Blue Flags & Painted Crosses | Katharine Harer

26 mins read

We’re slicing through the Sonoran Desert on Highway 286 in a water supply truck operated by Humane Borders. Faint yellow light rises into the sky behind the mountains, letting us know that in a few hours, it will be hot, desert hot.

Steve and Stacy, veteran volunteers, sit in front and my husband, Bob, and I sit on the wide backseat behind them. Stacy is drinking out of a see-through plastic thermos, something thick and creamy, and Steve every so often takes a long pull out of a water bottle tucked next to him. In my sleep-dazed state, I think about thirst. The high tech water bottle I bought for the trip sits in a cloth bag at my feet next to two sandwiches wrapped in foil and an apple. I forget about the water. For the four plus hours of our trip from Tucson and back again, I never take a drink.


In the last two decades, the remains of more than 3,000 migrants have been found near the Arizona border with Mexico. Dehydration, more than hunger or fatigue, is the most common cause of death. 

I wonder why I don’t drink more water. I hardly ever feel that dry itch in my mouth or throat that tells my brain to take a drink.  I’ve read all the warnings about drinking 8 glasses a day for optimum health, and the vain part of me knows drinking water will make my skin less wrinkly. Yet I barely manage a half a glass with my pills in the morning. This is clearly one of those “first-world problems” like needing a second refrigerator to hold your beer.  

I’ve read stories of people who survive being lost in the wilderness by lapping up drops of moisture from the leaves of plants. Out here, that’s not an option. You can die in a matter of hours from dehydration, especially when you walk for miles under the blazing sun.  In the summer, the average temperature can get up to 115 degrees, and migrants can’t physically carry enough water to make the long journey on foot from the border to Arizona.  Within a day they usually run out, and if they’re dehydrated to begin with, it’s just a matter of hours before they die.


On our way to Humane Border’s first water station, we see a simple blue wooden cross stuck into the dirt on the side of the highway, with a red circle painted on it and what looks like a rosary wound around the middle.  Less than a mile away, we see what’s left of another wooden cross, this one painted orange.  It also has a red circle painted in the center. A few beads are scattered on the ground beneath it, and the horizontal part is askew, dangling from a nail.  I assume it’s been ravaged by the wind, but Stacey tells us, “These crosses are made by an artist, Alvaro Enciso.  He makes a new cross for each person who dies crossing the desert, but sometimes they get vandalized.  That’s what’s happened here.”  She points to the cross and Steve slows down.  “He’s up to more than 900 crosses, each one a little different, but they all have a red circle.”

“Why?  What does it mean?” I turn back to look at the broken cross.

“Humane Borders makes Death Maps to keep track of every migrant who doesn’t survive, and they use a red dot to mark the spot on the map where the person died.” Stacey swivels around to look at us, “Alvaro Enciso uses the maps to plant his crosses at each of the documented death sites.  He paints a red circle on each one to connect to the red dots on the Death Maps.”  The next cross we see, painted yellow and decorated with plastic flowers, is shot through with bullet holes.


Humane Borders is one of a number of religious and humanitarian groups that supply water to the desert outside of Tucson.  I decided to volunteer with them when I read their descriptions of the water routes on their website. “Ironwood National Monument: The monument is situated in a beautiful and rugged, but for crossing migrants unforgiving, desolate mountain/desert landscape dotted with hundred-year-old saguaros and ironwood trees.” The Arivaca Water Run: “We service water stations located in a pecan grove on a panoramic hillside, along wash-studded ranchlands, and in some sites with the Jurassic-era Los Guijas mountains and the sacred Baboquivari mountain in view. The beauty of Arivaca is both misleading and ironic, because this land is also a killing field.”  

Since 2000, the group’s volunteers have regularly checked and refilled water barrels along known routes used by immigrants. The migrants typically walk at night to avoid the Border Patrol, but other dangers await them, like sudden outcroppings of prickly cactuses and spiny desert plants. Rattlesnakes come out at night, and there’s a type of cactus that clings to your skin and won’t let go. Steve warns us: “Be careful when you walk around out here.  Look out for these thorny things,” he points to a grayish twig on the ground. “They’ll punch a hole right through the soles of your shoes.” 

The migrant travelers find their way by the moon and the stars and have to be extra-cautious when they use their flashlights — crouching down as they walk, sleeping under the rare mesquite tree or overgrown bush, eating a little something if there’s anything left in their backpacks.  They carry half-gallon plastic water containers repurposed from jugs of milk and painted black so they won’t show up under the Border Patrol agents’ high-intensity flashlights or, worse, the brights of their headlights if they chase after them in their heavy-duty jeeps. 

At one of the water stops, we find a discarded water jug, painted black, desiccated by the sun.  At another stop we find two backpacks left on the desert floor, dirty and torn. I keep thinking about the people who carried these packs:  were they running from an animal or from another human? Did the weight of the packs slow them down?  Were they arrested and their belongings thrown away by the Border Patrol.

