Desert Mexico

Teddy Bear Cactus in the Pinacate Desert

Sierra del Pinacate Range

Camping road trip in the black Pinacate Desert, North America's last frontier of barren black sand and inhospitability.

Above: Cylindropuntia bigelovii cholla cactus at last light near Tecolote, in the Pinacate Desert.

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."

Three days later, he called and said, "I'm leaving in a hour."

"Okay, what airline?"

"I'm driving."

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, traveler, 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.

Sierra del Pinacate

Organpipe Cactus at last light in Southern Arizona. These majestic cactuses are seen here and at our destination in the Sierra del Pinacate desert.

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 and organ pipe cactuses. 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!'"

Zebratail Lizard

A Zebratail Lizard under a Palo Verde tree in Organpipe Cactus National Monument.

At camp, we cooked pasta and played Moroccan music on the guitars. While playing, I saw an Indian figure in the desert, standing at the perimeter of our camp.

"Hello," I said.
"Hi. Just listening."

"Take a seat." So he did, and soon, I handed him my guitar and in two minutes, he was playing the rhythm to Hans' song, 'Kira' and Hans was belting out rippin' triads in what would become a 10 minute jam between him and this Indian man, exploring Spanish style picking and jazz leads.

It was his best playing I heard in years, and I blamed that on the desert. Then, the Indian Man offered his own song, "I've been to Beverly Hills and I've been to Skid Row, Okee Jobee Bim Bop Boo. And all I know is they call this the city of sin."

Then, another figure appeared out of the desert, and she began singing the harmonies, "Okee Jobee, Bim Bop Boooo." It was all a little strange, but before parting, we asked the Indian man and his wife if they had been to Sonora, and he said, "We never go to Mexico, too many horror stories."

At five the next morning, I was hiking up a desert mountain trail, examining brush and ocotillo, and soon, we were driving south.

At the border, the guard asked us to open the trunk, and he began poking through our baggage. Then, he asked where were we going? Hans said, "Pinacate." He gave us a look, a kind of 'really?' look and ushered us on like an imperial guard in Mos Eisley. The change from the U.S. to Mexico was immediate; wild dogs in the street, shanty villages and yellow billboards. The roads were dusty; people were loitering in the sandy public squares.

Pinacate Desert Saguaro Cactus

Saguaro Cactus in the El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve.

We were playing 'Strunz & Farrah' - a Costa Rican and Iranian duet, and 'Tito Puente' on the radio. We were flying across a barren wasteland, a flat sand and sole saguaro kind of desert - right out of 'Speedy Gonzales' or 'Bugs Bunny in Mexico'. When we arrived in Puerto Penasco, a dusty fishing village against the Sea of Cortez, we passed a sign that was fluttering in the wind which said, "Alcoholicos Aninimos" and another that said, "Paraiso Desierto" - it was a trailer park. So we went straight for the 'Toro Bravo', an outside bar which hung over the blue ocean; dolphins breeching a hundred yards out.

The margaritas were the color of Ajo lichen, and now I understood the lure of a - real - margarita. A few more and we started the walk through the bazaar - fish and oysters and cheap trinkets handmade for American white trash. When we saw a lobster-burned, pot-bellied American dancing to 'La Bamba' with two marraccas in her hands, I said, "You know, we're the kind of Americans that Mexicans like."

"Yeah because we can make fun of Americans."
"And we can play a rippin' mambo."
"Yup. And we're dirty like dogs.the vendors know better than to solicit us."

Hans said in a Mexican accent, "Hey Meester, you wanna look at some of my junk?" We sobered up in the warm ocean - our shower - and left Puerto Penasco with a trail of dust in our wake.

An hour later, after a street sign that said, "No Molestar La Fauna," we were standing in the open-windowed cabin that was the entirety of the ranger station at the 'Reserva de la Biosfera de El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar', talking to the aging ranger in his broken English about what lay west, opening up ratty maps and 'The snake, he no bite. He do you say...hees poison...for hunt."

Organpipe Cactuses

We registered, offered a donation, and the ranger, not used to being visited by Americans, walked out to the truck and waved goodbye the whole while as we raced westwards.

It is North America's last frontier, a barren, hundred-mile stretch of blackness and inhospitability. It is The Pinacate, named after its primary inhabitant; a rather insignificant beetle which stands on its head and lets out a rather putrid odor.

Nobody lives in the inner Pinacate. At one time, it was the primary hiding spot for smugglers from South America. Now, it is home to the last of the dwindling pronghorn antelope. It's also the largest dune field on the continent.

The Pinacate is home to scorpions, black widows and the poisonous gila monster. And, it crawls with rattlesnakes. "Big ones," the archeologist who I had been communicating with told me.

Ten thousand years ago, in the holozoic, the Pinacate went from lush to dry. Seven thousand years later, it burst into a lava scape, which is why today it is known as the 'Black Desert'; black sands, black cinder cones, black dust. The black rocks, which litter the desert, were cast from the final explosions as the volcanic magma turned to stone.

