"The Road West" by Joel Smith

An Adventure In Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument - Written October 2005

Arizona DesertIt is Sunday morning. Iím heading west and Iím heading fast. Ajo Way and State Highway 86 lies in front of me. My 16-year-old son sits beside me in the passenger seat. He is sound asleep. He probably stayed up too late on Saturday night watching TV. He doesnít have a clue that Iím shanghaiing him into a world that will drive him nuts. No TV, no video games, no cell phone reception, no fast food and no advertising. We're stepping into the west as it was.

The Great Desert

I watch the sun rise in my rear view mirror. The lights of Tucson are just going off as we leave the city. We enter the Tohono O'odham Reservation. I slow down to just seven miles over the posted speed limit. Out here, I need to watch out for Tribal Police, the BIA, INS, the FBI, DPS and possibly a few cows or steers that have escaped the barbed wire. Too many overlapping law enforcement agencies exist to drive like a total lunatic out here.

(Adjacent photo: Joel Smith beside a 15 foot tall organ pipe cactus.)

There is no reason to speed anyway, because I am enjoying the country side. The saguaros are spotty; a clump here, none for a few miles then a few strays again. The cholla towers about six feet high and the ocotillo is bare.

The Journey

I think about times past. People I once knew come rushing forward in memory. Just ghosts of the past and in the past they stay. I donít want to think of what was and what could have been. The desert always gives me a sense of inner peace when I step into it. Say good-bye to civilization and hi-tech razzmazztazz. It is just me and nature at its best, almost a purity to the concept. I am glad my son is coming along. Maybe he can see the world for what it is, without gadgetry doing that for him.

Arizona DesertSmall Papago villages like Pan Tak, San Vicente, Chiawuli Tak, Sells, Kaihon Kug, Vainom Kug, and several others show themselves on road signs. We drive past an old Papago cemetery. Saguaros and wooden crosses fill the lot. The Papagos once believed that saguaros were people in another time and form.

I keep an eye out for cattle and another for ranchers pulling out into the road without looking both ways. The town of Why, Arizona is 120 miles from Tucson, and it takes less than two hours to get here. I marvel at my time as I pull into the gas station.

(Photo above: Organ pipe cactus and saguaros amidst the Ajo Mountains)

I buy us some bottled water and a Dr. Pepper for my son. The girl at the counter is surprised to see anyone this early. Less than 90 miles south is the Sea Of Cortez and the weekend beach tourists will be coming back to Tucson and Phoenix, but that will happen much later in the day. Itís about 75 degrees, a great morning. About 20 miles on State Highway 85 to the south is Organ Pipe National Monument.

We drive the road south and spot our first organ pipes. There are a few in Tucson, but itís always better to see things in the wild if you can. The Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) can grow to 25 feet high. They can sprout dozens of arms. They are a columnar cactus of great beauty and majesty. We pull into the park entrance and stroll into the visitor center. The park ranger informs me the southern roads are closed due to violent clashes with illegal aliens and drug smugglers. This is the only National Park in America where the Rangers are carrying firearms. I am told National Geographic did a great article about the problem, but no help has been offered yet from Washington.

The Northern Loop is safe I am told. I decide to spend the first hour looking over the camping areas. There are no hotels or resorts in the area. If you want to stay for more than a day, this is it. There is no Hilton Hotel, no bath and no room service. My son reacts bitterly about my joking about staying the night out here. He scans the Ajo Mountains, looking for civilization or any sign of it. But the desert mocks him.

The Arrival

We cross Highway 85 and enter the National Park. Eight dollars will get you in, but there arenít many folks checking for tickets. The road is dirt and poorly graded. I curse myself for not having a Jeep. I decide to go slow and enjoy the Loop. The Loop is 21 miles and will take you to the foot of the Ajo Mountains and back. There are 22 places to pull out on the Loop, and we stop at the first one to explore the desert floor.

The stillness of the area floods me. No noise, minus the wind. My son is wandering on his own and actually looking at the cactus. I smile and go exploring on my own, and I return via a wash with my handkerchief wrapped around my finger. Silly me, I was going down the embankment of a wash and the sandy soil gave out on me. I should have checked the consistency before I walked down. I will just have to remember that this is Western Pima County, not Eastern Pima County. Iím not exactly at home here and remind myself to be more careful. It will take more than an hour for the bleeding to stop. No access to doctors exist anywhere near here. Before we return to the car, my son shows me a cluster of Arizona Fishhooks (Mammillaria microcarpa) growing, which are small and difficult to find. His interest in the desert grows.

The Adventure

Arizona DesertWe continue and stop at every pull out. The organ pipes are fantastic to see like this. The park is quiet with only a few folks out on this Sunday. At a scenic overlook at Diablo Wash, we meet a retired couple from British Columbia. Both of them are in awe of the landscape. They say they feel like theyíre on a different planet. I smile and agree with them; this is a far cry from the Canadian Rockies.

About half way into the Loop is the Ajo Mountains. My son is excited by a hole in one of the rocks. It reminds me of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado. (Adjacent photo) He spots a large cave atop the mountain and wants to race me up there. I smirk and agree to the challenge. He scampers up the trail faster than I, but to get to that cave, he has to enter brush. I catch up to him there. He plunges into the brush and makes slow progress. I spot the coyote trails and pass him. Maybe itís not as different as I had thought before. We get about three quarters of the way up and he doesnít want to go on. Itís becoming too steep. I agree to turn back, but urge him to follow me.

Coming down, we find ourselves walking down a limestone wash. I find a brilliant Golden Hedgehog (Echinocereus nicholii) growing in the limestone. I show how to judge rocks as we go down, which teach him how to know the difference between the rocks that you can put weight on against the ones that will slide out from under your feet. He catches on quickly, judging by the lack of sound from behind me.

Arizona DesertWe wait in the car at the pull out while someone drives ahead of us. I want to enjoy the scenery, not eat someone's dust on the road. My son and I talk about what we have seen. We both noticed that someone has been cutting cholla all over the park. There are very few chollas with fruit still on them and no cholla droppings on the ground. Weíre not sure if it's the Papagos collecting the cholla or cactus collectors. The Papagos will eat the fruit and can eat the plant, or sometimes they will use it for medical remedies.

(Photo: A large cave can be seen in the backdrop of the Ajo Mountains.)

We wander more times before the Loop ends. As I drive down the road slowly, some clown from California is tailgating me. He's going to wait until the next pull out. I just don't need someone on my rear out here; there's no reason for it.

We pull over one more time. I notice an area with many ocotillos and deem it's not fair. These ocotillos are still green and leafy here, while ours in Tucson are already bare.

As we leave the park, my son actually thanks me for bringing him on this trip. We drive to one of the two gas stations in Why to buy something to munch on and to fuel up. I toss him the car keys. I had a great day and he did so much better in the desert than I originally thought. It will be a long drive back home, but it will be a good one.

This essay was contributed by Joel Smith in Tucson, Arizona. His personal web site is www.BajaArizona.com.

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