Black bottles, boots, and borders

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.

Organ Pipe border barrier

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.

Organ Pipe black water bottlesOur 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.

Organ Pipe boot repairAnd 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.

Organ Pipe boot closeupHere 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.

A deal on solar panels

You know … I had such a good time at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument last week that I did something unusual. At Eleanor’s suggestion, I left the Airstream parked in the campground so we could come back as a family for another visit. We’ve never done that before.

So I came home on Wednesday, re-packed and caught up on some work, and then Friday all three of us went back just for the weekend.

It was a weird thing to come to the campground and find the Airstream sitting there, all set up and ready for us.  It was more like having a vacation house. But it was great: We just piled in, and I slid out the awning and Solar Shade, and opened the windows and let the warm desert breezes flow through … and it was an “Aaaahhhhh” moment.  No obligations, no deadlines, and glorious sunshine in a quiet park.

Organ Pipe E&E Airstream shade

That feeling lasted all weekend as we hiked out to abandoned mines and filled in our “Desert Ranger” books (everyone got a patch), and visited with other Airstreamers, and generally just chilled out. I have to say, it was a great mini-vacation.

Organ Pipe Airstream interior

As we were camping I was reminded of how great it is to have solar panels on the roof of the Airstream.  The Twin Peaks campground at Organ Pipe has a few rows where generators aren’t allowed, and I noticed that most of the Airstreams were clustered there (including us). It was more peaceful without the rumble of generators firing every morning while people microwaved their coffee.

Organ Pipe chain link chollaThis time of year the sun angle is low and I often wish I had just a little more sun-gathering capability, so I’m now using a 120-watt portable solar panel kit to augment the fixed panels on the roof.  This has turned out to be so great that I’m going to start selling the same kit in the Airstream Life Store.

Having a set of portable panels means you can set them on the ground where the sun is shining (even if the Airstream is in shade) and angle them to catch the early morning and late afternoon light that flat roof panels miss. This effectively gives you a lot more power collection especially during the short winter days and cloudy days.  They have adjustable legs so you can set the angle to match the sun, and they fold up to easily store in a zippered carry case.

I’ve got a bunch of these solar panel kits coming in next week.  They’re somewhat expensive, but if you were ever thinking about getting a set, I’ve got a deal for you.  The kit we are now selling includes 120 watts of top quality folding panels with all the bells & whistles. It’s totally “plug and play”—you don’t need anything else to get started—and we include a few crucial accessories that other sellers don’t include. We’re going to sell this complete kit for $636.

Since you’re a blog reader, if you contact me before March 10, 2016 and you’re one of the first 10 people to respond, I’ll send you a discount coupon to use on my store that will reduce your price by $50I guarantee you will never find a better price on this full kit (including extension cable and 7-way plug adapter) anywhere.

Click here to read more about what we’re offering, but be sure to get the discount coupon from me before you place your order.

I’ll talk a little more about our Organ Pipe Cactus National Park experience in the next blog, because it’s an interesting place and we had a few, uh, “adventures” in the back country …

Camping in Organ Pipe Cactus Nat’l Monument for no reason

I feel very fortunate to be able to travel via Airstream as much as I do. But some of the travel isn’t that great, because we are running from one place to another on a schedule. Being on a schedule means skipping interesting roadside sights and enticing state parks because they aren’t convenient for a stop. It means pressure to cover miles, and overnight stays in places that don’t exactly qualify as vacation spots.

The past few years have been filled with too much of that sort of travel, and not enough of the type where we lay back and let the days come to us. So to try to balance things out, I decided to take a trip by myself to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona.

Actually the trip was intended to include my friend Nick, but he got a virus the day before the trip so it became a solo voyage. This was a mental block for a little while because I had anticipated everything for a party of two, and now I would be alone in the Airstream with no real goals or plans. I stopped for a moment to re-evaluate why I was going.

This was an opportunity. I have not taken the Airstream out by myself for “no reason” in many years. Every solo trip I’ve had recently (and there haven’t been many) had some sort of quest as the central point of the trip. This time I’d be hitching have up the Airstream, towing 200 miles, and spending a couple of nights far out in the desert near the Mexico border for no reason other than to relax.

Eleanor loaded the Airstream up with food enough for several days, and we got it all straightened out for travel, and off I went. As I towed down Rt 86 through the Tohono O’odham Reservation and wide open Sonoran Desert, I got a little more cheerful. I was alone in my favorite place in the world (the Airstream) and heading off to adventures that I couldn’t predict.

 

Camped at Organ Pipe’s Twin Peaks campground, $16/nt

 

Fate always seems to hand us a little surprise when we step out of our personal boundaries. In this case I found a story about Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument that I didn’t see coming.  My friends Bert and Janie Gildart were here and Bert and I decided to go for a drive around the park on some of the backcountry dirt roads, to do some hiking and sightseeing.

