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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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Dawn. Legally we had to park about half a mile (about a kilometer) from the Tinajas Altas and choose one of the faint trails across the Little Mesa of the Dead toward the water. As we walked, we saw some ancient footpaths, almost smooth with desert varnish.

"Papago," I guessed.

"Or Hohokam," Annerino said. The Hohokam, a historic tribe that lived near what is now Phoenix, used to pass this way on annual shell-collecting pilgrimages to the Sea of Cortez. They flourished from about a.d. 300 to 1400, then mysteriously vanished.

There were a number of graves on the Little Mesa of the Dead that I guessed dated from the 1850s or '60s. In Southwestern fashion, there were no upright monuments, only stones arranged on the ground, usually in a neat circle with a cross in the middle. The graves were, in some cases, less than a quarter mile (under a kilometer) from water.

We found the water hole deep in a shaded granite canyon. It was about 15 feet (5 meters) long, much less than half that wide, and shaped like a skull with a narrow chin. The water was an unpleasant shade of green and swarmed with the usual bees. I used a walking stick to measure its depth, but it didn't strike bottom, so I can only say it was deeper than five feet (1.5-meters).

"So how come there's no evidence of migrants stopping here?" I asked.

"It's not necessary. We're only a couple of miles (about 3 kilometers) from Mexico. They already have water."

Annerino climbed up to look at a few of the higher tinajas—there are eight more, he claims, stacked one above the other up the canyon wall—and I followed him to the second. I sat by the pool, in the shade, watching birds wing in for a sip of water. The narrow canyon was alive with green agave plants, with mesquite trees and creosote and the lovely green-barked paloverde trees. It must have been 90 or 95 degrees (32 degrees Celsius or 35 degrees Celsius) in the sun, but it felt 10 degrees (5 to 6 degrees Celsius) cooler here. Sure, I thought, it was possible: You could learn to love this desert.
The Mohawk Rest Area, on Interstate 8, is just that: a place to pull off, use the restroom, then buy a soda or some potato chips. When we stopped in on our way back to Tucson, the Devil's Highway behind us, it looked like any other Arizona highway rest stop. Out behind there was only a flat creosote desert, except for one scraggly tree.

That's where we went. Scattered about the tree were dozens of empty white one-gallon (4-quart) water jugs, along with migrants' desert clothes, ripped, smelling of creosote, and discarded. We saw several small backpacks, like the ones in which children carry their books to school. Annerino explained that the migrants cleaned up here. They washed if they could, applied deodorant (which we found) and brushed their teeth. They then came through the roadside fence and caught rides with the people waiting for them at the rest stop.

"So those guys we saw on our way to the Cabeza had already changed shoes and clothes," I said. "That was why they were so clean."

"Yeah," Annerino said, "but did you notice their hands when I gave them food and water? Like claws. You carry a gallon (4 quart) jug of water in each hand for 60 miles (97-kilometers) and I guarantee your hands will be cramped up for days."

Farther on, at another rest stop to the east, we found much the same; but, in the lava rocks behind the rest stop buildings, people had taken the trouble to arrange the larger stones into distinct patterns. One was clearly a broken heart. Another was more difficult to figure out. It said, in English, "OK KID. E.V." and was dated "05."

Annerino and I puzzled over that one for a time. I thought the v was really an attempt to make a u. Then it might stand for Estados Unidos, the United States. The only problem was "U.S.A." is usually abbreviated in Latin America with double letters: "E.E.U.U."

A week or so after our trip, I spoke with Annerino on the phone. "You remember that rock arrangement?" he asked. "The one with the 'E.V.' in it?"


"I think I know what it means. E.V.: Estamos vivos. We are alive. We survived."

It seemed a good enough epitaph for our trip. We survived. So did the guys whose tracks we found at the Game Tanks. But the Cabeza Prieta—a desert Ed Abbey loved enough, if you believe the stories, that he chose to be buried there—was in serious trouble. Whether it would survive was an open question. 

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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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