Finally, a namesake specimen of organ pipe cactus.
#5 Arizona (February 2013)

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ (520-387-6849, ext. 7302)
Organ Pipe Cactus was a destination on Bill's hiking list that we were apprehensive about pursuing because the Monument shares 33 miles of border with Mexico. For the last year, Bill had asked anyone who mentioned the Monument about the safety of being there given the well-publicized trafficking issues and all with whom he consulted hedged a bit. But the mostly reassuring reports had him finally deciding we'd show up, inquire about the current climate, and then decide whether to stay or go on. Reading the memorial plaque at the visitor's center renamed for the young ranger killed in action within the Monument was chilling. But the rangers inside the center said that sightings of traffickers had been down recently and to check back if we would be hiking in one of the more remote areas. Black water bottles were one of the markers of a trafficker in the area to be alert for, presumably one of the ways drugs were packaged.

The unusually lovely, buzzing campground looked like a trafficker's nightmare because of the low vegetation height and so many folks out strolling with their dogs. We surely would be safe in the campground, which was a start. We decided to stay but Bill quickly determined that the hiking wasn't as grand as he expected and that a 3 night visit would suffice.

Showing-off our triumphant "mini's" at the summit.
Surprisingly, there weren't tons of organ pipe cactus to be seen. We only spotted a couple on our first hike that began from the campground and took care to photograph the best specimen. The next day on the 21 mile, winding Ajo Mountain Drive along the foothills of the Ajo Range, we found a larger expanse of them. But we learned that their scarcity was in part why the Monument was founded: this remote patch of the Sonoran Desert contains the bulk of these cacti in all of the US though they are much more common in Mexico.

Snow on the ground was a deterrent to hiking on the most likely peak to give us the workout we longed for though we found a suitable outing up Arch Canyon midway through the Ajo Mountain Drive. A steep pitch off the nature walk that was unmentioned by the rangers was just what we needed. A technically difficult trail in places--as in narrow, steep, and with a roll-y surface--it was perfect for our ongoing foot training. We delighted ourselves in doing the entire hike in our scantest yet minimalist shoes: 3mm thick running flip-flops. Both the views and the accomplishments of our feet made for a great climb, one that was far better than anticipated.

We hiked above this double arch from the back side.
The multiple check points on the road north beyond the Monument when we departed were additional reminders of the trafficking troubles in the area. It was a nuisance to stop at each control point, but we long ago determined when abroad that we "don't fit the profile" for troublemakers--could we possibly look more ordinary? Just lacking tans and weather-beaten skin signaled we weren't regulars in this area. We joked to ourselves about the bikes covered over in the backseat really being illegals when the armed guard had only asked if there was anyone in the camper. But like at international border checks overseas, one of the screening techniques was to get us both to say a few words, any words, and with that we were fast-tracked on our way.

Blue Flags in The Desert

I'm endlessly amused by the meandering, and sometimes fascinating, journey the quest for information can produce. After driving through the village of Ajo, AZ on our way to and from Organ Pipe Cactus Monument, I longed to know why this tiny old town engulfed by pit mine tailings appeared to be experiencing a renaissance given the mine had been closed for more than 25 years. Asking and then reading online left us to surmise that it was a combination of ongoing financial support by the mining company and an influx of residents triggered by the new border patrol facility outside of town. But the trophy tidbit in my search to understand was unrelated to the question of Ajo's revival but came from the incidental mention of blue flags in the desert.

The volunteer at the defunct pit mine's overlook was chocked-full of information about both the local mining industry and that on the east coast but he couldn't complete a sentence without changing the subject. One stray comment that came in the context of the porous border with Mexico--a subject totally unrelated to our question--was fleeting mention of blue flags. Blue flags?? He made the blue flag reference like we of course knew what he was talking about and we didn't dare derail the conversation any further from Ajo's revival.

