Defending the border in southern Arizona

Sometimes certain realities take longer to sink in than others. With the exception of distinct regional accents, I never thought of Americans and Canadians as being that different from one another. Most Americans comment on the fact that we don’t sound “Canadian”, so I guess we blend in.

We’ve been to the U.S countless times but this was the first time it really struck us that America is a military nation. While the role of the United States as “the world’s police” does not come as a surprise, seeing it in action is new to us.

Southern Arizona is home to a number of military installations, including the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range and eight border security stations. In our first week here, we have heard the roar of fighter jets, seen planes fly in formation over the desert and heard bombs drop (not on citizens, there is a practice area not far from here) .

The 262-mile Arizona border has become increasingly militarized, with over 4200 agents covering eight stations. The white and green Border Patrol trucks are ubiquitous and this morning a helicopter flew low over the desert in front of our campground.

We are currently 10 miles from the Mexican/U.S. border and this is a common sight:

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While truck patrol is the first line of defence, the region is also covered by agents who ride out into the desert on ATV’s.

Signs like this one are posted throughout the desert.

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Seriously, if you managed to flee your country, travel hundreds or thousands of miles and cross the border, only to have to cross a mountain range like this one, you should be given automatic entry. Your perseverance, bravery and strength of character could only be considered assets to the country.

There are hundreds of migrants who die each year in the desert, from exposure and dehydration; in 2017 there were 294 recorded deaths, but actual numbers are much higher. There had been a lot of controversy in the past couple of years over the treatment of humanitarian workers who had been leaving water in the desert, to try and prevent more deaths.

There was huge outrage after a video showed border patrol agents deliberately kicking over gallon jugs of water left behind by aid workers and harassing them about leaving “garbage” in a pristine area.  A number of workers were arrested and posters like this one began popping up:

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Interestingly, in Republican Arizona there appears to be a shift in mood in some quarters. People mention “the wall” with an eye-roll and a shrug – apparently many border patrol agents believe the money could be better spent in improved technology. We can’t know the behind-the-scenes machinations of border security, but this was a heartening sight. There are several of these bright blue water stations, marked with a flag. The border officers know about them and they have remained in place.

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We ran into a couple from B.C. who were boondocking in the desert.  They work actively in the desert – picking up garbage and clothing left behind by migrants and helping migrants with food and water if they see them. They told us that there are boxes of unclaimed human remains in Tucson; heartbreaking in that their journey ended with such suffering and their families have no way of identifying them.

In the context of Trump’s government shutdown, this manufactured fear of desperate migrants seems pitiful. We have to assume the real criminals have easier channels to the U.S. than having to crawl through the desert.

Also in the context of the shutdown, we spoke to a number of National Park rangers who were discreet but clear in their views about this administration. I have learned (I think) to allow others to lead the conversation if it takes a political turn. When the talk turns to Trump, we smile ruefully and nod in agreement and say little and that seems to work.

And so…on to the beauty of the Sonoran desert. We began our time in Arizona in the small town of Ajo (Ah-jo). a sweet little place that became prosperous with the copper mine that operated from the 1890s to its closure in 1985.

We were able to see the vast open-pit mine from a fenced-off viewing area. There is a greenish lake at the bottom, about 100 feet in depth.

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With the mine closure came a reversal in fortune; the town has seen better days.  The central plaza is beautifully preserved though and the buildings around the downtown are worth a look.

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One of the churches:

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This old school has been converted to an artist’s community, with thirty low-income apartments. There was a quilt show on while we were there; the organizer told me the artists take turns setting up events.

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These homes are typical of the miner’s cottages that line the streets of Ajo.

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As we headed south from Ajo, we passed through the tiny crossroads called Why, pop.2. The name came about because it is situated at a Y-intersection. Since places are required to have a proper name (not a letter) and no-one appeared to be too inspired,  Why was born.

We stopped for gas at the Why Not:

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We camped for four nights at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, at the Twin Peaks Campground. The Park is named for the Organ Pipe Cactus, (which resembles the pipes of an organ) and is found in Mexico, but only in this area in Arizona.

These cacti are about 6-10 feet tall.

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The campground is set high on a hill, with gorgeous views of the mountain ranges. We have not witnessed one of those technicolour Arizona sunsets yet as the weather has been a little unsettled. Our first night here was lovely – the sunset cast a pink glow over the mountains.
The view from our trailer:

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There are a number of hikes and scenic drives from the park; here are some images of this landscape.

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The desert flowers are not quite out yet in their full splendour, but we walked past many poppies – the first of the season.

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We go to sleep at night listening to the owls and wake up in the morning to a wild chorus of birdsong. This little cactus wren has the most beautiful voice.

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Tomorrow we drive three hours to Tucson, where we will camp at a county campground about 20 minutes outside the city. We have a few things to take care of – oil change for the truck, haircuts, repair a broken latch for the trailer, etc. We plan on being in the Tucson area for about a week – so much to see in Old Tucson as well as the surrounding areas.

Death Valley: more than meets the eye

Apparently Death Valley gets 2.36 inches of rainfall annually, which if you do the math, leaves many hours of unblinking sun to cope with. Even in November daytime highs climbed up to a toasty 78 degrees – which doesn’t touch the July 10, 1913 record high of 134, but gave us a small hint of what it might possibly be like to visit this desert in the summer months. (If it feels this hot now…)
As we hiked under an intense sun, for some reason an image kept popping into my head – us lost in the desert, crawling on hands and knees, sunburnt and delirious with thirst. Death Valley feels unforgiving.

