This place was a piñon and juniper forest 12,000 years ago. It was as green and gorgeous as the conifer forests outside of Flagstaff, some 300 miles from where we stand on the edge of a housing development outside of Yuma, Arizona. Now there is nothing but scrub and cactus, dry washes, rocks, and sugar sand, all of it presided over by the occasional abandoned mine like a gap-toothed maw in the hills. It is easily one of the most remote and unforgiving stretches of land anywhere in the United States, a vast sprawl of nothing with one road through the heart of it: El Camino del Diablo.
The Devil’s Road is one of the oldest in America, having been in use centuries before Europe stumbled onto our continent. It was the domain of a handful of native people over the millennia, a string of wells and tinajas (natural water tanks) hanging on the border of Quechan territory when the Spanish made their way across the Sonoran Desert in 1520. And, when the world found that California could quench its thirst for gold, thousands of migrants walked its sands on their way north to dream fortunes. The road earned its bleak moniker in the 1800s. Historians estimate as many as 2,000 people died along the route, primarily due to thirst.