SITGREAVES PASS, ARIZONA
You are in a van heading out of Kingman for the Oatman Highway. You are a passenger; someone else is driving.
The driver and guide point out things along the way: the Cool Springs gas station; an interpretive kiosk; a dangerous curve. You take it all in.
The van reaches the top of a pass. A sign announces: “SITGREAVES PASS ELEV. 3550.”
The van stops at a flat place. You look down, across iron-colored hills to a long valley. The guide says on a clear day you can see a smokestack–a coal plant or something–on the other side of the valley. You don’t see it, but say you do.
Below, a pack of bikers are leaning into a curve, moving in your direction.
You walk out farther on the point. You see a small, wooden white cross; it’s a grave marker for Jimmy Hoffa. You walk around more; you find a patch of rebar and concrete sticking out of the ground. An old foundation, the guide says.
You get back in the van; it starts to descend down some switchbacks. The driver stops again. He wants to show us something. A spring: a humble little hole in the limestone bubbling brownish water. It’s disappointing.
At this stop, you break off from the group and cross the highway to a stone retaining wall. It’s a steep drop down the embankment. Something catches your eye below: a large area of black, bulky things strewn across the rocks. People are always dumping garbage down road embankments, but this is different. You climb over the barrier for a closer inspection. You start to slide down the hillside, but you are determined to get there without falling.
The heap is made entirely of winter jackets and backpacks; hundreds of dark backpacks and heavy winter coats.
You haul two backpacks up to the retaining wall. You unzip one. It contains two black trash bags and two small plastic containers, nothing else. The containers interest you; they seem festive–colors burst from the label. Deciphering the label, Electrolit, Suero Rehidratante, you deduce it’s an electrolyte substance.
You open the other backpack; the exact same contents. You want to call to other passengers, but they are inside the van, avoiding the heat.
The driver walks over. You pick up a backpack to show him. He jumps back, as if you are holding a snake by its tail. He settles down and gets closer, but never touches it. For lack of a better term you call it a coyote bag. “I found all these coyote bags down the hill–look.” He peers down the embankment and then turns around and reassures you he will call the county Hazmat coordinator to get it cleaned up.
You want to take one of the Electrolit bottles as artifact. It seems important. The driver gives you a look that it would be inappropriate.
You photograph the contents and toss the backpacks over the retaining wall. The driver advises you to wash your hands with a sanitizer in the van.
Back in the vehicle, a passenger asks, “What were you doing?” You say found some empty backpacks, and leave it at that.
The tour goes on. You pass old mines and slow down in Oatman–a hokey Old West town with burros roaming the streets. The driver doesn’t stop. “Nowhere to park…too many bikers in town,” he says.
The trip ends in Bullhead City.
You get back to your home, several states away participate in normal routines: You go to work; meet friends for lunch; read about local politics; buy groceries.
During the weekend, you download the images from the trip and the image of the Electrolit, with its bursting, happy colors intrigues you. You search the word on Google; nothing comes up. You know what it’s for: to re-hydrate illegal aliens.
At work you Google “Border Patrol, Arizona Sector.” The first webpage that comes up is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Tucson Sector. At the bottom left corner is a link: “Report Suspicious Activity to: 1-800-BE-ALERT.” You think the dump could be suspicious activity.
You call; a voicemail answers. You leave a deferential message, saying you are not trying to waste their time, but you discovered a huge dumpsite, possibly an illegal alien transfer point at Sitgreaves Pass on the Oatman Highway. You would like to know more about it, whenever it’s convenient to call back.
At night, when you can’t sleep, you try to imagine what happened at the pass. It must have happened at night, of course, in the winter; that’s why all the winter coats. Did it happen once or dozens of times?
You find something on the Internet describing how illegals are snuck across the border, and then packed into trucks to head north to a point where the vehicles stop at a remote location. There they are met by vans and smaller vehicles. The aliens toss off the winter gear and slip into street clothes. The vehicles go in different directions; to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas.
It could be this, or a lay-up point (doubtful, too far north), or just a dump site.
You find a video on YouTube capturing in “night vision” a coyote sneaking illegals into Arizona. You are mesmerized by the video, and watch it over and over again. You analyze it by sequence and camera angle. You forward it to friends and post it on Facebook.
Months pass, however, and you forget about the backpacks and the Oatman Highway.
Searching the web one weekend, you come across an article written by an early Route 66 free-lancer, Thomas W. Pew Jr. It’s a 1977 piece he did for American Heritage magazine; it’s about the great Okie exodus on Route 66.
Among others, he interviews Merle Haggard’s mother, Mrs. Flossie Scott. But what makes your eyes refocus is a conversation with Ed Edgerton, who ran a filling station at Sitgreaves Pass…the rebar and concrete you kicked months ago.
Edgerton tells Pew he frequently gave gas to the Okies, so that they could coast down to Needles. Then he summed up what it was like in the Depression for the Okies:
“Frightened they were, those people were frightened and they come through thinking they were headed for the promised land where they’d say ‘everything’s going to be all right.’ I warned them about those ideas. But they went on and, well, they didn’t find the promise land.”
All those backpacks make sense now.