In the fall of 1860, a young man named Raphael Pumpelly rode a stagecoach west to Tucson, Arizona, to begin his job as an engineer at the Santa Rita copper mine, close to the Mexican border. The coach, overloaded with strangers, drove non-stop for two weeks, pausing only long enough to change teams of horses. Pumpelly arrived, exhausted, in what had been Mexican territory less than ten years earlier, made part of the United States in the Gadsden Purchase.
He soon found the territory lawless and filled with danger. The authorities were virtually non-existent, and many of the white settlers were “ruffians and gamblers” come to escape the law and the encroachments of more civilized society. The Mexican laborers who worked the promising silver mines south of Tucson were perpetually killing their Anglo bosses. Every mine in the district had experienced murder “for the sake of plunder.” The Apaches led constant raids and ambushes. By Pumpelly’s account “murder was the order of the day … committed by Americans upon Americans, Mexicans and Indians; by Mexicans upon Americans; and the hand of the Apache was, not without much reason, against both of the intruding races.” He escaped death several times, often by a matter of minutes.
Arizona was the first leg of a journey that would later take Pumpelly around the world. He was among the earliest Western visitors to Japan, and traveled extensively in China. His memoir Across America and Asia became a bestseller in the 1870s, thrilling readers with its tales of adventure and near-death experiences. But the tales from the year he spent in Arizona, culminating with his escape to California via the Camino del Diablo, were among the most hair-raising.
The “road of the devil” was one of the region’s most dangerous routes, a historic trail partly paralleling the current U.S.–Mexico border and terminating at the Colorado River, notorious for its remoteness, extreme heat and lack of water. Hundreds died trying to cross 130 miles of open desert where survival often depended on finding water in tinajas, or “tanks,” the stone waterholes hidden among steep mountain slopes.
My involvement with the area began around 1990, when I found a copy of Pumpelly’s book about the same time I discovered that it was still possible to travel the Camino in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Most of the route today is located on the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. To get the necessary permits, visitors must watch a video about being self-reliant in extreme conditions, protecting the natural resources, and avoiding potentially deadly munitions still present in the desert after decades of military exercises. The BMGR has been the premier desert training ground for the Air Force and Marines since the 1940s. Air-to-air and air-to-ground training has left the land with artifacts common to war zones: bombs, rockets fragments, shell casings and shrapnel.
Training continues on ever-smaller sections of the range, which are strictly controlled, but the largest areas are used only for flyovers and can thus be accessed by anyone willing to sign a waiver holding the government harmless in case of accident or stupidity. The range has both preserved and scarred the largest and most beautiful areas of the Sonoran Desert left in the United States.
Much of my work as a photographer has centered on a conversation with historical images. For example, I’ve traced the locations of photographs taken for the western geological surveys of the 1860s and ’70s, in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and by the early photographers of Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks; and I’ve made new photographs from the exact location of the originals, sometimes replicating the light and time of day and year. I’ve also traced the past more abstractly through the history of ruins, such as the once secret airbase at Wendover, Utah, that was used to train the World War II bomber crews who dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. In each case the goal was to relate the present to the past, and to question our understanding of how history is conveyed through images.
For this project I revisited the Camino del Diablo to compare how my experience related to Pumpelly’s narrative, 132 years later. It was impossible to find exactly where the young engineer walked, rode and spent his time, so my photographs don’t respond to his adventures in the form of a literal reference to specific places or events. Rather, I was interested in a more poetic response to our shared experience of the Arizona desert, which connects us through time.
There are parallels. From a distance, we are entertained to read of the human dangers Pumpelly experienced: the murderers and scoundrels he met, his pursuit by Mexican bandits, his close escapes from Indian ambushes, his crossing of the Camino during the hottest part of the summer. Today, the border is a militarized zone constantly patrolled by government agents and crisscrossed by air and ground forces practicing for war. Camino travelers often hide from detection, be they immigrants or drug smugglers moving north under the cover of night or the ruggedness of the terrain. Indian reservations create boundaries and mark other cultural divides. A still hostile climate kills many who dare travel in hot weather. (Luis Urrea’s book The Devil’s Highway tells the story of 26 men from Veracruz, Mexico, who attempted a border crossing; only 12 survived.)
The Camino has an occupied feel that registers the history of violence and surveillance along the border. There’s a legacy of human presence, sometimes tragedy, left only in traces. Signs of passage remain for centuries in Arizona’s dry climate. It is a place located at the compelling intersection of transience, danger and beauty.