Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, ARIZONA

Cactus vs. sky at Organ Pipe

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“See the constellation right across the sky
No cigar, no lady on his arm
Just a guy made of dots and lines”
—They Might Be Giants

Nine days into this wild road trip and finally Masayo and I got our first camping experience in. It came at the very edge of America – Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona, a unit of the National Park Service whose southern border is also the border with Mexico.

Organ Pipe Cactus NM is not one of the more visited NPS units, and I wasn’t exactly sure we would be coming all the way down here ourselves. The point of this trip is to see National Parks, not Monuments. I’m sure the latter are nice but I want to see the best of the best.

Masayo takes advantage of an organ pipe cactus selfie opportunity.

It turns out that Organ Pipe Cactus NM is absolutely worth the trip. To be honest, I don’t know what the difference between an official Park and a Monument is, and after visiting Organ Pipe Cactus I really don’t know. There’s a visitor center, park rangers, campsites, wild and rugged natural beauty, helpful signs, and an atmosphere of awe and respect for the land.

Ranger Kris Eggle was killed by drug smugglers in the park, and the visitor center is named in his honor.

After getting jilted at Joshua Tree NP by full campsites, we smartened up and called ahead today. The Organ Pipe Cactus ranger told me over the phone that there would be plenty of room in the campground and not to worry.

We still wanted to arrive by 5:00 pm to talk to a ranger, get maps and info, etc, so we raced (at the speed limit) down Highway 85 through the towns of Ajo and Why and got to the park about 4:59. A ranger was taking the American flag down, and the door to the visitor center was locked.

But he couldn’t have been nicer; he went back in and got us maps and a copy of the yearly newspaper and explained the camping situation. I asked where a good spot to see the sunset might be; he said, “the campground”.

We rode over to the attached campground, a series of concentric half-circle paths with little pull-offs for cars. Each one has a spot for a tent and a picnic table. We chose one next to a large saguaro cactus and jumped out as the sun approached the top of the nearby mountain. It would be dusk soon.

It was the first time to set up our new tent, which I’d ordered off of Amazon and chosen due to its low price, light weight, simple set up, and high user ratings. It wasn’t the smoothest tent set-up in history (I poked a hole in the bottom of my new $140 MontBell hiking shoes before realizing I could use a rock to pound the stakes into the ground) but it wasn’t too bad. It sagged in the middle, but the wires and stakes looked like they’d hold.

Well, to me they did. Masayo wasn’t so sure.

Then it was time for our first camp cooking experience. I leaked gas all over the table until I figured out the stove, but soon we were boiling dried pasta that we bought at Big Lots in Yuma. Add some triscuits and cheese and a bottle of sparkling water, and we were soon living the life. Funny how the most basic of food takes on a rich, nourishing, even exciting quality in the right circumstances.

Then it was an evening of enjoying nature – not only the cacti, but the sky. The organ pipe cactus is made of several stalks that all grow from ground level, not like the more famous saguaro which have one main trunk with arms and look like people. Organ pipe cacti only grow wild in America in this park, hence its exalted status as a National Monument.

Around our particular campsite there were several organ pipe cacti and saguaro. Mountains lay in every direction at different distances, and when the clouds parted and the sky gave us a great sunset show after all, everything lit up orange.

Soon enough it was dark and the stars were out. Masayo and I got into the tent, where she had put down a blanket under her sleeping bag and put a neck pillow at the top for her head. I had neither, wanting to see what the basics felt like before adding features. I could tell right away that she was going to get a more comfortable night of sleep than me, but I didn’t mind.

Towering cactus and the Big Dipper. I think we chose our campsite well.

An hour or two later, the moon came out. It wasn’t full, but nearly. And it was bright. As we slept, I woke up periodically and marked the moon’s progress across the sky. City-dwellers like me often don’t even know how long it takes the moon to cross the sky. I didn’t. But now I do: I saw it myself, in the quiet and cool night of the southern Arizona desert, surrounded by stars, cacti, shrubs, and silence.

Organ pipe and saguaro in the morning light.

The next morning I was up at 5:30 am, not having slept particularly well but enthused and energized by the whole experience. It was light but the sun wasn’t up yet, so I fired up the stove and boiled water for coffee. By the time Masayo got up around 6:15, the sun was just peeking over the mountains, its orange rays piercing the organ pipe cactus in the next (empty) campsite.

Breakfast, with the moon still out.

After a breakfast of oatmeal with mixed nuts and applesauce we packed up our tent and sleeping bags and other gear, put it all in the car, and drove back to the visitor center. As we’d been the last there yesterday, we were the first today. The same ranger was now putting the flag back up and he let us in to buy our souvenirs and make our inquiries.

After watching the film about Organ Pipe Cactus NM (as at Channel Islands NP, we were the only two people in the little theater) and thanking everyone, we got in the car and went to check out the Ajo Mountains Loop, a two-hour drive through an unbelievable cactus forest full of saguaro and organ pipe, creosote and prickly pear, the path snaking through the Ajo Mountains. All around us were rough and rocky slopes that are home to sheep as well as some hardy greenery.

Saguaro love being weird and showing off. And it never fails to amuse.

The scenery in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was so breathtaking and the resources for visitors so top-notch that I’m starting to rethink this whole road trip. National Parks are still the main goal but I’m much less hesitant to detour to “mere” National Monuments now.

Anyone that finds themselves anywhere near central/southern Arizona should absolutely go take a look at Organ Pipe Cactus NM, especially if you can spend a night or two camping. It’s one of the best parts of the American landscape – one of many, as I’m learning.

Lows and highs in the desert

Unfortunately I had some bad diabetes experiences on my first night of camping during this trip. The good news is that it wasn’t related to camping specifically, just your average, run-of-the-mill poorly-thought out blood sugar management.

Before dinner, after setting up the tent, my BG was 86 and things looked like they were going my way. But later in the tent I checked my One Drop and found that I had the lowest reading of the trip so far: 42.

I had some Fig Newtons and a little dried fruit, but still felt lot and had a couple pouches of glucose powder (5g each). It seemed like a lot but I felt better quickly and drifted off to sleep in the light of the stunningly bright moon through our translucent tent.

I overdid the low. As I heated up water for coffee before sunrise at the picnic table, I checked and was 336, the highest reading of the trip. Sigh.

My trusty One Drop meter in the morning.

When this happens, a diabetic must find the silver lining. And I did: these low and high extremes of the trip (so far!) came back to back, as part of the same event. A low that bounced high because I ate too much. I was back between 70 and 130 before lunch; the badness was over. (For now.)

Insulin shot by headlamp: sign of a good life?

I must say, also, that the excitement of camping and being in such an astounding place made these BG swings much easier to take psychologically. I was mildly annoyed at the 336 especially, but it passed instantly – wow, look at that sunrise! Smell that instant coffee! Taste that oatmeal! Can you believe the orange glow on the sun-side of those cacti!

What high blood sugar…?

Have you ever seen a great star display?
Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.

Next page: Day 11: Hot insulin and tall cacti in Saguaro National Park

“Keeping insulin cool in Saguaro National Park is a challenge but worth the trouble: these cartoonish and gigantic cactus plants are an unbelievable sight.”

About the author

Jeremy has traveled to over 40 countries, taken several road trips across the United States (and Canada), and lived on and off in Japan for several years. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1982 but doesn't let a little thing like that stop him from exploring the world.

Jeremy writes about his travels with diabetes on 70-130.com as a way of logging his excursions and of inspiring others who might be feeling hesitant to take their own big bite out of life.

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