His eyes widened, and he took a step back. I glanced around quickly. Did he have company? Was he alone? Damn – Jason had warned me about the “Hachita Drug Runners,” so I had been moving cautiously through the old ruins and still not seen him.
The young man stood staring at me. He looked like any other hiker out for the day in his khakis, white shirt, and day pack. A slow, half smile spread across his face as I watched the tension drain from his body. His eyes continued to dart around quickly but slowed once he realized I was alone.
“I did not mean to scare you,” he said. His accent was thick and broken, but I understood him. His smile was also disarming, and I relaxed as I looked around for a place to sit or lean. My feet stayed numb as I hiked, but the minute I slowed or stopped, they screamed as my weight settled onto my raw, blistered skin.
There was a low, crumbling wall to my right, and I moved over to it as he watched. I casually moved without limping, not wanting him to see any pain or weakness in my movements. A strange man was in an unknown place, watching me. Although less tense than 30 seconds ago, my wariness remained.
A crumbling mud wall stood behind the young man, and I froze as three other young Hispanic men stepped slowly around the low wall. They were all in a similar dress to the man facing me – some in khakis and some in jeans. All carried day packs; a couple had knives slid onto leather belts around their wastes.
“Hi,” I said casually as I slid my pack against the wall and began unzipping the top pocket while slowly sitting down. The others nodded at me as they settled on the wall and rocks around me, but none spoke.
I had always been taught never to run – never to be the prey that triggered predatory instincts. Adrenaline was now coursing through me, triggering flight, but my mind told me to stay calm. I was no threat and wanted this to be obvious.
All the apparent questions hung unanswered as everyone settled to the ground, and the silence was thick with tension. Were they alone? Was I alone? Why were we all here? None of us spoke.
“Water?” said one of the men near me. He was a kid – not over eighteen, and I studied him closely as he held out a water bottle. He looked tired and disheveled. I did not need the water, but I took the bottle. I knew I needed to accept the offer.
The others watched and then looked away – beginning to talk quietly in Spanish. They were not paying me much attention anymore.
Everyone glanced at me as I pulled Snickers from my pack. It was still too soon to leave. Taking the whole bag, I handed it to the man closest to me and watched as my snacks for the next two days were eagerly devoured.
Suddenly, they all rose quickly and quietly. It was startling how they all knew to stand without a word spoken. Some still held their snacks. The young man I had first spoken to handed me another bottle of water, smiled, and they silently headed off through the brush, down a shallow wash.
It felt like an unreal moment, like it had not happened. Their impact had been so fleeting and so foreign. I had no reserve of experiences to ground the encounter. It had occurred as quickly as it had happened.
I moved on after a few minutes and made it to a dirt road – an old forest service road – about a half hour later. I checked my map and headed north. The encounter was already starting to fade.
I heard tires and turned to see a Border Patrol truck come around the curve of the washed-out road. I was surprised to see it, and as he slowed beside me and rolled down his window, I smiled and waved. He asked the typical “Why are you here?” questions, then shook his head at the explanation and handed me a purple Gatorade.
Starting to pull away, he suddenly crunched to a stop.
“Hey, have you seen a group of Mexicans?”
“Huh?” I said. The question caught me off guard.
“Um, no,” I said automatically.
“Well, avoid them if you do. They are mostly drug runners and would kill you as soon as look at you. We have been following a small group from the border for several days.”
“I will keep a lookout,” I said as he nodded and drove away.
I’m not sure why I said “no.” It was automatic. A traveler’s bond had been forged in that fleeting interaction where we had shared food and water. I wanted their intent to have been good – not to think I had been in a bad situation.
Small encounters like this would continue to mold the way I hiked. I rarely camped near roads or where people frequented unless I was with a group. There were exceptions, but most often, even with a group, you would find me hidden away, out in the brush, where I could watch and not be watched.