11:36 p.m. 2015. So far south that the night sky hummed orange for hours after the sunset. For the first time that season, the desert cold had teeth. It was Thanksgiving. It was my first time rappelling at night, my second time ever on a rope. The beam of my headlamp quivered around my feet. Sword-tipped leaves of desert succulents trembled in the wind.
“Let’s go!” Ben shouted from beneath me in the gully. My hands were trembling, holding my ATC, still clipped into the rope. “What are you waiting for?”
I held my breath until I couldn’t. When I finally whispered his name, I was too hoarse to be heard. I coughed.
“Ben, we’re not alone.”
“Of course we are, Astra. No one else is out here.”
“You didn’t see her?”
“What are you talking about?”
Ben’s voice rose whenever he was angry. We were having an epic. It was my fault—I was new to the sport, and fumbling. The storm we’d spent two days racing had blown in too soon. It was booming around us. Isolated raindrops fell like sharp pellets. Ben was a towering man: bearded, broad-shouldered, with dinner-plate hands, now balled in fists.
“Ben,” I whispered again. “There was a girl in the gully. We rappelled right over her.”
I finally met Ben’s eyes. A long moment passed before either of us spoke again. The only noise was the groan of the wind.
For years, I have averted my inner gaze from this memory. Still, stories from the Sonoran Desert keep returning to me in heartaching dispatches. It is nearly always bad news.
In 2019, a few years after I had left the Southwest, I learned from Outside Online that Trump’s border wall would impact 111 endangered species of plants and 108 migratory birds. I learned that the amount of water needed to make the cement to construct the border wall had dewatered spring sites, likely permanently, that the Hia-Ced O’odham people have considered alive and sacred for more than 10,000 years. I learned that O’odham land defenders delayed the construction of the wall, despite being tear-gassed by police. Despite their efforts they did not succeed in protecting Quitobaquito Spring, which has by now been mostly drained dry.
In the stretch of desert where there was still no wall, migrants continued to cross. Immigration from Mexico has been largely driven by economic hardship that began in 1994, when NAFTA tanked the value of the peso. Increasingly, migrants are now coming north after landslides, hurricanes, and other disasters hastened by the changing climate. It had become illegal in Arizona to leave water in the desert where these migrants were known to travel. I learned of at least five volunteers being arrested after leaving gallon-sized jugs.
These news blips transport me back to my months spent in that liminal stretch of the Sonoran Desert, where Ben and I lived for a season. The years 2015 and 2016 were nervous pre-election times in which nearly every action in the U.S. borderlands felt underlined, melodramatic. My days felt ripe with the present-tense nostalgia that comes from knowing that in the future, one might be tasked with describing what it felt like to live through those years.
I had never seen a true desert before moving to Tucson: cactus blooms and milk-white sand that ran for days. People dumped their trash in the empty lots on the outskirts of our subdivision, but peeking out from behind the piles were saguaros tall enough to triumph over the refuse. As indicated by their four, or five, or eight cartoony arms, the saguaros at the street’s end might have been 70 or 80 years old, limbs reaching skyward as though in prayer.
I learned to climb in that desert. A boy taught me. I barely knew him. We had moved across the continent together from the Pacific Northwest after our second date. I was 1,000 miles farther south than I’d ever been, my heart as wide-open as the southern sky. The thing that swept me off my feet wasn’t the boy, but climbing’s endless balletics—what Dr. Amrita Dhar called in a 2021 essay for Alpinist the absurd poiesis, or bringing into being, of the body’s possibility.
“Why put one’s heart into one’s fingertips and heave with all one’s strength?” she wrote.
Ben had chosen Tucson for its accessible winter climbing. For the first weeks we lived there, we spent long mornings on the roof, facing Mount Lemmon’s craggy spine, visible on the horizon. I listened, rapt, as Ben described fantastical summits, heroic falls, and the subsequent efforts to start again, to climb higher. He recited the exotic names of spires from the list he had been carrying for years.
“They say this one is the navel of the universe,” Ben told me one Sunday morning, blowing steam off his burnt coffee.