The drive began as flat wasteland, beige sands and dying cholla. 15 miles west and the black dunes began to appear, until all that was left was us, blackness, and random cacti, with giant lava flows extending into nowhere like giant octopus legs.

Twenty miles in and we ascended Mount El Elegante, a rough rock strewn road. At the top, we hiked to the giant crater - a mile across and a perfect circle, with dying saguaros in its core. Up there we could see for miles, and realized that this was the farthest we had ever been from other people. Not a soul was to enter the Pinacate our entire stay, we were isolated, 50 miles of nothing, nobody, just us and the strange unexplainable "Waaaaaaaaaahhmp" grumbling in the desert.

Dragonfly Photo

A flame skimmer dragonfly rests on grasses in Organpipe Cactus National Monument.

Down the road, and to Mount Tecolote, we set camp between lava flows and headed out into the miles of black flows and dunes, examining the hollow cave-tubes of pumice. Later, we returned to camp in the dark, and fried quesadillas, which a kangaroo rat had found considerably alluring. I jumped every time my headlamp caught him charging for the cheese, so I found refuge on top of the cooler.

"Its just a rat, what harm can a rat do?" Hans said.

And then it bit him in the toe, and he stopped telling me, 'It's just a rat.' But it was the sand flies and the horse flies and the flying beetles that started to get to us, so we turned off our headlamps and played Spanish style guitar under the moon and the giant craters of Pinacate.

I woke at 4:45, and broke camp. "We need to get to the wash before sunrise," I told Hans, and in the truck, we played psycho computer music, blaring with the windows open and Hans flying across the dunes at forty miles per hour, engaging the twists and turns and lava flows. At the wash, we walked out into the flats, our figures casting shadows that continued half way to the horizon line. It was strange, this place. Surreal. And crazy. And beautiful.

Hans had said that the fundamental law of thermodynamics...of everything in the universe was entropy - the amount of disorder is always increasing. This was the Pinacate. Chaos. Life somehow surviving in this intense heat; breaking out of the black ground.

Broad-billed Hummingbird on the Arizona-Sonora border

Broad-billed Hummingbirds range the far southeast of Arizona, through Sonora and Central Mexico.

Irealized then the link between it all. It is chaos. Nothing else matters in the long run. All monuments to politicians will fall in the end, all institutions will get buried or become defunct. All egos and reputations will fall to the 'so what?' of history, all power will dissolve. All order becomes meaningless.

The greatest component of our universe is its anarchy, and anarchy exists in everything - it is the Bindings relationship of each galaxy, of each universe, packed like bubbles in some form that is surprisingly similar to the shapes of atoms and molecules. It is like fractals...chaotic, but with chaos comes a veil, a tube of order, a central order that works over all attempts to create it.

I thought about nature, and how it too was the result of chaotic movements - of the randomness of evolution, of the tube of order maybe called God, but certainly the most beautiful of anything.and for one reason, because it was the beauty of chaos. And the beauty of chaos is in humanity as well. It is without doubt that what makes civilization is the chaotic exchange of peoples - whether in free markets or by the exchange of information and knowledge over time and through the generations.

Organpipe Cactus Photo

In the end, all is gone to humanity except that fundamental chaotic principle of knowledge and ideas, and the working minds of the units - shifting, creating, pulsing. Individuals unite under their own circumstance; they are never pushed.

Chaos, then, creates communities, and binds them - no attempt at central order has ever created communities - only people, individual people working in their own pursuit of whatever. Chaos is nature, and a Mozart masterminding a composition without thought.

When we returned to the car, the tires bit in the sand and we were stuck, so I pushed from the back, and we were off towards Desierto de Altar, the magestic Sonoran kingdom of endless peach dunes. We played U2's, The Joshua Tree on a rocky path over lava flows and across a vast basin.

Vermilion Flycatcher

A male Vermilion Flycatcher at dawn on the Arizona-Sonora border.

When we arrived at the base of the dunes, we began our hike, strewn with insects and lizards. At one point, I found the Pinacate beetles, but they weren't standing on their heads, so we continued, drinking water along the way. When the temperature reached well above 100, we turned back and headed for Puerto Penasco, where we sat for hours in the sun, resting, drinking Coke and Margaritas, watching dolphins and fishing trawlers.

Then, it was south, along shanty-town roads with windowless houses. People were sitting in the doorsteps, watching us...At an empty beach, we made our entry into the Cortez with mask and fins, swimming out into the rock and coral coastline. We dove down into the murky waters - we had done this together for years, and were comfortable following each other's lead, looking under crevasses and swimming through and under rocks. We found schools of surgeon generals, and triggerfish, and wrasses, and Cortez groupers. We found three stingrays hiding in the sand, and a bullseye pufferfish, which I chased for several minutes.

"It won't puff" I said.

"No Molestar La Fauna, brother," Hans said. We found on the edge of a crevice in the bottom of the sea, a small nudibranch - a sea slug - which was white with purple appendages and graceful yellow and red dots along its spine.

