Lessons Learned in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Last year, I tried to squeeze in a quick side trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument en route to Tucson, Arizona. One authoritative source warned against it, claiming there’s not much to see there, and one can see the organ pipe cactus at other destinations in Tucson, which is fair. On the map, though, it looked like it was practically on the way.

Actually, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument’s Visitor’s Center is not on the way to anything–except Mexico. Google maps won’t plot a trip to it. It’s not on my GPS. So I found out (the hard way) that it’s about 90 minutes from the Interstate, and that Ajo’s speed limit is 25 miles per hour.

Why, Arizona.

As we left, I found out in Why, Arizona that the fastest way to Tucson was to take Hwy 86 through Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation (for two hours), which might have been a scenic drive by day, but at night, the low-lit, two-lane highway loomed long.

Happy travelers need food and sleep. So arriving at our hotel room after 10 p.m. (with nothing but gas station cookies from the Why Texaco for dinner) was a #mommyfail. We got back on track the next day.


This year I decided to make a very quick trip with nothing but Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument as our sole destination.

I learned three things on this trip:

  1. People in Ajo, Arizona love their town. The more I asked around, the more I got sucked in: there’s wilderness, history, art, architecture, and quirkiness. I’ll share a few resources below. Hardly any of the accommodations are on booking.com.
  2. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument recently re-opened an additional seventy percent of the park, making 100% of the park now open to visitors. No wonder many folks bring camping gear and RVs. The border police are profuse. The overall atmosphere feels safe. In the spring, the plants are in bloom, and the weather is perfect-perfect, in the seventies. It’s a place to stay a while.
  3. Not all family travel is full of wonder and merriment, and that’s okay. Sometimes going home is the best part of a trip.

Perhaps I should expand on that last bit.

Last year I remember two mommy fails:

  1. Getting to the hotel late.
  2. Getting pulled over for speeding. We were all three wearing matching orange field trip t-shirts with our elementary school’s name on them. In retrospect, this fact fills me with even more shame. Yes, it was nerdy and precious. It may have gotten us out of a ticket, though.

Perhaps, like the pains of childbirth, I overly-romanticize our trips in my memory. They may be far lovelier in retrospect. Last year was fun. This year, things unraveled.

What do you see?

In the great scheme of rotten brats who roam our planet, my kids seem charming, bright, and pleasant, like good travelers. They get sucked into audiobooks in the car. They follow curiosity–from dinosaurs to roly polies. They sweetly entertain themselves, sometimes with no more than a hotel pen and notepad, or a plastic cup of ice. They probably look cute and happy in these pictures. But like all humans, it’s complicated. Why does “disaster” come to mind?

Actually, I feel like I’m the disaster (at least on this trip). I don’t understand this new developmental stage they are in. My expectations aren’t prepared. My nerves are constantly shot.

Aw, Mom!

This trip, I felt like the kids were always fighting, making weird noises, making potty jokes, getting on my last nerve, or all of those. My default mode became increasingly angry and berating (no matter how much water I chugged). My stern-to-shrill voice carried. I’m sure other hikers hated me.

I became THAT mom. The one who snarls horrible things at her kids and later warns them never to repeat it at school, or they will get suspended. I could share examples. If we were chatting in beach chairs, it might sound hilarious. But as I write, I know it’s offensive and possibly incriminating. If you can relate, I love you. But I do hope you are better than me.


See, We Love Each Other

As I drove home (earlier than we had to) I considered my frustration with the kids, and my shortcomings. Later I would be grateful that I listened to the cosmic voice that told me to leave, because as it turns out there were other reasons for us to be home. But in the moment, I left frustrated. I had to admit an extended mommy-fail.

I didn’t think my kids needed a theme park instead of a national monument. Maybe I could have engaged their curiosity differently. I know there must have been a better way for me to react to their antics. Feel free to share in the comments. It’s fair to all of us to say that not every family togetherness moment is blissful; this one fell apart. Maybe these scarring family moments are a necessary and inevitable part of life.

This time, I went home to hit the re-set button. Suddenly I remembered there is not a magic switch between toddler and mature adult. There’s all this wading in the middle, where the kids seem capable enough, but they actually require a great deal of supervision and modeling.

We started with chores. Very old fashioned, right? I did not make a chart and assign chores. I shouldered along with my kids, teaching them step by step, even though it took hours. The kids were vastly more pleasant than on the trail. Go figure.

Usually I love a clean hotel room every night, and having most of our meals in restaurants. The absence of chores while traveling feels refreshing. Ironically, this time the chores at home saved us.

