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Halloween is Coming: Beware of the Devil’s Highway

by Peg Matteson, Maverick Arizona Historian

Oooooooo… oh yes, beware of the Devil’s Highway! Where is that you ask? Well, stay with me and you will soon find out!

The Devil’s Highway is not shown on any modern-day maps, and just as well, for you don’t want to travel it especially with Halloween just around the corner. The few who have come across its lengthy unmarked route still have nightmares about the ghosts they’ve seen there struggling along the old road, now mostly forgotten. If you look at a road map of Arizona, you’ll notice in the southwestern corner of the state an empty triangle – containing no paved roads nor marked trails—north of the Mexican border, south of Interstate 8 and west of State Highway 85. Actually, only just south of Yuma do roads exist in this large triangle. In the olden days, the Spanish and Mexicans called it El Camino del Diablo—the Devil’s Highway—and indeed it earned this name. Some historians claim that four or more thousand people may have met their deaths along this road, which would make it the most deadly route in North America.

Who named it Devil’s Highway to start with? It was given that name by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Austrian-born Jesuit priest who made 14 journeys into southern Arizona between 1692 and his death in 1711. This is when he mapped this particular area as he was very interested in finding a route from his headquarters mission in Sonora, Mexico to the Pacific Coast, crossing the lower Colorado River. The best route in terms of water supply would have been north from the Sonoyta River to Gila River—where the Gila River takes a right-angled bend and begins flowing west toward Yuma. Unfortunately, the Gila Valley was in the hands of the Apache, who killed anyone stupid enough to cross their lands.

The Devil’s Highway crossed lifeless, waterless country south of the Gila and also must cross a series of mountain ranges. It is said that the ruts left in the rocks by wagon wheels can still be seen along old Devil’s Highway (like the old roads the Mormon Trail took through the White Mountains) along with many rectangular piles of rocks marking the graves of those who did not survive the journey.

Those adventurous campers who have explored the desert crossed by the infamous Devil’s Highway report seeing a gruesome apparition, a gaunt oxen and mules, their hides loose and sagging from dehydration, wearily drag wagons along this devil’s road. The people in the wagons stare blindly out of sunken eye sockets. Their chalky, swollen tongues protrude between dry, cracked lips. “Water!” they moan, “Water—we need water!” The pitiful caravan lurches down the trail, eternally seeking water in one of America’s driest and most unforgiving deserts. Never finding water, they remain the damned of the desert.

Now aren’t you glad that the Devil’s Highway is so tough to find? Actually you really don’t want to find it. But, on the other hand, it IS part of our beautiful state of Arizona, our state with a heart. Have a fun Halloween! See ya next month!