"Send me a photo of the bottom of your shoes," Agent Theron Francisco of the San Diego Border Patrol says. I am planning to hike a route border-crossers take from Mexico through the wilderness outside Campo, California. Francisco wants a record of my footprints. That way, if agents get on my tail, he can call them off.
I have backpacked in this area before, along the famed Pacific Crest Trail, and wondered how the border-crossers hiking alongside me—hidden in the brush—were faring. This time, I will move north from the border fence as they do, hiking cross-country, from waypoint to waypoint—first to an electrical tower, just north of the border, then to a hilltop farther west. I will outfit myself as they do, in jeans and knockoff Keds. I will carry a gallon of water in one hand, and a backpack with candy, sodas, a trash bag, a bathmat, and shoelaces.
I intend to see how far into the United States I can travel in 24 hours. To understand the route, I've consulted Francisco and my friend José Hernandez, of Salinas, California, who says he crossed the border illegally near here in 1990.*
Francisco sends me off on a morning in May. "If you get into trouble, call 911," he says.
I jump onto the dirt road from a two-foot-tall embankment at the base of the border fence. Patrol trucks have dragged tires along the road to smooth out the dirt, and my feet leave deep, dusty prints in the unblemished surface. With a branch of a native plant called chamise, I "brush out," as the Border Patrol calls a crosser's practice of erasing her footprints so agents can't find her track. To the Border Patrol officers who will soon creep along here in trucks at five miles an hour, scanning for the tiniest disturbances in the dirt, it will look like a kid has scribbled out footprints with a stick. I walk and brush, again and again.
A barbed wire fence lies along the northern edge of the road. I step up on the middle wire, hang on to a fence post, and swing my other leg over. Now I am straddling the fence, swaying north and south. I tip too far north and stumble off in a spot worn bare by prior landings. My palm is grooved with blood and rust.
I duck into the protective cover of tall brush. I walk through chamise, yucca, barrel cactus. And invisible cactus. I feel the stings. More and more needles—too thin to grasp between fingernails—embed themselves in my skin as I hike. I will never see the cactus responsible.
I cross a second dirt road. This time, I try camouflaging my footprints by tying a bathmat to my feet with shoelaces.
Now the brush is waist-high. Standing upright, I can see two Border Patrol trucks parked at high points along the fence to the southeast and southwest. From the road to Campo, to the north, I see a third truck approaching the fence. In the northwest, dust clouds billow from vehicles I can't see.
I drop, trying to hide. My jug hits the ground and cracks. The sand sucks down my water, but I have a back-up. I start crawling.
This is breaking trail face-first. A twig carves a track onto my closed eyelid. My gouged palm fills with the shards of pebbles. I move onto my knuckles and develop a strange, novel injury, part abrasion, part burn. Hot grit collects in the spaces between my knuckles and turns the skin purple and raw as I approach the first waypoint.
Crossers rest on high points so they can see agents approaching from afar. A hill of brush and boulders, perhaps 300 feet tall, is my second waypoint, where I will wait out the day's hottest hours. Discards litter the route: water bottles, energy gels, sun-bleached backpacks.
This is rattlesnake habitat. "I'm surprised we don't see more bites, given the amount of snake track we see," Francisco told me at our briefing near the border fence. The best way to get bitten is to put your hand on a rock without looking. The brush makes it impossible to see. I start plunking my water jug ahead of me, offering snakes a decoy. On one plunk, the cap skitters away. Now I'm sloshing water out with every move.
Below the topmost boulder, which is graffitied with a skull, I can't get purchase. I inspect my shoe: Ribbons of sole hang from it. I pull myself up using chamise, and branch after branch rips off as I climb. I stare back at the decimated plant.
Broken plants betray crossers. "We look for this," Francisco had said back at the fence, snapping a twig and pointing to the fresh, green break. Hidden sensors blanket this brush. In the places where crossers trip them, agents go looking for green breaks.
I'm nauseated and need to stop. "If you stop, you get left behind," Hernandez had said. I lean against a boulder. Crossers rest their warm bodies against warm rocks, Francisco had said, hoping to hide from infrared scopes that work by detecting temperature differentials.
I take a drink. My mouth fills with chamise needles that have collected in the uncapped jug. It's too thick to swallow.
Unforeseen circumstances—the approach of a civilian vehicle, say—can knock crossers off-route. As I head toward my third waypoint, I get nudged off-route when barbed wire I didn't expect steers me too far west. I'm not up for jumping more barbed wire. At a spot where someone propped up the bottom wire with wood, I slip under and try to regain my route. I pass a rusted swing set and a shooting range. It's someone's backyard. Dogs bark. Many citizens of Campo are sympathetic to Border Patrol. They call in suspicious activity and open their backyards to chases. I run.
Getting off my route has cascading effects. I find myself in open grassland by mistake. A Border Patrol jeep drives by. I freeze, in plain sight of the agent.
This is why crossers prefer to move under the cover of darkness. I crawl into a bower of oak to wait for night. I pull my trash bag on for warmth. I need to pee. When you are resting under the orders of your foot guide, "you can't move," Hernandez had said. I pee where I sit.
My chest burns from eating candy all day. I'm clammy. Oak leaves are pricking my thighs. Two minutes pass. Waiting for nightfall is maddening.
At dark, I move. No flashlight. The moonlight flattens the landscape. Without depth perception, I can't tell if I'm stepping down two inches or two feet. I scoot on my butt and take long, demoralized breaks.
The Pacific Crest Trail appears. A sign announces how much ground the trail has covered since its start—next to mine—at the border fence. After close to 24 hours, I have made it exactly one mile into the United States. Crossers might hike as far as PCT Mile 77 before they can be shuttled safely out of the desert.
"Agents in the area did, in fact, come across your sign and brush out and contacted me to verify before they started following you," Francisco told me afterward. From the time they found my tracks, I might have had five minutes, or maybe a few hours tops, before they found me sweating in the dust.
*José Hernandez is a pseudonym.