I've lived most of my life in deserts--the Great Basin, the Sahara, now the Mojave. So while many who trek to this little-settled corner in southwestern Arizona will be struck by the rugged openness of the vast Sonoran Desert, what impresses me is its luxuriance.
Generous summer thundershowers bring the region extra water. With two rainy seasons, the Sonoran is the most plant-crammed desert of the four in North America and is often described by botanists as "arborescent" because, as arid lands go, it is a forest of tall cactuses, yucca and bushes that are truly small trees. All of these flower and all will be blooming their heads off over the next few months.
In the first week of March, I drove from Los Angeles to Yuma, Ariz., on to Gila Bend, then headed south through the town of Ajo and the mischievously named Why, to spend a couple of days at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the Mexican border. Organ Pipe is an immense protected chunk of land in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, and at the northern limit of the cactuses' geographical range. In fact, it's the only spot in the United States to see them.
I went to cruise through the early wildflower arrivals, get up close to the saguaro and organ pipe cactuses and to see a backwater, but historically rich region that had always seemed mysterious and remote to me. It turned out to be a long but hardly challenging drive to get there, with good roads all the way. To cut back on the eight-hour drive from Los Angeles, you can also fly to Phoenix or Tucson, each about 150 miles from Ajo, the best staging area for day trips to the monument and other local destinations.
The first morning in the monument, stopping along the road to walk through small meadows of Mexican gold poppies and deep blue lupine, I ran across a couple of Tucson-based photographers, cruising through themselves to gauge when to come back with their cameras.
"The best wildflowers in 20 years!" declared Jack Dykinga, who has published a book on the area.
Some think that "best in 20 years" may be overstating the case. Robert C. Power Jr., of the National Park Service's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, earlier had told me that the 1992 wildflower season also brought a bumper crop. For my part, the wildflowers are in smaller proportion than I've seen in Southern California. There aren't the expansive fields of poppies that a wet year brings to the plains west of Lancaster.
Nonetheless, Organ Pipe is having a festive time of it this season, with blooms on cactuses and other plants that are seldom seen elsewhere. "And these green carpets," says Power of the ground-hugging plants and grasses, "are just going to be busting out all over this year."
Such hot prospects for blossoms in Organ Pipe normally would mean that by now, without reservations, you'd have to bring your own recreational vehicle or a tent to have accommodations near the wildflowers.
There aren't a lot of rooms in Ajo, and they're usually booked months in advance, even in an unpromising year. And Arizona is a particularly big draw in winter and early spring for warmth-seeking Canadian tourists. But the Canadians, buffeted by declines in their dollar, have been cutting their stays short this season, if they come at all. This has made for unaccustomed lodging opportunities, particularly Sundays through Thursdays.
I came myself because of a Canadian, as it happens. Over omelets in the dining room of a La Jolla bed-and-breakfast inn some time back, she had said that she spends a few weeks every spring in Ajo--for the wildflowers, for the quiet of the historic old mining town, and for the peacefulness of a particular Ajo inn.
As it turns out, Ajo has long been a regional base of operations--for early Americans, Spanish colonialists, Mexican and American miners, Al Capone and, it's rumored, some of Pancho Villa's soldiers, as well as a wide assortment of desert "ratitos."
It remains a well-positioned jumping-off point today for excursions to Organ Pipe and other outdoor locales, to the observatories at Kitt Peak a couple of hours to the east, to the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (former home of an enigmatic early people called the Hohokam) about two hours northeast, or, just an hour away, to Mexico and the fishing and beach town of Puerto Penasco.
My first interest was the monument, a preserve of more than 330,000 acres. I hadn't expected Organ Pipe to be such a hiker's heaven. Dozens of short and long trails set out from two loops of good dirt road. (Cross-country hikes are allowed, but I'd check in with the park rangers before taking off.) One of these scenic loops is 53 miles and will take most of the day by car, as you stop along the way. When I was there, 10 miles of this long route passed through wildflowers in bloom. If you like abandoned mines and other historic sites, this is your best bet, with many just a short hike from the road.
But the locals convinced me to take the shorter loop, which offers a lot more organ pipe cactuses and, when I passed through, a couple of miles of small meadows in bloom.
The namesake cactus is a stately plant, with columns rising mostly parallel with each other from a central clump--like, well, a pipe organ. It has a presence, and to cactus aficionados is a rare sight.
