The man approaching on the shoulder of the road is wearing hiking boots, a wide-brim hat, a red bandanna and well-worn work gloves that each grip two wooden walking sticks.
We’ve stopped to check out an American flag fluttering above a bronze plaque honoring Border Patrol agent David Webb, who died in a car accident here in 2006. There’s virtually no traffic on this remote highway, and he’s the first person we’ve seen walking the long, straight ribbon of asphalt.
The man takes out a cellphone, snaps a photo of the memorial and asks what we’re doing out here. We tell him about our project, and he says, “Do you know who I am?”
Map of Why, Arizona.
It seems a ridiculous question to be asked in the middle of nowhere, Arizona. Then Mark Hainds surprises us by saying he’s on the same mission we are: to travel the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, only on foot.
A 48-year-old community college forestry professor from Andalusia, Alabama, Hainds started walking east from El Paso, Texas, on Oct. 27, 2014. In seven weeks he covered 1,010 miles to reach Boca Chica Beach on the Gulf of Mexico, near Brownsville.
“I kind of attribute it to a midlife crisis,” Hainds says. “I just decided I was going to get out and do something different, get away, cut everything off.”
A year later Hainds thought: “That’s not enough. I’m going to do the whole thing.”
He’s been taking it in chunks, returning home to his life after each trek. This leg, he’s doing during spring break. Hainds is about 3 miles from his planned stopping point for the day and agrees to let us tag along.
Hainds tells us it’s taken three days to walk across the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, and it’s been the toughest stretch so far. The last two nights he unrolled his sleeping bag and bedded down in the brush just off the highway. One night he got soaked by rain. Another morning during the walk he woke up next to a pair of the “carpet shoes” that drug smugglers use to hide their tracks. But he hasn’t had any trouble.
The renewed attention on the border sparked by President Donald Trump’s candidacy didn’t factor in Hainds’ decision to walk it. But the topic is on his mind and in the conversations he has with folks he meets.
“Ninety, 95 percent of the people I’ve met along the way have been anti-wall,” Hainds says. “It’s strongly against, the majority. Maybe I’m not meeting a representative sample. I don’t know.”
Hainds is filling a small black notebook with observations that he hopes to turn into a book.
“I really want to tell the perspective of the people who live down there,” he says, “because I don’t think many people pay attention to their lives when they’re designing all these security measures.”
The shadows grow long, and the setting sun grows large on the horizon. Hainds walks up to the home of Rick and Sandy Martynec, two archaeologists living in an RV park amid the scrub brush and saguaro cacti in the oddly named town of Why, Arizona. They’re friends of friends who have invited him to stay the night. He’ll eat a home-cooked meal, sleep inside a camper and shower the desert off himself for the first time in days.
“You made it!” Sandy says, opening the front door and beckoning for Hainds _ and us _ to enter.
He drops his hefty blue rucksack on the porch and goes inside to take a load off: “Oh man.” He figures he’s walked about 26.5 miles today.
Rick offers him a cold one: “Cerveza?”
“Por favor,” Hainds says.
Text by Christopher Sherman & photos by Rodrigo Abd
Sherman and Abd will update their travelogue with regular text entries, photographs and videos.