The Richardson Pan-American Expedition
This story originally appeared in issues 135, 136 and 137 of the Plymouth Bulletin (1982)
Prologue by Jim Benjaminson
For every story that appears in the Bulletin, there is a story behind the story.
The Richardson Pan-American Highway Expedition is perhaps one of the greatest automotive stones of all time. In scope and magnitude, it surpasses those pioneer automobilists that first crossed the United States at the turn of the century The Richardson Expedition crossed not only this country but encompassed the area spanning two continents, crossing trackless wilderness, endless mud, unchartered territory, and obstacles of every sort that Mother Nature could throw against them.
The men of the expedition, Sullivan C Richardson, Arnold Whitaker, and Kenneth C. Van Hee, were many times called "Three Damn Fools" by friends and foes alike. It is a title that was perhaps fitting, considering the almost insurmountable odds against their succeeding—but succeed they did—and now that title is worn proudly.
The Richardson Pan American Highway Expedition was perhaps the last great automotive adventure undertaken on the face of this earth.
The "story behind the story" of our publication of their account begins with three other men, forty-one years after the expedition set out from Detroit that cold November morning. It starts on a warm, sunny North Dakota afternoon as these three, Mel Stark, Richard Thurston, and Bulletin editor Jim Benjaminson, headed into Canada on a business trip. While in Canada it was only natural for Benjaminson to wander into an automotive supply store and check out the magazine rack. That resulted in the purchase of Petersen Publishing Company's Second Edition of Plymouth Dodge-Chrysler book.
Among the articles was "Cape Horn Caper", which gave a few details of the Richardson Expedition with a few photographs of their 1941 Plymouth sedan. The article stated that expedition leader Sullivan Richardson had written a book, entitled Adventure South, but Petersen Publishing had been unable to locate the author or the publisher, so they could not reprint any of the book’s material.
One photo caption indicated Chrysler executives had been questioned about the car but the only reply was that they felt the car was still somewhere in Central or South America; yet the photographs of the car taken after the Trip showed it with 1945 Illinois license plates and a gas ration sucker. To the intrepid Bulletin editor, that meant the car HAD to have returned to the United States. This lead to plans to locate any living members of the Richardson Expedition.
The trail began with the car's 1945 Illinois license plate, number 752-534. Benjaminson contacted Plymouth Club member Pat O'Connor, who is an Illinois state trooper. Could that 1945 license plate number be traced? Pat contacted the office of the Illinois Secretary of State, who in turn dug into the records. On February 11th, 1982, the search showed that it was registered to S. C. Richardson, with an address; the car was listed as a 1941 Plymouth 4 door sedan, serial No. 15031250, engine number P11-214804. The address was, of course, 37 years old but it was a place to start.
From that point Ron and Joan MacKenzie, also Plymouth Club members from Oak Lawn, Illinois were contacted. Would it be possible for them to go to that address and see who or what they found? The MacKenzies leaped into the search but Sullivan Richardson was not to be found.
Expedition members in front of the Detroit News.
As the Expedition had begun in Detroit it was only logical to also check the Detroit area. Club vice-president Joe Suminski joined the detective’s list. He found a party that had photographed the battered Plymouth in a Detroit parade in 1946, but once again the trail went cold.
Long distance information was used in the Chicago and Detroit areas to attempt to locate any of the Expedition members, but the only lead, an A. Whitaker listed in the Detroit phone book, proved to be a false alarm.
It appeared the search was at an end; then the MacKenzies tried one last source-—the Action Line column of the Chicago Tribune. The date was March 25th.
On April 19th, Mrs. Elva Richardson penned the following note to the Chicago Tribune's Action Line: "A friend living in Chicago sent us a clipping from your March 25th column; all three of the men are living in Southern California."
Success—with a capital "S"! The search for Sullivan Richardson, Arnold Whitaker and Kenneth Van Hee was at an end. All of the men have been contacted, many questions have been answered about the trip, and many original photographs were borrowed. Best of all, Sullivan Richardson agreed to have portions of his book Adventure South to be reprinted in the Bulletin's 25th Anniversary issue.
Adventure South - By Sullivan C. Richardson
On Sunday, November 17, 1940, the Detroit News ran this eight-column head: "Detroit Expedition Ready To Blaze Auto Trail To Cape Horn."
"To cross 14,000 miles of North and South America", ran the opening paragraph, "through tremendous expanses of jungle and over high mountains is the ambitious undertaking of the Pan American Highway Expedition, which will leave Detroit tomorrow to attempt what nobody has ever done-drive an automobile all the way from the United States, over the proposed route of the Pan American Highway, to the lower end of South America."
"The expedition will be headed by Sullivan C. Richardson, a Detroit News advertising man He will be accompanied on this adventure by Arnold Whitaker specialized mechanic from one of Detroit's big automobile plants ... and Kenneth C. Van Hee, also of Detroit ... They will drive a 1941 stock model Plymouth automobile, built in Detroit."
Two small boats were lashed to a rail to provide a platform for the expedition car.
Across the country from Washington to Los Angeles, people scarcely raised an eyebrow at the announcement. Those unacquainted with the geography of the Southern Americas and previous attempts to take an automobile through them, were unimpressed. Those who did know simply said it couldn't be done and dismissed the expedition as another stunt by "publicity hounds who'd do anything to get their names in the papers" and who'd "give up when they hit the first hard stretch."
The "Cape Horn Auto Caravan will bog down," said Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times in a two-column interview by Editor & Publisher on December 28. "If the Detroiters can make it to the Pacific port of Panama and ferry to a landing on solid roadbed in Colombia, they should be able, weather conditions permitting, to finish their journey to Argentina's capital city. That 'if' remains formidable." And Mr. Chandler was "pretty certain" the expedition would never get through Central America.
He was not alone in his conviction. American Automobile Association directors, Pan American Union and Highway Confederation officials and engineers, business men and intimate friends of expedition members from Detroit to New York, joined in the publisher's opinion with varying degrees of vehemence.
"You're three damn fools," we were told, too often to fight about it. And we offered little or no denial. In fact we had no tangible evidence on which to base denial. Still we wanted to go. We'd make every possible preparation for road trouble: we'd be vaccinated for typhoid, yellow fever, small pox and diphtheria. We'd carry quinine for malaria; we'd boil all water we drank and be careful about fresh vegetables and fruits as carriers of the dread amoebic dysentery: in short, we'd do all three men could do, then hope for breaks when the going got beyond us. It sounded sufficient to the expedition.
A few minutes before midnight, Monday, November 18th, we drove quietly out of Detroit and headed southwest. We were off the great adventure. How great, we were happily ignorant. It was enough that we were started.
Even as we rolled along through the night over the smooth pavement of U.S. 112 to Chicago, we recalled and chatted about the advices we had received from United States diplomatic representatives throughout Central and South America. Acting on instructions from the State Department in Washington, these representatives had helpfully furnished us information and data. In friendly, but pointed terms, they suggested we call the whole thing off.
Meredith Nicholson, American Minister to Managua, wrote: "So far as I am aware, no individual has been able to make the trip from one boundary of Nicaragua to the other all the way by automobile. Last year a fully equipped expedition, which had traversed the Sahara three times and had gone from end to end of Africa, was compelled to abandon the attempt after progressing from the northern Nicaraguan line to the town of Chinandega. Hospitalization was also necessary."
"There is no road," wrote Spurille Braden, American Ambassador to Bogotá, Colombia, in his letter of October 30th. "T6,; line shown on the highway map is only a projected highway on which no construction has been done ... In the Embassy's opinion and in that of the Ministry of Public Works (Colombia), it would be folly to attempt to cross that territory in an automobile."
"From Cartago to the Panama line you will have your greatest and perhaps insurmountable difficulties," came from E. W. James, Chief of Highway Transport, Division of Public Roads, Washington. "I have no hope you can get through."
We had never intended to try crossing the unbroken swamps, mountain and jungle terrain of the Darien Peninsula from the Panama Canal to Turbo in Northern Colombia. There is not even a footpath through that wilderness, and the Atrato River Basin spreads a hundred miles of death filled swamp between Darien's neck and the little hamlet of Turbo on the eastern coast of Darien Gulf to which point Colombia is projecting a highway down from Paravandocito. We would be satisfied actually to reach the Canal with the car, then ferry to "solid ground" in Colombia, as the Los Angeles Times' Mr. Chandler had suggested. But we weren't going to stop with Argentina's capital. Our destination was Cape Horn. And the car must actually reach Magellan Straits!
"That's a long way south," said Arnold as we rolled up and down Michigan's Irish Hills. It wasn't hard to keep awake, even in those hours from midnight to dawn.
"If we reach Cape Horn," I replied, "we'll only be 500 miles from Byrd's Little America, according to the map."
"If we get that close," Ken put in, "we ought to-"
"Cape Horn's far enough. Richard and the penguins can keep Little America. We'll probably be ready to start north once we round the Cape." I straightened my back to dislodge a "driving hitch" in the back of my neck. We'd probably have a lot of them in the next 15,000 miles.
We fell silent. The purr of the motor was comforting. Would it always respond so nicely in the months ahead? Time would write that chapter: Time, and Arnold's solid capable hands.
Even during those first hours of the trip, too, we discussed the west coast of Mexico and what S.L.A. Marshall, Detroit News' war analyst and authority on Mexican affairs, had said about it.
"Why kill the expedition before it gets started, Rich?" he had asked quietly. "Take the paved Pan American Highway from Laredo to Mexico City, and leave the west coast alone. That's not the Pan American, anyhow."
Mules were used to cross rivers and streams; note the upswept exhaust pipe.
"There's no road—for tourists. A few dry-weather trails, stretches for trucking and bits of roads near towns. Save your punches and go the easy way. You'll need all the guts you've got." Sam Marshall eyed me soberly. "If you hit rain, it'll stop you. Mexico mud is hell."
Leaving Mesa, Arizona, we stopped at a farmers' Weighing-in Station, and drove our car onto the big scales. We were fully loaded: three men, fifty gallons of gasoline, five gallons of water, and all regular equipment. There was no back seat in the car. It had been omitted at the factory to make room for beds, folding cots, duffle bags, tent, rubber boat, car replacements, camera equipment, boxes of film, suitcases, food, cookstove, etc. And atop the car, anchored on a platform bolted directly to the steel posts of the car body, rode two extra wheels and tires, 300 feet of rope, two sets of block and tackle, two axes. a steel bar, shovel, hoe and pick: our preparation for rough going.
Making their own trail through trackless wilderness south of Oaxaca.
This 50-mile stretch took 25 days to cross.
"What does she tip at?" we called.
"Fifty-six thirty. Quite a load for one motor to take to Cape Horn."
"You're not just saying it, brother!" Whitaker grunted from his side of the front seat. He shoved bus head dawn for a look at the fire extinguisher to be sure we hadn't forgotten it. Then he growled to Kenneth and me. "Three tons. And we expect to take it through swamps." It sounded like prophecy.
The motor started with a roar and we drove out of Mesa. There was no further discussion of tons or swamps. That was future.
We'd soon be out of the United States and started on that long trek through strange places and circumstances. Perhaps actual realization of it was finally working into our consciousness.
"What we get across that line over there." I said, throwing a thumb in the direction of the international border a few blocks away, "I'm going to forget that such a thing as time exists."
"Of course," Ken said without looking my way, "Time, and the return to Detroit next July." It sounded like more prophecy. We expected the trip to take six or seven months and had been working against dates and normal rainy-season schedules ever since plans for the trip first began taking shape more than a year before. Timing our effort by calendar weeks and getting started on schedule had been a galling worry. Fifteen days later, I knew what Ken had meant Time was going to haunt me with each rising sun south of Nogales. We'd never be on schedule.
We refilled with gasoline at twenty four centavos a liter on the outskirts of Nogales and headed our car's white nose south toward Guaymas just as the Mexican siesta began for that 30th day of November, 1940.
We made fifty-four miles during the afternoon, after getting through Customs. And that night, sitting in our tiny little tent, backed against rocks and mesquite brush on a gravelly hill lop in northern Sonora, my typewriter m an upturned paper ease, and a very dim electric lantern hanging from a tent brace above my head, I began the daily chronicle of events which I hoped would take us through the long weeks ahead and all the weary miles to a dot of land at South America's Antarctic tip. If only I had known!
"Temperature stands about fifty degrees," I wrote, "And at this moment I can look out the tent flap and see Arnold and Ken over the camp Fire preparing a late meal of dried soup - and from the smell, burned potatoes it's damp and Chilly. But we're finally started. South."
From Nogales to Guaymas, is a well-graded, all-weather road of gravel. It's rough and full of washboard, but at least you can't get lost, for it's the only such road in the section.
We traveled casually and with determined care for the car. "Not a single unnecessary jolt must tax the springs or strain the body of this automobile," was our joint verdict.
"We've got too far to go: and too much load." We avoided every little hole; every rock the size of our fist, that lay in the road.
We splashed down the muddy main street of the town, stopped at a gas station, and while Arnold groomed the car with grease and water, Ken and I stocked the backend larder above the big extra gas tank, with canned beans, peas, corn and dried milk. We knew from here on there would be absolutely no eating or sleeping accommodations for tourists, except in one or two of the larger sea-coast towns. And these would be days apart. Of course this mattered little to us because we were prepared to stay wherever night found us.
We drove on south over jutting boulders, bad holes and curving coastline road to Empalme and there all semblance of graded or marked highway disappeared into the blue waters of the Pacific. It took us half an hour to find our way out of the little town. When we finally crossed the skinny railroad that headed down through the forest of mesquite and turned south with it in a two-rut trail that disappeared around the first bush, we knew we'd started the road-less stretches we'd been hearing about since the day we first began planning the expedition.
"What are we going to do when we come to a fork in the trail, no sign, and nobody around to ask?" I ventured, making it sound as casual as possible.
"Flip a coin," suggested Arnold. "Be about as accurate as trying to follow directions of the natives - unless your Spanish improves."
It had been raining. Puddles had filled the road all the way from Nogales. And now on this trail no car or vehicle had passed since muddy rain had filled the tracks. There was a desolate feeling about the mesquites; a loneliness about the thorny cactus. I felt as if we were heading into country no man knew. And the thought was disquieting. Whitaker drove.