Could there be any good reason to abandon a backpack when you’re making your way on foot into the United States?  Maybe some nice church group dropped off new, clean backpacks full of food and supplies and the migrants traded up.  That’s a nice story I tell myself although I’m not sure I believe it.


Humane Borders operates 49 water stations in a 180-mile radius around Tucson. They have permits and contracts they have to renew regularly, including an operations agreement with the City of Tucson, a three-year contract with Pima County, and permits granted to them from the U.S. National Park Service. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. I was surprised they’re allowed to do this at all, given our government’s crackdown on illegal immigration and the recurring fixation on building a wall.  When I asked about it, Rebecca Fowler, the Director at Humane Borders, said that their group and others, like No More Deaths and Tucson Samaritans, established themselves more than twenty years ago.  She told me that if Humane Borders applied for permission today, their water stations wouldn’t be allowed.


Steve and Stacey are smart, friendly and make us feel welcome. Steve is a retired trial attorney from Boston and Stacey, also a transplant to Tucson, is transitioning jobs, from pharmaceutical research to animal care.  We’re four well-educated white people bouncing over the desert highway, carrying fresh water to those who need it, people we will probably never see because it’s too dangerous for the migrant travelers to show their faces.

We’re driving straight towards a craggy peak, pale orange in the early morning sunlight. I lean towards the front seat and ask Steve: “What’s that big mountain?”  

“That’s Baboquivari — it’s a sacred site for the Tohono tribe. They say God lives in a cave inside the mountain,” Steve tells us as he steers toward a locked gate.  Stacey nods, taking a swig from her water bottle.  

The gates leading to the water stations are padlocked because of the vigilantes who shoot their guns at the locked water barrels and empty the life-saving water onto the desert floor.  Humane Borders installed new spring-loaded spigots, but the vigilantes are still finding ways to mess with the water stations. Stacey hops out and unlocks the gate, and we drive over the bumpy ground to a small pond a few feet from one of the sky-blue water barrels, set on its side for access to the drinking spout.

“See this cattle pond?  Before we put a water station here, migrants were drinking from the pond and getting dysentery.  We made a sign warning them not to drink the water, and then we installed a clean water barrel,” Steve explains while Stacey unlocks the barrel and uses a tool that looks a little like a wrench to unscrew the spout.

I walk over to inspect the pond.  The water is brown and brackish, but if I were dying of thirst, I know I’d drink it.  I feel a surge of gratitude for the volunteers from Humane Borders and the other organizations who keep immigrants from dying of seemingly basic things like contaminated water and thirst.

I notice the writing on the blue barrel is in English and Spanish. It says:   “Water/Agua” and there’s a small rectangular picture of the Virgin de Guadalupe glued to the top.  Tracey tests the water for bacteria with an instrument she sticks into a small cup of water.  It comes out fine, so she offers me a drink.  

“It’s good,” I tell her.  “Cold from the night.  That’s nice – they don’t have to drink warm water.”

“Oh, it could get warm by late afternoon, but people drink it at any temperature,” Stacey tells me.  

Another reality check. I want the water to be cool and refreshing for the thirsty travelers, imagining how good it would feel to take a long drink of night-cooled water. The reality is when you’re literally dying of thirst, you’ll drink anything.


Symptoms of dehydration that affect migrants walking across the desert are fatigue, brain fog/confusion, severe headaches, stomach aches, inability to urinate or defecate, leg cramps and an elevated heart rate. For someone who’s healthy, severe symptoms can kick in by the second day and become life threatening by the third, when sodium levels rise, affecting the brain. Lethargy and confusion set in and quickly progress to a sleep-like state of reduced consciousness when you slip into a coma. Eventually, either your heartbeat or your respiratory drive come to a stop.

Back in the truck, Steve tells us they find clothes, backpacks and discarded water bottles all the time.  Even though Humane Borders tries to count all the migrants who die attempting to cross the desert, Steve says they miss a lot, especially those eaten by animals or drowned in rivers. I’m still thinking about the abandoned backpacks. Did their owners continue? Are they in detention? Did they turn back, return to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras? What happened to the bodies who started off carrying those packs? 


We turn off the highway into the entrance to the next water station.  When Steve stops, Stacey jumps down from the truck, slams the door shut and runs over to the large metal gate.

“Watch her!” Steve says, grinning.  “She loves this part.”

Stacey unlocks a huge padlock and unwraps a fat chain holding the gate closed.  Then she climbs onto the gate and lets it swing her in a wide, fast arc across the ground as our truck rolls in past her.

“That looks like fun,” I say to no one in particular as we gather around to inspect the water barrel.

