On the Border

At night, the animal life of the desert comes out of hiding. And along the Mexican border, so do the illegal immigrants and the drug runners. The result is a National Monument "under siege."

Organ Pipe National Monument is legally remote (on this unusual distinction, more below), which makes it the kind of place I like to visit -- big, empty, lightly visited and beautiful. It is 142 miles by two-lane road from Tucson and about the same distance from Phoenix, and is surrounded on all sides by areas that do not draw a crowd: the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation to the East, and the vast Barry Goldwater Air Force testing range to the North and West. To the South is the Sonora State of Mexico. And once you get there, it has nothing to offer besides a unique species of cactus, a few hiking trails, and average Arizona scenery (much of it gorgeous), making it one of the least frequented parts of the American Southwest.

When I arrived for a few days of hiking and camping to start my trip, I found that it was both more and less used than before, as well as even less easy to get around in than in the past.

The 517 square miles of Organ Pipe were set aside in 1937 and have provided a largely wilderness environment ever since. But recently, the preserve was considered for “decommissioning” due to what has been called a “state of siege” by those crossing illegally from Mexico — would-be immigrants, on foot, and drug smugglers, increasingly using various forms of motorized vehicles. In writing this entry, I stumbled upon a Webpage with a collection of articles on the situation, which can be found here;

In consequence, while the mountain scenery of the park remains breathtaking, the Park Service has made many changes: most of the roads that allowed vehicle access to parts of the Monument are now closed, and a six-foot high, vehicle-proof wall of railroad ties supported by steel posts sunk in concrete is being built along the entire thirty mile side that forms a part of the US-Mexico border — not so much to keep the illegals that cross on foot out of the park, but to stop the more dangerous (to both legal visitors as well as the plant life of the park) vehicular traffic of the drug runners. According to one article I read, In 2002, park rangers made 100 felony arrests and seized 14,000 pounds of marijuana.

Articles on the page noted above include information like this:

For a tract of desert wilderness that is supposed to be left alone by humans, this national park is a mess. Fragile ocotillo shrubs and saguaro cactuses lay lifeless where they were mowed down. Foot trails and car tracks scar the delicate sandy ground in all directions. Trash is everywhere.[Chicago Tribune, August 19, 2003]

And this:

At Organ Pipe… ‘This park comes alive after dark,’ explains Bo Jones, a 35-year-old ranger, as he bounces down a rutted desert road in a truck containing the tools of his trade — including body armor and a semiautomatic rifle….On any given night, Mr. Jones estimates, as many as a thousand illegal aliens are moving north… At the same time… there may be a ton of marijuana being lugged north in 50-pound loads by husky backpackers. They sleep by day and move at night, guided by lookouts posted on mountains with solar-powered phones to warn them of approaching agents. [ Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2003]

The effect is somewhat surreal. The desert may be crawling with human life on moonless nights, but during the day, you’d never know, but for the various pieces of clothing and water bottles that do, in fact come into view from time to time. Still, 517 square miles can absorb a lot of water bottles without too much visual damage, and to some extent the current nocturnal traffic is as much a part of the history and ecology of the area as are the organ pipe cacti themselves. As observed by the ranger from whom I obtained my camping permit, “This has been a trade route for thousands of years.”

The most sad and striking evidence of the situation, though, is an unobtrusive bronze ranger hat on a small boulder outside the Visitors Center. On the boulder there is a plaque, which reads as follows:

On August 9, 2002
While protecting visitors from harm
United States Park Ranger Kriss Eggle
Was slain in the line of duty
His service and sacrifice
To the National Park Service
And the people of this Country
Will Never be forgotten.

Eggle was 28, and was killed by an AK-47 bullet while assisting Border Patrol agents apprehend two men suspected by Mexican officials of being involved in a drug-related quadruple murder.

I had hoped to camp wherever I chose, and asked at the Visitors Center whether that was still possible, perhaps at Growler Canyon, which looked interesting to me on a topographical map, and could be reached from Ajo via a twenty mile gravel road. Yes, the ranger told me at the Visitors Center, I could camp there, if I chose, but it was a high nocturnal traffic area, and there was a Border Patrol encampment there as a result. I’d have to let the agents know that I would be in the area. But, she said, after that “You can just ignore them …”[pause, then an afterthought], “that is, unless they’re coming down the middle of the road at 90 miles an hour.”

I grudgingly took one of the four primitive campsites available in Alamo Canyon as a compromise, having promised back home that I would be prudent. And in truth, it wasn’t bad, situated at the end of a three-mile jeep track, tucked up against high mountains that glowed red and orange in the light of the setting sun. Lying outside that night the stars and planets were brilliant before the full moon rose, and when it did, it’s light was bright enough to show the colors of the cactus and the red walls of the peaks. The silence was intense. Sunrise brought another show of equal majesty.

The next day I did hike in Growler Canyon, and couldn’t miss the Border Patrol station, given that it’s presence was announced by large signs on the gravel road 100 yards away on either side saying, so help me, “Border Patrol Ahead.”

As it happens, I did find one obvious “illegals” trail while I was hiking in the park. It came through Growler Canyon, and was clearly marked with plastic water bottles and failed footwear here and there along the way.

And it ran within 150 yards of the Border Patrol station.

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