I smile now when I think of that first hole. Following our dictum, Arnold had taken it easy on the car, afraid to hit the deep uneven ruts with speed for fear he'd break something. Besides there was a foot of water in the bottom. When the spinning rear wheels finally stopped, the nose of the car was barely started up the other side. Arnold got out gingerly his red face serious.
"Guess I should have power-dived," he said. "Well, let's get started."
We cut mesquite brush and tried to jam it under the rear wheels. We carried gravel from the railroad embankment in a water bucket, and poured on the brush. We gathered sticks, and pry poles. Finally we got down the block and tackle.
"Now we'll see how this thing works," I offered confidently, "It ought to bring us out."
Newspapers back in the States had called us "experienced explorers." Newspapers are sometimes inaccurate. Whitaker and I had ridden packhorses for eight days, once, out in southern Utah where Mormon pioneers had taken wagons across the sandstone gorges of the Colorado sixty years before. If that constituted "experienced exploration", then newspapers were right. But in planning this trip from Detroit to Cape Horn we had guessed at many things. This mud hole and the block and tackle was a case in point.
We hitched to a mesquite stump fifty feet ahead, and then Ken and I pulled with all our might. The back wheels spun. The car moved two inches-deeper in the mud. The front wheels had remained stationary. "Lesson number one," I said, wiping perspiration from my forehead. "Two men can't pull a three-ton car stuck in mud, with block and tackle."
Half an hour later, a small roadster with ten years of history and 7 Mexicans aboard, chugged up to the hole's edge and stopped. When the final Latin had slid out, or off, the car shook itself like a woolly dog, and died. Behind was a two wheeled packing-case trailer, bundled high. A family of Mexican fruit-pickers, we learned, returning from Southern California to Mazatlan.
And then began our real introduction to Latin Americanism.
Two more trucks came up to the place from the other way - there was a ranch nearby, we learned - before we got out. One of them did the actual work of hitching on and dragging us through. The roadster crossed a different way, as did one of the trucks, but nobody left the spot until all four cars were on safe ground again. In all the southern Republics we have yet to see a Latin American pass someone who might be in trouble without stopping to see if help is needed. The practice is as fundamental as a cross above their churches.
And after that first mud hole, we rapidly revised our "protection policy" for the car. Two days later Arnold came up to me, leaning his elbows on my open window. My hands were still on the wheel and the car stood dripping on the south end of a long mud hole we'd just dived through.
"How many lives've you got, Sullie?" His little moustache jerked with a quick grin. "Hope you brought along a few extra as spare parts, for if you go through many places like that you'll need them. Both wheels on the right side were clear of the water when you hit that last hump. I thought you were going over sure."
"So did I." My lips still hurt where I had bitten them.
But it was the only way to make progress. Time and again I dove into holes when I had no idea if the car could pull through. Time and again I turned on the windshield wiper before engaging gears that would send the car plunging into deep ruts of mud and water; for when we hit with speed, a sheet of mud and spray would engulf us. How we kept going in some of the holes we still don't know. Many of them stopped us. But the car took it. Bounding, bucking, plunging on two wheels. Once I slid completely sideways and dove into a fence. Another time the front wheels skidded and we locked with a giant cactus. The ax got us off that. (It was the first dent in the car! We sheared a half-inch shock absorber bolt clean. The extra heavy springs cracked down and rebounded like giant rubber.
"I don't know how one car can take it all," Arnold said grimly that night just out of Gusave. We were camped on the only spot we could find in the brush.
By this time we had begun to learn something about finding our way when there were no signs at trail forks. We asked every Mexican we passed. Their directions were always the same. Waving their arms around their heads three or four times, they'd stop with their fingers pointing straight up.
It was perfectly clear to them. And why should a gringo be so dumb as not to see it!
I can understand now why people had warned us about Latin American travel directions! But such people were wrong when they thought natives misdirected just to put us on the wrong road. It was simply our inability to understand them or the language. And I don't criticize myself too heavily for not deciphering the signs. Nobody could drive a car straight up. But as time went on, we did understand the language a bit better.
In the isolated sections of Mexico and Central America, travel is not between towns; it's out to some ranch or lumber cutting place, or fishing-dock. Towns live as independently of overland travel as if the rest of the world did not exist. How well we were to find that out before reaching San Jose, Costa Rica!
In Los Mochis, much-hidden town in the hundreds of miles of mesquite, organ-pipe cactus, and deepening tropic brush, we met our first Mexican who had been educated in the States. His English was like a pleasant dream suddenly recalled after long forgetting.
"I graduated from Berkley," he said evenly.
"How is the road below here?" We asked hopefully. "Surely, it should be better to Culiacan and Mazatlan." Those were the best towns on Mexico's west coast.
"What road, my friends?" he answered. "I'm afraid it's only a trail at best, and the rain was harder below here than where you've come. We had six days of it."
For a second none of us spoke. Arnold just lowered his head and rubber a sleeve across his eyes. Kenneth finally found my voice:
"That's all we've heard for days. It's pretty discouraging."
"I suppose. But you'll have a lot of it on this trip," I nodded.
Next day we struck a bit of wide-graded gravel leading into Las Bocas. The speedometer recorded twenty-five miles an hour! Such speed almost frightened us. We ferried Rio Fuerte on a primitive raft made of planks laid across two flat-bottomed row-boats.
Friday night, December 6, 1940, we camped on a rocky beach of Rio Culiacan, right outside the town. It was seven days since we entered Mexico. We'd come six hundred miles, with eleven hundred still to go to reach the Capital. We were tired. Inside.
"Shall we give up and ship from hereto Guadalajara?" I asked the boys as we stopped half a mile out of Culiacan. We had just come charging in low gear through a full quarter mile of deep ruts, which landed us at the foot of a tropic-brush covered hill. The boys had jumped out the moving car as help to the failing motor when they saw how deep and sticky the ruts were. The "help"had been exactly enough. I backed up in to a niche in the brush where I could turn around, and waited for them. Perhaps I was more than a little depressed, for we hadn't seen the sun in three days. It was streaming hot and threatened more rain constantly. The conference was a sober one.
"Once we take the car's wheels off the ground," argued Whitaker, "we're done so far as the story of the expedition is concerned."
"I agree," echoed Van Hee.
"But from here to Mexico City doesn't count. Anyone can drive to Mexico City - On pavement. We should have done it, too."
"But the point is, Sullie-";
"Yes, and I'd like to see the kind of road Mexicans say can't be traveled," Ken put in. "Seems to me they wallow through mud with less worry than anybody I've ever seen. This spot must be a honey."
"Let's push on till we reach the Laguna (Bog)," Arnold voted. "At least one truck got that far. We're certain of that."
"Hope there'll always be two of us say to keep going." I was relieved for the moment at their confidence. "If there is, we'll make Cape Horn." We drove on.
Local people were hired to help build trails so the expedition could continue.
From the hill we followed two twisting wheel tracks - once in them we couldn't get out - scarping trees and brush, dropping into occasional little gullies and climbing up again. But mostly the way was level and full of mud.
The drying clay left us almost helpless. Only high-wheeled trucks passed that way. The tracks were single ruts, eight to twelve inches deep. In the bottom was slick mud, tops and edges were dried crusts. We had two inches extra clearance due to bigger wheels, but low shock absorbers gouged the mountainous clods, the rear axle dragged in the middle, and the wheels spun in the bottoms. We dove, pitched, and raced, bruising the tires against rut sides in an effort to get traction we could not find in the bottom. The fabric-and-rubber sidewalk took steady punishment. Patches tore from the walls and little chunks from the outside tread. Every bend we rounded we expected to see the laguna lying before us.
Goodyear supplied the expedition with twelve specially made 18-inch tires; they did not get a single flat.
It must have been two-thirty when we hit the first real bog we thought might be the beginnings of the laguna. A truck driver had built a brush road out to one side for some forty yards, then hugged the roadside for another hundred. We started, but our heavy load went right through the brush.
"I was afraid of that." We squinted out the windshield. "That truck was a light one. I've been watching the tracks to see, but I wasn't sure until now."
We climbed out and began work. First we unloaded. Gradually we backed onto some sand with the empty car, then while Arnold put on chains and added more brush to the road, Ken and I carried our half ton of equipment that hundred and forty yards through the mud. The atmosphere was heavy.
Grey daylight seemed something we must push our way through. Temperature was near a hundred. There wasn't a dry thread in our clothes when we finished. It was hard to breathe.
"Ready?" I asked Arnold.
I got in started the motor and pushed the accelerator almost to the floor. The car lunged like a floundering horse, but at last stood on solid ground near the luggage. We loaded up without a word.
Next place we thought was the laguna became another quarter mile of deep ruts. The crust was dry again; the bottoms slick. Our hands were full of thorns when we finally had dry sticks and green brush laid end to end in the bottom of the tracks. And it was four o'clock.
"Shall we try it with the load?"
I had been doing all the driving those few days. It was a foolish idea, I admit, for Arnold can take a car through hard places easier - at least on the car - than anyone I know. And finally, in southern Mexico and Central America when going became really difficult, my bearings straightened out and he did most of the driving. But now, if something had to happen to the car, I felt I'd rather be driving when the break came. Then I should be to blame.
"I think she'll take it, Sullie. That brush will give traction and some lift. Then you have the chains-"
We often wished that car might have been alive. Something like a gallant horse, so when we reached the other side of a bad stretch we could have patted its shoulders, rubbed its neck, and whispered appreciation into its ears. There were times when it performed as if it were alive. And the bogs south of Culiacan were instances in point.
We looked at the speedometer. We had come thirty miles from Culiacan over road every Mexican had said we'd never get through. And the truck the night before had not reached Quila, so we knew we'd soon see where it turned around and went back. We did.
The Plymouth barely fits through the bull-cart trails.
Down from the railroad track about half a mile, it was. Stopping the car well back on solid ground, so we could turn around if we had to, I walked on up to the water. It was probably a hundred and fifty yards across, and there was no way of telling by appearance how deep or boggy it was. The truck tracks reached the edge, backed around and started in return direction. I motioned Arnold to bring the car ahead. By the time he reached there, I had my shoes and socks off.
"We'll tell your wife where we last saw you," shouted Ken as I began wading. "And we'll yell if it goes over your head."
Across, through a track I thought one wheel would follow, and back, where the other would then roll. Water came up to my knees. I had an idea.
"Boggy?" Arnold wanted to know.
"Enough. But not as bad as I think that truck driver though it was. I believe she'll go through empty."
"And carry this stuff across on our backs?" It was Ken.
"We've got the rubber boat," Arnold laughed.
"Well, I'd rather be stuck here where there's a spot in the brush wide enough to set up our beds than to try going back. We'd never make it."
"We're with you."
When the car was unloaded, I backed up. Arnold had disconnected the fan belt to avoid splashing water over the spark plugs and distributor.
"Don't hit it too hard at the start," he cautioned. "But if it begins to die, slide the clutch and give'er hell."
I can still feel my lower lip between my teeth. I kept the motor roaring all the while, sliding the clutch in and out, maintaining all the speed and power I dared without stalling completely against a wall of deep water. The chains clanked and churned. Water slopped up underneath the floorboards and waves of it rolled to each side. But we pulled through, I thought with power to spare.
On the other side I climbed out and shouted back: "I believe she'll make it with part of the luggage. Shall I try?"
"Suit you," Arnold called. "But if you stall in there now after getting safely through once, we'll -" I backed into the brush and turned around.
Five trips the car made through that "laguna" that night, before the luggage was all on the Quila side. We thought from there on we'd have easy sailing into steeple-towered Quila. We were disappointed. Three hundred yards on was another bog. We reconnoitered with flashlights. Stationing Ken and Arnold at spots in the darkness where the bogs were worse, I again pushed the accelerator to the floorboards, car in low gear.
"Absolutely beautiful," Arnold said as he settled again in the seat. "This car can take it."
"It rocked a bit though," I admitted. "I could feel it."
A crowd of Mexicans gathered about us as we pulled to a stop in front of a squat broken-walled place with the word "Hotel" hanging from a creaking brace.
There was a river outside Quila to cross: river with four folks, to be forded only with the help of mules and a high-wheeled cart to carry our equipment over so it would not get wet. There was even worse road from Quila south to Mazatlan than we had traversed in reaching Quila from the north. There were still the many miles of brush and lowland mud below Mazatlan until we turned eastward into the mountains at Santiago for the steep climb to Tepic. And finally there were the unpredictable miles of rocky trail across the Barrancas to Tequila and Guadalajara. From there we would have pavement to Mexico City. Pavement! Was there such a thing in the world?
On the shores of Lake Managua, Nicaragua.
Over looking Solola, Guatemala on Lake Atitlan. San Pedro Volcano and Toliman Volcano in the background.
We got across the four-forked river all right-though water backed up under the door handles on the upper side of the car in doing it. And when we opened the doors on the south bank, water poured out as from a submerged box just brought to the surface of a lake. We even got through the mud-most of it-toward Mazatlan.
We made fourteen miles that first day out of Quila. Prophecies regarding impossibilities of the road were all accurate, except the one that we simply couldn't get through. Two stretches almost fulfilled even that. Cutting brush and stumps alongside a laguna, we literally chopped out our own road. Again it was hot. Hard to breathe. Maybe we were working too fast. Anyhow, we were unaccustomed to such heat.
A unique roadway under a small waterfall.
As we reached a fork in the jungle lane, a single piece of board dangled from a broken wire on a telephone post. "Mazatlan"it said, but the arrow pointed straight at the ground.
"You guess," announced Arnold, standing with his face pointed up at the broken board.
"The telephone line goes that way," Ken observed.
"And telephone lines go somewhere, even in Mexico." It was my guess. "Let's find out." We headed right.
That night we camped on the dry rocky bank of a river outside a grass-hutted clump called Obispo. The Alcalde in Quila had said we'd never reach there: that the stretches of jungle mud to that point were the worst on Mexico's west coast. But we were there.
"Well, I don't know," I announced dismally. "If the road is any worse ahead, as they say it is, I don't know!" It was a bad sign.
Sullivan purchases bananas from the United Fruit Compnay for 24 American cents.
Next morning it was I who wanted to go on. Not because I was optimistic about the road ahead. But that back of us was a nightmare. And besides, even if we arrived again at Quila to ship on the railroad, the agent had said no one could ride with the automobile. That was unthinkable: all our cameras and equipment in an unguarded car, we went on.
Local townspeople and politicians gather around the
Plymouth for photos.
