The Road to
On the Road to a small desert spring, I investigate the border wall and the case for resurrecting a Transboundary Preserve in North America's green desert.
nside the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southwestern Arizona are the world’s most spectacular forests of large cactuses; so dense are these trees and other desert plants that the canyons often appear emerald as a tropical forest.
I am driving there with my son as part of a whirlwind 1,700 mile route through the desert southwest. We are hoping to drive the road to Quitobaquito Springs, a wildlife magnet which hugs the border of Mexico and which for many years has been inaccessible for one reason or another—the latest being the Trump administration’s border wall construction.
Transboundary Protected Area
wenty years ago, entranced by the idea of a wilderness that straddled the Mexican-American border, I asked my brother if he wanted to join me on a trip to Mexico’s newly designated El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar National, a huge protected zone which shared a border with Organ Pipe. He offered to drive! Back then, I was predicting that land conservation would grow in importance, to a point where one day it would become mankind’s biggest idea.
As a Minnesotan, I grew up thinking of the boundary waters not so much as a U.S. national park - Voyageurs National Park -, but as a place that encompassed protected lands on both sides of the US-Canada border. When you say boundary waters as a Minnesotan, you are not referring to a park, but an international wilderness.
Around the time of our visit to Pinacate, the United Nations UNESCO agency was working with the U.S. and Mexican federal governments to create a transboundary protected area and international wildlife corridor that straddled both countries. The region, fragile and biologically unique in the world, demanded a unified, bilateral approach to its conservation. The United Nations, concerned about an area of high concern being in the middle of a troubled border, elected both regions as U.N. Biosphere Reserves. The partnership between the two sides was given a name: the Dry Borders-Sonoran Desert Biosphere Reserve.
Harris' Hawks and Maskless Arizonans in Wickenberg
s we drive through Wickenburg, Arizona, northwest of Phoenix, I see a blackish raptor with yellow talons, sitting on a wire in the midday sun. We find a public park to stop so I can try to identify this bird before my memory of it fades.
But in doing so, we catch notice of the many people frolicking in the park. I take out my binoculars and survey them from afar. Yes, there are cowboy hats, frisbees and bellies, turquoise nails, lavender shirts, ripped jeans — but no masks, not a single one.
Arizona is the most anti-mask state in the union. Social media researchers found in 2020 that Arizona outranked every other state in its use of anti-mask sentiments and hashtags. The state has paid an extraordinary price: the highest infection rate in the world: just last month the global hotspot for covid-19, and the sixth highest death toll rate in the United States, with a total, by February, of 16,000 Covid deaths.
All these deaths, despite the fact that Arizona’s low population density (it is the 39th most dense state) and warm population centers (Phoenix is the second warmest city in the United States) are ideal for bucking the worst of the virus. Why did Arizonans drop like flies?
Of those 16,000 deaths, 60% took place in a single county, the heavily-Trump leaning Maricopa County.
Wickenburg features the typical anti-mask politics of Maricopa County. I reached out to a fervent anti-mask political group in Wickenburg, the Patriots of Wickenburg, who have been urging residents to attend public meetings without a mask: “We need many residents in Wickenburg and patriots that love our town to attend this meeting without wearing masks to show the Mayor and Town Council that we the people choose freedom over tyranny.”
Founder Nohl Rosen, who ran for mayor of Wickenburg in 2018 and 2020 and is now running for Arizona legislature, answered my questions about the group’s anti-mask views.
When I asked about the overwhelming global research about the efficacy of masks, he replied, “You mean like deep state doctors that want to keep us locked down and submissive to communism? The masks don't keep you from getting sick. This whole thing has been a way to control the people and push the communist agenda. The masks don't work at all and it has been proven as fact. And how is my, or anyone else risking human lives by going out and refusing to wear a mask? If you're that afraid, by all means stay home and cower in the corner. I certainly won't. I prefer freedom over tyranny and I put my faith in God and not in man.”
