Monday, January 27, 2014

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The sound of voices stirred me from my sleep, I tried to look out the window but it was all fogged up. The air in the car was cool, my toes had slipped out from underneath my sleeping bag and were cold, I slipped them back under and fell back asleep. 

The sunrise woke me, as expected at just after six in the morning. My night sleep had been more like a series of short naps. Yawning, I rearranged the car, and after waiting patiently for the windows to defog, drove off. I had spent yet another evening sleeping in a Walmart parking lot, this time in Tucson, Arizona. I had seen none of the city save for three young girls, the eldest barely 12, the middle nearing eight and the youngest, who was being pulled in a shopping cart by the eldest, probably 5, walking across a parking lot, alone, at night, wearing an extravagant amount of make up. I shook my head as I finished pumping my gas and set off for Walmart. 

I would see no more of the city today as I skirted around the suburbs and back onto the empty highway heading west. As soon as I reached the city limits the desert was noticeably more lively than the previous days. Giant cacti rose up out of the dry dirt, towering over the shrubs that proliferated on the desert floor. Mountains rose up on the horizon in every direction. As the sun summited a peak behind me the day began. It was still quite chilly, but I had a lot of driving to do, ample time for the sun to warm the land. The further south I drove the more dense the brush became around me, at points small trees hung over the highway and the endless desert views I had become accustomed to, were obscured. 

Periodically small groupings of houses would appear on the side of the road, barren and impoverished, they looked like they were from a different country. It’s hard to believe such desperate poverty lives in America, unacceptably close to major cities. Other than the smattering of settlements the land was untamed, a true wilderness stretching in every direction. 

A coyote waltz across the highway, and disappeared into the brush, immediately afterward I saw a roadrunner sitting on the side of the road, and quickly scanned the skies for an acme device. The cacti became ever more numerous as I edge closer to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where I would be spending my day. 
I figure mi madre will like this one
At the entrance of the park is the small town of Why, Arizona, population: 116. I had skipped breakfast, hoping to catch a meal closer to the park, and luckily a diner was open. I parked and went in, The entire patronage of the cafe was well over retirement age. The place had the small of a retirement home, which was not all that surprising given the cliental. 

After breakfast I headed into the park, by now the temperature had risen to over 70 degrees, the sun perched high in the sky. The road into the park is over 15 miles, both sides flanked with the now ever-present cacti and mountains serving as the back drop. The road was once again straight, disappearing in the distance as I stared out the window at the cacti, sitting effortlessly in the desert sun. 
I realized I have no pictures of me actually doing any of the things I have done, so I decided to change that. 
I reach the visitor center, where a hummingbird was peacefully searching a bush for food. Inside a park ranger directed me to a couple of trails I might be interested in exploring. “The Arch Canyon Trail is about a mile long, pretty flat, a relatively easy trail,” she said. “The Bulls Pasture Trail is a bit longer and fairly difficult, if you have the time I would suggest doing both,” she instructed, sending me off with a cheerful smile. 

I started up the road towards the Arch Canyon Trail. The road was a 21mile dirt road, and my car jostled with every bump. Along the drive there were pull offs, which I took advantage of to go explore some of the cacti up close. Some of the succulents towered over me, reaching almost fifty feet, taller than a house. There were also smaller cacti, some looking like trees, others spread across the ground like ivy. nearly ever plant had fearsome looking needles. A harsh reminder of the difficulty of desert survival. 

After a couple stops to examine some cacti, I made it to the trail head for Arch Canyon. High on the mountain stood the trails name sake, a massive stone arch. I considered not grabbing my pack, it was an “easy one mile hike” after all, but my instincts told me otherwise. I packed out some water and food and headed out for my hike. A couple was hitting the trail about the same time as me and I decided to race along to give myself, and them, space. The trail was easy and quickly took me into a the canyon, the towered facades of the mountains rising up. 

Creeper pic of the couple, they stopped not long after this and I passed them. 
At what in hindsight was clearly the end of the official trail, a sign read, “Cation Steep Rock Route Ahead.” I heeded the warning but continued on, the trail soon turned steep and rocky, as the sign had suggested would happen, and after awhile I was forced to put my camera in my bag and hoist myself up the mountain side. Yesterday I had walked up a mountain, today I was climbing one. The stones slipped out from underneath my feet periodically, catching my balance I looked back, in just a couple minutes I had climb up to a ridge, a hundred feet above the valley. 

The path was well marked with cairns, small piles of stones left by previous hikers to mark the trial, and I reluctantly pulled myself up from one ridge to another. Maybe it was the lower altitude, or maybe it was the energetic boost of the warm sun on my skin, but the climb, while clearly more daunting, seemed easier than the previous days walk, and soon I found myself nearing the summit. 

One of the many cairns that helped guide me. 
At the top the trail leveled out and guided me over to a overlook. From there you could see the entire park, the giant cacti nearly indiscernible from this altitude. Far below my car sat, a small red dot in a see of green and brown. I rejoined the trail and realized where exactly it was taking me, inside the arch. 

At this point the trail got difficult, more so than the previous leg, as I gingerly made my way down a steep slope, finally reaching the ridge and negotiating my way under the arch. The arch was bigger than it had looked from the trail, a massive stone bridge hanging silently atop a mountain. The shade from the arch felt nice after the ascent, the sun having taken it’s told on my exposed flesh. 
My lunch view.
I sat and had lunch in the arch, watching as people down in the parking lot stared up, taking pictures, knowing that I was an unwelcome addition to their photo album. The silence of the mountain was broken by a mans voice, “Hey man how did you get over there,” the man called out. It was the couple I had started the trail with, they had followed me up to my perch. I instructed them where the trail lead and laid back down. watching the world go by through the window of the arch. Eventually the couple made it over and we exchanged stories of other hiking adventure. It was the most social interaction I had had in days. As the conversation dwindled I decided to allow them to have the arch to themselves and began my decent. 
If you look you can see the couple making their way down the path from the summit to the arch. Just to give you some scale. 
Going down is always more terrifying than going up, and going down this path was especially treacherous. On more than one occasion I felt the rocks slide under my feet and my heart jump into my throat. I slid down the mountain expertly and made it back to the trail, looking back up the mountain I had just conquered, and hoping a safe return to the couple I had met in the arch. 

Back at the car I took sometime to relax and rehydrate, I looked at the map, remembering the ranger had suggested I do another “fairly difficult” trail. I would barely have the daylight to do the trail, and decided my body had been through enough over the past few days. I drove down the rest of the dirt road, apologizing profusely to my car every thirty seconds or so. When I reached the pavement I swear I heard the car give a sigh of relief and off we went, the cacti that had early looked like they were waving hello, now seemed as if they were saying goodbye. 
The biggest Organ Pipe CactusI saw. 

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