Tracing America’s Borderlands history along the Anza Trail

Immigrants still follow Juan Bautista de Anza’s historic route.

I am lost before I’ve even started. It’s December and I’m in Nogales, Arizona, determined to re-trace the footsteps of the first Spanish colonizing expedition across what is now the border between the United States and Mexico. Nearly 250 years ago, in 1775, a young Spanish commander led a group of mostly poor villagers — men, women and children — together with more than 1,000 horses and cattle from the Mexican state of Sinaloa northwards across a vast desert to the far reaches of the Empire in what was then called Alta California. Like Yosemite or Yellowstone, or the Oregon Trail, the expedition’s route is part of the national park system. It should be easy to find. But the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail has no official starting point — at least not one that’s marked.

Instead, there is a giant steel fence equipped with motion sensors, and the ever-vigilant eyes of the U.S. Border Patrol.


Anza actually began his journey 600 miles south of here, in the town of Culiacán, Mexico. But the route managed by the National Park Service begins on this side of the border, and heads north, then west, a loosely connected corridor of  dirt paths, protected areas and ruins that “connect history, culture, and outdoor recreation from Nogales, Arizona, to the San Francisco Bay Area.”

But here in downtown Nogales, with its stream of honking cars and people waiting to cross the wall that divides the city, I can find no remnants of the original route, nor any modern markers that commemorate it. The border, it seems, erases history.

At least that’s how Teresa Leal, a petite 66-year-old anthropologist with a pixie haircut and a mischievous smile, sees it. She belongs to the Anza Society, established to help commemorate the expedition’s history in both Mexico and the U.S. and works as the director of the Pimeria Alta Museum, a stone’s throw from the Nogales portion of the border wall.

Leal’s ancestors were Opata, once the most numerous people in what is now the border region of northeastern Sonora and southern Arizona. Anza, she explains, did not actually blaze the trail that today bears his name, but rather followed in the footsteps of the area’s indigenous people, whose ancient paths created the first migration routes through the modern-day borderlands.

As a person whose history spans the border itself, Leal is bothered by the lack of commemoration. There are Anza Trail markers in Sonora and farther north in Santa Cruz County, but along the border, nothing.  Long ago, she says, we stopped defining this place as interesting — as land worth preserving. Why? She gestures at the wall that rises just behind the museum: Because it is the border. “There is something unreal about it.”

One day, Leal hopes there will be two Anza Trail markers on the border, one facing north and the other south. For now, there are just the rust-colored bars of an 18-foot-tall barrier, the streets of Nogales, Mexico, visible through it — colorful houses perched on steep hillsides cracked sidewalks and roaming dogs. Marimba music drifts through the wall as if it were paper.


Nogales, Mexico, as seen across the border wall.
Jordan Glenn

On Oct. 14, 1775, Anza’s expedition reached a small wetland a few miles north of the present-day border. Today, Las Lagunas, a privately owned nature preserve on the outskirts of Nogales, marks the unofficial beginning of Arizona’s portion of the Anza Trail. It belongs to John Anthony Sedgwick, who, with his son, Anthony, runs a nonprofit called the Santa Fe Ranch Foundation, which brings local school kids to Las Lagunas for outdoor education.

It’s an unlikely wilderness, just 2.8 acres, sitting next to some warehouses. Interstate 19 rumbles just beyond the hilltop overlooking the small ponds and their thickets of 12-foot-tall arundo. The cane is invasive, admits Anthony Sedgwick, 38, who pulls up on his motorcycle, a Triumph Street he painted himself. But it’s partly what makes this place what it is. “Plus,” he says, “it’s a good barrier against the warehouses.”

Anthony Sedgwick, who, with his father, John Anthony, brings school children to Las Lagunas for outdoor education.
Sarah Tory

Before the wetland was restored, there was a drive-in movie theater here. When that was abandoned, the space became a de facto dump for everything from cars to refrigerators to an entire trailer home. It took all summer to uncover the original ecosystem; the junk they removed filled up multiple 40-foot dumpsters.

Sedgwick hopes that by uncovering the wetlands he is helping uncover a forgotten history as well. “Up until a few years ago, I thought of the late 17th century as when the British landed at Plymouth Rock,” he admits. We tend to focus on dates like 1607, when the English settled at Jamestown, Virginia, or 1620, when the Pilgrims arrived. But there’s another, older history — the Spanish colonization of America, which began a century before that. It’s rarely taught in our schools, because, as Sedgwick puts it, “there’s this issue with Latin American studies not being ‘American’ enough.”

Sedgwick sighs. It’s the border again. At the far edge of the wetlands, he stops at a clearing where migrants used to camp. He’d find empty water jugs, discarded clothing, sleeping bags, and pizza boxes, mostly the Little Caesars Hot-N-Ready kind, because they only cost $5, and people were hungry.

The campsite stays mostly empty now. Fewer people cross near Nogales, where the border is now heavily patrolled and mostly walled off. Instead, they are pushed deeper and deeper into the desert, where, every year, dozens die of thirst or exposure. Before 9/11, Nogales was a thriving border community. People crossed into Mexico to shop at the market, which was always pulsing with life. Slowly but surely, that stream of commerce withered. “Now, there are these ridiculous checkpoints,” says Sedgwick, referring to the Border Patrol station on I-19, 20 miles north of the actual border — an “affront to our Constitution,” Sedgwick calls them.

