The Devil’s Highway

Living in California makes me miss the rain. A good thunderstorm, a tropical shower, that smell, that heaviness in the air that lets you know the rain is coming. It’s drizzling here in Fremont today, and is expected to rain for the next couple of days, but it’s a different sort of rain. It’s the kind that creeps up on you, that you can barely hear, that isn’t announced via a flash and boom.

California is dry. But not as dry as the Devil’s Highway (and I mean the actual ‘highway’ here, not the book above). I mean, look at the way Urrea opens his book:

“Five men stumbled out of the mountain pass so sunstruck they didn’t know their own names, couldn’t remember where they’d come from, had forgotten how long they’d been lost. One of them wandered back up a peak. One of them was barefoot. They were burned nearly black, their lips huge and cracking, what paltry drool still available to them spuming from their mouths in a salty foam as they walked. Their eyes were cloudy with dust, almost too dry to blink up a tear. Their hair was  hard and stiffened by old sweat, standing in crowns from their scalps, old sweat because their bodies were no longer sweating. They were drunk from having their brains baked in the pan, they were seeing God and the devils, and they were dizzy from drinking their own urine, the poisons clogging their systems.”

Doesn’t that just make you want to reach for your glass of water and take a huge chug?

These five men were part of an original group of 26 who were trying to cross from Mexico into the United States, into Arizona, for the promise of a better life, led by a rather inept guide who eventually leads them to this disastrous ending. This crossing kills many illegal immigrants every year, but one or two never make the headlines, unlike these 26 – of which 14 died excruciating deaths. Urrea traces these men back to their small towns, attempting to tell their stories from what little is known of their backgrounds – the inventory of their few possessions and the clothes they wore on this trek was particularly sad to read.

Urrea doesn’t simply drag the reader along with him on his hot and dusty journey. Instead he involves us, he brings us into this tale he is attempting to weave for us. For instance, when discussing the leader of the Spanish expedition looking for gold in 1541, he has the reader imagine how he died.

“No record states how Melchior entered the pen, but it doesn’t seem likely he stopped to open a gate. Not Melchior. He jumped over the fence, and in jumping, somehow he bobbled his lance throw and missed the dog entirely. You can see the dog tipping and sidestepping and making tracks for the horizon, casting wounded looks over his shoulder. And here is where Melchior Diaz died.”

So you can imagine what it must be like when he describes and explains the different stages of death by heat. A very graphic, difficult read but like a highway accident, something you just can’t tear your eyes away from.

Just make sure you’ve got plenty to drink while reading The Devil’s Highway.



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