Friday, February 17, 2017

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (2/6/2017)

The main reason I went to Ajo was to see Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which had been on my "might see" list for many years.  It would have been a "must see" except for the fact it is so far from anything else that I would be likely to visit.  Even this trip I debated with myself whether it was worth the extra mileage just to see a park devoted to a particular species of cactus.  However, I'm glad I decided to go because I thoroughly enjoyed the town of Ajo, and the national monument was very interesting, too.

On the road to the monument, about ten miles from Ajo and still twenty-five miles from the park, I stopped for fuel in the tiny community of Why.  With a population of 167 at the last census, it really is nothing more than a crossroads with a casino, a motel, an RV park, a few homes, and a convenience store with the catchy name of "Why Not".
To understand the significance of the national monument, a short discussion of cactus types is in order.  First is the saguaro, that large icon of the American southwest.  It only grows in the Sonoran desert, but with 120,000 square miles of this desert, there are millions of these cacti.  Slow growers, the saguaro put out branches (arms) only after they are about 75 years old.  They can live up to 200 years, and it is illegal to damage one.
The organ pipe cactus, so named by early settlers who thought it resembled a church organ, grows only in a very small part of the Sonoran desert.  They are more common in Mexico, but quite limited in the U. S., which is why they have been protected by the national monument.
An even rarer cactus, the senita, grows naturally only in an even smaller area within the park called Senita Basin. 
All of these cacti, as well as cholla, ocotillo, and others can be seen on the back roads throughout the monument.  The first road I drove was 21 miles through the Ajo Mountains, including Arch Canyon.  This rugged terrain was created by volcanic activity 5 to 15 million years ago.  Peaks higher than the Rockies and valleys deeper than Grand Canyon have been largely leveled by erosion.


The park sits on the border with Mexico, so I drove the road that parallels the border, stopping at an oasis formed by a natural spring.  Called "quitobaquito", this is the only source of water for many, many miles.  Artifacts as old as 16,000 years indicate how long people have been coming here.  Also, the pond is home to a tiny fish called "pupfish", similar to ones living in Death Valley.
In my travels along the Mexican border, I've seen several different types of fence/wall in use to protect against illegal entry.  Of course, some places have no protection at all, other than surveillance and motion detectors.  In a large town like Nogales, there is a tall "fence" made of steel posts very close together.  The space between posts allows limited visibility, but is too narrow for anyone to come through.
In Organ Pipe Cactus N M, some areas have what appears to be heavy duty fence, plus a mobile camera designed to :see" over the fence.
In other areas, the fence is only a series of metal posts, filled with concrete, and obstacles made of railroad track.  Presumably, these are in places where vehicles have been used to crash across the border.  I did notice strands of wire strung along the posts.

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