My first goal this trip was to reach the tiny town of Portal in extreme southeastern Arizona. You have to approach the town from New Mexico and only just before you get there do you cross into Arizona.

Portal is at 5200 feet elevation. It sits at the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon, which in my estimation is a little Yosemite, but with luminescent colors the more famous park lacks, namely the salmon pink cliffs encrusted with lime green lichens. Yesterday, snow encrusted the cliffs as well. In the left foreground is a sycamore tree.

The scale of the cliff is difficult to judge in person, much less in a photograph. To give you an idea, those are oak trees at the base of the cliff.

I was unable to drive farther into the canyon as the road was washed out by a flood on September 21. About 10 years ago, I drove the entire 36 mile road up to 10,000 feet. It was gravel and unmaintained. As I descended into Cave Creek Canyon for the first time, I found myself wondering why the canyon wasn't considered one of the natural wonders of the world. It was so silent, so imposing, so fantastic...in the "fantasy" sense of the word.

I wrote a column about Portal. It actually increased their tourism from Minnesota for a while. The world was about to discover Cave Creek Canyon. New houses and businesses were built across the vast bajada (sloping plain) to the east. 

Then the Mexican drug cartels started battling over the area. Which cartel would use the corridor for sending mules (drug smugglers on foot) through the mountains in hopes of getting to Phoenix? One rancher was murdered. Crime ran high. Real estate prices plummetted. When I was there yesterday, I was the only guest in the motel. The place is run down. It seems like half of the homes are empty, some of them quite beautiful. An events center, which looks to be only five years old, is abandoned. So is a gas station which is less than ten years old. Very sad. 

No breakfast (or gas) in Portal, at least until the grocery opens at nine. So I drove to Rodeo, a town seven miles away, and joined the old timers at the cafe. Their parting words to each other as they left for their ranches one by one?

"Be careful!"

Some people down by the border leave food out for the drug smugglers in order to purchase their own safety. Some do it out of humanitarian concern for people who are treated as expendable by their bosses, the drug lords. 

I suspect the practice of leaving out food wouldn't go over real well with the ranchers I saw at breakfast.