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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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The land along El Camino del Diablo, the Devil's Highway, is a true despoblado, technically an unpopulated area, but the nuances are more sinister. It may be, as my Hold Harmless Agreement would have it, a place where the dangers are "too numerous to recite herein." The highway leads from northwestern Mexico up into what used to be the Spanish colonies of California. It starts in Caborca, Sonora, and, if you want to take the shortest route to water, it ends near the present-day town of Wellton, Arizona, on the Gila River.

There is water for men and beasts along the way until you cross what is now the Mexican border, and then, for some 130 miles (209 kilometers), water is scarce, hidden, found only in tinajas, great water-holding indentations in the rock of certain canyons.

While one clan of the Tohono O'odham Indians did live in the area, there weren't many of them—150 by some accounts. The first European to describe the area was Captain Melchior Díaz, a member of Coronado's expedition, who, in 1540, led a group north to California. Díaz's death was also the first recorded on El Camino del Diablo. Somehow his horse ran over a lance he'd thrown at a dog and it ended up piercing Díaz through the stomach. This event set a certain tone for later calamities.

El Camino del Diablo had a sort of heyday from 1698 through 1702, when the toughest of all the European explorers, Jesuit Padre Eusebio Kino, mapped the region and traveled the route several times. But then it fell into disuse until 1848, when gold was discovered in California.

To the starry-eyed forty-niners coming out of West Texas and northern Mexico, El Camino del Diablo looked like a shortcut to riches, shaving a good 150 miles (241 kilometers) off the established trail from Tucson, Arizona, to California. Summer, it was said, was the time to go. Apache up north didn't raid this far south in the summer (you have to wonder why not), and the local Papago were said to be tolerant, if not precisely friendly.

Summer, in fact, is not a good time to go. Here, two to three gallons (8 to 12 quarts) of water a day are necessary to keep a walker from dying. The temperature regularly reaches 110 degrees (43 degrees Celsius) and the ground itself is 30 to 40 degrees (17 to 22 degrees Celsius) hotter. It is not a place to fall down, exhausted. People on the ground are literally roasted alive.

So starting about 1850 or so, hordes of people set out along the Devil's Highway. Just as it does today, the route passed two fervently hoped for tinajas—one in the Tule Mountains and another 18 miles (29 kilometers) farther on called the Tinajas Altas, arguably the most famous water hole in the West.

Raphael Pumpelly, a Harvard professor who crossed El Camino del Diablo on horseback in 1860, estimated that the dead at the water hole numbered 2,000 (after 18 miles in the heat many travelers died at the water's edge). It was around that time that the wagon road became known as the Devil's Highway. In 1853 the U.S. bought a large area of New Mexico and southern Arizona from Mexico (the Gadsden Purchase) to ensure safety for a railroad line to the Pacific. A member of the International Boundary Commission after later surveying the area, put the number of dead at Tinajas Altas at 400. Whatever the actual figure, the International Boundary Commission declared that the deaths at Tinajas Altas were "a record probably without parallel in North America."    
When the Southern Pacific Railroad reached Yuma, in 1877, El Camino del Diablo was all but abandoned. Death did not haunt the road again for more than a century. Then, in the late 1980s, it all started anew, and, presently, people die horribly in the desert nearly every week.

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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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