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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   Photograph by John Annerino
Photo: Driving through cactuses
ON THE DEVIL'S HIGHWAY: Tim Cahill drives through a grove of hundred-year-old saguaro cactuses.

I wrote my initials beside item one, which said that I understood that the area I wished to visit "contains the danger of property damage and permanent, painful, disabling, and disfiguring injury or death due to high explosive detonations from falling objects such as aircraft, aerial targets, live ammunition, missiles, bombs, etc."


That was only the first item I needed to initial. There were 11 more.  It seemed I could die from falling into "old mine shafts and other openings or weaknesses in the earth, as well as other natural and/or man-made conditions which are too numerous to recite herein." I was to understand that there are "few road signs or other navigational aids to assist visitors," that the area "occupies one of the most extreme environments in North America," that
a large portion "contains no

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sources of safe
drinking water," and that it is the home of
unnamed "venomous reptiles."

This document is the Hold Harmless Agreement
one signs to legally visit Cabeza Prieta National
Wildlife Refuge, in southwestern Arizona. The
refuge, the third largest in the lower 48, is an
entirely unpopulated, Rhode Island-size sea of
cactuses and sand. Ninety-two percent of its
860,010 acres (34,804 hectares) were declared
wilderness in 1990, and its southern edge is a
56-mile (90-kilometer) boundary with Mexico. On my map there are seven mountain ranges but only two roads, both of them unpaved. The one that most visitors drive is El Camino del Diablo, or the Devil's Highway.

The agreement did not mention other morbid, even ghoulish, possibilities, such as stumbling over dead bodies, witnessing ongoing gun battles between Border Patrol agents and drug smugglers, being run down in the night by a drug-laden vehicle speeding overland with no lights, or having my own vehicle—including all of my water—stolen while I was off hiking.

Read any encyclopedia description of the Cabeza and you'll run across words like "pristine" and "lonely"; you'll read of looming saguaro cactuses, of the rare and endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope, of desert bighorn sheep, of kit foxes and coyotes and cholla fruit cactuses, of the six varieties of rattlesnake that live within the refuge, of javelinas and ringtail cats, of quail and warblers, of red-tailed hawks, and of owls that nest in holes bored into giant saguaros. You'll read that the winter rains combined with the thunderstorms of the summer monsoon provide enough water that the Sonoran Desert, of which the Cabeza is a part, shelters a greater diversity of plant and animal life than any other desert in North America.

What you won't read is that Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is America's most troubled wilderness area.

I didn't know anything about these troubles. All I knew was that the Cabeza was one of writer and protoenvironmentalist Edward Abbey's favorite places. Rumor has it that he is buried somewhere out in these sands—no cemetery for Cactus Ed—maybe in some deep valley that's alive with cactus flowers blooming in the shadow of a knife-edged mountain range. Where, exactly, wasn't important to me. I prefer to let him rest in peace, wherever he lies.

No, I wanted to see the Cabeza because Abbey, who is one of my literary heroes, loved it: He found inspiration there, and now, I hope, he has found an everlasting harmony with this harsh land.

So I was driving to the wildlife refuge offices, in Ajo, Arizona, to sign my life away for permission to enter the Cabeza. Photographer John Annerino was sitting by my side as we passed through the Tohono O'odham (formerly called Papago) Indian Reservation, a swath of tribal land that abuts the refuge. It was at that point we saw two young men walking along the road. "Ah, those guys," Annerino said. "They're migrants. Just came out of the desert."

The two guys weren't carrying water jugs, and their clothes were clean. We pulled up beside them. They appeared to be in their 20s and seemed almost natty. Each wore a crisp Western shirt, a Windbreaker, freshly washed jeans, and nearly new running shoes. They did not look like two fellows who'd just walked across 60 miles (97 kilometers) of barren desert.

A conversation ensued, conducted entirely in Spanish. The men were from Hermosillo, Mexico, and had crossed the border a few days earlier. Annerino gave them water, a box of crackers, some cheese, and a ziplock bag of turkey left over from Thanksgiving.

The men asked if we could give them a ride, and Annerino apologized. It was illegal for us to do that. We could be arrested.

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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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