The Most Dangerous Park in the Nation

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Arizona

By —— Bio and Archives--October 2, 2011

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imageOn August 9, 2002, while pursuing two members of a Mexican drug cartel who fled across the border from the land of severed heads and charred bodies into the United States with apparent ease, 28-year-old Ranger Kristopher Eggle was shot at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. One of the suspects opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle striking Eggle below his protective vest, killing him.

His senseless death, and a host of other security-related problems that have plagued Organ Pipe over the years, prompted the National Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police to designate Organ Pipe the most dangerous park (technically a national monument) in the nation. And what a pity that is.


For all the gorgeous orange sunsets and green fields of towering, 40-foot-high Saguaro cactus, and for all the smelly, pig-like Javelinas that run wild in squadrons, and the prickly cholla with their long white needles, and despite the monument’s many-armed “Organ Pipe” cactus that within the United States grow only around here in a surprisingly verdant desert environment where beautiful wildflowers and cacti manifest themselves in stunning bloom surrounded by rugged mountains that will leave you with a tingle running down your spine and a sense of remoteness unique to the blood-splattered Mexican border, despite all the good and the stark beauty this place has to offer, we’ve got to call 330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument what it is - a revolting war zone. Our parks were meant to be sanctuaries, and Organ Pipe is not a sanctuary.

Overrun by armed drug smugglers and people smugglers and those they smuggle - armies of innocent lettuce pickers headed for the Imperial Valley in their want and desperation and nannies and day-laborers from poverty-struck lands down-under - there’s good reason why large swaths of this rough country are routinely closed to us, designated “off-limits” and out of bounds to the casual and the curious.

Don’t let the silence and vast distances and the illusion of peace fool you. If you value your life, come prepared and think smart. And follow instructions. But definitely come. After all, this is still America, our America, not theirs, regardless of what the cartels are having you believe.


At last check, back-country overnight camping is prohibited, numerous trails and roads are closed to travel, and while some restrictions are meant to protect flora, fauna and wilderness lands recovering from destructive overgrazing, the government is also protecting us from some very bad people, many of them desperate, and we’re just getting in the way of this ridiculous running battle that has no visible end in sight.


I wasn’t entirely oblivious to the ills of Organ Pipe when we visited on our first trip five or six years ago. I had seen video of the undocumented, dozens of them, sauntering right past orderly rows of RVs parked at the Twin Peaks campground near sunset. But my fixation was with lush Sonora desert habitat growing in silhouette against the white light of a full moon, and those balmy nights deliriously comfortable that reminded me of life with the old man, sitting out on the lanai in Honolulu in February near midnight. And on our first evening at Organ Pipe I thought I smelled, I kid you not, salt-water air wafting up from the Sea of Cortez 50 miles south.


While the Organ Pipe cactus is the monument’s namesake, it shares the land with prickly pear, barrel cactus, cholla and 24 other species of cacti. But it’s the giant Saguaro (pronounced “Saw-hua-row”) that’s found a special place in my heart. Growing to a height of four stories, these 200-year-old icons of the American Southwest populate Organ Pipe in large numbers. They’re dwindling elsewhere, dying and rotting along southern Arizona’s Interstate highways, but around here they seem to thrive. Arms raised in surrender or drooping like entwined elephant trunks, or standing straight as stakes in the ground – rigid, branch-less and weighing in at a ton at maturity - these prickly statues grow a mere inch in ten long years and deserve our utmost respect and protection.


Not realizing what we were getting into, we drove the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive loop one overcast morning. Prepare yourselves for a very long and bumpy one-way trip down winding, hilly roads littered with sharp rocks determined to puncture your tires. If you want an eyeful of cacti, forests of them, and palo verde trees and barrel cactus and the long spindly ocotillo and the bushy cholla, and stark mountain scenery, you’ll enjoy the grinding ride. We did, and decided that afternoon to visit the southern realms of the monument down along the exotic border we share with our friendly southern neighbors.