“Ben,” I said, chirpy and nervous from my propulsive desire to see the mountaintop, even as his description mostly consisted of words I couldn’t yet understand—chatter about arêtes and dynos, whippers and sends. “Take me with you. I want to climb it.”
What I yearned for, more than the athleticism of the sport—more than the mystery that might be waiting on that summit—was to be part of Ben’s fantasy of the desert. He was haunted by visions of sand, sun, and strength. Ben had a way of turning everything he wanted into a reverie. I wanted to live in it, too, even without knowing what it would entail.
A long moment passed before Ben nodded.
Its name became a mantra for the next four days while we prepared. I bought a pair of discounted climbing shoes, learned how to read a topo, studied trip reports. One instructed the correct pronunciation for the peak’s name: rhymes with Den-o’-Thievery, not Bottla-Bacardi.
Ben showed me the website Mountain Project. At the top of the page for the 5.6 route we planned to climb, it read:
“Access Issue. Caution: Human and drug trafficking. Traffic from drug smuggling and illegal immigration is high in this area. Exercise caution. US Border Patrol recommends avoiding this area completely after dark.” I read the passage aloud to Ben. We laughed at it.
The evening before we planned to leave, Ben drove us too quickly up the winding highway to Mount Lemmon. He taught me to lead-belay as the sun set. I followed him up Hitchcock Pinnacle’s 40-foot face, a can of Banquet Beer in each pocket of my stiff work pants. The column rose like a clenched fist from the side of the highway, its spindly wrist of rock interrupted by a single bolt.
“Don’t fall here,” Ben said, laughing, when I unclipped the draw. “You’ll swing too far and the rope could cut.”
I swallowed the swell of my fear. In no time, he was pulling me onto the top of the pinnacle with his warm, rough hand. The day died around us. We clinked cans to the lipstick-red dusk. Ben rappelled first so I could watch him, then he shouted up instructions from the ground when I fumbled.
On that first climb, and at each of the subsequent hundred-some raps I would make in Ben’s presence, he yelled up at the exact moment I trusted the rope with my weight: “Don’t forget that you could die right now.” My first rappel was by the light of the nearly full moon and the tangerine urban haze.
The Sonoran Desert spans what is today California, Arizona, and northwest Mexico. It is a desert of visual and material abundance. The Sonoran is home to more plant species than any other desert in the world. Most of the 2,000 unique species were borne by the rivers, but they learned to persist in the desert’s dry, harsh heat. The 350 different birds, 100 reptiles, 20 amphibians, 30 freshwater fish, and 1,000 native bees have adapted. Today, this desert is the only continuous habitat for America’s last jaguars.
For millennia, the Sonoran has been a transitory space. The land here was once cool and wet. But over millennia, plants’ habitats shifted from the Sierra Madre Occidental in the south to the Rocky Mountains in the north as the weather warmed. Lowlands became less hospitable. As the desert dried and crisped, peaks like Baboquivari became climate refugia for vegetation that could no longer survive in the harsh basins. These standalone peaks are migratory stopovers for plants like silverleaf oak, wild peppers, and tropical lobelias: plants with musical names.
The first national borders were drawn through these mountains in 1821, when Mexico declared independence from Spain. According to www.tonation-nsn.gov, Jesuit settlers occupying the land now known as Mexico arrived at every water source and worked to remove Indigenous village sites nearby, sequestering O’odham people in reservations. Even then, the new nation’s boundaries shifted fluidly. There were no static borders until the land was purchased by, and then named as, America. When the first lines distinguishing the two countries of Mexico and the United States were traced on paper maps in 1853, they cut between Indigenous Tohono O’odham settlements on either side.
And yet, for more than a century, the border was more abstraction than physical presence. In cross-border cities like El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, more than 10,000 people used to cross the border each day as part of their work commutes. “This mythical division between these two cities, it just doesn’t exist for most of us,” Juan Sybert-Coronado of El Paso said for the podcast Radiolab’s episode “Border Trilogy No. 1.” “I mean, I go to the dentist over there [in Juárez]. I buy cigarettes over there. OK, I smoke, yes. OK, OK?”
