Traversing the Devil’s Highway

John ThomasAhead of us the twin blacktop lanes of Route 80 slash across the high desert of the San Pedro River Basin before winding up the west side of the craggy Mule Mountains. This is ranching land in Cochise County, the scrap of Arizona that abuts Mexico on the south and New Mexico on the east.  Named for the famed Apache leader, this is home to Tombstone, the Boot Hill Cemetery, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and, well, the entire Wild West legend. In a process initiated in 1853 with Ambassador James Gadsden’s signature on what would come to be called the Gadsden Purchase, the surrounding territory became part of the United States when President Franklin Pierce signed the treaty the following year. The territory’s honeymoon with the United States wasn’t peaceful. Settler and Apache conflict always smoldered and often blazed, boomtowns like Tombstone attracted risk takers and law breakers, and cattle rustling was the reigning leisure pursuit.

Cochise County was the epicenter of this tempestuous time period and our road traverses a land littered with Native American burial grounds, the corpses of those who discovered that they were not the fastest gun in the west, and the sad remnants of failed homesteads. But, we also pass success stories of American expansion – lovely ranch houses surrounded by huge cottonwood trees, cattle grazing peacefully, and cowboys out on the range doing what cowboys have always done – before reaching 6,000 feet of elevation at Mule Pass and rolling down the other side into Tombstone Canyon and the mile-high mining town of Bisbee.

“El Camino del Diablo,” or “The Devil’s Highway,” passes just to the west of these lands. The 250 mile trail, originally a Native American footpath, marks the routes of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in the 1500s for his soul sacrificing search for the City of Gold and of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino’s soul saving quest in the 1600s.  In recent times, though, El Camino del Diablo has worked its evil on the migrants making their way to what they hope will be a better life. It’s a desolate path littered with grave markers and the detritus of the desperate.

The Camino cuts a wider swath than the footpath of a half millennium ago and the effects of El Diablo’s labors are evident here, too. It was here that a decade ago the vigilante border patrol group, the Minuteman Project, sprang to life. And though the group formally disbanded several years ago, even more radicalized citizen groups still patrol the border and humanitarian groups have reported violent encounters with them. On the other hand, ranchers report that the migrants commit break-ins and more violent acts. Recent grave markers in this area bear witness to continuing presence of evil.

Sometimes that evil has risen out of the landscape and loomed over the populace, casting a dark shadow from the Mule Mountains of Cochise County to the Sierra Madres in Sonora.

In an attempt to illuminate the Devil’s Highway, this book’s narrative inhabits a multicultural/multilingual canvas that spans an international border and alights in prairies, bluffs, fields, homes, back allies, and alongside the border fence. In the glaring desert sun, on comfy back porches, and under the cover of darkness, we’ll sit at the feet of ranchers, miners, drug smugglers, struggling families, conceptual artists, cowboys, cooks, and anyone along the way who will share with us their stories. Using the voices of older members of the borderlands communities as a prism, we’ll endeavor to peer through the mists of time and cultural transformation to gain an understanding of a century of life and death along the US/Mexico border.

I began fashioning this tale under the gloom of a rising Donald Trump candidacy that I, and nearly everyone else, thought unlikely to succeed. But, prevail he did. Now, we face the prospect of a “big, beautiful wall” along the US/Mexico border. Or, maybe not. The deportation of twelve to thirteen million people. Or, maybe not. The exclusion of immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries. Or, maybe not. In any event, at least for a while, we’ve probably seen the last of that nation referenced in the Emma Lazarus sonnet, “The New Colossus,” inscribed on Lady Liberty’s tablet.

I aim to illuminate what once existed and to explore an evolving new terrain.

Saddle up.


I’ll be on the road telling tales of the borderlands wherever folks might be willing to listen. So far, I’ve presented aspects of this work at these conferences:

February 10-13, 2016: 37th Annual Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel and Conference Center in Albuquerque, NM.

April 13-16, 201658th Annual Conference of the Association for Borderlands Studies, held in conjunction with the conference of Western Social Science Association, Grand Sierra Resort and Casino Reno, Nevada.

June 1-4, 2016: 62nd annual conference of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), held in conjunction with the 60th annual conference of Spanish Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Association (AEPNYA), San Sebastian, Spain.

August 2-4, 201611th International Conference on Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Imperial College London, London, UK


(1941 Mercury photo credit: Emmy De Wilde-Deuteko)