Border Patrol: Along the Devil’s Highway

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.

Map

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 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.

Pues—Well,” did we know where the Arizona town of Casa Grande was?

“About 50 miles,” Annerino said, “70, 80 kilometers,” and pointed northeast, out into a scrubby desert interspersed with a few ironwood and paloverde trees.

They looked out into the desert with hopeless eyes, and in a single moment I saw them give up their golden dreams. “Can you call La Migra?” one man asked, entirely defeated. Annerino tried to dial the Border Patrol on his cell phone but couldn’t get a signal. “Lo siento—I’m sorry,” he said.

The men from Hermosillo thanked us profusely, then went to sit beneath a tree on the side of the road. They didn’t lower themselves gracefully. Their legs gave out and they basically collapsed, exhausted. We left them there, waiting for the Border Patrol to come and send them home.

As we drove off, I asked Annerino, “So what’s the deal with the clean clothes?”

“You’ll see how it works soon enough,” he said.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Roger Di Rosa, manager of the Cabeza, is lean and fit, a man of military bearing with thinning salt-and-pepper hair: the kind of guy who runs every day, even in temperatures nearing a hundred degrees (38 degrees Celsius). Di Rosa wanted us to see what was happening to the wilderness, so he offered to take us out on one of the “administrative” roads that are closed to the public. He drove a big white Ford truck with special “high flotation” tires that handled sand better than ordinary tires. The refuge manager doesn’t want to get stuck in the desert. He’d have to call in for help, and he’d never hear the end of that one.

We traveled on the valley floor for a while. Ahead was a large metal tower, like the kind you build with an Erector set, topped with a solar-powered blinking light. We stopped so I could read the sign on the tower. In English, Spanish, and Tohono O’odham, it read: “If you need help, push the red button. Rescue personnel will arrive shortly to help you. Do not leave this area.”

We piled back into the truck and drove farther into the Cabeza, listening to Border Patrol chatter on the police radio. “We got a rescue beacon at 3413,” a voice said. It was the first of December and the temperature had dropped into the low 40s (4 degrees Celsius) the previous night. Undocumented aliens (UDAs) who cross the desert are seldom prepared for the cold. “Hypothermia,” Di Rosa guessed, then stopped to show us a saguaro cactus with a rectangular hole about the size of a VHS tape cut into it. “People think they can chew the pulp for moisture,” he said. “Actually, anyone who lives in the desert will tell you that saguaro is glutinous, bitter, and could make you sick.”

A few minutes later we reached a place Di Rosa was proud to show us. We circled around a small conical hill and looked down into a square mile (3 square kilometers) of fenced-off desert. This was the captive breeding area for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope. We were about a mile (2 kilometers) from the pen, which is as close as most people are allowed. Through the spotting scope, I could see the pronghorns; they were smaller and lighter in color than the ones I knew from my home in Montana. Di Rosa estimated that there were 75 Sonoran antelope in all of Arizona.

We returned to the truck and rose over Charlie Bell Pass, a rock-strewed joke of a road, then began our slow descent into the Growler Valley. I looked out over a desert that ran all the way to the horizon. It appeared bleak and devoid of life, but that’s hardly the case. “We have some 700 species of flora and fauna out here,” Di Rosa said. “It’s the richest desert in the world.”

At that moment a pair of jets, F-16s, swept over, flying pretty low to the deck. They rolled into a turn and headed north. The Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range was established as a bombing ground in 1941 and flanks the Cabeza to the north, northeast, and west. Pilots in mock dogfights no longer use live ammo, but they still have flyover rights to all of the Cabeza.

Di Rosa mentioned that this was his second stint working at the refuge. He’d also been here from 1978 to 1984.

“Did you know Ed Abbey?” I asked.

“Oh yes. We agreed to disagree.”

“About what?”

“I told him he had to have a permit or I’d ticket him. He said, ‘You have to find me first.'”

“Ever find him?”

“Never.”

“Was the Cabeza different back then?” I asked.

“Most beautiful place you could imagine. No illegal roads, no tracks, no garbage.”

“What happened?”

It was, Di Rosa said, the federal border policies that took effect in the late 1990s. The Border Patrol clamped down hard on illegal urban crossing points in Arizona, California, and Texas. Traffic in UDAs was funneled into the most remote areas of the Mexican border. That meant more and more people were crossing the deserts of Arizona, especially in the Cabeza and neighboring Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

In 2002 the traffic through the Cabeza just exploded, Di Rosa said. “And last spring, ‘coyotes’ [people who lead UDAs through the desert for a fee] were bringing groups as large as a hundred through here. If someone is weak or falters, they just leave them. So instead of working on habitat recovery, animal recovery, or maintaining the wilderness character of the refuge, we’ve become a de facto Border Patrol as well as a search and rescue group.” Di Rosa said that they have five or six deaths in the refuge every year. “But more get through the Cabeza and die up north, in the Goldwater Range.”

