The wall is built. Public land in the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument have been blocked off from public access and bulldozed down. There are corpses of saguaro in the wake of the wall, scarce groundwater has been drained, burial grounds and historic sites have been destroyed, an extensive road system built, and mountains have been bulldozed down for this wall to exist. An arbitrary, imaginary line dividing the Sonoran desert landscape has been born into reality through a gigantic, ugly wall.
My favorite adventure partner, Ian the Space Cowboy, and I blasted south to explore Arizona for two weeks, camping in nine different wilderness areas and three different national forests. The Cabeza Prieta Wilderness in southwest Arizona stood out to us as bizarre and different then the rest for one reason: I felt overwhelmed by fear.
56 miles of the wilderness area runs along the border of Mexico and the United States. The Cabeza Prieta is the largest wilderness area in the state of Arizona, encompassing 803,418 acres: larger than the state of Rhode Island.
The plant nerd in me flourished in the diverse Sonoran desert, observing for the first time the freaky ocotillo, which reminded me of a coral-like seabed plant. It reminded me of Halloween, with its spooky spiky branches reaching for the sky and shaking it in the still desert air. The tips of the ocotillo were blooming a brilliant red flower, breathing life into the desert. The saguaro forests were comforting creatures with a steady presence and sturdy base. The saguaros sparked my imagination, with their silly character like bodies: their human like arms flailed in different directions, some striking disco dance poses, couples held hands and hugged each other, while others resembled karate kids with their arms squared up for a punch to the wind. The jumping cholla, or chain fruit cholla, were fruiting yellow pineapple looking bells that drooped toward the ground. Like the ocotillo, their vibrancy breathed life into the arid landscape of brown and grey rock.
We were drawn to explore this wilderness area for its obscure and ambiguous nature. So far no one on our trip had heard of or been to this area. We read a chapter in The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs about the Cabeza Prieta, which piqued our curiosity. Searching for water pockets in the desert is one of our favorite activities. It is rumored that Ed Abbey was buried illegally somewhere in the Cabeza Prieta. We wanted to see for ourselves what this odd and secluded place could teach us. What I didn’t expect to encounter was so much fear.
To enter the wilderness area, we drove through Barry M Goldwater Air Force Range, a military bomb dropping and missile testing site. It was odd to me for a wilderness area to border a missile range.
What kind of bombs were they testing and what chemicals were in the air? What were the plants and animals being exposed to? What were we being exposed to? To obtain a permit for the wilderness area, hikers are required to sign a HoldHarmless Agreement, stating your awareness that your safety is compromised by undetonated bombs in the area: “The greatest obstacles to your safety include possible encounters with old mine shafts, unexploded military ordnance and illegal border activity.”
This warning blanketed a layer of uncertainty on top of the typical deathly desert fears: dehydration, prickly cacti, quick sand, scorpions, rattlesnakes, lack of shade, getting lost in the remote sameness of the saguaro and creosote flats. The obstacles of the wild have never deterred us from exploring desert spaces. Yet the heavy US Government presence in the area sent chills down my spine, tightened my chest and furrowed my eyebrows together. It heightened a sense of uneasiness in me that is not typically present when I am in the wilderness.
We entered the Sonoran desert at a unique time: during a drizzling rain storm under the cover of a clouded night sky. The saguaro were saturated with pigment, the desert seemed alive with a throbbing green. The area averages three inches of rain a year, and we were there to witness the dark clouds and ominous wind that ripped my tarp shelter out of the ground repeatedly throughout the night. Flash flooding was on our minds as we drove through the night in search of a camp spot on high ground, away from washes and mindful of the wet, soft sand that could sink us. It’s not monsoon season yet, we were not expecting an inch in an hour, but it was our first time visiting this arid landscape so we carried with us a sense of caution and apprehension.
We slept the first night next to a volcanic mountain, with a rounded top, dark and full of igneous rock. The rounded volcanic mass stood alone in a valley of jagged vertical peaks of sharp granite and quartz. From the creosote flats, the mountains appeared large, stacking upon each other, rising suddenly from the desert soil. The jagged bare peaks up close were quite tame, only rising about 800-1000 feet off the ground, climbable in a few minutes of rock scrambling.
