The Road Not Taken

I haven’t even begun my Discovery Ride in Arizona with its theme of immigration, and I’m already regretting the road not taken.  When first planning my trip, I wanted to travel the Camino del Diablo, the Devil’s Highway, along the Arizona-Mexico border, but as it happens I couldn’t take that road.

The Devil's Highway by Luis UrreaPart of the inspiration for my Discovery Ride was the book The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea.

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, it is the gripping true account of twenty-six Mexican immigrants - fathers, brothers and sons - who tried to cross into the United States across the Sonoran desert.  Only twelve survived.  The account is a moving story of courage and strength of men trying to better their lives and support their families, and it vividly describes the faces and souls of modern immigration in Arizona.  So naturally I wanted to travel the Camino del Diablo.

The Devil’s Highway is believed to follow Native American footpaths dating back at least 1,000 years.  Today, it remains an unpaved trail originating near Yuma and crosses the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, ending at Ajo, Arizona.

The trail is never more than a few miles from the border.  You can read an account of a trip along the route from a few years ago in National Geographic.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost
Map of The Devil's HighwayThe first European to describe the area was Captain Melchior Díaz, a member of Coronado's expedition, who, in 1540, led a group north to California.  He didn’t survive the trip, and his death was the first recorded on El Camino del Diablo.  The route was rediscovered in 1699, when one of the toughest of all the European explorers, Jesuit Padre Eusebio Kino, mapped the region and traveled the trail several times.  But then it fell into disuse until 1848, when gold was discovered in California, and the Devil’s Highway seemed like a southern shortcut to riches.

So starting about 1850, fortune hunters set out along the Devil's Highway.  Raphael Pumpelly, a Harvard professor who crossed El Camino del Diablo on horseback in 1860, estimated that the dead at Tinajas Altas, one of the few water holes along the trail, numbered 2,000 (after 18 miles in the desert heat many travelers died at the water's edge).  In 1853 the U.S. bought a large area of New Mexico and southern Arizona from Mexico (the Gadsden Purchase) to ensure safety for a railroad line to the Pacific.  A member of the International Boundary Commission after later surveying the area, put the number of dead at Tinajas Altas at 400. Whatever the actual figure, the International Boundary Commission declared that the deaths at Tinajas Altas were "a record probably without parallel in North America."  After the trains lines were completed, the trail fell into disuse for over a century.

Deaths on The Devil's HighwayHowever, in the late 1980s, the deaths began anew. As Arizona-Mexico border surveillance, walls, and alien arrests increased at the urban border crossing sites, illegal immigrants were funneled into more desolate crossing areas like the Devil’s Highway.

So today, people die in the desert nearly every week. The organization Humane Borders has documented and mapped 1,755 deaths along the Arizona-Mexico border in the decade between 1999 and 2009.

Friends and family advised me not to take the route on my trip, arguing that the risks of travel by solo motorcycle were too great.  In the end, my plan to travel the trail in May was moot.  The highway is closed annually by the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge from March through July, during Sonoran pronghorn fawning season. The Camino del Diablo became my road not taken.

The Devil's HighwaySo you can imagine my distress when I learned that the literary inspiration for my trip, The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea, had been banned from the Tucson public school system.

In 2010, the Arizona state legislature prohibited any school district from offering instruction that promoted the overthrow of US government, promoted resentment toward any race or class, advocated ethnic solidarity instead of being individuals, or was designed for a certain ethnicity.

The Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, believed that the Tucson Mexican-American Studies program was teaching "destructive ethnic chauvinism."  In January 2011, Horne reported Tucson Unified School District to be out of compliance with the law, and the school’s Mexican-American Studies program was banned.  Moreover, all the books related to the program were also found in violation of the law and were removed from schools and placed in district storehouses.  The banned books included five books by Luis Urrea, most sadly The Devil’s Highway.  The book banning stimulated Tony Diaz, a Houston teacher and activist, to become a Librotrafficante, or book smuggler, by organizing a caravan bringing the offensive books from Texas to Tucson.

The students of Tucson may not be able to experience The Devil’s Highway, and I may not be able to travel the Camino del Diablo, but I urge you take that route nevertheless.  Don’t let The Devil’s Highway be your road not taken.  Read it for yourself.  It will make all the difference.

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