip so far. Regardless of the treacherous terrain, the hardest part was saying goodbye. Goodbye to the Texas landscape: although it feels like a terrifying beach where everything is trying to harm you, it has been a genuinely beautiful sight to behold. Goodbye Eddie Canales: we have been truly inspired by your passion for saving human lives, your stories, your leadership, your contagious laugh, and your friendship. Last but not least, goodbye Deputy Don White: I cannot even begin to describe how much you have contributed to this life changing experience for our team. We are all indebted to you and look up to you so fondly.

Each trip is one in a million and is unpredictable in the best ways. This may end up being my last trip, but it won’t be the last for Beyond Borders; so speaking on behalf of future teams: goodbye all… until next time.

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Sammi

 

 

 

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Day 4: There’s no “I” in the Beyond Borders team

Today began at 7 A.M. in the hotel lobby, where the team had a breakfast mostly composed of protein and Emergen-C to prepare for another long day of search and rescue or recovery. This breakfast was very different from previous mornings because we met with people that we would be working with later in the day. Rafael, the director and founder of Los Angeles del Desierto, traveled all the way from San Diego, C.A. to help a mother in search for her son. We met his team based in Texas and also met the mother, which was pretty emotional for me. I could see the sadness in her eyes, but she was very thankful for our volunteer work and gave us a bendicion (blessing) before we made the trip down to the ranches.

The first search and recovery operation really highlighted the forensic skills that we have to offer as team. For instance, Sammi (the mapping expert), was able to show me how to successfully construct a “baseline” for a map, under circumstances that were not ideal. She was able to adapt and create a detailed map in a very timely manner. I am quickly learning that working as a solid team is a tool that is essential in the field of forensic anthropology. Maintaining communication is key to getting the work done efficiently and correctly. During my time in Falfurrias, I have also realized that it is not only about working well within the Beyond Borders team, but also being a team player when it comes to working with other organizations. In this case, we had to work with U.S. Border Patrol, the Sheriffs Office, ranch owners, and the South Texas Human Rights Center. This involves a lot of “parties” and maintaining good working relationships will allow for more successes when it comes to searches, identification and repatriation of missing loved ones.

(Sammi taking measurements for the map)
(Sammi taking measurements for the map)

The second search, was quite adventurous as it required a 4×4, all wheel drive vehicle to get to the coordinates that Rafael had provided. Our rental car is  a mini van that does not come with those capabilities which left us no choice, but to pack in the back of Sheriff Deputy Don White’s truck. Needless to say it was a bumpy, but memorable ride that involved a lot of cow sightings and tight grips to whatever was sturdy.

(My view from the back of the pick-up truck: Alba, Rafael, and his team member)
(My view from the back of the pick-up truck: Alba, Rafael, and his team member)

Once we got to the location we conducted a line search. The line searches that are done on these ranches in Texas are not what you would expect, not really a perfect straight line because of the desert terrain. It  actually involves a lot of crouching under brush with thorny branches. It is my fourth day in the field and it seems as though everything in Texas has thorns on it.  Again, our team was successful in executing a good search. We are constantly vigilant of our surroundings and each other. If we are not within sight of one other team member, we stop and use walkie talkies to ensure everyone is okay, no team member left behind! Even Sheriff Don Deputy White complemented our nice formation.

(Thorny branches)
(Thorny branches)

During our searches, we find a lot of material items left behind by migrants. Anytime we find an artifact, I am taken back because it feels unreal to be walking the same paths they once did. It leaves me reflective, asking many questions like: “Did they make it okay without this backpack that they once had with them?”. Pictured below is one of many backpacks that have been found during our searches. 

(Sheriff Deputy Don White holding backpack)
(Sheriff Deputy Don White holding backpack)

The search ended early when the ranch owner warned that there was a big rattle snake sighting, a decision I was not upset about. We made our way back to the hotel to get ready for a nice dinner hosted by Bill & Peggy Clark (Lasater), relatives of the individual who founded the city of Falfurrias, Texas. Every year they invite the Beyond Borders team to have dinner at their house. This evening, salad, pasta, and different kinds of pie were on the menu. I felt so welcomed as soon as we walked into those doors. The rest of the night was filled with many great conversations, laughs, and belly rubs!

