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Know the West

In the nation's most dangerous park, the desert's heat still beats


In Organ Pipe: Life on the Edge, author Carol Ann Bassett heeds the advice of her mentor, Ed Abbey: "Learning about the desert takes time," she writes. "Abbey once wrote the best way to do so was to ‘Pick out a good spot and just sit there, not moving, for about a year — and watch what happens.’ "

Since her first visit to the remote and rugged Organ Pipe National Monument in 1988, the wide-open spaces, crystalline light, and diversity of Sonoran Desert life — "a countryside hot, prickly, and easy to get lost in" — have kept bringing her back.

The desert oasis "full of stately saguaros and golden poppies" that first drew Bassett’s attention has changed markedly since its establishment as a national monument in 1937. Because existing barbed-wire fencing from past cattle-ranching days doesn’t deter the thousand or more immigrants and smugglers who nightly trek across the border, authorities are building a 30-mile-long, 5-foot-high barrier to minimize environmental damage.

"There’s a risk in returning to a place you’ve fallen in love with because of the changes that have occurred. This unique ecology and resources are being compromised to the point where current changes may prove irrevocable. This area has been called the most dangerous park in the country and, unfortunately, in some ways, that’s true."

Insisting that serenity can be found for those brave enough to depart main roads for side canyons, Bassett believes one can still discover "the natural heartbeat of the desert." And the book’s final chapter gives adventurers a reason to visit: "Everything I need to know can be learned in the desert," she writes. "Joy, sorrow, beauty, fear, trust, patience, tenacity. In the desert, knowledge comes intuitively if I listen."

Organ Pipe: Life on the Edge

Carol Ann Bassett, photographs by Michael Hyatt,

92 pages, softcover: $13.95.

University of Arizona Press, 2004.