Tuesday night, and every motel in this isolated desert place was fully booked. I drove down the strip, to La Siesta, the Copper Sands, and the ambitiously named Marine, 200 miles from the nearest sight of water, in Rocky Point, Mexico. All were flashing No Vacancy. At the Copper Sands, Ken felt sorry for me. He asked his wife Angie to find the nearest opening. She was less interested and turned the pages of the registry slowly before telling me that Friday was the earliest I could get a room. I wasn’t anticipating this. It had been a long day. I was tired and I really needed a shower. Ken explains why there wasn’t a single room left in town. “The border patrol has the whole place booked. All the rooms and the rental property too. It’s the busy season.”

It’s early spring and already the last of the cool weather, though cool is relative in this part of the country. There is a push of immigrants making the trip across the desert while they still can, before it is so hot it would kill most crazy enough to try it. In the back of the local newspaper, after the articles about the usual small town affairs, are a few scant paragraphs detailing the capture of 256 illegals last week outside of town. It reads like a police blotter. Like the most mundane and ordinary of things, but I find it shocking. With that many caught it’s easy to imagine the surrounding desert, like a sea of secret movement.

Ken felt bad and gives me a pat on the back to say so. But there is no room. After some floundering I find myself bothering the night host at one of many RV parks lining the highway. I shyly get around to my request. Just showers. She acts like why didn’t I just say so and charges me $3. On my way over I pass a trailer made into a rec room. Elderly sit inside playing cards. It looks nice, communal. I think about the snowbirds with envy. My own grandparents have a life that has always consisted of a 50 mile radius. These American migrants, mainly from small Midwest places like myself, look tan and vital.

This is the second time today I’ve felt thankful for the snowbirds. That morning at our camp site I killed my battery listening to the only radio station on the nearby Tohono O’odam nation play slow reggae songs, interspersed with a carefully spoken woman offering practical advice on things like employee management. Realizing my mistake I set off walking down the dirt road surrounding federal desert, looking for someone to give me a jump. A half mile or so later, the sight of an RV was a relief.

A couple from Nebraska were just packing up, and Darlene drove me back to my camp site in a red truck with a figurine of a saguaro wearing sunglasses impaled on the antenna. They had been camping for about four days and were about to move on, towards California, continuing a slow arch around the Southwest that started the previous Thanksgiving. “Eventually,” said Darlene, “we’ll have to go home.” They didn’t seem to be in a hurry. There was still Joshua Tree, the Salton Sea, and a meet up with a niece from San Diego. “She still has a job,” said Darlene with pity. Places like this are hot spots for their kind. Perhaps not conventionally beautiful, to Midwesterners like Darlene, the desert-scape offers just the right amount of exotic. “You think you’ve seen a lot of this country,” she told me, “but you haven’t seen nothing yet. Every state has its beauty.”

After I leave the RV park I drive back to the federal land outside of town. I ignore the permanent signage warning of smugglers and illegals and pull the car off the side of the road. Lying my sleeping bag on the ground I fall asleep staring at the stars and watching the moon set behind the mountains. I see two shooting stars and feel lucky. I hear coyotes close by and feel scared.


Lara Shipley

About Lara Shipley

Lara Shipley received her bachelors in photojournalism from the University of Missouri and is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Photography at Arizona State University. Before coming to graduate school she was a photography producer for National Geographic Online and a freelance photographer in Washington D.C. She has been published in a wide array of publications such as the Miami Herald, Mother Jones, the Atlantic Monthly online and the Washington Post. She is from a small town in Missouri and likes this quote from Jane Smiley: "Missouri is a place I could not have imagined if I hadn't been forced to."