After returning to the Kris Eggle Visitor Center where we stocked up on water and maps, we headed out for a long drive that would take us south and then west down a desolate dirt road that sort of paralleled a pathetic little fence that separated us from them back in 2005.

imageBut the Almighty looked over us that day, wedging a sharp rock in the tread of my rear tire that blew just as we exited the visitors center in the emerging heat of afternoon. Sweating under a mildly hot sun I crawled around on asphalt swapping out the old rubber with the new as a friendly park ranger looked on and shared horror stories of his local travails and battles. He always carried two spare tires when driving the back roads because flats are rampant, and he never visited Old Mexico anymore, he told me, because of his reputation and his many enemies now who knew him well, those he arrested over the years who wanted his well-groomed head on a stick.

He described to me the view from above, flying over Organ Pipe looking down on the undocumented swarming in droves along foot-worn trails that run in all directions like broken spider webs across our “pristine” wilderness. He spoke of extreme danger and trash piled in heaps, discarded clothing and empty water bottles and packs and abandoned bags of dope and sun-baked vehicles. And bodies. And the weak dying of thirst under a blazing sun.

Abandoned cars and trucks are a major problem. Stolen in Phoenix and Tucson, these pilfered vehicles back then were driven south into Mexico, filled with illegals and illegalities and returned north through holes in that flimsy old fence and up into the heart and soul of Organ Pipe. Once across, the vehicles were parked and left to rust or were driven farther north with utter disregard in their quest for something better, usually cash. It became apparent to me that large sections of Organ Pipe have become a toilet in need of a good flush, and with that little bit of eye-popping information in hand we decided to cancel our expedition and got the heck out of there.

imageToday, various types of “vehicle barriers” have been constructed along Organ Pipe’s 32-mile border with Mexico. Eight miles of an easily-climbed pedestrian fence has also been constructed. These fences are not without controversy and inherent ironies. While such barriers obviously impact the cross-border migration of wildlife, some of them bordering on the extinct, the flood of undocumented aliens and smuggler hordes and all the trash they leave and the foot-stomping and off-road vehicle traffic impact the environment to a far greater extent and present a much bigger threat to Organ Pipe and its flora and fauna than any protective barrier that impedes wildlife migration. Don’t get me wrong, I love animals, but come on, let’s get real.

One serious problem with the fence recently came to light during torrential monsoon rains that washed debris, water and soil down ravines and gullies which piled up against the new barriers and formed dams which eventually broke and washed away large sections of the fence. No doubt those in charge will find a solution to this engineering dilemma and fix it soon before post-bin Laden Jihadists plow their 4X4s with their dirty nuclear bombs through one of those holes, race off to Los Angeles and blow half the city up into tiny, bite-sized pieces.


We gave Organ Pipe another try two years ago during March, but it didn’t feel any better. Something was wrong. Granted, it’s beautiful and the vegetation is splendid and the RV campers still pack into the Twin Peaks campground for a good time and they can now say they’ve been there, but the Mexican insanity that was beginning to pick up steam along the border, that Rawandan pathology that is sweeping Mexico like the Black Plague, left the disgusting taste of tripe in my mouth. Organ Pipe National Monument is under siege, and the entire border region from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, for that matter, has come under a form of Marshall Law, something the rest of the country just doesn’t get, or care about.

imageI’m not saying don’t visit this beautiful place, but do it smartly. And brace yourselves for gun-toting Arizonians, parched desert wanderers dying of thirst, and random road blocks and bomb-sniffing dogs and the sense of a militarized presence and fierce-looking men in uniform and all the questions they ask on your return north through a gauntlet of checkpoints that materialize randomly out of nowhere, of necessity. I’m not talking about the backwaters of Mexico, here; I’m talking about the States, my home, the new reality.

The border region has become downright creepy, and is only getting worse as the cartels battle it out for market share. It’s only a matter of time before the sewage spills over and engulfs us, mark my words. I’m not sure how to fix the problem, but I do know that America’s addictions NEVER justify the routine butchery taking place on our back porch. Severed heads and mass graves ... I mean ... who are these people?

Hats off to those in the trenches doing battle on our behalf, the Kris Eggles of the earth engaged in a titanic struggle to keep the surging tide at bay. Now here’s an idea worthy of consideration by the rest of the world: Give them the Gringo Squeeze and boycott trips to Mexico until they get their act together. I have. It’s easy.



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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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