I was cruising along State Route 286, about 15 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border,
when I first recognized Waw Kiwulik, more commonly known as Baboquivari Peak. According to the Tohono O’odham people, their creator god, I’itoi, lives in a cave below the peak, which rises nearly 4,200 feet above the floor of the Sonoran Desert. While it’s visible looking north, the prominence of the mountain is much more dramatic when seen from the southbound stretch of the highway.
After a quick stop to admire the sacred peak, I pulled into Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. It was my first time. The promise of photographing desert wildlife with a majestic granite monolith in the background was what initially lured me in, but when I arrived, I felt an inexplicable connection to the land. And as my truck rattled along lonely dirt roads through arroyos and rolling hills in the 117,000-acre wildlife refuge, it was as if I’d traveled back in time a century or more. I marveled as Baboquivari glowed purple under the last rays of the autumn sun. A little later, shortly after I’d crawled into my sleeping bag, I was serenaded by a pack of coyotes. Sweet dreams from the Wild West, I thought to myself.
My alarm went off the next morning at 5:45 a.m. I groaned, like I always do, but five minutes later, streaks of purple and coral were splashed across the horizon to the east, and a thick band of clouds was turning cotton-candy pink above the Baboquivari Mountains to the west. Just when I thought the moment couldn’t get any better, the entire range caught fire with the first kiss of the morning sun. Three minutes later, the vibrant alpenglow was gone. And 24 hours later, so was I.
It’s not often that a landscape speaks to me the way this one did, but when it does, it has my full attention. I was mesmerized by the electric sunrise, and I felt as if this lonesome patch of dry earth had beckoned my return. A few months later, I’d be back.
Before I left the first time, I ran into a 60-something couple who were volunteers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These were the only people I spoke to during my brief stay, and their enthusiasm — and commitment to giving back to this imperiled border zone — struck a chord with me.
“We’re assisting with the endangered masked bobwhite quail release program,” the woman excitedly told me. The refuge, which once was a sprawling cattle ranch, was purchased by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1985 to provide critical habitat for this desert-dwelling subspecies of the northern bobwhite quail.
After a few more minutes of lively conversation and laughs, I drove off, never thinking to get their contact information. I live out of my truck camper from March through November and can’t keep in touch with every wonderful stranger I meet. It’s just part of the magic of life on the road. If you’re meant to cross paths again, you will. But every once in a while, I regret not handing out my card. That’s how I felt when I realized how attached I’d grown to this refuge.
When I returned home to California a few weeks later, I looked into volunteer opportunities. A link on the Fish and Wildlife Service website led me to Friends of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and a few days later, I was on the phone with Reta Rutledge, vice president (and former president) of the nonprofit.
The group assists the Fish and Wildlife Service with everything from biological surveys to cleanups. And for those seeking long-term commitments, the federal agency accepts applications for seasonal volunteers who stay for three to six months. Reta invited me to a fence removal event in early March, when I’d get face time with some of the local and seasonal volunteers. I asked about the friendly couple I’d met in October, but Reta wasn’t sure. January and February flew by, and so did the seven-hour drive back to Arizona.
After pulling into Buenos Aires for the second time,
I found my way to one of the refuge’s dispersed campsites. I cozied up in the back of my truck and listened to the familiar and melodic chatter of a pack of coyotes. I thought about howling back. And I’m pretty sure I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
Driving west on Arivaca-Sasabe Road the next morning, I sang along to Waylon Jennings and cursed as the never-ending patchwork of potholes bounced coffee all over my jeans. Reta greeted me at the visitors center, and we spent the better part of the day getting acquainted. Reta has been birding at the refuge since the 1980s, volunteering since 2012 and on the Friends of Buenos Aires board since 2015. Beyond facilitating volunteer events and outreach, her main task has been removing the rusted barbed-wire ranch fencing, which can ensnare wildlife. Volunteers have removed about 180 miles of it over the past two decades, and Reta estimated they still had about 20 miles to go.
Reta is one of those people you can talk to for hours. She’s fascinating. But it wasn’t until I watched her lead the fence removal the following day that I saw her really come alive. Like a U.S. Army general, she pointed to areas that needed inspection, and as soon as everyone was in position, she picked up the bolt cutters and got to work. At 72, Reta is quick on her feet, and she even had enough patience to show newbies like me how to properly snip and coil fence. “To find people who say, ‘This is my cup of tea,’ that’s an exciting bond to share,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes.
