In May 2001, a group of men attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, through the deadliest region of the continent, the "Devil's Highway." Three years later, Luis Alberto Urrea wrote about what happened to them. The result was a national bestseller, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a "book of the year" in multiple newspapers, and a work proclaimed as a modern American classic.
Related collections and offers
About the Author
He has won the Lannan Literary Award, an Edgar Award, and a 2017 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, among many other honors. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother, he lives outside of Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Read an Excerpt
The Devil's HighwayA True Story
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, BrownCopyright © 2004 Luis Urrea
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Rules of the Game
Five men stumbled out of the mountain pass so sunstruck they didn't know their own names, couldn't remember where they'd come from, had forgotten how long they'd been lost. One of them wandered back up a peak. One of them was barefoot. They were burned nearly black, their lips huge and cracking, what paltry drool still available to them spuming from their mouths in a salty foam as they walked. Their eyes were cloudy with dust, almost too dry to blink up a tear. Their hair was hard and stiffened by old sweat, standing in crowns from their scalps, old sweat because their bodies were no longer sweating. They were drunk from having their brains baked in the pan, they were seeing God and devils, and they were dizzy from drinking their own urine, the poisons clogging their systems.
They were beyond rational thought. Visions of home fluttered through their minds. Soft green bushes, waterfalls, children, music. Butterflies the size of your hand. Leaves and beans of coffee plants burning through the morning mist as if lit from within. Rivers. Not like this place where they'd gotten lost. Nothing soft here. This world of spikes and crags was as alien to them as if they'd suddenly awakened on Mars. They had seen cowboys cut open cacti to find water in the movies, but they didn't know what cactus among the many before them might hold some hope. Men tore their faces open chewing saguaros and prickly pears, leaving gutted plants that looked like animals had torn them apart with their claws. The green here was gray.
They were walking now for water, not salvation. Just a drink. They whispered it to each other as they staggered into parched pools of their own shadows, forever spilling downhill before them: Just one drink, brothers. Water. Cold water! They walked west, though they didn't know it; they had no concept anymore of destination. The only direction they could manage was through the gap they stumbled across as they cut through the Granite Mountains of southern Arizona. Now canyons and arroyos shuffled them west, toward Yuma, though they didn't know where Yuma was and wouldn't have reached it if they did.
They came down out of the screaming sun and broke onto the rough plains of the Cabeza Prieta wilderness, at the south end of the United States Air Force's Barry Goldwater bombing range, where the sun recommenced its burning. Cutting through this region, and lending its name to the terrible landscape, was the Devil's Highway, more death, another desert. They were in a vast trickery of sand.
In many ancient religious texts, fallen angels were bound in chains and buried beneath a desert known only as Desolation. This could be the place.
In the distance, deceptive stands of mesquite trees must have looked like oases. Ten trees a quarter mile apart can look like a cool grove from a distance. In the western desert, twenty miles looks like ten. And ten miles can kill. There was still no water; there wasn't even any shade.
Black ironwood stumps writhed from the ground. Dead for five hundred years, they had already been two thousand years old when they died. It was a forest of eldritch bones. The men had cactus spines in their faces, their hands. There wasn't enough fluid left in them to bleed. They'd climbed peaks, hoping to find a town, or a river, had seen more landscape, and tumbled down the far side to keep walking. One of them said, "Too many damned rocks." Pinches piedras, he said. Damned heat. Damned sun.
Now, as they came out of the hills, they faced the plain and the far wall of the Gila Mountains. Mauve and yellow cliffs. A volcanic cone called Raven's Butte that was dark, as if a rain cloud were hovering over it. It looked as if you could find relief on its perpetually shadowy flanks, but that too was an illusion. Abandoned army tanks, preserved forever in the dry heat, stood in their path, a ghostly arrangement that must have seemed like another bad dream. Their full-sun 110-degree nightmare.
"The Devil's Highway" is a name that has set out to illuminate one notion: bad medicine.
The first white man known to die in the desert heat here did it on January 18, 1541.
Most assuredly, others had died before. As long as there have been people, there have been deaths in the western desert. When the Devil's Highway was a faint scratch of desert bighorn hoof marks, and the first hunters ran along it, someone died. But the brown and red men who ran the paths left no record outside of faded songs and rock paintings we still don't understand.
