Heading east from Tucson on the 10, you hit nothingness pretty quick. There are no suburbs, no ring road, just city then desert. For the next 45 minutes, we wound through wide canyons and open valleys until we hit the border for Cochise County. Named for the legendary Apache chief who routinely attacked travelers in this area, Cochise County is still very much the Wild West: home to cowboys, Indians, and a long stretch of the Mexican border.The goal for the next 2 ½ days is to explore as much as I can.
We passed by the town of Benson and then east to Texas Canyon. There, we got off the highway onto the two lane backroads. A few minutes off the highway is the Amerind Foundation, a museum dedicated to native peoples of the Americas- from North Pole to South. As a former anthropology major, I was in heaven. The highlight of the museum was most definitely its collection of southwestern artifacts: Kachina dolls from the Hopi and Navajo rugs and silver. Other than perhaps the Navajo Nation’s museum in Window Rock, this is the highest quality collection of Navajo artifacts. Next door there is a small art museum. The other highlight of this museum was its beautiful setting. The rock formations, while small, were impressive and really nice in the late afternoon light.
The museum closed at 4, giving us a bit more daylight. We headed down to the town of Dragoon, before taking a dirt road to a popular roadside attraction called “The Thing”. It’s part of a gift shop that was attached to a Dairy Queen. Admission cost $1 and while it was worth the $1, I can’t say I would pay $1.50. I don’t want to ruin the surprise just in case you happen to be in the area.
After the Thing, we continued another 15 minutes to the town of Willcox. The sun was setting, and we reached town. We met a mechanic outside his shop and asked for suggestions on where to get a drink. He recommended Rix’s Tavern. The bar was a country bar and the jukebox was playing George Strait. It was nearly empty except for a cowboy and his trashy girlfriend a few stools down. We ordered a couple beers and the bartender asked for my ID. After handing him my vertical-facing but still valid California ID, he told me that he couldn’t accept it as a valid because it was issued before I turned 21 (California re-issues drivers licenses when people turn 20). The Arizona legislature passed a law banning all vertical IDs regardless of their validity to avoid students from passing down fake IDs at colleges. Luckily, I had my passport on me, which was considered valid. I feel like this might violate the Commerce Clause- at least for out of state licenses. Anyways, after he looked at my passport, he took out a book and recorded my info in the book and made me sign saying I will accept all fines for underage drinking. This was so over the top and I’m lucky to have had my passport. I feel like this law is going to crush the spring-break destination of Lake Havasu and will discourage a lot of people from visiting friends in college in Arizona.
Willcox had 4 bars, and only about 4 restaurants as well. The most famous restaurant (according to Yelp) was a bbq place. We pulled up and they told us they were closed because they got a big catering order that night…small town America. So we went across the street to a Mexican restaurant that was packed-probably because the bbq place was closed. The food was okay, but the margaritas were awesome-mainly because they were very large. We spent the night in a nearby Days Inn.
The next morning, we got sandwiches at a truck stop and drove out into the country towards Fort Bowie National Historic Site. The fort is quite remote. To get there, we drove 20 miles of paved road, then 8 miles on a dirt road, where we eventually reached a parking lot. We then had to walk 1.5 miles up a trail to get to the fort. In this case, the journey was the destination, as the story of the fort was revealed as we approached it. The fort is located in an unbelievably remote location in one of the Southwest’s many sky islands- high elevation refuges from the desert. The location also just so happened to have one of the only springs for tens of miles in any direction. As a result, Apache Pass, became one of the main routes for travelers and early pioneers heading west (its extreme southern location was ideal for winter travel when Colorado and the Sierra Nevadas were snow covered). It also was the homeland of the Apache tribe who didn’t care too much for white people crossing their lands. Tensions flared. The Apaches, led by the legendary Cochise (for whom the county is named) and the Americans eventually clashed in 1862 in the battle of Apache Pass. The Apaches held the spring and the Americans (specifically the Union army’s California Column) were running out of water. The Americans knew they would never make it back to Tucson, so they decided to fight for control of the spring. While both sides had guns, the Americans had better guns and artillery and drove the Apaches away.
