There was a popular song, written in 1927, called "My Blue Heaven", that my mother would sing to me as a child. Maybe you've heard it. One of the lyrics went:
"Whippoorwills call, evenin' is nigh
Hurry to my Blue Heaven and a little nest nestled where the roses bloom. Just Molly and me and the baby makes three."
The song is filled with imagery and I pictured it in my mind's eye as a young boy. The words and my Mom's pretty voice soothed me and I remember asking her (she would have been 80 today) to sing it over and over again. I hadn't thought of this song for many, many years but on this latest trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument the song jumped into my head and the words naturally changed to my green heaven. The last several years now I have traveled extensively in the West and I've seen magnificent places but there is no place on earth that I feel more at home or connected to than Organ Pipe. The air itself is different. The earth feels differently below my feet. Edward Abbey served as a Park Ranger there and he loved the area too calling adjacent Cabeza Prieta the "finest desert wilderness in North America" and said this:
Transparent and intangible as sunlight, yet always and everywhere present, the desert lures a man on and on, from the red-walled canyon to the smoke-blue ranges beyond, in a futile but fascinating quest for the great, unimaginable treasure which the desert seems to promise. Once caught by this golden lure you become a prospector for life. -
Cactus Ed was right. I'm a "prospector" for what remains of my life.
The Sonoran desert is very different than other deserts in North America. Since there are five seasons; winter, spring, summer, monsoon, and autumn, and two of those can see quite a bit of rain (winter and monsoon) the desert is truly alive. The last few years I've experienced some rain during January visits to the Monument and the beauty and smell of that experience is indescribable. On this trip it was warm and sunny which made for poor photographic opportunities but maximum recreation and relaxation.
Another thing about this trip - I turned 60 recently and this damn birthday stimulated more than a few hours of introspection and reflection. As I look back I have many beautiful memories but I have also endured my share of pain: losing my parents to cancer and Alzheimer's too early, I was diagnosed with glaucoma at an unusually early age with all that entails, I faced appalling and dishonest injustice instigated and condoned by people I liked and trusted, I've lost several dear friends to death, suicide and the vagaries of time. Of course, I also extensively pondered all of my own terrible mistakes and sins which are too numerous and odious to count.
While contemplating it became clear to me that while life has been, at times, profoundly joyful and fulfilling it has also been deeply sorrowful and painful and often seemed impossible to endure. But, endure I have. I know I've been foolish on occasion but I've gained some wisdom and I've hung on even when experiencing abject hopelessness. It seems clear that I am, if nothing else, resilient, and so it is with the desert. I love the sea and the mountains but, as I get older, and come to terms with my own mortality, my respect and affection for the desert grows more deeply every year. Life is hard, for sure, but the cacti, the creosote, the bobcat, the roadrunner and the lizard thrive against the odds in an often harsh and exposed existence. The resilient Sonoran desert not only gives me solace it inspires me to live my own life more fully and with fewer complaints. Wherever I go it will always remain my own true home.
Remarkably, in this desert milieu live 850 plants and animals. Barren, brown desert? Not by a long shot. An example is the ocotillo (or coachwhip or candlewood). Talk about resilient. The ocotillo looks like an unassuming pile of dead sticks for much of the year. Then, if and when it rains, it becomes a brilliant green. It is a glorious transformation.
It is a long drive (9 hours) out to Organ Pipe for me. I determined to simply relax and meditate on my first day. Perhaps I'd just hang around the campsite in the sun and maybe go for a short hike around the campground. When I woke up I had far too much energy for such sedentary activities. I jumped in the truck and drove to Ajo. I got my permit to travel in the Cabeza Prieta and Barry Goldwater Range and chatted with the BLM folks. I then decided to drive into the Cabeza Prieta and come back to camp via the Bates Well Road and Pozo Nuevo in Organ Pipe. The weather was warm and I drove with the windows wide open. I stopped and talked to whoever was around (except the Border Patrol who were parked in too many places). I met some eccentric and intrepid travelers out there. The desert does attract us oddballs. My people...
In the middle of the day my old bones began to tire after two days of solid driving and several hours of being jostled on rutted and rocky dirt roads. I arrived at Bates Ranch in the northern portion of Organ Pipe Monument and took a few photos. If you find Bates Ranch as interesting as I do you can read more about its' history here. Despite being in the boundaries of a National Monument the ranch didn't actually stop operation until 1976. There is something about old West ranches that seems to ask for black and white photos.
I also made some color photos of this fascinating place.
The next few days I did get some of that sweet relaxation in. For the first time in many years I did not drive out to Quito Baquito but went on several short hikes in the Monument. I found some small hills to climb and meditate on. I studied the scenery. I sat in the slim shade of Saguaro and Senita cactus. I ate snacks in the cholla gardens. I stopped worrying. I listened to the crying coyotes each night. I made a few photographs but it was not a priority. I chatted with my campground neighbors. I relaxed out of my separation from the land. I visited with the Park Rangers. I slowed down. I heard the cactus wren and the ravens. I experienced each moment as fully as I could. I had a damn fine time.
