The following poems originally appeared in both English and Spanish, as part of the print edition of the [({ })] Transborder Immigrant Tool. They appear here in their two original languages, alongside new translations into two indigenous languages of the Americas––Nahuatl and Ayuujk/Mixe.



The desert is an ecosystem with a logic of sustainability, of orientation, unique unto itself. For example, if the barrel cactus—otherwise known as the compass cactus—stockpiles moisture, it also affords direction. As clear as an arrow or a constellation, it leans south. Orient yourself by this mainstay or by flowering plants that, growing toward the sun, face south in the Northern Hemisphere.



Climb or walk in the morning. Rest midday beneath creosote bush or mesquite, insulating yourself from the superheated ground. Remember—even the sidewinder hovercrafts, the bulk of its body above the scalding sand as it leaves its trademark J-shaped tracks across the desert dunes.



Just before sunrise, Bedouins turned over half-buried stones in the desert to catch the dew that the night’s coolness had condensed on the stones’ surfaces. Indigenous travelers in the Mexican-U.S. corridor searched the broad leaves of yucca and agave. Rainwater collected at each plant’s base—the leaves’ apex—remaining there up to a few days after a summer or winter shower. Proceed from the simple premise: The desert caches water in unlikely places that it resists divulging. Do not expend all your energies searching for its secret stashes, but likewise do not assume that its pockets of moisture are nonexistent. Restrict your water reconnaissance to early or late in the day when your liquid net-gain will outweigh the perspiration you expend. A thirst is seldom quenched; it morphs to reappear on the horizon. Meanwhile, the desert reflects the sun back like a mirror. You are caught in that pair’s uneven, inconsummate exchange.



U.S. Marine Corps pilot Lieutenant Edwin Zolnier’s plane crash-landed in the Sonoran Desert. Rescued five days later, Zolnier credited the barrel cactus with keeping him alive. Technically you can survive on moisture from select cacti, but you have to recognize the difference between the tenable and the untenable. Some cacti’s sap and pulp are so toxic you will need to be hospitalized afterward if you drink or eat them. Other cacti won’t kill you, but will leave you sick as a dog. Baseline rule: Only take the risk of eating or drinking cacti if the alternative you face is dying of thirst. Saguaro and organ poison. Punto. And, not all barrel cacti are created equal. To make matters worse, young saguaros easily could be mistaken for barrels. So, don’t just look for squat, rounded cacti; differentiate, think fishhook. J-shaped, outer “fishhook” spines, literally used by the Seri Indians for fishing, mark and distinguish the true rescue cactus from its peers. When you’ve found the right plant, cut off its top with a knife or sharp rock but, don’t expect to find a font of liquid. Center yourself, cut out a chunk of the whitish inner pulp from the cactus’ correspondent center. Chew it. Let the juice run down your throat. Spit out the pulp when you’ve sucked it dry. Don’t swallow the pithy fiber. Rest, digest. (Exertion after eating could cause you to forfeit the little you gained in the process.) If the taste of the juice makes you gag, place the pulp in literal or makeshift shade (e.g., shield it for a short time with your body). Cooler by even a few degrees, its liquid still will taste super-concentrated, more “vegetal” than most vegetables palatable to human beings, but it might be easier to choke down.



You can survive without eating anything for three weeks in hot weather. But, the body’s need for hydration is a different matter entirely. Consume the fruit of prickly pear, saguaro, organ pipe, yucca, or cholla for their moisture alone. In the summertime, pitahaya dulce, the fruit of the organ pipe cactus, ripens to red and drops its spines. The prickly pear cactus’ tuna reddens to purple, but never loses its needles. Dethorned, dethroned, both are delectably edible. Peel their skins.



In matters of life or death, most would contend, “Taste is relative.” (Such is the fate of poetry as artifice, art, or sustenance—a non-issue if one cannot drink, eat, or breathe, even if “poetry is not a luxury.”) Still, the taste of cacti presents a particularly thorny conundrum. Not yet mezcal or tequila, many cacti hold moisture, but also harbor toxins. Again, the baseline rule: Only take the risk of eating or drinking cacti if the alternative is dying of thirst. Test, test, test. The fishhook barrel is perhaps your best bet, but make sure you can identify it positively before ingesting its contents. If you’re not sure you’ve found the right plant, put a small portion of its pulp in your mouth, taste it before you swallow its sap. Expect the flavor of super-saturated vegetables. Spit out anything that is acrid, bitter, or so unsavory that it makes you feel as if you will choke uncontrollably or vomit. Wait approximately thirty minutes to gauge your body’s tolerance of this experiment—better to stay thirsty within arm’s reach of noxious saguaro than poison yourself or speed up your stages of dehydration. ¡Ánimo! A landscape that sustains the saguaro is equally amenable to the fishhook barrel.