When I asked Mr. Rosen how global research and scientific consensus on mask-wearing and social distancing was impacted by a deep state and conspiracy in the United States, he responded, “The deep state doctors telling everyone to mask up and social distance are a part of the whole globalist agenda. That being said, do you believe in God?”
Even now, in February, after bucketloads of data and evidence about the importance of masks, there are a hundred Arizonans of every generation, frolicking mask-free at close quarters.
I turn to my bird guidebook. No, I did not see a Common Black Hawk or a Zone-tailed Hawk. What I saw was the pack-hunting Harris’ Hawk, which had eluded me for 15 years.
Ajo, Arizona: Gateway to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
ust before we arrive in Ajo, Arizona, the gateway to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, two things happened in the United States. For one, today, on Monday, February 22, the United States crossed the unfathomable threshold of 500,000 Covid deaths. And two, just four days ago, February 18, NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed flawlessly on Mars.
Perhaps for most people, these two news items may be disparate, but for me they are related. The Perseverance landing shows the extraordinary success of the scientific method, of expertise, engineering processes, the institutions of advanced education, public money, and marketplace ingenuity.
Those 500,000 deaths, plausibly most of which are the result of the Trump Administration’s antiscience and anti-expert approach to the virus, and the related anti-mask and anti-covid mandate politics that gripped his supporters, on the other hand, is largely the result of the rejection of the institutions that created the Perseverance landing; the curated belief that experts, the educated and the literate, are our enemies.
How did this happen? What unintended consequences might arise when people, and the administrations that represent them, no longer believe in the value of experts, and science, and institutions?
I rented a cottage next to Ajo’s stunning city center, which features a Spanish Revival plaza, and a magnificent Catholic church. These and a handful of other large buildings in the center of town are pure white, making Ajo feel uniquely like it belongs at the heart of the Sonoran desert.
Ajo is a small, isolated, unincorporated town that lives under the shadow of a massive and now derelict open-pit copper mine. The Ajo area had been mined forever, even in pre-Columbian times by native Americans who sought the bright pigments of the area. The mine, whose walls of ore practically spill into town, was responsible for the town’s growth throughout the 20th century. Now, with the mine gone, the town makeup has changed: it’s snowbirds from Northern states, and lots and lots of border patrol agents.
The border patrol agents always seem in a rush, driving fast through the otherwise empty roads in their big, white trucks. The snowbirds, on the other hand, mostly keep to themselves, tending to their lemon trees and birdfeeders.
I’ve set our pandemic-era trip up so that we can avoid contact with other humans for its duration; that means we can make all meals out of the back of the car. Our first meal in Ajo is apples, yogurt and PB&Js in the cottage garden.
Goatsuckers of Ajo Mountain Drive
e head south, towards Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The border patrol agents are everywhere on the main paved road, which makes it nice to take a left turn up the Ajo Mountain Drive, a twenty-one mile, one way route into the mountain canyons.
We get out of the car about a third of the way into the drive, walking out into the forests of organ pipe, saguaro and cholla cactuses and ocotillos, which are just beginning to bloom their brilliant cranberry flowers. We loosely follow each other under the towering plants, when I hear Kellan welp.
I turn around, and he is looking down at his side. Several bunches of Teddy-bear Cholla stems have breached his pants. “Don’t try to remove them!” I say, having been stickered by these devilish things many times. I drop my pack and crouch next to his shorts.
I carefully grab the round-shaped stems and gently pull at his shorts. But — this is the part I forgot—now I have inserted 3 cholla spines into my hand. I pull at two and remove them, but the last one, barbed, just won’t come out. I pull on it several more times, and all the skin on my hand just lifts up along with it.
“I warned you about these things!” I say. But the trouble is now really my own. With one final yank, the barbed spine, and some flesh, comes out. But we still have three clumps on Kellan’s shorts.
What do we do now? I think about it for a few minutes. “Give me your phone, but take off the case.”