The bizarre part of these mountains was not in their inhospitable desert nature. While they appeared to be barren, the washes in the shade are home to elephant tree, lavender, agave, yucca, palo verde, and other aromatic shrubs. While the granite appears bone dry, we found tiny pockets of water hidden in the quartz, a few inches at best hidden in the shade. We followed fresh bighorn sheep poop to these pockets of holy water. The bizarre and unsettling bit about these mountains were the unidentifiable missiles lingering in the sand. Tubes of mystery: some empty, some with wire inside, others broken into scattered pieces.
Are they testers or real bombs? Will they detonate if I touch them? How do I know if they have detonated or not? What’s buried in the sand an inch below my footstep? How safe am I if I avoid touching them? And what the fuck are they doing lodged in the side of this protected wilderness area mountain range?
My rage for the missiles multiplied, as we encountered one to five tubes of mystery every few footsteps. They were abundantly littered in the crevices of the rocky slopes and scattered among the creosote flats. Their presence added a fear like nothing I have ever experienced from the wilderness. My fear for humanity’s presence was far greater than any flash flood or animal encounter.
The Cabeza Prieta Wilderness Area was a paradox of surprises. In one direction, vast valleys of creosote and saguaro stood in the foreground of seemingly untouched rocky mountains. There was a feeling of solitude and silence with the absence of human activity. When I stopped walking all I could hear around me for miles was my own breathing. We followed the scat of the elusive pronghorn and desert bighorn sheep, assuring us that life is among us, but scarcely seen. The mornings were full of a myriad of bird’s song, the evenings were quiet except for the yips and yaps of coyotes.
The peaceful quiet of the wilderness would suddenly shatter by the drones and rumbles of pilot jets roaring overhead. We exchanged glances of unease after gazing at the cloudy sky, which obscured our view from the jets.
“Please don’t drop bombs on us,” I half joked.
“Please notice our red truck and blue tarp. We’re over here,” Ian said, waving his arms above his head, half joking.
“Damn dude,” I said, shaking my head once the noise had subsided. “The sky should be considered part of the wilderness area. No motorized vehicles up in here!”
The Wilderness Act of 1964 established wilderness areas to “preserve wilderness character–the natural, untamed, undeveloped and primitive aspects that make wilderness worthy of its name. This means that uses within wilderness areas that directly degrade wilderness character, such as the following, are prohibited for both land managers and the public:
“Why are they allowed to drop bombs here?” I wondered, teetering on the edge of ranting territory. “They clearly don’t respect the boundaries between the missile range and the wilderness area. And the US Fish and Wildlife are obviously aware of it, considering the permit’s warnings.
Why is the air force not held accountable by the US Fish and Wildlife agency who managed the wilderness area? It seemed like the air force could and was actively dropping bombs and missiles willy nilly wherever they wanted. How can they be sure humans aren’t walking around? Do they care if they kill an endangered desert pronghorn?
“It doesn’t seem like people recreate here,” I said, noticing we were the only car and people for miles. When we checked in for permits, all of the regions of the wilderness area reported 0 visitors.
“No one comes here, it seems,” Ian agreed.
“They are deterred by the bombs, which is a bummer because this place is beautiful.”
“It’s bizarre out here.”
The consequences of crossing a vast desert terrain are high, and we encountered a number of them. While driving through a dry flat in between mountain ranges, the two track suddenly turned into a wash, the sandy road disappeared under water: not a puddle, but a moving mini river. Our tires spun out in the mud, sinking fast. We skidded and slid as we reversed, making it out of the mud, only to encounter deeper mud on the next road. We tried another road, stopping suddenly when we saw cracks in the soil.
“Let me scope this out before you drive over it,” I said, getting out of the car. I looked down into the crack to see a sinkhole deep enough for my 5’3” body to fit inside of.
“Back up, hell no,” I said shaking my head and getting back into the truck. We were fifty miles or more from pavement and feared getting stuck or sunk. Backing up, we searched for safer routes, looking for the bits of road in the sun and mostly dry. Without cell phone service or anyone passing through, we didn’t know what we would do if got stuck.
