The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is the vast sprawl of desert which is home to the Devil’s Highway, named the “dark-head desert” for the range of mountains that rise out of the flat plains of the Yuma desert. Urrea relates a tale, early on in the narrative, of a “source” close to him who once, on a drive through the desert, saw a large, dark head rise up out of the desert sand and laugh. The dark head in Urrea’s source’s story represents the spirit of the desert, and symbolizes the ways in which the desert seems to come alive and even express contempt for and malice towards those who attempt to traverse it only to become lost within it. As the Wellton 26 attempt to cross the vast desert, they become lost and disoriented due to the fatal mistakes of their smuggler, or pollero, Jesús “Mendez” Lopez Ramos. The desert takes on a character of its own as the men grow more and more lost, and many express anger at it and try to best it, even as they can feel it mocking and tricking them through mirages, endlessly repetitious hills and mountains, and scorching temperatures which literally bake many of the men alive. All this horror and treachery seems, within the narrative, to have been precipitated by the frightful mockery of the desert’s dark head itself.
La Cabeza Prieta Quotes in The Devil’s Highway
They came down out of the screaming sun and broke onto the rough plains of the Cabeza Prieta wilderness, where the sun recommenced its burning. Cutting through this region, and lending its name to the terrible landscape, was the Devil’s Highway, more death, another desert. They were in a vast trickery of sand. In many ancient religious texts, fallen angels were bound in chains and buried beneath a desert known only as Desolation. This could be the place.
Somebody had to follow the tracks. They told the story. They went down into Mexico, back in time, and ahead into pauper’s graves. Before the Yuma 14, there were the smugglers. Before the smugglers, there was the Border Patrol. Before the Border Patrol, there was the border conflict, before them all was Desolation itself.
They agreed to stick together and walk north. All of them. It had to be north. Mendez had gone north, the bastard, and he was saving himself. They’d follow Mendez. Once more, the men stood, and they walked. Now the illegals were cutting for sign.
It is important to note that within ten minutes of finding the lost men, the Migra was already fully engaged in rescue. While Mike F. cut for more sign, the old boys were kicking off their desert race. The Border Patrol sped there so fast, with so many vehicles, over such vicious terrain, that they suffered twenty-six flat tires. Some agents drove on rims to get there.
“Five miles from the border, nobody knows. Nobody cares. Nobody understands. They don’t want to know.”
Part of the idea was to foment discussion. Make us think a little about those people who are “like, illegal.” But the deeper idea was to bear witness—we saw an exodus straight from the biblical template, and it felt that no one was paying attention. As I started the work, I will confess, it was all about the good men who died. But it didn’t take long to see that the story was really about all humans—all of us in those ancient deserts are lost wanderers.