Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

organ pipe national monument


We pull into Gunsight Wash, some BLM land just north of the national monument.

No one is there. The ruts in the sand, abandoned campfires and cow patties sit lonely in the desert, no tires to dig deeper, wood to be burned or fellow campers to complain about the occasional waft of last night’s hay. Riparian foliage, cottonwoods and mesquites lining the dry creek bed, twist and turn their branches into the sky as if nature had fashioned a stadium for us, and us alone, to watch the beetles and vultures work their magic on this place.

Still, there’s something eerie about the location. A sign reads something to the effect of, “If you see any illegals, don’t engage them.” The thought had never crossed my mind, having lived for over a year in Mexico and being the type who agrees that any immigration is just good old fashioned American ideals. Yet, the sense of it all, the signs warning not to throw your trash in the rest stop garbage cans across the road, and the thusly littered grounds we barely scratch the surface of with our two or three shopping bags…it leaves us yearning to get into Organ Pipe National Monument proper.

But on a Friday, at 5pm?

We close the van doors and fire the engine back up, toss the chairs back into the bed and point her toward the park.

“Any chance you still have some availability at the campground?” my wife, gorgeous I might add, asks the ranger at the lone visitor center, named for a border patrol agent who lost his life at the hands of a Mexican drug smuggler’s firearm.

“Absolutely,” the ranger is chipper, “just head on down and pay at the entrance.”

The campground has what must be 200 spots. We have no neighbors save an elf owl come evening and the occasional RVer looking for a spot like ours, far from everyone else.

Aside from the cacti which give the park its name, a tall bunch of arms reaching into the air from a center source, proud and green against the clear blue sky, a seasoned mechanic’s toolbox worth of foliage grows here. The saguaros–heros of the American cacti–still make their way this far south, and on into Mexico. Teddy bear cholla look fuzzy enough to snuggle, though they’d be happy to stick you with their intentions otherwise.

The ocotillo, spindly grey branches shooting like Death’s fence into the air, are in bloom, their match head red flowers like little daylight lanterns all around. Between the prickly pear and button cacti, wrens and mice scatter for cover, snakes pray for shade and jackrabbits put on some vaudeville desert act, always just shy enough of elusive to make their big ears, big feet parade.

a saguaro tree stands in organ pipe cactus national monument
A saguaro in Organ Pipe, Mexico’s Sierra Madres can be seen in the distant mountains.

Organ Pipe is not a national park, but a national monument. What that means, well, is irrelevant. The United States is wonderful for a few reasons, near the top of my list of which is because we preserve things. Whether the powers that be choose to define this as a park or monument is of little concern to me, it’s the fact that it exists, that it’s beauty–barely rivaled by the Cactus Forest of Saguaro National Park, and certainly more diverse–is allowed to persist nearly untouched, that is part of the magic. And perhaps not being an official “national park” has spared it many a Nike’s worth of foot traffic.

a teddy bear cholla
A teddy bear cholla.

It’s out of the way. It doesn’t get the full “park” designation. It’s gorgeous. And lonesome. There are border scares, fatal ones even. There are opinions over who is right and who is left, whether right is wrong or left is even in the picture. These things fade away as you begin to wander the trails and dirt roads of Organ Pipe National Monument, they fade as the sunset over the mountains, as the stars in the haze of the night, ever rotating and changing, because mother nature doesn’t understand the border we’ve erected between the US and Mexico. Mother nature just deals in its own happenings, hoping, perhaps, that we won’t screw it up so bad she’ll need to wipe us from the earth.

After a sunset or three surely shot into the atmosphere by the Crayola company, we pack up on our final morning to leave.

“There are two types of folks you’ll see coming through here,” a ranger tells us as we’re just about to pull out.

“The guys you see in the daytime, they’re coming from parts south of Mexico. They want to get caught. They’re seeking asylum.”

“The other guys, you don’t see them as much. They come through at night. They’re the drug smugglers. We get a thousand a month, but,” he looks into the desert, “I’ve never seen even one.”

As previously mentioned, the visitor center here is named for a border patrol agent who was killed by violent smugglers in 2003. I struggle with why this is necessary. I like math.

We know that alcohol use rose 70% during prohibition. 34,000 people died from heroine, cocaine and meth in 2016. 17,500 more were killed in drug related homicides. Carry the one, divide by something, and so on…we could save 36,000 lives just by legalizing all of this stuff.

Will people still die and will lives still be wrecked by drug addiction?


But we already allow 480,000 people to kill themselves with tobacco every year. History says legalization reduces both crime and usage. We shout the benefits of deregulation on energy and banks, but rip the red white and blue right out of anyone who chooses to deregulate their own bodies. And we haven’t even touched on the number of lives ruined due to jail time for pot.

“I can’t agree with you,” another ranger says, scratching his chest just above his badge, “but I think a lot of people in the know would.”

Headed out of the park on our way to the next place, we pass a series of billboards. “States with legal marijuana had 25% less opioid deaths,” the signs claim. Apparently more people “in the know” agree than ever before.

Yes, Organ Pipe has a dark side. But it’s not one created by the cacti, and not even by the illegal immigrants coming over our borders. A place as beautiful, as remote as this might remind us all that we create our own misfortune, and sometimes the misfortune of others. We are all, in these United States, immigrants, whether from ancestral times come from Asia over the Bering Straight or Europeans seeking solace from a wicked king. To forget that we’re all in this thing together, that we can make something, or preserve something, that has been the standard on this earth for so long, is to abandon the reason we are Americans in the first place.