El Camino del Diablo, crossing the Sonoran

As the information sign said along the way:

“El Camino Diablo —

The Devil’s Highway is a desolate and difficult 130 mile route that originally began near Sonoita, Sonora (Mexico) and ended in Yuma, Arizona. In 1540 Captain Melchior Diaz was the first European to explore this area for fabled cities of gold. Jesuit Padre Eusebio Kino probed the region from 1698-1702, searching for souls and a route to the Pacific Ocean. Drawn by the discovery of gold in California in 1848, hundreds of gold seekers died from exposure and dehydration along this route. El Camino Diablo became a national historic district in 1978. “

Fabled gold? Soul retrieval?? Possible death from dehydration and exposure??? I was sold.

Plus I was given an awesome GPX track of the route by my new friend Scott Morris while visiting with him and Eszter in Tucson. I’d never have known about it had he not suggested the route.

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After 3 lovely days in Tucson exploring and restoring, I got a personal escort out of town via the Tucson Mountain Park trail system by Scott and Eszter. I just have to say for a minute, these two are amazing. Not only do their reputations precede them as fantabulous athletes and bike packing jet setters, they are also both extremely kind, interesting, humble, and warm. We shared some great conversations about life and our sense of purpose, and how to deal with the ‘real’ world upon returning from epic adventures. No easy task. I think that’s part of why I’m choosing not to return just yet…

After parting ways with Scott and Eszter, I rode onto the Ajo Highway for the 150 or so miles to Ajo where the Camino would begin. Large open sections of road through a couple of Native American reservations were beautiful, with sky islands (huge mountains growing out of otherwise flat desert) every so often. The road was lined with roadside graves of people who’d died there. I guess that’s the nature of long straight desolate roads — too easy to fall asleep.

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The first bike tourers I’ve seen on the road for at least a month. These two were headed due East across Arizona to get to Big Sur. Yep, that’s due West. They knew it too. My kind of people. The guy has been touring almost non-stop for the last 5 years. The woman has toured all over Africa, India and Central America, all alone. It’s so exciting to meet others out there who not only get the call to journey, but are also following it. I don’t meet them every day so it’s quite a special treat when I do.

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First signs of approaching the Mexican border. I started seeing more and more BP trucks driving up and down the Ajo Highway as I headed West.

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These small shops selling Mexican Auto Insurance were all over Ajo, from which there is a road heading due South to cross into Mexico. I didn’t ask, but I assumed it was a response to all the supposed danger for US tourists driving through Mexico. Thoughts on this anyone?

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Final night before embarking on the Camino. Sleeping among the cacti in the mountain just outside of town.

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There are a few hoops one must jump through to get onto this protected land. Parts are on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, others on Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the rest is on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. For those interested, just stop into the National Wildlife Refuge office in Ajo and they’ll set you up with a permit. They also have lots of great maps of the area including water sources and turn by turn directions.

 

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 The town of Ajo also just completed a set of mountain bike trails just outside of town which could easily be linked with the Camino… I planned to ride them on my way out of town, but got a late start and chose to take the direct route. I hope someone else who rides these trials might someday let me know what I missed!

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Setting out from the sweet little town of Ajo, I hit my first warning sign quite quickly. I’d been forewarned at the permit office back in town that I was passing through an area highly prone to drug smuggling and illegal immigration, but the ranger I spoke with led me to believe it was highly unlikely to actually see anyone out there, as they are all trying to avoid getting caught. I chose to take her word for it. She did suggest I lock up and hide my bike while camping since it’s an attractive means of crossing the desert more quickly. I totally agreed on both counts.

 

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The road passed through beautiful and lush Sonoran high desert, right out of town. I am told that the Sonoran is actually one of the most biodiverse areas in the lower 48… I’d believe it, but let me know if that’s misinformation!

 

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An ocotillo cactus in current bloom

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This strange desert discovery looked like a spore of some kind from a cactus of some sort. Either that or the jawbone from a baby wooly mammoth. You decide. 

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The artsy version

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Despite its official status as a desert, the road was often lined with lush deep green leafy weeds. Curious if they thrive throughout the year or grew more recently as there has been some good rain this week.

 

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A few short stretches of the road felt like entering a little jungle. Muddy roads and looming, lush, dense vegetation surrounding it.

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A couple other stretches crossed large lava flows, with fun rocky technical sections of road.

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BUT… most of the road/terrain was sand. Lots and lots and lots of sand. It ranged from hard packed with a light coating on top to deep soft beach sand that sucked my tires in with every pedal stroke.