I take my phone, and his phone, stripped of their leather cases, and form a mitt over the clumps. One yank, and they drop to the ground, sliding off the slick black mirrors. Who says we rely too much on modern technology!
We stay out in the cactus jungle until well after dark, and I am reminded that we have only seen one other vehicle up here, and that was an hour ago.
“What do you think, should we just turn around?” I say, which would mean driving back on the one-way drive.
“It will be much shorter,” Kellan says, calculating the two hours of pitch-black driving if we continue through the canyon.
It was the right decision, but that’s because I don’t yet know there is only 9 PSI left in our front right tire.
On the way down the slopes of Ajo Mountain, we coast down into a wash, and notice something flying in the air. “Bat!” I say.
Then, a quick reconsideration: “Wait! Maybe not.”
I stop the car. The bat-like thing in front of us is not flying away. In fact, it seems to fall right down onto the road and fold itself up into the shape of a rock.
“GOATSUCKER!” I yell.
Suddenly, the creature jumps up into the air again, seems to open its huge mouth at the sky, and then crumples down again onto the road.
“I don’t know what it is,” I tell Kellan.
“You just told me it’s a Goatsucker,” he says.
“It’s a type of goatsucker, like a nighthawk,” I explain, while the creature, a type of bird that you might think of as a proto-owl, leaps into the air, dancing around in the car’s beams for a moment, and then folds itself back into a rock.
I give Kellan the binoculars. “Sometimes, you can tell a goatsucker by its eyeshine.” Although the eyes of this bird, with its Jabba-the-Hutt mouth, appear completely black. Our headlights aren’t giving away an identifying color.
When the bird finally flies away, we continue on at a steady clip under a dark sky and a full moon, and then I notice the dashboard warning. “We have a flat! How far do we have to go?”
“No service! I can’t tell!”
“If we can make it to the visitor center, we can get out of here tonight!”
The tire holds its air, and we make it to the visitor center, although all the lights are out and there is no activity, and cellular reception is poor. I look for the spare tire and jack, but, it being dark, I never find all the parts of the jack, and without adequate cellular reception, I ping my wife to find us a tow truck.
Steel Bollards on Puerto Blanco Drive
ust north of Lukeville, a border crossing town with a population of 35, we turn on South Puerto Blanco Drive. This is low-elevation, open desert country, with broad sandy washes and hills of sand and clay soil. Senita cactuses, another large species, begin to appear here, and this very southern portion of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument feels more like Mexico’s Sonoran desert than Arizona’s.
The washboard road winds its way around gullies and saguaro stands, and then, around one particular bend, we suddenly see it: an imposing monstrosity, cutting through the desert like a knife-wound. Instantly, I realize that the Trump border wall is much, much bigger, much wider, and much taller than I had previously imagined. Ridiculously tall floodlights are spaced evenly as far as the eye can see, and a concrete road, measuring some sixteen feet across, reaches into the horizon.
The day Trump left office, construction of the border wall ended. It was, and remains, a complete failure. Although he promised a 2,000 mile wall within his four year tenure, only less than 45 miles of new wall were built, and a further 350 miles of replacement walls or fences replaced old ones. Trump’s unfinished wall cost fifteen billion dollars, one of the largest federal projects in U.S. history. And this cost, entirely pulled from other federal programs, was at a cost five-times higher per mile than any other administration in the past.
In the last days of Trump’s administration, he pushed the relevant agencies to increase production of his wall. On his last day in office, the southwest border was filled with tiny sections of wall, standing erect among open nature.
But here in Organ Pipe Cactus, and largely as an anomaly, the border is truly complete.
Most experts have found that the wall has done nothing to tide the flow of undocumented immigration. Border control experts have unanimously cited better methods for curbing undocumented immigration, such as increasing budgets for the use of electronic surveillance technologies. Most undocumented immigrants entering the United States from the Mexican border don’t enter from these natural areas at all, but from official crossing points. But most undocumented immigration doesn’t occur at the Mexican border at all: they are legal visitors who overstay their visa.
