Sweat rolled down the small of my back, pooling above the waistband of my sturdy Carhartts. I stopped on the packed dirt path and bent down to pick up a crushed cardboard box with my gloved hand. The lettering had faded, not that I understood Spanish, but I guessed it was some sort of medicine. Painkillers? Narcotics? Probably just antidiarrheals.
“Don’t bother,” Nate, our Forest Service guide, called over his shoulder as I deposited the find in an open trash bag I carried. “There’s a huge cache up here, I want to concentrate on that.”
Ignoring the trash got harder the deeper into the wooded ravine we hiked. What started as a tissue or water bottle scattered far enough from the trail to be inconspicuous crept closer and grew thicker, until I was pushing trash aside with the toe of my boot to follow Nate. Rounding a corner, a foul, musty stench infiltrated my nostrils.
“Ugh, what’s that?” Becca asked from the back of the line. I could almost hear the wrinkling of her nose. With every step the smell grew stronger. Despite the stale air, there was something lively about the scent, like the bacteria of body odor with an undercurrent of human urine.
“That’s today’s work site,” Nate called over his shoulder.
The footpath dumped us into a wide clearing littered with backpacks, clothes, shoes, half-empty gallon jugs, and more of the cardboard boxes. The trash spilled out of the clearing, down the lush ravine, and into a small, bubbling stream below.
“What is this place?” Becca asked, trying to sidestep the trash and instead landing her boot on a rotting flannel shirt.
“This is an exchange point for illegal immigrants,” Nate explained.
Seeing the confused look on our faces, our crew leader, Dash, jumped in. “They stop here, and wait for a smuggler to pick them up and take them further north or into a city. They change into their one clean set of clothes and have to leave everything else they’re carrying behind, so they don’t raise suspicions.”
“Exactly,” Nate confirmed.
“You don’t think anyone’s still around?” one of the boys asked, squinting into the dim woods.
“Highly unlikely. I track these sites regularly.” Nate patted the boxy GPS hanging at his side.
He divided us into three teams of three. Dash and I were sent down to the banks of the stream with Becca. After filling a few bags, my nose adjusted to the offensive scent and only the particularly moldy items ruffled me. But the wet clothes and half-filled water bottles were heavy, and I struggled hauling the black plastic trash bags up the hill.
“Empty the water bottles before you put them in the bags,” Dash suggested, holding a half-liter bottle away from his body as he unscrewed the clear cap and poured out the rust-brown liquid.
“There’s so much plastic,” I commented. “It’s disgusting.”
“Sure is,” Dash replied, tapping the turquoise Nalgene swinging by a carabiner from my webbing belt.
My face, already flush from the Arizona day, filled with more blood. Hiding my blush, I bent to extract a gallon jug from the mud next to the stream. The jug disintegrated in my hand, breaking into dozens of tiny shards. I cursed under my breath and squatted down to pick them up one by one.
“At least my bottle is reusable,” I grumbled.
“So were these,” Becca jumped into our conversation. Becca hadn’t bothered buying a Nalgene. Instead she bought a pack of Gatorade before we headed into the wilderness and refilled the used bottles with water each morning. One of her bottles, tied with a p-cord noose, pulled down the belt loop of her off-brand jeans.
I wanted to protest further, but distracted myself by shoving the smaller pieces of the jug into my bag, leaving the tiniest splinters in the mud.
Dash tapped another empty bottle against his leather gloves. A hollow sound, like the pop of a pingpong ball, bounced around the trees. “You know, plastic is, in some ways, a testament to the spirit of man.”
Becca and I both paused, shared a glance under raised eyebrows, then laughed. We called him Dash, short for Rainbow Dash, because of the brightly dyed man-bun tied at the top of his head. Between the hair and inspirational quotes every night before dinner, the crew considered him our resident happy philosopher.
“How is plastic a testament to anything except short-sighted waste?” I asked softy, eager for a conversation deeper than twenty-questions. Trail-intimacy, we called it, when the fresh air, exercise, and repetitive work made you open to discussing anything with anyone.
“Cudworth,” Dash explained, the trash at our feet forgotten for a moment, “had this theory called plastic nature. That the spirit had free will, but once it fused with the physical world it became rigid. Predetermined.”
I bent to fish a bright red canvas flat from beneath a bush, vaguely recalling its partner from a few bags ago. “But that’s not talking about real plastic.”
“No, but think about it. Humans take raw materials and press them into the shapes we want. They stay that way until we decide to change their form.”
“Sure.” I allowed sarcasm to drip out of my mouth as another gallon jug, brittle from the sun, crumbled beneath my light touch.
Dash shrugged, returning to our task. “Some spirits are stronger than others.”
His words bounced around in my brain as we worked. I tried to imagine plastic as something spiritual, but all I saw was a never-ending mountain of trash hiding the beauty of the green forest.
“That looks like a camera,” Becca’s high voice pulled me out of my thoughts. She scooped a battered disposable camera out of the damp earth. The black plastic case was muddy, but not soaked. It seemed more-or-less intact, so she tucked it under a bush and finished filling her bag. At the top of the ravine, where a sizable mountain of filled bags was being added to from all sides, Becca showed the camera to Nate.
“I’m surprised we haven’t found any others,” he commented. “Set it aside. My friend collects cameras and cell phones from exchange sites to help family members left behind track where their loved ones might be, and whether they are still alive.”
At Becca’s insistence, Nate agreed to bring the pictures when they were developed. A few days later he showed up at our campsite at sunrise with a thin packet. He handed it to Dash, who passed it off to me. The packet was light, and when I opened it, only a few pictures fell out.
“The rest were too damaged,” Nate told us.
The first picture was of a large group of people milling around in front of a building. They were all dressed in jeans and long-sleeved shirts. The picture focused on three young men, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, smiling. A woman in the background wore bright red flats. I tried to imagine crossing in those flats. My feet ached even with my hiking boots.
Next were close-ups of two of the young men hiking in the woods. One looked serious, gazing off into the distance, possibly bothered by the camera. The other held a little smile on his lips and the slightest twinkle in his dark brown eyes.
The last photo was of two of the young men huddled close together under an olive green blanket. The blanket was thin, with holes in it, and barely covered both of them. Their eyes were closed, and they looked peaceful, but over the blanket was a light dusting of snow.
“Are they dead?” Becca whispered from behind me.
“Maybe just sleeping,” Nate mused.
“Where’s there snow right now?” Sweat beaded on my brow even though the sun had been up for less than an hour.
“Some of the mountain passes have snow year round,” Nate explained.
I nodded as if I understood. But the pictures gave me more questions than answers. Who were these men? The woman with the red shoes? Why were they crossing? Where were they now? Did they have loved ones back home, waiting to hear that they made it across?
I handed the pictures back to Nate, and we started our daily hike out to the exchange point. The trail was mostly clear, the trash wrangled into bags, ready to be transported to the dump. As we rounded up what remained, the items took on a new life. Each piece of clothing belonged to a person with a face and a story. The dank scent of humanity infiltrating our nostrils held their intimate secrets. The water bottles showed their thirst, their sweat, their effort. The pills spoke of their discomfort and pain. The occasional camera or cell phone, protected in plastic, held their identity and their hope. Packing it all away, erasing their traces from the forest, I couldn’t help but think that Dash was right. Some spirits are stronger than others.