Twice that day we got stuck in mud. It seemed a concoction of heavy glue, cold tar, chocolate clay and water. Mountains of it stuck to the wheels until they could not even turn through the fender wells without scraping. We couldn't shovel it. It stuck to the spade in great single wads. If we tried to push it off with our boots it was like anchoring our feet in lead. Our shoulders ached trying to shake it from the shovel. Our spirits were very low that day. Almost too low.
And it was while we were still struggling in that one bog, buried to the hubs in sticky mud, we heard the sound of another motor. I straightened slowly from the heavy shovel. Could it be true, or was the silence of mud and jungle getting me down! In five minutes two cars came up in ahead of us, breaking the trail from their way as we had been doing from ours. That moment of relief is not easily described.
It had been so long since we'd seen a car track ahead of us: any kind of wheel track for that matter. Our eyes blurred from looking down each stretch of jungle lane into which we turned, seeing nothing but mounds of mud, without a fresh imprint of any kind in it. Gradually we had come to think there were no other living things, or wheels, in the whole world: only mud, incredible, mucilaginous mud. And through it all we had to take a big white Plymouth, loaded twice as heavily as a car should be.
It took us five days to go from Mazatlan to Mexico City. We encountered the same difficulties as in the days before; first, mud, deep ruts, weed-and-stump-filled pastures, and torturous days and nights of heats, gnats and mosquitoes. Second, the three to ten-mile-an-hour progress through the mountains up from Santiago to Tepic, to the Barrancas and on to the pavement at Tequila. Hours dragged but days seemed to race by without our getting anywhere before night fell. The little mountain hamlets along that road were almost as hard to get through as the deep mud and bogs of the lowlands. We'd never seen such steep grades, such outcroppings of rocks, such ditches and holes right in the center of towns. And boulders made some of the streets almost impassable. Several times we backed down to get a fresh start at particularly bad hills while curious or laughing natives lined doorways of huts on both sides of the steep "avenidas." We low-geared through more main streets in Mexico, than the rest of the America's combined.
The Barrancas - a great V-shaped valley cut with numberless finger canyons running down out of the high mountains to join finally in one great gorge at the bottom were not half so bad as advance publicity had described them. It was well we were going south instead of north however. Coming down that mountainside I put the car in low gear applied the emergency and foot brakes all at the same time, and still had to use extreme caution on the curves. Our brakes smoked and burned. We've seen steep countryside, but the north side of the Barrancas still holds something of a record for grade. We wondered if we'd ever get up the other side. It wasn't so difficult as the downgrade though, and we had almost no trouble climbing it.
What relief we felt in driving onto the pavement at Tequila, a few miles out of Guadalajara!
In Guadalajara we sat down to a huge steak dinner. It seemed as if we had already reached Cape Horn and this, our victory dinner.
We left Guadalajara at 7:30 p.m. that same night, Saturday, December 14 and drove until 1:00 a.m., setting up our beds in the brush alongside Lago Patzucaro. By 1:10 a.m. we were sound asleep with peaceful visions of the Mexican Capital, warm shower baths, and crisp sheets, filling our dreams.
We arrived in the city next afternoon at 3:30. Fifteen days out of Nogales. We had expected to do the trip in eight.
We were anxious to start south, for in spite of another feeling time wouldn't count after we began the Oaxaca stretch, we still had to get through Central America before the rains, and to Cape Horn before South America's winter set in. We began deciding which day we could leave. It looked as if Wednesday, December 25th, would be it. Christmas.
There was little time those days in the Mexican Capital to worry about the trail below Oaxaca. We were certain it was bad. How bad, there was no way of telling. Survey work for the Pan American Highway was being carried on through the mountains, and each camp had been notified of our coming and of Mexico's wish to help us over the trail. Those camps could be reached only by horses. Pack burros brought in supplies.
"Surely we can negotiate the stretch in ten days to two weeks," I argued. "It's only about fifty miles. And it is a trail." (How foolish that argument sounds now!)
"I met an American chap today who had just come over it on foot,"" Arnold replied grimly. "He said he didn't see how in the world a car could get through. He had to jump from one boulder to another. It took him three days."
"Would it do any good to go in on horseback first?" Ken wanted to know. "If it's too bad we can come back to Puebla and try the trail on the east side of the mountains that Mr. James recommended." (He referred to E. W. James, Chief of Public Transport, Division of Public Roads, Washington). Mr. James had marked a map of both North and South America for us: given us four pages of recommendations. He had told us of the Oaxaca stretch, and said he had no Idea we could successfully cross it: that if we wanted to try the entire distance of Mexico, he'd recommend the lowlands near the railroad line on the eastern slopes, then back across the Isthmus to Jucitan and Tehuantepec. We had seriously considered trying it, until the men in Hernandez' office simply shook their heads "Swamps," they said. I answered Ken's question.
"We'd lose at least six days if we tried to reconnoiter. To do any good we'd have to cover the entire distance because the last part of the trail might be worse than the first part, and we'd never know till we got there. We may as well start with the car, and do what has to he done to get through."
"I agree" Arnold added. We changed the subject. None of us like to admit how worried we were.
There was another important thing to do in Mexico City. After two thousand miles of West Coast mud, we knew we were carrying too much baggage. What to leave, and where, troubled us.
"You can store anything here in the Embassy you want if it isn't too big," John Carrigan told us "Maybe it'll be here when you get back if you do." He laughed, and so did we. We went hack to Shirley Courts to sort out the stuff.
Fourteen hundred pounds of equipment: TWICE TO MUCH, AND WE COULDN’T SEE A THING TO LEAVE! We went through every bag, box and roll, estimating weight and necessity. Cameras, film, tripods, and special photographic equipment: two hundred fifty pounds-absolute necessities. Three bedrolls with air mattresses; seventy-five pounds: necessity, for complete rest was essential to health and that was the important thing in the expedition.
Bed cuts, forty-five pounds: not absolutely necessary, but nearly so. They would keep us off the ground, out of dampness, snakes, crawlers, etc. We took the cots. Rubber boat? Forty-five pounds. We argued about that Our stuff could be loaded into high-wheel carts, we'd found, when we crossed rivers so deep the water would float inside. But what if we had to cross rivers where there were no carts? The discussion was long. We took the boat.
So it was with every item. Ropes, heavy pulleys, block and tackle, tools (part of them were left), gasoline stove, cooking equipment and food, clothing and personal effects, typewriter, paper, etc. We finally left about two hundred pounds: all heavy clothing-since we expected to be out of Argentina before winter set in! - One suit each - a forty-five pound tarpaulin, shotgun and sixty pounds of shells. We left Mexico City about 2 p.m. It was Christmas Day.
We climbed rocky dug ways. washed and corroded with rains We jolted over boulders and twisting trails. We hanged across two-foot ditches that almost shook the motor from under the hood. We cut around sharp blind bends with crumbling edges under our wheels. And once Kenneth screamed at me.
"Good lord. Sullie! Move, you fool!" He was sitting on the outside, and jerked at the door handle as if he were going to lump from the car, I had stopped momentarily in the middle of a bend, trying to be sure I wouldn't scrape the left front fender against the inside wall. I eased ahead, letting the clutch gradually into) the still racing motor. Arnold joined in the raving reproach.
"If you're going to drive, look where you do it!"
"And where you stop!" Ken wax vehement. "Your right rear wheel actually rut the crumbling edge of that curve and you stopped right over a washout. The ground was giving way when I yelled." It was a long drop-off over that side.
I answered them quietly, "The left front fender was scraping the wall over there. That curve was simply too short."
It wasn't much defense. They grunted. We drove on.
From there on the road zigzagged up and down the very crests of pine covered ridges and mountains: the premier skyline drive of the trip.
Then came the worst dug way of all. Four times we tried to get up. Four times we backed carefully down for a new try. The twisting ascent was cut with diagonal ditches washed to the outside, and there was barely a foot of room from the wheel tracks to the fall-off. It was not pleasant work.
On the fifth try Arnold backed well down on the ridge below, forgot the foot of room and the diagonal ditches, forgot the loose rock and the fall-off. He came back with all the speed and power he could pour into the roaring motor. It was a spectacular moment: flying dust, driving gravel, lunging car as it cleared the ditches, but at the end it rested at the top of the grade. We stood for a moment looking back down the trail, then over the side. We shook hands, climbed in and drove on.
In three days we reached Oaxaca.
It was too late to hunt up the Chief Engineer of Roads the day we arrived. Besides we wanted to get up on the mountaintop nearby, where lay the ancient ruined temples of Monte Alban. We hoped officials would let us camp at the ruin during our stay in Oaxaca.
We drove into the great amphitheater footing the wide 135-foot stairs at the north end of the pre-historic city, showed our papers and letters to the guard, got his smiling, "Seguramente, Senores! Seguramente!" and that night we slept in the stone cradles of the dead. The ghosts of ancient men, who with unbelievable hands built Monte Alban from fitted stone and mortar high above the jeweled city of Oaxaca, looked down that evening on a big white Plymouth camped in their huge arena.
All forenoon, on December 31, I sat with one leg hanging over a ledge of Mitla ruins, pounding my typewriter. The shade moved with the sun. I moved with the shade.
Arnold and Ken had gone back to Oaxaca, twenty-nine miles away, to buy more food, a large water can we could lash to the front bumper, another pick, an accessory canteen, and to bring Evereto our guide. When they returned we would be ready to go.
We left Mitla by one o'clock. It was New Year's Eve day. And as on Christmas none of us spoke. We flipped a coin. I lost, then climbed on the right front fender so Evereto could sit inside with the driver to show the way. We three would alternate positions as the hours passed.
It was after dark when we pulled to the side of the road near the opening of an abandoned mine, below a mountain crest called Cerro Colorado. That would be a suitable place, we thought, to spend New Year's Eve. Quiet. Clean. And nicely sheltered. We could yell, shoot off firecrackers, sing, toot horns, throw confetti; anything we wanted. We would bother no one. We settled on a program of hurrying through supper, and preparing for bed. Ken and Arnold each finally took a flashlight and started down the old incline to explore the empty mine.
"Go to bed this early on New Year's Eve? Not while we're young and romantic. Last year it was four o'clock before we went to bed."
"Beat it," I said.
They disappeared into the tunnel mouth that even in the night was a black spot in the mountainside. I sat in the car, pounding my typewriter again.
"While you people in the States are tooting the Old Year out and the New Year in," said the first line, "we're sitting here in the car on a box of film, near an old mine, high in the tops of Mexico's southern mountains. It's so quiet we can hear the ringing silence. Hope you're having fun-"
New Year's Day was wonderful. We traveled three and two-tenths miles. Shortly after leaving the mine opening, we saw where all traffic left the graded road and dropped down into the canyon on our right. Evereto shook one finger back and forth in front of his face and pointed straight ahead. "Directo, directo," he said vigorously, then jerked his head toward the canyon. "San Jose over there."
"Can't be long now," Arnold grunted. Ken was riding the front tender at the time. I explained Arnold's comment to Evereto in Spanish.
"One mile more. Then we turn off on the trail," was his answer.
The tough stretch we'd worried so much about was at last upon us and it was New Year's Day!
Sullivan Richardson Points to the halfway point on the
car door map.
We moved on up the climbing road cut. Dimmer and dimmer became the tracks of previous wheels: wheels of road equipment that had passed along before us. Now there began to appear boulders and rocks that had slipped from the mountain walls of the cut, and had been left to lie in the roadbed. The hamlet of San Jose slipped by us, far below on the right, and we knew we were ahead and south of the point where all wheel traffic turns back toward Mitla and Oaxaca. Beyond a turn of the mountain Evereto shook his finger again, and we pulled to a stop. A dim foot trail for burros and human feet slid off the rock-choked roadbed, and began a sloping descent along the brush-covered mountainside. Evereto stood for a moment looking all around, then motioned ahead down the trail.
Under military escort, the expedition drives past the Panama Canal.
"This is it," Ken said. "Whoopee!" But it was a very weak whoop.
That beginning hundred yards was memorable. First, because it was the start of an "impossible" fifty miles. And second, it plunged us into work that drove all thoughts of "leaving civilization" completely from our minds. From the roadbed cut above, a small landslide of rock and brush had slipped down the mountainside and engulfed the trail. The burro path picked its way through the slide, but before the car could get through we'd have to move a lot of rock. We got out the picks, shovels and hoe. I took pictures for a few minutes, and then joined the others in work.
All through those fifty miles of mountains a trail had been cut, years before: a trail wide enough for a cart. But carts never traveled it. The grades were much to steep for anything on wheels, and the road was never finished. Rains and burros soon cut it to pieces. Boulders, gullies, caved-in embankments, and washed-out holes reduced it to the barest kind of footpath. But the foundation of a trail, wide enough for a car, was there. All we had to do was find it, then try to get over it.
In two hours we had cleaned the slide enough, we thought, to let us by. As a safety factor we had dug a trench on the upper side, deep enough to keep the left wheels in and hold the car from sliding over the slanting side to the right. Whitaker started for the car.
"Easy," I cautioned him, "and don't get out of that trench."
He took one last look at the cleared trail, the upper trench, and one quick look over the side. He rubbed his hand over his beard and eyes, and then got in the car. From then on he looked straight ahead on the trail, and at my motioning fingers held high above my head.
Even with my guidance he crowded the up side of the trench and almost forced the wheels out of it, trying to stay away from the drop-off.
I shouted at him, "Stay down! Stay down! And follow my fingers," the car moved slowly over the rocks. Evereto leaned on a shovel back of me, chewing.
Ken was on the trail behind him, operating my movie camera on a tripod. I had a still camera handy in case anything went wrong. Not that I expected it to.
But the three of us had made an agreement before leaving Detroit that if tragedy ever struck, and one man was free and in a position where he could do nothing to help, he was to take pictures-if he had a camera. And in this spot, if the car went over the side, no one could help anybody.
"Glad that's done," Arnold said when the car stood safely on level ground once more. He slid slowly from the front seat and mopped his head again with his hand. We didn't ask if he were nervous. And he made no further comment. We talked about the road ahead.
From then on, Evereto, Ken and I walked. We lifted boulders out of the road, and we lifted them back in. When protruding rocks were too jagged and high for the car's clearance, and we couldn't dig them out, we built more rock around them, making a regular pile which would raise the wheels high enough to clear frame, oil pan and rear axle housing, of danger. It was toil.