You have probably heard about the reputation of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Virtually closed for many years because of drug smuggling and illegal immigration, it was considered to be a “dangerous” place. In the years leading up to 2012 most of the park was barred to tourists (except in a few cases where they could go only with armed escorts). Even today people think it’s a war zone down here.

 

The border fence isn’t what keeps people out.

But it’s not.  Not even close. I met the Superintendant, a confident guy with law enforcement background. He talked to a bunch of us campers at the park amphitheater and gave the story from his perspective. The park, he said, was suffering from “lore” but not facts. It also had a dysfunctional relationship with the Border Patrol, who were trying to do their job to protect the border without much cooperation.

Without getting into the long story of how the park was turned around, let’s just fast-forward to today. The park is safe. There are 550 Border Patrol people living just up the road in Ajo, and at any given time there might be about 40 Border Patrol officers traveling around the park in F-150 trucks. There are huge communication and surveillance capabilities, so everyone on the ground can be spotted. (I suggest avoiding romantic encounters out in the desert where “nobody can see us”.)

The Superintendant said we’d be hard-pressed to spot any illegals while we were in the park, and that was true while Bert and I were exploring.  The smugglers don’t want to be seen, and the Border Patrol scoops up most of them anyway. We actually wanted to find some hints of activity, like some of the black plastic water bottles they leave behind, just because we were curious how successful the park has been at suppressing it. We didn’t find much during our 32 mile backcountry drive, until we were right at the border itself–and most of that trash probably just blew over the border.

Instead, we found magnificent cactus forests, delicate desert flowers, hidden springs, abandoned mines and ranches, and blissful solitude. Didn’t see a single other human being for most of the day, until we finally crossed paths with a Border Patrol officer in his truck, who gave us a friendly wave.

A saguaro cactus “forest” in Organ Pipe Cactus Nat’l Monument

 

Bert photographing the senita, a species that only exists north of the border in this place

 

A steel grate is the only thing between you and a 40-foot fall down this mine shaft

 

Desert flowers were just beginning to bloom in late February

The rebirth of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has been spectacular. The park is better than we’ve ever known it, and all the campers here have been commenting on it. They’re wondering why more people aren’t here, enjoying the fantastic weather and stunning scenery all winter. So I’m passing it along: Organ Pipe is open and thriving, and you should get here before everyone else figures it out.

For me, I’m reminded that no effort is pointless. I had no preconceptions about coming here, but the National Park supplied me with a purpose and an education anyway. I guess I was wrong when I thought I was coming here for no reason. I just didn’t know what the reason was.

Hitching up the Airstream to go see something always seems to pay off.  This was a trip with no deadlines, no expectations, and no goals, and yet it has been as fulfilling as any other.

Eleanor says I’m not missing much at home right now, so I may as well stay for another quiet and cool desert night. That’s a nice bonus. While I’m here I’ll research a few things to do as a family so we can come back together before the season ends. Organ Pipe may become our winter vacation spot in the future, now that we know it has come back better than ever.

Why you go to Death Valley

Death Valley Stovepipe Wells AirstreamsYou don’t come to Death Valley for the fast Internet.  Or for good cell phone coverage.  This is part of what makes it a rare and peaceful place, because once you arrive there is a moratorium on ringing phones, text messages, social media, and other such distractions.

I’m a big believer in vacations. It’s hard to vacation when email is beckoning and the obligations of work can follow you every step of the way, so I think big western parks like Death Valley should stay “quiet zones” forever—but I’m sure that’s not going to be the case.  Already in most of the remote places of the west there’s some spots of cellular service and so the responsibility is on me to put the phone and laptop away to disconnect for a few days. That takes self-discipline.

To a self-employed person, it feels like shirking.  Being cut off from the Internet is like going without water; you can only do it for a limited time, and gradually things begin to stink. The longer you ignore email and let the voicemails pile up, the more you know you’ll have to deal with later.

I have many friends who work and live full-time in Airstreams, and those people plan ahead carefully to ensure they can get online as they travel. My friend Kyle is one of those people, so for him to tow his Airstream Classic 34 out to the “quiet zone” of Death Valley required getting ahead on work the week before in Pahrump NV, and then formally taking vacation time for the four days we would be camped at Stovepipe Wells in the vast desert.

Death Valley mapYou also don’t come to Death Valley for the high-concept entertainment.  There is little shopping, and no commercial attractions except the lowest elevation golf course in the world. It is a huge, mostly empty place with subtle pleasures: eerie landscapes, tiny animal tracks in the sand dunes, a fragment of human history, abandoned mines and ghost towns, strange salt formations, superlative altitudes (282 feet below sea level and 11,000 feet above), and of course legendary heat in the summer.

Perhaps this is why there was hardly anyone there in January.  You’d think the place would be flooded with visitors from northern states, escaping the gloom and snow for a patch of inexpensive desert sun, but the Stovepipe Wells campground was 90% empty, and we encountered few people during our explorations (except near Furnace Creek, by the Visitor Center and “ranch”).

