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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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We camped a few more nights, often sitting around the fire and talking. Annerino was adamant about one thing: "The border is the border, and that's where you stop people, before they die in the desert. Now they're apprehending migrants way up here and at Interstate 8," he said. "So you can say the border now extends at least 60 miles (97 kilometers) into the U.S." Annerino doesn't have anything against Mexicans. To the contrary, he has traveled and shot photographs throughout Mexico for the past 20 years and has developed a deep fondness for the people and the culture. This was his point: He didn't want to have to search for dead bodies anymore. Not again. Not ever. Stop them at the border.

Di Rosa had similar ideas. Arizona's governor had already declared the border counties in a state of emergency, but Di Rosa thought the federal government needed to hire more Border Patrol agents, build a fence along the Cabeza's border like the one at Organ Pipe, have more remote sensing devices, more helicopters, and any new technology that could help. (By press time, much of this had been addressed with the passage of Senate Bill 2611, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006.) He also thought there should be a guest-worker plan of some kind so that honest people could come safely to America for employment. But as for the rest—criminals, drug runners, clueless migrants—stop them at the border.

If that happened, Di Rosa could attend to wilderness issues and the Cabeza could begin to revert to the desert Ed Abbey knew and loved.
 
On our last night out, Annerino and I were back on the Devil's Highway and driving northwest in full dark toward the Tinajas Altas. Only a sliver of moon hung in the sky. There were mountains to our left, west of the road, and we turned off onto the best of many tiny tracks. Presently, I looked out my window and saw what seemed to be a rock wall.

"Is this right?" I asked.

Annerino poked a flashlight out his window. There was another wall on his side. We were in a deep canyon.

"Ah, hell," Annerino said, "we're in Smuggler's Pass." The low route through the mountains was marked Tinajas Altas Pass on the map, but everyone—migrants, drug runners, border patrolmen—called it Smuggler's Pass. Mexico was only a few miles (about 5 kilometers) away, and this was the easiest way through the mountains.

"We gotta get out of here, now," Annerino said.

I made sure I was still in four-wheel drive and took the first turn to the south. It dropped us into a sloping sandy wash. The car slid toward a row of ironwood trees, and I had no traction. It was like driving through deep, powdery snow on a gentle slope, and I knew that if I stopped, I'd bury the truck up to the axles. Steady pressure on the gas. About a hundred yards later, I pulled up on a hard-packed gravel bank.

Annerino got out with two flashlights and scouted ahead. This was not a good thing: Here we were, stuck on Smuggler's Pass, on a nearly moonless Friday night. If you wanted to fire up the black Cherokee and run drugs over the pass, this was the time to do it. I felt the chances of meeting malefactors of one sort or another were exceedingly high.

Annerino came back a few minutes later. "It doesn't go," he said. "Man, this feels real ambushy."

We sat in silence. "Look," I said finally, "maybe I can back it up." Trees lined the pass, and I needed to be able to see the hole we'd come through. I asked Annerino to go stand at the exit of the wash and shine his two flashlights at me. When he was in position, I got up some speed on the gravel, then hit the sand and felt my truck sliding down the slope, toward some ironwood trees, one of which caught the bug deflector on the hood and ripped it off. Somehow I managed to come screaming out of the wash just as Annerino jumped out of my way. We were back on the road.

Annerino directed me down a rat's maze of rough tracks until he was satisfied that we were well out of the path of any smugglers, and that's where we camped.

"Where are we?" I asked.

"Mesa de los Muertos," he said.

"Damn good thing we got off of Smuggler's Pass," I said. "A guy feels real secure here on the Mesa of the Dead."

"Actually," Annerino said, "it's Mesita de los Muertos."

"Great. The Little Mesa of the Dead. That makes me feel a lot better. Wouldn't want to camp alone on a great big mesa of death."

"We'll be all right," Annerino said.

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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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