Hour after hour we crept along that trail, mostly down hill. The burro-trail turns were difficult. Several times the outside front wheel would be completely off the side, moving forward two, three or four inches at a time on makeshift foundations which we built up under it with loose rock. Time after time we were on our knees or stomachs, trying to arrange more loose rock under the wheels, to lift them a half inch higher, for more clearance above a point of rock that threatened to jab a hole in the oil pan.
We dropped into gullies, and charged up sides in quick jolting runs, attempting to gather momentum for help in the last steep yards of the climb.
Sometimes we made it without a stop. Other times we blocked the wheels to get new power and push. Finally, about four o'clock we saw the Tehuantepec River below us. It was great relief. Soon we'd be down alongside the stream where we could camp, swim, and relax. Or so we thought.
In the last quarter mile the trail suddenly dropped into another gully, turned right, then climbed out again up the steepest hill we'd seen yet. Half way up was a sharp bend and in the center of it a boulder, almost three feet across. How far it went into the ground we didn't know. It seemed anchored in cement. Rains had washed around it, leaving it too high to straddle and too straight up to climb over. We began throwing loose rock around it.
Four times that afternoon we tried to negotiate the bend. Already we had scraped the car doors, dented the fenders, jammed and jerked the frame, so we were past the point of caution for car punishment. We drove into that boulder with all the speed we could gather, and when the front wheel hit the loose rock, it banged against the buried shoulder like a sharp high curb, and stopped.
We unloaded and tried three times more. Then we began slipping the clutch, blocking the rear wheels, and trying to inch up. From a standstill position against the boulder we jerked the car forward by letting the clutch into the roaring motor with a sudden plunge. It was punishment on the entire drive system, but we felt it had to be done.
The motor got so hot we couldn't turn it off. The ignition key was dead, but the heat of the engine ignited the gas and kept the thing running. Stench of the burning clutch filled the air. And then in one last violent jerk-the front wheels were finally over the boulder-the right rear one went over the side with a crumbling of the washed-out shoulder beneath. The drop was almost perpendicular, for some twenty feet. That stopped us.
"I go to Nejapa, for bulls to pull car tomorrow morning," Evereto offered when we finally translated his Spanish. "Not very far. Be back 7:30 morning, early."
We held conference. Two horsemen came along and tried to get by the stalled car on the dug way. They finally dismounted, and led their wheezy mounts through the squeeze between the ragged rock wall and the white car doors. The horses had never seen an automobile apparently, and as they lunged through the last four feet we hardly noticed the stirrups and saddle gear as they banged and scraped against the doors and fenders.
"Bad business," Arnold grunted.
"Be worse than that before we get through these mountains," I prophesied. "Shall we send Evereto along with them?"
"Might as well," voted Ken. Evereto went.
That night we set up our beds on the crest of the little hill fifty feet ahead of the car. On our right, just over the side of the dug way, the mountainside dropped madly down to the river some five hundred feet below.
"Tonight is New Year's Night," I began in my notes, after Arnold and Ken were deep inside their sleeping bags. "I'm suing here straddled out in an empty car, which slants at some thirty degrees over the side of a dug way high above the Tehuantepec river. I can hardly find a comfortable way to sit and type. How long we'll be stuck here isn't worth a guess. But if the car slips another six inches sideways, you can start thinking of nice things to say over final remains of the expedition!"
Spindle-legged grasshopper of a man, this Ruperto Reis, who came back with Evereto next morning- at ten o'clock instead of 7:30. They brought a pair of yoked bulls, to pull us up the hill and also through the deep river below-when, and if, we got down to it.
Christening the car "Miss Pan-America" with water from the Panama Canal.
Dr. Zapata, third from left, welcomes the expedition to Buenaventura, Colombia.
"Those bulls will never pull that car!" we snorted at him when he commanded us not to start the motor for fear of frightening them.
They jerked, slammed sideways, tore up dust and made a commotion generally, but the car still sat where we had left it, except that the constant jerking seemed to make it settle even farther over the side. That frankly worried us.
Finally I took charge of the expedition again, and told Ruperto to watch the bulls and try to make them pull with the motor. After the first blast from the exhaust they seemed to settle down a bit, and with our pushing, and one fortunate pull from them which came at the exact moment the power of the motor went into the rear wheels, we at last got the empty car on top that hill.
While we waited that morning, we had carried all the equipment down to the water's edge, knowing we'd have to unload to cross the stream anyhow.
Now it was only a matter of caution getting the car down, too. The trail dropped so fast it seemed the car would slide with all wheels locked, and we didn't breathe freely until it was finally sitting out in the sun near the luggage on the rocky bed of the river. We knew now, if not before, there was no turning back. We'd never in the world get up the mountain we had just come down. What lay ahead we didn't know. What lay behind was a nightmare-even coming down. And going back would be a physical impossibility, we thought. We only prayed that the "going up" places ahead would never be like this.
Seven times that day we crossed the Tehuantepec River. Twice the equipment was carried across on our shoulders because the water was so deep we were afraid it would run in the car and wet everything. The first crossing, there at the foot of that morning dug way, was one of these. Right near the sandy bank the drop-off into the water was quite deep. Arnold had taken off the fan belt, to avoid throwing water over the motor. Then he swathed the spark plugs in dry towels, and put a three-feet extension on the exhaust pipe, bringing the opening high up above where water would come.
With the car empty he dropped off into that stream. In that first drop-off the water came up almost to the top of the radiator, but swallowed, and the car plunged on through. Our shouts rose above the rocky turrets of the narrows. Ruperto shook his seven-hair moustache in amazement and shouted, too.
We didn't need his bulls.
But as the day wore on, and we crossed and re-crossed the river, getting down toward the little hamlet of Nejapa, we had our troubles. Time and again we moved boulders to clear a path for the car. Anything so we could get through. Rocks the size of a man's head, and even larger, we paid no attention to.
They wouldn't rip a hole in the oil pan or drive a point up into the gas tank. Both these vital spots of the car, were protected by extra plates of steel, but even so, we were afraid for them.
As three o'clock approached and we had still only made two miles, we began to realize more than ever how unaccustomed we were to hard physical labor. Our hands were cracking with the dust and gravelly dirt, the ends of our fingers were sore, and our backs and shoulders ached from straining at the heavy boulders. We were discouraged and weary with our slow progress. Finally we made a mistake in choosing a spot to cross the river. There was bad sand in the bottom.
Before the car was on dry land again we had a great crowd of natives standing, sitting, or walking around all over the place. They had gathered from Nejapa four miles away: from the little farms that now choked the narrow valley. An automobile coming to Nejapa was the event of a lifetime. Some of the people were frightened by it and stood a long way off, apparently expecting it to explode any moment. Others stood so close we kept bumping into them in our efforts to rescue the car. Ruperto was in his glory. He was a magnificent General. Yes, he worked himself, ceaselessly. But he shouted orders to the bystanders pressing some of them into service, demanding others to stand back and give us room, until we wanted to stand back ourselves and watch him.
The following days proved both exciting and exhausting. Arriving next morning, after our river-crossing camp, at Nejapa we were welcomed with great enthusiasm by the populace of the little village. There were no wheels of any kind in the town. Just burros, horses, and black-sandaled human feet.
As we left Nejapa, all the children of the village fell in behind the big white car, racing along shrieking at the tops of their voices. What a day of celebration, to have an automobile come to their city!
The following days things happened rapidly. First day out of Nejapa we made three miles. That was Friday. Saturday, we made four-tenths of a mile and ended the day about two o'clock in the afternoon stuck on a mountainside with bulls that wouldn't pull with the car, and a clutch completely burned out.
On Sunday Arnold changed the clutch. We had a spare plate in the reserves. From now on there could be no more slipping of the clutch, for when this one went there was not another, that size, this side of Detroit. We'd have to pull with block and tackle instead.
Came Monday morning, and more men. They were a motley bunch of Indians, talking native jargon between themselves and a badly garbled Spanish to us. In the days that followed we learned to like them all immensely, except one or two who proved so lazy we sent them home and got others to fill their places. Monday we made 1:6 miles; Tuesday, 1:7; Wednesday, 1:5; Thursday, 1:3; Friday. 0:7; and Saturday it took us a full day to go twenty-five yards.
What a week!
Again and again we had the men carry the luggage on their backs up the rocky trail, then hitching onto the car with a straight rope from the bumper, we'd give the "sta bueno!" sign, and begin chanting and yelling, "Arriba! Arriba! Heckle! Heckle!" And those motley sons of southern Mexico, leather-faced, tattered, broken-sandaled, would begin to yell and pull like wild men. When the pull was over and the car stood atop the bad stretch, they dropped to the ground in a panting pile of human begins, laughing and shouting with unrestrained glee.
In nine days we traveled twelve miles. What it cost the car in paint, dents, body pounding and punishment to the drive system, we dared not guess. The two rear fenders began to look like wrinkled tortillas and were starting to pull loose from the car body. Both doors on the right side were caved in, with an ugly gouged-in scratch across the center. They'd both still open, however. The glass of two windows was broken. But the motor still roared when we stepped on the accelerator. That was the great comfort. The car was a Trojan.
It was a day later we hit the big boulder. Rolling down from the mountainside it had completely blocked the trail. Burros could get by, yes, but a car was out of the question. For an hour we tried to decide what to do. To move the rock was impossible. It was larger than the car. We had no power tools, no dynamite, nothing but a couple of big hammers, some bars, picks and shovels. To build a makeshift road around was likewise impossible. On the upside the mountain rose steeply for several hundred yards. On the downside it dropped dizzily from the edge of the trail.
"We've got to break that boulder some way," I said. "There is no other choice."
"But how can you break a rock like that without powder?" demanded Ken. "It's like granite."
"Well, we can't pray it off the trail!" Arnold was snapping. "And wishing won't work either. Let's get after it."
"Then take the men and go on ahead," I suggested. "Work the trail as far as you can. I used to break boulders in the copper mines in Arizona, and while I don't relish the job, I can probably do more with a hammer than either of you. Come back at 5:30 for camp, and we'll see how I've made out."
The rest of the afternoon I worked. When they returned I had chipped exactly fourteen inches off the boulder's waist. We measured with the hoe handle from the rock to the crumbling soft dirt at the trail's edge. Then we measured the exact width of the car from the edge of the body to the outside of the right rear tire.
"Six inches more off the rock would give us two inches dirt on the outside of the trail," I observed.
"And do you want to sit in the car and drive it by there with only two inches of soft dirt between you and that canyon?" Ken wanted to know.
"Can't," Arnold put in, "even if we absolutely scraped the boulder. We'd need a foot of room on the edge of this trail. Even then it might crumble under the weight of the car and driving power in the wheels."
"We'll never get sixteen inches more off that rock," I retorted. "If we had the hammers that pound the gong of doom, we wouldn’t! That boulder's hard."
Until it was so dark we could no longer see, we kept driving at the rock's stubborn flintiness with the sledges. Those first fourteen inches had been easy in comparison. It was toil now. That night we held a solemn council.
"We aren't by this boulder yet," Ken observed, making a funny face. "Hope you 'aint overlooking' that incidental item." It was good that one of the three of us usually found a way to inject a bit of humor into the situation whenever problems began weighing too heavily. But Ken's humor at that moment was passed by.
"I believe we can hook the block and tackle onto the back end of the car, to secure it just in case, then get all the men but two, onto the front rope and drag it by that boulder without putting any driving power in the rear wheels. Those two men and I can stay at the back and feed slack to the block and tackle. That'll let the car roll free and I believe two inches of dirt outside the wheel will be sufficient."
"Maybe," Arnold said.
"Well, with the block and tackle hitched on, there would be no actual danger of losing the car."
"Could three men hold that automobile, with block and tackle??"
"Of course, as long as it didn't start rolling in the first place."
We fell silent again. The flames of the fire crackled under a knotty log we'd put on a little while before. Evereto got up, shook himself, pulled his thin blanket from the car and lay down with his head against the rear wheel. We still sat.
"Know how long we've been in this stretch already?" Arnold broke the silence.
"Fourteen days," I answered, not raising my head. I was staring at the fire, "And we thought we could be through in that time."
"Something's going bad in the transmission, too," continued Arnold, as if he'd been afraid to announce the bad news before. "I'm scared stiff to think of what it might be."
"Don't know. But I sure don't like that clicking."
That night, by the big boulder-south of San Juan Garcia, was one of the solemn nights of the expedition.
At 7:30 next morning we were working again. By nine o'clock we thought we had our two inches "spare dirt" on the outside edge of the drop-off. Then came the job of getting the car by.
Everything started according to plan. The block and tackle was anchored to a tree up on the mountain side above us, then fastened to the outside rear spring shackle of the car. Arnold had driven the machine up to where the front wheels stood even with the boulder, and by sighting along the outside, we could tell we had about the two inches we were after-and no more! The men were holding the long rope from the front bumper, waiting for the "go-ahead." Ken was to work with them, and at the same time guide Arnold with movements of his fingers held above his head. I was to be anchorman on the block and tackle, with two other men to help me in case either end of the car went over. Everything was ready. Arnold rubbed his long-bearded chin and stepped again into the car. He didn't look off over the side. Only ahead, at Ken.
"If anything slips, we'll yell for Gabriel to start tooting." It was an effort to be funny. It went flat. And this was one place no cameras were set up for action. "Shoot!" I yelled to Ken and to the men ahead. They bent into the pull and the car started forward.
"No! No" I heard Ken shout suddenly. I was behind the car and could not see what going on. Then I heard the scraping sound of rock against metal. Arnold was crowding the boulder too closely. Who could blame him? The front half of the car was by. At the moment everything had stopped and the car rested there, motionless. The ropes of the block and tackle were limp and slack. We were having difficulty getting the strands through fast enough to let the car roll freely.
Suddenly Ken appeared, half up the side of the boulder, like a scared rabbit. He was yelling at me.
"For Lord's Sake, Sullie! Tighten that rope, you fool' Quick!"
"Go back to the men and leave me alone!" I answered, "I know what I'm doing. Make those fellows pull and hurry!"
"But keep the rope tight, or we'll lose the car!"
"Shut up, and have the men pull!" I lifted my voice up over the car. At that second I thought I could see it slide a little to the outside. "Hombres! Heckle! Heckle Abora! Heckle!"
