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Driving Into the Desert

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Ajo, Ariz., is a world away from Wisconsin.

On assignment for the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, me and my fellow reporter, Alex Wroblewski, both from Wisconsin, made the two-hour trek west into the desert.

On the way to Ajo, even the two-lane highway is surreal. Mile after mile, makeshift memorial crosses line the narrow stretch of road, as if to remind drivers: Drive safely. You are lucky to be alive.

Just before town, cactuses give way to an abandoned copper mine. Green tint runs down the mounded rock, a vestige of the cash that once flowed through the city.

We pulled up to the Ajo station of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department shortly before we were scheduled to meet the post commander, Lt. B.J. Clements.

Clements is a beefy, friendly man who was quick with an answer and proud of each of the Army medals framed on his office wall. Throughout our two days in Ajo, Clements and his deputies allowed us spectacular behind-the-scenes access to the inner workings of this remote sheriff’s substation.

We rode along with deputies as they stopped speeders. We rode to the U.S.- Mexico border and wondered, along with the officer, how the low cattle fence two miles from the port of entry could keep out any human migrant whose survival depended on crossing the boundary.

We watched as a deputy interviewed a suspect, and looked on with sympathy while realizing the man had broken the law. We peered into a body bag and gazed upon an unfortunate consequence of illegal immigration.

Under circumstances like these, it sounds crude to say we enjoyed ourselves. But out here, hours from a major city, we stomped around in the desert sun and let the story unfold in front of our cameras and notebooks. Out here, it’s hard not to feel lucky to be alive.