A trip on the Camino del Diablo
The Camino del Diablo – Devil’s Highway, is a trail for those who love history.
Created from virgin desert as many as a thousand years ago by the Papago Indians on their way to trade (or maybe make war) with tribes to the west, it was a foot trail until the Spanish arrived in Mexico.
There are different thoughts as to just where the Camino actually began. Some believe its starting point to be near the town of Sonoita, Mexico. Others are inclined to think it began near the town of Caborca, further east.
The trail heads northwest, out of Mexico, then drops toward the southwest and runs for several miles parallel to and about a mile from the Mexican border. When it reaches the Tule Mountains it turns northwestward, then heads almost due west, past the Cabeza Prieta mountains to the Tinajas Altas Mountains, perhaps the most important mountain chain of many on the route.
The Tinajas hold natural water tanks, a lifesaver for more than one thirsty traveler.
From that point the Camino heads north-northwest along the foot of the Gila Mountains to Yuma.
The first known Spaniard to travel the Camino was Melchior Diaz, A captain and part of Coronado’s exploration force.
Diaz, it’s said, didn’t fare well on the trail, impaling himself on his own lance while attempting to spear a jackrabbit from his horse.
Later Europeans included a priest, Father Eusebio Kino, who first traveled it in search of lost souls in the late 1690s.
An old ore-wagon road running southwest from Ajo joins the Camino at a point around 40 miles from that town. The ore wagons would continue on the Camino to Yuma with their loads of copper ore.
The Camino was most heavily used from 1849, when the gold rush started, through the 1860s and beyond, when placer gold was found north of Yuma. It was a safer route than one running parallel and to the north, the Gila Trail. Apaches were much less likely to raid parties of whites crossing the infernally hot sands through which the Camino ran.
After the middle 1850s, boundary survey crews used it extensively to determine an accurate line between Mexico and the U.S.
When the railroads were laid in the late 1800s, traffic on the Camino dropped dramatically,
That is until recently, when this country started seeing more and more of our southern neighbors, people who walked or drove across the trail going north, not west.
I began my walk at Papago Well, at the approximate confluence of the Ajo Ore Wagon Road and the Camino.
Flora in that area consists of scattered Saguaros, Ocotillo, Cholla and the ever present Creosote bush.
The trail to this point and for some distance west is easy to travel, though bumpy. That was to change after 10 miles.
My friend and SAG (Supplies And Gear) partner, Rich Gerow, out of Martinez California was driving his pick up, pulling my small quarter ton trailer. That was to be my bed.
We agreed that he’d stop every couple miles, to make sure I was still moving my feet west.
My main interest was simply to walk where others had trod for so many hundreds of years. On the way, I wanted to attempt to spot gravesites. It was hard to believe so many people had rested their weary heads for the last time in the middle of that lonely but beautiful piece of Arizona.
It’s safe to say the majority of those who left this world while on the Camino did so during the gold rush, starting in 1849. Not being able to transport bodies of friends and loved ones for burial in more civilized locales, the dead were simply buried where they fell.
The numerous gravesites just off the road attest to that.
Just a short distance west of my starting point, I came across two faint gravesites, side by side; rectangles of small rocks partly covered by blowing sand.
About 4 miles down the road I came to O’Neill’s Pass, wherein lies his grave.
Mr. O’Neill was a prospector in the late 1800s and early into the 20th century. It’s said he enjoyed his spirits. Unfortunately for him, his spirit left him one day, when he tripped over a rock near his camp, and fell into a water puddle and drowned.
In the driest desert in Arizona.
His grave is marked just off the road. Passers-by leave mementoes, maybe for luck, coins, bullets, bottles, etc.
A couple miles further, In the middle of a silent beautiful desert vista, stands an ugly but necessary monument to one country’s attempt to protect its borders from other nations’ products and people.
Camp Grip, located on the north side of the Camino is a very large building, maybe the size of a hangar, outside of which are parked any number of BP (Border Patrol) vehicles, and supporting equipment. A fence surrounds it.
It is an incongruous spectacle.
I passed it quickly, and a couple hours later found myself at the eastern edge of the lava beds.
Many eons ago, a volcano spewed tons of small lava rocks over the landscape. That volcano, located a couple miles into Mexico, was given the name ‘Pinacate’, a derivation of “Pinacati”, meaning Black Beetle in the Aztec language.
Judging from the number of those big bugs that walk with their butts high in the air, the lava rocks don’t outnumber them by much.
Rich had picked a camp site 50 feet into the desert and adjacent to the end of a ‘road-drag’ section at the east edge of that lava bed.
BPA’s (Border Patrol Agents) regularly smooth the road as best they can, to detect footprints of Illegals crossing. The smoothing is done by use of a number of old vehicle tires connected by chain and attached to the back of the BP truck.
That evening, a BPA stopped by and talked to us briefly. He said our site would be checked periodically during the night. And it was. Several times we saw headlights slowly moving by our camp.
The next day we broke camp, and I headed across that lava bed. It’s a pretty rough ride in a truck, but vehicle passengers don’t get stone bruises. That’s what I found myself with, a perfectly round stone bruise on my left foot.