I've admitted before my Spanish was bad. And Heckle I'm sure, means nothing, grammatically. But these gaunt, leather-faced Zapotecan Indians knew what it meant, and at that moment I believe they were as frightened as 1. They laid into the rope. The car moved on, and with a sort of sickening easy little crumble under that outside rear wheel-which I watched with my heart in my windpipe-and a final scrape of the already battered fender against the boulder, the automobile slipped beyond the crumbling dirt onto solid ground.
Ken flopped down on the rocky roadside. I dropped the block and tackle and walked around to join him. Arnold opened the door of the car and got out.
No one looked down the drop-off. Arnold just stared at the deeply scratched doors where the boulder had left its mark. And as the natives too, gathered around to look, he said with a quiet voice, his finger on the map of North America.
"If this was a New Deal car, Roosevelt ought to decorate us. We've scraped Maine and Vermont right off the United States!"
Relief was sweet.
"We got excited, didn't we?" I said, slapping Ken's knee. I left the boys with the men that day and traveled alone to meet Don Pablo, who would take me on to Tehuantepec to pick up more supplies.
The expedition near the equator.
It is fifty kilometers from Tequisistlan to Tehuantepec. And there is a kind of road for things on wheels! As Don Pablo and f speeded over the narrow, winding and difficult tracks in the Company "Camione"at twenty-five kilometers an hour (approximately fifteen mph) it seemed almost breathtaking. Actually to travel in a car for a full mile then thirty more on top of that without having to get out and work, move boulders, drag block and tackle, seemed wonderful.
In Tehuantepec we found very poor assortments of canned foods, groceries, and other items needed. Jucitan, a railroad center, was thirty miles farther and back toward the interior of the isthmus. We headed for Jucitan. With two hours in Jucitan, I bough: more groceries than I thought we could carry back up the mountains with only one burro, an additional fifty feet of 1-inch rope (to help us on the canyon wall of Rio Hondo), a 22-inch machete-and a pound of cheap, colored sugar candy. (It tasted like Christmas.) Then we started back for Tehuantepec. Night had already settled.
Setting up camp.
We stayed in Tehuantepec until next morning, then drove back the fifty kilometers to Tequisistlan. There Don Pablo said goodbye.
"I must stay here," he said warmly, extending his hand. "But I have given ample instructions. A man with two burros will accompany you up the mountain from La Mojada to where you meet the boys. You will also ride this mule. If you choose to come back with the man and work on this side of the mountain, I will give you six men to work with you. You could then build road back from this end, until you meet the car and the other gang coming from that way. You will stay in my camp, and need only pay, as we pay, for your food: a peso and a half per day (approximately thirty cents). What do you say?"
I wanted to get off the mule and hug my friend.
"You'll never know how grateful we are, Don Pablo. By all means, I accept. The boys can stay with the gang coming this way. I'll stay with your men. We should make contact in a few days."
"I give you two weeks to get here," he smiled.
"And I'll cut it in half," I said. "We'll be in Tequisistlan-if the car holds together-by a week from tonight!" It was Saturday.
I found the boys next day camped on the water's edge down in the depths of Rio Hondo's gorge. They had arrived there Saturday noon, spent the afternoon working on Z-turns up the canyon side, then called a day of rest for Sunday. With the natives, they were having a hunting, yelling and swimming vacation; good relaxation after the three weeks of hard work now behind them.
We fell to unpacking and I told of Don Pablo's offer for men to work the other side of the mountain, if I'd come back and work with them. Both Arnold and Ken agreed instantly.
"Anything to get us out of here," Arnold said, his face becoming suddenly serious. "I hold my breath every time I shift gears now for fear something'll explode in the transmission. There are some stripped teeth in it, I'm sure. We can't use reverse at all. And whenever I go into low, I get some awful clicks."
Somehow that sounded like bad news from a doctor just emerging from an operating room.
"What in the world would we do if the gears went haywire?" I demanded. "There are very few cars at Tehuantepec, or even in Jucitan. I'm absolutely certain we can't get replacements for a transmission this side of Mexico City. Anyhow, not for this job."
Arnold shook his head dismally. "Guatemala City's probably the nearest place we can get repairs. And I doubt this thing will hold together that far."
"There's plenty of hard trail yet to Tehuantepec," I said. "If the transmission will last to there we'll at least have a chance."
"How about this hill in front of us now," Ken demanded. "We'll need angels or sky hooks or something to get up that!"
I remembered the rope and dragged it from a box on one of the burro's backs. "This will help. When I passed here the other day, I knew we'd never get up with the rope we had. With this extra fifty feet, you can reach some of those trees growing farther away from the road."
"Swell," Arnold said, "I feel better already."
We fell to discussing the hill, the turns, the car, the men and the trail ahead to La Mojada.
"Once you cross the ridge above Las Vacas," I said, "there'll be fair sailing until you get into the canyon leading down to La Mojada. And if f have five or six men working with me we should have that in fair shape by the time you meet us."
"We'll need gas, though," Arnold said. "We haven't got more than about a mile to the gallon in these mountains. Too much racing of the motor, and spinning of the wheels."
"I made arrangements to get some up to La Mojada for us. But I thought we'd have enough to reach there."
"Better send it up with a native, tomorrow."
The groceries were unpacked and in the back of the car. I instructed the native who had come along with me, to pack my typewriter, my bedroll, suitcase, camera case, and a few other things, on the burro that had carried the canned goods, and then we were ready to start back. The men had all gathered around to see me off. We had paid them earlier, making a great ceremony of it, and now they wanted to wish me all kinds of luck on the other side of the ridge.
"Work hard, boys," I said to them as I climbed on the little mule. They laughed at my long legs in the short stirrups. "And if you get up this hill and across the ridge in three days, we'll have one 'gran celebracios when we reach Tequisistlan."
"Seguramente, amigo. Seguramente!" they chorused, and I pulled my mule's head toward the Z-turns up the canyon's side.
"Don't forget the gas," called Arnold.
"And don't let that transmission get away from you," I answered. "I'll have the gas up to you all right."
Next morning I sent of the 'mossos' of Don Pablo's borrowed gang, back up the trail with a five-gallon can on his shoulder. I've always wondered how he could climb that mountain with a load so unwieldy and so heavy. There were ten miles of steep trail. I couldn't help but feel sorry for him, but Don Pablo's assistant said he could do it easier than to send a burro with it. The following morning he walked into my tent at La Mojada with this note from Arnold.
"Sullies Thanks for the gas. We now have a quarter of a tank-almost."
When the roar of the expedition motor sounded down that canyon toward La Mojada Thursday noon I wanted to run up the trail to meet the gang. I was eating lunch on a rock in the shade, when I first heard the sound. I strained my ears to be sure I wasn't mistaken. Dropping my tortillas and canned preserves on the canteen, l stood up and shaded my eyes up the canyon for any possible sight of men or car. At last I saw it, and the six natives working with me must have wondered had I gone berserk. We were right at the crest of the worst turn and hill on the whole down-canyon trail.
An hour later the two gangs met at the bottom of this twist. Two hours more, after carrying equipment up on the men's backs, and dragging the car with block and tackle again, it finally stood on a narrow ledge, its front wheels near a fifty foot drop, its rear ones within eight feet of another drop. By careful maneuvering we pumped the back end up and down on the heavy springs, and with each up-heave, pushed violently sideways. By such procedure we moved the rear end around almost three feet slid backward six of the eight feet we had for room, then swung the front end away from the cliff and were ready to go straight ahead again. our last dangerous obstacle successfully beaten. From there on down to camp La Mojada was careful, but fairly rapid going; fairly rapid compared to the snail pace we had become accustomed to in the weeks back of us. It was pitch dark when at last the car stood beneath the trees at the tent camp. And what a reunion that was!
"If only Don Pablo were here," I said, "this would be wonderful."
While supper was in preparation we went over plans for tomorrow.
"I'd give a lot to be in Tequisistlan tomorrow night," I said. "With excellent luck, we can do it."
"It'll take excellent luck, with that transmission," Arnold said, shaking his head again. "It's bad."
"But I haven't heard anything," I remonstrated, "since I met you. And I've been listening."
"I'll show you, in the morning," he replied. "We'll drain the oil before starting, and strain out the broken teeth. Should have done it before. If one of those should get caught in the other gears while we're roaring ahead, it'd tear out the good ones we still have left."
We went on with road plans. Ken was to leave camp immediately, in the morning, with the men, including the six we were using from Don Pablo. Arnold and I would stay behind, drain the transmission, get it fixed as best we could, pack the car, and follow over the road prepared by the advance gang. It sounded good. The cook began piling on the meal.
At 6:30 next morning, Ken was off, with the men. Shortly after, Arnold had the plug out of the transmission box and the oil was pouring down, thick and chunky into a carefully placed can beneath. We had to conserve every possible drop of that oil, for there was no more of such weight to be had, on our side of Tapachula on the Guatemalan frontier.
And when we had strained it through a cloth sack, opened the leftover in the bottom of a pan, our hearts sank and our eyes popped.
"For the love of-"
Arnold stopped and shook his head. In the bottom of the sack was a small pile of shining chunks of steel: three or four-dozen pieces.
"I'll bet every tooth is gone off reverse and low," he said hopelessly. "Look at it!" I was too stricken to say anything, at least for the moment. "Was there any kind of garage in Jucitan?"
"I didn't see any," was my reply. "But there are a number of trucks operating between there and Tehuantepec. I didn't see any passenger cars to speak of."
Again he shook his head. "We wouldn't be able to replace gears anyhow. I'm afraid. This looks like new ones from Detroit. Maybe they'd have them in Mexico City or Guatemala City. But I'd hate to bet on it."
"Will it last us to Guatemala City?"
"How do I know? We haven't used reverse since way back the other side of Rio Hondo. And I'm positive there are teeth gone off the low gear. Every time I use it now, more will go. We'll just have to give it up entirely and use second and high."
"We'll have a sweet time driving through three hundred miles of jungle lowlands and sandy rivers to Tapachula, with two and a half tons of car and equipment and no low gear to do it with!" I snorted.
"Well, so what do you want to do?" he demanded, irritated. "Maybe one of us could take the train back from Tehuantepec to Mexico City, on the chance they'd have replacements there. But even then-"
"Let's get to Tehuantepec, first," I said, straightening up. "We can watch it today and see how it acts. Fact is, there is plenty of trouble from here down to Tequisistlan where we hit the road."
And those were not idle words. Time and again that day, we were in trouble. Bad trouble. We finished tearing the right rear fender off the car against the great boulders that choked the sides of the trail. We caved in both right doors and scraped a great gash across the painted flags of the front panel. More hunks were torn from the tire sidewalk and we wondered if they'd hold air till we got to town. And finally, reaching the last canyon-gully that raced down to Tehuantepec River, we left the trail to avoid a steep boulder-strewn hill and followed down a burro trail through brush, cactus, and thorny trees, that disgorged us at last into the mouth of the canyon in deep soft sand. It stopped us. Cold. The hands of my watch said five o'clock.
"We'll never make it," I said to Arnold. "It's along way down this river bottom yet, until we strike a trail where wheels have actually gone before us. We may as well camp here." The men crowded around. They were rebellious. "Ya Ilegada!" they began saying. "Ya Ilegada!" I remembered Evereto's maddening use of the term that unforgettable night coming down the mountain to Camp La Mojada. This looked exactly the same to me.
"But we're not 'Ilegada'," I shouted at them defiantly. "And we've got this deep sand to go through. We can't possibly go on without unloading the car and getting help. You couldn't pull even an empty automobile through here if you were twice as many men as you are. There's a limit to what a motor can do."
"Yas Ilegada!" one of them shouted again. "Cable! Cable! Heckle! Heckle!" They setup a howling chorus.
"Well, if the crazy fools want to pull, let them pull," Arnold said as irritated as I. "It's the only way we can show them it can't be done."
"Suits me. It's a cinch they don't want to stay here. I believe they'd desert tonight anyhow. We're so close to town and they've been so long without a drink, or a woman, I doubt we could hold them if we tried!"
Until we die, we'll remember that next hour. I have never seen any man or group of men work as those fellows did. They refused to unload the car or to go for bulls. They wanted to pull it as it was and save the time. The sand was deep and soft; so deep and soft that the rear wheels settled into it like humping, billowing groundhogs when the power of the motor poured into the driving gears. And yet those men pulled it. Yes, there were twenty-one of us by then, augmented as we were with Don Pablo's men. And twenty-one pairs of legs, and straining backs can move heavy loads. But it was nothing short of miraculous that the car moved ahead.
With progress actually started, the men bean shouting and yelling. Louder and more wildly rose their voices.
"A Cabo de Hornos!" they chanted. "A Cabo de Hornos! Heckle! Heckle! Abora!" and they pulled like mad men. When ground a little more solid was reached, and the car rolled easier, some of the men tripped on other men's feet. As they fell, they rolled over and over, sideways out of the way of the oncoming car, jumped to their feet, raced ahead again, got in place, and laid into the pull.
We moved great trees, so heavy it took all twenty-one men, straining to capacity to lift them out of the way. Fences were cut through, and rebuilt as we passed. And when finally we struck a trail leading into a farm on the river bottom where bull carts regularly passed, the men let out a great shout. From then on, it was one racing, hilarious, mad lunge. Swinging their knapsacks, their implements, their personal belongings above their heads they yelled, whistled, sang, and tried to keep up with the car. Time and again the trail crossed little streams of water that joined the main body of the river farther down. The men raced through these streams caring nothing for wet clothes, sandals or feet. Gradually the older men fell back. Only the younger fellows could keep pace with the car which now traveled under its own power at the amazing speed of ten to fifteen miles per hour.
By nine o'clock that night, every man, pick, shovel, bar, knapsack-and the car-was in Tequisistlan.
And when the car finally pulled to a stop at the cobblestone front door and Don Pablo came out with a gasoline lantern in his hand, his dark eyes beamed with pleasure.
"You did get here!" he kept saying over and over. "You made it. Even one day sooner than you promised." He shook hands warmly with Arnold and Ken, and hugged me like a brother.
At ten o'clock, we called the waiting men to line up in front of an improvised pay table. Each man came up as we called his name. Ken and Arnold stood near me. As we handed over the money, which was coming to the grinning fellow, we took turns shaking hands with him and thanked him for his more than three weeks of good work in getting us through the stretch we had been told no automobile could traverse. That pay-off was a great ceremony.
