Montezuma’s Peak – High above the Arizona Mexico border

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King Montezuma
King Montezuma

“Montezuma’s Revenge” is slang for diarrhea suffered by travelers to a foreign country, when the local food does not agree with their digestion. Who was Montezuma? Why should he wish to take revenge and upon whom?  Montezuma was a 16th century Aztec emperor who ruled Mexico.  He presumably wished to take revenge on the invading Spanish, because he had a very understandable reluctance to being enslaved by them. I was reminded of Montezuma, when we visited a mountainous region of south eastern Arizona on the Mexican border in February 2011.  The Montezuma Peak there rises to a height of over 7500 feet. The nearby Montezuma Pass, at a height of 6500 feet, allows one to pass through the Eastern Huachuca mountains.  Pat and I did not stand atop the Peak, but we did manage to reach the height of the Pass and to look down upon the superb panorama which is to be seen from that level.

Coronado leading his expedition
Coronado leading his expedition

In 1540, a Spaniard by the name of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado rode at the head of his large column of soldiers, clergy and slaves as it moved north from Mexico into what is today the United States.  The column passed through the Montezuma Pass in its search for gold.  Coronado thereby became Arizona’s first illegal immigrant.  I can relate to Coronado because I too am  an immigrant from Europe into the United States, even though I arrived at Miami Airport rather than coming over the mountains on horseback. Coronado and I have even more in common.  We both wanted to become wealthy in the New World, yet we both failed in that quest.  Coronado failed in his search for gold, which must have pleased Montezuma. However, the failure of the Coronado expedition did not please the Spanish Viceroy of Mexico, who described the expedition as an “abject failure”.  Coronado was demoted and made to pay the costs of the expedition.  This bankrupted him and he died at the age of 44.  Yet all this took place only half a century after Christopher Columbus had first landed in the Americas and many years before the English established their first settlements on the Atlantic seaboard.

As Pat and I looked down, from the dizzy height of the Montezuma Pass onto the territory on both sides on the border, we saw that a straight black line had been drawn across the desert.  It disappeared into the far distance. We were looking at the famous border fence between the US and Mexico.  This thin line divides a people with an average annual income of $4000 from a people with an average annual income of $30,000.  This is no place to dwell upon the politics of immigration, but I know of nowhere else in the world where such great income disparities exist side by side.  Where else do the first world and the third world look at each other over a fence?

There is huge irony in Coronado’s failure to find wealth because, unbeknown to him, his invading column was plodding over some of the richest mineral deposits in the world.  These minerals were identified in 1880 and efforts to mine them were centered on the town of Bisbee, Arizona, which is only 30 miles east of the Montezuma Pass.  The mines in Bisbee have since produced three million ounces of gold and eight billion pounds of copper, not to mention plenty of silver, lead and zinc.

Tombstone Consolidated Mines Company
Tombstone Consolidated Mines Company

Elsewhere on this website, I have written about Tombstone, Arizona, because its Wild West atmosphere is fun.  Yet the mining production of Tombstone was a drop in the ocean compared to Bisbee. The Tombstone mine only lasted for ten years until it flooded in about 1890.  Bisbee’s mines remained in production until the mid-1970s and the town has since evolved into an attractive artist’s colony, with an abundance of bookshops, art galleries, antique stores and agreeable restaurants.  Bisbee today is not trying to be part of the old Wild West. It leaves that to Tombstone. This is just as well because most of Bisbee was destroyed in 1908 by a large fire.  The town quickly rebuilt itself and the buildings of Bisbee that we see today remain much as they were when newly built in 1910. Bisbee sits in the mountains at an elevation of 5700 feet and is closely surrounded by steep hills up which its buildings climb.  Houses are perched precariously on every hillside.  It is said that, while remaining seated on their own front porches, many residents can spit down their neighbors’ chimneys. The hills are that steep!

During our visit to Bisbee, we looked down into the Lavender Pit, which appears to be a manmade version of the Grand Canyon in miniature on the edge of town. It is 900 feet deep and covers 300 acres. The story of its creation is a tribute to American ingenuity. The Lavender Pit operated from 1950 until 1974 and was named in honor of Harrison M Lavender, who ran the giant mining corporation, Phelps Dodge.  Lavender pioneered a way of extracting copper ore in commercial quantities from rock left over from earlier mining operations. His initiative transformed mere debris from the Sacramento Hill mine, which had earlier operated where the Lavender Pit stands today, into 600 tons of additional copper with gold and silver as byproducts. Incidentally, the Phelps Dodge Corporation was taken over in 2007 at a price of 25.9 billion US dollars. Therefore it looks as if somebody believes that a lot of wealth still remains to be taken from these mountains.  So Coronado really missed his opportunity and, as for me, the full and happy life that I have enjoyed during my years in the United States amply compensates for any wealth that may have passed me by.