Sense of Place : El Camino Del Diablo

Aug 9, 2013

If there is any place in the American West that I have a connection with it would be El Camino Del Diablo, The Devil’s Highway. The highway started as a foot path first traversed by Native Americans leading them from water hole to water hole across a vast dry desert. Later, the first Spaniards used this trail to come across the desert to California in search of wealth. The highway was introduced to me by my father when I was a teenager. The part of El Camino Del Diablo I know is from Yuma, Arizona to Lukeville south of Ajo, Arizona, but there is more to the highway than this. The best time to travel it is in the spring. Winter can get below freezing. Fall you don’t know if it will or won’t rain and the summer is too bugging hot to be out there.

Blazing hot sun wow, Hawks, lizards, and owls oh my, No water just dirt.

The trip all starts with somebody saying how long has it been since we were out there? Too long is the answer I would give. This isn’t something you wake up one morning and go do, it takes time and preparation. First you have to decide on a date. Then you have to contact the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge field office in Ajo and MCAS Yuma to obtain permission to be out on the Berry M. Goldwater bombing range. This is an active bombing range Therefore, coordination is needed if you don’t want to be shot or blown up! If both of these entities say yes you’re on to the next step. This is putting together a list of supplies: a four wheel drive vehicle, gas, food and lots and lots of water. Now you’re ready to go.

Leaving out of Yuma, off the interstate you go straight south till you hit a dirt road. This isn’t the original route, but with so much traffic over the years all you have to do is pick one trail and stay on it following the mountains. I like to head over to Fortuna Mine right off. This is the first of many places to get out and explore. I haven’t found any gold here but I have heard of others having done so. You can see where some of the buildings were laid out and placed next to one another by the remnants of small pieces of wall and foundations. While there, I would goover to an old vent shaft that was dug for the mine and toss rocks down it to count the cars that are in it. You might ask yourself how do you count cars by tossing rocks? It’s pretty simple: you see if you toss the rock just right you can hear it bang and clank off all the cars in the hole. As the rock falls there a spaces between the sounds and that’s what you count. I’ve counted up to six cars in the past. I have heard that the vent was used for a body dumping in the past, it maybe even today. I can remember when I was a teenager reading in the paper that the sheriff’s department sent some men down to look for a body. When they got in there, they were not prepared for what they found, the body they were looking for plus a dozen or so more skeletons.

From the mine you leave out through a canyon that opens into to a big wash covered brush and trees. Some people would say that there really isn’t much to see. If you look close enough you spot a collard lizard sitting on a rock sun bathing, cocking its head as it watches you go by. The red tailed hawk flying over head watches a jack rabbit running ahead of you from bush to bush looking forward to its next meal. Off to one side is a burrowing owl popping its head out to see what all the commotion is all about.

Driving the twenty miles to our next stop is a good time to talk with those who are with you and to take in the surroundings. What to do? There’s a fork in the road. To the left will take us through the Cipriano pass. The pass is a rugged rough road not for the light at heart traveler. This is the way I tend go, not that the other isn’t any fun. I just prefer the path on the left. The views that one gets going up to and through the pass are unimaginable with the different out croppings of granite and the valley you just came out of looking back into Mexico. Once through the pass, it’s not much further to Tinajas Altas, the next stop on our journey.
What are the High Tanks, you ask? They are granite tanks in a canyon going up the mountain, carved out over the millennia. There are nine tanks in all stacked one on top another, each roughly the size of a VW bug. When you climb up to the tanks you have to stop now and then to catch your breath as it’s a pretty steep grade. This is a good time to take a good look at the surroundings down on the canyon floor. There is a large granite boulder with holes ground into it from the Indians that would frequent the location and grind what grains they had. The path up to the tanks takes you past an overhang; upon a closer look, you see hieroglyphs. Who ever put them there had to be skinny and small; there isn’t much room for the average size person.

From the tanks the highway doesn’t have much for terrain, lots of creosote bush, cholla cactus and rabbit bush with a lonesome palo verde or mesquite tree here or there. Along the way, if you pay attention you see the graves of those who didn’t complete the trip. Most of the graves don’t have any identification, just prospectors seeking their fortune. There is however, one group that belongs to a family. From what I can recollect, they were coming to Yuma from Tucson and somehow missed Bates Well and had no water for them or their horses, even though it was in the fall. This is just a reminder of how harsh the desert can be. One nice thing is that for most of this portion of the trip is you can drive hands free. The highway has been rutted out deep enough that vehicles don’t have to be steered, the road guides you along.

Cutting across the dessert we come to Bates Well. Today this well still has water in it, though many people are surprised to find this. Not knowing what is out here can be the difference of life or death. There is still a windmill here that even works an old steal tank and a small building. Other than that, there is not much here but a bunch of trees sucking up the water from the well. This is usually a quick stop. If one were to spend the night on this trip this would be a good place for it.

Well, were coming to the end of our trip with one last stop at the spring at Lukeville. This portion of the trip is one of the most beautiful of all. There are rugged red and green mountains with canyons that are full of copper. Green arroyos overflow with different desert vegetation and animal life. While out here I’ve seen a family of javelin, Thompson gazelle, mule deer, and even the illegal person trying to stay out of the heat. Here we are at Lukeville spring, about an acre of water surrounded with cottonwoods, cat tails and lush green grass. In the past I didn’t have the time to study the life around here; by the time we got to Lukeville my dad was tired and ready to go home. I just hope that I’ll have the time and opportunity with my children to stay and learn about the area.

It’s amazing that a place so arid, vast, and hostile could support so much life. I can see why the Spanish that came across here named it what they did and why they found a better route to take. If one had the time, you could spend a month out here and still not scratch the surface of El Camino Del Diablo.

Biography of Matthew Williams

“Who Am I”? The question is asked. I am the person that everyone sees, but is not seen. I pretty much keep to myself unless otherwise provoked. Here I am provoked by having to do this biography of how I came to be in the West and where I am going with my education. It all started with my grandfather; he was the first of all his siblings and past relatives to go west of the Mississippi River. He set out to start his own branch of our huge family tree. Things weren’t as great out West as he thought they would be. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy which ironically settled him in Indio, Ca., where my father and I were born. Later, my father who worked on the railroad followed his father who also worked on the railroad to Yuma. This is how I came to be in the West. Now as for after my education, when this is done I plan on using my degree to find employment locally that I can apply it towards.