Cottonwoods spread a welcome—shade. Clusters also indicate a desert stream or an underground spring close to the surface. Cut the tracks of animals. Walk in the footprints of coyote or fox to the freshest water available. Flies and mosquitoes rarely move far from a source. Javelina divine permanence, traveling in the corridors of washes. The flight paths of birds, like pigeons and doves, indicate the proximity of an oasis. They drink in the evenings. If they are flying low and slow, follow their direction. Where they came from may be where you need to go to refill bottles or canteens.



According to Herodotus, King Cambyses, twenty-five hundred years ago, lost his entire Persian army (fifty thousand men) in an Egyptian sandstorm. Deserts guard their secrets; no archaeological evidence corroborates Herodotus’s account. Sudden, local haboobs—sometimes the result of thunderstorms’ cool air outflows—still menace desert travelers. Instruments in the Mojave Desert have clocked wind speeds up to one hundred sixty kilometers per hour. In a sand or dust storm, heat suffocates; winds transubstantiate the landscape into unidentified flying objects. Sand becomes sandpaper against the skin. Turn your back to the wind. Lie on your side against a hill or dune. Wrap your face. Cover your nose and mouth. Tuck your eyeglasses into your shirt or jacket pocket (so the wind will not etch its soliloquies into them). Wait it out. No Godot, a sandstorm will go the way of a temper tantrum.



Africanized honey bees (AHB) present a formidable challenge to anyone traveling the Americas. Other bees might circle a person, but would refrain from stinging him or her without provocation. Sweat bees, for instance, will land on a hand to drink their fill of perspiration. Left to their own devices, they will not attack, but will fly away when they’re satiated. But, “killer,” or “assassin bees,” the descendants of migrants (themselves the descendants of twenty-six Tanzanian bees accidentally released in southeast Brazil), are aggressively territorial. Almost identical in appearance to kinder and gentler bee populations, Africanized bees—now the reigning queens and workers of the Sonoran Desert—congregate near water holes and flowering cacti. Killer bees will defend their hives against perceived threats, attacking by the thousands. Do not pass within thirty meters of their colonies (eminent domains), constructed in veritable earthworks (mounds and cavities), cacti trunks, creosote, mesquite, former travelers’ lay-up sites. (They’ve even been known to nest beneath the lids of water cache barrels!) If you see large numbers of bees patrolling or hear their drone, move on. Killer bees read dark or bright colors—clothing or hair—as the sign of a predator. If AHBs swarm, do not wave your arms or swat their bodies. Run! Or, wrap yourself tightly in a blanket. Africanized bees motion-detect enemies, measure the latter’s expelled carbon monoxide. Your first priority must be to protect your face (swelling of the mouth and nose inhibits breathing). If stung, find a safe space. Then, use your fingers, an earring, a shard of granite to remove stingers and venom sacks lodged beneath the skin (otherwise, even those fragments will keep pumping venom into you).



Female tarantulas line their burrows with silk. Enterprising, they swing their elaborately webbed entrances open at night to spring on guileless insects nearby. Although some South Texans contend that nocturnal mass exoduses of tarantulas are the dead rising from their graves; in fact, male tarantulas, mildly venomous, routinely venture forth at dusk. If they cross your path, live and let live. Otherwise, these book-lunged arachnids will bite or flick you off, blowing hairs from their bellies into the air. Like slivers, their missives will enter your skin, provoking gradations of irritation (itching, swelling, raised reddish bumps). Worse yet, if their hairs float like spores into your eyes, expect a reaction comparable to that induced by pepper spray or tear gas. It will pass, but consider, in Italy, many once believed that the only cure for a tarantula’s bite or shedding was the dance now known as the tarantella.



