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.
What was originally a 250-mile track from Sonora to Yuma now covers 130 miles through the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, but it remains unpaved. The road wanders in and out of the best and worst the desert has to offer. It’s a Jeep trail, rutted and two-track most of the way. It’s no place for a machine like the Triumph Street Scrambler.
This bike is beautiful, its silver and maroon tank a glittering piece of hard candy. So vivid and man-made it’s almost obscene against the muted colors of dust and stone. A scrambler is the original multi-tool, a motorcycle that’s made to do all things: weather the daily commute, sit pretty in front of your favorite coffee shop, and rip off toward the hills when work turns to hell and the cafés get crowded. But with rare exceptions, most modern scramblers lack the suspension travel for serious abuse. What happens when we turn this Triumph against El Camino Del Diablo? Will it add its name to the long list of the road’s dead?
There was paperwork to do before setting off, namely a permit from the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma. The Barry M. Goldwater Range is a nest of dangers: Unexploded ordnance, open mine shafts, and an active laser range add to the desert’s usual fangs, spines, and heat. We didn’t just sign our names on a dotted line. We initialed 14 different clauses, the most important of which stressed that the government holds no responsibility for any injury, bodily harm, or loss of life we might experience. Comforting, if expected.
The first 5 miles were tough. The road crossed several dry streambeds, all littered with small, rolling rocks that came reaching for that pretty red tank. This was the roughest terrain the bike had ever seen, and by the time we made it to Fortuna Mine around mile seven, we were both ready for a break. There’s a massive, dry reservoir there built from hundreds of stacked stones, all cut and laid by hand to keep the silver mine fed with water. The town that cropped up around the strike flashed and faded, its post office remaining open for just eight years from 1896 to 1904.
The road smoothed after a few more rocky creek beds, its stones replaced with another challenge: inconsistent sand. Red and white signs lined the road, their block letters shouting: “Danger: Military Reservation – Unexploded Ordnance – Laser Range In Use.” But there was no time to wonder what a laser range is. The sand shifted from hardpack to sugar fine in a heartbeat, the Triumph’s front tire threatening to washout constantly. It demanded a careful line and keeping feet off the pegs in case we had to save a fall.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves at Tule Well. In 1860, Sonoran entrepreneur built the well and the low adobe house that stands there. He and his family sold water to travelers for two years, but it wasn’t enough to stem the tide of people dying of thirst along El Camino. Its ditches were littered with bleached horse bones. Its banks were lined with stone crosses of those fortunate enough for a burial. Now, a Boy Scout marker sits on a nearby hill. I ate my lunch on a picnic bench beneath the windmill and rode on.
The land out here changes by the mile. One instant it’s a wide and flat desert plain. The next it’s steep granite mountains. In another, the road punches through the Pinacate Lava Flow, a spill of jagged igneous rocks, all of them black and eager to turn tires to ribbons. After so much change, I should have been ready for anything, but after surviving the sharp stones, the path narrowed, dropping into a muddy two-track with standing water on either side of the road.
There was no clear line; the road was completely underwater. The bike began to sink and lose traction. The only choice was to turn around and find a drier route.
This, in a place with an average annual rainfall of 2 or 3 inches.
But the muck was the last big test The Devil’s Road would throw my way. Soon the road turned clean and clear and smoother than ever. We were building speed and covering ground, a welcome change. Thanks go to the Border Patrol. Agents drag a matrix of cabled tires behind their vehicles in an effort to make spotting footprints easier. It also does away with washboards and gullies, and the Triumph was glad of their effort. It wasn’t long before we began spotting forward operating bases, little collections of small, prefabricated buildings and service vehicles draped in the agency’s green on white livery.
Wells became more frequent as we rode east, reliable markers for the miles we’d covered. First, Papago Well, nothing more than a windmill and a tank, then Bates Well, with its battered wooden fence and tired old home. We took a break there, 130 miles from where we first left the asphalt back in Yuma, a universe away. We put the kickstand down on the Street Scrambler and walked up to the open front door, following the ghosts that had called this place home. There was nothing inside but dust, an empty pantry, and a few abandoned appliances, the things too heavy or worthless to carry. The sun began to set, its long rays filtering through the open door, quietly telling us to get going before the desert turned dark and cold.
We overnighted in Ajo, an art town on the teetering edge of one of the largest open pit mines in the United States, and aimed the Street Scrambler back the way we came through the cold morning air the next day. Trekking over the now-familiar challenges of El Camino Del Diablo was easier this time. A little knowledge goes a long way.
We waved at the Border Patrol agents we saw, their faces long with hours of night-shift duty, and stopped here and there to warm our hands on the Triumph’s exhaust as the sun rose over the thin shapes of stovepipe cacti. We were a long way from our daily commute. A lifetime from the crowded café on the corner. Perfectly at home on the Street Scrambler.