We have visited Death Valley I think four times over the past decade, and each time we find something different. It’s too big to see in a single visit, even if you stay a week.  Driving from Scotty’s Castle or Ubehebe Crater south to the Devil’s Golf Course (for example) is about 70 miles one way.  It’s easy to do 150 miles a day roaming from one interesting spot to another, and then back to your campsite.

Death Valley Ubehebe CraterNormally we pick Furnace Creek as our campsite because it’s fairly central.  This time we chose Stovepipe Wells just because it seemed like we might do more stuff in the northern part of the park. Scotty’s Castle (a popular historic house) was closed due to flooding, but that still left Ubehebe Crater (pictured at left), the Sand Dunes, Rhyolite ghost town, Leadfield ghost town, and the epic one-way Titus Canyon drive.

Titus Canyon was the big goal for me this time.  Eleanor and I first visited Death Valley in the early 1990s, camping in a tiny “2 man” tent and driving a rental car, and when I spotted Titus Canyon I was desperate to drive it.  There are only two ways to experience Titus Canyon: by driving the entire road from Rhyolite (about 3-4 hours) or by walking uphill from the parking lot.

Alas, we didn’t have time to drive it, so we walked a bit of the lower canyon and put it on the “someday” list, where it remained for over twenty years.  This visit I was determined to make the trip.

Since it’s a one-way road, you have to first exit the national park by driving to Nevada.  This adds a “might as well” stop to the trip: Rhyolite ghost town in Nevada.  There are a few buildings still there, and the most notable are the former train station (which no longer has tracks to it) and the Tom Kelly House (composed mostly of glass bottles).

After a visit to Rhyolite (a quick one since it was rather cold due to higher elevation), we embarked on the Titus Canyon drive.  This drive is best with a high clearance vehicle and you’d better be OK with bumps because the first few miles are a tedious flat slog through the desert on a rocky road.  After that it gets scenic—really scenic.

Death Valley Red Pass Mercedes

It was worth the wait.  Every twist of the road (and there are many of them) revealed a new vista.  We lunched at Red Pass, a spectacular spot high in the mountains, and then slowly worked down to the abandoned mining outpost of Leadfield.

Death Valley Titus Canyon Mercedes

Eventually the road enters narrow Titus Canyon for a couple of miles, which is very cool, and finally pops out into the wide open Death Valley to a small dirt parking lot. There we found a few envious visitors who were staring at the sign that says “one way traffic only”.

So that’s the sort of thing you go to Death Valley for.  Oh, and one other thing … the sunsets.

Death Valley Airstreams at sunset

 

Remembering Big Bend National Park

It wasn’t until we’d arrived and I started flipping through my photo archive on the computer that I realized we haven’t been to Big Bend since 2008. How did seven years go by since our last visit?

This park can’t be “done” in a single visit.  It can’t be described in a single page.  You have to make the trip again and again to really dig into Big Bend.  We’ve been here four times and there’s still so much left to see and do.

This visit we started with a classic: Santa Elena Canyon.  Sheer walls rising 1,500 feet above the Rio Grande, a river ecosystem, and if you go early in the morning you get some spectacular light.  (We didn’t go early … but I remember from a prior trip.) Emma had never been here so it was fun for us to show it to her.

Big Bend Santa Elena canyon Eleanor

After that we hunted up some spots we hadn’t explored before (or didn’t remember), like ruins and views.  You really can’t go wrong in Big Bend. There are no bad spots.

Big Bend Burro Mesa pouroff Rich climbingBig Bend has a special meaning to us.  It’s the place that really kicked it all off for us.  Back in the 1990s a friend in Austin told me about it, and then another friend in Vermont told me more.  Inspired, I planned a trip in March 1997 where Eleanor and I flew out to Midland/Odessa, rented a car, drove for hours and then spent a few nights tent camping at the primitive Paint Gap Hills sites.

That was the year of Comet Hale-Bopp.  We watched it through binoculars and spotted both tails, thanks to the dark skies of Big Bend.  One night a bolide occurred, so bright that we could actually see it through the walls of our tent.  We crossed the Rio Grande to visit the Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen (you could freely cross back then) and eat tacos and drink Mexican Cokes. We soaked in the hot springs and watched the sunsets light up the limestone cliffs each evening.  Everything was unfamiliar, exotic, fascinating.

And this was the experience that hooked us on camping in National Parks.  We have been doing it ever since.  The first half dozen or so we visited with a tent, one or two per year, and after we got the Airstream we picked up the pace.  I don’t have an accurate count but probably we’ve visited over 120 National Parks since, not counting those we’ve visited more than once.  So, thank you Big Bend, for being so magnificent.

Big Bend house ruin view

We spent only three days on this visit, which is hardly anything for a park so large but enough to chill and enjoy a few hikes and special places.  After all the technical challenges and bad weather of the past two weeks it was a great way to spend the last few days of our trip west.  Only a few days remain before we land at home base.  I’m glad we are able to end our trip with a pleasant reminder of how it all began.