Grasshopper grins devilishly at the camera

An unidentified grasshopper with brilliant vermillion antennae grins in the hot sun.

Two hours later, we left the ocean for a kind of Baja-styled grass shack margarita bar. Since it wasn't tourist season, the restaurant owner had to run down the street to find someone to cook our food.

"Quatro Margarita. Mucho Fish Tacos."

A scrawny beach pup, three sizes too small, found his new best friends, and we shared our fish tacos before heading to the Pinacate. Somewhere along the way, we saw a Pronghorn Antelope - one of only two hundred remaining, a doomed gem that only a handful of people will ever see. We played a scratchy bootleg of Jerry Garcia, picking Mississippi-delta style, and soon, the heat of the black sand overcame us, 115 degree heat and the land became obscured by the distortion of the heat.

We draped ourselves in cloth - Hans in a blanket, and a belt securing it to his head and a backpack of water bottles on his shoulder. We began our way across the bleakest stretch of land in the Western Hemisphere - black upon black, save for a spare cholla or an occasional senita. When the sun faded, and the stars began to shine, we heard that sound again.the same sound as on El Elegante - a low-pitched rumble, a guttoral, "Waaaaaaaaaahhmp." We looked at each other, a kind of 'What in God's name?' kind of a look and continued to the truck. On the road out of Pinacate, we played old Bob Dylan tunes, watching the birds out in the cover of night, desert quails and cactus wrens and western kingbirds hunting for insects.

The drive out of the Pinacate was gated, and we waited there while a lady woke from the reserve trailer, frightened and confused. "How do you say beautiful desert in Spanish?" I demanded of Hans.

"Bonita Desierto."

"Ollllla. Mucho Bonita Desierto!" and I showed her our park registration ticket.

"Ahhhh," she said, "Gracias."

And I could hear a voice from the trailer.something about, "Those two Americans." She smiled and unlocked the gates, and late in the night, we were in the middle of the giant Tohono O'odham Indian Reserve, headed for Tucson while playing Paul Simon's 'Under African Skies' -

"Take this child north from Tucson, Arizona, give her the wings to fly and harmony and she won't bother you no more."

In the morning, in Tucson, we walked around downtown. I liked the city immediately. It was clean and had a friendliness, if not a bit of adobe history between the strip malls. We found an open doctor's office door, and started our way through the corridors, trying to get a spice of everyday Tucson life. There was a lot of Southwestern art - aqua-glow coyotes and pastel petroglyph Indians, and later, on Main Street, we saw an obnoxious neo-Indian sculpture.

I said, "You know, Southwestern art is like those New Guinea birds that have no natural predators. If there is nothing to challenge or question it, it kind of evolves into this fru-fru, lots of funky feathers kind of art."

"Yeah," said Hans, "It gets all fru-fru. Kiwi bird art sucks."

Desert Scene Photo

Sunset at Alamo Canyon, Organpipe Cactus National Monument.

We noticed the well-dressed people, the comfortable coffee shops, and headed for a range of mountains called the "Tucson Mountain Unit", just west of Saguaro National Park". "Give them a wide berth," the Saguaro Ranger had said, telling us the rattlers would be in full force this evening.

So we hiked up, cautious and, in my case, nervous and sweating in the heat. It was lush with death plants - prickly pears and giant dead horned succulents and at one point, Hans and I parted. He, downhill, into a gulch of petroglyphs, finding stick figures and carved scorpion-faced Indians. After our four hour excursion into the land of the Saguaro, we washed with cleaning alcohol, and changed to khakis and street shoes, and east, where we met up with Jane, Queen of the Desert.

It had been caffeinated, and hot, all this, along dirt roads, and so it was comfortable to be in the company of Jane, Queen of the Desert. She was the producer of the 5 O'Clock news in Tucson; kind of the veto-power voice for this city of seven hundred thousand; a central figure in the capital city of the great Sonoran. "Are you guys hungry?" She said.

"Actually, we specifically request that you take us out for margaritas." I introduced my brother as a Minnesotan, and, "Don't listen to my brother, he got bit by a kangaroo rat and hasn't been acting right ever since."

Jane, Queen of the Desert, brought wisdom to the sandy hills of Southern Arizona, like Paul Muad'dib, leader of the Fremen on the desert planet of Arakkis, or maybe like Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru of Tatooine. She said, "Its not gee-la monster, its hee-la monster." "Hee-la sounds sissy. I like the hard 'g,'"

Hans said, "It's sissy like southwestern art."

"Southwestern art sucks," Jane, Queen of the Desert, said.

"Yeah, kiwi bird art sucks," Hans said. And she answered our desert questions, like, "Why are all the lights orange in Tucson?"..."Because," she said, "There are observatories in the mountains. We keep the city dark at night so they can see the stars."

We crashed on the floor, and in the morning, we were driving to Los Angeles, with the windows open and the radio playing.

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