Settings

The Devil s Highway A True Story 13


  Muscle cramps kick in. Your legs suddenly ache. You get clumsy. You tumble. When you fall, you hit rocks, cactus, gravel. Your hands are skinned, your knees abraded. A little blood steams away. If you cry, you make an infinitesimal investment in your own death.

  Your arms hurt, your calves hurt. Your hands hurt. Your heart can hurt. Your throat clicks when you try to swallow.

  Your abdomen clenches on you. You think you have to get to a toilet. If you’re a woman, you’re having contractions; you think you’re going into labor. It’s the men’s first menstrual cramp. You can’t pass that gas. You double over.

  Eighty percent of lost walkers can still be saved if the Migra spots them. You can recover with water and an IV. Even the Migra’s famous air conditioning could save your life. You could be slumped in the seat with the blower going in your face, a canteen in your lap, and “Highway to Hell” on the FM. But if the Migra doesn’t find you, you’ve stepped onto the lip of the death spiral. Your options for salvation wisp away like steam.

  Heat Exhaustion.

  Your fever is spiking now, and as with the flu, you have gotten more and more ill. Headaches. You get nauseous, you want to vomit. If you vomit, you lose more fluids. You are not only clumsy, but enervated. Your body is weak, and your will is slipping. Your tongue is wood. You could give a damn. Your heart pounds, loud in your ears. Your breathing is shallow and fast, and each breath dries you further. Eyelids scrape across eyeballs dry as pebbles.

  Your skin is icy; you might shiver.

  This is a good place for the infirm among you to have their heart attacks. Your fluid level has dropped—there’s not enough fluid to fill the container of your body. Your heart beats faster, trying to suck up some blood from the internal drought. Cardiac arrest hits when the pump overstrains itself and blows up.

  Those in good shape will, sooner or later, faint. This is the brain’s way of stopping the machine, like hitting the brakes when you realize you’re speeding toward a cliff. The body knows. If the brain can stop the body, put it in a little coma for a moment, it can slow the whole process down and regulate organs and try to tend to damage control. Take inventory: Hmm, a little blood in the pancreas, let’s move it over to the heart and shoot it up here to me! The brain is all about keeping itself alive. You could go blind and live, have a heart attack and live, lose a kidney and live. But if your brain rots, there’s no coming back. It sucks up all the blood and all the oxygen it can get. But it still can’t get enough, and it misfires like a dying engine.

  First, you get tunnel vision. You might hear echoes. Your body falls on burning ground. You stare through a little hole at the fading world.

  You can get second-degree burns from lying too long on the ground. And you sweat, especially where your body forms a seal with the earth. And you breathe. You get up worse than you fell, then you fall again.

  And still, you might be saved. But you are now at the borderline, standing before the abyss. One more step, and you cannot return. Another border crossing.

  You don’t know much anymore. You are confused; your memories are conflated with your dreams. Walkers see demons, see God, see dead relatives and crystal cities. They vomit blood. The only clear thought in your mind now is: I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty …

  It is maddening. You dream of pools, seas, you dream of a lake and you dream of drinking the whole thing dry as you soak. You’d pay all your money for cold water. You’d trade sex, anything, for water. Walkers who find abandoned vehicles break open the radiators and die from gulping the antifreeze.

  Sooner or later, you understand that you have to drink your own urine.

  You piss in your hands, or in whatever container you might have. You try not to dribble a single drop, and you lament all the priceless piss wasted on the desert floor. You hold your breath and forget the taboos and you gulp your own hot mess. And you piss into your hands again until it’s gone. You’re alive! You’ve beat death with your own water!

  If you’re really lucky, someone might piss in your mouth.

  Although nobody drinks it, healer women in Mexico regularly use a thimble full of warm pee in infected ears. Certain insect stings can be treated with fresh urine. Eye infections are sometimes urinated on. Making the leap to drinking your own might not be impossible.

  You don’t know it, but some of your more enlightened North American brothers are voluntarily imbibing it.

