SPECIAL TO ST: Arizona Chasing and Borderland Issues

Feb 10, 2004
Scottsdale, AZ USA
Arizona Offers Much, but Concerns Persist in the Borderlands

7/15/04 Phoenix, Arizona USA
by Susan Strom, Arizona Lightning Photographer

I would like to preface this article with a sidebar to all Monsoon chasers: There is no need to chase the Arizona borderlands. It is not recommended to enter these areas of concern at present, however, compared to the rest of the state this is a relatively small area. Arizona encompasses 113,998 square miles of potential Monsoon chase country (that is approx all of New England + New York combined). Arizona is sixth in state size, with a mean elevation of 4,100 ft due to a labyrinth of canyons, mesas, playas and sky islands. The Colorado Plateau is also a massive and obvious feature, stretching across the state.

The Mogollon Rim alone houses the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. Arizona is also home to the largest county park system in the US with thousands of acres of parkland to enjoy, as well as more well known landmarks such as Sedona, the Grand Canyon, and Painted Desert. In addition, points north of the borderlands offer a dramatic beauty, canyons and mesas to work with the Monsoon in relative safety. However, if you are considering chasing Monsoon in Southern Arizona, particularly the borderlands, please read the following which includes information directly from US Border Patrol for this article. (This article contains strong information, but is necessary to properly communicate the issues.)

Borderlands Still Concern for Monsoon Chasers...
Spectacular topography and Monsoon storms continue to lure chasers and photographers to the mountains and deserts of Arizona each summer. Storm hunters also visit from the Plains each year to prolong their season after chase operations in May.

Generous monsoon moisture particularly present in Southern Arizona makes this region a tempting hunting ground as well. However, until US border issues, which continue to negatively impact the lives of Southern Arizonans, are resolved, prudent chasers and photographers should restrict movement in certain areas, particularly at night.

The days of carefree roaming of desert borderlands like Organ Pipe National Monument are on hold for the foreseeable future, until a political polar shift resolves the border issues of this area rife with problems. Many believed that the rugged Sonoran Desert itself would weed out potential crossers and drug smugglers by default, held back by Nature’s extreme landscape and weather conditions. This did not prove an accurate assumption.

Fortunately, Arizona is a big place, a vast region encompassing multiple vegetation zones from desert to alpine. There is no need whatsoever to venture to the Southern Arizona borderlands for chase success. With the exception of Yuma, the KofA range, Parker and the Western deserts/Colorado River, Monsoon storms can provide generously in a wide range of locations, some even much better for photography and favorable chasing.

Reasons to stay away from the Arizona/Mexico border are compelling. They include the threat of robbery, assault, being approached with a deadly weapon, running into drug traffickers or human smugglers (the latter known as "coyotes"), violence and sexual assault reputed to be rampant perpetrated against illegal crossers by their coyotes, and a higher risk of personal harm. Evidences of these crimes are found among the trash, clothing, goods, and footpaths left in the desert’s open air. “We apprehend 1,500 individuals per night,â€￾ states Rob Daniels, Public Information Officer for the Tucson Offices of US Border Patrol in an interview for this article.

Lesser reasons, such as vehicle stops by the various authorities, (US Border Patrol or Shadow Wolves, American Indian unit of the U.S. Customs Patrol) are reasons enough for some to stay away for now. Just being present in those areas almost guarantees being stopped and questioned, and with good reason. However, some just do not want to be disturbed when conducting their photography, hiking or other pursuits in Nature, so choose to travel elsewhere in the State.

