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Border Patrol in America's Most Dangerous WIlderness
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Border Patrol: Along the Devil's Highway

Arizona's Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge used to be a pristine desert. Now it's the front line in America's immigration battle, rife with garbage, drug runners, and illegal aliens. Welcome to the nation's most troubled wilderness.

Text by Tim Cahill  

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But we didn't go directly to the Cabeza. Annerino wanted me to see several intriguing sights in Mexico first. We puttered along parallel to the border for a time on Mexico's Federal Route 2. There was a Normandy-style metal fence—newly installed crossbars of iron set in cement—that would prevent cars from entering Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument but would not prevent foot and animal traffic.

We drove a bit farther west, to the border of the Cabeza. There was no vehicle barrier and, for the most part, not even a barbed wire fence. Di Rosa had told us that he had put up warning signs along the border, but they were nowhere to be seen.

The signs said, in Spanish: "Don't put your life in danger. There is no water, distances are very long, the area is very hot and dry, there is no rescue." They also illustrated that the usual destination, U.S. Interstate 8, is a hundred kilometers (62 miles) away, by the shortest possible path.

"The coyotes," Di Rosa had said, "tell their clients it's a short walk, a day or so. They take down my signs."

I took a step toward America, then another. To the east, on the sand road in the U.S., there was a sudden haze of dust, as from a speeding vehicle. I wondered if I had tripped some invisible sensor. Through my binoculars I could see that it was indeed a white vehicle with a green stripe—Border Patrol—but the truck was not responding to some high-tech alarm. Instead it was dragging tires behind it, smoothing out the sand so that patrol agents would be able to see where UDAs had crossed. That, as far as I could see, was it for national security on the southern border of Cabeza Prieta: a drag road.
The Devil's Highway is a soft, sandy affair, another drag road paralleling the border, and is normally approached by visitors from the refuge offices in Ajo. Two miles (3 kilometers) past the Cabeza Prieta boundary, at San Cristobal Wash, a dry river bottom, Annerino called for a stop and we went scouting around. There, under the sheltering branches of a few wash-side trees, paloverde and desert ironwood, we found a dozen one-gallon (4-quart) water jugs, each full and unopened. All were spray-painted black.

"The jugs are painted black so they don't shine in the sun or under the moon" Annerino explained. "Black jugs are a sign of drug mules. This is a [drug] backpacker water resupply." I looked around at the little oasis of trees that hemmed in my vision. "So maybe someone is coming for this water," I suggested.

"It'd be a good idea to get out of here," Annerino agreed.

We drove on to join the Devil's Highway proper, and there we passed through a grove of giant saguaros, each 40 feet (12 meters) tall at a guess and each with many arms. Hiding in their shade was another abandoned black Jeep Grand Cherokee, which must be one of the most commonly stolen models in Tucson. Drug runners want black vehicles for the same reason drug backpackers carry black water jugs. The Cherokee had, of course, been beaten to death with a tire iron. ¡Pinche cabron!

 The sight was nothing new to Annerino. In addition to making his border crossing with UDAs, he walked the Devil's Highway in 1988.

"You walked it in the winter?" I asked.


"You had vehicle support?"



He had his reasons. A few decades ago, Annerino had been an avid rock climber, but a bad fall put an end to all that. He still walks with a bit of a limp. But he is an experiential historian with a passion for the routes taken by conquistadores and Indians, by gold seekers and priests. He began running on his bad leg, running until he could go for hours in any temperature. He ran ancient Indian trails and walked the Devil's Highway, and these treks were a form of physical and spiritual therapy.

About four miles (6 kilometers) after the black Cherokee, we came to one of the grisly attractions along the Devil's Highway: O'Neill Grave is a mound of rocks capped with a rusty metal cross. At the top of the upright crossbar, someone has placed a white Styrofoam ball with a tiny cowboy hat on it. The ball has a big smile painted on it and looks like the jolly round face that rolls back prices at Wal-Mart. The memorial honors an old prospector who, the story goes, is the only man to die of drowning in the Cabeza. Searching for lost burros, he dropped from exhaustion and drowned with his head in a mud hole.

That first night we camped at O'Neill Pass, just beyond the grave. Refuge regulations say that you cannot park a vehicle more than 50 feet (15 meters) off the road and that you must use existing pull-outs, of which there are many. Annerino's advice made sense: Back into the parking area so you have a clear run at the road. Don't bother to set up a tent; the snakes and scorpions weren't going to be out on a 40-degree (4-degree Celsius) night. Sleep on your pad on the U.S. side of the truck. We were only four miles (6 kilometers) or so from Mexico, it was a moonless night, and the black Cherokees would be running, probably with their lights off. We wanted to use my truck as a shield. Otherwise, we might end up as speed bumps on some drug smuggler's run to Interstate 8.

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Cover: Adventure magazine

Pick up our August 2006 issue for America's best hikes and drives, including 11 undiscovered trails and four energy-smart road trips; Africa's top safaris; and a border odyssey along the Devil's Highway, by writer Tim Cahill.

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