Taking time to unwind in the desert

Posted Sept. 25, 2008, at 9:34 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:40 a.m.

“Oh, I’d say I’ve lived just about everywhere in North and South America by now,” Skyfox told me. “But I’ve lived on the border longer than anywhere else.”

Just crossing the threshold of Skyfox’s house, four miles north of the Mexican border in Arizona, is an experience. His walls are covered with a mixture of art and artifacts from all over the world interspersed with relics of the local wildlife. From animal pelts to rattlesnake skins, he has got it all.

“Got that one yesterday,” he says, pointing at one particularly long rattlesnake skin draped over the rafter. “Saw him on the trail and I helped him out of the last six inches.”

Skyfox is a spry, wiry figure with a beard like Father Time. Out here, he rarely runs into other people, and when he does, the conversation pours out of him in a well-articulated stream, not unlike the flash floods that hit this water-parched region. He wears a coyote-teeth necklace.

Odd people are drawn to odd places.

“Come in and eat dinner,” he says. “You’ve all had a long day.”

Days in the desert fall into a rhythm defined by the environment around us. I spend almost all of my time outside — even at night I sleep not in a tent, but out under the stars on a cot. In the cool just before sunrise, I wake up and make coffee with an antique percolator on a propane stove. Once the sun has come up and we’ve eaten breakfast, we start hiking the trails before the heat of the day sets in.

When I first arrived I was surprised that, contrary to my imagination, the desert isn’t flat at all. Mountains hedge around its edges and crosscut through it, steep and craggy peaks that reach toward the blazing desert sky. Even the parts of the desert that seem flat from a distance prove to be anything but when walking on foot. These stretches are riddled with canyons and creeks, nooks and crannies etched into dry, crumbly hillsides.

We hike for several hours, gallon jugs of water in each hand, occasionally cupping our hands to call out across the canyons. “We are humanitarian aid volunteers,” we holler. “We have food, water and first aid. We are here to help if you need it.”

Some days, the trails seem quiet. I hear nothing but our own voices, the rhythm of my heartbeat, the cadence of our feet, and the periodic sound of homeland security helicopters overhead. Sweat sits on my eyelids as I pick my way around the shale.

Other days, I round the corner of a canyon and find 20 people, many in desperate condition, crouched in a ravine.

I have yet to meet a group of migrants in the desert who didn’t need medical help. All are badly dehydrated and many injured. I ask one woman how long they have been in the desert as I wrap up her ankle in a bandage. “Four days and four nights,” she tells me.

“And how long have you been walking on this injury?”

“Two days.” What else could she do? Few people know what they are getting into when they try to cross the frontier and there is virtually no one out here to go to for help.

Tonight, visiting Skyfox is a chance to relax and unwind from the heat and pressures of the day. He makes us molé using meat from four different local animals — elk, deer, goat and mountain lion. Then we get into one of my favorite activities: storytelling.

An older member of our group tells a story about a new volunteer the year before. “Sarah was on her first patrol, eager and ready to try out her Spanish. We saw a group of migrants on a ridge ahead of us and I said to her, ‘Sarah, do a callout to tell them we’re here to help if they need it.’ She cupped her hands and hollered in shaky Spanish, and sure enough, they stopped in their tracks and came toward us.

“When they got to us they said, ‘You say you need help? We don’t have much food and water, but we have some. How much do you need?’” Gene laughed. “Sarah’s Spanish had a little ways to go still.”

We light oil lamps as the sun goes down. Skyfox’s tales are riveting, ranging from surviving rattlesnake bites (he has done it) to lore of the local flora. He lives off the land as much as possible. He has no electricity; he gets his water from a nearby watering hole. In the flickering lamplight, I think again how, in many ways, this desert border is still a wild frontier.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures and to e-mail questions to her, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com.

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