The Lechuguilla Desert is named for a small spiny yucca more painfully known as shin-daggers. This unforgiving expanse is lain against a seemingly inpenetrable wall of jagged granite, the Tinajas Altas Mountains; yet that is where one will find a sure source of water (if you can get to it) and hidden but easy passes leading to the Rio Colorado beyond.
Across the desert flats, the old El Camino is now maintained as a "drag road" by the US Border Patrol. Wide, well-graded and sandy, their vehicles drag a simple rig of lashed tires that smooths the surface, making it impossible for illegal border crossers to not leave evidence of their presence. Many of them have been dumped by coyotes (nefarious immigrant-traders) with little warning of the hardships they could be facing.
Tinajas Altas ("High Tanks")
"The most important waterhole in the western United States."
This steep rocky chute hides ten natural rain catchments that can hold up to 20,000 gallons! It is said there are up to 400 graves on the flat areas near the mouth of the canyon; all those lives squelched by the elements just yards from quenching their thirst. Modern travelers have obliterated most of the markers.
Only the lowest tank is easy to get to. Friends shoulder bottles of purified water while contemplating the unappealing alternative...if you think that's bad, you should have seen it the first time I was here!
The rest of the tanks are hidden among the boulders and crevasses above. None are easy to get to...the exposed slab of bedrock at the base of the climb may be the least of your worries. My dad chooses a crab-walking technique on the way down.
Seems we've been out in the desert for a while now, doesn't it? Many folks end their adventure here and boogie north to Wellton on Interstate 8. It's a good road most of the way and, every time I've been along there, well-used by the military...including camoflaged encampments and an impressive array of equipment. On one such journey out of the range, I spotted an F-16 on the floor at my 10 o'clock and headed straight for me. It screamed overhead and, presumably using our truck as a mock target, made two more unseen but ear-splitting passes. Glad they're on our side!!
Manuevers Over the Davis Plain
There's just one leg left on this adventure called The Devil's Highway: from Tinajas Altas to Yuma. It's slow going so best to just add another day. North of the famous waterhole, Tinajas Altas Pass makes an easy cut through the mountains, depositing you onto the Davis Plain on the opposite side. From there it skirts Vopoki Ridge and the Gila Mountains before running out into the surreal setting of manicured surburbia on the eastern outskirts of Yuma. There's an even a street named "El Camino del Diablo" as a proud resident declared when queried (the dirt road can be difficult to find on that end), "Yes, this is El Camino. I live here...that's my house!" He had no clue the historic significance of the road. *heavy sigh*
It was the only time I've done that leg of the journey, entering from the Yuma side with my father back in April of 2001. Having gotten a late start, we came up short of the Fortuna Mine and made camp in Woodcutters Canyon. Before sunset, we were visited by a buggy-driving Marine and his gorgeous australian shepherd. It may have been an informal check-up, as permits were mentioned, but the guy was very interesting and friendly. He said we might see some action out on the Davis Plain the next day, as shown in the photos above. The helicopters were shooting off flares and doing quick touch-downs / lift-offs. They didn't seem to care about us being there but we slowly minded our own business anway...so all was cool. The marine also gave me GPS coordinates of a crash-site out in the Kofa Mountains...not much left of it (an A4, I think) from hitting a ridge after the pilot ejected. Word is they'll clean up any secret equipment very quickly, but older aircraft and junk are often just left out there.
Morning haze accents craggy ridges of the Gila Mountains.
Warning signs are spaced within sight of each other on the western side of El Camino. I figure it's a good idea to obey them...the plains beyond are a high-tech playground for the Yuma Marine Air Corps. All of the interesting stuff you're allowed to see is on the other side anyway.
This journey gets a bit more personal here at the end, because it turned out to be the last I would take with my father. A year later, he died suddenly of heart disease. I think he knew it was coming. On this day we hiked into Spook Canyon, a winding box that cuts deeply through Vopoki Ridge. You can drive 'off-road' a bit to cut some distance to the mouth of the canyon...otherwise, just use your topo maps and go for the obvious features. We spent about three hours exploring; the sense of isolation out here is incredible. It was during this time that my Dad told me of his final wishes for the placement of his ashes in New Mexico. He also talked about needing a purpose to keep on living after retirement...neither of which he seemed to be accomplishing (retiring or finding a clear purpose). He surely meant it as advice but I also read it as lamentation...he'd done a lot to drive his own children away. I'd come to terms with much of that before he passed away but I try to remember the lesson every day.