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Arizona's Lonely Road:

Gila Bend to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

By Bob Difley

I lay on my back on a spreading carpet of Mexican poppies, as vivid as if orange-hot lava had erupted from the gray-brown winter desert and engulfed me. The perfume of spring wildflowers intoxicated me, their vivid colors hurt my eyes. One spring day among the vivacious annuals, perennials bursting with scores of blossoms, honey bees careening drunkenly on the rich pollen, and my ears resounding with the glorious melodies of hopeful songbirds singing for their mates are enough to dispel the bleakness of an entire winter.

Spring comes first to the low deserts of southeastern California, and to south central and southeastern Arizona extending eastward from Yuma. The huge section of Arizona bordered on the east by the Phoenix, Casa Grande, Tucson, Nogales corridor (I-10 and I-19), on the north by I-8 between Yuma and Casa Grande, and on the south by Mexico is one of the most desolate sections of the Southwest. Luke Air force range, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the Papago Indian Reservation occupy large sections of land in this area with few roads and only a handful of settlements.

This is a land of desolation, punctuated by the symbols of the lower Sonoran Desert, the towering Saguaros. Long, unbroken views, are limited only by the string of jagged, rocky north-south ranges--the Sierra Pinta, Granite, Growler, Sauceda, and Santa Rosa Mountains--which suck the hot drying winds up from Mexico through the broad arid valleys.

Few roads cross this vast area from north to south, linking the dense populations of Phoenix, Yuma, and Southern California to the northeastern tip of Mexico's Sea of Cortez. One such road leaves the real world of cross-country transportation on Interstate 8, the endless strings of 18-wheelers and passenger cars all pushing the extremes of safe and acceptable speed, and heads south into another world where time is measured by the seasons.

Arizona Route 86 leaves the rush behind at Gila Bend and 80 lonely miles later enters Mexico at the Lukeville border crossing. This is the artery that connects the teeming masses of northern gringos with the sub-tropical climate of sun and sand at the upper extension of the Gulf of California, as American cartographers choose to call the Sea of Cortez, and the resorts of Puerto Penasco.

Unfortunately, you will find--especially on weekends--the testosterone crowd in the same kind of chaotic rush for the border that you thought you left behind. Ask any of these charging steeds to describe what they saw on the way down and you will get a confused blank expression.

You do not have to join this maddening crowd. Pull over and let them by, but take your time to see the wonders of spring in the deserted stretches just a few yards off the highway. Walk about. Look for emerging flowers hiding under the mesquite and creosote as well as for open fields of Mexican poppies. You will also find chickory, lupine, brittlebush, bladderpod, owl clover, phacelia, chia, fiddleneck, popcorn flower, apricot mallow, and Ajo lily to name a few.

Halfway to the border you will enter the forgotten town of Ajo. Park for a bit and walk around town, through the plaza, and to the blinding old whitewashed adobe Immaculate Conception Church, an example of early mission architecture.

The town was built around copper mining, most of it built and owned by Phelps Dodge, which has now shut down operations and left the town to fend for itself. Up the hill the old mine manager's house has been converted into a bed and breakfast inn by Jean and Micheline Fournier.

"People like to come out here to get away from the city," says Jean, who took time out from washing his car to give us a tour. "They come for the peace and solitude. They hike around in the desert all day, have a quiet dinner, and relax. I serve ice cream about 8:30 and we talk a bit, and by 9 o-clock they're all in bed." The town has been transforming itself into a home for snowbirds, with about 60 percent of the mine-built housing now owned by retirees.

At the town of Why (I asked how it got its name and the reply was, "Why not?") you can buy Mexican insurance if you plan to enter our neighbor to the south. Your American auto insurance policy may not cover you across the border so it is a good idea. You can purchase a policy for one day or more at reasonable rates.

At the "Y" (Why?) turn south onto state route 85. A few miles south of town is a primitive BLM campground. Watch for it--there is no sign--on your right just across the green bridge. You'll recognize it by the other RVs scattered out across the flatland. About the only amenity here besides lots of free space, migrating birds, beautiful wildflowers, and as much camaraderie or isolation as you want, is a pair of dumpsters.

Lots of birds came to our campsite, including mockingbirds practicing their intricate songs and performing aerial displays. We hung out a hummingbird feeder and poked orange halves onto the branches of mesquite and palo verdes. By the end of the day we had attracted a rufous hummingbird, Bullock's, Scott's, and hooded orioles, a pair of gila woodpeckers, black-throated and white-crowned sparrows, mourning doves, and a verdin.

This is a good place to stop for the night (or more) if you arrive anytime after early afternoon as the next campground to the south, the no reservation campground at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, fills up fast and early during wildflower season.

The monument is the next stop, however, some of the best wildflower displays I have found have been along this stretch of road between Why and the park. Pull over where you can and take short walks around. You will be amazed at what you will discover.

   The monument's namesake is a cactus similar in appearance to the Saguaro. However, the Organ Pipe grows no arms, as the Saguaro does when it reaches a certain age (around 50 years old). Several trunks grow out of the same Organ Pipe plant, while the saguaro restricts itself to one. Common to Mexico, this is the only place where the Organ Pipe grows in the US.

   Watch the slide show at the visitor center for an overview of the park and as Ranger Robert Power advises, "Remember where you are. It's easy to get lost out there if you wander off the trails." During wildflower season the rangers conduct wildflower walks and other special programs.

   Take the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive loop tour for a good visual composite of the park. Several good hikes are scattered along the loop, including the Estes Canyon-Bull Pasture trail, which is a park favorite. The one-way, partially unpaved, narrow road is passable for regular passenger cars. I would advise starting early, even though the distance around the loop is not great. The road loops in and around the Ajo Mountains and it took us 3 1/2 hours to complete since there were so many scenic pull-offs, short hikes, and other attractions to investigate.

   As you can see, as desolate as this land first appears, there is plenty to do on this lonely stretch of backroad. You just have to take your time to enjoy it.

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