Dec. 2 – The sun has set, but the ruddy peaks of the Ajo Mountains stubbornly hang on to their color as we say goodbye to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and head north on Arizona 85.
We nearly didn’t come here, disturbed as our soft-white-middle-class hearts were by menacing reports of drug smuggling and skullduggery in the Arizona borderlands. The cartels control parts of Arizona, they say.
What kind of parents would subject their innocent child to that kind of peril?
Ten years after Park Ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed by an assailant with an AK-47, roughly 50 percent remains closed to the public. Scary stuff indeed.
Yet we came here Saturday night. We abandoned ourselves to the wild and lush Sonora Desert. Here, 17 miles south of Why, a few miles from big, bad Mexico, beauty transcends the ugliness of border politics.
Awesome. What a tortured word.
Yet it is awesome.
In the middle of a 9,000-year-old desert, green dominates the landscape. A rolling sea of cacti, saguaros and prickly pears and the namesake organ pipe, mingle with creosote and mesquite and palo verde. And it’s not just the greenery.
The brittlebush blooms golden as winter looms in this lonesome desert elysium.
Why so lonesome?
Do you need to ask?
Organ Pipe has been called America’s most dangerous park. The border boogeyman looms over the 330,000 marvelous acres of you-could-almost-believe-in-God enchantment.
It’s enough to make Sardius Stalker shakes his head wistfully.
“I don’t know who it was, I think it was Mencken, who said we have to have a boogeyman to keep the masses in line,” said Stalker, a 59-year-old, part-time NPS ranger. “It’s unmerited. If you want to think of this as a dangerous place, it’s about as dangerous as hiking in Alaska, or Glacier, or Yellowstone.”
(Yes, it was H.L. Mencken, though he called them hobgoblins. But the point is taken.)
Those hobgoblins have made this a lonesome place. It’s almost eerie.
And it’s too damn easy to find tranquility amid wilderness splendor. On Sunday, we traversed the Ajo Mountain Road, a jarring, 21-mile loop, in search of a trailhead. We never found it, but we opted for a short walk in the direction of Ajo arches.
We saw two other vehicles on the road. And that’s just the road.
You walk for an hour here, and you find yourself lost in paradise.
There’s nobody here but the drug smugglers, it seems. And you never see them.
They’re just like bears. You make enough noise, you’ll never see them. They might see you, but you’ll never know.
“I feel safer here, hiking alone, then I feel in any urban environment,” Stalker said.
It’s not that drugs aren’t here. They are. They come through here at flood tide. Everybody here knows it and responds with a collective shrug of the shoulders.
That’s how ranger Robb Reinhart responded earlier in the day when a man came into the visitors center with a report of possible drug spotters on top of Tillotson Peak.
Robb looks to be in his mid-20s. He came here two months ago from Louisville, Ky. He works full-time collecting fees, manning the counter and swearing in junior rangers. On Sunday, he swore in Max Wallingford. We’re all so proud.
He’s friendly, engaging and seems to be nobody’s fool. He’s got a long life ahead of him.
Why would he work in this no-man’s land?
“I don’t think of it as a dangerous place,” Reinhart said, allowing he was a bit intimidated by the park’s reputation before he arrived. “We haven’t had a violent incident in 10 years, since the Kris Eggle shooting.”
He has yet to have an encounter with folks from beyond the border.
“I haven’t seen anyone, and I’ve been hiking all over the place,” he said. “They’ve probably seen me, but that’s OK. Most of them are just immigrants looking to get to Phoenix to find work.”
You see a few visitors here, though. We saw a handful of other campers in Twin Peaks Campground when we arrived at dusk Saturday. There was no worry of getting shut out. Vacancies abound.
“They say that campground used to fill to capacity,” Reinhart said. ‘Not anymore. Unfortunately, and especially with immigration being in the news and becoming such a political issue, it has depressed our visitation. People think of this as a dangerous place, deserved or not.”
Even the drug runners don’t seem particularly sinister. At least that’s how Stalker tells the story. He’s here for his fourth season. He left his wife behind in Killeen, Texas. He’ll be here till April. He also works in Death Valley and Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument.