The Union decided to set up a fort to protect the spring for travelers passing through these lands.They named it Fort Bowie after their colonel, George Washington Bowie. The fort went through two iterations before getting shut down in 1894. It was also the focal point of the military operations leading to the surrender of Geronimo in 1886. As most of the buildings were made of wood, little remains of the old forts except for the adobe walls and foundations. However, the stunning setting of Apache Pass, the fantastic informative signposts, the wonderful park ranger, and the remoteness of this park made it one of the best hikes I have ever taken. In the 3 ½ hours we were there we saw 2 people including the ranger. One interesting fact: out of the 400+ units in the National Park System (which includes parks, monuments, historic sites, etc), Fort Bowie is among the 5 least visited units.
Driving westward towards our next destination over the Apache Pass and armed with all this new knowledge, we couldn’t help but feel for the pioneers who had made this arduous journey 150 years ago. It was tough enough in a passenger car along an improved dirt road. At the top of the pass, we decided to stop and eat our Subway sandwiches. It was lovely.
Continuing along dirt road for another 8 miles, we finally reached the state highway where we then veered south and over to Chiricahua (cheer-ee-cow-uh) National Monument. The nickname for this park is “A Wonderland of Rocks”. At the visitor center, the ranger gave us a number of options to hike through the park. I decided to go on a 7.5 mile hike to a place called Heart of Rocks, while my dad settled on a 3 mile hike. The ranger said that my hike would take her about 4 hours and that she’s a pretty fast hiker. That would mean I wouldn’t get back until sunset, although I figured I was a faster hiker than the stocky ranger. Still, I packed warm gear and extra food just in case something bad happened. We then drove up to the trailhead and checked out the amazing view then I took off around 12:45.
With limited daylight, I felt the urgency and ran the downhills of the hike. At 2pm, I had already made it 3 miles up Hunt Canyon and past Big Balanced Rock to the Heart of Rocks. It was so beautiful to be immersed in the rocky hoodoo-filled wonderland. It reminded me a lot of my namesake, Bryce Canyon in Utah, except the rock here was grey instead of red. The hoodoo formations were of a similar size. It makes sense: Bryce Canyon and Chiricahua are both located in Sky Islands in dry climates. The dry air causes the temperature to drop below freezing during the night and return above freezing during the day. The dry soil quickly absorbs moisture. However, because it rains so much more in the sky island than the surrounding desert, lots of water seeps into the rocks where it freezes and thaws as it drips down to the water table, putting pressure on the rocks.Over millennia, this forms the hoodoo formations. The monument is also the meeting place of four distinct ecosystems: the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Madre Mountains, the Sonoran Desert, and the Chihuahuan Desert. This leads to the interesting combination of plants found here: prickly pear cacti, pine trees, oaks, and sycamores all grow naturally here.
Seeing that it was only 2pm, I decided to challenge myself and extend my hike by 2 miles to complete the “Big Loop” of the park. What I didn’t realize was that the extra 2 miles were down and then up a huge canyon. About a half-mile in, I knew I was in for much more than I bargained for as I lost almost 1,000 feet in elevation that I would inevitably gain. That said, it was well worth it because I got to explore more hoodoos. Somehow, I made it back to the car by 3:30 tired but pleased with my effort as I had walked the equivalent of a half-marathon over the 2 hikes today.
We then drove an hour and a half south to the border town of Douglas and checked in to our historic hotel. The Gadsen Hotel opened in 1907 and was the most magnificent hotel in the region. It burned down and was rebuilt in 1929 and includes an authentic 40-foot long Tiffany stained-glass mural. The elevator is manually operated and many of the rooms are reputed to be haunted- especially room 333. We stayed in room 103. Interestingly, the hotel was around the same price as all the chain motels- probably because being in downtown Douglas is not a premium people are willing to pay much for.