In my interview with Daniels, he points out specific areas of the Arizona borderlands where being present is highly discouraged and especially not recommended for any night activity whatsoever (which includes lightning photography). Many of the illegal drug and smuggling activities take place under the cover of darkness and cooler temperatures of desert nights. Daniels suggests that these specific regions be considered off limits for chasers and photographers. Remember, this list may not include all the problem areas, but is provided a general guide:

Recommended Areas to AVOID
South of State Route 86 (this is called the “Ajo (pronounced Ah-ho) Highwayâ€￾)
West of State Route 286
East of State Route 85
Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
The entire Tohono O’Odham Indian Community (they are on constant watch for drug traffickers. A chase vehicle on Indian land might lead them to believe there is activity. It’s best to just stay away and let them do their jobs. The Tohono Community deploys a highly-skilled, elite team of trackers known as Shadow Wolves, for this purpose. “They don’t like outsiders,â€￾ Daniels says.
Ironwood National Monument
Silver Bell Mountains
Organ Pipe National Monument (known currently as the most dangerous park in America)
Towns of: Nogales, Douglas, Sells, Naco, Lukeville
ALL roadways along the Arizona/Mexico border
Any area out in the open where trash, goods, or clothing is present. This may indicate a staging area for human or drug smuggling activity.

One area recently mentioned on a separate Web site was the Waddell Dam, in a surprising location, north of Phoenix. Illegal aliens are often housed by their coyotes in “safe housesâ€￾, sometimes plain houses in average neighborhoods. But Phoenicians are wising up and cracking down, identifying these and reporting them to law enforcement and media. Because of this, an outside staging area in the desert might offer better camouflage. Daniels could not confirm any issues with the Waddell Dam. However, he did offer advice to stay out of any area where trash, goods, or clothing or human waste is present, as this may indicate a staging area for human or drug smuggling activity. “These areas will be infested with trash, you can really tell,â€￾ he points out. Food wrappers or bottles of Mexican products are also a dead giveaway. Evidences of sexual assault, such as women’s undergarments, are also found among other telltale signs of criminal activity.

Willcox, Tombstone and the Willcox Playa, which are very desireable chase areas during Monsoon, were not among the hotlist mentioned. Although Daniels indicated less activity there and in the Chiricahua Mountains due to simple remoteness, it is best to be on guard when traveling anywhere in Southern Arizona at the current time.

Veteran Chaser Offers Advice
Tucson-based chaser Warren Faidley, who has been chasing storms since 1984, contributes his thoughts to this article, with safety tips for others: "Here are some suggestions I've applied for years," Faidley offers.

1: Stay away from known smuggling routes, especially right along the border.
2: Don't chase alone if possible.
3: If you are parked in the middle of nowhere, watch for approaching people and cars. I will usually get back into the car, with the engine running if I see a car coming down a deserted road. This way, I can blast off if necessary.
4: If out of the car, take your keys, lock the vehicle and CARRY YOUR CELL PHONE WITH YOU.
5: Just like in tornado chasing, always have an exit strategy. In other
words, don't park at the end of a road with only one option out.
6: I try to keep as inconspicuous as possible. I don't leave the car lights
on and I try to blend in with the vegetation. (Thus, the purpose for the black truck is revealed!).
7: Know the area. This is especially important for photographers from outside areas.
8: Don't go into Mexico unless you know what the heck you are doing.
Firearms are strictly forbidden there.
9: Stick to populated, well traveled roads, but still be aware of what is
going on around you.

Southern Arizona is Faidley’s all too familiar chase country, where he began his chase career. His wisdom is appreciated.

The purpose of this article is not to scare or cause alarm, but rather to make Monsoon chasers aware that borderland areas are problematic of late. I have been chasing the deserts, driving thousands of miles through deserts, mesas, mountain regions and high country of Arizona for eight years now free of incident. Like Warren, I practice my safety codes religiously, and also stay away from borderland areas. I plan to chase and enjoy many Monsoons to come and since there is no shortage of fantastic terrain to work with in Arizona, I have an infinite number of vantage points.

Personally, I can't get enough of Four Peaks Wilderness, the Mazatzals, Superstitions, and Bradshaw ranges. These areas are hours away from the border and offer hauntingly beautiful desert foothill terrain.

