We returned to rural Arizona for our American Futures project this spring. During our travels, we have visited a number of towns that could easily be called rural: Eastport, Maine (pop. 1,300), far down-east and a mile across the strait from Campobello Island, and Chester, Montana (pop. 850), 40 miles from Canada, vie for being the smallest.
Ajo, Arizona, one of our favorite towns, is slightly bigger. About 2,300 people live there throughout the year, and the numbers swell to almost twice that when the snowbirds arrive from the states that border Canada. Many winter residents arrive in their RVs or campers, and others settle into charming stand-alone small houses. By snowbird standards, Ajo is very affordable.
Ajo is about a two-hour drive south of Phoenix, a two-and-a-half-hour drive west of Tucson, and just about 40 miles north of Mexico. It is surrounded by federal lands. The reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation lies to the east of Ajo; it is home to 30,000 residents and is the size of Connecticut. The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a vast park to the south and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is to the west. The 40-mile drive north to the closest town of Gila Bend through sparse desert, with hill and mountain views in the distance, is considered just a hop up the road.
This is beautiful country, and it is remote. To put it in our city-folk terms: While in Ajo, we had no cell coverage and the nearest car rental I could find was in Phoenix.
I wanted to get an idea of what rural health care means in a town like Ajo, so I visited the Desert Senita Community Health Center, which serves Ajo’s residents. The center (pictured above) is located in the buildings of the former dormitory for single men who worked at Ajo’s New Cornelia copper mine. The mine made Ajo into a thriving company town during the 20th century. That high-wage, steady-job era lasted until the mine shut down in 1985. There was a hospital back in the mine’s heyday, which stands vacant now just uphill from the downtown plaza. We heard a rumor that someone may buy it.
Today, the nearest hospital to Ajo is about 100 miles away to the northeast, in the town of Casa Grande. This is a consideration for Ajo’s elderly. You wouldn’t move to Ajo if you anticipated the need for regular, quick, serious medical care beyond what the clinic can offer. (There is a hospital a little closer, in Sells, about 70 miles from Ajo, on the Tohono O’odham reservation; however, it is designated for tribal members, although it does receive non-tribal patients in emergencies.) With critical cases, Ajo’s ambulance service heads for Gila Bend, radioing ahead for a medevac helicopter to meet them there. (We landed our plane at Gila Bend rather than flying on to Ajo on our first trip because of the extreme flight restrictions for the A10 practice routes inside the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range, which occupies the airspace between Gila Bend and Ajo.)
* * *