Tonight, however, it was a great night to be in downtown Douglas because it was the town’s biggest event: the Christmas Light Parade. The crowds were 2-3 deep along the entire main street which extended 12 blocks all the way to the Mexican border. At least half of the town’s 17,000 people must have been there were there plus a bunch more from Agua Prieta just across the border in Mexico.
The parade started at 7, but it took until about 7:15 for the floats to make it to the Gadsen Hotel. The first 5 “floats” in the parade were the Border Patrol, who tricked out their vehicles in Christmas lights and threw candy out for all the kids. Since this town has no industry, my guess is that they are the largest employer in the town. Still, expectedly, they did not get such a warm response from the largely Hispanic crowd.
The parade continued for another hour. It was an incredibly diverse parade- the unifying factor was the festive lights. There were cowboys wrapped in Christmas lights shooting guns, there was a Mexican biker gang blasting Feliz Navidad. There were at least 15 different Frozen floats, which appears to be festive, but actually isn’t because Frozen technically takes place in the summer before Elsa unexpectedly turns Arendelle into eternal winter. At the end of the movie, summer is restored after Anna sacrifices herself in an act of true love. Ergo, the Christmas season is the exactly wrong month to have a Frozen float, but I’ll let it go.
There were also tricked out cars, super cute school children, and a marching band. It was glorious. I returned back to the hotel room just in time to catch the end of the Stanford/Notre Dame game, which ended on a last-second field goal. Perfect end to an epic day.
The next morning, we ate breakfast and quickly headed into the car. Despite being 800 feet from Mexico, it is still very cold at night- about 25 degrees according to the car’s thermometer-the desert doesn’t hold in heat very well. Our destination for the morning was the Slaughter Ranch, located 15 miles east of Douglas along the border. The road was dirt for 13 of those miles. As we left town, my dad noticed a few very nice houses with fountains in front- strange for the middle of the desert. We also noticed a lot of private schools which also seemed strange for a town with little money.
As we continued on, we skirted along the border, which was probably 200-400 yards away. For the first couple miles we could clearly see the wall, but we lost track of the border as the road skirted behind a mountain. About 8 miles later, we ran into a border patrolman parked on the side of the road. We decided to stop and I put on my camo vest before walking out of the car to talk to him. The agent said he was looking for footprints from Mexicans crossing the border. He attached tires to the back of his truck to clean up the dirt to reveal the footprints. I’m not sure of how it works-I would think it would destroy the footprints, but I’m sure it does work. When we asked why we haven’t seen more border patrol, the agent explained that they have an outpost at the top of the nearby hill that overlooks the entire valley. The agents there use infrared scanners to monitor people crossing the border. It works especially well at night and in the winter when the air temperatures are much lower than the body’s. In the summer when temperatures are in the 90’s, 100’s and even 110’s, those scanners don’t work very well. They have to resort to more visual clues. The feeling I got from talking to this man was that life as a border patrol agent is not very exciting, as it’s a big desert out there.
We then made it to the entrance of the ranch, but we got there too early. A park ranger for the nearby nature preserve drove up next to us. He was wearing a bulletproof vest. We asked him about the border fence and he said it was about 400 feet south of us. We asked if we could go up to it and he said yes- even though there was a No Trespassing sign. He said we would most definitely be watched by border patrol as the path we would be walking on has motion sensors. We asked that he vouch for us if something comes up on their radio chatter. He said we would be fine.
My dad and I walked the 2 minutes to the border. On the US side of the fence, there is a dirt road that extends in either direction for miles. To the west, the border goes up into steep mountains and so does the road. The fence itself was not much of a barrier. It was about 4 feet high and was more of a railing than a fence. There were large gaps where any person could easily walk through. Apparently jaguars have been spotted in this part of Arizona, so the fence is definitely big enough for a huge cat to walk through. I would say that the fence here would stop a car from driving through but not much else.