The wall was never designed to succeed in slowing down border crossings. It was a powerful carrot, dangled to drum up the powerful taste of xenophobia and racism—a path to populist dominance.
During the 4 years of Trump’s administration, that anti-immigrant resentment defined by the symbolism of the border wall would creep throughout the country, leading to massive increases in hate crimes, harassment and even violence and murder.
And, as far away from that world that I felt, the symbolism of the wall and Trump’s anti-Mexico rhetoric kept hitting too close to home.
A few days after the election, my wife and I checked the weather in a radius around Portland, looking for somewhere dry to get out and clear our minds.
We decided to head south of Portland to Silver Falls, which was showing weather breaks. When we finished our walk there, my family went off to find the restrooms, and I went to unlock car doors.
Halfway there, my phone buzzed a news alert.
A Trump Rally in Silverton had turned ugly. Trump had been elected only a few days ago, so we had no context yet what this news alert meant. The news report cited Confederate flags waving in the air, and residents of the town yelling for brown people to leave. Chants of ‘pack your bags, you’re leaving tomorrow’ had broken out.
Consciously, I rolled my eyes at this news. But subconsciously, my body was eliciting a reaction that I hadn’t experienced since the Northridge Earthquake, 23 years before. During that earthquake, I remained in a state of calm; moving through our tattered apartment to confirm my roommates were okay. A massive picture frame that hung over their bed had fallen vertically behind it, a disaster narrowly averted. Once the initial threat of harm had ended, my body flushed red. Somehow, my body kept me calm through a moment of crisis, then swelled when safety was reached.
In Silver Falls, my body was acting the same. It knew that in order to leave Silver Falls, we would have had to drive through Silverton; specifically on the road adjacent to the Trump rally.
I wasn’t consciously panicked, but my body was telling me to go into fight-or-flight mode. We don’t think of ourselves as a minority family, or even a brown family, but yet my mind knew that a Trump supporter would not be able to differentiate us; we are going to look Mexican to them, and there is only one way out of Silver Falls State Park - through downtown Silverton.
That day, for just a brief moment, I tasted that fear. It was enough for me to subconsciously reach for my tripod. In fight-or-flight mode, to make sure the heavy ballhead, which can crush a human skull, was affixed.
Throughout those four years, that fear never left me. I cannot imagine the incalculable toll that the wall’s symbolic intent had on families throughout the United States, but I knew then that as a white American, I tasted a spoonful of racism which is almost always beyond our reach and comprehension.
Still, our family felt that Oregon would serve as an insulation from what was happening elsewhere around the country, where President Trump would say something racist, and then there would be dead bodies the next day. All of this was bad, but it was also somewhere far away from us.
But then, one night, at a friend’s house, we brought up the Portland Train Attack, which had just happened a few days before. Portland resident Jeremy Joseph Christian, an avid Trump supporter and member of Trump-supporting Patriot Prayer began verbally abusing African-American girls; attacking them with the same language the President was using in his Muslim ban. Three young men rushed to the defense of the young girls. Jeremy Joseph Christian sliced their necks, killing two of them and seriously wounding the third.
When I saw my friend hide his tears while he described how one of those young men had been his student, I knew instantly that we were being directly affected by Trump’s hate speech - that the border wall was hitting home.
e pull off Puerto Blanco drive and step up to the wall. It’s actually not a wall at all, but a series of 30-foot tall steel bollards---a large fence. Because this area is prone to monsoon flooding, there are several gates, which need to be left open through the summer to ease the monsoon floods from downing the wall. During this period, if you’re going to make the unusual decision of crossing the border in open desert, you don’t need to climb over or dig under the wall, or find an area where the wall is unbuilt. You just duck and go.
Kellan looks up at the wall. He knows about my concerns about the wall on the local habitat, and says, “Birds can just fly over it.”
