Gran Desierto de Altar

When I lived in Yuma, Arizona in the early 1970s, I crossed the border with Mexico many times. I delivered bottle water south of town; Summerton, San Luis, and rural dwellings in between. The border was unmarked, unpatrolled, unfenced, and unwalled. Sometimes I gave people who lived in Morales a ride home after a few days working in Yuma. Sometimes I gave people rides north, too. Families live on both sides of the border in the green belt along the river.

But away from the ancient Colorado River floodplain stretch seemingly endless “oceans” of sand dunes. To the west, the Imperial Desert had been a formidable barrier to travelers until a wooden road, then a train, and paved highways connected Yuma to El Centro. It is a playground for campers and dune buggies. It was also where the dune scenes for Star Wars were filmed.

To the east of Yuma, past the Marine Corps Air Station and citrus groves, are the barren Chocolate Mountains; to their south, Mexico’s Gran Desierto de Altar. I rode my Kawasaki dirt bike that way once, trying to find and follow the old Camino del Diablo. From up on a high point on the south end of a mountain ridge, I looked into Mexico; sand so deep it covered ancient mountains and volcanoes. No one and nothing, Just sand and wind.

The actual Devil’s Highway crossed the border and ran just south of it around the mountains. Now, the signs directed me to a new dirt road just north of it. Not far east on that road, I came to a sign from the United States Air Force, Luke Air Base, stating that without written permission of the base commander, all moving objects past that sign would be considered targets for bombing practice. I had heard that part of the desert was their bombing range. People who have gotten permission and explored the Camino del Diablo have taken pictures of the old cars, graves, and shacks. No water was there. There were supposedly “tanks” up in the eastern foothills that retained seasonal pools. Far to the east another mountain range marked the location of permanent springs. I wanted to see the rare pupfish there, but was unprepared. I turned around.

The blue route is the new “stay in America” version of the Devil’s Highway. The big mountain just south of the border midway between Ajo and Yuma is a huge volcano. West of it is sand; a dune field stretching to the Gulf of California. No one walks that way. It’s deep shifting sand.

We actually bought that land from Mexico. The reason the border runs at an angle there is the sand dunes. The surveyors could not traverse them, so hugged the mountains and headed to Yuma.

Stand at the Grand Canyon and ask “where did all that material go that used to be here?” The answer is the Gran Desierto de Altar.

We don’t need a fence to secure this border. Take a look. This is not where refugees or migrants enter the United States. Let’s not spend billions of dollars building any more fences here.

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