I returned to the area a month later with my friend Michael. I had piqued his interest with the news that Patrick and I had discovered the big pot. Michael had been taking a wilderness-survival course with the Sierra Club, so he was in perfect physical shape for an afternoon of exploration. During the drive out, we decided not to climb the same hill as Patrick and I had, but to hike around its base, which would be about six miles around. We started by entering a beautiful palm-filled canyon on the south side of I–8. Even though the canyon’s sandy floor was dry, we felt a sudden drop in temperature from the moisture in the air. This shady environment was a welcome contrast to the heat and blazing sunshine on the hillsides around us.
While Michael checked out some Indian grinding holes, or “morteros,” I inspected a single set of tracks leading ahead of us in the sand. The impressions reminded me of the combat boots I had worn in the military. That, plus the fact that the person wearing them was headed south, led me to conclude that either a hunter or a border patrol agent was ahead of us in the canyon. I knew that agents were skilled at following tracks left by other people. An experienced agent can ascertain many useful things, such as the walker’s gender and weight, their speed and direction, mental clarity, and whether or not they’re trying to avoid detection. I’ve also read that an agent can tell from the depth of a person’s tracks if they’re wearing a heavy backpack, as might someone who was carrying drugs.
We continued up the canyon, and within minutes we saw the man ahead of us. It was a lone U.S. Border Patrol agent in a green uniform, with a radio and a handgun on his belt. I knew that he wouldn’t like being followed, so I called out a greeting. He was startled, and I saw him move his hand over his holstered pistol. We walked on up and made small talk. The agent’s last name was Ramirez, and he was very polite. I thought it ironic that a Latino would be out here trying to keep other Latinos from illegally entering the United States. Anyway, I told Ramirez about the terrific pot we’d seen up on the hill, and how we hoped to hike to Pinto Canyon later in the season to see its petroglyphs. Ramirez shook his head and grimaced. He said that Pinto Canyon was a dangerous area, more of a war zone than a hiking destination. He said that for safety we should hike with a larger group and try to stay up north, inside Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We thanked him but ignored his advice.
The canyon Michael and I were in eventually petered out onto a wide flat plain. After about a mile, I bent down to get some cactus needles out of my boot. I was surprised to see dozens of pottery fragments on the ground, most the size of a quarter or smaller. Further examination revealed that the whole area contained fragments. It looked like the area might have supported a large tribe — as opposed to just a place where a few individuals came for fresh water, as the stagecoach obviously had.
As we hiked on, we became more aware of footprints in the sand. Where before only a few had trod now there were groups of 20 or more. As always, the footprints led northward, toward the freeway. We also found hundreds of empty plastic water bottles from Mexican supermarkets. Michael and I really wanted to recycle all that ugly plastic, but we would’ve needed a dump truck to haul it. We walked another mile or so and came to something we should’ve expected. Sitting in the middle of nowhere was a big red Samsonite suitcase. It looked so out of place there in the desert that both of us just stood and stared. Finally, I gave in an opened it up. As I unzipped the cover, I thought about the movie White Sands. In it, a small town sheriff finds a half-million dollars in cash on top of a desolate butte. Unfortunately, our red Samsonite didn’t have any cash, only a new pair of Nikes, various articles of female clothing, an address book, and airline tickets — from Guadalajara to Mexicali — dated five days before.
The feeling you have while looking through someone else’s suitcase must be similar to what a detective feels while they investigate a crime scene. You’re trying to solve a puzzle using clues provided by the victim. The clues in this case showed that a Mexican woman had abandoned her suitcase while crossing into the United States. She was desperate, and judging by the red suitcase with its tiny wheels stuck in the sand, she was ill prepared. But we were grateful to have found only the suitcase and not its owner. The daylight was fading and neither of us wanted to be out here at night. So instead of finishing our hike around the hills, we cut directly over them and hiked straight to the car. In all we had spent five hours outdoors in 90 degree weather, and we were both very tired.
The agent’s description of Pinto Canyon being something of a war zone was confirmed in the news. Operation Gatekeeper has fortified the border areas at Tijuana, Mexicali, and El Paso so well that thousands of illegal immigrants are now choosing to cross the open desert — often with disastrous results.
While I was in Maui photographing a wedding, my friend Michael went on another Sierra Club hike. Their group made a quick one-day trip from Mountain Springs Road to the top of Pinto Canyon, a 12-mile hike. They didn’t hike far enough down the canyon to see the petroglyphs, but they stumbled upon something quite horrible. Michael told me that he was about 100 feet ahead of the group when he saw something in the sand. What at first appeared to be a pile of clothing turned out to be a dead girl of approximately 12. She was wearing a small backpack, and judging by the mummified look of her skin, it appeared that she’d been there for several weeks. The rest of the group caught up with Michael, and a couple of them got sick. Someone guessed that the girl might have died suddenly from heat stroke. Later in the afternoon, the leader of the group reported the body and its location to the Border Patrol.