No More Deaths, a humanitarian group, puts the number of migrant fatalities in 2005 at 279 in the Tucson Border Patrol sector alone and says some 3,000 people have died crossing the border since 1998.

“And no one knows how many have died and haven’t been found,” Annerino said. He has experience to back him up on this.  In 1999 he published Dead in Their Tracks, a book about the deaths he was beginning to see in the Cabeza and nearby deserts. He’d made the crossing with several UDAs—he prefers the word “migrants”—and knew what it was like. He knew what routes to take and where to find the bodies, and he’d seen firsthand that dying of thirst is a ghastly way to perish.

In addition to the UDAs, the Cabeza is now a prime spot for drug runners. Those who walk marijuana across the border, called “backpackers,” carry 40-pound (18-kilogram) loads, and they usually travel in groups of 5 to 15. The smuggling can be very sophisticated: There are often resupply stations set up in the desert, filled with gallon (4-quart) jugs of water and covered over in camouflage netting. Spotters, some equipped with night-vision goggles, sit on the mountaintops and radio down to the smugglers that all is clear.

Other dope runners load up stolen vehicles with drugs and drive, hell-bent, through the desert to a safe house or a drop in the U.S. “There’ve been exchanges of gunfire here,” Di Rosa said. “Luckily, no one’s been hurt, but these guys have fully automatic weapons. AK-47s, Uzis, you name it. A Border Patrol helicopter was fired on last summer.”

We were making our way down the road to one of the few wells in the Cabeza: Charlie Bell Well. I could see it in the distance—a windmill to bring the water up into a huge tank and a high blue flag put up by a nonprofit group called Humane Borders to signal UDAs that there is water available. The tank had a faucet at the bottom, so anyone passing by could get good water on demand. The Border Patrol does not stake out the wells. “People crossing illegally don’t want to get caught,” Annerino explained. “So if the patrol was there, they’d avoid the wells, and then there’d be even more dead people out here. No one wants that.”

We stopped at the tank and Di Rosa showed me the “guzzler.” It was a separate cement pool set in the ground, full of dirty brown water, covered over in pond scum, and swarming with bees. The guzzler was for the bighorn sheep and the Sonoran pronghorn antelope.

It looked like people had been at the well very recently. There was some human waste and wrappers from a Mexican brand of socks. “You get those little needles in your socks,” Annerino said, “and you can’t get them out. These guys brought spare socks. What does that tell you?”

“I’d guess that they’d made the trip before. Came prepared.”

“See,” Annerino said, “garbage and tracks: They tell you a lot.”

Di Rosa was concerned about the condition of the road. As we drove on, it braided into half a dozen tracks that met and came apart where the sand was soft. Other roads, totally illegal, crossed the administrative road from the south. These weren’t just the work of a single car, they were sand highways. The Growler Valley looked like a four-wheel-drive recreational site.

“Worse every year,” Di Rosa said. “Welcome to the wilderness.” Then he broke into a high-pitched, humorless laugh; other men might have cursed. He drove for the next 10 or 15 minutes in a muted fury.

Breaking the silence, Di Rosa said, “Tim, if you see a body lying in the road, be careful. Don’t approach. It could be an ambush: people waiting in the wash. They will take your truck. Maybe not hurt you, but they’ll take your truck and your food and all your water and leave you out here.”

Now we were coming up on a sight that would soon become all too familiar: a black Jeep Grand Cherokee that appeared to be buried to its axles in the sand. We stopped to take a look. “These are all stolen,” Di Rosa said. It was a drug rig, with the backseats removed to accommodate the load. The Cherokee’s tires were shredded, and it had been driven on its rims until it simply sank into the sand. The vehicle itself, although almost new, was in bad condition. All the windows were broken, someone had pounded on the hood with a tire iron, and there were bullet holes in all the doors and the tailgate.

Every one of the dozen or more cars we eventually saw abandoned in the “wilderness” had been shot and beaten to death. You take all the trouble to steal what you think is a perfectly good car and then it punks out on you. Leaves you stranded in the middle of the desert with a load of dope you can’t possibly carry yourself. ¡Hijo de puta! Pow, pow, pow.

Di Rosa got us back to his office after dark. The Growler Valley was all but ruined, a graveyard for cars abandoned and abused, a labyrinth of off-road tracks, with garbage and human waste strewed everywhere.

“What are you guys going to do now?” Di Rosa asked.

“We’ll drive El Camino del Diablo,” Annerino said. “Camp along the way. Do a little hiking.”

