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Bombings, strafings and beauty

Man and beast roam this desert, intent on survival. It is an unforgiving place -- but with moments of grace.


Ajo, Ariz. — In THESE PRECINCTS OF THE SONORAN DESERT, with the Mexican border just a few miles to the south and the thermometer frequently north of 110 degrees, there are many reasons a biologist might slam on the brakes of his four-wheel-drive and hiss a four-letter word into the summer sky.

Geopolitical reasons. Military reasons. Life-and-death animal reasons and life-and-death human reasons. A substantial portion of the coyotes in this territory, as John Morgart of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge sometimes reminds newcomers, probably have tasted human flesh.

"It's a very dangerous place," Morgart says.

But in that first moment of agitation on the trail a few weeks ago, Morgart just pointed. It was midday, and we'd been rambling through the refuge's Daniels Arroyo, headed for a gap in the Growler Mountains. Now Morgart was tensed as if struck by lightning.

Which gave me time to consider. Between Oct. 1, 2002, and mid-August, more than 120 undocumented immigrants were found dead in this vast dry stretch between Yuma and Tucson. Their numbers have been growing for the last few years as California has tightened its border security, thereby redirecting traffic.

Besides the bodies found near the refuge's 56 miles of shared border with Mexico, U.S. Fish and Wildlife rangers yearly find dozens of stranded cars and tons of clothing and emptied jugs cast off by thousands of desperate itinerants who do get through.

"Probably half the time I go out on the refuge to do some work, I encounter undocumented aliens," Morgart tells me. "As often as not, they're tired and thirsty, and they give themselves up to me."

As if that weren't enough human complication for one refuge, most of the Cabeza Prieta territory lies beneath the airspace of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range just to the north of the refuge. During and following World War II, pilots practiced bombing and strafing here, and they continue to do just that. Plenty of ordnance remains on the refuge, some buried, some not, some possibly live. Nobody's been blown up in recent years, but visitors, fewer than 2,000 a year, aren't admitted until they sign a pledge that they won't blame the military if they are.

Still, I wasn't here because of bombs or the border. I had come mainly to commune with the ghost of author Edward Abbey and stand amid the theatrics of monsoon season in the Sonora. On July 31, a thunderstorm had pelted parts of this area with two inches of rain in an hour -- in Morgart's words "a real toad-choker."

Two weeks later, the desert still was drunk. The wiry ocotillo, festooned with leaves, looked strong as steel cable. The saguaro stood with swollen trunks. The organ pipe cactus squatted fat and flowering. When the sun sank low and the light turned butterscotch, the mountain ridges stood out like hatchet blades and the low-lying thickets of paloverde and creosote glowed like the creations of some daft artist working in green neon.

No wonder Abbey liked it here. "Once caught by this golden lure you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted," he wrote in "Desert Solitaire."

In fact, just before his death from cancer in 1989, the writer is said to have endorsed plans to bury his body out here -- in a sleeping bag, not a coffin -- so he could "help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree."

I wanted to follow the Charlie Bell Trail to an overlook in the Growler Mountains, and Morgart, a 51-year-old with a doctorate in biology who has spent most of his life in Arizona, was willing to come along. There was plenty to talk about.

On 860,010 acres, the refuge includes close to 400 plant species and about 300 wildlife species, some in dire shape. In late 2002, after a year of profound drought, refuge officials estimated their population of Sonoran pronghorn (a fleet-footed endangered species that resembles an antelope) at a mere 21, down from 138 the year before. And then, 16 miles up the 17-mile trail to the overlook, the brakes grabbed and the biologist's finger pointed.

Angry smuggler? Stray bomb? Abbey? "Pronghorn," Morgart says, beside himself. There might not be 300 of these beasts in the world, probably no more than 30 in the refuge, even given the spring's fawns. And five stood before us.

The Sonoran pronghorn, slightly smaller than the four other subspecies of pronghorn in North America, has been classified as endangered for more than 30 years. They eat almost anything but creosote, and the lucky ones live about 10 years. The bucks get to be about 130 pounds, the does about 35 pounds lighter.

Few observers get to see that white fur on their rumps for long. Pronghorns sprint at up to 60 mph, making them the fastest land mammals in North America.

But not these five. They just loped slowly and nibbled their way across the trail ahead, while we waited about 50 yards off in our stopped and silent truck. Morgart was hamstrung, elated to see so many so healthy, but angry at himself for disturbing them.

"Didn't want to do that," he says. "I tell you what. Consider yourself lucky. But I'm not going any farther."

No problem. Every adventure is about negotiation, and in this bargain I brought home two prizes: a clear mental picture of the continent's fastest thing on four legs, lazing in a momentarily lush desert; and an equally rare image of the Sonoran biologist, engaged for a change in the observation of beasts at peace and not human calamity. And nobody strafed us. A fine day in the American wilderness.

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