Honorable Mention: Sunset at Mile 16

SAGE Magazine is thrilled to award Alycia Parnell’s “Sunset at Mile 16” honorable mention in our 2013 Environmental Writing Contest. 

The clouds turn sharp, crackling to orange flame, while shadows oust angles from the woolen cumulus of Sonoran daylight. I take my eyes back to the road, looking south on Highway 286 toward the end of Arizona and the start of Mexico. It’s a path through a sea of recovering savannah grassland, made briefly lush by the late summer monsoon. There’s not a whole lot going on in these parts, save a ranch or two ensconced by frames of barbed wire, and the green-and-white blur of Border Patrol trucks. These trucks speed between their headquarters in Tucson and the international port of entry in Sasabe, though “international port” seems a term too grandiose for the tiny town, where all the buildings look windburnt, and the only operating businesses are an inconspicuous post office and a dusty mercantile, run by a blonde woman with a painted-on smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. She speaks Spanish and English interchangeably, in cheery tones with a hint of an edge to both. The rusted streak of the 21-foot tall fence between the US and Mexico is visible from any point in town. I couldn’t tell you what’s on the other side, besides more tall grass. I don’t have a passport; the end of Highway 286 might as well be the end of the world.

Sunset in southern Arizona.  Photo credit: Alycia Parnell.

Sunset in southern Arizona. Photo credit: Alycia Parnell.

I glance back at the sky, gauging the light – I have plenty of time to make it home before worrying about dodging speeders trying to beat the border station’s 8:00 pm closing time. If they miss that, they miss a day of business, or at least that’s what the Law Enforcement guys said in their safety training. It’s Sunday evening and I’m returning home from the city with a week’s worth of groceries, imagining the soft fizz of a beer warmed slightly by the long ride in my car’s Arizona-heated hatchback. Behind the gold clouds, the sky is a shade of blue that would be hard-pressed to convey anything but peace.

Here is a story to break your heart.

Sometimes words get stuck in my head like songs. It’s often just one syllable, other times a half-sentence or a quarter-thought. In this case, the line from a Mary Oliver poem comes out of nowhere, like the spinning red-and-blue lights that appear in your rear view mirror when, for a minute, you forget who you are and press the gas pedal just because it’s there. I’m not the most ardent reader of Mary Oliver – too much stuff about birds – but this poem’s opening line repeats itself in my mind with every glance up to the desert sunset. Sherbet hues drift past the mountains’ blackening razor skyline – here is a story – Baboquivari Peak’s watchtower profile crisped by the impending night—to break your heart.

***

They sent me to work on Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, an hour and a half south of Tucson, which is the closest place to get decent coffee and vegetables, or to see someone you could imagine letting into your living room. They have me mapping plants I’m supposed to know the Latin names of, in the hopes of saving the masked bobwhite quail. Like a vast portion of our nation’s semi-arid grasslands, this region of southern Arizona’s Altar Valley succumbed to overgrazing in the late 1800s. Drought hit, and the bovine invaders chewed up the tender green blades of anything vaguely Poacean.  Each clumsy step crushed root systems, until the grass defied everyone’s expectations by actually giving out. This collapse had the usual effect on fire ecology: eliminating grass as a healthy vehicle for the cleansing powers of wildfires allowed brushy clutter, like mesquite, to completely

take over the land. All associated ecological relationships suffered, but authorities pinpointed one adorable poster child for the cause of restoring the valley: the masked bobwhite quail. These softball-sized, glassy-eyed puffs of earth-colored down nearly went extinct after the grasses that they depended on for food and shelter were destroyed. The necessary parties saw these pudgy, ground-dwelling birds as worthy of resurrection, and a national wildlife refuge was born. Since then, grass has made a comeback, though much of it is invasive. The bobwhite quail are slowly edging away from extinction, though they still require highly regulated breeding environments and release into absolutely ideal sites. It’s progress, but it isn’t perfect, especially with limited resources. Buenos Aires and other refuges often rely on volunteer power to function, which is how recent graduates with no other viable employment offers, like me, end up on the Mexican border.