Desert spirits of a dark and mysterious nature have always traveled these trails. From the beginning, the highway has always lacked grace-those who worship desert gods know them to favor retribution over the tender dove of forgiveness. In Desolation, doves are at the bottom of the food chain. Tohono O'Odham poet Ofelia Zepeda has pointed out that rosaries and Hail Marys don't work out here. "You need a new kind of prayers," she says, "to negotiate with this land."
The first time the sky and earth came together, Elder Brother, I'itoi, was born. He still resides in a windy cave overlooking the western desert, and he resents uninvited visitors. Mountains are called do'ags. In the side of one do'ag can be found the twin caves where the spirit of the evil witch, Ho'ok, hides. The coyote-spirit of the place is called Ban, and he works his wicked pranks in the big open spaces.
Everywhere, red shadows. Tiny men live underground, and they are known to the Yaqui Indians hereabouts as Surem. In the past, before the first white man died, uku, the devil, controlled all the corn until the crows stole it from him and let some of it slip so men could eat. Mexico's oldest hoodoo, La Llorona, the wailing ghost, has been heard rushing down nearby creek beds. And its newest hoodoo, the dreaded Chupacabras (the Goat Sucker), has been seen attacking animals, lurking in outhouses, and even jumping in bedroom windows to munch on sleeping children. An Apache witness said the Chupacabras was a whispering kangaroo. It said, "Come here." He swore it did.
The plants are noxious and spiked. Saguaros, nopales, the fiendish chollas. Each long cholla spike has a small barb, and they hook into the skin, and they catch in elbow creases and hook forearm and biceps together. Even the green mesquite trees have long thorns set just at eye level.
Much of the wildlife is nocturnal, and it creeps through the nights, poisonous and alien: the sidewinder, the rattlesnake, the scorpion, the giant centipede, the black widow, the tarantula, the brown recluse, the coral snake, the Gila monster. The kissing bug bites you and its poison makes the entire body erupt in red welts. Fungus drifts on the valley dust, and it sinks into the lungs and throbs to life. The millennium has added a further danger: all wild bees in southern Arizona, naturalists report, are now Africanized. As if the desert felt it hadn't made its point, it added killer bees.
Today, the ancient Hohokam have vanished, like the Anasazi, long gone in the north. Their etchings and ruins still dot the ground; unexplained radiating lines lead away from the center like ghost roads in the shape of a great star. Not all of these paths are ancient. Some of the lines have been made by the illegals, cutting across the waste to the far lights of Ajo, or Sells, or the Mohawk rest area on I-8. Others are old beyond dating, and no one knows where they lead. Footprints of long-dead cowboys are still there, wagon ruts and mule scuffs. And beneath these, the prints of the phantom Hohokam themselves.
In certain places, boulders form straight lines, arrayed along compass directions on the burning plains. Among these stones are old rock piles in the shapes of arrows. They were left by well-wishers in 1890, aiming at a tinaja (water hole) hidden among crags. Cairns that serve as mysterious signposts for messages long forgotten mix with ancient graves. Etchings made in the hardpan with feet or sticks form animals centuries old and only visible from the air. Some of these cairns have been put in place by Border Patrol signcutters (trackers), and they are often at the junction of two desert paths, but the cutters just smile when you ask what they mean. One more secret of Desolation.
When the white men came, they brought with them their mania for record keeping. They made their way across the land, subduing indigenous tribes, civilizing the frontier. Missionaries brought the gentle word of the Lamb. Cavalrymen bravely tamed the badlands, built military outposts, settlements, ranches, and towns. Cowboys rode like the wind. Gunslingers fell. The worst bandits you could imagine drank rotgut and shot sheriffs, yet lived on in popular mythology and became the subjects of popular songs and cheap fictions. Railroads followed, and the great cattle drives, and the dusty range wars, and the discovery of gold and silver. In the great north woods, lumberjacks collected the big trees. The Alamo. The Civil War took out countless citizens in its desperate upheaval.
Every Tijuana schoolkid knows it: it's the history of Mexico.
If the North American continent was broad ("high, wide, and lonesome"), then Mexico was tall. High, narrow, and lonesome. Europeans conquering North America hustled west, where the open land lay. And the Europeans settling Mexico hustled north. Where the open land was.
Immigration, the drive northward, is a white phenomenon. White Europeans conceived of and launched El Norte mania, just as white Europeans inhabiting the United States today bemoan it. They started to complain after the Civil War. The first illegal immigrants to be hunted down in Desolation by the earliest form of the Border Patrol were Chinese. In the 1880s, American railroad barons needed cheap skilled labor to help "tame our continent." Mexico's Chinese hordes could be hired for cheap, yet they could earn more in the United States than in Mexico, even at cut rates. Jobs opened, word went out, the illegals came north. Sound familiar?