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Hottest place on earth! Driest place in North America! Lowest elevation in North America! Superlatives abound for a place that is like no other. Those crazy extremes of weather and landscape were exactly what attracted us to this park in the first place. Death Valley makes you work to discover its charms – it is way more than the first pile of rocks you first drive by.

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To really understand what Death Valley is all about, you need to lace up your hiking boots, carry plenty of water and go deep into the canyons. We were there for just two and a half days, and explored four canyons and a salt flat, but missed the sand dunes and a number of other excellent hikes that are spread out over a 50-100 mile radius. Many times we were all by ourselves, which added to the eerie quiet of the place. Although Death Valley is home to coyotes, packrats, kit foxes, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, and even non-native burros, we did not see one sign of life.

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Death Valley is the largest National Park in the U.S., outside of Alaska, but just a tiny portion has been developed for tourists. Two small settlements – Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek – offer up food, lodging, campgrounds, gas and water. After a quick stop at the visitor centre in Furnace Creek, we headed for one of the first-come-first-served campgrounds nearby.  Our campground offered good-sized lots with views onto the mountains and while there are no trees to speak of in Death Valley, there were wispy mesquite trees and scrubby creosote bushes to add a bit of life.

You can see our truck and trailer in the foreground – we woke up each morning at 6:30  to the sunrise glowing over the hills and went to sleep each night under a sky filled with stars.  This bald lot turns into a cozy community at night, with the sounds of quiet voices and the pitch black broken up by flickering campfires and campers wandering with headlamps. We loved the evenings there – bundled up against the chill, enjoying casual chats with other campers and watching the night sky.

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Nearby Furnace Creek’s lodging “The Ranch”  is an oasis – lined with palm trees, a golf course and a pool. Since we had no wifi and cell service at the campground, we took an afternoon break to sit under the shade of a massive mesquite tree and catch up on emails.

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If you’ve ever heard of Borax and the Twenty Mule teams, their origins began in Harmony, Death Valley. These “big teams” of mules pulled massive wagons filled with borax a grueling 165 miles to the railhead near Mohave, and although these teams only ran for six years, their romantic image lives on.  We visited the remains of the Borax mines, which included an original wagon.

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Another notable mineral deposit  is the salt flat at Badwater, the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. It is possible to walk far out onto the flats.

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Parts of the flat are smooth and resemble a giant skating rink. Other parts are puckered and squared off; it is possible to see the salt crystals.

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The main attraction for us was the hiking. While it was possible to take on strenuous hikes of up to 14 miles, we stuck to the trails that were between 5 and 8 miles. Armed with our maps, plenty of water, apples and Clif bars, each day we set out to experience entirely different landscapes. We would park our truck, follow the signposts and enter a hidden world.

Sometimes we were climbing over rocks, other times we were walking along wider valleys.

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This hill had me whining like a baby – huffing and puffing and sweating and swearing. It doesn’t look that bad from this perspective, but we were almost at the top and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.

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And then, the reward:

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We’d walk along for a while and the wide open spaces would close right in. We’d be back in a skinny canyon again.

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These were my favourite parts of the hikes  – touching rocks that are 1700 million years old. I have no idea what I just wrote – that number makes no sense to me.

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There are a number of stunning drives within the park – the Artist’s Drive is one. It is a 9-mile one-way drive with an exciting blacktop ribbon of a road that dips and loops beside multicoloured hillsides.
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Our camp host Jackie (an American who has lived in Squamish, B.C. for many years) LOVES Death Valley. As a dual citizen, she is able to volunteer from November through until March, and still finds something new here to enjoy each year. She told us we would likely hear coyotes howling each night and early morning – sadly we never did – I love that sound. A meteor shower happened on our last night in Death Valley, but as Jackie told us, the moon would be too bright to see it. She was right. We love the camp hosts, map operators and park rangers – their enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for the outdoors is such a big part of the experience.

We’re on our way now – we had a rough start, followed by two weeks of feeling hugely out of our comfort zone, and now the switch has happened. Our trailer is our home – so comforting to stop and make a sandwich or a cup of tea and then carry on. It is comfortable, well-designed and does exactly what we want it to. We’re not afraid of it anymore.

We’ve learned how to drive differently. In the old road trip days we would pack up our car and drive like mad fools – pushing our days to 8 hours, 9 hours – neither safe nor fun.

Now, we take it one day at a time. We drive no more than 200 – 250 miles a day, no longer than five hours. If our map tells us the distance take four hours, we plan on five. We don’t rush, don’t stress, and plan ahead.

And now – a four-day break from the road – in Las Vegas. We just arrived at the Tuscany Suites – have our trailer safely stowed in the back parking lot and are languishing in a 650-sq.ft. suite, with a sofa, TV, small kitchenette, king-size bed, and both a shower and bathtub. The property is on 27 landscaped acres, with two pools and a casino. We could park four of our trailers in this space.

We’re meeting our friends Lorne and Anne here in a couple of hours and the fun will begin. I can’t even begin to imagine Vegas – we’ll be back again in a few days to tell you all about it.