When my friend Mariko told me that she had never been to the desert, I suggested a camping trip. (Mariko is not her real name; she asked me to make up something until she is sure of her feelings.) You’ll love the desert, I promised. Raw beauty. Awesome stillness. Powerful serenity.

Mariko, who was mending a broken heart, was apprehensive. “What about scorpions and tarantulas? And Gila monsters?”

“If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you,” I answered.

“Can we hike? Have a campfire? See the Big Dipper?”

“Of course, and at night the shooting stars and howling coyotes will serenade you to sleep.”

Mariko became enthusiastic. She had not camped since Hawaii.

We drove east to the desert via Interstate 8. Between the Sunrise Highway and the Buckman Springs exits we saw the first Border Patrol checkpoint. It was on the westbound side of the freeway—so we didn’t have to stop—where orange traffic cones funneled cars and trucks into a single line that crawled past uniformed agents, as stern as Gestapos, who looked drivers in the eyes before waving them through, or directing them to pull over for inspection.

At a checkpoint for eastbound traffic near Jacumba, we had to stop. Border Patrol agents with German Shepherds gave us the eye, then waved us through. Very police-state like, and I felt resentment, although not sure for what.

Once beyond the checkpoint Mariko pointed to a brown line on the horizon to the south.

“Is that the fence?” Mariko, from Hawaii, asked.

After the Jacumba checkpoint the interstate twisted downhill into the desert. Mariko was remarking on the amazing hillsides of bronze boulders when a white Border Patrol van sped by, like a cop car on the way to an accident. We soon saw white jeeps parked on the freeway shoulder and several agents standing over a group of seated people. As we passed we saw the dark, dusty clothes of the half-dozen men and women, handcuffed into a tight circle.

“They must have climbed over the fence,” Mariko said.

We got off the interstate at Ocotillo, on the desert floor, and took Highway S2 north into Anza Borrego State Park and Bow Willow Campground. The conversation was now about illegal immigration. I pointed out the string of blue flags between the highway and the power lines. At the bottom of each flagpole, I told Mariko, you can find a cache of water jugs.

“Why would anyone be walking out there?” she asked. But then she remembered the group seated on the edge of the interstate.

Then she said: “Doesn't it seem hypocritical? Why do the authorities allow life-saving stations for the people they are trying to keep out?”

I had no answer.

Mariko’s boyfriend had recently broken up with her, and she was not sure why. “I don’t understand why someone you want to be with says “No” instead of “Okay, what can we do to make the relationship work?” That’s the way she saw it.

We were stopped by another Border Patrol checkpoint just inside the state park, the third in a hundred miles I muttered as I rolled down the window.

“Hi folks,” said a tall, freckled agent. “Mind if I ask your nationalities?”

I looked at my pale white arms and Mariko’s Asian eyes, at my Chargers’ T-shirt and Mariko’s cashmere sweater, at the ice chest and camping gear in the back seat. My car had California plates and a parking sticker for my Mission Valley condo.

I felt this stop was an inconvenience and an intrusion into my privacy, although I was not sure who was inconveniencing whom, or who was intruding. I only knew that I didn’t like the need for authority in the desert.

I wanted to answer that I was from Mars and my passenger was a hitchhiker from Venus, or something else sarcastic. I wanted to ask him about the blue flags and the group by the side of the road, ask him if he thought illegal immigrants would drive up this road in daylight, and if the brown fence was stopping anybody.

But I had brought us to the desert to enjoy the raw beauty and awesome stillness and powerful serenity, not to challenge authority or to change the world. So I answered his questions and we were thanked and waved through.

We soon turned off the highway and onto a dirt road, and when we reached Bow Willow Campground the desert air was still and clean and gently warm. First we set up our tents, then set out our cooking gear on the picnic table, then sat in the shade under the ramada. It was mid morning, too early for lunch.

“Let’s go on a hike,” Mariko said.

We walked up Bow Willow Canyon, a dry, broad flood plain of gravel. After an hour we spied the trail that led over a low ridge and into Rock House Canyon. We ate our sack lunch, collected our food wrappers and banana peels, then traversed the ridge.

The Rock House was a dilapidated shelter of cemented stones and corrugated roofing, probably used by cowboys while herding free-range cattle. There was a deep channel down the middle of Rock House Canyon, deep enough to hide a man standing, and when I crossed it I noticed a plastic bag stuck to a bush. "Bimbo Pan Blanco Grande." When I picked it up I saw another bag. "Fruta-Mixta: Manzanas y Naranjas." A faded box of yogurt cups. A Gatorade bottle. Litter was strewn the length of the channel. When I climbed out my hands were full.

“How did that stuff get way out here?” Marko wanted to know.

After a mile we turned 90 degrees north in a straight line back to Bow Willow Campground, picking our way through a waist-high forest of cholla cactus and across outcroppings of sharp quartz. Mariko was paying full attention to keeping the cactus off her shoes and I held the trash in one hand and the map in the other.

Our route cut across gullies and over spines of jagged peaks. The last spine had a gap, like a saddle. Oddly, a well-worn path led to the saddle. And at the top, somebody had left more trash.

The ground was scattered with orange and blue plastic caps that looked like wild flowers, with water jugs and food containers like carcasses stuck in bushes and between rocks. Some were so brittle they disintegrated to the touch. There were more "fruta-mixta" bags, yellowed and as fragile as tissue; faded Bimbo bread bags; yogurt cups. Worn shoes. A jacket, stiff and half-buried in sand. And a child’s backpack. It was the backpack that pierced Mariko's emotions.

“What kind of people would do this?” she asked.

“People running for their lives,” I answered. I thought of the graveyard for unidentified illegal immigrants in Holtville, not far to the east.

I don’t think she heard me. She continued: “What kind of people would put themselves in this position? Leave their families and homes and communities and risk their lives for what? For money?"

“For a better life,” I answered picking up litter.

“Why can’t they just stay where they are and improve their lives there?”

Her voice was both pain and frustration.

“It’s complicated,” I said.

Then she condensed her confusion and her broken heart, her compassion and her indignation, into simply saying: “It’s wrong to go somewhere and trash the place.”

When our arms were full, we left the hideout on the saddle, I carrying empty shoes and food containers, Mariko silently dragging the jacket and backpack.

“There must be a better way,” was all Mariko said.

As promised, the night sky was glorious with shooting stars. We had a crackling campfire and roasted hot dogs. Coyotes howled in the dark desert, but on this night it seemed more wailing than serenading.

At sunrise we were awakened by the loud chopping of a helicopter, miles to the south, hovering over the fence. After breakfast we broke camp and drove back to the highway. We could return home two ways: north or south.

“Which way?” I asked Mariko.

“I just don’t know,” she answered.

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