People believe that crime is everywhere, he adds — that Nogales is dangerous. The community is struggling. But Sedgwick consoles himself with the thought of Las Lagunas: an unlikely wetland in the middle of a desert where kids can run free.


Teresa Leal at the wetlands of Las Lagunas, where the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail begins on the outskirts of Nogales, Arizona.
Jordan Glenn

From Las Lagunas, Anza travelled almost due north along the Santa Cruz River. But the modern trail-follower should probably begin roughly 20 miles north of Nogales near the old Spanish mission of Tumacácori, nestled among cottonwoods and mesquite alongside the river, where Anza stopped for supplies. Here, the first section of real trail begins.

I happen to arrive during the annual Fiesta de Tumacácori, and stop for my own supplies in the form of an ice-cold horchata, served up by Lupita Ferree, a teacher with freckles sprinkled across her nose, who lives in the nearby town of Rio Rico. Ferree, 63, has been walking this stretch of the trail since the 1970s, before it was designated.

When Ferree and her family first moved to Arizona from Sonora, she and her siblings played in the river. Now, almost all of the Santa Cruz’s flow is treated wastewater from the Nogales Treatment Plant and Ferree won’t let her grandchildren play in the water. And yet, without the wastewater, the river would run dry most of the year. The riparian ecosystem would vanish. “We sort of have a conflicted relationship to it,” admits Marty Jakle, a retired biologist who leads a nature walk along the trail. But there are signs of improvement, he says; the endangered Gila topminnow was recently spotted for the first time in a decade.

Back at the festival, I ask Ferree about her relationship to the river. “For immigrants, you don’t associate the land necessarily with who you are but who you want to become,” she says. “And the longer you’re here, the more invested you become in the place.”

Yet here, where the concept of “place” is muddled by the border, making that investment can be challenging. A few years ago, after a rough day, Ferree came upon the checkpoint installed along I-19 not far from the Tumacácori Mission in 2006. (That liminal place, the border, seems to be migrating northward.) A border patrolman peered into her car and asked for proof of citizenship. Ferree snapped back: “You look Canadian, can I see your papers?” The officer, clearly taken aback, waved her through without further questioning. Anza’s expedition would have passed within a mile of that checkpoint; back then, it was deep in Spanish territory.

Ferree brings her grandchildren to the river when they visit, because she wants them to feel that it is part of them, too. And she would bring her students here. Now she sees them sometimes walking on the Anza Trail with their families. “It’s so cool to see that,” she says. “To hear that they’re teaching them about the history.”


Lupita Ferree looks out on the trash-strewn river that runs along the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail in Rio Rico, Arizona, where both the water level and its quality have declined since the 1970s, when her family came here from Sonora.
Jordan Glenn

I decide to walk the 4.5-mile stretch of trail between the villages of Tumacácori and Tubac. At 3:30 p.m., it is still brutally hot, and the trail grows increasingly unkempt as I head north. At one point it nearly disappears into the mud of a braided river channel, which I navigate with the help of some logs placed to make the crossing easier.

Beads of sweat are running down my legs, and blisters are forming on my feet because I stupidly forgot to wear socks. And though I’ve been walking for only a little over an hour, I’m thirsty and hungry. At this point, I remember that the expedition was less than halfway through its 1,200-mile trek. The thought is somewhat depressing.

Turning back was not an option for Anza and the settlers. In the late 18th century, Spain’s hold on Northern California was tenuous at best. Just five inadequately staffed missions and two presidios were all that stood between those remote Spanish holdings and potential takeover by Russian or English forces. So when Anza sought to recruit the settlers he needed from the hardscrabble towns of New Spain, he spoke eloquently of the abundant rainfall and pleasant climate far away in Alta California. There, he said, a better life would be possible.

I, on the other hand, cannot stop thinking about the half-eaten package of Twizzlers in my rental car sitting in the parking lot of the Tubac Presidio. I decide to turn back.


One of the shrines along the Anza trail.
Jordan Glenn

From Tubac, the expedition continued north, to La Canoa, or the “Watering Trough.” Today, it is a 4,800-acre conservation area owned by Pima County, with fine views of the Santa Rita Mountains. There is no proper trail yet along this part of the route, so at dusk I get back on the Interstate and drive north, past a blur of gated communities filled with identical stucco homes, interspersed with endless parking lots. Here in the desert they seem even larger than usual — swaths of asphalt the size of football fields, surrounding giant boxy shopping malls.

Just a few miles from here, the expedition suffered its first — and only — death throughout the entire eight-month journey. In his diary, Anza writes that on the first night out of Tubac, they stopped near the Santa Cruz River, where one of the women “felt the first pains of childbirth.” A few hours later, she gave birth to a baby boy. But the mother’s health faltered, and in the middle of the night, “other various troubles befell her,” writes Anza, and she died. At daybreak, the rain began and the expedition continued on, carrying the woman’s body through a downpour. They buried her two days later at the San Xavier del Bac Mission, on the outskirts of what is now Tucson.

