The Border   14 comments

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a beautiful stretch of desert along the border with Mexico in southern Arizona.  I had not been here before a couple weeks ago.  There are cactus flats and naked-rock desert mountains (The Ajos), with canyons marking the transition between the two.  Best of all, it is relatively unvisited.

There are a few reasons for Organ Pipe being mostly empty of people.  One is the distance from population centers.  Another is name recognition (after all, Yellowstone is far from population centers too).  A third reason is climate.  Summertime gets very hot here, hotter than most people like.  Nearly all of its visitors come during the “snowbird” season – that time in winter when caravans of retirees from the north show up in RVs to swell Arizona’s population.

Organ Pipe's namesake cactus fruit in late summer.

Organ Pipe’s namesake cactus fruit in late summer.

But the most interesting reason for Organ Pipe being empty is its reputation for being hazardous.  It’s not the animals that are particularly dangerous, though there are rattlesnakes.  And it’s not the terrain, though hiking off-trail is a good way to get stuck by cactus (ouch!).  Much of the terrain is flat.  Actually the reason the area is considered dangerous is the proximity to the Mexican border.  Organ Pipe for years was a favorite place for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants to cross the border into the U.S.

Thanks to the guy with the hairpiece (who shall remain nameless), as well as the crisis in Europe, immigration is the topic du jour right now.  In the case of Organ Pipe, the flow has definitely slowed.  Border patrol is a constant presence, operating out of their huge base just to the north.  I camped in some lonely spots, but they always drove right on by in their SUVs, probing the dark desert with spotlights, looking for dark-skinned travelers.

Cholla bloom, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ.

Cholla bloom, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ.

Saguaro cactus 'buds'

Saguaro cactus ‘buds’

Organ Pipe is a classic case of a great destination being a prisoner of its past reputation.  To be sure, illegal crossings still take place here.  But their over-riding goal is to avoid people.  The place just does not seem very dangerous to me.  I never saw any immigrants or smugglers, even though I strayed off-trail numerous times.  In fact, I saw only a few other people period.

I did see signs of past crossings, some of them weathered and old.  I saw old backpacks, the small cheap kind you find being sold in markets throughout Central America.  I found tattered blankets and sweatshirts beneath bushes, and single sneakers.  I found plenty of black water bottles.  These are for some reason the favorite way for immigrants to carry water.  I even found a blood-stained rock.  Perhaps some were reduced to going barefoot by this point.  Not a pretty sight in this cactus-filled desert.  By the way I could not bring myself to photograph the more disturbing of these remnants.

Another empty black water bottle: AZ-Mex border area.

Another empty black water bottle: AZ-Mex border area.

 For the shot of the Ajo Mtns. below I wanted to show some of the rugged country these people have to traverse, guided by the infamous “coyotes”.  These nefarious guides often leave immigrants stranded without much (if any) water as soon as they are across the border.  If you’re an immigrant you follow the Ajo Mountains not only because they run north, but because springs, though sparse, are scattered all along their base.  But you have to know where they are, so being abandoned here puts you in a very bad spot.  Thankfully some kind souls have set up water stations, marked with blue flags (below).

A water cache near the Mexican border, southern Arizona.

A water cache near the Mexican border, southern Arizona.

Looking south into Mexico from a perch in Arizona's Ajo Mountains.

Looking south into Mexico from a perch in Arizona’s Ajo Mountains.

As I walked the desert here, I followed washes and used the terrain to screen myself from view, getting a feel for what an immigrant faces.  But not really.  I had plenty of water, was well-rested and had good hiking shoes and clothes.  I also tried walking on a moonless night, when the immigrants must do most of their traveling, but I kept running into cholla (ouch again!).

Evening falls along the U.S. - Mexican border in southern Arizona. Time to travel!

Evening falls along the U.S. – Mexican border in southern Arizona. Time to travel!

This sad situation aside, Organ Pipe really is a beautiful desert.  So many times I looked out and thought of a garden not a desert.  The variety of cactus and other plants is simply amazing.  Although late summer is hot, it also is the time of the monsoon, when common thunderstorms provide rain for blooming cactus.  All this desert beauty is set off against the spectacular backdrop of the rugged Ajo Mountains.  If you ever find yourself in southern Arizona, definitely consider a visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Sunset over mountains along the U.S. - Mexican border, southern Arizona.

Sunset over mountains along the U.S. – Mexican border, southern Arizona.

Posted September 22, 2015 by MJF Images in Uncategorized

14 responses to “The Border

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  1. Beautiful images and must be stunning there. I have no idea the place is popular for the illegal immigrants, I just can’t imagine to walk around there in the dessert at night just like you did, must be pretty hard to see around!

  2. Hi Mike, I’m glad you made it to Organ Pipe. In the early 1970’s I lived for 1 1/2 yrs not too terribly far away on the reservation Santa Rosa Boarding School (100 miles S of Pheonix, 100 miles West of Tuscan) and 45 miles from Casa Grande and 35 miles from Sells) At any given time it was 10 oF hotter than Pheonix. I helped set up a new music program grades 1-8. The dangers are gila monsters and sidewinder rattlesnakes which are aggressive. The reservation nearby is the second largest and the only Native Americans not to be removed from their land. Who’d want it? There is no word for river only wash and when the rains come the water flows incredibly fast. I was taught to always wear boots when walking on the open desert. The Devils Claw plant can really grab you and hurt. It is the dark plant used in baskets. All the cactus hurt. One of my students brought me a ripe Saguaro fruit to eat right away. It was tasty and very seedy kind of like a fig but baseball size. Organ Pipe is so incredibly beautiful with it’s Organ Pipe cactus and Saguaro cactus etc. Many of my students grew up learning their native language, Spanish and English at the same the same time. I loves the people, but hated the Bureau of Indian Affairs. When it rains there every few years in the Spring, the wildflowers and totally awesome when they bloom

    • Thanks Annette, for the background info.! I really appreciate that. I didn’t see any gila monsters (which I really wanted to see) or rattlesnakes (which I really didn’t). Just a few days ago in New Mexico I got a cactus spine in my knee and although I got it out, my knee hurt for a couple days. Some of them have a poison I believe.

  3. I definitely want to visit this place. In fact, all of southern Arizona is high on my list of travel and photography destinations. I did get to spend a Christmas Eve two years ago at Saguaro National Park and, like you, I couldn’t get over how lush and green the desert was! I love the photos, particularly the rainbows and sunset images.

    • Thanks for checking it out Blake. I had only been once before to southern AZ, and visited Saguaro then. This time I made it to Organ Pipe and the Chiricahuas (which I also love!).

  4. I found Organ Pipe to be an amazing place. Love how you approached this post Mike.

  5. Beautiful photos and a great trip report. I have always been intrigued by the Arizona desert but I haven’t made it that far south yet. I’ll have to make sure and get there soon. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Stunning! So, Arizona legalised gay marriage, huh? 🙂

  7. Nice selection from what appears to be a phenomenal spot. Really like that bloom.

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