Organ Pipe Memories

Morning brightens revealing the desert. Dawn has moved up behind the Ajo Mountains almost unnoticed, like a mother padding around her kitchen barefoot, trying not to disturb her children. The clusters of organ pipe cactus on the stoney hillsides get it. They maintain their silent vigils. The cactus wrens do not. Their raucous chattering (the cactus wren call can hardly be called a song) cuts throughout the quiet morning like revelers stumbling in from an all-night party. The banging of a metal plate tells me that a woodpecker is looking for breakfast in all the wrong places. I get a whiff of creosote, hinting of rain from a distant place and time. The noise grows and the stars fade as the desert rises to meet the day. By staying still I believe I’ll be able to see the exact moment each star winks out. I never do. Before long even the brightest are gone, absorbed by a blue sky floating a shoal of clouds that reminds me of foam on a beach. I snuggle in my bag for one last look at Venus. The morning star glows just above the tip of a saguaro, like a candle burning atop a Christmas tree.

I am in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We arrived last night in time to unroll our bags before midnight, so technically have slept out in January–the dead heart of winter. But really it is the start of February. Tomorrow, February 2, is Groundhog Day, the Druid first day of spring. We didn’t pick this particular weekend just to sleep out on a freezing desert night, or just to avoid crowds. That would be stupid. We picked it because the moon was slowly losing its retrograde maneuver with Earth’s rotation, becoming smaller and rising later, making the stars brighter and brighter.  Tonight a new moon–more darkness in this dark corner of the desert.

It was worth enduring the cold for. I was no sooner warm in my down bag when a shooting star whooshed by. This one didn’t burn out up among the stars, a silent thread ignited and gone. This one whizzed past barely clearing the tops of the saguaros. I could hear the noise of it. I could see the sparkling trail of burning rock disintegrating in its wake. It seemed to light up the campground.

That kept me awake for awhile. Waiting for sleep, I watched a few more meteors burn up and wink out in the mesosphere, while the Big Dipper rotated imperceptibly counterclockwise–lifting Scorpio and Orion higher overhead. I admired the stunning silence of the sleeping desert. When the border crossing in Lukeville closed at midnight, the traffic faded away and the only human sounds seemed to be my gurgling gut and tinnitus. Cold. Silence. Stars. Those were some of the things I’d come back for. So this morning, I had no qualms about lingering in the warmth of my bed enjoying it.

While I came for quiet and constellations, I’d also come out of curiosity, curious to see if my memories matched up with the here and now. When the kids were just up off the floor we’d spent a string of Thanksgivings here. During the night, we escaped the cold dry wind in a big North Face tent down on the far end of the campground. During the day, the kids ran around terrorizing Gila monsters while we poked into the far corners of the monument. Our adventures went on from the time Don Henley’s Sunset Grill was finally fading from the radio until the millennium began. By then the kids were into their teens and had better things to do than hang out in the desert. My friend Mary had come here a lot in the past too. After all, the Ajo Mountains have a 20-mile dirt loop road, perfect for a morning run. But at some point these remote desert passages were either taken over by drug cartels, or the cartels simply took over our collective imaginations. Either way, she stopped going. We decided that now was the time to return.

After fortifying ourselves with oatmeal, tea and fruit we struck off across the desert.

Working along the Ajo Loop road, our first hike of the day is The Arch. The trail begins easily enough. We trudge along admiring the bristling teddy bear cholla, haloed in oblique sunlight. Mary began our flower count, pointing out a brave, singular, diminutive Mexican poppy. I admire the strangely colored rhyolite. Mauve? Pink? Whatever it is, this batch is more porphyritic than glassy and has the look of strawberry ice cream. We arrive soon at a sign: Caution Trail Is Steep And Rocky. I didn’t remember the sign being there before. Maybe it was. Signs like these litter the desert. A more likely scenario is that tourists, in the process of become more well-rounded, now need more reminders that bigger chunks our trail systems are beyond their abilities. Whatever the case, this sign was a joke. There is no trail. The way to The Arch is a route at best, a path maybe. It’s more like a consensus really. Of all the aggravating ways up there this is the least aggravating, and so it is the way most people go. It is steep. And it is rocky. But a sign makes it seem like it should be taken seriously. It should not. After all, my wife and I had our small children up there more times than you could shake a stick at. We start up the drainage.

