Bulldust & Bad Maps

Routefinding for Hema Maps on El Camino del Diablo

It was a questionable decision, running the Arizona border along Mexico in an antiquated truck with no support vehicle. A brand-new suspension had been fitted, and an extra 300 pounds of fatman-and-iron packed into the passenger side, but our little Hema Maps BJ-74 Land Cruiser stubbornly insisted on holding it’s five-degree lean to the driver’s side. The air conditioner sputters, laughs at us, then blasts hot air into the cabin. Chris and I roll down from the cool air of central Arizona’s highlands with the windows wide open.

The adventure begins in the middle of Phoenix—a route declared “quickest” by Siri insists we exit the interstate in the ghetto, then brave three miles of surface streets to reach the BLM Field Office. A permit is required to traverse El Camino del Diablo. To obtain the permit, one must show up in person. From the eighth floor of a downtown high-rise a video drones on about not touching bombs, and the dangers of remote desert travel. Curiously efficient window architecture on the tower across the street prevents the summer sun from baking through the glass. My thoughts are interrupted by a disinterested federal rep as he hands over several pages of forms. I read through, then sign away any and all rights to sue the government if I’m kidnapped, injured, lasered, exploded, or a Predator drone falls from the sky and crashes onto the truck.

With our lives signed away we flee the city, classic rock blaring from a set of phone-powered portable speakers as Highway 85 leads us south through an unseasonably green Sonoran. The desert heat is more humid than expected, but the freedom of this forsaken two-lane makes the journey worthwhile…even in our little tin oven.

Ajo. We giggle at the potential pronunciations of the town’s name until the square rolls into view. It’s worth at least a short stop. The old Spanish architecture of covered walkways connects a derelict train depot with a converted mission, all surrounding a central park that’s in desperate need of a little rain. Dueling cameras round the plaza snapping away with abandon before we’re back in the truck. Tempting as the little café looks it’s not on the agenda—there’s a long drive ahead, and we have an unfortunately tight schedule to keep.

The beauty of wide-open desert is broken by a single ominous sign at the intersection of two dirt roads, this must be the track. I hop out for a closer shot when the stillness is suddenly interrupted by a wall of wind-driven sand, then just as quickly as it strikes all is peaceful once more. Overhead a lone vulture circles, patiently awaiting our imminent demise in this rugged terrain.

Around the next bend a windmill towers over the old ranch buildings of Bates Well. This was to be our first camp of the trip, but it’s only three in the afternoon…clearly the difficulty of the route has been overestimated. Thankful for the good turn of luck with our schedule we spend the next hour exploring the ruins Henry Gray and his family once called home. Signs of life, signs of death, is that a hangin’ tree?

We push south into the Cabeza Prieta to take advantage of the extra daylight. Onward, through the dense smoketree. The uneven interlocking steel strips of “improved” road threaten to send the lopsided little Toyota sideways into the brush. Shadows stretch long from a dense stand of massive saguaro and the steel track gives way to smooth road once more. We blaze on through the desert until realizing the mountain to our left is Mexico, and turn back to the relative safety of an encampment we’d passed four miles north.

Tents pitched and beer poured the conversation turns to the respective pros and cons of our kit. The shotgun versus the AR-15. An Aussie-made “swag” versus a 2-man dome tent. A covey of quail laughs at my selection of carbine over boomstick, I point out the uselessness of any long gun in Chris’s tiny bivouac, we call it a draw and pour another beer. Darkness closes in, lasagna cooks on the JetBoil, and the quail live on to be eaten another day.

Tales of the previous night’s activity were swapped at dawn over the morning’s brew. By the third hourly patrol the comforting dull rumble of the Border Patrol’s Chevy was keeping me sound asleep, but the rattling of door handles and rustling of brush from visitors of a decidedly more southern origin had woken us up around 3:00am. Fortunately, their curiosity ended with the locked doors of the Land Cruiser and no new graves had to be dug in the barren landscape after sunup.

The stormy skies cleared and we were moving fast again, slogging west through baby-powder bulldust so close to the border we could hear trucks on México 2. Bulldust turned to crackled earth, and crackled earth to dunes. By 9:00am we’d reached our intended lunch spot so we stopped to have some fun with the cameras.

Liquid Hot Magma. The sun-faded words STOP DRAG sprayed on the side of an old tire to mark the end of road maintenance, the end of the dunes, and the start of the Pinacate lava flow. Across the flow an ideal and unnamed campsite shelters into a dip in the dark crust, with a commanding view of the road west. After a quick lunch we dub the site “The Devil’s Doorstep” and head out. At the rate we’re going we’ll have the Devil’s Road fully mapped by sundown.

“Your mother doesn’t live here!!!” is scribbled over the fireplace in Spanish, as if playing to the conscience of a willing trespasser might convince them not to litter as well. Despite the hints of illicit activity in the area Tule Well Camp feels cozy compared to previous stops, and it’s a spot I wouldn’t mind camping the next time through. It’s also the crossroads with a northerly exit through Christmas Pass, which is closed from March 15th through July 15th.

Our unusually good luck with the weather comes to an end as we approach the Tinajas Altas—summer was lying in wait in this valley, and the beating sun is painfully obvious through the thin insulation-free roof. Though we’ve been closer, this is the most accessible the border has been so we turn south and follow the mountain range to the border. Indeed, even Google Maps shows this dirt track goes straight on through into Mexico, only this this rust-colored barrier blocks the vehicle’s way. The design is clearly to keep vehicles, not people, out—one could easily walk around the fence for the half-mile stroll south to the highway, but headed north it’s a 30+ mile hike across harsh waterless country.

Laser-guided humming birds dodge the Cruiser and zero in on the many late-spring blossoms as we make our way through the canyon. We’ve clearly reached the edge of the bombing range, warning sign after warning sign caution us along the jagged western edge of the mountains.

Yodaville. Little Baghdad. By whichever name, the container metropolis is an impressive sight even from this distance. Jet fighters soar overhead engaged in mock combat, wave after wave of thunder crashing down several long moments after they turn past. The maneuvers are clearly aerial in purpose, no fireworks on the horizon for us to enjoy today.

Nothing brings out the contrast quite like sunset on lava rock—everything but the black earth glows gold under the castle-like structures of Fortuna mine. We find our way through the maze of dead-end access roads and find camp overlooking the Rio Colorado just in time for a spectacular sunset.

In the morning the old Land Cruiser gets it’s daily breakfast of 15W40 before running the last few miles of wash into Yuma, Arizona.

Originally licensed to American Adventurist for publishing on January 9th, 2017.

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