Western Diamondbacks—light to medium brown (liable to reach a length of two meters)—densely populate North American deserts. Most often found in brushy washes and shady recesses, in the springtime, they emerge from hibernation, blooming like flowers. At this, their venomous peak, they sunbathe, flashing their diamond-shaped patches. Their prey of choice: mice and kangaroo rats. Diamondbacks hold a dubious record—the majority of the continent’s snakebite cases. Listen for their rattle. Look for the shallow circular marks they leave in locations where they’ve coiled up to sleep. Diamondbacks, too, are creatures of habit, returning to rest stops. Poisonous snakes fall into two categories (dependent upon their venom). Diamondbacks pack a hemotoxic punch, albeit not as concentrated as that of some snakes. They make up for this supposed lack in their powerful mode of delivery, injecting large quantities of venom with single surgical strikes. Hemotoxins flood the bloodstream, destroy blood cells, damage tissue, catalyze internal hemorrhaging. Yes, reactions to snakebites vary. But, if you are bit by a diamondback—especially in March or April—within three minutes the area around the wound will redden and swell. And, left untreated, your body will not deviate from a well-rehearsed script: massive swelling and blistering, a steady lowering of blood pressure, headache, severe pain, blood in the urine. Do not block circulation or make incisions to the wound. Do not take painkillers or sedatives. Do not eat. Remove all clothing and jewelry beneath the area. Remain motionless; keep the bite below your heart. Ideally, get someone else to cleanse the wound. And, most importantly—borders be damned—call 9-1-1 or 0-6-6; seek medical attention immediately.



For most, the bite of the translucent yellow and brown-striped Arizona bark scorpion is not lethal. Scorpions, night-walkers, seek cool, dark, moist hiding places during the day. If you are stung by a scorpion, clean the wound; do not eat anything for eight hours. It is possible for you to recover. In contrast, a brown recluse spider’s bite is literally “a force of nature.” Expect chills, fever, nausea, vomiting, rashes, hives, an ulcer that will continue to grow in size unless the wound is excised and medically treated. Found in dead wood and debris, the brown recluse carries a dark, violin-shaped trademark on its back.



Heat cramps, relatively mild, signal dehydration and loss of sodium. Drink water, rest in the shade, seek water at twilight. Heat illness is an injury whose symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, fainting, nausea, vomiting. Redux: Drink water, rest in the shade, seek water at twilight. Heat exhaustion produces sweating, clammy skin, increased pulse and respiration rate, weakness, more fainting, nausea and vomiting. STOP. The choices you make from now on will dictate whether you live or die. Heatstroke happens when a person pushes on despite heat exhaustion. Trauma ensues—physical collapse, loss of consciousness, rapid pulse and respiration, a skyrocketing body temperature, severe disorientation, impaired motor skills, involuntary urination, dilated pupils. As heatstroke progresses, you will experience chest and arm pain, convulse, go into a coma. You will not be equipped to deal with these symptoms as they present themselves. Call 9-1-1 or 0-6-6 beforehand.



Cholla, or jumping cactus, attaches. A bud of spines breaks off at the slightest hint of touch. Remove cholla from your skin and clothing in increments, with a rock, a stick, a knife: the bud… large spines left behind… small spines or glochids. Needling needles that remain will work themselves out in the days ahead.



Arborescent monocot. “Mothers of the Disappeared.” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” “Bullet the Blue Sky” : “Put El Salvador through an amplifier.” Seldom free-standing (Mexican as the Irish in the United States), the Joshua tree sends out yellow-green flowers—like flares—in the spring. Mormons referred to the trees—actually shrubs—as “praying plants.” Anthropomorphizing each’s branches, they compared the largest of the yucca evergreens to the Old Testament prophet Joshua as he pointed toward the promised land. Use the Joshua tree’s lightweight wood to splint broken limbs. Chew the plant’s roots for the steroid-like compound released (in cases of allergic reaction or swelling).



An antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory medication, the ubiquitous creosote bush rejuvenates itself via a cloning process. With a life span upwards of 9,000 years, it is esteemed by the Tohono O’odham to be the oldest living thing on earth. Ten years after a 1962 Nevada thermonuclear explosion destroyed twenty-one creosote bushes, twenty re-sprouted as if to protest, “We will not be moved.” Hiroshima mon amour—no ghosts, no burns, no shadows. The creosote bush simply grows—a survival artist.



