By Robert Samuelsen
The desert is binary, survive or perish, depending on one critical factor – the presence of water! If you have it, you survive, if you don’t, you perish. For centuries, the early O’odham, explorers, and missionaries safely traversed through the harsh western Sonoran Desert because they knew where to find the six strategic water holes dispersed about every 20 miles through this inhospitable land. Water brought survival for this desolate trek. Water meant life.
Traveling through the desert is never a cakewalk, never to be disrespected, never to be underestimated. When Father Kino, Juan Bautista de Anza, and Jacob Sedelmayr came through, they followed thousand-year-old trails from spring to tinaja (water tank) filling their water jugs whenever they could. This network of paths led these crusty sojourners from what is now Sonoyta, Sonora, to Yuma, Arizona. Because of geopolitical borders, the route now begins in Ajo and guides you through 130 miles of desert, sand, and lava through one of the driest parts of the United States.
Beginning in the 1840s, a wave of prospectors lured by gold fever traversed the region seeking their fortune in California. As the gold rush grew, it attracted more and more greenhorns, many of whom unsuccessfully tried to traverse the same ancient trails through present-day southern Arizona. Instead of Cebola, the city of gold, these neophytes suffered a lonely demise in the desolate desert. With more than 400 known deaths, this ghostly route earned the moniker of El Camino del Diablo (the Devil’s Road in English.)
Today, El Camino del Diablo passes through a corner of the Organ Pipe National Monument, the length of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and several military bombing ranges. Ironically, all land-use designations deal with life and death! Organ Pipe protects a rare columnar cactus, the Refuge revives the near extinct Sonoran Pronghorn and Big Horn Sheep, while military pilots train for bombing runs. Add the abundance of heat and scarcity of water to undocumented passage, El Camino del Diablo label still seems appropriate.
For early prospectors, it was a death trap. For a modern Jeep, it’s a 130-mile journey of 4-wheel drive bliss! Seeing this incredibly harsh desert dotted with volcanos and dry lake beds is uniquely beautiful. There are intermingled black and white mountain ranges emerging from the white granite beds topped with black basalt making stunning contrasts to the saguaro plains. There are remnants of its tragic history of rugged humanity interspersed throughout. There are regular reminders of new dreams sought by desperate denizens of other nations risking El Camino del Diablo to seek their own Cebola in a land of freedom and plenty.
After securing a permit, I ventured off to explore this piece of history. I was anxious to follow the written guidebook from point-of-interest to point-of-interest. I found remote resting places of lost souls, I climbed dormant volcanos, and found plentiful evidence of human trafficking. I also climbed crevasses to search for ancient life-given tinajas but my most poignant discovery wasn’t sun dried carcasses but engine parts on the top of a remote, unnamed mountain! Machined pistons and turbine fins reminded me how we impose justice on each other – weapons of destruction delivered by way of the same life sustaining air that we breath! Death brought on by despots and defense devices to defend against it. Some die so others can live. Perhaps El Camino del Diablo has a double meaning, one for the remote route and the other for the journey of life. If so, I choose life.
Rob Samuelsen is an executive and adventurer supported by his long-suffering but supportive wife!