Another day, another search. Today is the hottest day we will experience, with a high of 87 degrees. We start our day with breakfast at the hotel again. Don and Ray join us with coffee in hand. We chat a little before we head back to our room. At this point we all have a mini checklist that each of us go through before heading out. Wrist compass? Check. Walkies? Check. Camera? Check.
Once we feel confident we have what we need, it’s time to pile into Don’s jeep and Ray’s truck. Today it is my turn to ride with Don and Socks. I sink into the passenger seat, amazed at the number of buttons and gadgets he has within arm’s reach. Socks is excited to see a fresh face, immediately hopping up on my lap. We pull out of the hotel parking lot, and we are on way. Socks moves from Don’s lap to mine and Don starts to tell me about the areas that we pass. Don says that as soon as he shifts the Jeep into 3rd, Socks will settle in the backseat. Sure enough, as Don shifts, Socks moves at once. Originally, due to the ranch’s planned hunting excursions, we were not going to be able to search until noon. However, Don says that he has gotten confirmation we can head there early. We are about to turn towards a gate to the ranch when I see a Nilgai running along the left-hand fence. Don says it is most likely a young female Nilgai that is looking for a way inside. We pass by it, and I wonder if it will find a space to get through the fence.
That thought aside, we turn into the gate and drive into the ranch. Once we drive close enough to the first search area, we all grab our packs and begin walking. We start in a line search, walking along a space that seemed to be under water at some point.
We find some evidence of people traveling, including clothing and footprints. Ella also finds a few non-human (possibly turtle) bones, while Chastidy finds a non-human bone as well.
We search until we are pretty far from the cars. Ray recommends we settle down for a quick break to plan the route to our next location. Don plans a hike through the brush. We are headed to a location where he had done a recovery before.
We begin walking in single-file. Don is at the front of the line, barely letting any branches or thorns slow him down. Ray follows behind us, making sure we are still doing well and pushing us to stay hydrated.
Though we have not yet reached our main search area, we get to a clearing that has more space. Don recommends that we spread out a bit and search the brush moving south.
Ella and I partner up making sure that we never lose sight of one another. We find various water jugs, most of which had been spray painted a dark color. We also find clothing and backpacks. We check these for anything identifying and hang the items that can still be used in branches for easy access. These are some of the most recent evidence we’ve seen since we came to Texas.
Up to this point, much of the items we had found were clearly discarded a while ago. Many of the clothes had holes and the food package labels had clearly been bleached by the sun. Today, however, many of the items are in good condition suggesting they had been left behind fairly recently. I am struck by where I find these items. I am dressed specifically to walk through the brutal vegetation, and yet many of these people are not. I find things in deep parts of the brush where, if you aren’t dressed the way our team is, it would be painful to hike through. I know that people traveling do this to remain unseen while they rest, but I can’t imagine the discomfort and stress they must feel.
After a little while, Ray helps us group together again to head towards Don’s location. We hike again towards the next search area in a single file line. With the search area just ahead, we settle down for another break.
As I mentioned, Don previously recovered elements from this area and wants to search it again. The remains we are searching for are thought to be from an individual that had been traveling through this ranch. The individual had perished leaving behind his bill fold with an ID inside. Another person that was also traveling through the ranch later found the ID and decided to mail it to his relatives in Central America. The son of the deceased received the ID and was able to contact family that lived in the U.S. to begin the search and recovery process.
Don leads us over to the area and stops. He says (or rather sings), “just take a look around”, motioning to a spot near his feet. Ella looks down and sees an element that looks to be human. We begin to search the surrounding area and find two more. As skeletal elements are found, each is marked with a bright orange flag. At this point Dr. Latham directs us to begin clearing the area. We work to clear the vegetation and surface debris.
Ray kindly lets us borrow his knife to cut down the taller plants. Ella finds more elements as we begin to dig below the ground’s surface. Hours pass as we tirelessly search, finding 10 elements in total. As we work, Ray thankfully makes the 1.3 mile trek back to the cars in order to drive his truck closer to where we are searching. This way, we won’t have to walk back after the team finishes. Once notes and photographs have been taken, we clean up and pile into the truck. All of the student team members decide to sit in the bed of with Don and Socks. Once we make it back to Don’s jeep, we leave the ranch. We head out the same gate that we passed through earlier and head down the road. Surprisingly, the young nilgai we had seen earlier is still there. Don pulls up next to the gates and puts his jeep in park. I sit with Socks in the passenger seat. Don hops out and begins to work on getting the gate open, while Ray uses his truck to heard the Nilgai towards it. After some patience, the Nilgai runs through the gate and Don closes the gate behind it.
Happily, the group heads toward a celebratory ice cream stop. We sit in the Dairy Queen near the hotel and relax for a bit. It was great to decompress after another tiring day in the field.
Once we finish, Ray and Don take us back to the hotel where we will prepare for our final workday tomorrow. I am curious to see how tomorrow will compare.