Musings From Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Golden sunsets, meetings with the superintendent, remembering a young ranger killed in the line of duty, and today's presence of Border Patrol agents are among the sights and experiences to be found in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Photos by Lee Dalton.

Editor's note: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has taken on a somewhat dark connotation since park Ranger Kris Eggle was killed by drug runners in August 2002. While some parts of the park remain off-limits to casual tourists, and researchers are suggested to go into the field accompanied by security, guest writer Lee Dalton found the park fascinating during a February visit. Here are his thoughts.

February 17

It’s a long drive from nowhere to Organ Pipe National Monument – but it’s sure worth the trip! I’d tried for several years to find a time to visit "ORPI," and had always found some complication that prevented it. But this year was finally it.

Now, I’ve knocked around national park areas for years and years, and it’s pretty hard to impress me. But ORPI was astonishingly impressive. Not far north, the flat and featureless terrain of Barry M. Goldwater military air gunnery and training range gives way to sharp volcanic ridges. Vegetation changes from almost nothing to a sudden flurry of Saguaro cacti, barrel cacti, and occasional clumps of Organ Pipes – the monument’s namesake.

Immediately upon passing the monument’s entrance sign, there is a noticeable difference in vegetation as the road enters the protection afforded by its monument status. Along Arizona’s Highway 85 we passed through two Border Patrol checkpoints waved along by some bored looking guys in green uniforms. Reminders of the stories of danger and lawlessness we’d heard so many times on television news shows. Then a quick turn into the visitor center’s parking lot and the first words of greeting from a couple of volunteers behind the information desk were, “It’s not really dangerous.”

But then again, the Kris Eggle Visitor Center is named for a young ranger killed by drug runners a few years ago. And some large park areas are closed because – well, just because. A short uphill drive brings us to Twin Peaks Campground. With two hundred and eight campsites, it has to be one of the largest campgrounds in the system. It’s a relic of Mission 66, the 1960s era of construction of visitor and park facilities that attempted to catch up with long-neglected needs in our national park areas. Spacious campsites that can accommodate rigs up to 40 feet long nestle among tall saguaros with clumps of prickly pear and other sharp-thorned desert denizens everywhere.

Most of the sites have concrete pads and a couple of volunteers at the camp entrance station assign you to your campsite after first asking questions like, “How long is your rig?” “Do you want a concrete pad or gravel?” “Do you have a generator, or do you want a quiet campsite?” And my favorite question of all, “Would you prefer a view of sunrise or of sunset?” The campground was far from full, and volunteers try to leave empty spaces between campers.

In all my campground visits from coast to coast and north to south, I’d never seen anything at all like my reception at Twin Peaks. Setting up a travel trailer is much easier when pads are already nearly level. Tables are close by with a wealth of water taps. The camp is immaculate and so are the rest rooms. There was none of the wind-blown trash that had marked much of the route south from Gila Bend, Ajo, and the aptly named little town of Why. But setting up is difficult when the view on all sides is so spectacular that it keeps attracting your eyes away from your chores.

Gentle breezes and temperatures in the mid 70's made it just right to find a bit of shade to sit and read the park’s newspaper and list of interpretive programs. One item that immediately caught my eye was a 9 a.m. session in the campground amphitheater tomorrow morning: “Coffee with the Superintendent.”

ORPI’s superintendent, Lee Baiza, actually gets out from behind his desk and mixes with visitors! That’s one program that can’t be missed. A quick dash back down to the VC to make a reservation for a place on the 1 p.m. Ajo Mountain Van Tour and then it’s back up the hill for supper, sunset, and the campfire. While my potato boils and my porkchop sizzles, I’m thinking I may have to spend more time here than I had planned.

It’s the night of full moon and as the sun slips silently downward in the west, a sparkling
bright moon is peeking over ridges to the east. Some campers from Kansas spot it and begin
exclaiming with discovery, “Look, half a moon over there and half a sun over there! Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Cameras are clicking all around as others discover the spectacle for themselves. Yet despite the excited callings one to another, a gentle silence still rules the campground. It’s a time of happy discovery for children who have finally grown older and are rediscovering their sense of wonder. I find myself smiling and thinking that, yes, this is really what our parks are all about.

Later in the evening, campers were treated to an air show as a helicopter equipped with powerful searchlights circled the area near the campground amphitheater. Border Patrol and NPS rangers were rounding up several illegals carrying large backpacks – apparently bales of marijuana.

February 18

Coffee with the superintendent turned out to be one of the most interesting sessions I’ve ever experienced as a park visitor. Superintendent Lee Baiza started out by explaining some of the challenges he faces in trying to manage a park under the continuing budget resolution currently in use to fund federal agencies. Despite a clouding sky and somewhat chilly morning, a crowd of about 30 adults seemed intrigued by all he had to say. Many questions regarding safety and border security issues provided the majority of subject matter.

As one who lives in Utah House District One, I had to ask about some of the claims raised by our U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, who is also chairman of the House subcommittee on public lands. Rep. Bishop’s accusations that Organ Pipe and the surrounding Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge wilderness provide a wide-open corridor for illegal trafficking was pretty well debunked by Supt. Baiza’s answers.