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Even the new fatty tires I’d installed in Phoenix were no match for the sand in certain areas. Of course I was too frustrated to remember to take a photo of the most challenging section, which looked like the above but much deeper sand and heavily washboarded across the whole road. Very slow going. At one point as I bounced from peak to trough of huge section like that, I looked directly to my right to see a big open desert that looked far more flat and rideable that the crazy road. The rules of the wilderness area are to remain within 50 feet of the road on any mechanized vehicle. Plenty of room to ride parallel to the road on the open desert:

 

 

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The park service and US Border Patrol seem to have a few means by which to deal with the sand issue. All new to me. The first was to put down what looked a lot like aluminum siding on top of the sand, at least in the deepest most washboarded stretches. It felt quite odd to be riding on a metal road through the desert, the hum of my tires on the railings breaking its expansive silence.

 

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At one point along the roadside I saw this strange object: 7 tires attached together with some heavy duty cabling leading out to a loop at one end. Of course! I’ll attach the loop to my bike and drag the tires over the desert to smooth out the washboarded sand!!! Well, as it turns out the contraption was a bit heavy. I decided to leave this job to the huge border patrol trucks that drag it over the road every few days, the second way they attempt to manage the sand. I was however curious whether the intention was to make the road smoother for road travel or to provide a clean surface so they could notice the footsteps of illegal immigrants as they inevitably crossed the road… Upon further investigation it is motivated more by the latter than the former. Very interesting.

 

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As one might expect, finding water in the desert is no simple task. I was told by the park service ranger in Ajo that I’d find a few tanks along the road in varied condition. The first dependable water source would not be for about 70 miles though. This first tank was part of the last working cattle farm in the area many years ago. No water here.

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Tule Well, the tank at the 70 mile mark. Solar and wind powered, this was a lucky find after a day of travel.

 

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I’m told that after countless incidents of illegal immigrants breaking the pipes on this tank in search of drinking water, so they installed a faucet on the outside of a large fence to give people easy water access. It’s a hard situation with the people crossing this desert from Mexico. I’ll not engage with the politics of this issue at this time, but I will say it is amazing to see this desert first hand and what people endure in order to cross it. Sadly, some do not survive even to this day.

 

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Every 10 miles or so the border patrol installed these bright flashing beacons for illegals to use as a last resort.

 

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Each one has a large red button on it with instructions to press it and wait for help which will arrive within an hour. Unfortunately the help that will arrive will also bring illegals back across the border.

I actually found myself in a challenging situation around this issue on my first day out here. I stopped for a sip of water late in the afternoon about 2 miles past one of these beacons, and out of nowhere a man walked up to me, saying, “Agua….” It was a hard moment because my first reaction was one of fear. I didn’t know if he was armed, I didn’t know if he was alone, I didn’t know if it was safe. He surprised me and I didn’t have time to think through my response. I told him about the beacon a couple of miles back, and he clearly seemed like he wanted to avoid it. He started asking me for water a bit more adamantly, and I got nervous and rode away. Retrospectively I’d have done it differently. I know he was going to be alright, at least if it got to the point of life vs. death. But as a human to another human, I would have found a way to make sure I was safe and still offer him a drink. I felt really badly for riding away without helping him directly. It’s interesting how that feeling of imminent danger accompanies so many situations when they are unfamiliar. I think in my heart I knew he wouldn’t hurt me, but my head told me that a man in extreme desperation is capable of both amazing and horrible things.

 

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Border patrol vehicles drive up and down this road every day. I’d see one about every  hour.

 

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Hi-Tech surveillance equipment for spotting border crossers at a distance.

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Each sunset out here has been brilliant in its own magnificent way. On this my first night out, I camped in a huge grassy valley (yep, there is grass out here).

 

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Toward the end of the second day out here, the Tinajas Altas Mountains rose from the horizon. A range like none other I’ve encountered here, it reminded me of the rock formations in Capitol Reef National Park. My map illustrated some potential water springs up in one of the canyons, so I rode in to the foot of the range to check it  out…

 

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Scrambling up the rocks into the canyon in search of water…

 

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I found a series of small cascading pools of clear water, hidden within the rocks, called tanajas. The first of many valuable Spanish words I’ll be needing for bike packing once across the border.

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The view from above.

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 The road got rougher as it winded through the peaks of the Tinajas Altas Mountains. Stunning beauty surrounded me. As the light began to fade, I decided to pause for the night amongst the towering geological grandiosities.

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Laying in my dark tent that second night within the borders of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, I heard distant booms echo through the canyons around me every so often. At first it seemed like thunder storms were approaching, but the night was perfectly clear. I guess it is an active testing range nearby (not right where I was, don’t worry!), not the most peaceful sound by which to begin a slumber.