It didn't take much searching online later to learn that the blue flag comment referred to flags on 30' masts marking safe drinking water in the desert. The water tanks are carefully positioned for illegal immigrants who risk death from dehydration on the busiest smuggling corridor into the US. (The tanks are sited using coroner's office generated GPS data from the retrieval of bodies.) These watering holes are run by a dedicated volunteer group with the cooperation of the land owners, including the US government and ranchers. Bill then did some additional searching and learned that the US border patrol followed suit with 50' masts on rescue beacons: press the button and your life will be saved but you'll be returned to Mexico. The blue flag reference was now clarified but the intriguing mention of the trilingual signs on the border patrol beacons was too much to resist: English, Spanish, and Mandarin.

My best wild guess was that there were enclaves of Mandarin speakers south of the US border that were descendants of the Chinese brought over in the mid-1800's to build the transcontinental railroad and to participate in the gold rush days. My story was that when they were no longer needed and hence, no longer welcome, they kept moving south. Only a slice of my story was true. In China today some still call California the "gold mountain" in reference to the potential for wealth from gold in the boom days. The Mandarin on the rescue beacons is for disadvantaged Chinese illegal aliens in search of a better life in the US, immigrants whose journeys with smugglers begin in China, not Mexico.

The mainland Chinese are paying $40,000 for their long journey to the US whereas Mexicans typically pay smugglers $1,500-3,000 for their services, making the Chinese highly desirable clients. The Mandarin speakers represent the second most frequently intercepted group, though a distant second to Spanish speakers. How fascinating (and sobering) that being piqued by the relative gentrification of a defunct mining town brought us up to date on the growing business of the trafficking illegal Chinese immigrants through Arizona from Mexico.

Barefooting up Flat Iron.
Phoenix was our next stop, with visiting our friend Iva and restocking at Trader Joe's at the top of our list. Never wanting to impose, we reluctantly accepted Iva's invitation to stay in her home and to bring our laundry. It was a treat to be at her house with a yard--something we hadn't experienced for years. Iva took us for a yummy lunch at Andrew Weil's True Foods restaurant, then swung us by a health food store for a few hard-to-find items, and finished the day off by going on a favorite hike of hers at a nearby state park. A nice change of pace and a welcome chance to catch-up in person.

We left Iva's house and drove for hours to get to the other end of Phoenix to revisit Lost Dutchman State Park and tackle the trail to the top of Flat Iron like we did last year. Last April the big excitement was being confronted by a very dangerous Mojave Green type of rattlesnake on our descent--a snake that hadn't ever been sighted in the Park before. The good news was that there was essentially zero chance of spotting that guy again because there was still snow on the ground--not as low as we'd seen him--but it still signaled it was too cold for them to be out for anything other than a brief sunning.

We weren't able to camp at the popular Park because it was a local holiday weekend and the added drive time doomed us to a late start on our hike. And unexpectedly, parking in the day use area added an hour to our hike time over starting from the campground as we had done before, which resulted in us coming down off the trail in the dark. We had 2 headlamps with us plus 2 small flashlights, so we pressed on to the top even when we determined we'd likely finish well after sunset. Having done it twice before, we felt confident about doing the easier, lower reaches of the trail in the dark. We dragged in by moonlight after 7 hours on the trail and having done 3,000' of difficult gain. The full moon rose as the sun was setting, making for an enhancing finish to a hard day in which we only used our lights for reading the couple of trail signs.

Bill "pressing the button" which actually was turning the key.
Titan Missile Museum, Tucson
Visiting the decommissioned missile launch site at Tucson was on Bill's wish list, having been fascinated by planes, trains, and such things his whole life. For me, it would have been a low priority tourist site except that my brother had been one of the young men with his 'finger on the button' at a different site. Seeing this silo would give me insight into a part of my brother's life, a part of his experience. As it turned out, I was engaged the entire visit because the well told story had all played out in my lifetime with events I remembered.