But to me, the saguaros are far more majestic. One of the largest of all cactuses, the saguaro takes its time growing to the shape that has become a symbol of the Southwest. The familiar arms don't begin to form for many years. Most saguaros will be 50 years old, and just 3 feet tall, before they first flower, generally from May into July. A full-grown cactus, 200 years old, will be more than 40 feet tall.
On the morning I took the shorter scenic drive, I stopped to admire a grove of teddy bear cholla, a dangerously misnamed cactus. While it looks soft and huggable, like cactuses wearing pale yellow Angora sweaters, don't even think about it. Chollas of all varieties--10 in this park--are regarded by desert veterans as as much to be avoided as rattlesnakes. Their painful, stubborn, velvety thorns so easily leave the plant and dig into a passing hand or ankle that one kind is called the jumping cholla. I've come to hate chollas; my wife--a die-hard plant lover--hates chollas; my desert friends hate chollas; my horse Duke hates chollas.
As to the more agreeable wildflowers, most in this part of Arizona will be out and gone by mid-April. But then the cactuses--26 varieties in the national monument--and paloverde begin their displays. The paloverde is a small tree named for its bright yellowish-green bark, which is as photosynthetic as its leaves, a defense mechanism to save water during drought. Yellow masses of flowers can be expected this year mid-April through mid-May.
Many of the cactuses will bloom through the first half of July. Each saguaro's waxy white flowers open one evening and are gone by the end of the next day. The organ pipe's blooms, white to a light lavender, open only at night.
"Not very many people catch the cactuses blooming because they've already left [the area]," says Will Nelson, owner of the Ajo Stage Line, which runs regular buses to Tucson as well as tours of northern Mexico. "But the desert will be just alive with cactus flowers--just a wonderful time to be here."
As the sun fades in the desert, I drive back to Ajo, a place of unassuming homes and snow-bird retirees, but with its own subtle charms. Ajo was the birthplace of copper mining in Arizona. As a company town--assembled by predecessors of Phelps Dodge, the big Phoenix-based copper company--it was attractively laid out by an architect and built in 1916-17. Among progressive industrialists of the day, such "garden cities" were in vogue for their workers, and Ajo was nationally noted as the first in Arizona. The garden-city urban planning concept, a product of late 19th century human-centered reforms, called for small communities with carefully designed spaces, lots of trees and a surrounding green belt. Not all was realized in Ajo, I'm afraid.
Still, though the immense open-pit mine is closed, the town plaza today remains grand, with Spanish Colonial Revival porticoes to keep the sun from invading the post office, the library ("No Weapons Allowed in Library" warns a sign), the former railway station, a couple of shops, a comfortable old bar and family restaurant (the Copper Kettle), a deli famous locally for its ice cream and old-fashioned hot dogs. Two dignified old Southwestern churches also face the plaza, with tall palms, grass and benches forming an oasis in the center of town.
Nearby on LaMina Avenue is the old Hotel Cornelia, built in 1916 by John Stone, a friend of Al Capone's. Stone also put up a convenient hotel at the port of Puerto Pen~asco, on the Gulf of California. Capone apparently spent a lot of time at his desert hide-out in Ajo, engaged in the recreational import-export business during Prohibition.
Ironically, another possible Ajo visitor from the same period, Pancho Villa, was an infamous teetotaler and nonsmoker. Villa's passions focused instead on women, ice cream and universal literacy for Mexico. Several of his men apparently were buried in an old Ajo cemetery, a cemetery moved later to make way for the mine. Reports also circulate that a few villistas--those who rode with Villa during the Mexican revolution--are finishing quiet lives around Ajo.
But as noted by Bob J. Hightower, president of the Ajo Historical Society, the region around Ajo has been an "outlaw corridor" since the 1800s. Actually, longer.
The Camino del Diablo, or Devil's Highway, runs 200 miles from Sonoita, Mexico, to the Colorado River, near Yuma. Camino del Diablo has been killing travelers since long before it picked off its first recorded European victim, a visiting conquistador named Melchior Diaz, who died along the old Indian pathway on the Coronado expedition of 1540. Later, during the California Gold Rush, miners coming up from Mexico or along the southern route from the U.S. east coast, were routinely waylaid by Sonoran bandits and local Indians. Heat, lack of water and blunt-force trauma have accounted for more than 1,000 reported deaths over the years.
