Things are Different Now
I woke up around 6 a.m. at Alamo Canyon campground, rolled out of my truck, and enjoyed a breakfast (the typical fare: a muffin and a banana). When I had pulled in the night before, there was one other camper in the six-site campground, but he drove out as I was eating breakfast, leaving me all alone in the desert silence, which is how I like it. The scenery here was absolutely superb. A multitude of cacti – saguaro, cholla and the namesake of the park, organ pipe – stretching off into the horizon and up onto the nearby rocky slopes, and several ocotillo scattered about, as well.
Above: I spent a half-day in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and visited the Mexican border. From there I drove east through Tucson and that evening pulled into Chiricahua National Monument in the mountains of southeastern Arizona.
The first time I visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was back in 1988 after my last season as a BLM ranger in the Colorado Rockies. I left Colorado in early October, drove down here and spent a couple days, then drove on to southern California where I visited my then-married friend Carole in the mountains for a few days, and then I continued on to West Covina to visit with my ranger-buddy, Laurie. She and I had met the previous summer while working together in Colorado and I guess you could say we were dating.
In fact, I guess you could say we dated for another seven years, but then she moved to Seattle, met a more marriageable fellow (or should I say, someone who actually wanted to get married) and I got a nice letter from her one day saying she was getting married, which I was happy about and have never seen her again. Well, actually I did see her a few years ago while riding a bus in Seattle, but I didn’t say anything. But when I visited Laurie in 1988 in West Covina, we took off for a few days and traveled through the Mojave Desert, camping at the Kelso sand dunes, a memorable adventure which I described in an earlier entry.
But I digress. When I first camped at Organ Pipe back in 1988, I was just stunned. I’ve always loved deserts, so I thought this was one of the most spectacular parks I’d even been to (even though it was just a monument and not a park, and still is). I was awestruck by the incredible vistas and the silence and tranquility here and I fell in love with it. And I’ve been back three or four times since.
They say that deserts don’t change much, but this one has. When I was sitting in the deserted Alamo campground back in 1988 and savoring the beauty and solitude, I was thinking to myself about this park that sits right on the Mexican border, “Boy, if I were an illegal alien and I wanted to come into the U.S., this is where I’d do it.” Not that I’m an illegal alien, mind you, so please don’t send an email to Donald Trump. Well, apparently my brilliant idea must’ve caught on because during the next 20 years or so, the park was beset with an increasing problem of illegals crossing the border, either people wanting to migrate to the U.S. or folks smuggling in drugs. Today, the landscape at Organ Pipe Cactus really hasn’t changed much but the level of law enforcement definitely has. During my two-day 1988 visit here, I didn’t see one Border Patrol agent, but in the previous day’s drive here, I’d seen dozens.
As I was finishing my breakfast, a National Park Service truck drove into the campground and two friendly park service staff, a law enforcement ranger carrying a revolver and a young intern, got out and chatted with me, since I was the only one in the campground. “This place has changed a bit in the last 30 years,” I said to the ranger. He told me about some of the problems they’ve had with drug smuggling and illegal aliens. “Is it getting worse?” I asked him. “Well, it ebbs and flows,” he said. “For the past few years, we haven’t had too many problems but before that, it was pretty bad.” The corroborated what I’d been reading on the Internet, that the amount of illegal immigration into the U.S. – despite what certain political candidates will tell you – has really tapered off in the past few years and in some places has even reversed, with more people going to Mexico than coming the other way.
I then mentioned to them my “extreme geography” adventure and that piqued their interest, especially the intern, a young, African-American women who was attending Colorado State, and especially so when I mentioned GIS and computer mapping. She asked me a few questions about GIS so I gave her my travel card and told her to send me an email if she had any questions. “Can I have one, too?” the burly ranger asked, so I gave him my card, as well. After talking for about 10 minutes, they got back in their truck and headed down the dirt road, back to the highway.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
A Brief Trip to Mexico
I spent another hour alone at Alamo Canyon then took a panorama picture, packed up, and drove down the dirt road. A half-hour later, I reached the park’s Visitor Center, the same Visitor Center that I first saw in 1988. I asked the ranger there about a nearby dirt road that’s always intrigued me. It parallels the U.S./Mexican border and travels literally just a few feet from it for several miles. The last time I visited Organ Pipe, in 2009, the road was closed because there had been some incidents there recently, so I’ve never driven on it. “Oh, it’s open now,” the ranger at the front desk told me. “Just be careful,” she said.