Within the lava beds, and a short distance south of the trail exists a gravesite with the name ‘Nameer’, a Middle Eastern name, laid out with lava rocks. More rocks surround the name. No one seems to be able to identify the person or persons lying there, but he/she must have been a person of some importance. Gravesites off the Camino aren’t ordinarily built so elaborately..
A few minutes west of the grave, while walking off the trail, a 4-door Wrangler came in from the west, and stopped. Two young men were gazing at me, and the passenger said, “Are you missing something – like a car?”
I had to laugh.
“Nope. I’m just out for a walk.”
“Okay. Have a good time”, he said, and they were on their way
Shortly after noon I limped off the lava bed and into the Pinta sands.
As a geological feature, the sands surround the lava bed on three sides. The grains seem small enough to have the consistency of flour, which was easy on the stone bruise but because of the way I had to walk to favor it, made for lots of fatigue. I wasn’t more than a mile into the sands when I hitched a ride with Rich.
He was able to navigate the truck with some difficulty, and we eventually made it through to a more firm surface. This part of the Camino is sunk about 3 feet below the surrounding desert surface, due likely to the consistency of the sand.
A mile or so further and just east of the Tule Mountains, we came upo more graves. These sites were laid in a heavily vegetated area, and one which showed evidence of recent ‘gully washers’, with wide, shallow beds wandering among the Saguaro, Mesquite and Creosote bushes.
A lot of paired-up desert flora exists here. This particular area had probably the densest flora growth we’d see, with the exception of Tule Well, which we drove to a short time later.
Tule Well is out of the Pinta Sands region, and is well treed, with many Mesquites and other plant growth seen.
And it has a little history.
Some time after the well was dug, late in the 19th century, a traveler named Rafael Pumpelly was asked how he found the water at the well.
He said, in early 1900s vernacular, that it was pure nasty, to which the questioner replied, “That’s because we dumped a body down there a couple years ago.”
The well area is a popular camping spot for Camino travelers, having a couple picnic benches and grills, but no water.
An adobe hut was built here by a government agency back in the late ‘30s, and on a rise nearby, a tattered Old Glory waved.
We had our meal that evening, then I spread my sleeping bag on a picnic bench, under aMesquite and immediately went to sleep.
The following morning I awoke with swollen lips and eyes, (maybe an allergic reaction to the mesquite) to hear the BP driving up to hook up their road drag device.
We chatted, and shortly after, they were on their way.
About 9AM I was back on the road, and an hour later passed within a half mile of the Tule Tanks, another likely stopping-off water hole for Fr. Kino and all who came after.
My destination on this day was due north of still another gravesite where eight people in a Mexican family died – Mom and Dad and 6 kids – when a wagon wheel broke and their sole container of water smashed onto the desert floor. They’re buried in a circle in a spot 10 miles west of Tule Well, and a half mile south of the Camino.
Pronghorn tracks were numerous, crossing the trail, and the sand consistency was much like that in the Pinta. The Cabeza Prietas were on my right, the Tule Mtns on my left and the white desert directly in front, peopled with an occasional Saguaro, a few Ocotillo, and of course the ever present Creosote.
Another middle-of-the-afternoon stop, and this was to be our last night on the Devil’s Highway, so we toasted to our progress.
Our last day – up at the crack of dawn we broke camp, and Rich was on his way, promising to wait every one and a half miles, so he wouldn’t have to back-track too far should the stone bruise became too much of an obstacle.
The last 10 miles was a walk between two rows of Mesquites bordering the road. A straight while line, directly to the Tinajas Altas Mountains, now standing in clear view, vertical lines, fissures, separating high, perfectly smooth surfaces, reaching up into the sky.
Maybe an hour into my hike, I spotted a BP truck coming east. I stepped to the side, the truck stopped, and the young agent asked me in a professional tone if I were a citizen.
I explained what I was doing, and he said, “Oh, you’re with the guy in the dark pick up.”
We discussed the Camino, then he went on his way.
About noon I came to a couple large signs designating the boundary of the Goldwater bombing range and the National Wildlife Refuge.
There’d been little evidence of the range to this point. Some frequent thumping was heard earlier, as bombs hit the desert miles to the east. I’d also come across a number of 20-millimeter and .50-caliber cartridge cases, and an old bomb fin during my walk.
A short while later I found myself at the foot of the Tinajas Altas, and the end of this leg of the trip.
It’s been written that in the early 1900s, one desert explorer counted 250 graves at the foot of the mountains’ tanks.
It’s a scene of sadness and of wonder, that a people were so driven as to attempt to cross the hottest desert in this country – in the summer, unprepared.
It’s a place worth visiting just once. A place to think about what drives people, sometimes to almost certain death, all for a chance to possess that yellow metal.
Friends and others were uncomfortable thinking of this geriatric walking in an area known for its heavy, illegal foot traffic, but we saw not one northbounder during our adventure.
The Border Patrol is doing an outstanding job, and their efforts are appreciated.
Many thanks, too, to CPNWR rep., Margot Bissell who got us on the road to the Camino from the Refuge office in Ajo. She answered questions and made good suggestions.
Finally, a trip on the Camino should not be taken without at least one reliable partner. Rich filled that need, keeping his truck on the road and his partner on his feet.