Building the right barrier isn’t as easy as it sounds. While the desert is dry for most of the year, during the summer there are torrential monsoon rains that are so powerful that they uproot large trees. The water collects in washes that flow down-valley to Mexico towards the Sea of Cortez. A less-porous border would get washed away in these floods. Additionally, the border to the east goes right through some especially rugged mountains. It would be very difficult to build and even more difficult to maintain. The brick wall doesn’t seem all too feasible- maybe something with razor wire would work better.
The other thing we noticed was the noise from the Mexican side. About ¼ mile away, there was a busy road with lots of trucks- Mexican Federal Highway 2. With nothing to block the noise, we heard everything. I could easily see someone getting dropped off and then casually walking up to and over the border. While the border patrol expects this, it still seemed a bit too easy in our opinion. It’s strange that the border region is so remote on the American side but so un-remote (not sure if that’s a term) on the Mexican side. A semi-truck can get to this spot in about 30 minutes from Agua Prieta any time of day any time of the year, whereas on the American side it’s mostly wilderness and the dirt roads probably become impassable during the rainy seasons.
After checking out the border, we drove over to the ranch, which was now open. We checked in with the cowboy and his wife who managed the ranch. The man looked like Toby Keith except he had a pony tail. He told us we had free range to explore. The main house had most of the exhibits about Texas John Slaughter. Slaughter was born in Louisiana and then became an officer in the Confederate Army. Then, he formed a cattle-herding company in Texas. In the late 1870’s he left for New Mexico and eventually Arizona.His ranch was ⅓ in Arizona and ⅔ in Mexico. One of his employees was Mormon and was able to dodge polygamy laws by building his house on the border with 1 bedroom in each country. That house was demolished when they built the current border fence in the 1980’s. After the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Cochise County appointed Slaughter as the new sheriff. He restored law and order to the wild wild. Another famous story is that Slaughter got cheated out of some poker winnings, so he rode to New Mexico to gun down the man and retrieve his money. Basically, this guy was as tough as they get.
We then went for a lovely 3 mile walk around the grounds and through the adjacent nature preserve. It was the height of fall, so the trees were unbelievably beautiful in yellow.
After returning to our car, we noticed that the border patrolman was chatting with the ranch owners. We decided to sit down and chat for about an hour. The whole thing felt straight out of a movie with the cowboy couple, their dog, and their potbelly pig sitting around. It turns out that the ranch manager is a lot smarter than he appears to be. We quickly ended up talking about the border. Everything I heard in this conversation has not been verified, but I felt in my judgement that these people had a very good understanding of the situation as they live it every day of the year.
We learned that at this point in time, the biggest threat at the border is not immigrants but the drug cartels, specifically the Sinaloa Cartel, that makes money by shipping marijuana over the border. Many of the cartel members live in Douglas in those really nice houses on the outskirts of town and send their children to the local public schools. The border patrol send their kids to private schools so they don’t have to interact with the cartel kids and create potentially dangerous or awkward situations. On the Mexican side, there is 3-pronged war between the cartels, Mexican government, and people who try to swindle the cartel members.
The drug smuggling operation is a real life game of capture-the-flag. Most of the drug smuggling operations are staged in Agua Prieta, the border town across from Douglas. Cars drive up to the border, unload the passengers and the drugs and then they either wait for the right time or immediately walk across the border. US Border Patrol cannot cross the border even if they see sacks of drugs- they have to wait until the smugglers reach American soil. 1,000 feet south of the Slaughter Ranch is another ranch house that is apparently a staging ground for smuggling operations. The smugglers have safe houses at some of the ranches on the American side, but those safe houses could be miles away from the border. Oftentimes, smugglers who carry 50 lb. sacks of marijuana get caught very close to the border. In that case, they will drop the drugs and run back into safety in Mexico. One common tactic used is decoys. They will first have a lone smuggler go across the border and get captured. While border patrol is processing him, the larger shipment then goes across the border.
