Sierra del Pinacate Range
Camping road trip in the black Pinacate Desert - North America's last frontier, a barren, hundred-mile stretch of blackness and inhospitability.
Updated April 24, 2015
We left Los Angeles in the evening, playing juju music from Nigeria on the radio; a kind of tropical, drunk-on-palm wine jam. In the night, we passed through the Eastern Mojave, and into Arizona, my brother Hans reading about a place called the 'Space Age Motel.'
"Its got a twenty-four hour coffee shop, man", he said.
I had called Hans five days before, "I'm going to the desert, would you like to come?" Of course, I was joking. Hans lives in Portland, Oregon, and the chances of him finding an affordable flight were close to none. When he showed slight curiosity, I backed away by saying, "If you did come, all you'd be doing is carrying film and camera equipment in a hundred degree heat. And you won't get much sleep."
days later, he called and said, "I'm leaving in a hour."
"Okay, what airline?"
Why he decided to drive 950 miles to spend five days as my personal sherpa on the road to the Sierra del Pinacate desert is less surprising when you look at his credentials: a seasoned rock climber and backpacker, traveller, kayaker and explorer.
At midnight, we arrived in Gila Bend, at the 'Space Age Motel', which was a square-tin covered in white glitter with paintings of the 'Starship Enterprise.'
There were no available rooms, and the coffee shop had long been closed, so we stayed overnight at the 'El Coronado', a ratty-assed sweathole where the lamps and phone and air-conditioning were more props than working utilities.
We tuned guitars, drank Corona and in the morning, left for the southern-most edge of Arizona, past the Cabeza-Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and into the dry heat of Organ Pipe National Monument. Here, we set up camp and began our ascent up a 21-mile dirt road of 40 foot columnar saguaro cacti and Organ Pipes. Half way to the trailhead, we pulled up to a four-foot snake; a giant desert thing, roasting in the heat. Later, at the top of the road, we parked and hiked the four miles up to the top of 'Mount Ajo', a magical terrain of strenuous ascent.
It began as a desert jungle; a hot wind blowing in from the Sea of Cortez, mesquite and organ pipes and saguaros backlit lime green, lizards darting and the constant chippaw and ka-kow and hoot-hoot-hoot of birds and rodents in the brush. Soon, we were challenging steep rock alongside pinnacles and red-brown cliff-faces. The Ajo heights were almost grassy plateaus. The rocks were covered bluish-lime in lichen. "The color of margaritas," I said. "I could use a margarita," Hans said, and fell asleep on a ledge overlooking a hundred miles of basin and range, basin and range, basin and range.
On the descent, we ran into a wily-eyed German, the only person we had seen in Ajo, and told him where to go and what to do in Southern Arizona. Back in the desert jungle, we left the trail and followed the light of sunset along the cliff-sides. When I stuck my face up against a cholla, I jumped - a giant beetle. I had been jumping all day, thinking this stick and that root was a snake, or this rock or that was a scorpion.
Back at the truck, we opened beers, played Paul Simon's African music, and watched the bats whooping down into the valley in their evening hunt. We drove the rocky road in the dark; saguaros were silhouetted, and Hans was giving them personalities, "Most of them look like questioning students, raising their hands." And when we passed a shrugging saguaro, "that one is a Seinfeld Cactus, 'Why don't they just put mayonnaise in the tunafish? You gotta mix it up anyway!'"