The theme of the last two days has been “Cactus”. Also, “Surviving the Heat”. Because it hasn’t dropped below 100 degrees except between 10 PM and 9AM. I do have air conditioning in my van, but it sounds as if I’m standing under a 747 taking off and it can drain my house battery down in about 20 minutes. So I’ve been staging my forays for early mornings and trying to take frequent breaks in museums, Visitor’s Centers, and Starbucks. Since I’ve been in National Monuments, there haven’t been very many of the latter.

On the agenda were Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Saguaro National Park. Organ Pipe, a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve, is the only place north of the Mexican border where the frost-sensitive Organ Pipe Cactus can grow. As I learned from the Visitor’s Center, where I fled to bring my core temperature down, the Sonoran Desert is a “green desert”. It has two rainy seasons a year, a lighter one in the winter from prevailing winds from the Pacific and a heavy monsoon later in the summer from hurricanes coming up the Gulf. It certainly looked lush, for a desert, and I just happened to hit it when the iconic Saguaro Cactus were in bloom. If you get a kick out of reading the many compendiums of clueless Yelp reviews made by visitors to National Parks, several tourists have complained that Organ Pipe has too many Saguaro. Yes, it has thousands, whole forests of Saguaro, but if you are coming to see the desert, wouldn’t you be interested in seeing ALL cactus, not just the one mentioned in the Monument’s name?

In addition to the Organ Pipe Cactus, which are abundant in Mexico, there are many other reminders that Mexico is just a few miles away. To get to the Monument, I turned off the I-10 and started following the signs to Mexico. In gentler times, the border towns did a brisk trade with Gringo tourists. When I was a kid in Tucson, I can remember driving to Mexico for lunch. There is one nearby border town, Algodones, called Tooth City because of the dozens of dentists who line the main street. It’s a destination for RV nomads, retirees, and those seeking inexpensive dental care. I’ve talked to RVers who claim the services are excellent. The Trump border frenzy, Covid and increasing xenophobia have shut a lot of that traffic down. As I entered the Monument entry town of Ajo, every other building was an office hawking Mexican insurance. No one seemed to be doing much business.

Another blight on the area has been the crack down on border crossings in big city areas in Califronia and Texas, which hasn’t stopped illegal passage, it’s just moved it to remote areas that are much more dangerous to crossers and much more difficult to police. I wanted to go see the border wall that Trump was building smack through the Organ Pipe Biosphere — and through the sovereign nation of the Tohono O’odham, who strenuously opposed it. Besides bisecting Organ Pipe from its sister Mexican Bioreserve, the wall is blocking traditional Tohono O’odham gathering grounds, separating Native families who live on both sides of the border, and disrupting animal migratory routes. This article takes a deeper dive into the destruction.

There is no doubt there are issues at the border. The namesake of the Kris Eggles Visitor’s Center at Organ Pipe was killed in the line of duty pursuing cartel members who had fled across the border after committing murder in Mexico. One of the best examinations of the issues at the border was written years ago, but still seems to hold true. The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea tells the story of one of the deadliest border crossings: 26 men attempted to cross this stretch of desert. Only 11 came out alive. The ordeal was horrific with the dead men literally cooking to death. Urrea tells the story from the viewpoint of everyone involved at all stages of the tragedy. Close to the event, he finds no villains: not the Border Patrol who break down in tears telling him about finding bodies of women and children in the desert. Not the men who attempted the desperate crossing to find a better life and work that would support their families. Even the Coyote is just a Tijuana street punk and gang wannabe. The cartels don’t waste valuable skilled members on transporting people across the border, especially since they pay their fee up-front and there are no refunds if they are caught or die. Certainly this coyote had no orienteering skills, no wilderness survival ability, and no clue where he was going as he led his group further into the furnace of the Sonora Desert. If there are villains, they are far from the action. Callous government officials on both sides of the border and cartel members who see the refugees as “pollos” (chickens): easy money to be made with less risk than their main business of drug dealing.

But back to the cactus. After a wonderful scenic drive up to Ajo Mountain to view forests of Saguaro and Organ Pipe Cactus, I took a short sleep, and got up at the crack of dawn to continue my journey. I also wanted to see the tightly closed blossoms of the Saguaro open up, which they only do in the relative cool of the morning.

I drove miles through the morning past thousands of blooming Saguaros.

For my first stop south of Tucson, I moseyed over to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, surely one of the best natural museums in the United States, maybe the world. Ninety percent of it is outdoors and it covers all the bioregions in the area with displays of the native animals, insects and plants. I stopped by the Mountain Lion exhibit and learned that the cat on display was from San Jose! He’d been prowling around people’s back yards and kept returning even when taken to remote areas. So now he’s in Arizona at the cat habitat.

The museum also has extensive displays recording the history of animals in this area from the dinosaur era to today. No matter how many times I read it, I’m always amazed that the Southwest was teaming with horses, camels, and elephants before they mysteriously died out. At least the horse was reintroduced. As were camels, briefly, with the ill-fated Camel Corps during the Civil War.

I was also thrilled to see an excellent display on one of my favorite extinct Southwestern animals, the Giant Shasta Sloth, which was the last animal that could effectively disperse the huge seeds of the Joshua Tree. When the sloths went, Joshua Trees could only grow where the seeds fell.

The exhibit even had real fossilized Sloth Poo! I bet there are Joshua Tree seeds in there. C’mon Jurassic Park type scientists, bring back the Shasta Ground Sloth!

After the ranger at Organ Pipe had scared me to death with stories of marauding hordes of Diamondbacks, scorpions, and Gila Monsters, I was glad to confront these critters behind glass.

And this is about as close to a Gila Monster, America’s only venomous lizard, that I want to get.

I ended the tourist portion of my day with a trip out to The White Dove of the Desert, Mission San Xavier del Bac, on the Tohono O’odham Reservation (which I’d traveled across to get to Tucson from Organ Pipe.)

I remember being very impressed with the Mission when I was a kid. But also with the Fry Bread that they are still selling in the Plaza in front.

Now to find a restaurant to wait out the rest of the day’s heat before I set up to see if I can photograph tonight’s lunar eclipse. Then on to higher elevations and more northerly areas, where, hopefully, it will be a bit cooler.