A Family Ranch, Swallowed Up in the Madness of the Border

Jim Chilton, 84, had named the dirt roads and pastures on his land in honor or four generations of family cattle ranchers, but now he prepared to drive across his ranch on the U.S. border unsure of what he might find. He packed a handgun in case he encountered more smugglers working with the Sinaloa cartel and bottles of water for the migrants he’d recently seen lost and dehydrated in the Sonoran Desert.

“Do you have your satellite phone?” asked his wife, Sue Chilton, 81. There was no cell service on most of the ranch and no other homes for several miles.

“I’ll take it with me, but assume no news is good news,” Jim said.

His plan for the day was to survey three remote water tanks and locate a few lost cows — simple tasks in a place where everything had become increasingly complicated during the last several months. Jim laid out a map of southern Arizona on the hood of his truck and showed Sue the route he planned to take across their cattle grazing land, an area three times the size of Manhattan located on the outskirts of Arivaca, Ariz. He traced his finger over a desolate mountain range, across six canyons, and down to the five and a half miles of their ranch that ran along the U.S.-Mexico border in what had become one of the busiest corridors for a record wave of undocumented immigration.

“You’re sure you have everything you need?” Sue asked.

Jim searched the bed of his truck for his first-aid kit and double-checked his supplies. “I’m as prepared as I could be,” he said.

“I guess it depends on what version of the border you see today,” Sue said. Lately, she had been telling friends that understanding the current border crisis reminded her of an old folk tale about a group of blind men encountering an elephant. One man touched the trunk and thought it was a snake. One touched a leg and thought it was a tree. One touched the tail and believed it was a rope.

The Chiltons had spent the past several years trying to unravel the mysteries of their own backyard and grasping at partial truths as the situation worsened on their ranch. They discovered drugs and at least 150 smuggling trails on their grazing land, so they put up security cameras and offered to arm all five of their working cowboys. Those cowboys started to see groups of migrants stranded near the border, so the Chiltons installed water fountains in the desert to help keep people alive. Their security cameras recorded hundreds of men walking by each month in camouflage, so they testified before Congress and campaigned alongside Donald Trump for a wall, hoping it might slow the procession of people onto their ranch.

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