Pipe Dreams

Despite border dangers, there's still serenity to be found at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

No good book about desert country can go long without a quote from environmental guru Edward Abbey. In Organ Pipe: Life on the Edge, author Carol Ann Bassett manages to get almost to the end of her text without calling forth the Abbey mystique. When she does, it seems appropriate. "Learning about the desert takes time," she writes. "Abbey once wrote that the best way to get to know it was to 'Pick out a good spot and just sit there, not moving, for about a year ... Keep your eyeballs peeled and just sit there, through the hours, through the days, through the nights, through the seasons--the freeze of winter, the stunning glare and heat of the summer, the grace and glory of the spring and fall--and watch what happens.'"

Bassett has taken her mentor's advice. She began the first of many forays into the remote and rugged wilderness of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 1988. The wide-open spaces, crystalline light and diversity of desert life in this part of the Sonoran Desert--"a countryside hot, prickly, and easy to get lost in"--kept bringing her back. Organ Pipe, the fourth of five volumes in the University of Arizona Press Desert Places series, is the result.

If you've never been there, that first visit can be a swift kick in your reality. This is not terrain for sissies. Like most desert land, it hides its fragility and in this particular case, hides it well beneath a harsh exterior. The author calls it "a magical realm where everything struggles to hang on--to escape the threat of heat and talon and fang." Add to those hazards the constant shuffle of undocumented immigrant feet headed steadfastly north, the heavy footprints of drug smugglers laden with heavy packs of dope, and the booted feet of a variety of law enforcement personnel determined to keep an eye on both.

The remote desert oasis "full of stately saguaros and golden poppies" that first drew Bassett's attention has changed markedly since the monument was established in 1937. "By day, the national monument is an awe-inspiring delight. After dark, the 312,000-acre federally protected wilderness is transformed into a mini war zone," reported a recent edition of Audubon magazine. Because the barbed-wire fencing left over from cattle-ranching days doesn't deter the more than 1,000 individuals who nightly trek across the border, authorities are building a 30-mile-long, 5-foot-high barrier in Organ Pipe to cut down on illegal vehicle traffic responsible for environmental damage. (Never mind that wildlife that wander back and forth across the border will also be stopped in their tracks; that's another story.)

To say that the nature of the scenic attraction is changing, speedily and markedly, is an understatement. Bassett writes: "There's always a risk in returning to a place you've fallen in love with because of the changes that have occurred. This is unique ecology in fragile terrain, and the resources are being compromised to the point where many of the changes now taking place may prove irrevocable. I've been told there are a thousand miles of newly created foot trails that weren't here on my earlier visits. This area has been called the most dangerous park in the country and, unfortunately, in some ways, that's true."

However, Bassett believes serenity can still be found in Organ Pipe--but you need to get away from main roads and be brave enough to take off in new directions and explore side canyons along the way. "It's not difficult at all to find places of refuge and solitude in that monument, even today," she insists.

Bassett, editor of the Tucson Weekly at the time she took her initial trips to Organ Pipe, says she thinks of the land and what you find there as "the natural heartbeat of the desert." Along that theme, the book's final chapter, "Desert Heart," gives readers a reason to visit: "Everything I need to know can be learned in the desert," she writes. "Joy, sorrow, beauty, fear, trust, patience, tenacity. In the desert, knowledge comes intuitively if I listen."

Sensitive scenic photography by Tucson lensman Michael Hyatt and skillful text editing by series editor and noted travel writer Gregory McNamee make these 90-some pages flow smoothly.

Hyatt, who has been shooting in black-and-white format for 35 years, says the 15 images printed in the book show both the starkness and the beauty of the desert region through light and shadow: "It's elusive, but I believe these images, shot mostly at the height of summer heat, manage to capture the essence and the contrasts found in the area."