Recently, the cartels have found a number of loopholes in our defenses. One loophole is the short border fence. We were told that the cartels will drive a truck right up to the border then place a ramp over the truck, which allows cartel cars to drive over into the US loaded with drugs. Another loophole involves the drug smugglers themselves. According to the border patrolman and the ranch managers. US Federal Courts currently do not prosecute child drug smugglers from Mexico who are under the age of 18. In the case that a child is caught (which is now often), their parents will be contacted and the kid will be handed off to the parents at the border. Oftentimes, the same kid will come back with more drugs that day or the next day. The Cochise County Sheriff’s department said they would start prosecuting these kids, which sounds awful but necessary.
One potential fix to this smuggling problem could be to legalize marijuana and produce more marijuana domestically. The border patrol agent and the ranch managers do not think that this will solve the problem, as the drug smuggling will then be used to dodge taxes, as legal marijuana in the US is taxed. Another interesting fact I learned was that a large number of the drug smugglers and people who cross the border are not of Mexican or Central American origin. Two days prior, a group of Indians (as in the country) crossed the border at the ranch and said they had walked through the desert for days. The ranch manager laughed at them and their clean Nike sweatsuits and said he saw them get dropped off on the highway. He then called Border Patrol, who came within minutes. There’s a lot more to this story and the border. We really didn’t talk about the difficult journey for many immigrants to get to the border (I touch on this subject in my Yucatan blog post in the Mexican city of Merida). Still, it was fascinating getting a first-hand look and account of such a controversial subject that many people have opinions of but few have seen.
Around 1pm, my dad and I were getting hungry, so we drove away from the border to the town of Bisbee, the county seat. Bisbee has been a copper mining town since the pioneer days and is home to the legendary Copper Queen Mine. While the mine closed down operations in the 1970’s, it is still a bustling place as a tourist destination and retreat, so while there aren’t many miners left in Bisbee, there are a lot of old hippies. According to the AARP magazine Modern Maturity, Bisbee is the second quirkiest town in America (Sonoma County was the winner).
The historic town is set in the narrow Tombstone canyon with one main street winding up the canyon. Historic buildings line both sides of the street. Staircases led to houses up the canyon. For some reason- maybe it was the architecture of the Copper Queen Hotel- I was taken back to Thamel in Kathmandu when walking through Bisbee. The density of the town did not feel like modern America. We walked around to many of the art galleries in the town.
At 3:30, we walked over to the Copper Queen Mine to go on a tour. Before going into the mine, we suited up with headlamps and got onto the mine cart. Once everyone was loaded, we rode into the mine. After going about 1200 feet, we got out and explored some of the tunnels and holes where copper was found. The mine was in operation from 1877 until 1975, when the grade of ore declined to 4% and was deemed too low to continue mining. At this point, the mine included over 100 miles of track over 20 levels. Additionally, they mined a large pit just to the south of town that goes down 900 ft and covers an area of 300 acres. The total value of minerals found in the mine is $6.1 billion (1975 dollars).
The take-home lesson of the day was that mining is unbelievably difficult and dangerous, although most of the accidents and deaths occurred when miners broke the safety protocols (which was often). Our tour guide was a former miner who became a city councilmember and was very funny.
The mine tour ended at which point it was getting dark and there was nothing left to do. So we drove back to Tucson, got an awesome final dinner and went to bed. The next morning, we flew back to Los Angeles. The weekend could not have been better. There is so much to see and I know I’m only scratching the surface. Other areas that I wasn’t able to visit (and will hopefully check out next time) are Kartchner Caverns State Park, Tombstone, Coronado National Monument, Nogales, Sierra Madre, the Titan Missile Museum, West Saguaro, Old Tucson, Tumacacori National Historic Site, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument just to name a few places. I would highly recommend a visit to Southern Arizona and Cochise County.