“We should’ve brought a shovel.”
“And extra gas.”
“Ah, we’ll be fine.” And we were.
As we immersed ourselves deeper into the wilderness area, we were shocked to find two track roads winding through the desert landscape, peeling off in different directions, creating a maze of intersections and loops.
“This place has been ripped up,” Ian said, pointing to the random tire tracks desecrating the portions of flat land off the roads. Cacti had been run over and creosote bushes flattened by tire tracks.
We expected the road to end at any moment and to continue on foot. Typically roads were absent and cars prohibited in wilderness areas. We felt guilty, as if we were doing something wrong by driving through the wilderness.
“We must be out of the wilderness area,” Ian said, as we criss crossed roads that widened into a two lane road big enough for multiple cars.
“No,” I shook my head, looking at a map. “It says we are still in it.”
“Then why are there so many goddamn roads?”
“Stop- what is that?” I pointed out the window toward a series of what looked like RVs, trailers, cars, and trucks. Wilderness area restrictions also include the prohibition of any structures or settlements, and on the horizon it was clear there were buildings out there.
We were stopped at an intersection of the road with a big sign that said: NO PUBLIC ACCESS.
“The fuck you mean no public access? This is public land,” I said.
Ian squinted his eyes toward the settlement down the road. I looked at the map and concluded that we were roughly five miles away from the border between Mexico and the United States.
“Dude, I think that’s the wall,” Ian said.
“No way,” I said in disbelief. Ignorant and uniformed, I was unaware that the wall was actually being built. My goal in life is to live in the wilderness, out of my backpack, around a fire instead of inside a heated home. For two weeks of every month, we disappear into the canyons of Utah to work for a wilderness therapy company. We live in the wilderness, blissfully cutoff from technology and the news. In my two weeks off time, I go straight back into the wilderness in hopes of continuing to avoid the general public to the best of my ability. But out here in the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness, politics came crashing into view, unable to be ignored.
“How can they be building in a wilderness area?” I demanded, in full rant rage mode now: “Wilderness areas are supposed to be protected from building, from development, and from roads. All these roads are probably for transporting supplies to this fucking wall. I can’t believe it, this is public land. How can the government take back protected public land and build on it? There are environmental laws in place to prevent this, to protect this. How can one person in power choose to make this massive decision for all of the public? The government already deemed this place protected, and now they can go back on their word. The system is broken, it’s fucked! Every president spends half their time undoing what the last president did, there’s no actual rules, they just change them when they want. How much does this wall even cost? I’ll tell you what it cost- the balance of this delicate ecosystem. How many saguaros do you think are cut down, animals killed, cacti, stomped on?”
According to the Sierra Club’s research, “the new roads have begun to change the way water moves in this part of the Sonoran Desert. Now when seasonal rains occur, the water no longer flows into the playas but often runs in torrents along the roadways…The biologically complex desert soil—which was once home to ephemeral grasses and small trees and which can take decades to recover once disturbed—looks like a cracked moonscape.”
The Center for Biological Diversity reported: “The Trump administration waived 41 environmental, cultural-resource protection and public-health laws to speed wall construction. Crews have tapped wells to extract limited groundwater to mix concrete for the wall’s footings. A 2017 Center report identified 93 threatened and endangered species along the 2,000-mile border that would be harmed by Trump’s wall.”
The wall inhibits species migration patterns including the endangered jaguar and the Sonoran pronghorn, as well as dozens of species of birds and insects. According to the Yucatan Times, “jaguars are necessary to balance the food chain by controlling the populations of other species. Since 2015, however, only three wild jaguars have been seen in the United States, all in Arizona. All three are male, corroborating the common practice for male jaguars to search for new habitat once they outgrow their current territory, to be followed later by females. However, the jaguar population will not be able to re-establish itself in the US if migration from northern Mexico is blocked. With only 100 Sonoran pronghorn left in the United States and fewer than 1,000 in the US and Mexico combined, it is one of the country’s most endangered mammals. Their only habitat is found in northwestern Sonora and southwestern Arizona, and their extreme vulnerability to drought makes unfragmented territory a necessity for their survival. As climate change intensifies the harsh desert climate, the Sonoran pronghorn must be able to travel long distances for food and water.”
