Indians and Cowboys on the edge

Cochise was a famous (or infamous) Apache generally associated with the Chiricahua Apaches. From the time he was born, until he signed a treaty in 1872, with one brief period of peace, his people raided and fought with anyone who was Mexican or white.  His motivation was that he and his folks were hanging out in northern Mexico, Southern Arizona and New Mexico (the borders have moved around since then) when first the Spanish, then the Mexicans, then the Americans variously showed up and started setting up camp. Ever the opportunists, the Chiricahua Apaches stopped by and took what they wanted when the mood struck.  This included some pretty bloody confrontations at which Cochise was especially gifted. After the Americans tricked his father-in-law and chief of the band into to coming in for treaty and then killed him, Cochise lost some trust and hardened his heart.  As one might.

The Americans were especially challenging to him (he’d whipped the Mexicans and parlayed with the Spanish) and eventually we bottled him up in the Dragoon Mountains of Southern Arizona, which is where I started my day today.  The place is called Cochise’s Stronghold, but it is really the place where he eventually surrendered and signed a treaty — which isn’t really the definition of a stronghold.  After the treaty he hung out on a reservation that doesn’t exist anymore and eventually died.  He’s buried in the Dragoon Mountains which, regardless of the strength, are at least a good burial spot, because no one knows where he is.

I kept the Dragoons and old Cochise to my west all the way to McNeal, where I couldn’t resist the turn west to Tombstone.  Among my many faults, an addiction to the Kurt Russell/Val KIlmer epic “Tombstone” is rallying for first place.  I can’t get enough of the film; so, naturally, I needed to see Tombstone the town.  Tombstone made its name digging silver out of the southern Arizona desert.  Over a 13 year period, during which it was basically lawless, the town dug as much as $85 million in silver bullion and swelled to 14,000 people.  Boomtown.  During this period it attracted, among others, Wyatt Earp, who was hoping to not be a sheriff and instead get rich.  One thing led to another and Wyatt and his brothers along with Doc Holliday had a famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, about which there is much disagreement.  What is painfully obvious today, is that there is no silver in Tombstone, the population is dwindled to less than 2,000, and the OK Corral is a gravel lot. If you have tourist money to spend, however, Tombstone is your place.  That or an RV to park. I managed to find one spot that held the old romance for me and, regardless, I’m glad I stopped, because I’m your huckleberry.


From Tombstone, I angle south through the Patagonia region of Arizona via scenic HWY 82.  The town of Patagonia is a real shock to me.  The area itself is down in a rich little valley of deep green hardwood and wildflowers.  The town is immaculate.  Organized along one main thoroughfare, the houses face a central park that runs the length of the town.  While unremarkable architecturally, the houses are neat, enjoy lovely gardens and sport large shade trees for each house of all manner and type.  The school is new and up to date, and two foursomes of old folks are having a great morning of tennis when I roll through. I am 17 miles from the Mexican border and I’m in freaking Mayberry.  I honestly can’t think of a more “American” town in all my journies.  Go figure.

Climbing out of the happy valley and past Patagonia lake I enter another world entirely.  Nogales, AZ shares its name and its border with Nogales, Mexico. I am dead certain I never crossed the border, but you would never know it.  Nogales, AZ looks Mexican, feels Mexican and even uses the metric system for road signs. The way the streets are laid out, the way the intersections look, the way business post their signs, all remind me of being in Mexico. I’ve got nothing against Nogales, and I had no bad experience there whatsoever, but coming on the heels of Patagonia, I don’t like it.

Hugging the border via the only road west, I cross through more of Coronado National Forest and the artist town of Arivaca which isn’t much of a town, but has a nice vegetable market on Saturday mornings.  I’m ultimately going into the Buenos Aires Wildlife reserve which runs north and south along the Sasabe Highway.  The latter being known for a substantial amount of Sonoran drug cartel traffic.  Border Patrol is prevelant, and in fact, for the first time out here on the shared edge, I see guardsmen actually arresting people. At the various checkpoints, I’m waved through with little more than a have a nice day, so I must look okay.