"And Evereto has had a longer siege than the rest," observed Ken. "He says he never drinks, but I'll bet he takes a sip tonight." (We had given him a bonus of twenty-five pesos. His salary was paid by the Government road department, but we wanted him to know we appreciated his work too.)
Fevre & Basset greet the expedition in front of their
Buenos Aries facilities.
"Adios, Amigos, mug mios," they waved at us as they wobbled off up the street toward the river where they had crossed in such shouting hilarity the night before. We almost hated to part company with them. They had become real friends.
To recount in detail the balance of the trip from Tequisistlan to Tehuantepec, to Jucitan and south through bull-cart trails, jungle lowlands, sandy rivers, and mosquito-ridden bogs, would be story and adventure, but Mexico has already taken its share of this report. We rested one day in Tequisistlan, two days in Tehuantepec, and celebrated in our own conservative way, the conquering of the stretch just behind us.
Then we started on. We hoped to make Tepachula, last city in Mexico, within seven or eight days. It took us fifteen. Logs and brush were cut to fill in bogs and gullies. We strained up hills and through streams lined with trees and jungle through which we had difficulty even seeing the sky. We sweated, beat at ticks, talajes, and mosquitoes. We almost despaired of ever reaching the Guatemalan border. Three times more we drained the oil from the transmission and strained out broken teeth. But the car stayed together and the motor still roared when we stepped on the accelerator. Probably no greater tribute could be paid the motor industry as a whole, and the makers of that expedition car specifically, than the record of mechanical performance in taking five thousand pounds of car, equipment and sweating men through those lowland bogs, rivers, and bull-cart trails, with only two gears. And neither one of them, the powerful low gear that was so sorely needed. It was superlative motor achievement.
I left the expedition before it reached Tapachula. It had been six weeks since we pulled out of Mexico City. Six weeks without contact with anyone we knew.
Besides that, we were carrying all our Kodachrome motion picture film that had been exposed since leaving the Mexican capital: six weeks heat and heavy tropical atmosphere made us fearful the film would spoil if we didn't get it out to civilization and ship it Air Express to Rochester, New York, for processing. We held solemn consultation.
We were still sixty miles from Tapachula, with nothing but choked boggy bull-cart trails to follow, and an increasing number of rivers and swampy lowlands. The car was in bad shape. Twice it stopped completely and Arnold had to take out the transmission, adjust drive-system parts, remove broken teeth and whatnot. It had been almost two weeks since we left Tehuantepec. And we had hoped to do that three hundred miles in seven days.
"Shall I go ahead to Guatemala City?" I asked as we sat down to eat. We had talked it over many times before.
"I think you should get this film out of here," Arnold said. "And see if you can find car replacements to have back in Tapachula for us by the time we get there."
"If I thought we'd reach Tapachula in another week," I replied, "I'd vote to stay. But the going is getting worse, and so is the car. Perhaps I can bring replacements back to you here in the jungle."
Ken was optimistic.
"I vote for you to go on and bring my mail from Guatemala City. We'll be in Tapachula by the time you are."
My laugh was short-even a little bitter.
"There have been a lot of miracles happen on this trip. But so far, no angels have come down, picked up the car, and flown it over these bogs!"
"Just the same," Ken retorted, "You go get the mail, send off the film, and bring car parts back to Tapachula. We'll be there." I didn't even answer.
As we talked, the car was sitting back up the road a hundred and fifty yards wedged in the deep boggy ruts of a jungle Slough. Tree limbs and heavy palms draped over it until we had to push them aside with our arms to open the doors.
I reached the Guatemalan capital at 11:30 p.m. Next morning I had the ranking officer of the American Embassy out of bed before his Sunday-morning "sleep-in" was well underway, to beg for our mail. There was a great stack of it. I sat in my hotel room all day reading and enjoying it. A cable from the Plymouth Company summoned me back to Detroit with the film I had already taken through Mexico. They would pay my round trip fare on the Pan American Airways! The United States again! I simply couldn't believe it.
But there was still disappointment. Transmission parts needed for the car could not be had in Guatemala City. That meant only one thing: Detroit. Quickly I formulated plans. Since I was going north anyhow, I could bring parts back with me. It would probably take fifteen days for the round trip and to accomplish what Plymouth would want in Detroit. That would give Arnold and Ken plenty of time to reach Tapachula, while I was gone, and perhaps-with luck-a few days' rest as well. Upon my return new parts could be fitted into place in one or two days and we'd be on our way. If only I could find Arnold and Ken without too much delay!
I made my trip back to Detroit; arriving there Sunday night; February 16th in a blizzard I had no topcoat, overcoat, or winter clothing. Everything was packed away in boxes, and my wife was in the West. I went to a hotel, shivering in a taxicab. The Detroit News had run that day under 8-column head our last article on the mosquito bogs of southern Mexico's jungles. Next morning I walked casually into the editorial and business offices, thinned, browned, and still with no coat. People with whom I had worked for ten years were certain they saw in me an apparition, for no one but Plymouth executives knew I had returned.
TWO WEEKS LATER, AS I flew for the second time high over the mountains below Oaxaca-mountains where we had labored with our gang of Indian friends for twenty-five days to go fifty miles: mountains through which must go the Pan American Highway when it is finally completed-I couldn't forget the times when right below me I had wondered if the outside world really existed.
But now I knew that civilization did exist. For wasn't I covering in exactly twenty-four hours the same ground it had taken us three months to crawl across?
I bought the round-trip ticket direct from Guatemala City, and taking the first plane that stopped at Tapachula fifty minutes by air across the mountains- I walked out of the big silver cabin of a Pan American Airways ship into the low coastal heat of Tapachula's airport on Tuesday morning.
"Are you Richardson?" asked the white-coated, perspiration-dampened manager of the airways station.
"Yes, I'm Richardson. But why-"
"I ran onto two fellows down town yesterday afternoon in a white Plymouth that had been torn all to hell. They were asking about you."
I couldn't believe my ears. Arnold and Ken in town? Maybe there had been a miracle. I found them soon afterward in a side-street garage, going over tires and miscellaneous small things that needed attention on the car. It was another greeting like Rio Hondo. We were glad to be together again. They had found a road, climbing up onto the coffee plantations footing the great mountain chain away from the coast, and had followed that road. With help from "finca" owners-some of them German, who had been in Mexico many years-the boys unloaded the car to get up, then found fairly easy sailing from there into Tapachula.
The most extraordinary impression Guatemala left upon us came from the omnipresent shadow of General Jorge Ubico. We did not meet him.
But we had heard of the General many times during plans for the trip. We heard more of him in Mexico. We heard increasingly more of him after crossing the Guatemalan frontier on the fine new bridge over Rio Suchiate at the end of Mexico's fifteen miles of pavement which slices the jungle from Tapachula to the boundary. Ubico is probably the best motorcyclist in Latin America!
Guatemala has automobile roads from boundary to boundary: all-weather roads of gravel, built by hand, and maintained by natives with picks, shovels, and gravel hods made of skins stretched between two poles. But the roads are usable, even with grades up to seventeen per cent. And compared to most of Central America, they're a hundred years ahead. Ubico likes roads.
"How do you account for so many roads in Guatemala?" we asked an official in the Tourist Bureau office one day. "Road are unusual in Central America."
"Our great Senor Presidente," the man answered, "rides his motorcycle very often to visit towns and cities in his republic. If more presidents in Latin America rode motorcycles, there would be more and better highways." His white teeth showed pleasantly. "It takes, what you say-guts to ride a motorcycle, any time, even on good roads, for it shakes up the insides greatly! And our Senior Presidente says when he can ride his motorcycle comfortably over the roads, then his people can ride comfortably in cars and carretas!"
We liked Ubico's philosophy. And before we reached the end of our journey, we fervently wished more Latin American presidents rode motorcycles!
Listening to all the tales about Gen. Ubico, we heard how he had cleared the land on his farm using a ratchet type pulley device. After brief consultations among ourselves we decided it might be wise to try and acquire such a device for the remaining parts of the expedition.
"Go to my friend. Vice-President of International Railways in Guatemala City," Doctor MacPhail had said. "Tell him your problem. I believe they'll be able to dig up some kind of ratchet contraption they use to drag locomotives along. Perhaps you can persuade them to part with it. Certainly this is the only place in Central America you can get one, for International has the finest locomotive and machine shops between Mexico City and the Panama Canal."
Next day I visited the Vice-President. International had one ratchet pulley and knew where they could get another. One was all we wanted. It took eighty-five dollars American money. But when the expedition left Guatemala City some thirty pounds had been added to equipment weight. And should rains catch us in Honduras. Nicaragua, or Costa Rica, we could pull ourselves out even if we moved only half an inch at a pull.
Before we reached San Jose, we were grateful for that pulley. Once we were stalled in soft powdery ground on a bull cart trail below Chinandega. The crust gave way under us and we buried our rear wheels in dry "liquid"dirt. After an hour of trying usual means, we dug out the pulley and anchored to a small tree some five inches in diameter. We pulled the tree out of the powdered ground while the car remained stationary. Next, we lengthened anchor ropes to a large tree, almost a foot in diameter. This one held, and inch-by-inch we dragged the car up onto solid crust again and rolled forward to safe position.
We reached the Capital. In a jungle bog below Bebedero, we actually dragged 5,000 pounds of car and equipment through heavy mud up to the axles, half an inch at a pull. It took hours of work, but we got through. If we had only carried that pulley in Mexico at Rio Hondo.
We left Guatemala City Friday noon, on March 14th, heading south toward Salvador. Honduras, Nicaragua, and the rains. We still hoped we could beat them. In Guatemala we had enjoyed those roads built for Mr. Ubico's motorcycle.
Pavement began at the Salvadorian frontier. That seemed like a dream, for pavement was something we had long ago forgotten.
"If all countries were like Salvador," Kenneth said as we sped along through tropical brush and flowering trees, "things would be wonderful."
"In fact, this wouldn't even be an expedition," observed Arnold. "Look at this pavement. It runs seventy-five per cent of the way to Honduras, with fair gravel the rest of the distance."
"We can stand a little pavement here and there," I said.
We spent little time in the republic. It was small and so easy to drive through we have little to say concerning it. That probably is unfair. But everything we report is praiseworthy, except the fact that within those borders we paid 48 cents a gallon, American money, for gasoline. That was a blow. Twenty-eight cents of that forty-eight was government tax, because they feel in Salvador that cars and gasoline are luxuries.
Salvador is a country of low, rolling, rough-cut hills: of tropical brush, jungle-trees, palms, and flowers It is only a few hours' drive from border to border over the highway now constructed. And near the center lies the lovely little city and capital, San Salvador. But it was hot and sultry the week-'end we spent there, and we were anxious to be on our way. Monday noon the daily papers spread our pictures and the expedition across their front pages. At 1:30 we ate lunch, packed up with a great crowd of curious and insistent well wishers milling around the car in front of our hotel and at 3:00 o'clock we were driving south. We spent the night camped in a gravel pit, twenty feet off the road near the Lempa River.
Next morning near noon we reached Pasaquina, last town in Salvador. The Foreign Minister had sent telegrams ahead of us to insure utmost courtesy as we left the country. On the strength of those telegrams we influenced a store-keeper to dig deep beneath a pile of boxes, grain, and horse-feed to haul out two sealed five-gallon cans of gasoline, that we might be certain we could reach Tegucigalpa without running short. (We had an extra 35-gallon tank built in the bottom of the trunk space and carried approximately 50 gallons of gas when fully loaded.) We crossed the Goascoran River-little more than a creek at that time of year-leaving all semblance of even rough automobile road behind, we were in Honduras. From there on to San Jose, Costa Rica we were to learn what bull cart trails in Central America really meant.
Honduras was a disappointment. We probably were not quite fair in our judgments, because surely there must have been many pleasant things about the country. We just didn't find them.
We had distasteful experiences with domineering teenaged policemen. The hotels in Tegucigalpa were poor and prices very high. American Legation employees could not speak English and all the officers were out. Our mail had been badly taken care of. No one cared to help us arrange for exit visas or "Thank You" visits to government officials.
Furthermore, we had been told the big road running up from San Lorenzo on the sea coast to Tegucigalpa, the capital, was all-weather road on which we would have no trouble whatever. It was the roughest, most disagreeable all-weather road that we ever traveled. It took us five hours to drive 75 miles. Nothing seemed right in the country, and we left it the moment that was possible.
The republic itself is a large sprawling country stretching from ocean to ocean across a bulging hump of the Central American isthmus. We crossed only the stubbed nose of land that crowds down to the Pacific between El Salvador and Nicaragua. But that was enough of Honduras for us.
When our one-day visit in the Capital was over, we filled up with gasoline at 30 cents a gallon American money, and headed on south over a well-defined cart road toward Choluteca. It was not many miles, and as we drove along through deepening dust, ruts and tropic trees, we remembered that E. W. James, in Washington, had said, "From Choluteca south there is absolutely no road of any kind: only cart-trails. With luck you can get through in dry weather." We were anxious to get into that stretch for through there, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we expected the real difficulties of the trip to settle down upon us.
It was a conspicuous moment that afternoon when we drove out of the brush and trees at Coluteca River to see a fine modern steel bridge spanning the rock-and-sand-filled riverbed. There was no water in the river. Not even a trickle. And there were no automobile tracks in the road we were following. An occasional bus came down from San Lorenzo to Choluteca. But ninety-nine per cent of the traffic over Choluteca Bridge imposing steel structure built with United States tax money is bull-cart traffic: traffic which may as well cross the rocky bottom below the bridge. We stopped, got out, and looked. It seemed good even to stare at a bridge, which appeared to have come from the United States.
Long before we left the States, however, we knew that to stimulate interest in Pan American Highway construction, the United States Government had built in each country one fine bridge as a present to that country.
Twenty miles below Choluteca we stopped that night on a little open-treed hillside.
But we were now in the stretch of country we had worried and fretted over for weeks. A few miles farther and we'd reach the Nicaraguan line. The trails had been fairly travelable so far, but no telling what tomorrow would bring. We went to bed early.
We crawled into Nicaragua through a tunnel.
Even today we still talk about those low trees. Had we been botanists we should have been intrigued by them as we were with other strange trees and vines we saw in Central and South America. But strange trees, if they grew in, or too near the trail were only another handicap to the expedition. And those in southern Honduras and northern Nicaragua were cases in point. They seemed almost like upside-down trees, for many of the lower limbs bent back almost to the ground.
