El Camino del Diablo: Adventuring Along the Mexico-U.S. Border
Originally published in June/July 2006 issue of JPFreek Magazine
The palpable sense of mystery in the desert air breeds fables, chiefly of lost treasure.
If your Spanish is rusty, it translates to this creepy name: The Devil’s Highway. Fierce, rocky, and isolated desert of granite mountains, stunted trees and plants that don’t need a drink for months are the markers of this place. With the daytime temperatures in the winter being nearly 90 degrees, you’d think this very well could be a road into hell. Nah…it’s just the Sonoran Desert.
Once upon a time the trail started somewhere near Caborca, Sonora, Mexico and streamlined its way to Yuma, Arizona. With such ghostly scenes like the black Pinacate lava flows and the random gravesites near Christmas Pass, we’ll wonder: why in the hell is this road here?
If it was not a shortcut to the grave, then it was one to California. In the 1700s, missionaries out of Mexico found it quicker, safer, and more economical than sailing around the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. It also cut off nearly one hundred and fifty miles for people traveling westward in attempt at fortune in the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s.
This expedience came at a price, for travelers staked their lives by using this trail. People need water to survive and the only source for water along the route is located at the Tinajas Altas Mountains. By some miracle of nature, a narrow and steep channel in the mountains has nine deep holes that collect rainwater. Trekkers in the pioneering ages knew this much: hydrate here, or die.
Welcome to El Camino del Diablo, which is one of the most dangerous trails in the Continental U.S. based on statistics alone. Historians say between 400 and 500 people died of thirst here. There is no one with whom to talk, unless you come with some people of your own. Since you can clock in over 120 miles in some of the most remote and unforgiving desert, you don’t necessarily want to try this alone. No locals exist, save the rattlesnakes, rodents, hawks, big horn sheep…
So each time I’ve traveled El Camino, it’s been with a group of other civilization-weary friends who preferred to visit this dusty land free of coffee shops, mainstream radio, and TV commercials. I want to say it’s because we really just want to sit around a campfire. I don’t really know why I like the desert so much, but I do know why I like campfires. This is the place where you can get to know somebody and spit your peanut shells at once. Give me a campfire in the desert, and we will cook up some fables and tales of lost treasure for sure – some true, and yet all real.
Most of the time I’m with people who teach me things if I take notice. And this is why we do this thing – expedition adventure travel - in groups. Let’s start with Mario: he fixed an air suspension on a Land Rover before we’d reached the first camp by employing a clever combination of 2x4 pine blocks and a ratchet strap. Vince, a pseudo-vagabond who rarely crawls out of Baja (and if he does, he’ll be wearing a Mexican poncho and a cowboy hat) noticed me chopping a log for the fire.
“Mark, lay it parallel to the others. It’ll burn hotter that way.”
Al, a gentle 67 year-old spirit (who seemed to know the name of every peak and wash on the map) quietly set up a small camp table, placed several bottles on it along with a stack of cups. He grinned at me and said, “The bar is open.”
As you might expect would be inevitable when camping this close to the U.S.-Mexico border, we discussed the growing problem of illegal immigration. But not in such direct terms.
“Did you guys notice the tall flags every once in while back there.”
“They mark tubs of water. I heard that they weren’t put there by Border Patrol, but by some humanitarian groups. They think it’s worse to just allow people to die out here. So they set up some water stations.”
“Yeah, but don’t you think that’s just inviting more people to cross out here?”
“It’s like the idea of handing out condoms to high school kids. You know that people are going to try to cross the border out here anyway. Besides, they aren’t going to cross because there happens to be some water. They cross because their lives are so piss poor back home. Know what I mean?”
Some one across the fire mentioned, “Back at the Marine base, the guy giving me my permit made some comment about what to do if – and I ain’t kidding you about this – if your pistol happens to ‘misfire’ while it’s coincidentally pointed at a Mexican trying to cross the desert.”
I see two truths about this desert:
One: For it’s remoteness, it’s beautiful. You can stand still and only hear the wind. The mountains glow with red and purple at dusk. The animals come out at night to scratch around and look for food. Before the sun goes down, you can see the silhouette of several big horn sheep at Tinajas Altas.
Two: For it’s remoteness – despite it’s beauty - it still happens to be a place where people trade their lives for an opportunity. A Border Patrol agent knows how to read foot tracks, and they know what elongated depressions in the sand mean: someone was crawling. A matter of yards away they’ll find a dead body of someone who crawled across the desert for final minutes of his or her life.
Alex changed the topic. He said he had his laptop computer and a copy of the Mark A. Smith Jeep Expedition de las Americas of 1979.
“You guys want to watch the documentary about the crossing of the Darien Gap? It’s really cool.”
We gathered our chairs around his camp table, fixed up some shots of tequila, and watched - with total attention - how a group of guys in Jeeps drove 20,000 miles and spent 120 days driving from Tierra del Fuego to Prudoe Bay. The highlight was where they plowed their way through the section of swamp-jungle that extends from Colombia to Panama and still remains the unfinished stretch of the Trans-American Highway. Called the Darien Gap, it – like El Camino del Diablo - is isolated and brutal but for different reasons.Whether crossing a border as an illegal or an adventurer, you have placed your bet. You’re risking something for an opportunity. As someone desperate to find a decent paying job, you risk your life by journeying on foot. As an adventurer in an outfitted vehicle, you can look for the opportunity to explore the desert and some friendships. To all of us, though, the stakes are worth it. While there are historical reasons why El Camino del Diablo exists, history is still in the making. One day historians will say that people explored this road simply for the fun of it.