National Geographic Adventure - Dream It. Plan It. Do It.

Border Patrol in America's Most Dangerous WIlderness
Web Favorites


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  

Continue reading on page 1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8   Next >>


The next morning we left O'Neill Pass and set out along the Devil's Highway, which was as smooth and untracked as a deserted beach. In one spot, people had crossed the drag and attempted to conceal their tracks by raking the sand with a branch. "Bad brush out," Annerino said. We stopped and saw several small prints. Four men, we thought, and two of the guys were wearing the same kind of shoes with a double row of chevrons down the soles. They were not drug backpackers, because the prints did not sink deep into the sand, as would the steps of men carrying 40-pound (18-kilogram) loads.

The four men who'd made the brush out weren't experts at this. "The guys I was with," Annerino told me, "could do a brush out that you really had to pay attention to find. They were so good they barely left any trail at all. Mostly they ate sardines and burritos, and they hid the cans under creosote bushes."

That got me thinking: According to a study conducted on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, each UDA leaves about eight pounds (4 kilograms) of garbage behind. It didn't sound like very much, until you started crunching the numbers. In 2005 in Arizona (and an 11 mile or 18 kilometer stretch in California), Border Patrol apprehended more than 500,000 people. At eight pounds apiece, that's four million pounds (1,814,369 kilograms) of garbage scattered across the desert, and no one knows how many more migrants got through. The impact can be horrific. At times, groups of up to a hundred UDAs have to sit near a highway for two or three days, waiting for coyotes to pick them up. The piles of waste can be so immense, and so toxic, that workers who clean it up have to wear hazmat (hazardous materials) suits.

At Tule Well we detoured off the Devil's Highway and followed a different road over Christmas Pass, where it turns north out of the Cabeza. We were moving toward the Gila River, cruising over the sand between two sets of mountain ranges. Overhead, a couple of jets boomed through the sound barrier, chasing each other across the sky.

To the northeast was a long, low ridge of sand called the Mohawk Dunes, and we went walking along the top of it.

"OK," Annerino said, "Those mountains to the east are the Mohawks. Now check the farthest one to the north." It stood alone, as if shunning the rest of the range. You couldn't miss it, once you knew where it was. "Migrants navigate off various mountains," Annerino explained, "and North Mohawk Peak is the final one. It'll take you right to the Mohawk Rest Area, on Interstate 8."

North Mohawk Peak was about 17 miles (27 kilometers) away. And from where we were standing you could make the walk—if you could find water at the Game Tanks.

"Here," Annerino said as we approached the water hole, "is where you're likely to find dead people. They've already come 40 or 50 miles (64 kilometers or 80 kilometers) across the desert. If they miss the Game Tanks, they're dead. They'll be scattered all around here—just over that drainage, or that one. Sometimes they walk right by. There was one guy just over the pass when I was doing my book, one to the east, one to the west." Reportedly another man had made it to the water but was so exhausted, he died before he could drink.

We crossed a rocky wash and came to the Game Tanks, which weren't natural features at all. The state and sportsmen—hunters, mainly—had donated money and labor to provide water for bighorn sheep. The tanks had been built into the ground and covered over with corrugated metal. There was a guzzler for the animals that was foul-looking and buzzing with bees, and a water faucet for the humans.

The idea of walking right by life-giving water troubled my mind. Thirst is a terrible way to die, and the story of Pablo Valencia is a case in point. The 40-year-old prospector had been lost near the Devil's Highway for eight days. Anthropologist W J McGee described Valencia's ordeal in his 1906 journal article "Desert Thirst as Disease." A man suffering thirst, he writes, will first experience the "cotton-mouth" sensation we've probably all felt at one time or another. Saliva becomes thick and foul-tasting, the tongue clings to the mouth. It gets worse: Headaches, hallucinations, and hearing loss are common. Finally, saliva ceases to flow at all. Speech is impossible.

Then come the "blood-sweats." The tongue bloats until it fills the mouth and projects out beyond the teeth. And then this gruesome detail: Tears of blood fall from eyeballs desiccated under cracked eyelids.

The final state, sometimes described as living death, is the one Valencia had entered when McGee found him crawling in the desert. "[H]is lips had disappeared as if amputated, leaving low edges of blackened tissue; his teeth and gums projected like those of a skinned animal, but the flesh was black and dry . . . his nose was withered and shrunken to half its length, the nostril-lining showing black."

Valencia was nursed back to a semblance of health, but McGee's description of his suffering brought to mind the thousands who've died in this desert in the past decade. I couldn't get the details out of my mind: tears of blood, for the love of God.       
Annerino and I looked around the tanks for a while and saw some new human prints in a sandy area near the faucet. Small running shoes. Four men. Two of them with a double row of chevrons down the soles.

"Those are the guys whose tracks we saw this morning near the brush out," I said.

"They made it," Annerino agreed. "They've got water, and it's only 15 miles (24 kilometers) to Interstate 8." He paused for a moment, then said, "Good for them."

 Continue reading on page 1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8   Next >>


E-mail a Friend

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.

Adventure Subscription Offer

Image: Map mapXchange
Free maps to
use with TOPO!

Photo: Kayaker Adventurer's Handbook
How to beach a kayak

Photo: Shoe Outdoor Gear Store
Buy the right gear right now