“It’s not about the birds that migrate to Oregon,” I explain. “The warblers are moving at night, and they are probably ten-thousand feet in the sky. The wall doesn’t impact them. It’s everything else.”
Kellan wants to move on, but the wall and I have business. I find a piece of metal in the sand, and make my mark.
Graffiti on the Wall
ellan grew up with deserts. As a younger boy, inundated with images of Radiator Springs, Rango and Oscar’s Oasis, I told him a recurring story about a man driving a truck on a desert road. Invariably in this story, the washboard road causes the truck to lose a tire. The story is not so much about the hapless truck-driver, but the tire itself, rolling madly through the sandy desert washes. The tire would tear through these habitats of desert pocket mice, coyotes, roadrunners and javelinas.
How exciting would it be to bring Kellan to the primeval epicenter of this place of our stories? This feeling, I feel the most after leaving the border wall and diverting north, to the Senita Basin, which veers north from the border-hugging Puerto Blanco drive.
We park at the trailhead and head up-trail. The Senita Basin trail meanders through a spectacular lowland desert. It is a warm February day, and we find ourselves in a mode that was familiar to us from before Kellan’s teen years: one where we just poke around in our environment, showing each other rocks, sticks and bugs. These moments, where time stands still are hard to find in the routines of everyday life. Travel upsets and offends those routines which keep us in the lane of our habits.
The Senita Basin is about the perfect place to imagine the Sonora Desert as a whole—to think about it in its deep history. That green, so dominant in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, is a tropical green, reminiscent of Mexico and Central America. This is not an accident.
The Sonoran Desert began to form perhaps 8 million years ago; a combination of geologic events (uplifting mountains, and earthquakes forming the Sea of Cortez), made a once wet and fertile region dry. This would have formed a barrier biome called Thornscrub - part tropical, part desert. It is thought that in this thornscrub, the plants that could survive extreme aridity evolved.
Sometimes we think of cactuses as being from this region - certainly the most memorable ones are from the Sonoran Desert. But cactus evolution and diversity is South American. There, 1700 species or more have evolved. Those that crept north into Mexico, the American southwest and the Caribbean were more recent immigrants; evolving in thornscrub and jumping north.
Unintended Consequences on the Road to Quitobaquito Springs
he wall is always there, looming above us, on the road to Quitobaquito Springs. While we drive, we return to subject of the wall’s effect on the birds. “The first rule of conservation,” I explain, “is that interfering with nature in such a massive way comes with cascading unintended consequences.”
While birds migrating at 10,000 feet at night will likely not be impacted by the wall, literally everything else living in this desert will. This region is one region, not two, and every living organism that lives here moves through it. While it may be obvious that the border wall directly eliminates the movements of cougar, jaguar and the endangered pronghorn subspecies, because they simply can’t fit through the gaps between the bollards, the fence really is nearly impenetrable to almost all other wildlife despite those gaps.
“If you look at the wall from almost any direction,” I tell Kellan, “it doesn’t look like there are spaces. You can only tell the spaces are there if you are looking straight on.”
Large desert birds, small mammals and reptiles are just not going to cross this border, and that’s really dangerous for this ecosystem, because these animals need to move seasonally, or nocturnally, or via longer climatic shifts. And the species that migrate through this region are vast. Not only do collared peccaries, black bears and ocelots all migrate through the Arizona-Mexico border, but countless thousands of insect species. Dragonflies like green darners, wandering gliders and spot-winged meadowhawks navigate through here in their annual migration.
What about the large ranges of the critically endangered desert tortoise?
While monarchs, flying through the Sonoran desert, are likely 800 feet in the air, dozens of other butterfly species are migrating through this region at ground level.
The border wall is a nearly impenetrable barrier to the flow of seasonal floods, which are essential to the health of the desert ecosystem. The wall will create buildups of silt and mud, wrecking havoc on the washes that are essential to the entire ecosystem.