The next thing I discovered, after forty-five minutes of bushwhacking, is that I didn’t remember how to get to The Arch. I know the trail overshoots it. A trajectory directly up the drainage brings you to yet another cliff, yet another scenic view of the valley. At some point you must turn back north, look for a large juniper tree nearly hidden in an arroyo, and descend to The Arch, over what looks like an animal path, from there. We rerouted ourselves over a ledge and stumbled to The Arch that way. Mission accomplished.

And what is The Arch exactly? It is nothing. Rising abruptly from the surrounding desert, the Ajo Mountains are a geomorphic mess of block faulting, volcanic eruption, and lava flow. Perhaps bubbles formed in that jumbled igneous mess, or maybe the lava flowed over patches of ash which later eroded. Either way, what was left behind was nothing. The Arch is an arch, just an empty open curve in a cliff in a mountain. In other words: sublime. We enjoyed the sublimity, accentuated by the bright desert morning. But it felt like the updraft from the entire valley was funnelling through that hole. It was cold. And Mary had peaks on her mind. It was time to descend. Which is, of course, when we found the route we should have taken getting there.

Halfway down I began realizing how hard this was. The footing? Not treacherous, but bad. The steepness? A few miles would blacken your toenails. Bad enough. But you also have to snake around gnarled junipers, Christmas cholla, jojoba, brittle bush, sotol, and a myriad of other thorny, stabbing inconveniently placed plants. Then there is the withering dryness. Finally, add the dizzying clarity of the desert air combined with the equally dizzying cliff faces jutting up at every turn, and the result is tricky, tiring hiking. We began joking that the sign should have a more stentorian tone. Perhaps James Earl Jones should stand at the bottom reminding you that the trail is steep AND rocky. As the descent grew irksome, I began questioning the sanity of the man who brought three little children up here. So this is why they carped about it so much. On to Bull Pasture.

Good memory would have taken me directly to the Estes Canyon trailhead with its fancy toilet and picnic ramada. That’s where the primitive route we planned to take to Bull Pasture starts. But that’s not where I remembered it. I drove past, not realizing my mistake until we had no choice but to loop the entire road again.

In hindsight, going around again was a good thing. Mary had developed a myopia about bagging Ajo Peak. I was less sure. Getting to Bull Pasture is easy enough. If by easy you mean on a steep trail littered with ankle-turning chunks of obsidian, rhyolite and tuft. But at Bull Pasture the trail ends, replaced by a route that becomes less distinct as you approach the peak. At some point, according to the xeroxed paper Mary had acquired at the visitors center, it is a scramble up a scree slope. And who knows what beyond that? Daylight was already waning. We stuffed jackets, headlamps, and extra food into our day packs as insurance against any stupid decisions, rechecked our water supply, and started up the trail.

For sure, Bull Pasture is further away than it was twenty years ago. By 3:30 we were still in the shadow of a massive jutting block of volcanic rock just past the junction of the Estes Canyon Trail. If making the peak was going to take speed, we weren’t doing well. The good news was that our flower count jumped to fifteen, included the smallest flower I’d ever seen–probably only a millimeter across. And I hadn’t seen it. Mary spotted that one. The shadows were moving faster than we were. We decided to go on until 4:30, then turn around.

Eventually we came to Bull Pasture. Pasture should be in quotes. There is nothing pastoral about this chunk of desert. Roughly speaking, it is a big open bowl not really steep, but not really flat either. Its claim to fame may be that, after you did get cattle up here, it would take very little fence to keep them. Cliffs would do the work for you. From that perspective, there is nothing to see. Take a seat, though, at the edge of a west-facing cliff and there is plenty to see. The Bates Mountains, the Growler Mountains, the Sonoyta Mountains, the Cipriano Hills, the Quitobaquito Hills and all of the vast, lovely basins between are laid out in front of you like a map. Here, the wise will pull out their sandwiches and water bottles and take their respite. Others might take a stroll to the bottom of the pasture and listen for bees humming inside the dead fifteen foot stalks of century plants, agave americana.