Drone footage shows bulldozers carving through the Tinajas Altas Mountains, destroying the natural landscape to insert the new border wall.
More than half of Organ Pipe Cactus National monument was closed to public access for construction of the wall. The Trump administration bypassed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to blast a mountain for the wall, destroying ancestral burial grounds. According to an NBC News article, “bulldozing is also occurring at the park’s Quitobaquito Springs, a natural source of water for the tribe near where artifacts and human bone fragments have been found.”
All of this environmental destruction, money, labor, resources and time- for what? Is it worth it? Before bed each night, Ian and I take turns reading aloud to each other chapters from the Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. His perspective on human and specifically government development, still feels relevant:
“All this fantastic effort- giant machines, road networks, strip mines, conveyor belt, pipelines, slurry lines, loading towers, railway and electric train, hundred million dollar coal-burning power plant; ten thousand miles of high tension towers and high voltage power lines, the devastation of the landscape, the destruction of Indian homes and Indian grazing lands, Indian shrines and Indian burial grounds; the poisoning of the last big clean air reservoir, the exhaustion of precious water supplies- all that ball breaking labor and all that backbreaking expense and all that heartbreaking insult to land and sky and human heart, for what? All that for what?”Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey
On January 15, 2021, Biden terminated the national emergency declared by Proclamation 9844 in which Trump enacted to redirect military funds to build the wall. We visited the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness on January 22, 2021 and watched a parade of 18 wheelers driving into the wilderness area, carrying supplies to the wall. We watched workers in orange vests drive in and out of the restricted public access area. The construction has not halted.
Further research has shown how ineffective the wall is at keeping people out. In Kentucky, climbers assembled a replica of the wall to test the declared “unclimbable wall.”
Other videos show people at the border climbing the wall with a simple ladder:
We found a place to camp near the border and wanted to get eyes on the wall. I had never seen it before, nor had my avoidant ass seen any news articles or photos of it. I wondered: What does it look like? Is it a fence, is it built with stone, concrete, brick? How tall is it? How far along is construction? How much of the wall is actually built?
We went for a jog, dashing through a beautiful expanse of saguaro, ocotillo, pale verde, cholla, and mesquite as the sun began to dip in the sky. We turned up a side canyon that pointed us directly south. We slowed our movements to crouch down and inspect objects in the wash: tuna packets written in Spanish, tin cans, and shoes with carpet sewn on as the soles. Immigrants use these carpet soled shoes to avoid leaving footprints in the sand.
“We should turn around,” Ian said, standing up and looking around the canyon. My eyes were fixated on the shoes.
“They look fresh, like they could’ve been discarded today, or yesterday,” I said.
“People cross here, through this canyon,” he nodded. “We’ve been following a pretty clear trail.”
“It’s getting dark,” I nodded, glancing at the sky. “If I were crossing, I’d be walking at night, I would probably getting on the move about now.” I looked into Ian’s eyes and said rather seriously, “I really don’t want to run into anyone out here.”
He nodded, and we retraced our footsteps out of the canyon. Fear sent us back to our camp. We wondered about the immigrants and what state they might be in. We wondered if they would be terrified if they saw us, for fear of being reported or attacked by a racist Mexican hating white person. Would the see us and scatter, would they hear us and hide? Would they approach us, desperate for survival and asking for food or water?
What kind of people cross, and why? Would we meet families with their children, fleeing violence in their country? Would we meet men looking for a job and money to send home to their families? Would we meet first time crossers, lost and scared and desperate? Would we meet seasoned border crossers, coyotes leading groups through the familiar terrain? Would we meet members of the mafia or people smuggling drugs and weapons? Would we be met in violence, fear, desperation, or indifference? Would we see anyone at all?
There are scattered signs throughout the wilderness area that stated: ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS CROSS HERE. DO NOT HIKE ALONE. DO NOT HIKE AT NIGHT. DO NOT PICK ANYONE UP IN A VEHICLE. DO NOT GIVE THEM ANYTHING. CALL 911.