These are first world problems, I realize. But they matter. Think of the alternative for our planet. Re-claiming the high calling of stuffing monstrous beasts into the tiny bodies of children, where they may cleverly upgrade to “good citizens,” is important.

Am I taking a bow? For doing my job? Which I have been failing at? Which would be weird? Hopefully not. I’m glad to be on the other side (of spring break). Sharing is important. I’m not alone, right?

If your kids are bratty on the trail, or if you are, I’ll probably hold you responsible like a true judgmental shrew at first. Then I’ll try to remember. With compassion.


I hope you do go to Ajo, Arizona and to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We’ve been there twice, and it’s gorgeous in the Spring. Here are handy nuts and bolts:

Border Patrol Checkpoint

  • Passports. Getting to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument will require at least one border patrol check point on the way there, and two on the way back. You really only need your driver’s license, if you are a US citizen. If you get inspired to hike a little further, or do a little shopping (and there are lures for both nearby in Mexico), bring passports. Rangers re-assured us it’s very safe.

Ajo church

  • Ajo would have been a great place to stay. La Siesta Motel looks adorable, comes recommended, and has refrigerators and microwaves, wifi, and RV parking. If you only need one bed, charming cabins are available by the pool. At times there are also bed and breakfasts available: Desert Willow and the historically renovated The Guest House Inn Bed and Breakfast.

IMG_1750 ed

  • Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center in Ajo has a small but highly interactive display, and a short video. It has a nature trail in the back, where we saw a gila woodpecker high in a saguaro. They do hikes with dinner on certain Saturdays, and offer camp sites. The rest of the reserve is on my bucket list as a future hang-out. It’s a great place for a pit-stop on the way to the National Monument.

1001 Estrella

  • 100 Estrella–delicious food. Served with plastic cups and plastic forks. A little slowly. But by the time it all arrives, delicious, after a long day, it’s good to linger, and I can (almost) deal with plastic. Known for burgers. One of the few if only restaurants in town that serves cocktails. I went for the Dark and Stormy. No joke.

Cabeza Prieta Visitor's CenterMargot at the Cabeza Prieta Visitor’s Center is very helpful. She gave us Explorer packets and models of info. She engaged my kids.IMG_1785 ed

All the Rangers at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument were fantastic. At the Visitor’s Center, there’s a video on a large screen, if you request it. With so much more of the park open now, there are oodles of places to explore. Some people gravitate to the driving tour. There’s a printed guide available.

We loved our trip overall, because it was exactly where we were supposed to be in the moment.


We stopped at a couple of roadside stands–one took us down a dirt road where Rosalia, originally Filipina, sells geodes, rocks, and gems in a little shack behind her house. The kids were in heaven. It was suitably quirky. Only a few days later I’ve already started to romanticize the trip.


Desert Artists Guild


In retrospect, I’m pretty sure a dip in the hotel pool (with cocktails) would have helped. We all need time to lallygag. I’d definitely do Ajo again.

You don’t believe me about the antics?

© 2015 – 2016, Experience Connect Relish – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  1. Love your narrative and especially your kids’ interactions which make me smile and remember. Yay, your kids are so normal and you’re an awesome mom! Preteen and later are just wonderful(?) years but are usually much more appreciated after they’re over.
    As a preteen, our oldest daughter could be heard in her room singing some song about “booger-snot-doo-doo” over and over, and in high school her every sentence included “dude” (sigh). Early on, our one son’s favorite antic was to exclaim, “What would you do if I (name anything awful)?” His wife tells me he still does this (oh, well). They have a delightful two-year-old son who’s just like his dad (ah, what goes around DOES come around). Today, they’re all happy, extraordinary and successful, and laugh about much from their awkward years.
    Keeping cool, not letting their intentionally annoying behaviors get a rise out of you, picking your battles, and being consistent really make a difference. Take it all in, though. You’ll blink and they’ll be grown. The many outings together are truly wonderful in building for them a collection of unforgettable memories. You can’t have too many of those and the seemingly failed ones will evoke some of the funniest memories and stories. How gratifying it will be to one day see them also making memories with their little ones through the influence of your legacy.

    • Thanks, John! Yes, it already seems funny in retrospect. Some of our most horrific family battles have turned into the greatest family humor. I’m not sure how that works. Maybe it’s therapy? My daughter still asks, “Hey Mom, remember the time you said you were gonna call the police if we didn’t straighten up…” We all roar.

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