Writer bio:
Susan Strom started studying the Mexican Monsoon in 1995, and shortly thereafter set out to build her portfolio of lightning photojournalism. Still at it with the same fervor, Strom’s favorite chase state is Arizona, close to her heart even as stormchasing has taken her to 11 other states. Strom holds photography shows in support of desert wilderness areas and also supplies photography to Sierra Club. She works at a graphics and digital video college as well and in her spare time assists as a volunteer in the production of crime prevention programs for Scottsdale Police Dept. As an avid hiker, Strom is constantly amazed by the life the desert holds. “Although some of Arizona is alpine, the Arizona Desert is a special gift, and needs to be protected. Arizona is fantasy terrain.â€￾
6: I try to keep as inconspicuous as possible. I don't leave the car lights
on and I try to blend in with the vegetation.

This was the opposite of the advice given to me by Border Patrol agents I happened on just east of Nogales last weekend, about a mile from the border on a ranch road.

They recommended keeping car lights on, so that any potential trouble would see them, think you are Border Patrol, and stay away. This is likely the reason why many Border Patrol agents make their rounds with all running lights turned off.

I'd tend to agree, thinking that trying to be inconspicuous and 'blending in with the vegetation' will only make you seem more suspicious to authorities, and increase the risk of randomly happening upon drug traffickers, coyotes, etc.

On a more constructive note, another bit of advice (especially if you run into suspicious authorities) is to carry some prints of your photos along with you. Having some to show off should help make them believe that you're really out there for a legitimate reason.
I think essentially Warren is saying that a chase vehicle in the Arizona borderlands could be a target. A chaser drives an expensive van or SUV, loaded with camera and video equipment and likely is carrying travel money as well. Out here, I too am in favor of "stealth" chasing and not calling attention to myself, however, I agree that in borderland areas the same camouflage that could protect a chaser may arouse suspicion.

Within the border areas mentioned in the article, the Shadow Wolves Indian anti-drug force or US Border Patrol could confuse innocent media work with questionable activities, since so much is going on down there. Although I can see both sides, the solution is simple: Chase elsewhere away from the borderlands where the problems aren't an issue. I would like to think that my staying away while authorities are dealing with the issues will also assist them in doing their jobs, as they won't waste time having to check me out.

The way I see it, why bother going down there anyway, when so much excellent Arizona chaseland is available elsewhere? In other words, how can you top Sedona, the Rim, and all the plentiful mountain ranges and deserts available in safer areas? This is a big place.

Thanks Mike, excellent point...
Great read, Susan!!

Was this published anywhere? If so, it should be, cause I think people would enjoy reading this article, whether they chase or not.
Drug runners are only part of the problem, with Homeland Security the way it is looking for possible terrorist activities. "Blending in" and "blasting off" is a good way to get stopped and having to explain your actions for an hour or more while they check you and your entire vehicle out for anything illegal. Staying well north of the border is plain and simple the best thing you could do at this point in time. I have been through Arizona many times and I like the central and northern regions more for its beauty anyways.
Right Bill, as if they didn't have enough to handle, homeland security adds yet another angle. We just need to support our Border Patrol in any way we can as currently they are working their fingers to the bone.

On the topic of "blasting off"...
Once in my fledgling chase days, I set up my equipment on a storm in Peralta, in the desert outside of Apache Junction. I was up on kind of a levy-type sand hill, on a road with a dead end (¡muy estúpido!). A great view, but I failed to have an escape route, where I could "blast off" if necessary. Along comes a beat up pickup truck with three local guys who drove up, whistling and checking me out. They didn't give me any trouble, to my good fortune. Deciding never to leave my fate in the hands of lady luck in the future, I never made that mistake again. Warren is right when he says, "have an escape route". It's not to "blast off" from authorities, it's to hawk-watch with self-awareness and allow a way out if you don't like the looks of something coming up the road. In the desert, one can often see 360 degrees for miles in all directions, kind of like in the Plains. Clear vision and an escape route leads to peaceful and pleasant chasing. If you see someone or get a funny feeling, you can simply use your alternate route and move elsewhere (but you're right, please don't make a rooster tail LOL). At least you know your escape route is available.

Thanks Melissa! No, I wrote the article with Stormtrack in mind. It's an "ST Exclusive" LOL
Hehe Susan...perhaps I should have edited my post; I saw "Special to ST" after making that last post. Hooray for my lack of attention to details!

