We live 70 miles from Mexico, so border issues are always a topic here. It’s something you can always count on, like death, taxes, and comical politics. There have been problems here with people illegally immigrating or smuggling as long as there has been a border, and while the times change, the fundamental arguments, responses, and failures seem to be perennial.
Back in the late 19th century it wasn’t the Mexicans that people worried about, it was the Chinese. They were seen as taking away American jobs with their cheaper labor. (This was the inspiration for the shamefully racist series of laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and other laws. But as has been true throughout history, banning a race of people didn’t solve anything.)
The first official lawmen to patrol the border were with US Customs (Chinese Bureau). Later the responsibility migrated to Immigration, and eventually in 1924 the US Border Patrol was formed. One of the first people to patrol the border in this area, way back in 1887, was Jefferson Davis Milton, who rode on horseback between Yuma and Tucson.
This probably wasn’t a particularly lucrative occupation, so Milton also prospected for mines, and he opened one in the land that was eventually to become Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. As part of our weekend vacation we decided we’d hike out to the Milton Mine just to have an excuse for a pleasant day in the park.
Driving along the steel vehicle barrier that marks most of the border in this area, we were reminded how the border is more of a political and economic concept rather than physical thing. The fence here is not designed to stop people (and even if it were “300 feet tall” it wouldn’t). It’s just designed to stop vehicles. The Border Patrol does the rest of the job, with high-tech surveillance and manpower. Although we couldn’t see them while we were parked by the fence, there’s no doubt that they could see us.
Our six-mile roundtrip hike up the mine trail was a mere lark for us, but for the unfortunates who try to cross this land with the help of human smugglers called coyotes, the same mileage can be a life-and-death struggle. The heat and dryness here, even in late February, quickly sap you of water at the astonishing rate of about a gallon per day.
Looking for signs of immigrants who had passed by before, we would occasionally find large black water bottles discarded and trapped by the wind in the branches of a creosote bush. The coyotes have convinced their clients that these black bottles help them evade detection (because they don’t glint in the sun).
That’s a ridiculously outmoded idea given the technology of the US Border Patrol today, which can detect humans from the vibration of their footsteps and the heat signatures of their bodies, but nonetheless Mexican factories continue to churn out black plastic bottles and (no doubt) sell them to the unsuspecting immigrants for additional profit. We had no trouble finding a half-dozen bottles, which I collected and brought back to Tucson later for recycling.
We encountered no one else on our hike but as we went I could not stop reflecting on how garishly we represented the economic divide between north and south. We visited the fence as tourists, posing for photos with digital cameras and then hopping back into our air conditioned Mercedes SUV. We hiked with the latest sports gear, sucking water from our Camelbaks, munching packaged protein bars, and protected by Neutrogena sunscreen.
And then we encountered a shallow overhang in a dry wash where a bit of litter told the story of people who spent a few hours here, hiding from the sun and the law. They were desperate to get to the economic land of milk and honey. We were hiking for fun.
I wondered how much water they had left at that point, less than six miles from the border fence with 60 miles yet to go. I wondered if that group of immigrants had any idea what they were up against, and if they were already losing hope.
Fortunately that wasn’t our experience. Instead we had a sort of “First World problem” along the trail when Eleanor’s elderly Vasque boots began to come apart. I didn’t know this when we set out but those boots were 21 years old and they were ripe for failure. Three miles into the hike and close to the second mine (Baker), the sole of Eleanor’s left boot began to come off.
Eleanor managed a sort of field repair on the boot by partially removing the lace and running it underneath the boot to secure the sole temporarily. She and I turned back at that point (leaving Bert and Emma to continue on to the Baker mine) as the boot continued to fall apart.
About a mile from the car the sole finally fell off completely and the other boot wasn’t looking too good either. In the end Eleanor survived the hike but the boot failure left her with some bruises around the ankle and some muscle ache from the uneven height of her shoes.
Here was another reminder of the difference between a hike that starts north of the fence and one that starts south of the fence. Nobody in our group died, and Eleanor will get a new pair of boots out of this. (I might even make a recommendation that she get a new pair every decade or so from now on.) Paradoxically, the boot failure has made me feel more fortunate than ever.
Now, you might be getting the impression that border issues overshadow everything in the national park. That’s really not the case. I was attuned to these things before I arrived and so I was thinking about it. The park management and the Border Patrol have worked hard to restore the park to a state where you don’t see people skulking through, and every part of the park is safe.
In my next blog entry, I’ll write about the natural side of things and you’ll get the rest of the story—and see what a glorious place Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument really is.