Most importantly, the border wall fragments habitat in a way that will have untold effects on what is meant to be one biome. The Sonoran desert, first and foremost, is a diverse plant biome. Its sandy and rocky soils are covered in dormant seeds. What happens when a percentage of those seeds get caught in the wind, as they are supposed to, and then collect at the concrete base of the wall?
What about the Tohono O'odham native Americans, who had, up until now, the semi-autonomous right to pass through the border uninhibited to collect plants and salt in the Sea of Cortez region?
I am excited to finally get to Quitobaquito Springs, which I have hoped to finally see after attempting to get there twenty years ago. Will I see wading birds? Early butterflies?
When we arrive, Quitobaquito Springs, which is known to be a robust freshwater pond, has no water in it. It is just mud.
Beyond the springs, looms the wall.
This springs is known as one of the only persistent sources of freshwater for miles. It is a key mechanism of survival to many mammals, and a key stopover point for migrating birds. It is also the last U.S refuge of desert caper trees, the endangered Sonoyta pupfish, Howarth’s white butterfly and the sole location of the Quitobaquito tryonia snail.
Beyond the springs, looms unintended consequences.
The steel bollards of the Trump wall are hollow, and filled with concrete, which is mixed on site. To mix the concrete for every mile requires 710,000 gallons of water. To build the wall, contractors had to dry up the water table which feeds the springs.
And now, this springs, known around the world by birders and cherished by conservationists for its unique biodiversity, is in serious jeapardy. If water tables are not filled soon, we risk not only individual species, but the springs itself. The problem, it doesn’t take just one good rain to fill the water tables. Conservationists believe the wall disturbed decades of water that feeds the spring.
The Dry Borderlands Presidential Library
ravel is a personal narrative, and you may assume now that my narrative ends with a conclusion about the wall. There is no doubt that Trump’s border wall should be destroyed. As I write these notes, conservationists in Arizona and from across the United States are demanding it. Native American groups are supporting them.
I was lucky enough to see West Berlin before the wall separating East and West Germany was torn down. After the defeat of Soviet Communism, someone might have argued: leave the wall up, as a monument to the absurdity and cruelty of walls and communism. But the history of the wall is not represented by by the concrete. We preserved the history of the stupidity of the Berlin Wall with our sledgehammers.
Yes, we must destroy the wall, secondarily as a symbol of our intolerance for the intolerance it represents. But we must take down the wall primarily because it fractures a habitat.
Twenty years ago, the Dry Borders-Sonoran Desert introduced me to an idea that may one day become mankind’s biggest idea. The idea that, more than via solar farms or electric cars, is the big idea that may preserve the biosphere upon which civilization relies. That idea is that we will expand our permanently preserved areas, so that protected zones begin to connect, blossoming through boundaries and across oceans.
But it will cost billions to tear down Trump’s wall, the Biden Administration has suggested, possibly hoping to delay a combative and costly act.
I have an idea on how to help defray the cost.
There is a growing likelihood that Trump will get convicted for tax fraud or rape. What if we made a special case for him. He gets to avoid prison, and instead live out the rest of his life in a Presidential Library. One built entirely from the steel bollards of the Organ Pipe Cactus border wall. The Presidential Library, which will contain no books, will be built adjacent to Lukeville, with access from both sides of the border.
There will be an imitation resolute desk, with a button that, when pressed by the President, serves him a diet coke. And all of us, on both sides of the border, can pay to see him pushing that button. A library, without books, but a library dedicated to the terrible costs that walls, in their many ways, incurs on our society and our land.
Leaving the green tropical desert of Organ Pipe might have left me with a conclusion about the wall; but actually, with Trump gone, the U.S. federal government is signing on to a bold global idea: the Thirty by Thirty Resolution, which seeks to preserve thirty percent of all US land and water by the year 2030. Bold and unlikely? Maybe, but that big idea which I first glimpsed when crossing between Organ Pipe and Gran Desierto, is now reverberating within these borders, and across the world.