He keeps coming back. He doesn’t seem at all worried by drug smugglers. Though he knows a bit about their trade.
Drug runners cross the border from Sonoyta, Mexico, with 55-pound packs on their backs, hoping to run the border patrol gauntlet and slip back into Mexico safely.
“They can make 500 to $1,500 on a run if they can make it to their drop point,” Stalker said. “Then they’ll try to sneak back across the border. If they’re spotted, they’ll usually throw down their packs and scatter.”
Those are the people rangers run across most often. They call them “quitters.”
“Sometimes they show up in our camp. We give them water and turn them over to the border patrol. They usually put them on a bus back to Mexico.”
Stalker said the encounters, if you can call them that, are always peaceful. And that makes sense.
“If someone were to commit violence against a park ranger or a border cop here, I think the first thing they’ll see when they get back to the cartel is a bullet,” Stalker said. “Because that‘d be the fastest way to get the border shut down. Tight.”
“And they don’t want a tight border. They want a relaxed, mellow, loose border. That’s better for business.”
As for the violence that did occur here, Stalker shared the story of Eggle’s August, 2002, murder as he understands it. He says the 28-year-old ranger from Michigan wasn’t killed by cartel hit men at all, but by a desperado who had committed murder in a Mexican bank before crossing the border into Organ Pipe National Monument.
If that were true, it wouldn’t change the horror of Eggle’s demise at all. But it is something to consider. Who knows? Even the official NPS literature says he died while pursuing “members of an alleged drug cartel.”
I searched the Web for a half hour and couldn’t turn up any definitive looking news reports about Eggle’s murder. It has, however, become an article of faith, particularly among right-wing polemicists like Michelle Malkin, that the border is out of control, drug violence is spilling into the U.S. and all the evidence you need to support that fearful notion is that Kris Eggle died at the hands of cartel hitmen.
Whatever the truth, that was a decade ago. No one has died here since. There seems to be dueling realities at play. There’s the one in the popular imagination: Organ Pipe National Monument and borderlands like it are on the verge of becoming new battlefields in Mexico’s raging drug war.
Then there’s another one, based on simple observation. If you come here, that’s the one you’re left with. You walk among the organ pipe and saguaro, admire the stunning scene of a youthful desert in full bloom and talk to people who work here, and it seems less dangerous than a trip to a Tucson Domino’s on a Sunday night.
(It was just after 10, and we were hungry after the dark, brooding drive along 86 from Why. Becky found the front door locked, though the sign said open till 1. Eventually she was buzzed in by the manager, a friendly sort named Steve. He said he started locking the doors at 9 after someone attempted to rob him at gunpoint three months ago. It was the second such incident he’d endured.) So there.
And besides that, there’s a regiment of U.S. Border Patrol cops in the field around here. You can’t drive around a curve without passing one of their trucks. There are border stops on the way in and out of Organ Pipe. If that doesn’t make you feel safe, I don’t know what will.
We got pulled over by a nice, young agent named Shephard last night on our way north. I asked him about the drug trade. He shrugged his shoulders and said, yeah, they seize tons and tons of pot here. It’s just business, he seemed to say.
Stalker, for his part, said the border here’s no menacing land of mayhem and murder, a la Ciudad Juarez.
“I wouldn’t cross in Juarez, and you couldn’t pay me to cross at Nuevo Laredo,” he said. “I’m not sure about Tijuana. There’s a cartel in Sonoyta, but there’s only one. There’s no competition, so there’s no violence.”
Then he left us with an analogy to ponder.
“The primary pollinator of the saguaro is the Lesser long-nose bat,” he said. “They come here from Mexico, and they’re pregnant females who come here to have their young. They come in the winter, and in the spring they feed off the flowers of the saguaro, and then move on to the prickly pear, which flower a little later.
“Geology makes it very easy to migrate from south to north. If bats do it, why should we be so surprised that people do it, too?”
I’m not sure about that, but I know you’ll never see a Lesser long-nose bat (an endangered species, by the way) or an organ pipe cactus if you let the fear mongers and their political allies keep you away from awesome places like Organ Pipe National Monument.
And that’d be an awful shame.