The reserve itself is a truly wild, remote, special place. It is, however, struggling with the border issue.  It’s just too easy to use this empty land, which runs from the border north for maybe 30 miles, as a pathway.  It points out what I’ve been thinking about since I first encountered the borderlands in Texas.  In most cases, these borderlands are empty. Of course there are periodic towns on the actual border, but in between, it is largely wide open, empty space.  The reserve, as one small example, is over 180 square miles of uninhabited land.  Find a carload of determined smugglers in that.  Add in the nature of the land itself — rough, wild, untracked — and it is an exercise in futility.  In my opinion.  More on all this after I make it to the Pacific and can fully formulate what I think we should do about the US/Mexican edge.

My only way west from the reserve is through the Tohono O’Odham Nation (which is how we say reservation now). In some respect, I’m crossing an edge when I enter from the east — the nation is a sovereign one according to treaty. It’s a huge swath of land, from the Mexican border in the south to almost Phoenix in the north, and from Pan Tak in the east to Why in the west — and it has one road.  I mean it has other two tracks here and there, but there is one road through it.  HWY 86 is my home for this period of depressing, but starkly beautiful, driving.  As a landscape, the nation is very much like the unmolested areas of Coronado, or Buenos Aires reserve.  As a place, it is sad.   The name means “desert people” and, at least by typical political thinking, they did everything right.  They were farmers, not nomads, and they fought the Apache who were constantly dropping by to steal their crops and rape their women.  They befriended and traded with Europeans and Americans alike as the time came. And yet, here they are. One road and not a crop in site; the sorriest looking houses and rheumy-eyed road walkers I’ve ever seen. These proud people once ruled the area.  They still speak their native language, as I learned when I “hello’d” a guy at the gas station, but they seem to have lost their spirit. As I ply this long, lonely road, I worry about this.  I don’t think they are a lazy people — Hell, they made a life out of this desert at one point — and I don’t think there is any lack of resource here. Just outside the nation, in the same landscape, all sorts of commerce and industry is happening, why not here?  My conclusion is that it is because they are living here with the permission of the US government.  That sort of thing can rob you of your soul. And because as their conquerors we tried to be nice, they are now not only living at our permission, they are living by our hand. You can’t take a culture that is communal and self-determinate, pen it up and hand it food.  Hindsight is 20-20 of course, and at the time I’m sure the O’Odham people loved the idea of being left alone on their land to do as they pleased.  The problem comes when the resources get strained, you fail to try new things, the population grows, the young folks see what it’s like “out there,” and before you know it, you aren’t growing food, you’re cashing stamps for it. I can’t help but wonder how it would be down here now if they (or we) had chosen assimilation into America, with a determination to preserve their unique culture.  I know some folks will say, that’s not possible, but there are certainly other cultures that have done it, and been better for it. The truth is, I haven’t the faintest idea how this all happened, but it’s worth some further thought.  Which I had time for today.


I popped out of the nation, caught the north corner of Organ Pipe National Monument, and then had to head north to get around the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range. Along the way I passed Ajo, AZ.  Ajo is a company town, formed to support the New Cornelia open pit copper mine — which is about all you can see as you approach the town.  The mine is a mile and half across and over 1,000 feet deep.  Apparently over $20 billion in copper has come out of the mine since it started production.  That explains the neat little company town.  All the for sale signs explain what happens when the mine shuts down — which this one did in 1983, owing to a union dispute.  Freeport McMoran still owns it and is contracting for some of the by-products to be sold for other uses, so there is still something coming from the site.  And the mine, while not attractive, is neatly kept and seems in fair working order.  Maybe Ajo will be green with copper again soon.

As it turns out, I do have to cross a piece of the Goldwater Air Force range after all since HWY 85 has nowhere else to go.  I guess the good Senator made an exception, because there is no other road that enters the range.  I don’t know what happens here, but driving by a rusty old gate that says RANGE 2 right by your door is, well it’s unsettling. I’m in Gilda Bend for the night and tomorrow, with luck and favorable traffic, I will complete the southern edge.  I will reach the Pacific Ocean.

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