  A surprising number of urine home pages can be found on the Internet. Urine is a kind of new-age panacea, and apparently a small dose of the elixir can fight any number of maladies. Urine is a homeopathic wonder drug. A squirt of the fresh stuff contains, according to the Urine Therapy Web site, the following substances:

  Alanine, allantoin, amino acids, arginine, ascorbic acid, bicarbonate, biotin, calcium, creatinine, cysteine, DHEA, dopamine, epinephrine, folic acid, glucose, glutamic acid, glycine, inositol, iron, lysine, magnesium, manganese, melatonin, methionine, nitrogen, ornithine, phosphorus, potassium, protein, riboflavin, tryptophan, tyrosine, urea, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, zinc.

  People pay good money at their health food stores for DHEA, melatonin, tryptophan. Face creams are full of urea. Pergonal, the fertility drug, is made of human urine. And, as the pro-urine Web sites enthusiastically proclaim: “Take the ‘M’ out of Murine Eye Drops, and what do you have?”

  The village healer, peeing in a campesino’s pink eye, is at the cutting edge of medicine.

  The recipe for the proper use of urine is:

  Collect a midstream sample of fresh (light) urine

  Avoid all genital contact, particularly female genitals

  1/8 oz. distilled water

  Add 1 drop fresh urine

  Shake 50 times

  1 drop of this solution added to 1/6 oz of 80 proof vodka (as preservative)

  3 drops of this mixture under the tongue

  But of course, you’re lost in the desert. You have no distilled water, or you would have drunk it. No vodka. No eye droppers. You have to gulp full mouthfuls of the pure product.

  That first urine is pretty good, as urine goes. It is still relatively clear, since it is the cycling-through of your gallon of drinking water. The first urine is yellow, and if you’re lucky, it’s pale yellow. The paler, the purer. Pale yellow is the Evian of urine.

  The next time through, that same urine has picked up more filtered impurities, and it is a little darker now. Saltier. By the third round, it is orange. It smells bad. Then dark orange. Then pale brown. Then a darker and more poisonous brown. It looks like foaming Guinness stout. By the time your effluent is black, you’re doomed—even if you wanted to, you probably couldn’t drink it. It stinks of fish. Your body would retch. There is almost more bio-garbage in it than water.

  The last stage of hyperthermia begins.

  Heat Stroke.

  Your blood is as low as it can get. Dehydration has reduced all your inner streams to sluggish mudholes. Your heart pumps harder and harder to get fluid and oxygen to your organs. Empty vessels within you collapse.Your sweat runs out.

  With no sweat, your body’s swamp-cooler breaks. The thermostat goes haywire. You are having a core meltdown.

  Your temperature redlines—you hit 105, 106, 108 degrees. Your body panics and dilates all blood capillaries near the surface, hoping to flood your skin with blood to cool it off. You blush. Your eyes turn red: blood vessels burst, and later, the tissue of the whites literally cooks until it goes pink, then a well-done crimson.

  Your skin gets terribly sensitive. It hurts, it burns. Your nerves flame. Your blood heats under your skin. Clothing feels like sandpaper.

  Some walkers at this point strip nude. Originally, BORSTAR rescuers thought this stripping was a delirious panic, an attempt to cool off at the last minute. But often, the clothing was eerily neat, carefully folded and left in nice little piles beside the corpses. They realized that walkers couldn’t stand their nerve-endings being chafed by their clothes. The walkers stripped to get free of the irritation.


  Once they’re naked, they’re surely hallucinating. They dig burrows in the soil, apparently thinking they’ll escape the sun. Once underground, of course, they bake like a pig at a luau. Some dive into sand, thinking it’s water, and they swim in it until they pass out. They choke to death, their throats filled with rocks and dirt. Cutters can only assume they think they’re drinking water.

  Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot. Once rotting in you, they dump rafts of dying cells into your already sludgy bloodstream.

  Proteins are peeling off your dying muscles. Chunks of cooked meat are falling out of your organs, to clog your other organs. The system closes down in a series. Your kidneys, your bladder, your heart. They jam shut. Stop. Your brain sparks. Out. You’re gone.