I had been riding the front fender watching for stumps when we first approached these trees and I jumped off to see if the top of the car would clear beneath the low-bending branches. It did, at first, by inches.
But we dared not drive along, taking it for granted the piled rope, the hoe, shovel, and the tires would clear every time the "squeeze" became close.
Whenever it appeared doubtful I got off and motioned Arnold ahead with my fingers. Several times the limbs were too low Bull-carts could pass beneath them successfully. but nothing so high as a modern automobile. We worked with ax and machetes.
One tree was huge. Its branches bent completely to the ground and ran like roots along the surface. The main limb that bent over our trail was more than ten inches through. We decided to cut our way around the whole tree. And that took time.
Finally, approaching noon, we drove out into a dry sandy river near a spot called Palo Grande (Big Brush or trees). That river was the boundary line between Nicaragua and Honduras. We had been fighting these low trees for some time approaching the river, and whether they were the ones for which the spot was named, we did not know. But it seemed a relief to get out in the sun even if only for long enough to cross a wide hot riverbed.
The large house of a Finca owner sat on a little hill rising above the river while huts of peon laborers clustered nearby. A group of young men from Managua had come north to the Finca for vacation and hunting. They rode out of the trees just as we topped the steep sandbank from the river after charging it the second time with all the speed and power we could muster in the roaring motor.
"The road she is very bad in most spots." said one young fellow evidently proud of his English. "You follow from here the main traveled camino to Puente Real (bridge on principal highway), and from there to Las Virgen. At this place best you turn off and follow trail to Campuzano. On that trail the ruts they are not so deep."
We got all additional information we could from him, persuading him finally to get down from his horse and draw a diagram of the trails in the dust that we might get them more clearly in mind. Thanking them all, we drove again into the funnel of low hanging trees and thick brush- it seemed now like a great pipe cut through the jungle with barely enough room to get through. Brush and limbs constantly scraped the car sides, and even with all our care occasional hard jerks at the piled equipment on top told us we'd misjudged a low limb by fractional inches. "Did that 'Africa-Sahara' expedition Mr. Nicholson talked about do this stretch in the rain?" Ken asked.
"Not according to his letter. Of course they may have encountered enough rain to turn some of this to mud."
"There must be still another answer to their difficulties ahead of us." Arnold observed "No expedition, regardless of how inexperienced would tackle this stuff in rain We just haven't hit the tough trail yet." How right he was. Arnold little knew.
The next thirty-six hours probably marked the peak of expedition discomfort on the entire trip. My notes written that evening and the next describe it.
Saturday Night, March 22. Camped in an open spot in the Jungle of Nicaragua about a quarter of a mile from La Virgen. And the town, incidentally, consists of one hut in which no one lives! We missed it this afternoon as we came by and drove on down a trail we shouldn't have taken. As a result we built road for two hours, going almost a mile only to find we had to turn around and come back. That procedure was almost as hard as getting over the trail in the first place . . . Great deep ruts, eighteen inches to three feet deep, cut through the jungle at this point, with centers up to two feet high. This seems to be the 'hell' we expected to encounter in Nicaragua. Quite different, however, than our expectations.
I can understand now why that Africa-Sahara expedition had such a time through here. If some bull-carts hadn't come along this afternoon so the drivers could tell us we were on the wrong road, we'd probably have been working still on that stretch we spent the afternoon in. We tried to ride the left wheels up on the sides of the ruts, and the right wheels on the high centers. But the brush and stumps shoved us off too many times. Besides, the centers were badly cut and would crumble under the weight of the car. The whole ruts were so deep, and listed so badly in many places, that even after we got the centers broken down with bars, the car would bang over so far the door handles gouged the rut sides. We've put new scratches and scars along the whole right side of the car from bruising it against the walls of tipping ruts. In one or two spots I believe we'd actually have tipped over had not the car hit against the rut sides and righted itself! Bull-carts certainly don't cut very level ruts!
When the wide clearings of Campuzano broke suddenly upon us, our spirits rose. We could see at least two miles. And up on a distant hill against the crowding jungle and low sky were buildings: a large one it seemed, with smaller ones nearby. Our trail was joined by others, and the increased traffic cut deeper ruts, but we managed to reach the building clump without stopping once to work on high centers, or dust-filled road.
From there to Chinandega, we were told, were two trails. The best one went off toward a place called Viejo. But we’d best take it, because the direct trail was cut with ruts. Very bad and very deep. Besides, from Viejo to Chinandega was a road paved with rocks and we would have no trouble driving over it. We headed for Viejo.
Nicaragua was running true to advance information. It was hell.
We were almost to Chinandega, and that was as far as that other expedition had succeeded in going.
A small rail line runs from Chinandega to Managua, but there is no road for automobiles. In general, bull-carts followed the railroad, but we climbed hills, dropped into step gullies, (ought high centers with bar and shovel until our hands were covered with blisters. I had five on one palm.
Nicaraguan heat would not be so bad if one had no work to do, but real work means real distress in that tropical country. Notable too, is the fact that all native residents of the republic and all wise visitors "hole up" in shade during greatest heat of the day. But the expedition had few enough hours of daylight as it was, and night travel was absolutely out of the question. We drove steadily throughout the day, not even stopping for lunch, as we found it easier to work without food during the bright hot hours. And those miles between Chinandega and the Capital were as bad as those from the boundary to Chinandega.
Twice we took to the railroad ties. We found little trouble in straddling one rail, but bolas (was poor and the ends of ties sometimes bent up so high we could hot clear the oil pan.
The bridges also were very narrow, and sometimes lacked enough cross ties. Under those circumstances we'd either have to find loose ties somewhere else and insert them in proper places, or hunt a loose plank and drop it lengthwise across the open space. All this would not have been so hard had it not been there was no telling when a train might come. It was impossible to get permission to drive along the ties in any of the countries of Central America. We had tried it in Mexico and were refused. So when we decided to do it anyway we took our chances with trains: And also with irate officials, should we be discovered. The latter didn't worry us. But the former haunted us every moment we were on the rails.
Here in Nicaragua, the rail line skirted Lake Managua, and little hills came down to the water's edge. That meant the rails were turning constantly and we could never see more than a few hundred yards ahead.
"I don't like this business." Arnold observed, shaking his head and looking both ways along the tracks. "Just what would you do if a train should come?" he demanded of me. It was I who had first insisted on trying the rails for a mile or two. Work with the bar was painful.
"You know what we'd do," I retorted, nettled that he should ask the question. "We'd roll the car down the side and try and keep it on its wheels!"
"Along here?" he snorted. On one side rose hundred-foot perpendicular cliffs. On the other the embankment fell away almost as precipitously to the water.
"We took our chances when we came onto the rails. You knew that. Let's quit talking and get to where we'd have a chance!" When we took such risks, there was no use discussing them. It only added to the worry.
We drove into the Capital Thursday, March 27, just after noon. I shall never forget the wonderful exhilaration I sensed as we drove in.
There are cars, yes; commercial vehicles and probably an equal number of privately owned cars. But automobile traffic is not one of Nicaragua's problems.
As the expedition entered the Capital city, we were immediately beset by horse-and-buggy taxis, which galloped about the narrow paved avenues with their fare-paying passengers. The drivers whistled at their steeds, applied bailing-wire whips-or long-handled leather whips, if they owned one-and would cut in and out in front of us like a Bronx truck driver on Sunday vacation. It seemed as if we had no right on the pavement with a machine that would run under its own power!
"Some of those rigs look as if they'd fall apart, harness, horses and all," observed Ken. "I can hardly wait to ride in one."
"Well," Arnold said, "there are so few miles of automobile road in Nicaragua you'd have to be either wealthy or a damn fool to bring a car down here. And I've seen the time on this trip we'd be glad to change our gas wagon for a horse and buggy!" There was no argument.
But to think we'd actually driven every mile of the way on land-from Detroit to Managua, Nicaragua, was more intriguing to us that morning than all the ancient taxis in the Capital.
Mud plastering from the rear to the windsheild caused by the lack of rear fenders.
From Managua south to Rivas there is a dry weather road traveled by automobiles. We averaged 12 miles an hour. And from Rivas south, there were forty miles to the Costa Rican border through which only meager bull-cart trails existed. While in Managua we had met and spent considerable time with two boys from Buenos Aires who, with their other two brothers, at that time still in the hospital in San Jose, Costa Rica, were trying to drive up from South America to the United States. We had met two other groups attempting the same thing: one, a chap called Cucolon from Ecuador-whom we met in Tapachula. Mexico-and who claimed to have spent six months trying to get through the northern Colombian jungle only to give up finally and ship to Panama City. He told an impressive story of how in southern Costa Rica he had taken his 1000-pound "puddle jumper" (a 1929 car stripped to the chassis and which he could actually lift one wheel at a time over most any kind of barrier) apart, loaded it on the backs of Indians and carried it one hundred and thirty kilometers. It sounded like other stories we'd heard of attempts to drive from South America to North America, and we decided to wait until we got to Southern Costa Rica to check up on its accuracy. The other outfit was also a stripped-down car with high wheels and ancient origin, which we encountered in Guatemala City. The two boys driving that were from Buenos Aires, too. They had been more than a year on the way, they said.
The Maillo Brothers, in Managua, seemed to us to have wade the must determined and honest attempt to cover the country of any travelers we'd heard of, before or after our expedition started. They too, had shipped around southern Costa Rica and the Darien Peninsula. They didn't even know, they said, if they'd try southern Mexico after getting our report on the twenty-five days with a gang of Indians to go fifty miles. We spent hours with the Maillo brothers in our room at the Lido Palace. They were waiting now, they said, for the two in the hospital in San Jose to fly up to rejoin them. They would then continue north. There was, however, no doubt it seemed that they had covered the stretch between San Jose and Managua. But between the northern boundary of Costa Rica and Rivas they had chosen to follow the Pacific side of the isthmus. In Washington, E. W. James had told us something of the country south of Rivas.
Central Plaza in Magallanes, Chile July 31, 1941. City officials and the Chilean Army and Navy comanders.
"There is one trail," he said, "going along the Pacific Coast which is traveled somewhat by bull-carts. I have no idea if you can get through it. If there is any current travel at all, however, it is probably your best bet. The alternative is to find your way down Lake Nicaragua to the Sapoa River valley. If you can negotiate fifteen or twenty miles of that valley and finally reach La Cruz, you should be able, dry weather permitting, to follow slightly better trails to San Jose."
The information given us by the Maillo brothers tallied exactly with that of Mr. James, regarding the routes south of La Cruz once we got inside Costa Rica. But their story of the Pacific side of the isthmus from Rivas south was most discouraging. We were certain we could climb hills, if we wanted to repeat Mexico's mountain stretch of two miles a day, with Indians and block and tackle! But we had little stomach for that. We voted unanimously to try Lake Nicaragua and the Sapoa River valley.
In Rivas we made inquiries. Again good fortune was with us. We finally found a big Nicaraguan who owned a Finca up in Sapoa valley and who made the trip-on horseback quite regularly.
"Seguramente, Senores," he said cordially. "You can travel it that way. The 'camino real' back in the bush from the lake, is very bad. But on the packed sand of the water's edge you have no trouble to reach Sapoa!"
It sounded wonderful. We were glad we'd made the decision to try that route instead of the Pacific coast.
The Finca owner had a laboring man, who knew every foot of the way to Sapoa, and up the river valley to San Dimitas, from which point we'd have no trouble following a "good" trail to La Cruz. We took the masso as a guide, filled up with gasoline, left Rivas and started for the shores of Lake Nicaragua.
"How long will it take us to reach Sapoa?" we asked the boy. He was about twenty-one.
"Six hours, no more, Senores," he said positively in Spanish. He understood no word of English. "Only six hours. She is thirty miles, of good hard sand along the water's edge." At the end of the third day he was still telling us just as positively, it was only another half hour to Sapoa!
The trouble was not the hard sand of the water's edge when we could get on it. But every quarter of a mile or so, great volcanic ribs of rock came up out of the lake: ribs over which we could not possibly go, and they would force us back up onto the main bank of the lake and into the trail which wound around through the trees.
Every time we left the water's edge, we had to cross a wide strip of deep soft sand to reach the bank. Innumerable times we got stuck and spent hours trying to get out. Way back in the United State some army man, knowing of our trip plans had suggested we get a series of cubic inch boards, 12 inches long and of good hard wood, drilled al both ends and with insert small cables through them. When we got stuck in soft sand, dirt, or even some mud, we could put the end of this cable ladder with its cross sticks of solid wood, beneath the rear wheels-the sticks would be about six inches apart-and by pegging down the opposite end of the "ladder" up near the front wheels, we'd have four or five feet of good traction which should get out of most difficult spots. (The contraption could be rolled up when not in use, by sliding the sticks of wood together, and wrapping the spare cable around the roll).
Time and again along Lake Nicaragua, we used this "army mule"to get out of deep sand. Finally we decided the sensible way was to work half as much beforehand, and much less afterward. When there was no other way than to cross the sand strip, we'd spend half hour hunting up all the loose pieces of wood, limbs, sticks, and branches we could find, lay them across the sand where we expected the wheels to go, then revving the motor to a great roar, we'd let in the clutch and lunge forward over the "corduroy road" with sticks and chunks of wood flying from the spinning wheels. Usually we got through without stalling.
There were times too, when we actually drove out into the lake to avoid logs or bad rocks which blocked the way. This we always did only after the most careful investigation to be certain the sand or gravel out in the water would hold us up. But even with all our care we never drove into that lake without anxious moments until the car was finally on the beach again. Somehow it seemed too risky: too hopeless, should anything happen with nothing but water and soft sand to stand on!
The one pleasant thing about those three days was that when the heat became so intense we felt we couldn't stand it longer; we could strip off our clothes on a moment's notice and dart out into the cooling waters of the lake. It was wonderful.
It was more wonderful, however, to think we were actually nearing the southern boundary of Nicaragua.
"One more day, maybe, and we'll have the country behind us," I said that third night when we were actually only a mile or so above Sapoa. "That is, if we can get up the river as easily as this boy says we can."
"Yeah," observed Arnold, "but remember he said we could make Sapoa in six hours."
I said no more, but next morning when we finally stood on the beach, with the cluster grass huts of Sapoa hanging up on the sandy hillsides above us, I was grateful we had only ten miles farther to the Costa Rican frontier.