Conducting a plant inventory in southern Arizona's recovering grassland habitat.  Photo credit: Alycia Parnell

Conducting a plant inventory in southern Arizona’s recovering grassland habitat. Photo credit: Alycia Parnell

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, I’m providing inventory and monitoring services to quantify critical quail habitat. Really, I just follow a red circle on a lemon-colored GPS unit through pockmarked grasslands, rocky washes, and every kind of vegetation that hurts. This includes but is not limited to, the classic Sonoran ocotillo forests, the ill-named teddybear cholla, and the still-ubiquitous mesquite. The circle almost always leads me under low-hanging Senegallia greggii, the tree formerly known as Acacia greggii, before the botanists had to prune down its genus. The new name, like many others, isn’t in the field guide they gave me. I quickly learn that normal people just call it Cat’s Claw for a reason. They have my crewmate and me going to vegetation plots at every conceivable point of botanical diversity in the refuge.

It’s a jungle out here, minus the rain. I can hear the breeze before I feel it, whispering through the drying seed heads of grasses and mesquite pods, before coming my way to offer fleeting relief from the desert temperatures. The plants respond to my every step, producing sharp rattles that always conjure a split moment of panic, while I distinguish the dry hiss of grasshoppers from the more lethal warnings of one of the five resident rattlesnake species. It’s a great job, really. I work outside, doing something related to my idealistic degree. I have a tan. Sweating in my uniform is encouraged, if not mandatory.

I’d like to say that I go places to which no person has traveled before, but that’s not true. The refuge lies on the US-Mexico border between Nogales, to the east, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, to the west. Like the majority of borderlands within a few days’ walk to a US highway, it is a main corridor of transit for people coming north from Mexico. In our Law Enforcement training, we were told that the travelers do not want to be seen, but are usually armed just in case they need to be, especially in the mountains, where the drug runners go. The officer stood before us in the air-conditioned training room, and gravely informed us that they sometimes carry machine guns.

For the majority of people willing to walk three days, in 103-degree heat, to pick fruit for minimum wage, I can’t imagine it’s financially feasible to purchase a machine gun. But what do I know? I’ve never looked at their prices. The only machine guns I have ever seen were strapped to the Border Patrol agents themselves. At any rate, we were told to stay away from any signs of human activity in the field, and to alert Border Patrol immediately if we saw any humans that shouldn’t be there. They call them UDAs, since saying “undocumented alien” is inefficient. Another favorite is “illegals.” Sometimes they’re the aptly dubbed “walkers.” The ones who walk until they can’t anymore are “quitters.” They’re never called people.

I haven’t come into contact with anyone yet, but I was told that would likely change once autumn sets in, and temperatures sink from the hellish peaks of summer. This doesn’t mean that they’re not walking now, though. We find signs everywhere when we go into the field with our water bladders, sunscreen, and GPS units. As if the ecological problems associated with grazing and invasive species weren’t enough, the refuge also serves as a public garbage can for people walking north. It’s a diluted landfill. You can’t take ten steps without seeing something non-native.  A camouflage-patterned bandana trampled into the near-sterile earth. The occasional sandal or bicycle tire. Blister packs of caffeine pills or other stimulants, and countless chipped water bottles – always empty.  A patch of Salsola tragus. Fields of Eragrostis lehmanniana and Sorghum halipense, strewn with torn clothing. Under the same shade trees where walkers have waited out the scorching daylight hours, I try to unscramble the spellings of Latin words. We’re discouraged from using plants’ common names. The people are illegal, and the plants are invasive. None of them are supposed to be on the refuge, but they’ve sought it anyway.

Sometimes the cover of the refuge isn’t enough to see the walkers through their journeys. The Law Enforcement guys talked about people who turn up on the side of the road, waiting for a Border Patrol truck to come along and pick them up. They don’t care about going north anymore. All they want is agua and shade. One told the story of a quitter who stumbled to the asphalt of Highway 286. Baked and beaten by the desert, he passed right by a bemused officer before crawling beneath the running engine of a big white Border Patrol truck, with the green stripe and the cage in the back. It was the closest thing to shade he’d come across since dawn burned away the respite of the previous night.