Ni de aquí, ni de allá, say those who have come of age in this transitory space: “Not from here, not from there.” Where the border was designed to cleave apart, instead it has cultivated a community of duality. People find belonging on both sides.
Humans have long been a migratory species. Some of us still thrive in an overture of movement that takes on a wider arc than daily migration. Take, for example, my own arrival in the Sonoran Desert, by way of Oregon and California before that, via the tiny hatchback whose trunk I’d made into my home. Take the more than 84 million (according to un.org) estimated environmental refugees: As of this decade, climate change has ignited the largest-ever global-scale mass migration—unless you count the millenia that all humans were migrants. There was a time at our species’ inception before we stayed in places, before we built towns and homes and gardens. For 8,000 years, archeologists estimate, we lived in temporary shelters, tracking seasonal hunts or harvests. We crossed valleys and mountains and seas, chasing each other from place to place, following hunger or love or both.
Before it was a landscape that could disappear people, the Sonoran was a place where one might roam. Stay a while. Walk the riverbed, as the O’odham have always done.
In the O’odham language, Baboquivari Peak is called Waw Kiwulik. Traditional iconography represents the peak with a labyrinth. According to the O’odham, I’itoi the Creator still lives in a cave on Baboquivari’s northwest side. He comes and goes through an underground network of tunnels that are woven together like the gnarled, skeletal limbs of the cholla cacti that grow on the mountain’s slopes. According to other myths, I’itoi arrived at Waw Kiwulik from “the other side,” emerging from the cave after a great flood. He created people to live among the receding waters, to wander the drying sand. In petroglyphs, I’itoi is positioned at the labyrinth’s entry. The maze, some say, represents an individual’s life: the choices you make, the dreams you hang onto, the encounters that impact you.
Today, Baboquivari has been split in two. Legally, the managerial jurisdiction of the peak is split between the Bureau of Land Management and the Tohono O’odham Nation along the arc of the summit. The boundary of a designated wilderness under BLM purview is less than five miles from the Mexico border. Until mid-2021, in the canyons south of the mountain, 60-ton machines barrelled down slopes and carved roads out of rock to provide construction access for the site of the now-paused border wall. The silverleaf oaks sheltered the understory, their curved leaves protecting delicate flowers from the debris that fell from the sky after nearby outcrops were detonated to make way for the wall. Sun-bleached backpacks, lone shoes, and fragments of human bone still litter those sacred valleys in the shadow of the border.
Men in baseball hats and army fatigues held long-necked automatic rifles across their shoulders.
Before this stretch of the border became a tangle of barbed wire and steel, policymakers had assumed that the land itself could exert sufficient hardship to keep would-be migrants away. In 1994, when the Clinton Administration began to increase border security via its so-called Operation Gatekeeper policy, they strategized that building walls would only be necessary in urban spaces. In the harshness of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, a wall felt superfluous. Who would ever willingly subject themselves to such a place?
“We did believe geography would be an ally to us,” the former commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Services, Doris Meissner, said on C-SPAN 16 years later. Until the mid-1990s, maybe five migrants would be reported dead while crossing the border each year. After 1994, that number jumped to several hundred annually. According to US Customs and Border Protection, the number then doubled again between 1995 and 2005—and that’s before you account for the people whose bodies are never found.
The text of Operation Gatekeeper renders wilderness an American ally: “Mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers and valleys form natural barriers to passage,” it reads. The legal text cited “prevention through deterrence.” Who would ever choose to come to this land, to subject themselves to its volatility?
When we made it to Lion’s Ledge, I counted 68 thorns in my legs, despite the Carhartt pants Ben had insisted I wear.
On our way to the trailhead for Baboquivari, Ben and I drove through two border checkpoints. Men in baseball hats and army fatigues held long-necked automatic rifles across their shoulders. When they saw us—when they saw that we were two white kids—they waved us through, silent and smiling.