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Not just any type of testing range, but a LASER testing range it seems. Although who knows, this sign seemed pretty old.

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This sign grabbed my attention a little more. I’d heard there was a possibility of seeing unexploded missiles and shells out on the Camino. Never saw any myself, but was certainly watching the ground in front of me just in case!

 

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My final day on the Camino. I was a little nervous to leave the peace and quiet of the wilderness and land in the urban sprawl of Yuma, so I  chose to slow down this day and enjoy every moment a little extra. about 20 miles out from the end of the Camino I started seeing regular non border patrol vehicles like these folks on four wheelers. A very nice couple from Texas that would not let me ride away without some extra snacks and energy drinks. They told me to definitely head into the old La Fortuna mine, home of the largest Arizona gold supply, now decommissioned.

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 That hole is one of the main mine shafts. Supposedly about 1100’ deep, I’m glad it was fenced in. I was not interested in getting any closer. But seeing the shaft up close gave me chills, imagining what it must have been like being a mine worker stuck so far underground day after day in the pitch black, with potential burial by rock around every corner. Not an easy life.

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The long sandy rocky road sliced through the open desert for my final 10 miles on the Camino, ended at the bright green grass of a huge golf course. Big contrast in this moment, especially rolling onto fresh pavement from the rough road.

 

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Heading into Yuma, I felt like an alien riding my dusty dirty bike and self through the squeaky clean streets of the Foothills neighborhood. Perfect lawns. Big new houses. Over the top Christmas ornaments. Not much  pigment left in anyone’s hair other than the occasional strand of purple. Lots of license plates from the Northwest. Yep, I must have landed in a snowbird community.

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With countless RVs and RV dealerships along the highway nearby, my suspicions were confirned.

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Making my way across the city, I found the seedy part of town with the cheap motels. I chose to spend 2 nights in one, my 3rd hotel stay since leaving Seattle. It felt appropriate given the gravity of crossing the border out of the US from here.

The Camino Diablo was my last bikepacking trip in the USA for… perhaps a long time. It felt like both like a perfect exit from the comforts of my own country and a taste of the experience to come after crossing the border. while it was more dirt road bike touring than single track trail bike packing for the most part, I loved it. The Sonoran Desert is so full of beauty, peace and rich vegetation, it was a lovely way to see it one last time in all its glory.

13 Responses

  1. Louise Penberthy
    | Reply

    I absolutely love your interpretation of that thing you found (cactus spore, jawbone). Can I use it for my “I’m Curious about People” blog?

  2. Mom
    | Reply

    Thank you so much! Fantastic pix and commentary. You are a brave man!

  3. Scott Morris
    | Reply

    So great to meet you, Scott. Thanks for the kind words and for the trip report — I really enjoyed it.

    I’m really glad the Camino worked out for you. Very few have traversed it by bike and it’s kind of a shame.

    Looking forward to seeing where the rest of the journey brings you.

    Oh, and I’m also wondering how the ‘spoon’ sleeping bag is treating you. Do you like it?

    All the best,

    -Scott

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Hi Scott! Shitty Internet and dying phone mean short reply:

      Thanks again for te Diablo! It was awesome as was meeting you as well! Spoon bag turns out to be awesome. Super comfortable and still pretty compressible. I’ve not been cold yet but it hasn’t gotten below 40 anywhere I’ve alept since getting it.

      Keep in touch, I hope to see you again someday!!

      • Scott Morris
        | Reply

        Cool, thanks.

        BTW, Mexican insurance is just so you have coverage down there. US policies won’t cover it. Just as it’s a good idea to drive with insurance here, it’s a good idea in Mexico. Don’t think it say anything about the country itself. You see signs for “seguros USA” near the border too.

        Now to read your latest post into Baja!

        Happy trails!

  4. Bdz
    | Reply

    Holy moly! You are doing it! Thriving. Growing. Experiencing. Keep trusting your intuition. It’s basically the same in Spanish with more fresh mangos.

  5. Katherine
    | Reply

    Scott, it it a fantastic thing for you to take the time to photo, comment and share your trip. Thanks a million, and happy trails.

  6. David
    | Reply

    Hey dude. I’m glad to see you doing it man. I had the chance to have a beer and a good conversation with you at the brewery in Yuma. The pics of the Camino are awesome. Keep on tooling.

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Nice to hear from you David! That was a lovely last beer before crossing into the land of cheap mexican cerveza!

  7. Dana VanVoo
    | Reply

    Oh this is getting exciting! Loving your pics of the Sonoran and the Camino. Let the adventure continue. Viva Mexico!

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