Exposure, they call it.
It seems like a diagnosis from a hundred years ago. A word on an autopsy from the ancient world, like tuberculosis or leprosy.
They take only what they can carry on their backs, the Mexican shelter workers tell us. A backpack with a sweater, some electrolyte drinks, water. Then, when the coyote tells them they’re close to the border, they drop it all and run. They don’t want to be weighed down.
I have seen these things in the desert. I studied them, like artifacts, trying to decipher their meaning. An empty bag of Cheetos, an electrolyte drink. Hundreds of water bottles, iPod headphones. And clothes. Sweatshirts, jackets, button-ups, hats.
Were they caught? I wondered. Did they make it? Whose clothes were these, abandoned in the desert as they took off running? And did they want them later, after the sun went down?
Peeking out from under the pile of artifacts, we saw it. As we held it up, we said nothing. It was a child’s pink shirt.
It is sometimes 100 degrees in the day, 20 or 30 degrees at night inthe Sonoran desert.
The volunteers at the shelter show a map to the migrants and to us. Each dot is a person, a life lost in the desert.
“How do they die?” I ask Rick, our leader quietly.
“From dehydration, some of them.” I remember the girls with their small water bottles at the plaza at Altar. “Some of them from things like snakebites. A lot of them, from exposure.”
No one is carrying a coat across the desert. There is no REI sleeping bag, guaranteed to -10 degrees. There is no Patagonia or North Face outerwear, or at least not for most.
Out here, you can be burned by the sun during the day and freeze to death at night.