I like bread and butter…

Today was our team’s last day in the field.  Despite sore legs and wandering minds, we were eager to get it started. Our schedule for the day consisted of working on water stations in the morning with Eddie followed by searching a new ranch site in the afternoon with Don.  At around 8am, we pulled up to the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC) where we were greeted by the sweet aroma of Eddie cooking up some of his world-famous menudo for breakfast. For those who don’t know, menudo is a traditional Mexican soup made with cow’s stomach lining (panza) and oxtail in a savory broth and red chili pepper base.  According to Eddie, menudo is the best hangover cure!  It was my first-time trying the dish and I was slightly hesitant but to my own surprise I really enjoyed it.  If anyone is interested in his recipe, feel free to contact me (just kidding, it’s a secret!)

Menudo, Breakfast of Champions!
Enjoying the Menudo!

Before leaving the STHRC, we had an early birthday celebration for Eddie who will be turning 74 tomorrow (well technically today since the post is on 1/12). Please send Eddie your birthday wishes! He also wanted me pass along that he is currently in market for a new truck. On to water station duty…

I had the honor of riding with Eddie as we headed to work on water stations.  During our drive, I got a comprehensive introduction into the layout of South Texas and the different landmarks migrants will regularly follow during their trek across them.  One interesting tidbit he mentioned was how the expansion of power and gas lines at these ranches have been a valuable guide for migrants in the past few years.  In addition, a recently developed water tank (tangue) on this ranch has greatly increased migrant traffic. Overall, our team refilled a total of eight water stations today along with the construction of a brand new one. While refilling water stations was a simple task, it was humbling and gratifying feeling to know that this could potentially help save someone’s life.

The UIndy Beyond Borders team refilling a water station; typically, each water station holds between 6 – 8 jugs at a time; The design of the water station has been modified over the years.

At around noon, we unfortunately had to say our final farewell to Eddie. Over the course of just a few days, I have learned so much from him. In particular, making changes in immigration policy requires knowing your community and engaging with it regularly. Furthermore, pushing with a smile is a valuable part of humanitarian work. I hope to be given the opportunity over the summer to further develop our relationship.

Ready to search.

Following water stations, we reconnected with Don and began our final search efforts.  The ranch site we were searching today was one in which a migrant was left in the brush in November.  GPS coordinates of the individual’s last location were called in, which gave us a starting point for where to begin.  A big positive as we began our search was that the weather was finally sunny unlike the previous days. However, the ranch environment was much different requiring our team to navigate through some undulated terrain with very thick grass and prickly bushes going up to our shoulders (Tip: Avoid pencil cactus at all cost!).  The harsh conditions resulted in some moderate scratches and maybe a fall or two (we won’t mention names) but fortunately everyone was okay. Over the course of the next several hours, we found numerous signs of migrant activity including shoe treads, backpacks, and clothes. Don pointed out to us that the shoe footprints were quite new (possibly from last night). In the end, we didn’t find anything more than that. A major takeaway from this experience was that even with exact coordinates of a migrant’s location, there are many internal and external factors that can influence a successful search and recovery. The unpredictability that is associated with this process is a very sobering realization.

Tread marks from boots; possible recent migrant activity

After a long week of searching, we enjoyed some glass bottle Coca Cola and Topo Chico to quench are thirst.  Overall, my time in Texas was one filled with lots of learning, laughs, heartfelt moments, and new friendships. The idea that we are leaving Falfurrias tomorrow leaves a bittersweet taste in my mouth. It went by too fast, and I feel like there is so much more I can learn and help with.

High five!
Olivia examining a backpack found in the brush

Author Note: The blog post title is related to our favorite field song of the day. We would like to shout out Brooks County Sheriff Don White for putting up with us in the field.  Thank you for all that you do! Your awesome sauce!


PS – Just because we are leaving doesn’t mean the blog is done! Stay tuned for the next week for more posts!

Needle in a thicket/brush

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.

(Texas Trees)

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!!!

(Example of getting positioned for a line search)

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. 

(Tortilla pack with an expiration date of 01/16/2022
(Unopened can of food set high on a tree for other migrants to take)

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.

(Team member, Alex, looking through bag)
(Team leader, Dr. Latham, looking through pockets on jacket)

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. 

(Don White holding black trash bag)

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.

(Team members, Tanya, Izzy, & Olivia, refilling water stations)
(Eddie and Cows have a stare down)

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.

(Bones collected from the field)
(DAY 4 group photo)


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