Meanwhile, my own attempts to follow Anza across the desert are starting to unravel. Supposedly there is an interpretive sign on the highway marking Anza’s campsite at La Canoa, but I never find it. Instead, I drive on through the Green Valley, whose name must owe more to the abundant golf courses and large farms than to the land itself, which is mostly brown.

I leave Tucson on a side road marked by the occasional Anza Trail logo. The route grows more desolate as it merges with Interstate 10 and then I-8, on its way through Pinal and Maricopa Counties. Even from the inside of my car, the desert feels freakishly large, made more freakish still by the large number of things whose existence we’d rather not think about  — prisons and industrial feed lots and massive solar plants. South of here, there is a bombing test zone in the strip of desert along the border called the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. Later, I pass another housing development, this one abandoned, its hollowed remains filling with sand.


A tunnel through an arundo thicket on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail on the outskirts of Nogales, Arizona.
Jordan Glenn

North of Tucson, I stop briefly at Picacho State Park, a rocky cactus-studded peak rising out of the desert. The expedition made its 21st camp near here. Upon leaving the next day, Anza laments the “lack of water, any of which is found only by rare accident.” Nevertheless, he continues, “no dissatisfaction whatever has been shown by the people who have made the march, and this is a thing to marvel at, especially in the women and children, and their patience under the hardships is an indication of the contentment with which they are accepting their lot.”

Just a few hours of driving across this desert has me wondering if it ever ends. On foot, it must have seemed impossible. Just past the town of Gila Bend, where the expedition rejoined the Gila River — now just a dry wash — I turn off the interstate towards the Bureau of Land Management’s Painted Rock Petroglyph site. Anza camped somewhere near here. Without the Cocomaricopa people, whose land this was, the expedition would never have survived.

At Painted Rock, there are several shaded picnic tables but no visitors. A caretaker lives in an RV, keeping watch over a large pile of rocks etched with squiggly prehistoric markings, souvenirs of a history written centuries before Anza came through. I continue on towards Yuma, along a network of old dirt roads, through more empty, cactus-studded desert. Somewhere near a place called Agua Caliente, where Anza spent his last night with the Cocomaricopa, the desert morphs into endless rows of date palms. I drive around for hours here, completely disoriented, until a farmworker from Mexico named Ramón Rodriguez Avalos shows me how to get back to the interstate.

It’s dark when I pull into Yuma, a vibrant little town known for its date crop, on the banks of the Colorado River at the California border. In the morning, I run on the riverside trail, through wetlands that peter out into irrigation canals on the far side of town. The river moves lazily here and looks less than 100 feet wide. Crossing it, I think, wouldn’t be so hard. Anza’s diaries, however, describe a river 240 feet across and more than six feet deep in some places. None of the travelers knew how to swim. Twice, a man carrying a child fell into the water, but thanks to help from the Yuma Tribe, the entire expedition eventually made it across. From there, they continued across the desert, to a place beyond the distant line of bald, amber-colored peaks rising from the sand.

Anza’s colonists reached San Francisco Bay on March 28, 1776, and established the Presidio of San Francisco. No one, as far as we know, ever asked to see their papers.


A cross marks the site near Las Lagunas where migrants used to camp after crossing the border.
Sarah Tory

“These are the things that repeat themselves,” Teresa Leal told me, before I left Nogales. She was talking about how, centuries before the Anza expedition, her Opata ancestors migrated between the high mountains and the river valleys, their journeys timed to survive the hot summers and cold winters in this land of extremes. They would travel from the Santa Cruz River all the way to the Gila River, along the same route Anza and his people later followed, looking for a place to live. “Survival is at the bottom of this.” No matter how many walls we build, people will find a way to keep coming.  That is the real story of the Anza Trail, Leal tells me.

It is her story, too. When Leal was 2 years old, her uncle, a laborer, was shot in the head in Sonora, murdered while he sat drinking coffee outside his house. He was killed by a big landowner who took issue with his involvement in the land-redistribution movement that rippled through Mexico in the 1940s and ’50s. When Leal’s mother, who had been away buying groceries at the market returned, she found the bullet still smoking inside the headboard where it lodged — in the same room where her daughter lay sleeping. “She couldn’t take it anymore, so she took me and ran to the border,” Leal says, speaking of the violence and fear that drove her mother north. Leal has spent her entire life near the border, watching, over the years, as the wall grew taller and more forbidding, trying to figure out exactly where she belongs. 

 “It’s a work in progress,” Hale Sargent, the Anza Trail’s interpretive specialist, told me before I started my trip. But for now, Leal can see something of herself in the trail’s piecemeal existence, and in its attempts — however feeble — to reassemble a broken history.

In early spring, Lupita Ferree likes to walk along the trail, when the cottonwoods are shedding their pods, floating to the ground like snow. She’ll sit on a log, listening to the birds and to all the mysterious little sounds. In those moments, on that fragment of trail, Ferree feels part of everything. “All that stuff out there in the world fades.”

Sarah Tory is a freelance journalist and correspondent for High Country News.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.