At six in the morning, the desert starts to heat up. Animals awaken, and the men worry aloud that they are lost. Mendez reassures them that they are on track. The night temperatures had hovered in the eighties, and in the early stages of dawn the air is already bearable. However, heat slams into the men suddenly and brutally as morning arrives. Mendez makes yet another fatal error: he urges the men to walk on in the light, perhaps unaware that “they had already begun to die.”
The night was hot, but bearable. As dawn explodes across the desert, the men are confronted by a brutal heat wave. They are literally beginning to be “killed by the light.”
Urrea relays a series of anecdotes which describe the deaths of unwitting visitors to this stretch of desert. In 2002, a couple named Lisa and Martin headed into the desert in their RV—they drove their dune buggy out into the heat, when it stalled and left them stranded. Martin left for help, while Lisa waited for him to return. Martin only made it two hundred yards, and Lisa cooked to death in the dune buggy waiting for help. That same summer, another couple hiked out into the Cabeza Prieta without enough water and perished, again, just yards from one another.
Urrea tells horrific and tragic stories of travelers who found themselves stranded in Desolation. Many made it only very short distances toward help before collapsing, demonstrating the brutality of the desert and the difficulty of finding one’s way through the vast expanse of it.
Urrea begins to describe the stages of hyperthermia, or heat death. He notes that “your death is dictated by factors outside of your control and beyond accurate prediction,” such as hydration before the event, fitness, and genetics. There are six known stages of hyperthermia. During stage one, Heat Stress, one experiences general discomfort, thirst, and perhaps heat rash. Urrea writes that “the Wellton 26 felt this immediately upon climbing their first hill.” During stage two, Heat Fatigue, the body turns into a “swamp-cooler,” and sweats profusely in order to attempt to cool down. Sunburns appear along the scalp, face, and neck. The more water one drinks in this stage, the faster the water is pulled back out into the air, and the body begins to dry out. During stage three, Heat Syncope, the body develops a fever, though the skin grows colder, and disorientation sets in. During stage four, Heat Cramps, the body, which has been dumping out salts through sweat, begins to lose function. Cramps and aches set in.
In this passage—one of the book’s most brutal and vivid—Urrea describes in graphic detail the painful stages of heat death. He does so unsparingly in order to force his audience to bear witness to the unimaginable pain, trauma, and suffering the Wellton 26 went through. He does this as a way of indicting the smuggling gangs for their inhuman treatment of illegal immigrants, and also as a way of demonstrating how the desert—and nature more generally—is a great equalizer.
During stage five of heat death, Heat Exhaustion, fever spikes and one may experience flu-like symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. The skin continues to cool, and the body’s fluid level drops. “Those in good shape will faint” during this stage, as the body attempts to do “damage control” by rerouting oxygen and fluid to the brain. During the final stage, Heat Stroke, the body’s “swamp-cooler” breaks down as one’s internal temperature hits about 108 degrees. Blood vessels burst, skin sensitizes, and disorientation reaches an all-time high—many walkers at this stage are found naked, burrowed in soil, or with their mouths full of sand. Muscles rot, and internal organs cook from within as the body, system by system, shuts down. Unaware of all of this, Urrea writes, “the men headed deeper into the desert.”
Pollo or pollero, immigrant or American, ancient wanderer or modern-day walker, the desert consumes everyone in the same way. The mythic deaths Urrea alluded to in the early chapters of the novel take on a new weight as he implores his audience to imagine the specifics of heat death, and to bear witness to the suffering that the Wellton 26 would soon face.