“Be careful,” Di Rosa said.

But we didn’t go directly to the Cabeza. Annerino wanted me to see several intriguing sights in Mexico first. We puttered along parallel to the border for a time on Mexico’s Federal Route 2. There was a Normandy-style metal fence—newly installed crossbars of iron set in cement—that would prevent cars from entering Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument but would not prevent foot and animal traffic.

We drove a bit farther west, to the border of the Cabeza. There was no vehicle barrier and, for the most part, not even a barbed wire fence. Di Rosa had told us that he had put up warning signs along the border, but they were nowhere to be seen.

The signs said, in Spanish: “Don’t put your life in danger. There is no water, distances are very long, the area is very hot and dry, there is no rescue.” They also illustrated that the usual destination, U.S. Interstate 8, is a hundred kilometers (62 miles) away, by the shortest possible path.

“The coyotes,” Di Rosa had said, “tell their clients it’s a short walk, a day or so. They take down my signs.”

I took a step toward America, then another. To the east, on the sand road in the U.S., there was a sudden haze of dust, as from a speeding vehicle. I wondered if I had tripped some invisible sensor. Through my binoculars I could see that it was indeed a white vehicle with a green stripe—Border Patrol—but the truck was not responding to some high-tech alarm. Instead it was dragging tires behind it, smoothing out the sand so that patrol agents would be able to see where UDAs had crossed. That, as far as I could see, was it for national security on the southern border of Cabeza Prieta: a drag road.

The Devil’s Highway is a soft, sandy affair, another drag road paralleling the border, and is normally approached by visitors from the refuge offices in Ajo. Two miles (3 kilometers) past the Cabeza Prieta boundary, at San Cristobal Wash, a dry river bottom, Annerino called for a stop and we went scouting around. There, under the sheltering branches of a few wash-side trees, paloverde and desert ironwood, we found a dozen one-gallon (4-quart) water jugs, each full and unopened. All were spray-painted black.

“The jugs are painted black so they don’t shine in the sun or under the moon” Annerino explained. “Black jugs are a sign of drug mules. This is a [drug] backpacker water resupply.” I looked around at the little oasis of trees that hemmed in my vision. “So maybe someone is coming for this water,” I suggested.

“It’d be a good idea to get out of here,” Annerino agreed.

We drove on to join the Devil’s Highway proper, and there we passed through a grove of giant saguaros, each 40 feet (12 meters) tall at a guess and each with many arms. Hiding in their shade was another abandoned black Jeep Grand Cherokee, which must be one of the most commonly stolen models in Tucson. Drug runners want black vehicles for the same reason drug backpackers carry black water jugs. The Cherokee had, of course, been beaten to death with a tire iron. ¡Pinche cabron!

The sight was nothing new to Annerino. In addition to making his border crossing with UDAs, he walked the Devil’s Highway in 1988.

“You walked it in the winter?” I asked.

“August.”

“You had vehicle support?”

“None.”

“Why?”

He had his reasons. A few decades ago, Annerino had been an avid rock climber, but a bad fall put an end to all that. He still walks with a bit of a limp. But he is an experiential historian with a passion for the routes taken by conquistadores and Indians, by gold seekers and priests. He began running on his bad leg, running until he could go for hours in any temperature. He ran ancient Indian trails and walked the Devil’s Highway, and these treks were a form of physical and spiritual therapy.

About four miles (6 kilometers) after the black Cherokee, we came to one of the grisly attractions along the Devil’s Highway: O’Neill Grave is a mound of rocks capped with a rusty metal cross. At the top of the upright crossbar, someone has placed a white Styrofoam ball with a tiny cowboy hat on it. The ball has a big smile painted on it and looks like the jolly round face that rolls back prices at Wal-Mart. The memorial honors an old prospector who, the story goes, is the only man to die of drowning in the Cabeza. Searching for lost burros, he dropped from exhaustion and drowned with his head in a mud hole.

That first night we camped at O’Neill Pass, just beyond the grave. Refuge regulations say that you cannot park a vehicle more than 50 feet (15 meters) off the road and that you must use existing pull-outs, of which there are many. Annerino’s advice made sense: Back into the parking area so you have a clear run at the road. Don’t bother to set up a tent; the snakes and scorpions weren’t going to be out on a 40-degree (4-degree Celsius) night. Sleep on your pad on the U.S. side of the truck. We were only four miles (6 kilometers) or so from Mexico, it was a moonless night, and the black Cherokees would be running, probably with their lights off. We wanted to use my truck as a shield. Otherwise, we might end up as speed bumps on some drug smuggler’s run to Interstate 8.

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.

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.”

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.

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.

Courtesy of Cover: Adventure magazineNational Geographic Adventure Magazine August 2006

 

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