Arizona State Route 85 runs 130 miles from Buckeye to the Mexico border near Lukeville. There’s not much there for those 130 miles — a large (very large) military base and a few small towns dedicated to the sales of Mexican Auto Insurance — and that’s the whole damn point. I spent two hours on that road, speedometer hugging 75 and the radio tuned to anything that would reach my antenna. As I finally rolled in to my campsite at the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe National Monument, the headlights of my rented sky-blue compact caught the eyes of a young coyote, who would, over the course of my stay, take three shits on my stove, angry that I wasn’t leaving any food out for him.
The saguaros stood proud under the moon and the cactus wrens yelled from atop their chollas while I put up my tent and made black bean soup with a can of green chiles.
When done with dinner, I put some hot water and whiskey into a small tin cup, walked a few hundred yards into the desert, sat down and started humming a song I had written a few years ago after reading Edward Abbey’s “Winter In The Organ Pipes,” a chapter from the “Cactus Country” edition of Time-Life’s Wilderness Series:
“I’ll meet you in the Organ Pipe All alone on a winter’s night You’ll say, “Come home.” I’ll stay. You won’t.”
The next morning, after driving into Lukeville and buying a plastic gallon of water and a few lemons to join my evening hot water and whiskey, I hiked to the top of Arch Canyon, a short trail that leads to a difficult scramble up to a small red arch. The views from the top of the arch, and from almost anywhere in the desert, are endless. Organ pipes, saguaros and ocotillos run for miles and miles in the dry winter wind, perfectly placed in the sand, soaking in the sun all day.
I had wanted to come to this place for a long time, and now that I was there, sitting on a rocky, red throne a few thousand feet above sea level, king of all the desert life that was hiding from the cold, I felt the way I always hope to feel when I go camping: small and insignificant. I walked back down the trail as a young couple from Tucson were slowly walking up. We gave each other a quick hello and a series of forced smiles before I got back to my car.
There’s no backcountry camping in Organ Pipe. Too many drug smugglers and illegal immigrants crossing the border. The monument’s visitor center is named after Kris Eggle, a ranger who was shot and killed a few years ago while tracking members of a Mexican drug cartel that was fleeing Mexico after a string of murders. Sure, staying at a group campsite is a bummer, but this place isn’t Yosemite. The campsite is small, in the middle of nowhere and dead silent for most of the day. You can hear the pack rats scattering around your tent at night and the coyotes howling from the hills. And, hell, without that campsite, I wouldn’t have met Richard.
Before my second hike that same day, I was standing at the trailhead, eating an apple smeared in almond butter, trying to figure out how far I should go before the sun was going to go down. I decided on a short hike, an easy 4.6-mile round trip to Victoria Mines, an old silver mine located in the southern part of the park. I heard a deep voice call out “HI THERE!” behind me, and turned to find an old, skinny, bearded Pete- Seeger-looking man, wearing a beige baseball cap to cover up his bald head.
“Going to the mines?” he asked.
“I am, yes.”
“Ah great, so am I!”
The hike to Victoria mines was beautiful. Sure, the shape of a saguaro can leave a little less to the imagination than a cloud, but some of those things look so funny, so distorted, that you have to stop to admire them, to think of what went right and what went wrong on their journey toward the Arizona sky. Richard and I hiked the entire way together, talking non-stop for several hours (he’s in his 70s and walked painfully slow), while kicking around quartz and naming plants. When we got to the mines, we drank water and ate a bag of pepitas, then took pictures of each other with the Sonoran Desert at our backs. Ravens flew above as the sky started turning crimson, and as we headed back to camp, Richard stopped, pointed to a large ocotillo and quietly whispered to himself, “The Devil’s Walking Stick.”
For the last seven years, Richard had been living in his van, chasing the sunny weather, while admiring our country’s great public lands. He was one of the nicest men I had ever met and I would spend the rest of my trip with him, eating meals together, going on more hikes and telling each other who the hell we were and why the hell we were both sleeping in the desert. We agreed that anyone who came so far out of their way to spend time in such a barren and unforgiving land, a land that most have never heard of, would surely share some type of bond, some type of understanding.
When it was time for me to leave Arizona and fly up to San Francisco, Richard and I exchanged email addresses. He would be staying at Organ Pipe for another two weeks, then making his way east to Big Bend National Park, his favorite place to go camping. We shook hands and agreed we’d someday meet in the Middle Of Nowhere again, but this time in Texas.
Jeff Thrope lives in the great barren wilderness of Brooklyn, NY, and spends most of his time writing an outdoor blog called Cold Splinters. Jeff owns every issue of the Mountain Gazette that Edward Abbey was published in.