My breath becomes shallow as I trudge up the Chisos Mountains in West Texas, my 65-Liter backpack’s shoulder straps pulling me backwards and constricting my chest. I gasp for air with a dry mouth that tastes like chemicals from the SPF lip balm I’m wearing. I feel the panic rise as I struggle to breathe deeply. “Don’t hyperventilate, don’t hyperventilate” I repeat to myself, fearing embarrassment in front of my nine mentally and physically capable backpacking companions. We’d been hiking steadily uphill all day and my body was not pleased.
This was my first time backpacking, but I wasn’t on a beginner-level course. As an employee of my local Outward Bound school, I joined colleagues from around the country on a 7-day staff expedition in Big Bend National Park. The unique desert environment appealed to me, not to mention a fully paid trip. Soon enough, I found out my spin classes had not prepared me adequately for this challenge.
I visited at a pivotal time. Part of the borderland between the US and Mexico, West Texas has a long history of border disputes and cultural mingling. Now, with a presidential call to erect a border wall and anti-migrant rhetoric, West Texas is in the middle of the controversy. Shortly after my backpacking trip ended, President Trump held a rally in El Paso, a city where 83% of residents are Mexican, and was met with both support and protests.
I continue the slow, uphill struggle. “One foot after the other,” I tell myself. I roll my ankle from a wrong step on a loose rock. I’m careful to avoid razor sharp prickly pear spines and the ocotillo’s tall, spiky branches that pop up out of nowhere when I remove my gaze from the ground to look ahead. The group finally calls red light for a 15-minute packs-off break. I wrestle my backpack off and drop onto it, using it as a seat. My breath becomes steady again and I look around me at the vast scenery.
Endless fields of prickly pears, ocotillos, chollas, and other desert plants surround us. The roots of the stiff, green creosote bushes clear paths among the various types of cacti, providing safe passage for desert creatures and visitors like us. Over all of this tower mountains, their jagged edges and flat mesas etching out their place in the skyline.
As I inhale the dry desert air and savor the cool breeze, I see a rusty can along the trail. It could have easily been discarded thoughtlessly by another hiker. But in this land, it was just as likely to have been from a migrant risking their life in the wilderness to find economic opportunity and freedom from systemic violence. I endured the harsh West Texas desert to travel and gain a new, unfamiliar experience. Just on the other side of those mountains, migrants step into the unfamiliar every day for entirely different reasons.
15 minutes is up. I finally manage to put my backpack on without help, hoisting it onto my knee and twisting it around to my back in one heavy swoop. We continue our uphill climb, nothing on my mind except my physical discomfort and the thought of what it would be like to make this same trek without knowing what awaited me at the end.