Being from Nebraska, I’m no stranger to open spaces. But the landscape of my home state is soft, rolling, covered in grass or crops, and dissected by roads at regular, reliable intervals.
At Organ Pipes, nothing is soft; nothing is reliable. Jagged peaks, high enough to catch clouds, jut, without prelude, from flat earth. Hard spines cover nearly every plant audacious enough to grow out of this parched, gravelly dirt. You can not trust your eyes. Cuddly looking teddy bears turn into needle-covered cacti. One mile stretches to ten. A trail that, from a distance looks smooth, turns into ups and downs, dips through washes and scrambles up hillsides.
It’d been about six years since our last visit to Organ Pipes. A million things have changed, I’m sure. But, to our eyes, the increase in motorized Homo sapiens was the biggest difference.
Organ Pipes advertises two campgrounds but Twin Peaks is the one that allows RVs. All sites have cement pads so leveling is a breeze, but none of them have water or electricity. Some loops allow generator use between certain hours; some loops are generator-free.
The national park had, understandably, enacted capacity limits because of Covid. If left to their own devices, campers will spread out. No one wants to be right next to the family with nine kids and two dogs packed into an old school bus, or the guy with all the political flags and bumper stickers, or the couple who keeps a 1000 watt security light on all night.
But instead of simply limiting reservations and allowing the campers to decide where to set up, the national park blocked off every two loops—crowding all the campers together into only a few loops. With so many more RVers this season, their policy ensured that we always had neighbors on either side of us.
There is only one road leading to Organ Pipes—Highway 85. It runs north-south past the national park to the border where it becomes Highway 8 and ends at the Sea of Cortez in the tourist town of Puerto Peñasco. It’d been quiet the last time we were here—a few RVs making the trip south, the occasional car. This time the traffic was constant. And they were all the same—white pickup trucks with eight-foot orange flags sticking up out of the beds, vehicles from the construction company building The Wall. Yes, that wall. Twin Peaks campground is about five miles from the border and the park’s property abuts the wall for miles.
We drove to the wall on a beautiful, sunny day. About a mile before the border, we turned off Hwy 85 onto a dirt road which led to the ruins of an old ranch house. Barricades blocked the road beyond the parking area for the ranch house. So we did what the thousands of footprints in the sand told us others had done: We parked and walked the short distance, fifty yards, to the wall.
The first thing that struck me was the orderliness of it, like one clean counter in an otherwise cluttered home. A smooth concrete footer, about four feet wide, supported the thirty-foot tall, hollow steel posts. A wide, graded sand road paralleled the concrete. Every fifty feet or so a high-powered light pole, each with its own beefy concrete pad and set of cameras, faced Mexico. We could see these super bright lights from the campground at night.
My second thought was, “This would be a piece of cake to get over.”
I grabbed a post to see for myself.
“Get away from it,” Mitch hissed/whispered.
We were completely alone, but we’d still been whispering. Who might be watching us? Listening to us?
The steel posts, spaced about four to five inches apart, had convenient foot-holds welded on at varying heights. I’m sure they weren’t meant to be footholds. I’m guessing the small metal plates somehow reinforced the posts. But they reminded me of the hand and footholds on a gym climbing wall.
Of course the US/Mexican border is a line of consequence for human beings only, and only for the invasive species of humans (Caucasians). The four inches between the bars allows small animals no bigger than rabbits through. But for the larger ones – pronghorn, jaguar, black bears, ocelots, and Mexican gray wolves – their access to rare desert watering holes and hunting territory has been lopped off practically overnight. And research is showing that even though birds could fly over it, many won’t. Scientists think it is because of the massive disturbance caused by constructing the wall, or possibly the stadium-bright lights.
It is ugly—a knife-fight gash that some hack sewed together with twine, unconcerned with aesthetics or future usefulness; something to stop the bleeding is all. Maybe in an urban setting, already marred by concrete and asphalt, it wouldn’t be so awful. But here? Slicing up the Sonoran Desert—this vast, rugged, inhospitable, lonesome, beautiful, mysterious landscape which for eons has been its own barrier, allowing only the most resourceful, persistent, and fortuitous beings passage.
On the other side of the wall was the Mexican village of Sonoyta. Roosters crowed, dogs barked, tall weeds grew beside low, cement-block houses. I thought of the little Mexican kids who probably played in their yards looking at the wall, born one foot in the wrong direction, wondering why the rich country to the north hated them.
On our way back to the campground we passed the same two border control agents that we’d driven by on our way out—pulled off the dirt road, windows down, chatting. We waved. They waved back.
When we’d driven from Tucson to Organ Pipes, I lost count of how many Border Control agents we’d seen. Two trucks going this way, now one towing a trailer with three four-wheelers going the other way. Two more trucks turning off the highway onto a dirt road, their dust trail disappearing into the horizon like a scene in Thelma and Louise.
Near Why, Arizona, we passed a Border Control compound with a low, sprawling building surrounded by more Border Control vehicles than there are people in Sussex County. And all the years we’ve been coming to the Southwest (over twelve) we’ve driven through the same “temporary” checkpoints that have been in the same places along the highways and interstates, each with a dozen or so agents, dogs, and cameras, cameras, cameras.
I think of these billions of dollars spent to capture a woman and her three children who’ve walked over two thousand miles in five-dollar shoes, who depleted her life savings to escape the violence of the drug gangs in Guatemala, hoping to give her kids a better life.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that only good-hearted, hard-working people cross our border. But I wonder about the ratios. And I know one thing for sure: There is no wall capable of keeping out the desperate or the depraved. Certainly not the one being built now. As long as the market in the US is profitable, the drug runners will always find a way. And the people trying to save their families will take greater and greater risks. Wouldn’t you? If your kids were starving, if your daughters and wife were in constant jeopardy of being raped, if your husband was at high risk of getting murdered just for going to work, wouldn’t you take the risk too? And if you didn’t, if you kept your family in that environment, what kind of person would that make you?
I hiked the beautiful, treacherous, well-marked trails of Organ Pipes National Monument in my cushioned, supportive shoes, carrying a pack with plenty of water and snacks for my four-mile trek, knowing I’d have a cold beer and a hot meal, a soft bed and firm pillow when I returned to the camper and I felt gratitude and sorrow. Gratitude that, through nothing but sheer luck, I was born where I was, when I was, to two wonderful people who are my parents. And sorrow for all the people navigating this unforgiving desert in fear, carrying all their hopes, dreams, and belongings on their backs.