You can drive the Camino del Diablo yourself if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, take lots of water and get permission from the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge office on Arizona Highway 85 in Ajo. The 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta preserve is another big hunk of federal land that spreads out north of the national monument, primarily to protect the desert bighorn sheep. To go into it, you also have to sign a hold-harmless document for the Air Force, since the Camino del Diablo passes through the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, where bombing practice is conducted.
"Cabeza Prieta is a big lonesome," Will Nelson says. "You're out there in the middle of nowhere by yourself. It's an area the size of Connecticut, and it's got one road through it. And there's nothing to tell you, other than the little dirt road, that it's not 1540 when Melchior Diaz came through."
I'd suggest resting up first at the Guest House Inn Bed & Breakfast, where I stayed in Ajo. The solid old house was built in 1927 to lodge visiting executives from the company that became Phelps Dodge. Michael and Norma Quiroz Walker, his mother, who worked for a decade here as the housekeeper for the copper company, bought the building in 1988, opening it as a bed-and-breakfast inn the next year. Some furniture is original, including an elegant wide wooden dining table. But the large rooms have been carefully refurbished, modern bathrooms installed and historical photos and texts collected for visitors to peruse. The central rooms are surrounded by an enclosed porch, with windows looking out on outdoor tables, a patio, a small arroyo and flowers. It's an eminently comfortable and private place.
The inn was full when I was there, but I always felt a decent isolation from the other guests--except at breakfast, which was a delight. The coffee pot is on in the kitchen for early risers by 6:30 a.m. Breakfast is served after 8. One morning the fare was an elaborate version of blueberry French toast, fried ham, fresh rolls and fresh fruit, including grapefruit from Norma Walker's garden. Next day: a quiche, sausages, homemade muffins and fresh fruit.
A local couple from Tucson had been meaning to come here for years. "I'd heard this was the best way to see the spring wildflowers," said the wife. A German couple now living in upstate New York compared their day's plans one morning with a Danish-British couple, now living in a suburb of Paris. I learned one morning that my neighbor down the hallway was a visiting clergyman. "We didn't think it was right to tell him he's staying in the honeymoon suite," Norma Walker, a tiny, reserved woman, whispered to me with a soft chuckle in the kitchen.
One morning I caught a glimpse of another kind of visitor, a javelina, or peccary, a relative of the pig. Michael Walker feeds them in the back yard and they drop by often. He once found himself in conversation with a hunter interested in the local population. How often do you see javelinas? he asked.
"All the time," Walker replied. "But they're protected around Ajo."
The hunter, noting that there was a hunting season on the small beasts, asked who was protecting them.
"I am," Walker said.
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Getting there: Drive either Interstate 10 or 8 east from Southern California, then turn south on Arizona 85 (about 450 miles from downtown L.A.). Or fly nonstop to Phoenix on Southwest, America West, United and Delta; or nonstop to Tucson on United and Delta. Fares begin at $68 round trip.
When to go: In early March, it was cool and breezy, in the low 70s during the day. By mid-April daytime temperatures will normally be in the 80s; May in the 90s; 100 degrees by June, and even hotter in July. Cools off dramatically at night.
Where to stay: The Guest House Inn Bed & Breakfast (700 Guest House Road, Ajo, AZ 85321; telephone  387-6133) is the best place in town. Private baths. Doubles $79 plus tax, which includes a real breakfast.
The Mine Manager's House Inn Bed & Breakfast (601 W. Greenway Drive, Ajo, AZ 85321; tel.  387-6505, fax  387-6508) has clean, private baths, haphazard decor. Doubles: $72-$105 with full breakfast.
Marine Motel (1966 N. 2nd Ave., State Route 85, Ajo, AZ 85321; tel.  387-7626) is a clean, fairly new motel. Doubles: $44-$59.
La Siesta Motel & RV Resort (2561 N. State Route 85, Ajo, AZ 85321; tel.  387-6569) is an older motel with a tennis court, club house, laundry. Doubles $42-$50.
For more information: Ajo District Chamber of Commerce (321 Taladro, Ajo, AZ 85321; tel.  387-7742) also acts as tourist-information central.
Arizona Office of Tourism, 2702 N. 3rd St., Suite 4015, Phoenix, AZ 85004; tel. (602) 230-7733.