I saved, for the last day, a late afternoon and twilight drive through the Ajo Mountains. I rolled down the windows and crept along the road. A desert breeze blew through the cab of the truck. I occasionally stopped and got out to take photos and take short walks. I immersed myself in the desert. I thought of my children and wished they were with me. As I neared the end of the drive I started missing Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and I hadn't left it yet.
I'd apologize for the mawkish tone of this trip review but it wouldn't be sincere. I may wax tritely and in cliche riddled phrases but I'm at a loss to describe my love for the Sonoran Desert and if it sounds maudlin so be it. If you do get a feeling for my love of the place then I'm pleased. I encourage you to read Abbey, Bowden, and Krutch. They get closer to doing this slice of "green desert heaven" more justice than I ever will.
I count the days until my next visit. Thanks for coming along.
This last photo of dancing Saguaros is one that I enjoy. May you all be healthy, happy, safe and at ease. Until next time...
I've been home almost a week and, funny enough, I'm itching to get back on the road. I know that the good weather months are dwindling and that soon it will be cold- my traveling and camping nemesis. I have a trip planned to Utah in less than two weeks and then the wait for the twins begins in earnest and I'll probably stay pretty close to home.
One of the most enjoyable activities of the winter months is planning the next year's travel. So far, I plan on two trips to Organ Pipe NM this winter. After 11 long years the monument is now fully open again which is exciting to say the least. I can now explore some places I've been itching to see for awhile but were closed due to the US Border Patrol's activities.
Have you read, "The Devil's Highway" by Luis Urrea? The setting is Organ Pipe- it's a tragic story and my views on immigration were only solidified by reading it. I know it's a complex issue but we MUST find a more humane way of dealing with those desperately poor people from Mexico who simply want a better life in the USA (as did all our relatives- except the indigenous). I have lots of deeply passionate thoughts about these issues and, perhaps, in future, I'll devote an entire blog to what I believe the problems are (and there are many - starting with the government of Mexico and US policy) and how we might go about creating a better world for our brothers and sisters from the south. If you have an interest in these matters please read Urrea, or "Border Patrol Nation" by Todd Miller. Or read anything that Charles Bowden has written on the Border problems.
If you know me, at all, you know I love all things Southwest- by extension- I love Mexico and the Mexican culture. It's everywhere you go in the Southwest and it's one of the major reasons I love it here.
Back to my plans for next year- so Organ Pipe is on big time. I'm also going to spend some time at Anza Borrego near Little Blair Valley doing some boondocking near a dry lake bed. Last year when I was there I was mesmerized by the solitude and stark beauty of the place. The problem was that it's at 3000 feet elevation, it was during a cold snap, and when I awoke it was 21 degrees F. WAY too cold. This fall/winter I'm hoping to go when it's a bit warmer. Of course, I'll also figure out a time to go to my beloved Joshua Tree NP.
In March I'm heading to Big Bend National Park in Southern Texas along the mighty Rio Grande. This is a trip that I've been wanting to do since my 20's and I'm finally going to make it happen. That trip will include stops in Arizona and New Mexico and may include a stop at Palo Duro Canyon and Guadalupe NP. April is a wonderful month to explore the coastal mountains near Santa Barbara and Big Sur and I'll backpack then. I love to travel in May because the weather is warming and the crowds are at a minimum. I will probably be in Taos and Santa Fe then. In June I'll head to the Sierras again. July is "Lupe and Lilly time" and we are still in the process of deciding. I'm considering two options for August - either Flathead Lake and Glacier NP in Montana or a Northern Cascades trip in Washington.
This last trip was really spectacular and I'm strongly considering heading back to the Four Corners in Utah and Colorado in September. I'm still, as I sit here at home, staggered by the scenery I saw in Colorado on this last trip.
My next trip, leaving on October 6, includes a visit with my very best friend from high school, Kevin D. , and still one of the best people I've ever known (or ever will know). He went to college in Utah and then got a job there and so our visits have been sporadic (at best) over the years. I'm hoping that changes in the next few years as we both move into the retirement phase of our lives. As I told him recently- one of us is still working (him) and one of us is a hobo (me) so his schedule will dictate things for awhile. Luckily he's free on the weekend of Oct. 11 and I get to hang with him on this trip. Knowing Kev he's explored most of that beautiful country up there and I'll be the beneficiary of his knowledge.
Here's my Utah tentative itinerary:
10/6 Navajo National Monument
10/7 Arches NP
10/8 Arches NP
10/9 Arches NP
10/10 Canyonlands NP
10/11 Visiting with Kevin near Vernal, UT
10/12 Goblin SP
10/13 Goblin SP
10/14 Capitol Reef NP
10/15 Kodachrome SP
Looks amazing doesn't it? Arches NP remains my favorite. Before I read Ed Abbey I visited it and had an OBE (out of body experience)- after I read, "Desert Solitaire" I understood why. I probably feel more "at home" in Arches than any other place on earth. There is no place like the Red Rock Country of the Colorado Plateau. Being there fulfills my heart's desire. I'll look forward to sharing pictures on my return as always.
Thanks for reading this. I hope all is well in your life and that you too are planning your next adventure. I'll look forward to writing again soon and sharing about another one of my new passions- playing guitar.
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.