Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Devil's Highway - Part 1

Best translated as "The Road of the Devil," it has become an iconic four-wheel drive adventure of the desert southwest.  In ancient, borderless times, it was a trade route between the peoples of northwestern Mexico and the Colorado River.  It was a popular route because the terrain is easy...so easy that people often neglected the potent dangers represented by the heat and lack of water.  This was the lesson learned by 400 people during the rush to the gold-laden valleys of California.  Their graves and the few waterholes they sought are the most interesting stops along the way.  So, stock your truck, get your permit, and let's get going...

In these modern times, the ancient El Camino has been split by the border, roughly following Highway 2 in Mexico until reaching the lava fields of El Pinacate.  There are various access points in Arizona; many folks start out in Ajo and head west, often camping out for one or two nights.  Exiting on Interstate 8 near Tacna or Wellton will cover up to 130 miles and 8-10 hours of driving time.  The westward leg to Yuma follows the original route but is slow going; add another four hours of driving time...or better yet, another day to the journey.

The Old Yuma Wagon Road

The turnoff is a couple of miles south of Ajo and is signed as Darby Wells Road.  That decaying ranch house is soon passed as the main road continues south.  The area is criss-crossed by a network of rutted side roads leading to a myriad of hidden campsites, mining prospects, and even an old runway; it is my favorite place for rockhounding of blue copper ore which I use to accent my gardens at home.

A primitive campsite lays in view of Locomotive Rock.

This photo was a happy accident.  I had scouted the scene and intended for the organ pipe cactus to be silhouetted against polar star trails.  Though a hundred yards from camp and black to the naked eye, the hour-long exposure caught the dim light of our campfire, adding its own pleasing result.

Rocky spires in a lush green desert.

I stole this man's soul.  I now give it back...or maybe I just make it worse.  Or maybe it's just a picture and it never mattered at all.  The town of Ajo has a fair each March, and this O'odham man was cooking up fry bread.  He looked up at me in that moment I clicked the shutter, but I was the one that felt unguarded.

You're going to have to bring some serious equipment if you want to recover some of the larger specimens of copper ore.

A vehicle leaves a line of dust on the Old Yuma Wagon Road.  It's a well-maintained gravel road until you reach Bates Well in the northwestern corner of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  There may or may not be a ranger on duty; illegal activity has become of more of an issue here as there are some backcountry roads and routes coming directly up from the border at Quitobaquito.  Can't say I've heard specifically about four-wheelers having any problems; just exercize common sense.  You're more likely to see vehicles belonging to the Border Patrol.

Kino Peak with a foreground of spring wildflowers.

Travel beyond Bates Well and Organ Pipe Cactus NM requires a permit.  Not only is it the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge...it's also the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. (Seems a compatible arrangement, right?  Works for me.)  Ergo, today's traveler has additional hazards to consider, nicely summed up by these quotes from an older version of the required "Hold Harmless" agreement with the military.

"The Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range (BMGR) contains the danger of property damage and permanent, painful, disabling, and disfiguring injury or death due to high explosive detonations from falling objects such as aircraft, aerial targets, live ammunition, missiles, bombs, etc... There are also physical injury and health dangers from ground and aerial Laser and other electromagnetic emissions."

"The BMGR contains the danger of property damage and permanent, painful, disabling, and disfiguring injury or death due to the presence of expended, but still live bombs, rockets, cannon rounds, flares, and other types of warheads. Unexploded munitions may be encountered anywhere within the BMGR: lying on the ground partially or completely buried. These munitions can still explode though they may have lain in the desert for decades."

Those are the most interesting parts.  I especially like the "permanent, painful, disabling, and disfiguring injury."  Meaning not only could you be hurt, but that you could be crippled, scarred, in terrible pain, and it's going to be that way for the rest of your life.  Indeed, death could be preferable.  The rest of the form goes on about being prepared for the more normal hazards having to do with "one of the most extreme environments in North America."  You know, things like old mine shafts, flash floods, extreme heat, venemous creatures, a complete lack of water, and that if an emergency arises you could well be dead by the time help arrives, so be prepared.

By signing the form, you promise not to sue the military because (for example) you were lost and an air-to-ground missile mistook your signaling mirror for a target beacon.  *ouch*

Continued in Part 2...

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