For six hours that first day, we hiked through a dry riverbed until it contoured up to Lion’s Ledge, the standard bivy for Baboquivari, near the base of the descent route off the summit. Ben told me that in the desert, dry riverbeds are called arroyos. Monsoonal storms rip through them, stripping everything away except the stubborn life that stays. Ben recited the names of the unfamiliar flora as if they were lines from poems: Velvet mesquite. Palo verde. Fairy duster. Prickly pear. They were needly things, plants that bit and stung. When we made it to Lion’s Ledge, I counted 68 thorns in my legs, despite the Carhartt pants Ben had insisted I wear. I picked out the thorns using tweezers. Blood bloomed after every thorn came out.
While writing this essay, I called my friend Prudence Katze, a researcher and filmmaker, so she could tell me what she knows about the desert. I haven’t been back to Tucson in years, but Prudence had spent most of the past year there. She’s working on a documentary about how nature has become “an American weapon.”
Prudence told me about a migrant man who had spent a lot of his passage traveling in arroyos. They’re frequently more than five or six feet deep, and impossible to see until you’re standing on the brink. Prudence said that he was walking up one when rain began to fall. Desert monsoons are urgent. They arrive with an electric thrill. Water rushes down the mountains and funnels into arroyos. What arrives is not a gentle trickle. Blink, and suddenly you’re standing in a river.
“He almost drowned,” Prudence told me. “Before he could crawl out of the arroyo, it was up to his armpits.”
She told story after story like this. Living in Tucson, I had frequently heard similar reports from advocacy groups like No Más Muertes, who left gallons of water out on hot days, even after the state legislature made doing so illegal. Volunteers from No Más Muertes would count abandoned pairs of underwear. The fabric would last longer than the bodies of the people who didn’t make it.
Still, the desert doesn’t deter successfully enough. It just kills more subtly than other border policies the United States has experimented with. If anything, what it deters best is our capacity to witness.
On the second pitch of Baboquivari, I got stuck. A hundred feet up I had, for the first time, encountered a dihedral. In the crease in the back, Ben had placed a nut. It wasn’t deep, and he hadn’t yanked on its wire to set it. Around the nut, tiny cacti grew out of the crack. Their thorns leered at me, daring me to take shelter in the corner, to rest my body against its walls. I didn’t want to see that I was on the side of a cliff, a hundred feet above where we had started. I wasted an hour with my ragged breathing, my catastrophizing imagination, the worry that I might slowly starve to death here in this place. When I finally tried to remove the nut using the unfamiliar hooked nut tool, it came out easily.
The next handholds lined up like rungs on a ladder. I quickly made it to Ben’s anchor. He tousled my hair, held my chin in his hand. “We’re really fucking behind now,” he sighed, but he touched his nose to my nose.
The next four pitches came easily, but Ben was right: Despite our pre-dawn departure from Lion’s Ledge, the day was over. From the forecast we had read before leaving Tucson, we knew that the first cold storm of winter was due to blow in that night. By the time we reached the summit, the sky was merlot red. The peak cast a sapphire shadow that cut through the glow.
For the first time since arriving in Arizona, I was cold. The winds felt as if they were living up to the 40 miles per hour predicted by the forecast. From the summit, the knotted green ridges that bunched around the peak gave way to a lightless, flat expanse. There was BLM wilderness to the east, the Tohono O’odham Nation to the west, and Mexico to the south. The moon, which would be full that night, wouldn’t rise for hours.
“Ben, what are we going to leave?” I had read that it was customary for anyone visiting I’itoi’s home to leave an offering. It was a way of ensuring safe passage through the labyrinth. According to the Mountain Project page, “If you are planning to take a gift for I’itoi, you might choose a gift that I’itoi can hand back out to stranded climbers. This might include lighters, waterproof matches, rain panchos [sic], space blankets, flashlights, etc.”
Higher on the web page had been warnings of human trafficking, but no suggestions of leaving blankets, food, billfolds of American cash, or any other goods that might help the people trafficking or being trafficked. We had brought so much: a switchblade knife to cut the rope, should it become stuck; a comically slim first-aid kit; an entire pumpkin pie, because it was Thanksgiving.
“We can’t leave any of this,” Ben said. So we left, leaving nothing.
