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Dancing with the Devil for National Public lands Day

The story of this event was published in the December 2009 Issue of JPFreek Adventure Magazine

National Public Lands Day was September 25th and National Parks, National Forests, BLM lands, National Wildlife Reserves and more from coast to coast were teeming with volunteers from all walks of life.    This is the day that friends and people from both sides of the fence worked side by side on projects ranging from clean ups to trail repair/maintenance, interpretive projects, sign installation/replacements and other worthy  projects. was one of the volunteer organizations that provided man power and resources for projects on “The Devils Highway” in southern Arizona.    Uh huh,  you thought “the Devil” in the title meant something else……….gotcha!


The Devils Highway, the El Camino Del Diablo as the locals call it, is a desolate 140 or so miles of trail that stretch from Ajo, AZ to Yuma, AZ.   It has been used by Indians, Spaniards, Clergy, Explorers and settlers for over 400 years.   Today much of it lies on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge (NWR but parts of it are in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Park and the Barry Goldwater Gunnery Range.   In our modern day the Devils Highway is used mostly by the Border Patrol, off-road enthusiasts and unfortunately illegal immigrants and smugglers. 


The El Camino has special importance to the members of Jeep Expeditions in that it was the clubs very first organized trip.   In 2006 when the trip was planned,  the 30 Jeepers who took part on this 3 day trip never thought that the club would have transformed into the organization today.   Every year on the anniversary of that 1st trip, a number of members again “dance with the Devil” and relive those three days in Feb 2007.


But today, some of our members will spend 2 days on the Devils Highway for a different purpose,  volunteering to take care of the trail that brought us together.    When the call came for volunteers for this project I immediately contacted Margot Bissel the Public Use Assistant there.   We discussed what was needed and determined the number of people required and the planning for our weekend of service began.


The project was simple.    There were 6 to 8 signs that needed removed and replaced with new signs.   One each at the east and west ends of the NWR and a few more at other access areas into the NWR.   Sounded simple enough we can meet up on Friday at a base camp near Ajo, AZ and complete our project on Saturday before dark.   The feeling that 6 volunteers would be what we would need to complete the work, counting a Boy Scout and his friend we had 7.


Friday night 5 of us left Phoenix around 4:30,  we knew the location of our Friday night camp was about 1 mile from the highway on Bates Well Road.   What we didn't expect was how difficult the faint trail would be to find after dark.    At near the 1 mile mark we stopped.   As I was surveying the area with my 3 mil candle power spotlight,  Lance yelled out "hey Mike, I found a sidewinder next to my Jeep".   Uh huh, it was no sidewinder as the light shining on it confirmed it was a real life diamond back rattle snake!  And Lance almost stepped on it.


Now as rattlesnakes go, it was kind of a baby,  not much more than maybe 30" long,  a body not much thicker than a plump hot dog and I wondered  if its small head could open up enough to get around my thumb.   Well none of us was willing to find out if it could bite us but the snake was now crawling up Lances tire and making a home between his wheel and the brake drum.


Being the stewards of the environment,  we were concerned about the safety of a critter that would not think twice of striking a lethal blow to any of us given the chance.   Finding a long stick I gently pushed the rattler out from the wheel and back on the ground which did not make him happy.   It kept trying to get back up and I kept moving him away.   I thought it was strange that while the rattle was moving very quickly that it didn't rattle but made a loud hum.   We were later told that the loud hum is to let you know that he was very displeased with you.  With time and patience we got the snake away from the Jeep and we were able to leave the snake safely behind.


We found the trail to our campsite just a few yards down the road and followed it in.   It's amazing  how things look so much different at night than in the day.  After a quarter mile or so we thought we had reached our camp but at day break we realized that it was about 100 yards up the trail yet.  Oh well,  the spot we stopped at was a good sized camp for 5 of us.  


Tents set up and dinners made we sat by the campfire cooking marshmallows with Lance talking of Snipe Hunts and other Boy Scout "myths" to the two youth.  I think they played along with him and didn't buy the stories of the 25 foot lizards that came out of the mine we camped next to at night looking for food or the snipes.   In any case they made for good campfire stories and it wasn't too long that our youngest volunteers called it a night.   A few hours later after some good conversation the adults realized it was nearly midnight and that 6 am was going to come sooner than later and we called it a night.


It never fails when I camp.  No matter how tired I am or how late I stayed up the night before I can't sleep past 6.   Today was no different.   I think by 6am all of us were stirring,  working on breakfast and by 7 am we were breaking camp.    It wasn't long and we heard the sound of a vehicle coming our way.  It was Sam and his new Rubicon JK.   We chatted for a while and headed to the Visitors Center for the Cabeza Prieta NWR to meet Margot Bissell the volunteer coordinator.


