It isn't easy to shock a travel journalist but recently a magazine editor asked to cut the following two paragraphs from an article about Rancho de la Osa in southern Arizona:
"If ranch guests are from Spain or South America they stop us every time," one of the ranch owners told me. "It's definitely racial profiling."
That's when I realized a government agent—U.S. Customs and Border patrol—had been behind the wheel of every car and truck I'd seen on this section of highway.
The editor explained it this way: "The only reason is, I like to tell people that we are a non-political magazine and I just want it to stay that way. I will let other publications do that stuff."
Stunned, I withdrew the story.
"Rancho de la Osa is soused in cultural history," a gallivanting friend told me. "From the courtyard I could see portions of the U.S.-Mexican border wall. I walked to it in fifteen minutes, but it's less than five on horseback."
I've always been drawn to the desert and its beyond other world environs, especially when there's an overlooked town nearby with a small population. I booked a direct flight to Tucson.
Arizona's oldest continually used structure sits on Rancho De la Osa, built around 1720 by Jesuit missionaries. It's been a mission outpost and trading mart. Scores of artifacts have been unearthed on the property, including a pair of cannon balls dug from the adobe walls. It's believed Pancho Villa's army fired on the ranch in 1916. According to one of the owners, Paul Bear, some artifacts date back to 650 AD.
Ranch headquarters was originally a village for the Tohono O'odham Nation, which historically populated a massive amount of land in the region, stretching north to Central Arizona, west to the Gulf of California, and south to Sonora, Mexico.
The 1.3-million-acre ranch was part of the 1812 Ortiz Brothers Spanish land grant—at the time, the most wide-sweeping cattle ranch in Arizona. In the late 1800s, cattle baron Colonel William Sturgis purchased the property.
Expansionist-minded President James Polk believed in Manifest Destiny—the notion that the U.S. had a God-given right to occupy and civilize the entire continent. I still can't wrap my mind around such an ideology.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, put 525,000 square miles in the U.S. territory, including land that makes up all or parts of present-day Arizona and 6 other states.
In the mid-1920s, historian and archeologist Louisa Wetherhill decided to transform de la Osa into a guest ranch. The rugged and remote beauty attracted President Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as celebrities like Tom Mix, Caesar Romero, Joan Crawford, and Margaret Mitchell. Novelist Zane Gray wrote adventure stories in a room that's now called the "Zane Grey Retreat." Hollywood filmed his 1940 "Light of Western Stars" on the property.
Today's owners work hard to preserve the property and buildings the way they were in the 1800s. "But with better plumbing and electricity," said Bear, chin lifted toward the sangria sun. "The floorboards still creak."
I tossed my duffel in the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Chamber. Light reflected sharply from a broad southward-facing window. Everything else in the room fell into wooly shadows. I breathed in deeply, imagining LBJ and his Styrofoam cup of Cutty Sark.
Ranch hand Colleen Crisman saddled horses for those of us wanting to ride to 'the wall.' She called herself a freelance wrangler. "I move around a lot," she said, tapping the brim of her felt hat. "Just travel with the weather and whatever fits in my 2-door sedan."
I swung onto a sure-footed gelding who followed whoever led. We plodded over semi-desert grassland at about 3,500 feet, skirting scattered scrub, grassy hummocks, and flowering cactus. I gripped the saddle horn through dry creek beds with loose rock and battled spiny thorns on mesquite trees. It was like coming to a place I'd never been before but somehow knew.
A smoky haze of dust hung low. I tried not to think about rattlers, unseen, their blood cold. A vulture hovered overhead. Not a good sign.
We passed a centuries-old cemetery with stark wooden crosses. Most graves were unnamed. The Hacienda—a long, low building extending at an angle from the dirt driveway—had doubled as a hospital near the end of the Mexican-American War.
Colleen swiveled in her saddle. "Soldiers from both sides are buried here."
Rays of sun streaked off steel pipes making up the 7-mile long wall between Rancho de la Osa and Sonora, Mexico—erected by the Army Corp of Engineers after 9-11 to deter terrorists. The pipes rise 15-feet and sink 12-feet into the ground. A ranch hand said the pipes have sensors meant to alert Border Patrol agents. But when I pressed an ear to metal I didn't hear a hum.
Early in 2019, media made a big deal over the installation of concertina wire across the barrier's top, supposed evidence of Trump's promise to secure the border. "It was a real joke," said Bear, hunched over a hitching post. "Politics as usual."
A ratty backpack hung from a barbed coil. I wondered, Why? Perhaps those attempting to cross the border didn't realize it's possible to simply walk around the wall on either end? I did just that—dismounted and stepped freely into Mexico. No bells or whistles. The Border Patrol agent I'd seen earlier appeared to have been napping in his pickup.
Later in the afternoon, Colleen took me for a white-knuckle UTV ride into Sasabe, the least-trafficked border in the state. Population: 51. That breaks down to 0 people per square mile, re: population density. Locals like to say, "If you squint at the bugs on your windshield while driving through Sasabe you'll miss it."
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