  And the men headed deeper into the desert.

  PART THREE

  IN DESOLATION

  10

  The Long Walk

  SUNDAY, MAY 20—6:00 A.M.

  And chaos fell upon them.

  Their narratives wander like they wandered, their minds unable to process the details of their torments. The rescuers who came to look for them did not know who they were rescuing. The dead were coordinates on topo maps, identified by GPS numbers. They were all collected in the same general subset of coordinates: they were all within a region bound by N. 32/ W. 113. Some of the bodies of the dead were never identified by name. At best, names were given when the survivors identified them later in the wild free-for-all that followed the rescue operation as everyone fell upon the health center in Yuma. Walkers, corpses, Migra, sheriffs, Marines, pilots, BORSTAR operatives, print reporters, EMTs, ministers, Mexican officials, INS officials, coroners, TV crews, radio personalities, consuls, do-gooders.

  To this day, some of the dead are only remembered in Wellton Station as “This poor guy,” “That poor guy there.” The cutters get quiet when they look at the pictures. They just stare at the corpses of the men who died naked.

  Walking.

  They were deep in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge area. There are several watering spots in the refuge, if Mendez had known where to look. Seven chances to survive. Much would be made of these missed opportunities after the long walk was over.

  As the men trudged, their rage grew along with their despair. It was that goddamned Mendez: no, it was this evil desert. No, it was the pinche Mexican government that picked the homeland apart, officials who got fat and rich while they starved. No, it was the Migra, it was the gringos, it was the U.S. government and its racist hatred of good Mexican workingmen just trying to feed their children! They themselves were the fools. The men who talked them into coming, those cabrones, they were the ones. They would get Don Moi for this; they would get El Negro; when they were out of this desert, drinking beer in Phoenix, they were going to put the hurt on Mendez and he would never forget it. Somebody was going to get it! Somebody was going to pay.

  Walking.

  Desert bighorn sheep no doubt pondered their passage from above. Mendez headed north, now that the sun was up and he could tell what direction he was going. He was clearly aware that Ajo and salvation lay over the unforgiving mountains to his right. He repeatedly tried to climb over the Growlers, dragging the crew up until they foundered, and then fell back, to hit the burning grit and bake as they rested. Then another slog north until a mild-looking slope presented itself, and they tried again, only to be foiled by the heat and the deceptive nature of these desert mountains. Just when they thought they were topping the summit, a higher ridge or peak appeared. The whole time, he was trying to maintain command, to seem in control as control clearly slipped away from him.

  One of the men later said, “We’d climb a mountain, and there would be another mountain on top of it.”

  Another: “They told us to keep going forward, but where were we going to go?”

  Mendez was savvy enough to know what the walkers—and perhaps his Coyote partners—did not: if the group didn’t get back to Ajo, they would die. His frustration was immense, and it was terrifying. Like hundreds of doomed wanderers before him, he had the tragic understanding that some form of deliverance was just beyond his reach.

  He didn’t want to die, and a large part of his later defense focused on his efforts to lead the group to safety. His accusers would use the same exact testimony to prove he attempted to kill all of them. It is commonly believed by the Border Patrol that he was trying to save himself. The other men just followed.

  They walked about three miles in a straight line, until the land and Mendez’s trend toward the left veered them west again. Each rest stop wearied them further as the sun and the soil burned them from above and below. Santos, the chubby Coyote, was far behind Mendez, pushing the stragglers.

  By midmorning, they were getting giddy with exhaustion. Even Mendez seems to have gotten confused. His trail wandered deeper west until it suddenly jerked eastward again. He next led them on a zigzag that took them directly northeast for two miles. He clearly thought a canyon ahead would dump them out in the flat land, and he’d be in sight of the familiar peaks beyond the town.