The 10 year-old, 15 minute video produced by the site's historian and his wife on how the Titan fit into the larger nuclear arms race was excellent. And it was our lucky day: Chuck the historian was filling in for a missing volunteer tour guide for our time slot so we were shown around by the Main Man. Chuck was still excited about this piece of history after all these years and delivered a great tour. And lucky little Billy, he was picked from the crowd to sit in the commander's chair and turn the key that would have launched the lethal weapon. The little boy was thrilled to sit in the hot seat and the adult side of him didn't hesitate when Chuck asked him to choose between going above ground after the rounds of nuclear weapons had been lobed, dying in the silo after the 30 day supply of food and water was exhausted, or using his pistol to commit suicide--he picked going topside.

Today the concrete shield over the missile is partially replaced by a skylight.
In was interesting to think back to those times and to visualize my brother sitting in a similar silo in North Dakota. As I remember it, his #1 objective by being in the Air Force was to avoid being 'boots on the ground' in Vietnam. Sitting deep underground wasn't what he'd envisioned, but it did keep him out of the jungle. Bill's high draft number spared him from making those trade-offs though our other classmates at the time weren't so lucky.

As travelers, we've encountered all sorts of lockers over the years. Most recently it was latched, metal food lockers at every camp site and trail head in Yosemite to foil the picnic plans of the local bears. In prior years, we encountered a couple of tourist sites in Europe that provided bike lockers. And less inconvenienced by the modern terrorism threats, many European train stations and museums provide coin-op lockers for coats and bags. But in Arizona we encountered gun lockers at the Titan II museum. For those guys that couldn't imagine walking from the parking lot to the visitors center without their concealed weapons, the staff would kindly stash their guns for them. Amazing. We'd never noticed gun-sitting services at other Arizona tourist sites so we don't have a clue if this is a common practice or not.

With the current gun debate raging around the country and the NRA blocking any change as risking the 'slippery slope' hazard, I was intrigued by the original ICBM strategy. The whole program was founded on the goal of deterrence and amazingly, after more than 50 years, the slippery slope opportunity of using them for a first strike was never implemented. I didn't have much patience for the NRA's string of protests to begin with and this observation further undermined their "inevitability" theory in my mind.

Chiricahua National Monument, AZ (near Willcox, AZ; tel 520-824-3560)
New vs familiar, each have their rewards: we were looking forward to exploring Big Bend National Park for the first time but revisiting places we'd been before like Lost Dutchman and Chiricahua were great too because we knew just how get what we wanted from them. Both parks offered a single, great, steep hike to help us arrive in Texas in condition for hiking and we jumped at both chances.

Happily on the sunny side of the canyon, out of the snow.
The opportunity-side of the latest nasty winter storm system to graze us presented itself when we were at Chiricahua. It is notoriously difficult to secure one of the 30 first-come, first-serve campsites at the rustic campground but the snow in the peaks and here and there at the base, as well as the below-freezing temperatures at night, were keeping the locals away. Arriving mid-week a few days before the beginning of their peak season helped, but we still felt lucky to have our choice of campsites.

However the bitter-cold wind the next morning made the folks who had decided not to come to the campground look like the smart ones. Desperate to do our morning exercises outside under the bright blue sky, we'd dart out for a bit, then returned to the relative warmth of the camper to recover until we finally decided to stick it out, doing push-ups between stretches to warm ourselves. Our stalling made the departure for our hike quite late, which didn't seem so bad once we encountered snow on the trail.

We had been looking forward to some barefooting on Chiricahua's occasionally soft dirt trails and had selected our 3mm running sandals as our back-up shoe for the day. Their flip-flop design made it easy to slip them off and on as the barefooting opportunities came and went. Our feet had quickly adapted to the ultra thin soles when hiking at Organ Pipe Cactus in them and we had noted that they provided excellent conditioning for going bare.

