The men climb a steep hill. Although most of them are in good shape, the trek is still proving “brutal.” Some of the men joke and tease one another as they struggle to catch their breaths—Reymundo Sr. attempts to help his son, Reymundo Jr., with the ascent. Mendez knows that the “surest way to beat La Migra [is] to keep to the high country” and avoid the flat planes of the desert. As night falls, the men reach the top of the hill, and Mendez points out another peak on the horizon. He assures the men that the second desert they must pass through is beyond that hill, and their pickup point will be just another short journey away. The men continue marching.
The men are struggling, but have not yet realized how dire their situation could become—and in fact will become—in the span of just a moment, with just a few wrong steps. The men are still optimistic, as is Mendez, who assures them confidently that the trip is going well—and for the most part, it is.
At around 11:30 p.m., Mendez would later claim, the men were caught off-guard by bright lights. Mendez told the men it was La Migra, and all of them scattered. However, this “mysterious” event raises a lot of questions. Urrea wonders why Mendez would panic if he thought he saw a Border Patrol vehicle, as he had “certainly ducked and hidden from scores of headlights in his career.” Urrea insists that running back into the desert was “a suicidal gesture.” He also speculates that perhaps “civilian border patrols” were out that night, attempting to entertain themselves by chasing walkers. Urrea states that, whatever may have happened, a Border Patrol vehicle would never have shone a spotlight at a group of illegals and not pursued them. The only thing that can be known for sure is that Mendez panicked.
Urrea dissects this second and very major misstep in the men’s journey. Mendez alleges his innocence, shock, and fear, but Urrea argues that he would have found himself in this situation many times before, and would not—or at least should not—have reacted with such panic. By scattering his “pollos” back into the desert, Mendez threw them off track, and in doing so condemned them all to death.
As the group hunkers in the brush, waiting out the beams, it begins to rain. Many of the men would later recall feeling spooked but optimistic—they had, they thought, successfully outrun the Migra, and many of them took the rest stop to enjoy the snacks they had brought for the journey. Mendez reassures the men that the highway is right over the hill, and that they should resume their walk toward it—however, in reality, the highway was not nearby. After midnight, the men continue walking, following Mendez. They do not know that he is in “uncharted territory,” though Mendez probably did and assumed he could work his way back to the path.
The men were unaware of how dire their situation had just become. They thought things were still going well, and that they had in fact triumphed over a difficulty. Mendez was not honest with his “pollos”—though Urrea points out that he more than likely realized that they were turned-around and off-course—and continued to lead them through Desolation nonetheless.
The signcutters who traced Mendez’s route in the days following the rescue of the survivors referred to him as an “asshole.” The tracks reveal Mendez walking ahead as if he knew the way, and the men shuffling and struggling behind him. As the tracks became more “delirious” and showed more and more signs of men stumbling and falling, the cutters were able to piece together what went wrong as the walkers made their way through no man’s land.
The signcutters—the men who interpret the stories of desert walkers—see delirium, stupidity, and perhaps even trickery in Mendez’s tracks. He was irresponsible, and led his men onward even as their paths veered dangerously off-course.
Though Mendez thought he was headed north, he was actually headed slightly off-track: north-northwest. Mendez continually cut to the left each time he encountered a rock or a cactus, eventually pointing his group northwest, and caused them all to veer dangerously far from their path. Mendez insisted all the while that there were “just a few miles left to walk.” By Sunday morning, the men had walked forty miles in the dark. Dawn was approaching, and with it a heatwave.
Without the help of a real trail, signposts, or lighting, it was impossible for Mendez to see how far off-track he was taking his men—perhaps unknowingly, judging by his uneven tracks and unusual movement patterns.