Kitt Observatory, Organ Pipe Cactus Monument and “The Structure”

We decided to head to the border today to bear witness to the construction of the US- Mexico border wall.  The construction is going through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and there has been quite a bit of controversy about the entire project.  Initially, I hesitated to suggest this to Bill.  Organ Pipe was at least a 2.5 hour drive from Tucson.  I wasn’t sure if he felt the same way that I did about the $20,000,000 per mile show piece.  He was definitely “in”.

We got an early start – for us.  Fifty-six miles west of Tucson, we passed the entrance to Kitt Observatory.  We looked at each other as we drove by, turned around, and decided to check it out.  

I drove the 12 mile road up to that peak at an elevation of 7,000 feet.  It was thrilling!  The views stretched out for miles and miles.  We parked the car and explored the visitors center.  The exhibits were very interesting and Bill especially loves everything “space related”.  The observatory offers nightly viewing programs that are booked weeks in advance.  If we had any way of attending, both of us would have loved that experience.  We couldn’t wait until mid March.  The cruise down was as fun as the drive up.  I thought of one of my sisters and knew she would have been in tears on this “edgy” roadway.

Along the Ajo Highway

All throughout our travels in Southern Arizona we encountered Border Patrol agents and checkpoints.  Their large white trucks were often visible driving dirt roads parallel to the Ajo Highway.  We continued west until we reached the junction at Why.  Yep.  Why, Arizona.  From there we turned south.  We passed through a border check point and shortly entered Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  This park is a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve.  A biosphere reserve is a ecosystem with plants and animals of unusual scientific and natural interest.  It is an internationally recognized status.  We stopped at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center where we saw some great examples of the unique cactus and picked up a map of the park.  I visited briefly with a young ranger and he gave direction to where we could see the border wall under construction.

Travel expert Rick Steves provides excellent tips in his article “Travel as a Political Act”.  This was on my mind as we made the journey to “The Wall”.  Steve’s writes, “Think of yourself as a modern-day equivalent of the medieval jester: sent out by the king to learn what’s going on outside the walls, then coming home to speak truth to power (even if annoying).”  How many of our friends and neighbors have had the opportunity to see this wall?  None, that we knew of and that compelled us to go.  

Four miles south of the visitor center we headed west on South Puerto Blanco Drive.  We passed a sign warning about smuggling and illegal immigration.   We could see the scar left by the bulldozing of a path up Monument Hill for the construction of the border wall. 

Monument Hill is a sacred burial site for the Tohono O’odham Indians.  The significance of the mountain was first documented in the late 1600s by Father Kino (the founder of Mission San Xavier del Bac).  Controlled blasting on Monument Hill began the very month we were visiting.  There are laws that protect sacred and archeologically significant sites; however, these laws can be circumvented for the sake of national security.  The REAL ID Act of 2005 gives the government broad power to disregard laws that stand in the way of national security. 

Once we were parallel to the border we noted the Mexican Highway 2 that ran on the opposite side.  From some angles the existing pieces of the wall appeared to be solid but were actually built of slats.  When looking directly south, the Mexican highway was clearly visible.  We drove down this road and from time to time I would leap out of the car to venture closer to the structure to take pictures.  I honestly didn’t know if I was conducting an act of civil disobedience but I knew I didn’t want to get arrested.   Yes, cast dispersions upon my cowardice.  Instead, I photographed saguaros estimated to be several hundred years old laying in chunks on the ground.

During one stop, where there was a large gaping hole, Bill and I noticed a car-hauler semi stopped on the Mexican Highway.  The two Mexican drivers, wearing fluorescent yellow t-shirts had scampered across the desert and were taking pictures of each other within the break in the opening.  They were “gooning” the project and demonstrating how ineffective it was.  I did not take their pictures.  I have to admit that I felt very anxious the whole time I was there.  Our “entertainers” headed back to their truck and we turned around to go back to the main road.  The Border Patrol traveled down the dirt path next to the wall shortly thereafter.  I was momentarily concerned that perhaps they would seize my camera.  I really wondered what rules applied here.  So there we have it – an incomplete and ridiculously expensive border structure.  I use “structure” because a wall is defined as a “continuous … vertical structure”.  There is nothing “continuous” here. 

We committed to explore the 21-mile Aho Mountain Drive. Several miles into the drive we noticed a flagpole to the north with a blue flag. It was a nice flag pole like those we see at music festivals to mark camping locations. We found out later that these flags mark the location of life-saving water for those traversing the desert. The road was fairly rough as we traveled and Bill was especially careful in his driving. We stopped often to take pictures of this unique landscape and the organ pipe cactus.

We made the long drive back with many thoughts going through our heads.  Bill adeptly avoided a very nonchalant coyote crossing the Ajo Highway. The time and miles seemed to pass by quickly.    Once in Tucson, we found a great pizza at Fresco’s Pizzeria and soon after, called it a night.

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