As we arrived at the NWR HQ we picked up Jake, another club member of Jeep Expeditions and were greeted by Margot.    Being a great host, Margot had fresh coffee for those who wanted it.   Once settled in the conference room she explained the project, had a project folder for us with pictures, handed out maps and other information and thanked us for our participation.    By 9 am we were on the road to our 1st stop about 26 miles into the trail.


NWR maintenance made things easy for us in that they dropped off all of the new signs and supplies at each location.   They also removed all but one of the old signs which also saved us time.    Within a few minutes we were able to have the new composite sign installed and the protective film removed from it.   The ceramic coated steel signs at the kiosk was a different story.   In order to install the new frames,  we would need a drill and drill bits, something that we were not aware of and unfortunately something we didn’t have with us.   Having done what we could and with the success of the large sign installed, the dusty trail invited us to the next sign.


Within a few miles we came along our 3rd encounter with Border Patrol officers.   This time two trucks parked just off the trail.   As a courtesy we stopped to say hello and found out that they had at least one prisoner in custody.    Being as this time of year is cooler the activity of illegal crossing increase they told us to pay attention to our surroundings.  With their advice in hand,  we continued down the trail passing several more officers in both trucks and “Rhino” type vehicles.


While most of the Devils Highway is sand there are some areas of rock and the “famous” moondust.  Moondust is a powdered silt that resembles a fine talcum powder, only brown.   Once vehicles hit the moondust, you have to leave a huge gap between Jeeps in order to see anything.   Visibility behind another vehicle is zero for 30-50 yards sometimes.   Even with windows up and A/C running, you will still smell and breath moondust which due to its fine composition,  literally gets into just about everything.  We hit the longest stretch of moondust just before lunch.   My only comment is that I was glad my Jeep was the lead Jeep!


Moondust behind us,  we soon hit the Pinacate volcanic fields where we stopped for lunch.   By now the sun was high in the sky, the temps were over 100 and the only shade one could find was the shade your Jeep offered.   As our Boy Scouts did some exploring we could see the dust trails of the Border Patrol along the border about a mile to our south.   Mexico Highway 2 was easily visible in the distance as were  trucks and vehicles traveling on it and even a few buildings.  


Lunch over we hit the trail again with our next stop Tule Well campground.    While there we looked around for any signs of litter and to do a quick clean up if necessary.

Some of the guys went into the old cabin and signed the “guest book”.   Turning the pages back we could see names of our members from past trips on the Devils Highway.


With our business done at Tule Well we split into two groups.   Group 1 headed to the western boundary of the NWR to replace the sign there,  Group two headed to the northern boundary via Christmas Pass to take care of that sign.    We kept in touch with our Ham Radios for several miles until the flat lands were separated by mountains which became an obstacle to our radio to radio communications.


After clearing the mountains we were again in radio range and both groups reported their progress with the last two locations.   Group 1 at the west end was again thwarted by the lack of a drill and drill bits and Group 2 was able to replace the large composite sign but not the ceramic ones due to not having a drill and bits.   Both groups were now “sprinting” to Interstate 8 to call it a day.


Group 1 made it to civilization first and drove the several miles to where Group 2 was exiting.    As we spent time airing up our tires for the trip home we traded our experiences of the last two sign locations and of the day in general.   With night time coming upon us fast,  we pulled one by one off the dirt trail and on to the highway.  One thing that I noticed and so did everyone else as my Jeep attained the 75mph highway speed that I was my own dust storm.    The moondust that has accumulated everyone on our Jeeps was now flying off and honestly causing a visibility problem for the vehicles immediately in our tail winds.    I was surprised to see this go on for over a mile.


On Monday I contacted Margot and told her of our success’s and challenges.   She seemed to be happy with what we had accomplished and invited us back again to do a sign project along the NWR’s boundary with the Goldwater Gunnery Range.   I told her we would be glad to be of service.


National Public Lands Days Photo Gallery - CLICK HERE

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Jeep Expeditions is the PREMIERE Jeep Exclusive Expedition/Overland Adventure CLUB Anywhere!

Jeep Expeditions is a non-profit corporation registered in the State of Arizona.  

The state recognizes us as a fraternal organization,  we prefer to say we are a club.  Our members and volunteers are dedicated to the exploration of   this great land  for the educational value, historical value,  scenic beauty, the geology, paleontology, the camaraderie of people who share the same interests and to escape the confines of civilization if only for a few days. Our organization and members adhere to the standards of "Tread Lightly" and "Leave No Trace".

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