The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, near the town of Patagonia, Arizona (population 793), is flush with unusual wildlife. A raptor swoops down and scares a pack of javelinas into a stretch of rare riparian cottonwood-and-willow forest. Gila woodpeckers, curve-billed thrashers, and red-naped sapsackers swoop over a clear blue creek that threads through the arid landscape. A desert mule deer bolts past a Santa Cruz striped agave—a plant rarely seen in Arizona. A peregrine falcon soars overhead. And then another bird of sorts scares it off: a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter, thwacking loudly as it flies low across the sky.
I had come to see rare wildlife in several obscure nature reserves near the Mexican border, but found myself immersed in a human drama. “The locals call that area ‘Wetback Alley,’” said a guest at the Spirit Tree Inn, outside Patagonia, the 52-acre homestead/bed-and-breakfast where I was staying. “Stay off the immigrant trails,” he advised me. “They fan out in all directions.”
“Bob,” a tall, matter-of-fact longtime resident of Patagonia, who asked that I not use his real name, told me that a group of California Minutemen—vigilantes opposed to illegal immigration—had entered Patagonia not too long ago. “Out of Deliverance. Like the worst kind of hillbillies,” he said. “They carried flags with pictures of cannons and the words Try to Take It.”
Then the Minutemen descended upon the Spirit Tree. They accosted two silver-haired ladies walking a spiritual labyrinth in the pasture and asked for their papers. Red state or not, this was artsy Patagonia, and harassing elderly tourists crossed a line. “The Minutemen realized they were unpopular,” Bob said, and they were armed and on private property, so they were asked to leave. “They broke camp and headed toward Amado.”
The next day, I hiked a Patagonia Lake State Park streambed, hoping to see a white-breasted nuthatch. I took what I thought was an official trail, but soon came across a clearing scattered with abandoned clothes and garbage. I scanned the desert. If people were out there, they were well hidden.
“They can get aggressive, especially when asking for food,” Bob said that night. “Border Patrol told us to report them if they demand food—I’ve called twice—but if they ask for water, they said: ‘Give it to them, and send them on their way.’”
“Why would they say that?” I asked.
“Because they know they can’t stop this,” he said, exasperated, gesturing out into an infinity of saguaro. “The immigrants cut the chain-link fence, or go under it. And anyway, how are you going to deny someone water?” A humanitarian group called Humane Borders had set up water stations in the area. But Minutemen had evidently been destroying them.
The following afternoon, I stopped along a trail through the vast grasslands several miles east of the Spirit Tree. The natural beauty was arresting. I pulled Emerson’s “Nature” out of my backpack and began to read. But then I heard a Border Patrol jeep; it rolled to the crest of a hill a short distance away. My transcendental trance now broken, I looked at it through my binoculars. A patrolman stared back through his. We locked binoculars until it became uncomfortable, so I lowered mine and retreated.
I began to notice Border Patrol jeeps everywhere. Then more helicopters, and a tethered surveillance blimp. Meanwhile, Mexican drug lords across in Nogales use ultralights to fly in coke and pot.
“We found two marijuana drops on the Spirit Tree property,” Bob told me. “One was 70 pounds! I called the sheriff and said, ‘Come quick, or we’re having one heck of a party.’ By the time the sheriff got here, the cattle had grazed holes in the marijuana bricks. Those were some happy cows.”
As night fell, I started thinking about the crepuscular bobcats in the preserve, stalking cottontails and pack rats amid the velvet mesquite and netleaf hackberry. Another guest interrupted my thoughts: “The immigrants,” he said slowly, “they wear black and move camouflaged by night.”
“You know, I feel for them,” Bob said earnestly. “They just want to make money to feed their families. We need to give them seasonal work visas.” They help the U.S. economy, he said, by laboring on Arizona farms each summer, before sneaking south through the maze of trails.
I decided to brave the night, following an arroyo for an hour, then two. The Spirit Tree’s lights had vanished, and it was completely dark. Immigration used to feel abstract to me, but not anymore. I could feel its Darwinian tinge in my nerves.
A stick cracked loudly in the distance, and I froze. Then, a rustle of branches, as life stole through the Arizona night.