“It is. It’s really fun.  You can try it next time,” Stacey grins as she pokes the testing wand into a cup of water.  She reminds me of a cool friend I never had.

When we get to the next padlocked gate, Stacey turns to me:  “Go for it!”  She hands me a ring of keys with the one I need pointing up. “This one,” she says. “It might stick a little but just push in and it’ll turn.”

Oh God, I think.  I’m not good at keys or locks.  But I want to ride the gate. I want that moment of swaying across the sand.  I want to be like Stacey.

“Do it!” Bob urges. “I know you want to.”

I can tell I’m wearing the funny face I make when I’m a little anxious but, at the same time, really excited.  I jump out of the truck, run to the gate, push the key into the padlock, wriggle it, push it in again like Stacey said, and it opens – blessedly, without me having to ask for help.  I hop on and it swings me, soft and steady, across the desert floor.  Steve, Stacey and Bob cheer from the water truck as they drive past.


Sometimes the four of us are quiet, staring out the truck windows.  At other times, Steve shares stories of things he’s seen or that others have told him.  Towards the end of our route, he tells us about a man who’d run out of food and water and couldn’t go on.  The man flagged Steve down and asked him to drive him to the Border Patrol office.  Steve told him he didn’t want to do it, but the man insisted.  He was sick and exhausted, so Steve did what the man asked and turned him over.  “I felt terrible about it,” he told us, “but I did what he asked.”

Another story Steve tells us is about coming to check on a water barrel and hearing voices.  He couldn’t see anyone, not a sign, but he heard low, muffled sounds in the bushes nearby.  

“I wanted to go over there and talk to them, but I didn’t want to frighten them away.  They were already scared to death, and I’m a big white guy.  I honored their hiding places, replaced the water so the barrel would be full and left without looking back.”  Steve sighs, “I didn’t want them to feel unsafe.”

I imagined being so close to other humans who you want to talk to, to help, to maybe share whatever food you’ve got in the truck, and not being able to do anything but refill the water barrel and leave.

“That must have been hard,” I venture.

“Yeah, but it was the right thing,” Steve responds quickly. “These water trips aren’t about me. You know.”  I nod, Stacey nods, Bob nods.  We’re quiet again in the cab of the water truck.  I watch the desert slip past the window and vow to come back to Tucson and do this again.


“See our flag?” Tracey points to a long pole bent slightly from the wind on a rise about 30 feet above one of the blue water barrels we’re approaching. The flag is a rectangle of dark blue cotton cloth with a picture of a water faucet printed on it to guide immigrants to a safe source of water.

“We’re gonna have to put that one on the pole straightener,” Steve says with a smirk.  Our truck is carrying a 320 gallon container of fresh water, several new water barrels, each capable of holding 55 gallons of water, a stack of 30 foot poles and assorted supplies. I wonder where the pole straightener is.

Tracey runs to the knoll, grabs the flag on its bent pole and carries it to the truck where she runs it through the axle and presses down hard on it a few times.

“That’s our famous pole straightener,” she laughs.  “It works.”  The pole is markedly straighter. Tracey runs back to re-plant it in the ground.  The blue flag flaps gently over the landscape, doing its job.


On the ride home, our group of four doesn’t say much. I can’t remember eating my sandwich, but the foil is wadded into a ball, so I must have gobbled it down between water stops.  I close my eyes but I don’t sleep.  I’m thinking about a story I’d read about a woman who’d crossed over from Mexico, fallen and broken her ankle and couldn’t walk. The group she was with abandoned her in the desert, and she’d walked on her knees the rest of the way.  She found pieces of cloth and carpet left behind by other travelers and tied them to her knees, collected rain in discarded water bottles, and she survived, flagging down a ride when she got to the highway.  She said she looked up at the desert sky when she was alone at night and saw her mother in the stars, and that was what kept her going.

In 2020, more than 215 bodies were found near the Arizona border — on trails, dry washes, desert valleys and high mountain passes.  Authorities aren’t able to identify them all, so their families will never know for sure what happened to them.  Each one is a red dot on the Death Map, each marked by one of Alvaro Enciso’s painted wooden crosses.


By mid-day, we’ve serviced all the water stations on our run. We return to the headquarters of Humane Borders, and I notice the high fencing that encloses the area where they park the water trucks overnight.  Steve tells us that they’ve had a lot of break-ins; people disable the trucks, slash the tires, cut electrical wires.  

Helping to supply the water stations today felt like a basic human act, keeping people from dying of thirst in the desert.  But we’re in a war zone.  The desecrated crosses testify. 

Katharine Harer is a poet and personal essayist, a writing teacher and teachers’ union organizer. Her work has been published in six collections of poetry and her personal essay, Delle Donne, was published in Best Women’s Travel Writing #11. Katharine has recent work in anthologies about resistance, California wildfires, the sacred in everyday life, and San Francisco, where she grew up.