Dying for a Drink

This terrific new book tells the history of a famously deadly oasis in southwestern Arizona

In the lonely southwestern corner of Arizona, where bighorn sheep tiptoe around the dry, jagged-rock mountains and jet pilots pretend to bomb the Middle East, there is a kind of shabby oasis known as Tinajas Altas, the High Tanks.

In Last Water on the Devil's Highway, a new addition to the University of Arizona Press' Southwest Center Series, a luminous group of desert researchers tells the story of this remote pile of sun-scorched boulders. It is a place, the authors write, "that is vibrantly alive, but where death is close by."

Used as a food-production station and seasonal camp by various regional Indian tribes for millennia, the Tinajas Altas, along the infamous El Camino del Diablo between Sonoyta, Sonora and Yuma, is a series of 15 rock basins, or catchments, of varying sizes. At least one of the "tanks" is the size of a backyard swimming pool, and taken together, they hold an estimated 20,000 gallons of water when full after a monsoon or a winter rain. Some of the basins hold water year-round, and for hundreds of years, they provided countless desert wayfarers with the only remotely reliable source of water in what is generally agreed to be hottest, driest and least-hospitable corner of North America. The area's reputation as a wasteland was secured when the military took it over in the 1940s to use as a bombing range.

The heyday of the tanks and El Camino del Diablo occurred between 1848 and the Civil War. That's when a steady stream of treasure-seekers from Sonora traveled overland to California and later to the Colorado River region, suffering the symptoms of gold fever and wanting to avoid running into Apaches along the Gila River. They were willing to risk everything, and many of them lost.

As the authors tell it, the area around Tinajas Altas was once crowded with the graves of those who either didn't make it to the tanks in time, or found the few easily accessible tanks dry.

In 1898, surveyors with the International Boundary Commission reported seeing some 65 graves in just one day's ride, one of them containing an entire family. More recent research estimates that between 400 and 2,000 people died on the trail between the 1850s and 1900, making the Devil's Highway the deadliest immigrant trail in North America.

Dashes of shade, greenery and water in such rough country are bound to play an outsized role, and thus Tinajas Altas has become over the years a beloved destination for desert rats, scientists and hunters. The water here attracts normally elusive bighorn sheep. According to various accounts, the land around the tanks was once strewn with tossed-away bones and horns. Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy's son, camped at the tanks during a sheep-hunting expedition in 1911. In a book about his adventures published many years later, Roosevelt retells a harrowing story about a Mexican bandit who emptied the tanks of their water and hid in ambush, waiting to gather the possessions of the dead. Perhaps it was the dark romanticism surrounding Tinajas Altas, coupled with its stark beauty, that prompted a writer in 1940 to reflect that it was "the kind of place that makes poets want to write poetry and others wish they could."

Research for this comprehensive and beautiful book began in the late 1990s, sponsored in part by the U.S. Air Force. Archaeologists surveyed Tinajas Altas in 1998, and the results were published in a two-volume report. But the authors of Last Water on the Devil's Highway wanted to put out a more "accessible book that would explain why Tinajas Altas is a magical place worth of respect and preservation." They have met that goal admirably.

Be warned: Spending time within the pages of this book will likely get you itching to wander the Devil's Highway. But there's plenty more to read about the area before braving the trail. A good place to start is an article from 1896 by Capt. David du Bose Gaillard titled "The Perils and Wonders of a True Desert," which is available online. Gaillard headed the second border survey of the international boundary, from 1891 to 1896, and was in the Devil's Highway region in 1893.

The authors of Last Water call his article, published in The Cosmopolitan magazine, the "best single piece on Tinajas Altas and this remote part of the Sonoran Desert." That was perhaps true then, but it is no longer.

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