Approach rocky trails with caution, especially in the dark or after a thunderstorm. Falls from steep slopes represent the second leading cause of injury and death in the desert (the first being dehydration). Sacrifice momentum for surer footing. Learn to read the terrain: Anticipate loose rock and gravel. Scramble by way of larger, less mobile boulders. Choose routes with anchoring patches of vegetation. Realize that descent, like dissent, is always more dangerous than ascent. Use a walking stick to test what lies ahead. With others, travel at an angle; avoid walking directly below someone else on steep slopes. (Otherwise, expect what that person knocks loose to impact you). Like rocky trails, desert dunes are walkable. Learn to read this terrain, too. Traverse dune desert arrhythmically—Fremen-style. Eschew dunes’ angled leeward bases. Hike their hallowed hollows in between, keeping a lookout for small holes (that mark tunnels) and conical depressions of silt. Or, stay high on the dunes’ surreal slopes of coarser, tightly packed sand particles. Peaks provide stability if you resist repeating the dunes’ rhythm—a movement, like breath, that rises and falls.



Thunderstorms, a release, might sound like a relief to the overheated and thirsty. But, torrential rains, ordinary from May to September in Mexico City, can be as deadly as the unblinking, blinder-free sun in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. (Each aguacero, a ground zero.) Within minutes, drainage upstream comes down like a wall of water and debris. Flash floods, mudslides, monsoons swallow. Low-lying washes, arroyos, canyons overflow. Air temperatures—like kites—nosedive. As storm clouds gather, seek higher ground, avoiding tall cacti and trees, hilltops and ridgelines. Lightning, always the avant-garde, precedes downpours. When the waters recede, criss-cross their artistry—patterns in the sand, sculpted as a topographic map or an open book in Braille.



The desert cold also kills. Unpredictable winter weather includes ice, sleet, hail, and snow. In an ideal world, you’d carry a wind and waterproof jacket with you. In a less-than-ideal world, use large boulders and rock formations as windbreaks. They retain the sun’s heat for hours. Don’t lie down on the sandy ground or dig shallow holes into it. Faster than air, sand—a heat sink—will drain warmth, like a liquid, from your body.



Do not panic. Do not panic. If you are too tired or disoriented to continue, realize that you probably will not be thinking clearly. Heat scrambles the brain like eggs. “It is perfectly noble to come out of a pose.” Know your own limitations. Turn your phone on. Search for a signal. (Walk only if you are not in range. Then, power the phone down to save the battery life to save your own. Walk, retest. Walk, retest, until you secure reception.) Call 9-1-1 or 0-6-6. Reason—it’s better to live to cross the desert tomorrow than to let the desert cross you today.



Keep your body as covered as comfort permits. Sunburn not only inhibits travel, it can aggravate, accelerate heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Sand and rock reflect warmth and light as if you were walking on a metallic liquid or “ashes of time.” (Protect your eyes from sun blindness, too!) Keep clothing, loose-fitting, light in weight and color. Think drab—tan, off-white, khaki, olive. Think controlled evaporation (clothing regulates). If presented with the opportunity, soak your shirt in water that’s too dirty to drink. The sight or smell of you afterward might be unsavory, but damp clothing will slow down your rate of perspiration. The key here being conservation—conserve your resources whenever possible.



Ultimately, many would argue that nature sets the standard for neutrality. Unlike human beings, nature maintains no allegiances to nation, family, business, religion. You already know that the greatest danger you face in the desert may not be the climate or the terrain. Some will not have your best interests in mind. Rescue workers pledge to offer assistance to those in need; hold them to that promise. Trust no one else who’s a stranger with your life.



When everything—including this cell phone—fails, build a signal fire in dirt or sand, away from brush and trees. Use dead cacti and mesquite. A fire in the shape of an “X”—the international symbol of distress—needs no translation.


Two hours either side of noon, insert a stick (one meter long) into the ground.

Mark the tip of the shadow it casts with a stone.

Wait twenty minutes.

Mark its second shadow with another stone.

Draw a straight line from the first stone to the second, extending the line two additional meters.

This is your west to east axis.

Draw a perpendicular line that crosses its center.

Stand at the lines’ intersection. Keep west to your left to face true north.

Pick a visible landmark in line with that orientation.

Walk to that landmark; repeat this exercise.


At night, look for the Big Dipper.

Note the two stars that form its outer edge.

Imagine a line from those stars to a point about five times the distance between them. You should find Polaris, the North Star, waiting for you there (the end of the Little Dipper’s handle).

Imagine a straight line between Polaris and the horizon. This is your second true north bearing.