Desert Angel

Every week, Joel Smith travels hours to fill water tanks in the Southern Arizona desert to help keep migrants alive

The temperature marks 115 degrees and there is not a cloud in sight to shield your skin from the Southern Arizona sun. These desert lands in the western portion of Organ Pipe National Monument are miles and miles of nothing but cactus, bushes and rocks. The greens and browns are dull. The monsoon isn't here yet.

As Joel Smith drives further into the trail—which eventually becomes El Camino del Diablo Road, the devil's road—he spots backpacks, dirty clothes and gallon water jugs scattered throughout his path. He pulls over and gets out of his massive Humane Borders truck and picks up every item of clothing, every backpack and every single water container. The stickers say "Hecho en México," made in Mexico.

Beneath a near leafless tree, there are at least 10 backpacks—mostly black, except for one that's navy blue and gold. Nearby, there are rolls of toilet paper stuck to bushes and a pair of dirty socks that could only fit a small child. A couple of miles back, he found a grocery bag filled with marijuana tied to a branch. No sign of whom it might have belonged to. This path belongs to the Border Patrol, drug smugglers and migrants.

Smith unzips the navy blue backpack. It's like he's trying to meet its owner and what is left of his identity. Once a person crosses north, the human is stripped away and the faces and souls are simplified into a handful of belongings.

This young man packed an extra pair of red sneakers. He had sealed bags of refried beans from the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa and a package of flour tortillas. A deodorant stick, a small tube of lotion, a toothbrush and toothpaste. A battery-powered cellphone charger. This says nothing about who he is or who he was—just that maybe he felt he was truly prepared to take on this journey. Inside a small bag on the side, there are coins—half are Mexican pesos and the other half are Guatemalan quetzales. It probably took him weeks, even months, to make it to this point from the small Central American country.

These encounters leave a bitter taste in your mouth. It is that melancholic curiosity of wanting to see a photo or read a name. The uncertainty of what happened to him—to all of them—becomes a painful pit in your stomach. You feel fear for them—were they arrested or did they wander off to die in the desert like hundreds of others? So far this year, the bodies of 48 migrants have been found in Southern Arizona. Last year, 119 bodies were recovered and the previous year, 109, according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

Smith hopes at least most migrants come across one of two 55-gallon water tanks he set up in the west Organ Pipe region. He refills them every Thursday.

There are more water stations inside Organ Pipe, but much closer to the Lukeville-Sonoyta border. And a couple dozens more in the Sasabe and Arivaca desert, as well as Three Points, bordering the San Xavier Indian Reservation, and in the Ironwood Forest National Monument near the town of Marana. In June, Smith finally got the approval to set up a water station in Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, 56 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

On three separate days of the week, Smith takes up to 12-hour trips to check on the quality of the water and refill the tanks.

"I love the desert," he says. "This is my land and I don't want anyone to die here."

Smith has often come face-to-face with men, women and children desperate for food, water or medical attention. In more serious circumstances, some will beg him to call Border Patrol because they can no longer endure the unforgiving desert.

"They will try to talk to me but I can't speak Spanish to save my life," he says. "Sometimes they ask for my cellphone to call family members and let them know they are alive. I can't drive them anywhere because you are 'aiding and abetting' at that point. It is horrible to deal with on a personal level—being arrested by Border Patrol or having people dying."

Smith began to volunteer with Humane Borders—a faith-based, humanitarian aid nonprofit that was established in 2000 and is almost entirely run with donations—eight years ago. These days, he's the nonprofit's director of operations.

There are about 50 water stations in Southern Arizona. A bright blue flag suspended on a pole about 30 feet in the air announces their presence—some in the middle of nowhere and others close to Border Patrol rescue beacons. The word "agua," Spanish for water, is written on the tanks, built with industrial strength plastic. They stand on steel tanks. The water stations are protected by permits and agreements between Humane Borders, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Pima County and the city of Tucson. In the Sasabe border town, the organization collaborates with the Sonora-based Grupo Beta. Legally, all of Humane Borders' tanks and volunteers are untouchable.

Still, Smith is accustomed to accusations that his work is illegal and that he should be arrested. His patriotism's been spit on and the few times he's encountered anti-immigration militia men in the desert, he's been screamed at and told he should just leave people to die there.

"Usually I can talk to them," he says. "There is a little of humanity still left in those frontal lobes. It is not all biscuits and gravy."