Americans panicked at the "yellowing" of America. A force known as the Mounted Chinese Exclusionary Police took to the dusty wasteland. They chased the "coolies" and deported them. And today?
Sinful frontier towns with bad reputations. Untamed mountain ranges, bears, lions, and wolves. Indians. A dangerous border. Inhabitants speak with a cowpoke twang, listen to country music, dance the two-step, favor cowboy hats, big belt buckles, and pickup trucks. That ain't Texas, it's Sonora.
Sonoita (also known as Sonoyta) was perhaps not much more than sticks and mud, but it was a stopping point for a Spanish expedition in search of, what else, gold. Even in 1541, Sonoita was the unwilling host of killers and wanderers. The leader of this clanking Spaniard patrol was a firebrand known as Melchior Diaz. He didn't especially want to spend his holidays in the broiling dust of Sonoita, but he was deep into hostile territory. It was commonly believed that the natives of the Devil's Highway devoured human children. The Spaniards weren't planning on settling-spread the cross around, throw up a mission, and hit the road in search of better things.
Melchior Diaz was trying to reach the Sea of Cortez, lying between the Mexican mainland and Baja California. Perhaps he knew that ahead of him lay the most hellish stretch of land in the entire north. The dirt paths he rode his horse down on that day are now the paved and semipaved barrio lanes of modern Sonoita. Some of the hubcap-popping boulders in Sonoita's hillside alleys are the same rocks on which Melchior's horse's shoes struck sparks.
He died trying to kill a dog. He probably didn't have anything against canines-his troop had dogs that they used to hunt down game and humans. But there were also the feral creatures that dashed in from the out-skirts of the settlement to slaughter his sheep. Melchior Diaz kept his sheep in small brush corrals, attended by his Indian slaves. But the wild dogs had a way of sneaking off with lambs when nobody was looking.
And Melchior was cranky. He had spent his holidays far from home, among the savages, and even Tucson was only a small scattering of huts and lean-tos. He couldn't have been farther from Mexico City or Spain. Sonoita was the end of the world. A Christmas in this outpost did not inspire joy. Besides, conquistadores were notoriously short on joie de vivre.
Melchior rode well, and he rode well armed. He certainly carried a sword and a fighting dagger. He probably carried a harquebus and a long metal-tipped lance, the M16 of the day.
Melchior was a strong man and a powerful fighter. In the narratives of the Coronado expedition, we see him plying his trade: "... the horsemen began to overtake [the Indians] and the lances cut them down mercilessly ... until not a man was to be seen." This rout of natives serves as the preface to the story of death that begins with Melchior Díaz.
We know that he was riding his horse down one of the settlement paths. We can project the smells swirling around him: horse, dirt, his own stink, chickens, smoke, dung. Not all that different from the smells of today.
He was approaching his sheep pen, perhaps where the Asi Es Mi Tierra taco shop, or a Pemex station stands today. Melchior squinted ahead and-Damn it to hell!-those lazy slaves of his had allowed a dog to get in the pen!
No record states how Melchior entered the pen, but it doesn't seem likely he stopped to open a gate. Not Melchior. He jumped over the fence, and in jumping, somehow he bobbled his lance throw and missed the dog entirely. You can see the dog yipping and sidestepping and making tracks for the horizon, casting wounded looks over his shoulder. And here is where Melchior Diaz died. The record states that Melchior, somehow, "passed over" the lance. Did he fall from the horse? No one knows, but the lance managed to penetrate his gut and rip him open.
The desert ground must have seemed terribly hard as he hit it. As Melchior died (it took twenty gruesome days)on his stinking cot, he burned and howled. Flies settled in his entrails. Maybe the very dog that killed him drew near to sniff the rich meaty scent. The fallen angels of Desolation came out of the Cabeza Prieta, folded their hands over him, and smiled.
The land had been haunted before Melchior died, and it remained haunted afterward; 150 years after his death, Catholic apparitions plagued the tribes. Various peoples had alarming encounters with meddlesome white women who flew above their heads. In the lands of the O'Odham, a white woman bearing a cross came drifting down the Devil's Highway itself. The warriors who saw her immediately did the only practical thing they could: they filled her with arrows. They said she refused to die. Kept on flying.
Excerpted from The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea Copyright © 2004 by Luis Urrea. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.