Never have I entered a wilderness area before and wished I had a gun. Not to kill or shoot an immigrant, but to protect myself from a possibly hostile crosser or border patroller.
The human in me recognized that whether the crossers carried babies or heroin, I didn’t want them to die in this desert. I didn’t want to encounter them, I didn’t want to call the police and I also didn’t want to pick them up in our truck and take them home and set them up with a job. I did hope they would make it somewhere alive.
Part of my humanness roots for resilience. It is a massive undertaking to cross in this desolate space. Part of me admired the ones who did it successfully. I assumed they were skilled navigators, for this desert disoriented me, a practiced navigator and paid backcountry guide. I thought of the physical grit they summoned to walk these hundred miles in a brutally hot exposed territory, possibly without water. I thought of the mental grit they used to push forward and not give up, to not buckle under fear. Crossing the border is ballsy, it’s brave.
I worried for a second about the truck being broken into while we were gone. My fear of the area increased, for the uncertainty of my safety at the hands of another human was bone chilling. The reality of the desert’s threat to all human’s safety hit me. American or Mexican, we all need water and food. We were all susceptible to the desert’s dangers: we could easily walk upon a dead body, a crosser who died of dehydration or heat illness or fatigue. If our truck was stolen or our food and water taken, our bodies could be the ones found in a ditch.
I carried with me a feeling of not fully wanting to be there, and feeling like maybe I shouldn’t be there. The wilderness area didn’t seem like it was designed for me or for use of the public to explore. It did not exude a feeling of safety. The bombs, the immigrants, the desert, the fucking wall- all of it added together was in direct opposition to my love and adoration for the place. The landscape was beautiful and pure. It evoked in me a sense of awe and respect for the earth. More than anything I wanted to protect it.
This breathtaking public land was designated to remain untouched. It was allocated to be visited, for humans to immerse themselves in an unaltered environment, to experience the real earthly world. This land was designated for the safety of the saguaros, the safety of the pronghorn, jaguars, and bighorn sheep. So why is the government building roads, building a wall, bulldozing mountains and dropping bombs?
We returned to the car and barely slept that night. My dreams were riddled with nightmares of people watching us. The wind ripped our tarp around, smacking me in the face repeatedly until it eventually ripped out from under the heavy ass rocks we had used to secure the corners. We adjusted the tarp and eventually gave up, accepting the tiny drops of rain to hit us in the face if it wanted to.
The next morning was bright and sunny for the first time, and we rejoiced for a bit of warmth. The US Border Patrol appeared on our radar that day.
Standing at the top of a hill admiring a saguaro, I heard the sound of a helicopter rumbling toward me. In the flat valley below me, I watched the helicopter dip low to the ground in slow circles. I thought it might land but it stayed in the air, expanding its range of circles. An uneasy feeling crept over me. I squinted my eyes to see through the saguaro and ocotillo, wondering if they were looking for someone, spotted someone, or were trying to scatter a group. I didn’t want to be alone at that moment, so I returned to the truck where Ian sat drawing and watching the helicopter’s circles.
“I hope they don’t drop a bomb on us,” he said.
“I wonder if they found someone,” I said, trailing off and thinking about how terrifying it would be to be chased by a helicopter.
Later that day we encountered another settlement, a building with a cellphone tower and three trucks labeled US Border Patrol. “Okay, so they can build in a wilderness area.”
“No rules for the government.”
“I don’t know if I trust these border patrol people, way out here in the desert no one seems to visit. Who wants this job? Someone who’s passionate about keeping Mexicans out? Someone who hates Mexicans? In theory, they could do whatever they want to the immigrants they find, because they aren’t counted for. No one seems to be watching. No one would know if they went missing, because no one would know if they crossed since they aren’t “supposed” to be here. This place is sketchy,” I said, watching the dust clouds kicked up by border patrol trucks racing across the desert roads.
According to the Sierra Club’s report, “A 2006 agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and land-management agencies like the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management gives Border Patrol the authority to use existing administrative roads and trails within wilderness areas and to travel off-road if necessary. According to current and former DOI officials, Border Patrol makes liberal use of this exemption.