It got scarier earlier this year when he found a dead coyote next to a water station in the Arivaca area, on Cemetery Hill. The tank had been shot. Other have also been screwed with—from drawings of skulls in black sharpie to stolen spigots.

Most recently, one of the tanks in west Organ Pipe was stabbed 12 times.

"That is some pure anger and rage and hatred," he says. "We are not talking about normal human beings, we are talking about plain-out psychopaths. These people want to live in a house of bones and that is scary. That is what the [Nazis] wanted. They were building a Utopia on a foundation of corpses. You cannot build a Utopia on the foundation of corpses."

He adds: "If you look at the planet from space, there are no lines."

As a kid, Smith didn't understand the concept of "hometown."

He was born in Tucson because his father, a Bisbee native who worked in the mines, was stationed in Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. But Smith grew up all over the United States and Europe, moving up to three times a year.

"In military culture, especially as kids, we don't really have a hometown," he says. "Most have no memory of the place we were born or our hometown is a place mom or dad talk about, but we spent no real time there. We live in bases."

Smith did his high school years in Berlin, Germany, during the Cold War. He vividly remembers the Berlin Wall and the atrocities it brought to the German people merely for living on the wrong side of the wall—east and west. To Smith, the border fence separating the U.S. and Mexico is nothing more than a carbon copy of that.

His schoolmates originated from all over the world. Since his youth, Smith learned to love cultural diversity. He's grateful for the countries that warmly welcomed him, even if he didn't speak the language or understand the traditions. He wishes that warmth would have transcended into these modern times. Life would be much easier.

"If they call me anti-American, I can call them stupid, son of a bitch," he says. "I am an Air Force brat and a Marines Corps veteran. I love my country. If you want to call me unpatriotic, it is like barking at a tree."

In 1981, Smith graduated high school and briefly returned to Tucson. He moved to California for a few years after enlisting in the Marines Corps. He was a rifleman the entire time, up until his last gig working at the National Security Agency Moffett Field in the Bay Area.

"I fell in love with Tucson," he says. "The saguaros, the monsoons, the heat, it was just gorgeous. I love the people and the cultures out here. There is a little bit of everyone."

After he left the Marines, he spent a series of years working 60 to 70 hours every week to help support his family. Smith has a son and a daughter. He and his wife divorced in 2004.

Five years later, Smith found extra time to begin volunteering. He was fascinated with Humane Borders and their mission.

"I fell in love with the organization at that point," he says.

For Barbara

One of Smith's favorite places to take his fiancé Barbara was El Tiradito—a shrine in Barrio Viejo. They'd just stand there and look at any new photos of people's loved ones who passed away, candles of La Virgen de Guadalupe or messages written with chalk on the old brick structure.

They met three years ago. For their first date, Smith invited Barbara to La Cocina for some drinks and tacos. He says it was awful. But it didn't matter. Some time after, the couple moved into a house in mid-town Tucson with Smith's four dogs—two boxers and two mutts. "We were head over heels in love," he says with a smile, holding back tears. "She'd be smiling, I'd be smiling, we were happy all the time—have coffee in the mornings. We loved to spend time together."

Barbara wasn't much of a hiker but she'd still join Smith in water runs to the desert.

When Barbara unexpectedly died more than one year ago, Smith couldn't even bear seeing mail with her name on it. Although he didn't plan to move out of the home they shared, he could no longer afford it. It was his opportunity to go into an emotional retreat, living in the middle of nowhere a couple of miles outside Benson. He didn't know anyone, he didn't speak to anyone. But he continued his work filling water tanks. It was more than a moral responsibility. Saving lives in the desert became a mission that helped keep him afloat during one of the most painful moments in his life.

On that February day, Smith came home one afternoon after work and Barbara was still in bed. She apologized for not making lunch. There wasn't anything to say sorry for.

"You stay in bed and rest," he says.

At the hospital, they told Smith she had a stroke and that caused many of her organs to fail. It all happened within hours.

"I was shattered, I was destroyed," he says.

Recently, Smith moved into a new home in South Tucson. He'll be there a few years and then probably move again. Tucson is his hometown now, but he has to keep some portion of his childhood alive.

There's a photo of Barbara in El Tiradito. She's walking in the desert, looking down. Her brown hair is shiny and long. She's beautiful. Smith visits every couple of weeks and lights a new candle.

"As long as you remain in someone's memory, you are still alive," he says. "There is not a day where I don't think about her."