(Cash Lasater, friendly dog and new friend)
(Cash Lasater, friendly dog and new friend)

Day four is over which means tomorrow is our last day in the field, I cannot believe how quickly this week has gone by. I am sad that we will be headed to Indianapolis so soon because I will miss all the kind and wonderful people I have met along the way. I am extremely grateful and humbled to have been a part of this team, and look forward to sharing my experiences with fellow friends and colleagues to raise awareness on this humanitarian crisis.

(Rafael, Beyond Borders team, Sheriff Deputy Don White)
(Rafael, Beyond Borders team, Sheriff Deputy Don White)

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Tanya

 

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Day 2: Getting the Hang of It

We started our second day like we did our first: 7 am breakfast at the hotel (including our daily dose of vitamin C from our individual Emergen-C packets). Before heading out to the South Texas Human Rights Center, we had to make a necessary stop at the gas station for more drinking water since we went through over 3 gallons our first day. We reached the center at 7:50 am and waited for everyone to arrive.

We were particularly excited for this morning because joining us was a cadaver dog handler, Melissa and her dog Katana. She gave us a lot of information on her long background of dog handling as well as how she currently trains her dogs to locate bones. After everyone was ready (Deputy Sheriff White, Eddie, Melissa, Katana, and the Beyond Borders team), we headed out to the ranch for our first search of the trip. 

The team with Melissa and Katana
The team with Melissa and Katana

Our team has an organized plan to perform the searches, but, as mentioned in the previous post, flexibility is a key element to our success. While we didn’t know exactly where we were going to search or the specifics of the landscape, we were as prepared as we could be with our Permethrin treated field clothes, sunscreen, bugspray, snake gaiters, and plenty of water.  Our strategy for this specific search day was to follow along a pipeline in line search formation. With one person walking directly along the pipeline as an “anchor” point for everyone to reference, we spaced out in the brush and began our search. 

As we started walking, it seemed that our team was a little out of sync. With the new, tougher  environment and a first time search for some, it took us a few minutes to really get into the swing of things. But as we started learning from each other and keeping up with everyone’s rhythm, we quickly became accustomed to our new mission. Our team’s consideration for one another was the biggest contribution to our success today. We made sure nobody fell too far behind, that everyone stayed hydrated, and warned each other of any upcoming hazards. With a positive and supportive attitude, 4 miles with our team went by very quickly. 

There were a few notable things we encountered on our search today:

First of all, the terrain. This specific area of the ranch had a variety of flora of varying densities. While some parts were open spaces with some short grass, others we filled with thorned bushes and large trees that we had to maneuver through and, as you could imagine, it was not easy. Knowing the difficulty of walking through this environment with full gear and a lot of daylight, it was unfathomable what migrants experience when they travel these same areas with the bare minimum of necessities and, most likely, at night.

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Open area between the brush
Sammi, Tanya, Sidney and Dr. Latham in the brush
Sammi, Tanya, Sidney and Dr. Latham in the brush

We found some personal effects left behind by passing migrants. While most of what we found was quite old and scarce, this was important information to note because it told us that the paths we were walking were no longer as heavily trafficked as they have been in the past.

Sweater left behind
Sweater left behind
Worn backpack
Worn backpack

We also encountered some of the animals that live on the ranch.

Family of cows
Family of cows
Wild hog on the run
Wild hog on the run

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Additionally, something that caught our attention was a small squash-like vegetable that we found, growing by its lonesome, in the sand. We decided to take it with is and each try a bite of it back at the hotel; it was surprisingly sour and, after some research, we believe is called a Citron Melon.

Citron melon
Citron melon

By the end of our search, while the weather was in our favor (a high of 71 degrees and some cooling winds), we were quite exhausted. After we took off our walking gear, we jumped into our minivan and started driving out of the ranch, but not before stopping at each water station we saw to replenish the water.

 

Sheriff Deputy Don White and Tanya refilling a water station
Sheriff Deputy Don White and Tanya refilling a water station

Our day was not quite over, though. We had the pleasure of having dinner with Sister Pam, and what a meal it was. Not only was the food delicious — we were so famished that we didn’t even remember to take pictures of our food — but the company of Sister Pam was unmatched. She is the most wonderful, caring and inspirational person you could imagine. Even though it is just our second day, we all left our dinner with the motivation we all had to finish this trip strong from Sister Pam’s kind words of encouragement.

End of our Day 2 search
End of our Day 2 search

Alba

 

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