“We don’t have a good way of monitoring them [Border Patrol],” one DOI employee who works in the border region told Sierra on the condition of anonymity. “For the most part, they kind of get to do whatever they want.”
Under the 2005 Real ID Act, part of the post-9/11 expansion of the national security state, DHS was given carte blanche to waive any laws that would interfere with efforts to secure the border. This is why the Trump administration was able to sidestep dozens of environmental laws, including the Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, to move forward with constructing a 30-foot-tall impermeable barrier in parts of Cabeza Prieta and Organ Pipe.
According to Sue Rutman, a botanist who worked at Organ Pipe from 1994 to 2013, the Park Service secretly monitored Border Patrol for several years to determine if the agency was faithfully documenting off-road use of wilderness areas as required by the 2006 agreement. Rutman said a Park Service analysis found that Border Patrol only filed reports about 25 percent of the time.
“There was a total lack of respect for the park and its resources,” Rutman said.”
A silent warfare spread across the span of this desert. We saw a blue flag, waving next to the twenty foot tall saguaros, with a water jug at the base of the flag.
“What does that sticker say?” Ian said, pointing to the top of the jug.
“People dropped this for people crossing. Or for anyone out here in the desert without water.”
“I wonder if Border Patrol fucks with these. They probably know it’s here.”
And they do. According to a research report by the organization No More Deaths, members of the US Border Patrol slash water jugs they find in the desert to prevent people from drinking the water. An interview with a border crosser reported:
“[I felt] helplessness, rage. They [the US Border Patrol] must hate us. It’s their work to capture us, but we are humans. And they don’t treat us like humans. It’s hate is what it is. They break the bottles out of hate.” In data collected by No More Deaths from 2012 to 2015, we find that at least 3,586 gallon jugs of water were destroyed in an approximately 800-squaremile desert corridor near Arivaca, Arizona.“
Death should not be the consequence of crossing the border.
Personally, I don’t know where I stand on these issues. I’m not going to load my truck up with immigrants and smuggle them across the border. If I see one, I’m not going to shoot or call the cops. If they are hungry or thirsty, I would share what water or snacks I had. I don’t want free passage and I don’t want a gigantic wall in between us either.
I don’t want immigrants coming over the border and littering trash, ditching their water bottles, tin cans, tuna packets, and backpacks in the sand. I don’t want border patrol to have free reign without accountability. I don’t want immigrants to be beaten or chased into the desert to die. I don’t want to go for a hike and find a dead body or the bones of children who starved.
I don’t want fucking missiles dropped in a wilderness area. I don’t want to walk around in a protected wilderness zone in fear of my life for stepping on an undetonated bomb.
What I am clear on is my stance on the wall: it has desiccated land that is supposed to be protected and public. The wall’s destruction of endemic plants, contribution to habitat loss and disruption of migration patterns, bulldozed mountains, and annihilation of sacred burial sites doesn’t seem worth a barrier that’s easily climbed by eight year olds in Kentucky. What Trump was willing to sacrifice for the sake of a wall rooted in racism bewilders me. There’s no wall for our white neighbors up north.
It is an easy disposition to want to drive away, look away, and ignore what’s going on in this secluded space. I left the desert with a feeling of suspicion for what the government is capable of when there is no one to hold them accountable.
I left the desert with an abundant feeling of fear for the loss of natural and beautiful land. I fear the loss of public spaces to roam, to wander and to explore. I fear the loss of habitat for animals, the loss of water’s natural progression and how this affects humanity’s livelihood. I fear the loss of what I consider to be normal and natural for this planet. I fear an industrial world, a militarized world, a synthetic world.
There is tremendous value in wilderness. It’s not enough to have paved greenways through plotted and planted forests. It’s not enough to have trails that circle a man made lake with a fountain that follows the boisterous main road.
We need wild and quiet spaces. We need to immerse ourselves in wilderness to understand how far we have strayed from the natural world. To notice the difference between what we have created and what was created for us.
“The wilderness once offered men a plausible way of life. Now it functions as a psychiatric refuge. Soon there will be no place to go. Then the madness becomes universal. And the universe goes mad.”The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey
NOW WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS INFORMATION? Get involved:
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No More Deaths: a desert aid program
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