Edie Harmon has lived in the Yuha Desert in Imperial County since 1976. She fell in love with the desert while serving two stints with the Peace Corps in Uganda, teaching biology and art. She’s slept on the ground in the Kalahari, climbed Kilimanjaro and Whitney. She was determined to spend the rest of her career in Africa. When she mentioned this to the man she had fallen in love with, Jim, he suggested something else first.
Jim was a Navy vet, having fought in both Korea and Vietnam, and 26 years her senior. As an enlisted man, he’d worked his way up to deck officer and served for 20 years. His next pursuit was a PhD in Political Science. He too loved the desert and naturally requested a teaching post at San Diego State University Imperial Valley.
When Edie announced her intention to return to Africa he said “Let’s get married first.” So they did. Edie never returned to Africa but she got her beloved desert in the form of a 10 acre lot Jim had purchased. They lived in a one room house Jim built, and lovingly tended their desert home. Today the house is so well hidden by the mix of native plants and palms the pair planted, one could drive by without ever knowing someone lived on the little knoll off State Highway 8.
She’s volunteered with the Sierra Club and the Desert Protective Council for many years and is a liaison between the Bureau of Land Management and the Sierra Club.
When she climbed Kilimanjaro, she got pulmonary edema - a form of altitude sickness that can be fatal. At the time it cost 100 shillings ($12) to hire porters up the mountain. Two of them took turns carrying her down the mountain to a safe elevation. When she was safe, they charged her an additional 100 shillings. She told me “So my life is worth $12. Imagine that.”
With regard to her ascent of Whitney, she did it on a whim but a hurricane had just hit the west coast and the snow pack on the mountain had reached epic proportions. When she showed up alone, the rangers told her there was no way they’d let her attempt it on her own. She set out anyway. Two climbers caught up with her and had evidently been instructed to keep an eye out for her. The three of them spent a frigid night curled up together in a tiny two man tent for warmth and summited together.
Edie is 76 years old, has a heart condition, a fused left ankle and a leg brace. She has lyme disease and a permanent shoot in her shoulder for IV treatments. She’s not supposed to lift anything greater than 10lbs but she still digs her own latrines (she has no functioning bathroom). A medication she’s on makes her allergic to sunlight so every time she’s outside she is swathed in layers, including a pair of old leather work gloves, stained with sweat. She told me it’s because it gets pretty hot in the summer when she’s out. She uses two old broom handles for trekking poles.
Every week she hikes through the desert alone, most of these hikes take all day. She has an outdoor kitchen and wash area, cooks on a wood fire, does all her laundry by hand, grows her own vegetables, has a garden hose for a shower. She is cheerfully relentless and loves the desert fiercely. She knows the geology and flora around her in a way only someone who has spent a large portion of their life completely immersed in it can know it. When we were out hiking, I had to slow her down because she was so excited to show me things I feared for her safety.
She is a force of nature - sweet and kind and soft spoken with a will of iron. She does not back down for anyone. The world should know of her.
Even though Edie called CBP to notify them we’d be hiking in the wilderness, Marine surveillance aircraft spotted us hiking in the direction of Mexico and Border Protection was dispatched. Twenty minutes into our hike, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a vehicle coming across the desert toward us.
“Uh, Edie. We have company.”
Edie turned to intercept them, incensed that they were out despite our notification. The second photo (above) is Edie giving them shit for tearing up a designated wilderness area.
“When you leave, you turn around and go back on your tracks. DO NOT make news ones.”
We continued our hike once CBP satisfied their curiosity. Despite the beauty, there’s no escaping the traces of people who have risked
their lives in attempts to cross the border. A shoe lying in a wash,
sole torn off. A child’s backpack, flaking and blowing away under a
creosote bush. A cell phone with a number taped to the back of it in a
patch of sand midway up a forty foot dry fall. I’m still trying to process everything I saw and how tragic and wrenching it is.
This was so different from my Mojave wildernesses: there, I see more traces of prehistoric people than moderns. In the Yuha, it’s like walking through a tainted wonderland. Here, a colorful canyon, dryfalls spilling majestically into sandy washes, there an emergency blanket caught in a creosote, ribboned by the wind. It’s a visceral bifurcation of appreciation for beauty and the haunting sorrow of lives on the edge of a razor. Typically I go to the wild for solace and healing. Here the wounds are gaping out of the ground. There’s no purity here - it’s a place of contradictions: of hope and death, and beauty and sadness, desperation and despair. You can’t rest here. I didn’t even mean to write of it in this post but it’s inescapable. You can’t write of the border without it creeping in.