The descent had five rappels, separated by rotten gullies, wandering trails, steep slabs, and little cliffs, all stacked like the teetering tiers of a cake. We pushed through cacti. By the last rappel, descending after Ben, I felt the itch of new scabs congealing on my ankles. The gully was low-angle enough that I was mostly jumping down the rope, kicking up flurries of little rocks each time I leapt and landed.
The girl was in the fetal position. My feet had landed inches from her hip. When I saw her, my spine straightened as if pulled by the moon.
As quickly as I could, I lowered myself below her. Then I waited, I don’t know for what. For her to speak, maybe. For the shock of discovery to leave my body. For some spark of wisdom about what I could possibly do in that moment to help her. Such insight never came. I sank into my harness.
It’s been six years and I am still speechless. I don’t know how to end this essay. In fact, I regret pitching it.
I was expecting to write sentences that would absolve me. I wanted a story that could exhume my ghosts. Not that I believe that she is one. I have to believe that the girl I left in the gully is alive and well today.
But she haunts me. In the attic of my brain, she is the gold-trimmed box, locked with a long-lost key. Mostly, I avoid thinking about her. I have tried so hard to avoid thinking about her. Her startlingly white T-shirt, parachuting away from her body despite the tight hug she held herself in, hands clasped over her turned-away face. The anachronistic early-2000s fade of her jeans, the sharpness of that contrast in my headlamp’s bright beam. I looked at her long enough to see the holes in her canvas sneakers, the rubber pulling away from the heel.
And then I looked away.
I hung, for a while, on the rope, still close enough to reach up and touch her. I imagined Ben below me, surrounded by dangerous men. I wondered if the girl was being trafficked, whether there might be someone armed above me, holding a knife to the rope.
I descended the remainder of the gully to join Ben among the waist-high wild aloes.
I didn’t lift my light to shine on her again.
I had known from the moment I opened the Mountain Project page that Baboquivari’s flanks were traveled by migrants. When I recently called Prudence, doubting my memory after six years, she confirmed that it’s common for people, the sick and the slow, to be left behind by the coyotes who smuggle them north.
The winds that night were tremendous—back at our bivy, Ben and I stayed up all night, listening to our tent walls rattle. The loose gully we had rappelled was, perhaps, the best place the girl could find shelter. When you are stranded, ill-prepared in a winter storm, there are no good options.
I cannot think of anything more absurd than arriving at a precipice with real danger and delighting in it.
Some people are drawn to climbing because of the rush of rubbing elbows with one’s mortality. This feels especially true of remote wilderness climbs, multi-pitch routes, the sort of high-angle mountain travel I was drawn to after learning how to climb that winter, and to which I have returned every year since.
I cannot think of anything more absurd than arriving at a precipice with real danger and delighting in it. We can only travel to the cliffside if our lives have afforded us that luxury. I climb because I am seeking exposure. I want to feel the air beneath my feet. I can climb because in my life, risk is a punctuation mark. It is not every letter in every word.
I came to Baboquivari desiring the risk that it represented, even as I knew others traveling through that antagonistic space were there only because it represented the lowest-risk option available to them.
This is true of all of us who travel to recreate. It is as true in Arizona as it is in any colonial country, at any North American crag. We are playing, all of us, in contested space.
Before we left plastic water jugs in the desert to blanch in the sun, before the rush of a monsoonal flood might carry away some lonely traveler hiding in a wash, this landscape used to have standing water. For time immemorial, Indigenous people would walk the rivers. The perennial flows had, for thousands of years, persisted. The O’odham origin story says that the world was born from the rubbing up of darkness against water. There were prickly pears and crimson evenings, the story says, before there were people.
Ben and I fought for months about what we did. It was my idea to leave the girl the last of our water, to yell into the wind that we had done so. He thought we should do more. I never figured out what he meant.
I took our water bottle, with its blue screw-on top and its little built-in handle, and put it on a boulder. The jug stood above the yucca and the barrel cacti. I turned her way and looked into the darkness.
Hay agua aquí.
Astra Lincoln, an essayist and climate researcher, is currently completing an MSc with the Mountain Legacy Project at the University of Victoria.