The refuge has long been open to hunting, so sportsmen are committed to preserving this habitat, as are local ranchers. More than 330 avian species have been recorded on the refuge, and mammals such as deer, pronghorns, coatimundis, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, javelinas and jaguars call this place home. But decades of ranching have led to a proliferation of mesquite trees and invasive plants, so habitat restoration has been an ongoing battle. The area also has been hit hard by drought, and even with small catchments attached to wells, maintaining water on the parched soil has been a challenge.
What’s more, the refuge sits along 5.5 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, and a newly constructed section of the border wall has had a devastating impact on mammals seeking already-scarce water sources. Repairing boundary fencing to prevent neighboring cattle from sneaking into the refuge is yet another priority, and there’s an endless amount of trash to collect. Immigrants navigating the washes at night are responsible for most of the litter, which includes bottles, backpacks and clothing. That said, campsites are regularly spoiled with dirty toilet paper and garbage that’s left behind by careless campers.
In addition to that long list of challenges, the captive-bred masked bobwhites need care before they’re released, and there’s always a need for visitor education.
Barbara Alpher was the first volunteer I shadowed,
and while she enjoys the outdoors, history is her passion. She’s an avid reader and loves giving interpretive talks, so she’s well suited for her position at the visitors center desk. Barbara has been living on the road in an Airstream trailer for the past eight years, jumping from one volunteer gig to the next.
Bruce and Nyla Johnson are volunteers, too. They’ve made the trek from Montana for the past three winters, and they usually park their RV in the refuge for six months at a time. From building flight pens to feeding the captive-bred quail in the release program, the couple have been involved in almost every aspect of the birds’ lives. They also assist with trail construction, vegetation relocation and water catchment maintenance. Jess and Susy Bevans have followed the same path, and they’ve become good friends with the Johnsons.
I tagged along with the four snowbirds one morning when they were working in the visitors center garden. Later, I followed Jess and Susy as they cleaned up campsites and put up Fish and Wildlife Service signage. Afterward, they took me to see a nearby Pima pineapple cactus, an endangered, endemic plant that produces a beautiful yellow blossom in late spring. I felt like I was being given an intimate tour of their backyard. In a way, I suppose I was.
I also spent two days with Mark and Lorry McConnell, a couple from the Pacific Northwest who were balancing volunteer work, road trips and time at home. While bushwhacking through a sandy wash and filling our trash bags, Lorry, who was about 20 feet ahead, motioned for me to approach slowly and quietly. A massive antelope jackrabbit was sitting frozen in the bushes, staring right at us. These hares are much larger than their black-tailed cousins, and I’d never seen one up close. Mark and Lorry also took me on a hike to see a group of long-eared owls.
I’ve learned to appreciate the fleeting, unexpected moments in nature. They’re so much better than the well-worn paths in crowded national parks. A rare late-season snowstorm that dusted the surrounding mountains was another surprise. And so was a conversation with a group of volunteers who led me to the couple
I’d met back in October.
On my last day at the refuge, I finally reconnected with Jim and Linda Niehaus. They were in the carpentry building, putting together flight pens for the quail. When I jumped out of my truck, we immediately recognized one another. Like me, Linda learned about the refuge while looking at a map. That led the full-time RV dwellers to plan an entire Arizona adventure around a volunteer gig. Although they’re nature lovers who take pride in giving back to our public lands, Jim is quick to point out that meeting like-minded people is another perk of their nomadic lifestyle. “And not just the other volunteers,” he says, “but the visitors, too.”
This time, when we said goodbye, we exchanged phone numbers.
When I first started researching Buenos Aires
National Wildlife Refuge, I was intrigued by the prospect of photographing wildlife and a new landscape. I never would have expected I’d become a volunteer. But then I met Jim and Linda. That chance encounter made me realize that the people we meet are just as important as the places we visit, and it completely shaped my connection to this land. I’m hoping to return this fall to assist with trash pickup and other tasks. If I make it, it will be my fourth trip in the past year. Now, every time I drive in, it feels like home. And every time I leave, I feel a pang of guilt.
As I drove away on my last trip, I spotted a lone vermilion flycatcher zipping around a large mesquite tree by the road. Like a little ocotillo bloom with wings, the vibrant red bird commanded my attention before finally perching on a branch as I passed by. I instinctively waved. “Come back soon,” he seemed to say. “We’ll be waiting for you.”