We weren’t that smart. Making the peak and back before dark was impossible. But we continued on through the waning sunshine, the sere grass and the horizontal, coffee-brown agaves stalks, just to see how far we could go. It was worth it. Our turnaround point was on the high edge of the pasture, the views back north along the range stunning. And our flower count was up to twenty. We hunkered down on a rough, crumbling chunk of stone, uncased the binoculars, and glassed for a hiker we knew, from the trail register, to be headed for the peak. Daniel the Oregonian was nowhere to be seen. The cliffs took on an amber cast, then orange, as the sun rotated toward the horizon. The shadows crawled out from under the rocks and spiny plants again, growing longer, converging. It was getting colder too. Reluctantly we took another swig of water, donned our packs and began our descent.

We made the car just as the sun withdrew below the Diablo Mountains, revealing the bright sliver of moon that had been hiding in plain view most of the day. I was tired. Really tired. Again I questioned the sanity of the man who had dragged his small children up to Bull Pasture and back. No wonder those poor kids slept so well.

We slept well too. Our plan was to stay up picking out constellations, waiting for the Milky Way to brighten. And we did for awhile. Mars and Venus took their place in the sky. Trusty Orion showed up early. Likewise The Big Dipper. Scorpio made its showing. Finally, Cassiopeia glowed brightly against the shimmering Milky Way itself. But I found myself waking up with my glasses still on and the tops of the saguaros pointing to different constellations. I stayed awake for a moment straining to hear the cosmic hum from the center of the of the Milky Way but soon abandoned the plan and settled in for the night.

On Groundhog Day we celebrated the return of spring by heading for Victoria Mine. This, finally, was easy hiking. The air was cool, the sun bright, our water bags refilled that morning at the spigot. I took an occasional sip from mine just for the taste of ancient rock and old iron pipes. Delicious. The trail wound up and down through a series of arroyos. With each rise, our flower count went up–even the stingy creosote parsed out an occasional yellow flower. We recognized, after a bit, that saguaros in the arroyos had multiple arms. Those on the higher drier plain were as straight as posts.

At last mine tailings on a not-too-distant hillside came into view. The kids and I had been inside that one, one of the few with a horizontal shaft. But on a later trip we could hear the trampling of dozens of hooves inside. It had been taken over by minions from the underworld, or maybe javelinas. A panicked javelina nothing to mess with, so we backed out and never went in again. This time, Mary and I turned left and followed a dirt track to the Victoria Mine.

Once there, there wasn’t much to do. Or see. What remained was nothing more than, as my favorite songwriter said, dead skies, empty mines, broken glass, rattlesnakes. We scuffed our toes in the dirt and enjoyed the fact that no one else had decided to take a walk across this piece of desert this morning. But with the openings to the shafts buttoned up there really was nothing to explore. The privation and desolation and plain hard work endured by the men here was in plain view. The scattered pieces of machinery and broken down stone building were forlorn reminders that the desert does not participate in the dreams of men. It exists in its own time, in its own way. This bitter land spits out any who are out of step with its rhythms. So we did not stay long either. Our real reason for being here was to enjoy a walk. To do that we needed only to continue on our way.

Mid-morning brought us back at the campground. Nothing remained but a three hour drive back home. Crossing the Tohono O’Odham Reservation, bigger than Connecticut, and filled with strange place names like Ghu Vo, Hickiwan, and Pisinemo, would give me plenty of time to update my failing memory. The Organ Pipe I had visited with my wife and kids was practically gone. Some moments were cast in stone. Others floated in an ether, unable to take form outside the context of a photo or anecdote. Memory is far too fragile a vessel to be trusted with our past. I think of the long strips of flypaper we hung in the pantry of a house on a farm far away, long ago. Our memories are flypaper memories. Of all that moves through our lives in bits and blurs, some things stick, some don’t. I have a few photographs and some things I wrote down that show I was here once with a young wife and three small children. Who knows, perhaps the park service even has old trail registers with our names on them. But despite walking the ground I know we walked before, those memories refuse to form.

In some ways I think this is okay. Maybe it is better for the past to course through our blood, unnoticed, infinitesimal bits that sustain us, like the iron in our veins that came from ancient stars, than it is for them to be always in our face pushing us backwards. After all, we live in the here and now. The past is uninhabitable. Besides, the forgetfulness gives me new things to explore, right there in a place I was before.

A cluster of organ pipe cactus near the Diablo Hills
A cluster of organ pipe cactus near the Diablo Hills

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