Rhyolite (volcanic ash) eroded into hoodoos.
Our Vivobarefoot Running Sandals that had been nick-named Bare Runners were candidates for being renamed Snow Runners on this hike at Chiricahua. At Flat Iron I had done short stretches of snow barefoot but at Chiricahua the snow covered trail segments were long and were preceded and followed by ice-cold snow-melt mush. But we were thrilled to do even parts of the trail barefoot and were dazzled by how capable our feet were becoming in gripping the snow through the Bare Runners. These shoes have very little tread or profile and, like the Teva Zilch sandals we usually wear, were forcing our feet to make up the difference. We got in our steep hike, we did some excellent foot training, and we again enjoyed the stunning views of the pinnacles at Chiricahua which combined to make a satisfying 2 night detour into the park.

Fall Training
One of the several problems with being bipedal is that those 2 remaining feet don't always stay underneath us when walking and then we rapidly assume some creative, alternate arrangement of our limbs too close to the ground. Hiking dramatically increases the odds of unceremoniously dumping over because of the unevenness of the surface, weariness, and steep grades. After several dramatic crashes in which we were uninjured and found ourselves thanking ourselves for doing our exercises every morning, I decided it was time to embed more fall training into our program.

Bill's special 'save' on the trail in response to his tendency to fall forward is ending up in what we call "bowling position." He did a fair bit of bowling in his younger years and it shows on the trail when he stumbles: he often goes into a partial splits position but saves himself by dropping to his back knee. It seemed obvious that we should both add modified splits to our morning routine just in case he wasn't able to halt the momentum or on the off chance that I found myself in that stance. It's always better to have done an extreme move under control before encountering it with ballistic forces behind it.
This was the trail maneuver our "Flat Irons" were conditioning us for.
My bias is to fall backward and my recent fall on a descent at Anza-Borrego was backward onto both hands, 1 hip, and 1 foot. I realized as I was going down that I'd been able to soften the blow to my butt, and therefore my back, with the strength of my shoulders and ab's. Clearly keeping up with the push-ups and ab work was good training for these backward falls. Bill also commented that weakness in the wrong places could have garnered me a couple of broken wrists in that particular fall. A week or 2 later Bill landed in the identical position with the same minor outcome, reinforcing how easy it is to fall in this way on a steep descent.

Our long, hard descent down Flat Iron outside of Phoenix had me contemplating the special maneuver that we and others used on this trail. The big vertical reaches were a challenge to our leg and hip strength and flexibility on the way up but it was the arms and shoulders that did the hard work on the way down. Many of us often sat on the edge of a big boulder, then reached out and down with a foot, and used our upper body strength to lower our bodies down until the foot made contact with something solid. The high repetition of the extreme moves in both ascending and descending are part of why Flat Iron is such a great fitness hike and why our bodies ache from head to toe for several days afterwards every time we do it. After recovering from this hike I devised a floor exercise to simulate some of the demands made on the shoulders, an exercise Bill quickly dubbed "Flat Irons".

And a month later I saved myself from what could have been a disastrous downhill face-plant by catching myself in a jumble of large rocks in a wide push-up position. While I held myself in the awkward pose, I remember being grateful both for always wearing gloves when I hike (the rocks were very sharp) and for keeping up on the wild assortment of push-up positions used in P90X. I was in a combo move: a decline push-up with my feet higher than my shoulders but with my hands in the wide position. It took strong shoulders and core muscles to catch and then hold this challenging 'save' until I could work my way out of it. Another fall, another compelling boost in motivation for both of us to keep up on our daily strength and flexibility work (and to wear gloves).

On To Texas
Despite the meandering and the distractions, we were finally in striking distance of Texas, our slogan destination 2 years ago in the rented RV that we never achieved. Back then, Bill had announced "We're going to Texas" when he had become too frustrated with planning a South American hiking trip and proposed Texas RV trip instead. He'd recently begun thinking that we'd fail in our second attempt to reach Texas but there was still time to go before it got too hot for hiking. So, it was on to Texas where a little more focus on our driving would get us to Big Bend National Park in time.