Above: Driving out of Alamo Canyon after camping there the night before. With all the warning signs posted about illegal smuggling, this experience was a bit different than the first time I camped here back in 1988. (0:30)
After leaving the Visitor Center, I drove a few more miles south until I reached the U.S./Mexican border crossing at the small village of Lukeville, Arizona. I’ve never been to Mexico – well, not legally, anyway. I did swim across the Rio Grande River once many years ago when I was camping in Texas and then, after spending about 10 seconds in Mexico, swam back to the U.S. But this time I wanted to do it legally, figuring I’d just show them my passport, walk across the border and spend an hour in the border town of Sonoyta, Mexico which is next to Lukeville. As I walked up to the border, though, I noticed a long line of cars heading back into the U.S. I didn’t want to be caught up in that, waiting for two hours to come back into the U.S., and I didn’t know what the procedures were for pedestrians crossing the border. So, rather disappointed, I walked back to my truck and put my passport away.
But not to be daunted in my mission to see Mexico, from there I found the nearby dirt road, called the Puerto Blanco Drive, that parallels the Mexican border. As I was driving slowly down the road, I saw the Mexican fence, which was similar to the fence I’d seen in Tijuana a few days earlier. I also spotted a U.S. Border Patrol truck parked up on a hillside. As I continued my drive on the deserted dirt road, I passed another parked Border Patrol truck, so I stopped, got out, and walked up to the truck. The friendly Border Patrol agent, a guy about 30 packing a pistol, got out of his truck and I asked him about whether I could walk into Mexico at the Lukeville crossing. “I don’t really know,” he said. “You’ll have to ask at the crossing,” he said with a smile, probably grateful to be able to talk to someone way out here in what must be the loneliness capital of the world.
Another mile down the dirt road, I hit the Mexican border. From here the road parallels the border for several miles and makes a 20-mile loop that ends up back near the Visitor Center. Mexico Highway 2, a paved two-lane highway, was just a few yards away on the other side and I could plainly see Mexicans driving their pickups and sedan at 60 mph (well actually, 100 kph, since it’s in Mexico).
I got out of my truck and walked up to the border fence here, which is interesting. There are two fences, actually: a vehicle barrier made of railroad ties in an X-shape, and a barbed wire fence that snakes around it sporadically. Neither could keep a pedestrian from crossing the border, though, which I easily proved (shh, don’t tell anyone). Still, the border here is monitored closely by cameras and other electronic surveillance, plus large armies of Border Patrol agents. And despite what certain political candidates would have you believe, I didn’t see massive hordes of illegals sweeping into the U.S. The only critters I saw swarming into the U.S., actually, were a few bunny rabbits. “Que paso, el doctor?” – or “What’s up, Doc?” I could almost hear them say.
During my stay at Organ Pipe, I saw more far more Border Patrol agents than visitors, so as I got back on the highway and drove out of the park, I was left wondering how much of this increased presence was due to an actual problem and how much of it was due to politics. I’ll leave that up to others to decide.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
East to Chiricahua
After I left the park, I headed east and stopped in Tucson for gas. Gas here was only $1.99 a gallon, the cheapest that I’ve seen so far. California, where gas was hovering in the $2.50 to $3.00 range, was the most expensive state so far. I used my savings to buy a large iced tea, with lots of ice on this 100-degree day, and got on the I-10 freeway heading east.
A few hours later, I pulled off the freeway and drove through the historic old town of Willcox (spelled with two “l”s), then turned south down Highway 186, with the sun dropping towards the horizon. I decided that I’d stay at Chiricahua National Monument that evening since I’d never been there. I didn’t know anything about the park other than it was tucked up in the mountains and well off the beaten path.
I got to the Chiricahua campground around 8 p.m. and snagged one of the last empty campsites. It seemed like a nice place this campground, amidst a large grove of oak trees in a desert canyon. It had been a long and thought-provoking day and as I munched down a couple grilled bratwurst, I tried to ponder all that I’d seen.
Heading East Across Southern Arizona