A large bus sits just past Mile 16 on Highway 286. It’s one of those behemoths with flights of stairs and excessive storage space, often seen slowing highway traffic with the weight of adventurous senior citizens or traveling high school orchestras. This bus isn’t quite for sightseeing, though. It sits there all day, with the engine powering the chilly air conditioning that makes the driver’s shift bearable. The sole purpose of the silver-and-white bus with heavily tinted windows is to collect the quitters, walkers, and traffickers that encounter the green-suited Border Patrol throughout any given day. When I pass the bus, the driver is usually sitting inside at the wheel, performing some unknown task for however many hours before it’s time to ship the poor sods home. Sometimes, I spot him standing on the sepia patch of bare earth that’s been scraped clean of vegetation to accommodate the vehicle. I’ve seen him stretching his unused muscles, hunching over the awkward triangle of his stiff legs. Stretching, as if he’s taffy, or a walker; somebody who really needs to stretch. Not that stiff muscles would be at the top of a walker’s list of problems. I wonder what a person looks like after going long enough without water to give up on the certainty of the north. His skin, his tongue. Eyes still the color of earth spiked with rain – what do they look like at Mile 16?

Buenos Aires is a land of quitters and quail, though they are at odds with one another. It’s hard to care about a largely flightless bird, with a brain the size of half a shelled peanut, when someone has died for no reason within five miles of where you’re standing. It’s hard to care about people dying when people are dying everywhere. They do it in other countries. They do it in books. Sometimes they do it because they choose to, and these people chose to walk. It’s hard to care when you have work to do.

***

Mary Oliver stops haunting me when I look back at the road, and take in the sunset’s progress and the idling bus shining in the waning light. I have a book of hers, despite the birds. I briefly look forward to flipping through it to find the poem of interest, before my memory confronts me with sinking dismay. I haven’t brought it to Arizona with me. I left it in my home library in Utah, not thinking I’d want it.

I console myself with the poetry of other, more land-based creatures. While roaming my new Sonoran home, I was engulfed by pure glee the first time I saw a pudgy, Halloween-colored Gila monster scuttling across my path. Whenever I see them, I cup darkling beetles in my hands and let them explore the terrain of my arms, before depositing them out of the way of mountain bikers. I consider venomous snakes great neighbors. I tend to fall for things that disgust others. So, when I snap out of my sunset reverie and see a small black knot of legs creeping into the road, my heart rattles with simultaneous joy and horror as I realize that it is the first tarantula I’ve ever seen in the flesh, and that I haven’t spotted it in time to avoid crushing it beneath my car’s front right tire. I’m going 72 in a 55, but not because I’m not paying attention. The moment passes in an instant, and I glance with mute shock at the half-paved tarantula in my rearview mirror, its front set of legs bound to asphalt. I’m sobered by my indiscretion and send the equivalent of a prayer to Mary Oliver, who would surely have something to say about the matter. I offer myself the double-edged consolation that worse atrocities have occurred in this desert.

A tarantula clings to a trailer's siding.  Photo credit: Alycia Parnell

A tarantula clings to a trailer’s siding. Photo credit: Alycia Parnell

I slow down at mile marker 7, and take a sharp left at the big brown sign indicating that the refuge headquarters sits three miles down the road. Two dirt miles past it lies the government trailer that houses me for the duration of my contract. I pull up to the trailer just after the sunset’s color show and unload my supplies for the week: beer, discount cheese, salted foods for the field. I lock the car and walk toward the front steps with my cargo, but stop short when I see a small dark splotch on the pale weathered siding of the trailer. Hairy, lots of legs. Another tarantula, gloriously living, is delicately tapping the surface of my home in search of some dark corner. I’ve been redeemed – the creature that bore my sin had been reborn. It is meaningful, poetic. I could write an essay about it and give it a happy ending. This isn’t that essay.

So, here is a story to break your heart. At some point that evening, the bus driver stepped back into his wheeled silver cage and drove its cargo from Mile 16 to the end of the world. The first tarantula is still dead, now long-digested by some desert scavenger. My book of Mary Oliver poems is somewhere familiar, and I am in a place where people die. And the sun doesn’t care, and will make the sky beautiful again in the morning, as if nothing had happened.

 

Alycia Parnell

Alycia Parnell holds degrees in Environmental Studies and Psychology from the University of Utah. She lives in Salt Lake City and works an assortment of unrelated jobs to pay rent while writing about things she cares about.

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