Anyway, this is a great discussion. I have never chased around the Mexico border, but I have seen firsthand the Border Patrol in action. Thankfully, Texas has a geographic barrier (the Rio Grande River) which helps keep the Texas side of the border safer (it's harder to cross a river without being seen than a fence). But still, people get through to the other side, and I have actually seen some illegals on the run down near McAllen, where my grandparents live.

I have also experienced the border checkpoints about 50 miles out from the border. Everytime we go through one of those, the car gets sniffed by drug dogs, and we are asked if we are US citizens. I've never been searched there or asked for ID because, well, my skin es muy blanco!!! But one time I did go through that checkpoint when a semi was found to be carrying a lot of drugs!!!
Amazing to think how much goes on down there. I will defintely keep the info in mind if I am ever in the area.

This brings me to the question...
What are the laws pertaining to firearms in vehicles? (I have no clue) Can you be a registered gun owner and legally transport a weapon inside of your car? I like the phrase "Always have the bigger stick". ;)

As far as I know, if you go into Mexico and have any sort of firearm on you, you will be arrested. I know they sometimes will search cars for them, and they won't let you in if they find one.
You're not missing a whole lot, Aaron, (at least right along the border), unless you like guys coming up to your car window asking if you would like to buy flowers and other useless knicknacks.
You're not missing a whole lot, Aaron, (at least right along the border), unless you like guys coming up to your car window asking if you would like to buy flowers and other useless knicknacks.

This may be the case in the border towns, as you said, but there are actually some very nice places in the interior. One of my goals before leaving El Paso is to explore Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) in the Sierra Tarahumara in southern Chihuahua... perhaps next year's monsoon season. I'm also hoping to explore Sonora a little bit, possibly this year.

Most of what happens around here happens "in the shadows." Most illegal aliens are just looking for work and a better life, and they're usually taken advantage by the "coyotes" they may hire to smuggle them across safely. Often they'll be robbed and ditched in the middle of the desert, etc. Illegal aliens are generally people you don't need to be afraid of.

Drug traffickers are different story, but again, they'll probably stay away from you unless you just happen to cross paths.

I really don't think it is necessary to be "packing" (a gun) while travelling in this area, unless you're hiking out into the desert under the cover of darkness.

The Rio Grande as a natural barrier, isn't much to speak of around these parts. It's been dry most of the past 8 months, up until they released water from Caballo Reservoir. It is also very shallow. You'll often see Mexican children playing in the river off I-10 and Paisano Rd.
Mike, I heard that Copper Canyon rivals the Grand Canyon in spectacular vistas! I read about it, one time, I think I was in a bookstore in Tucson.

I would actually love to go to Mexico, particularly for the music & dance... such as Ballet Folklorico de Jalisco, and Veracruz (huge fan of this music and dance! For those who have never seen Jalisco dance, it's the girls in bright dresses with ribbons, twirling to Mariachi style upbeat music. It makes me want to dance. And the Veracruz style brings in a salsa beat.) I used to go some fiestas in California, like Cinco de Mayo in San Diego and also would attend them in Reno just to take pictures of the dancing and see the Aztec costumes. And Spanish flamenco...pretty pretty!! I would love to learn it sometime, that and belly dancing like they do in India. I am also a fan of Mariachi music, and would like to someday attend the Mariachi Festival of Guadelajara...that would be so so fun.

In the daytime, I will venture to well populated artist towns in Southern Arizona such as Tubac to shop for Talavera pottery at mercados and photograph Spanish missions like Tumacacori and San Xavier del Bac. In fact I did that recently (and got some awesome pictures). I just won't go near there at night, or during the day go away from the roads or into vulnerable locations. I just try to stay educated and realistic about it but borderland issues perpetrated by bad-apple coyotes won't interfere with my desire to someday travel to the interior and my general fondness for the diversity of Mexican culture and people(s).

God bless the Aztecs! They invented chocolate and guacamole!! LOL