Tucked in out-of-the-way areas of the southern AZ desert are hidden gems. Those who traveled West in the 1800s knew this, as this is where gold, silver, and copper mining proliferated. But the gems these days are the sweet towns left behind as various mining operations shut down or moved away.
Ajo (pronounced Ah-ho), is in the middle southern portion of the state, about 40 miles from the border of Mexico. It started as a mining town in 1847 and became the first copper mining town in the 1880s. Mine operations came and went for a few decades but started booming in the early 1900s through 1984 in Ajo. Its heydays were during the 60s and 70s, with a population of 5000, school class sizes around 150, onsite hospital and stores at the mining operation, union workers – the works.
We were fortunate to meet several natives of Ajo when we boondocked for two nights in the parking lot of the Elks Lodge. We were wondering why a remote, small town would have an Elks Lodge, along with several other civic organizations. I mean, in southern Arizona, we drove to the middle of nowhere, took a right, and kept driving into the vast expanse of desert for a long while before arriving in Ajo.
It had been a while since we were in the company of several wonderful people. Most Elks lodges across the country have had little activity or were closed because of covid. However, we landed in Ajo on a Friday afternoon, and the lodge was open for a few hours that evening. We went in and were happy to see the stools spaced well apart around the bar. And they quickly filled.
Out of the 8 or so others who were there, 6 of them were born and raised in Ajo. When the union and the mining company could not come to terms in 1983 and the mine was shut down in 1984, many of these people moved away to seek work in Phoenix or Yuma or other parts. But as they approached retirement, their hearts found their way back to Ajo.
One worked for the border patrol for many years. Another was the president of the local school board (class size is now around 25). Another lady owns a local RV park, the laundromat, an appliance store, and a Radio Shack (no lie! We saw the Radio Shack sign!). There was a map on the wall with pins placed from other Elks members around the states. We’ve asked our Raleigh lodge to send one to them.
The population of Ajo is now around 1200. The mine is chain-link fenced in but can be seen by tourists driving around. The downtown area is cute but empty. Most of the traffic on the main road is from border wall construction. And I did not get a chance to take a picture of the colorful, single-story buildings that caught our attention when we first drove into Ajo—all selling needed car insurance to travel in Mexico.
We were invited to meet a couple of the ladies at the local donut shop the next morning. A home-grown delight, with old coffee mugs and freshly made donuts and fritters. There was an interesting mural on the side of the building showing a picture from a movie filmed in the are some years ago.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Further down the road from Ajo, about 35 miles deeper into the Sonoran Desert right next to the border wall is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We took a pleasant scenic drive of some 21 miles around in the park learning about the different types of cactus. In the park is a mountainous region we traversed to some 4200 ft. with incredible views of Mexico and, of course, the border wall that was completed in the area. I never thought I’d lay claim to recognizing and calling by name the different types of cactus—and I know I have more to learn—but I can identify several varieties of cactus now. I can even correctly pronounce the toughest one—Saguaro (pronounced Sa-wore-oh).
Our stay in Ajo was brief but enjoyable (a bit wet … it rained one day), and we hope to visit again, if only for the camaraderie with these friendly folks.