Before we all realized the great changes that were in store for us due to the increasing spread of COVID-19, six friends and I set out for a 3-day bike ride on the historic El Camino Del Diablo. The El Camino Del Diablo is believed to have started as a series of footpaths used by desert-dwelling Native Americans. Today, the Camino Del Diablo is a road only a lonely few have traveled that runs along Arizona’s southern border in a remote section of the Sonoran Desert. With signatures signed, safety videos watched, permits printed and a shuttle set, the crew was ready to roll out.
The El Camino passes through Organ Pipe National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Goldwater Bombing Range. We started our ride just outside Ajo on Darby Well Road, a desolate dirt road that we would follow until we hit the border of Oregon Pipe. The lack of water available along the route required us to be strategic in our planning. The goal on Day 1 was to ride to our first water stop at Papago Well and evaluate how the group was feeling but hoped to get another 10 miles under us before finding camp. Between Papago Well and camp we passed O’Neill’s grave which was the final resting place for David O’Neill, a pioneer who is rumored to have died after his burros wandered off sometime around 1916. As we took in that sight a couple of Border Patrol trucks blasted by and a Border Patrol helicopter circled the area. No shortage of excitement there.
As we started to ride off, one of the trucks stopped to apologize, “Sorry to keep buzzing you guys, but we had a rescue situation and were having problems locating them”. With all that activity behind us, we continued to head down the trail. As I crested one of the small rolling hills there was a gentleman in camo standing right in the road. He was standing somewhat puffy chested holding a black water bottle, as our eyes locked I decided to slow my roll just a bit to let a few more of the crew catch up. He gave us the motion to pass by and as we did Todd blurted out, “You good?” to which the gentleman in camo replied “La Migra” and “Coyote”.
There were plenty of signs along the way warning us of such activities, but honestly, I didn’t expect to see it. Another 30 minutes or so down the trail we found our first camp for the night nestled between a mountain range and Hwy 2 that runs through Northern Mexico. The desert was in full bloom due to recent rains which made the “golden hour” from camp that much more spectacular.
Day 2 started with a beautiful ride weaving between sandy washes and forests of saguaros all with an incredible backdrop of the Agua Dulce Mountains. After twenty miles of serene riding we hit our first water source for the day at Tule Wells, which along with a water spigot had a small casita and picnic table that made for a prime spot for lunch. Things changed once we left Tule Wells. We had enjoyed 75 miles of riding through sublime wilderness, but now we were greeted by road graters and construction vehicles widening and leveling the road to accommodate the big rigs hauling the new Border Wall in.
Over the next 10 miles, we were passed by several of those semis with the wall in tow sending over big wave size clouds of dust that just seemed to engulf us. After what felt like the longest and possibly the most dangerous leg of the journey we met back up with the Camino and our final water supply at Tinajas Altas “High Tanks”, but unlike the other water sources, these were simply pools in the rocks that held water. Our final camp was a few miles down the road on the Goldwater Bombing Range. Regulations kept us from setting camp further than 50 feet from the road, but we were lucky enough to find a great flat spot nestled up against the rocks and out of the late afternoon sun and we enjoyed another spectacular golden hour. Scrambling around the rocks near camp, we stumbled upon one of the “unexploded ordnances” the safety video warned us about. This was definitely a wild place.
We knew the forecast for Day 3 was a “slight” chance of showers, but it’s the desert, how much can it actually rain? We woke to the sun lighting up the surrounding mountains with a pretty dark backdrop which only made the sun look brighter and that slight chance of showers more imminent. We were lucky enough to get camp packed up before a sprinkle of rain started. The further we rode the more those sprinkles turned to legit rain. It had been amazing to watch the desert come alive with all the flowers and blooms, but now it was coming alive with water crumbling the dirt sides along the road and turning our way out into a river.
The arroyos were filling up to the point that on a few occasions the water was deep enough to cover the drivetrains on our bikes. That 30 miles felt much longer than it was, but at last we arrived at our shuttle vehicle. We were lucky enough to leave a van at the home of Dannie Nall, who was a pro cyclist in the 70’s & 80’s. Now we didn’t know Dannie, so we were just hoping we would be able to dry off & get some fresh clothes on in his garage, but he & his wife Debbie went way beyond that. They gave us hot showers, beer and even cooked up burgers, which was an amazing surprise.
We stayed as long as we could, but our day wasn’t quite over, we still needed to get back to where the adventure began. In order to get 7 bikes and people back to Ajo, we rented a U-haul box truck and were on our way. We arrived in Ajo cold and exhausted, we separated our gear in the parking lot of the local grocery, said quick goodbyes and went our separate ways in the dark, rainy evening.
Todd & I headed back to Darby Well Road for the night and after setting up camp I popped by his van to recount the crazy day we had. We enjoyed a few beers and laughs and as if on cue, Merle Haggard’s “Every Fool Has a Rainbow” came on the radio, an appropriate way to end this amazing adventure.