  The group, by this point, had no real integrity as a unit. They were tired, thirsty, confused, afraid. They spread out in a lazy scraggly line, some of them staggering and wandering so far behind they didn’t even see their comrades. If not for the gulleys where they walked, the land funneling them into the Coyotes’ tracks, they might have drifted away into the wasteland and died that day. But they trudged on, sinking deeper into their own miseries as they penetrated deeper into the Growler range. Those who rested, ironically enough, had it harder than those who walked without stopping. It took the resting walkers longer to cover the same distance. Longer struggle in the sun, exhausting rushes to catch up.

  José Antonio Bautista: “Wherever my uncle Nahum Landa was going, that’s where I was going. We were going there, to the same place. I didn’t know where I was going.”

  Then Mendez entered the gap.

  He might have thought he’d gotten to Charlie Bell Pass, which would have spilled him through the Growlers, south of Childs Mountain. He could have headed dead east from Charlie Bell and walked into downtown Ajo and ordered a beer. He had already missed Bluebird Pass. And he had failed to enter a small opening called Temporal Pass. Temporal and Charlie Bell were his last chances to cut back to safety.

  But this gap would prove, again, to be a dead end, a nameless indentation in the back range of the Growlers that looked for all intents and purposes like the right pass—a nameless arroyo spilled west out of the canyon, and to the east, Chico Shunie Arroyo had roots in the other side of the high ridge. He was only about five miles off.

  Not knowing this, Mendez led the group east, into the new canyon, and they started to hurry a bit, sure that he had finally broken through. Water. Beer. Shade. A ride. Water! And one by one, small group by small group, they staggered to a stop.

  Mendez stood and stared at the wall of burning rock between him and the world.

  Nobody looked at the occasional buzzard that eyed them with its infernal optimism.

  Some of the boys were already running out of water. Hilario had been walking with none at all, begging sips off the others since he lost his gallon jug at Bluebird Pass. His friends in the Guerrero contingent, veterans of the last aborted journey, had thought to bring extra, and they’d hung on to every drop they could. Hilario got some of their water, but what about the rest of the men? Most of the Guerrero boys were blood relatives: they would have to care for each other. They already looked upon their walking companions and saw dead men. But did they have a duty to keep all of Veracruz alive?

  The water in the plastic bottles Mendez carried was hot and drinking it was like drinking nothing at all—it was the same temperature as the furnace of burning air around him. He refused to give any of them a drink. If he went down, he insisted, they all went down. They thought he was selfish and cruel. He didn’t have time for their opinions. He star
ed at the mountains some more. Someone was crying.

  He sank to the ground—it was hot enough to hurt.

  “Let’s rest here,” he said.

  They scattered, looking for shade of any kind. They fell among the rocks and creosote bushes. They crawled under the sketchy shadows under dry mesquites, and they moved around on the hot griddle of the earth as the rolling sun stole their shade every few minutes.

  It was noon.

  Mendez checked his watch.

  He said, “Let’s rest till nightfall.”

  No one knows if Santos or Lauro said anything.

  “It’s just a few more miles,” Mendez told them, but they already understood that he was wrong.

  SUNDAY, MAY 20—NIGHT. NINETY-FOUR DEGREES.

  When the hell was it going to cool off?

  They had decided to wait till midnight. But the hours had dragged. The dark had remained as hot as the day. Mendez gave up the wait and ordered them to their feet. They were wasting time.

  Inexplicably, he made another sudden change, as much of a mystery as the wrong turn he took at Bluebird. He made a forty-five-degree turn to the left (as always, to the left) and marched straight southwest, in the opposite direction from his last march. On the Border Patrol maps, his path forms a perfect inverted V. This detour had cost them an extra four to five miles of walking.

  Perhaps Mendez was thinking of breaking out of this detour and heading through Temporal Pass. By the time he’d marched for an hour or so, however, the arroyos and gullies dulled his mind. It was all walls. There was no break. He never turned back north.

  His sign tells the story of the misfires inside his brain.

  They followed the land, now tired enough to only want to flow downhill; nobody was about to climb anything after their failed mountaineering attempts. Desperation was growing. Reymundo and Reymundo Jr. ran out of water. Reymundo Jr.’s black pants had become a torture device, cooking his legs when he was exposed to the light. Father and son dropped their bottles on the trail.