Under a Memorandum of Understanding between NPS and Homeland Security, Border Patrol agents have a large range of freedom in responding – along with park rangers – to incursions along the border. While there are some restrictions as far as access with motorized vehicles, use of electronic surveillance combined with foot, horse, and aerial methods result in a capture rate that compares very favorably with those of non-wilderness land areas. The real problem, according to the superintendent and some others I spoke to later, isn’t wilderness. It’s the fact that only a small portion of the monument’s southern boundary is adequately fenced.

A short distance on both sides of the border crossing at Lukeville is guarded by a pedestrian fence. The remaining miles are marked with only a vehicle barrier that can be easily crossed on foot. Installation of a more adequate barrier is dependent upon congressional funding for construction, something that -- despite Rep. Bishop’s blusterings – simply has not happened. Even though my question, and some from a couple of other visitors could have been politically sensitive, the superintendent didn’t shy away from them and provided straightforward, although somewhat diplomatically phrased, answers.

As he spoke, there were three heavily armed men listening at the back of the amphitheater whom I took to be Border Patrol agents. But when I finally had a chance to speak with one of them, it turned out that they were actually NPS rangers who had come to hear what their superintendent had to say. They were wearing uniforms very similar to those worn by Border Patrolmen and not at all like regular NPS law enforcement rangers. I didn’t realize who I was talking with until he told me he was actually a ranger and I moved to where I could see an arrowhead patch on his left sleeve. The explanation was that they are trying to avoid confusion between them and interpretive rangers with the idea that different uniforms might help keep unarmed interpreters safer if they were less likely to be taken for enforcement agents.

This brought to mind the controversy that raged in the early 1970s when law enforcement and interpretation were first being formally divided out in larger parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone. At that time, there was considerable talk of bringing in U.S. Park Police officers to handle enforcement.

Later in the day I took advantage of one of ORPI’s many interpretive programs. This was a van tour out along the Ajo Mountain Loop Road. Two experienced volunteers provided interpretive and driving skills, giving ten visitors an opportunity to learn more about the desert without having to worry about keeping eyes on the road.

Nancy Secker gave us a fascinating running narrative of all we were seeing while Nancy Lindoll kept us right side up. I have to confess that I’m one of those who always felt the desert was rather uninteresting and drab. I still don’t find it one of my favorite places, but the more I learn the more I realize that what I’ve seen and learned so far hardly dips below the surface of superficiality.

Reservations are required for the van tour, which is funded partially by Western National Parks Association. I was able to get dibs on today’s last available space after I arrived at the park the day before. ORPI has been completely without rain since December, but this afternoon a few precious drips splattered the van’s windshield and kept up gentle rhythm on my roof in the campground. It didn’t last long, but there’s another promise of moisture tomorrow.

And, oh, the sunset! Thank goodness for digital cameras.

February 19

Took an early morning 4.4-mile-round trip hike to Victoria Mine along an easy-to-follow trail. As I approached the mine area, I began hearing the sound of shovels against rock and gravel and spotted a heavily armed guard standing beside a saguaro on a nearby hilltop. Even though I knew that a crew was working to seal old mine openings, the whole thing was a bit unsettling. Not so much any fear for my safety, but just the disturbing idea that we as a nation seem to have become somewhat paranoid. Finding such a powerful dose of it inside one our national park treasures just added to my sense of tragedy.

The rest of the day was filled with some much-needed rain. Nearly a quarter-inch of moisture kissed the ground and will in a week or so produce some new green leaves on now bare ocotillo and gardens of colorful wildflowers. Even though the 50-degree temperatures were much warmer than the 3 degrees I’d left in northern Utah, it seemed uncomfortably chilly. Like most others around me, I spent the afternoon inside my trailer as wind battered it and made me give thanks I wasn’t in a tent.

Winter rains – the mother rains as Todhono O’odham people call them – provide about half the Sonoran desert’s annual moisture. Grouchy and grumbly father rains of summer’s monsoons bring the rest of it in torrential downpours.

I’ll be leaving ORPI in the morning and will take along a sense of awe thinking of how people like the O’odham and their ancestors could have adapted to such a harsh place. They were people who lived in balance with the cruel lands around them. People who learned to depend entirely on what they had – or who went without. Unlike us, they couldn’t simply drill deeper into the earth to suck up more water from ancient and rapidly shrinking aquifers. They couldn’t build taller and more widely sprawling cities and suburbs and hope that somehow water would follow.

Theirs was a simple but terribly hard life. Yet it was lived in a land of incredible beauty and very specialized variety. A place that could easily and tragically be forgotten were it not for places like Organ Pipe National Monument where things even more important than dollar signs can still be found. Thank goodness there are people willing to lay so much of their talent and energy on the line to keep it all safe and enjoyable for all our world’s citizens.

Comments

Enjoyed this very much, thanks!

"It’s a time of happy discovery for children who have finally grown older
and are rediscovering their sense of wonder. I find myself smiling and
thinking that, yes, this is really what our parks are all about."

I agree 100%!

We visited ORPI February 2010, and like you, we were pleasantaly surprised with the park. Our 3 day visit just wasn't long enough.

Thank you very much for sharing your experience! I will now definitely book a stay at Organ Pipe this winter. Can't wait to see those sunrises and sunsets! :-)

Cheers,

Ros