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...
2/9/2017 04:16:20 pm
Let Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument not be your destination, but a journey of discovery for all the good and meaningful things in your life.
Chris H (chaparrallover)
2/9/2017 08:08:46 pm
You're a great writer and photographer. Jeff. It's so hard (for me, at least) both to enjoy a trip and document it at the same time. The site of those giant organ pipe and saguaro cacti is impressive.
2/9/2017 08:13:03 pm
Thank you for this post and the photographs. I was transported from this small Kentucky town through your words and your pictures to such a beautiful place. It's a good reminder to continue living with the things around us, to quiet the chaos, if even just for a moment.
2/9/2017 08:55:21 pm
It is an unbelievably beautiful place, there is no place like it. Your photography continues to get better and better.
2/10/2017 03:02:36 am
A wonderful visit to a special place. I spent an afternoon, a night and a morning in Organ Pipe on the last weekend of March the park was open. I arrived in the early afternoon. The sun was so intense I had to take refuge in the visitor center after setting up my tent. The evening cooled off nicely. Knowing I couldn't take another full day in that heat, I rose early the next morning, packed up and then took the Ajo drive just as the sun was rising. I stopped frequently, hiked to the arch amid batches of glorious wildflowers. I'll never forget that special morning. Thank you for helping me recall it.
Great story Stephen. It does start to get hot in March but you did the smartest thing. Get out there on that magnificent road and hang out in the shadow of the Ajo Mountains. Recently someone asked me the elevation of the Monument and I didn't know exactly. I just knew it was "low" - turns out it's a 1000 feet in elevation and that Mt. Ajo (not Ajo Peak which is north of the monument) is 4808 feet and gives some wonderful shade on those hot days. The good thing about going a little later than I usually do is, as you mention, the wildflowers. Last year Lupe and I visited Organ Pipe and the Superstitions in March and the blooming wildflowers were breathtaking. Let's meet out there one of these days!
Love reading about your travels my friend, and your photography is growing by leaps and bounds. Your photos are getting stronger and more personal all the time.
Hey amigo, thanks so much for your kind and supportive words. It was seeing YOUR photography that started me thinking about how fun it would be to start making images of my journeys and to try and make them "my own". I've always appreciated and respected your style, knowledge and artistic approach. Your friendship means a lot in more than a few ways. It's damn good to know you and I hope to see you soon.
Simply lovely. I'm having a difficult day and it's good to be reminded what a lovely place the world is. I can almost smell the dessert! I must go see these places for myself. Traveling the world at the moment, but have a vague "retirement" plans to buy a second hand camper and travel the US, with focus on the Southwest.
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This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.