On a further foray, after rumbling along on a rough dirt road in Edie’s tiny Honda Fit, we were intercepted by another Border Protection unit. Edie stopped the car to go to talk to them - I was glad of the break since there was so much stuff in the back of the car, my knees were wedged into the front of the glove compartment - every bump attempted to put them in the glove compartment. In her haste to talk to the agent, Edie forgot to put the car in park and climbed out with it in neutral. She was upright and holding onto the door when the car started rolling backward. The only thing that saved her from going under was her grip on the door. Staggering, she managed to stay on her feet but it was only going to be a matter of seconds before things went terribly wrong. It took me a moment to realize what was going on. Made a grab for it and managed to wrestle the car into park before she went down. Completely unfazed, she walked over to talk to the border agent, then climbed back into the car. “That would have been embarrassing, getting run over by my own car in front of CBP,” she remarked dryly. “I think you just saved my life.”
She later apologized for having me contort into her car. “Oh, that’s nothing,” I said. “This one time in Saskatchewan we rescued someone whose Skidoo had died and tripled up. I sat with my butt in the basket and my heels dragging on the ice for over 20 miles. The bruises lasted for weeks.” My life has been extremely weird at times. This, for the record, shows no sign of abating.
We parked just before the Do Not Enter sign and began walking in. Immediately a security vehicle came flying down the border road.
Edie gets excited. “It’s *****! I like him.” The vehicle comes to a halt and the supervisor recognizes Edie.
Things had changed in the last couple of days, construction had ground to a halt and no one was saying why. So ***** was a bit more taciturn than Edie said he normally was.
He told her we couldn’t be down there, that we could be arrested. Didn’t we see the sign?
Edie replied that we’d parked in front of the sign and that that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
He told her that any road the federal government had created to access the wall was considered private property (this stood out as strange to me) and therefore we were trespassing.
Edie wasn’t having it. She’d been monitoring the flow meters on wells the government had drilled without any permitting. They’d been using vast amounts of ground water for dust suppression. Ground water is a hot button issue in Imperial County. Over the last 50 years, the water table in Imperial County has dropped dangerously. There have been legal battles with commercial interests in the county, resulting in limitations in the amount of water from the aquifer commercial operations can use.
Imperial County regulations require that a permit must be obtained in advance of drilling any water well. So the county was caught by surprise when Edie told them there were multiple wells along the wall that had not been reported or permitted. CBP then acknowledged the wells but refused to provide any data on depth, capacity, quantity or quality of the water. The county issued a cease and desist order but the water is still flowing.
So Edie goes to the border wall every week to monitor the water flow on these wells. And now we were being told we couldn’t have access.
Security told us it wouldn’t be possible.
“Listen,” Edie said. “I need to monitor these wells. Josh drove all the way from Los Angeles. Wouldn’t it be horrible if he had to drive all the way back for nothing?”
The guy took a while to reply. Then: “Listen, because it’s you, this is what I’ll do. I have to go check on my other units up in Skull Valley. Make sure you’re not here when I get back.”
“How long will that be?” I asked.
“30 minutes to an hour.” He turned around and disappeared down the wall.
We piled into an old Ford Explorer and took off in the opposite direction.
Unmarked Bureau of Land Management law enforcement trucks and CBP vehicles sat at intervals along the wall, and there we were driving down the access road in what was very very transparently not an official vehicle.
I was in charge of watching the clock to make sure we exited in time. We ended up locating two more unreported wells, recorded their gps coordinates, read the flows. Also made note of the laughably small culverts that were covered in bars over major drainages that heavy rains and flash flooding would destabilize effortlessly.
Evenings, we’d sit and share stories. The two kittens she recently adopted would climb into my lap and wrestle until collapsing into a boneless heap to sleep. I have a lot more of Edie’s life to jot down but will record it in future posts.
However, I’ll share one last thing. I told of a cabin I’d found hidden in the high desert of the Mojave - how I’d arranged to the meet the man who’d been taking care of it for decades and was documenting his relationship with it and his own history.
Edie sat thoughtfully for a moment. Then: “I think a friend of mine has been up to that cabin.”
Fat chance, I thought. There have been fewer than 20 people up to the place in 20 years. Here we are sitting 400 miles south of a tiny patch of high desert pretty much only I and a handful of others know. No way.
“I’ll connect you and he,” Edie told me.
A few days after I returned home, I received an email from Edie’s friend.
“This was on ****, north of the ****, somewhat east
from **** on the ****… found the place: tin roof, metal barrel stove inside, table, chairs, and a log book. Among the entries was “****” With some
hunting I found ***** in ****. A month later we met, and I helped him carry a roll of insulation up to the place.”
I’ll be damned. It was the place.