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Car Camp
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
March 12-14, 2004
by Joe Orman

Checking my records, I see this is the fifth annual club Organ Pipe Car Camp I have been on. But no matter how many times I return to this special place on the southern Arizona border, each time I find something new and delightful. As a photographer, I am especially attuned to the fact that every year is different. Even if I photograph the same scene each year, it is never exactly the same – each sunset and sunrise is unique, the clouds over the distant mountains never form exactly the same shapes, the light falls at a different angle. This year, for example, just before sunset the distant Ajo Mountains wear a dramatic crown of cumulus clouds. Of course, even the seemingly sturdy cactuses are never exactly the same, because they are living, growing things. Along the Campground Perimeter Trail, a toppled Organ Pipe cactus that we talked about last year is now more of a decayed skeleton, slowly returning its nutrients into the soil.

Family gathering at Organ Pipe Cactus.
Each year the people change, too. This year there are seven of us in the group – some returning, some first-timers. Even those of us who have been here before are not the same we were then. The eyes that look out over the desert are a year older, a year richer in experience and memory.

Again this year we take the Ajo Mountain loop drive, and this too is different and yet the same. For the first time, we hike up the Arch Canyon Trail, where we pause and marvel at the towering rock walls all around us. Later, we hike the Estes Canyon / Bull Pasture loop trail, which we had also hiked last year. But then, this trail was awash with wildflowers; now there are only a few. More fortunately, last year this trail was uncomfortably hot; this year late afternoon clouds make for perfect hiking conditions. Indeed, before we can make it back to our cars, the clouds have unleashed a furious combination of lightning strikes and pelting raindrops. That evening, back at the campground, as the storm recedes, I take some photos of the distant lightning. Again, no two lightning strikes are ever identical – each traces its own random branches between cloud and ground.

Soon, the sky clears and the magnificent starry sky is revealed. What could be more unchanging than the stars in their eternal expanse? But even the sky has it “wanderers”, or planets as we call them, and this year there are four that can be seen with the unaided eye. Venus blazes brightly in the west, Jupiter is almost as bright in the east, and Saturn rules the sky almost straight up. Faint Mars is there too, if you know where to look. Through my telescope, Jupiter and Saturn are revealed to be systems of their own, each with its own orbiting swarm of moons. Again, the pattern never exactly repeats.

Even when I deliberately try to make things the same, changes intrude. Every year I stand in the exact same spot and take the same photo of the visitor center. But this year my photo shows that the visitor center has a new sign, having been recently named the “Kris Eggle Visitor Center” for a park ranger who was killed by drug smugglers along the border. Nearby, a memorial plaque provides a place to pause and contemplate this particularly tragic change.

For all the changes I have seen at Organ Pipe, one thing remains the same: as I leave behind this desert wonderland and drive back to the city, I look back on the weekend as time well spent. Year after year, I'm very glad I came.

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updated March 31, 2020