My notes written on Friday night, April 4th begin: "Camped under a high bluff of the Sapoa River about a mile and a half from San Dimas, COSTA RICA: We have made it through Nicaragua, every foot of the way."
Next day while we were still following the Sapoa River valley-and that river ran well back into the highlands of northern Costa Rica-I was riding the front fender watching for stumps and rocks which we might not clear. Ken had been out of the car working at our last difficult spot and was now riding on the rear bumper, holding onto the platform on the top of the car with both hands as the automobile rolled along.
Without warning we drove into a swarm of small black and green bees. Whether they too were traveling we do not know, but my head seemed to pass right through the center of the swarm. I DIDN'T SEE THEM UNTIL THEY ATTACKED. In a second's fraction after the bees hit me, three or four struck Kenneth and finally one or two got through the open window onto Arnold and the car jerked to a stop. Partly falling and partly jumping, I rolled to the ground still fighting. My eyes burned and I could scarcely see. My body from my waist up seemed dipped in fire. For perhaps three minutes the fight continued. Most of the bees had stuck with me. since my head and body disturbed them first. But Arnold too had darted from the car to get away from those inside, and Kenneth had finally eluded those pursuing him.
We still do not know the type of bees they were, or their names. Native boys who happened by told us what they were called in Spanish. Of this we're certain, however, no animals, ants, or insects encountered on the entire expedition matched these green and black fellows for viciousness and speed of attack.
As we approached ('homes, we came at last to a series of bad mud holes. Passing horsemen again came to our assistance, pulling us out of one with ropes tied to their saddles. And as we drove on, they warned us about the final one we'd encounter right at the entrance of town. They said to be especially careful there, because we'd never be able to cross where the horses did.
We reached the place all right, and were still trying to find a way over when the riders caught up with us again. They stopped to watch. One of them rode his horse in to show us just how deep the mud was. It seemed that for a few feet it was an ordinary water hole, and then it dropped into slimy thin mud, more than knee-deep to a horse, for another thirty feet before dry lard was reached.
There was no way around it. On one side was a pasture. But the bog was worse and wider inside the pasture than on the road. The other side was heavy bush, and more bog.
"I wonder if I'd get through," Arnold said, "if I really hit with speed." We translated for the riders. They laughed and shook their heads.
By this time many of the town's male population had gathered to watch the strange white car from North America get through the hole. It seemingly had something of a reputation.
"Well, if you stalled, there are enough men here to drag you on through." I said finally. "But I don't know what the car would look like after you got out. Besides, you might easily break something."
"Looks don't count," Ken put in, "and if there is no other way, you have to risk the breaks. I'm for it."
For ten minutes more we talked. It was getting late. A few of the bystanders began leaving apparently deciding we weren't going to tackle it.
"Let's give it a try, huh?" Arnold said once more, "Maybe it'll surprise us."
"No doubt, but you're the driver."
He got in, backed up more than a hundred yards for a run, turned on the windshield wiper, revved up the motor and lunged forward. The crowd yelled and whistled.
We've never seen a sheet of mud stand on edge before. This one did. It exploded in one quick eruption and for a flashing second looked like a great black drape, hanging from nowhere, blacking out the lunging car. The first impact of the automobile sent showers of the smelly stuff high into the tree branches overhead, and well out over the assembled group of tattered hats and overalls. Small boys fell to the ground laughing and shouting. Their elders flipped mud from their arms and clothes. The motor died almost at the instant of impact, but the sheer force of the car's speed carried it almost across the hole. The front wheels were actually on dry land when movement halted. The whole body of the car was one great mass of mud.
It took some time to get the motor running again, then with the help of about thirty men and boys, yelling and lugging on the rope tied to the bumper, the car came on out. Next day we found the radiator core was plastered full of mud, now dried hard and solid so no breath of cool air could reach the motor. Radiator water boiled furiously. The motor was red-hot.
It took us two hours with nails; sticks and much water to get the core open again before we could continue our journey. And the natives of Chomes will remember the big white car and the mud-hole as long as will we of the expedition.
That was our last difficult spot on the trail leading out of the jungle to the main road, which ran up from Punta Arenas on the Coast, to the highland capital. San Jose.
From Chomes on, we were permitted to enter the great fincas of well-to-do Costa Ricans, and cross their lands on trails which they themselves used: where ordinary bull-cart traffic was not permitted. We rolled along through grass at times almost high as the car: through heavy palms and between great spreading trees which walled and blanketed the wide flat pasture country of the land barons. Once more, when we finally drove out of the last Finca and joined a road where prints of automobile tires ran through the dirt, we were immeasurably happy. The print of a rubber tire in soft ground! How indescribably important that can become!
The road up the mountains to the Capital, though traveled constantly by automobiles in dry weather, was a nightmare in rain. We had met two young couples in a little restaurant at Esparta where we stopped to eat lunch after getting out of the last jungle Finca. They had left San Jose the day before and were on their way to the coast at Punta Arenas for vacation.
"The road is inexpressibly bad," said one of the young men in excellent Spanish. "You will have great trouble. The grades are intensely steep, and very, very slick. We were frightened several times coming down for fear we'd slide off. I have no idea what it will be like climbing up!"
The young man's comment about the road was completely accurate. Bishop's Hill, with its gouged-out snake bend, was an impossible grade for our travel-weary car loaded as it was, and beaten as it had been by the hundreds of miles north to the Rio Grande. More passersby helped us up. But that was only the beginning. The grades got worse. A helpful motorist with no load offered to haul a part of our luggage. We gratefully agreed, and after he'd gone we wondered what fools we were to trust a stranger with our precious expedition equipment, even to take it up the mountains to San Ramon from which eighty miles of pavement ran on to San Jose. There was no use worrying now, however, we'd know if we'd made a mistake when we called at the hotel where the man said he'd leave the bags.
But even with that part of the load gone, the car still wouldn't climb those fantastic grades in mud. Cars that regularly traveled that road had mountain gears. Others didn't tackle it in rainy weather.
On the worst part of another mile-long grade we stalled again. No traffic could pass us either way. A passenger bus came up behind, its great low-speed transmission whining. They stopped and yelled. We were doing all we could but a foot at a time was the most we could make, and we were blocking rear wheels after every try.
The bus unloaded. Men passengers and the driver got in behind our car and began to push. It took more than half an hour to reach the top and they stayed with us every foot of the way.
"You are just started," the driver said as he drove on. "Grades are much worse ahead."
"What will you charge to take one man and our luggage to the top." We inquired when we overtook him at a bus stop half a mile ahead.
"Six colones," he replied after a moment's consultation with his conductor and a look at our duffle bags and equipment.
It was a deal! In forty-five minutes the bags and equipment were at San Ramon. And so was I. (Whenever it became necessary for one of us to leave the expedition the lot fell to me. Arnold, too, spoke some Spanish, but we dared not let him leave the car. Should anything go wrong with it, Kenneth and I would be helpless.) The luggage we'd given to the earlier motorist was also there. Costa Ricans could be trusted. An hour later the empty Plymouth pulled up and after having climbed those grades sitting on the back end of the passenger bus, I had felt we'd be lucky if the expedition car would pull them under am circumstances. But here it was. And only an hour behind me!
We went into the hotel washed, ate our first real meal, came out to the car again and rolled along the pavement for two hours into San Jose. We'd made it!
Detroit to San Jose, Costa Rica, and the car's wheels had never left the ground!
Next day was Good Friday. Easter celebrations were on in the Costa Rican capital. And had we only known it, our extreme road-and-car difficulties were largely over. From here to Magellan Straits and Cape Horn was to be a different story-one filled with new encounters more surprising and often more dismaying than the car and road troubles we had already passed.
On Saturday morning we began a series of conferences on the possibility of the expedition continuing south to the Panamanian border. We spent hours with Mr. Flick, American Engineer in charge of United States interest in Pan American Highway construction below San Jose. His instructions from E. W. James in Washington to give us "all possible assistance" had arrived before we did.
"There isn't a chance you can get through now," Mr. Flick said, "even if we gave you a bull-dozer to help you. We'd he glad to do that too, were we able."
Mr. Flick then called in Mr. Tonias Guardia, one of his chief engineers. Tomas was one time Chief of Roads in Panama, but because of political differences is now living outside the country. He had been over almost every foot of country between San Jose and the city of David inside Panamanian territory. We talked more hours with Tomas, many more. "I doubt you could get through now even if Washington okayed financial aid," he said. "If this were beginning the dry season instead of rains, you might have a chance. But in El General Valley, or even up in the mountains, you'd bog a caterpillar tractor out of sight."
He related then his own experiences over El Paso de la b4uerte (The Paws of Death) a mountain ridge of 11,0(10 feet elevation. "I believe the best way to convince yourselves," he said finally, "is to take a plane over into El General Valley at San Isidro. I'll make arrangements for a guide and pack animals there to bring you back over the pass to Santa Maria and Cartago. Will you go for twenty-four hours we considered it? Then we assented."
So, it was determined that Arnold and I would take a plane over into El General Valley and return on foot over the Pass of Death.
If we could not get through with the car, we wanted to at least to make this journey on foot, that we might know more of these fabulous mountains which so far had defied a crossing of anything on wheels.
The plane left San Jose early: early to avoid clouds and rain up over the mountains. Arnold and I were dressed by 4:00 a.m.
We had left the typewriter behind to avoid all possible weight. But we carried small notebooks in which to keep constant account. This section, second only to the Darien Peninsula below the Canal for difficult terrain, was least known in the United States, yet most talked about, by people who thought of traveling overland to the Canal. It was the section about which wildest claims were made by those who said they had been over it. We wanted accurate information. We wanted it written while on the spot. We wanted no uncertainty about this stretch left in anyone's mind that might read our account. These notes begin at the airport in San Jose:
"Even at 5:25 the tops of the mountains over which we were to fly were covered with big cascades of black clouds."
Finally clouds disappeared entirely and we settled into the clear morning air of the Pacific slope of the mountains. We knew then what Tomas Guardia had meant. We knew why these mountains were so treacherous: why no car had ever been through them. Great gables and ridges ran in lanes and troughs out of the high range down to the sea, which lay miraculously blue not many miles away. The gables rose to high sharp razorbacks in the clean atmosphere, then fell away on each side in slopes of almost incredible steepness. And still over every foot of the ridges were trees and jungle: jungle so thick we could not see a single spot of earth in all that vast green country.
We landed at San Isidro at 6:45. The mules and horses were there, and a chap called Bisalino Valverde: the boy we were to like so much during the trip. I looked around me.
The valley was steaming hot after an all night rain. Everything was drenched and heavy. A peewee bull-cart had come up to the plane for our luggage and to take us back into the town a couple of hundred yards away. I asked why the bull cart was so small.
"They are brought in a piece at a time on the backs of pack horses Senior," was the answer. "Nothing on wheels ever visits San Isidro."
We gave our report to Tomas Guardia, and said we were convinced he was right: with rainy season just commencing there was no chance to take the car through to El General Valley. Also, that we had no time to lie there in San Jose for six months to await dry weather again since we had started for Cape Horn and southern Costa Rica was only one small part of the journey.
We reported to Washington. We reported to Mr. Flick. We reported to the Minister of Fomento. We were ready to move south.
Much had been done during our absence from the city. There was no boat service down the coast from Punta Arenas, except direct to the Panama Canal.
We felt we simply couldn't ship around country over which it was possible to drive. And there was an all-weather road-they said-from David, northern-most city of Panama, through to the Canal. The problem was getting to David.
We approached United Fruit's General Manager, G. P. Chittenden, overseer of Company operations on the Pacific Coast of Panama and Costa Rica.
The United Fruit Company had a big banana launch, the Palo Seco. Her regular run was between Punta Arenas and Golfito, the Company's newest development, with an occasional trip on down around the hump to Puerto Armuellas, just inside the Panamanian border.
Would the Fruit Company consider taking our automobile and us to Puerto Armuellas? The Palo Seco was the busiest launch in the Pacific.
The expedition talked to Chittenden. Chittenden cabled Boston. Boston cabled Chittenden. Chittenden called the expedition. And the United Fruit Company became hosts to the expedition from Punts Arenas to Golfito.
And since the car had already traveled once over the slick rain-washed mountain road from Punts Arenas up to San Jose, there was no point in covering it again, if other arrangements could be made. Mr. Chittenden sent a man along with the expedition to call upon El Senor Administrador del Ferrocarriles de Costa Rica.
The Administrator of Railroads was a big man. He was an important man. But the President of the Republic had received the expedition. The expedition had delivered a report to the Minister of Fomento. The United Fruit Company was doing a very cooperative thing for the expedition, and the Administrator of Railroads was not playing second fiddle to anyone.
"With pleasure," he said. "We make you guests of the road. It is the finest electric railroad in Central America. We will take you boys and your car to Punts Arenas. There will be no charge to the expedition!"
The Administrator was as good as his word. He personally attended us when we drove the battered white Plymouth down to the railroad yards on the night of April 29th. He stood by while his men lashed the big wheels firmly to the platform-car furnished by the railroad. He placed a guard by the car, to stay with it until we arrived at 5:00 o'clock next morning, that not one little piece of important expedition equipment would be touched during the night. He called the conductor of the train over to meet us while we stood there, and gave him instructions that he was to travel under white flag tomorrow-"special"- that he was to wait for us, back up, stop, or do anything we asked, in order that we might get pictures along the way. We were to have complete run of the road: as guests of the road!
And so the car's wheels left the ground for the first time after pulling away from Detroit. And the greatest Fruit Company in the world, and the Costa Rican government lent their aid, that the expedition might continue on its way.
For the first time since the expedition began, we were able to sit effortlessly and still make miles.
Our entry into Panama was simple.
We had met the Panamanian Captain of the Port of Armuellas, up in Golfito during our stay there. And to enhance the ease of our entry upon arrival, a telegram had come from the Foreign Ministry in Panama City. Getting entrance visas was merely a formality and as usual the car passed without a single bag being inspected.
There is no road from Puerto Armuellas to David: no road except a dry season bull-cart trail. Now that rains were on and the car's wheels had already left the ground once, we had no stomach for slaving through additional road less miles when it seemed inevitable we'd be reaching Santiago, Chile, and the pass over the Andes into Argentina-if we reached there at all-in the dead of winter.
We told the Port Captain what had been done for us by the United Fruit Company: what the Administor of Costa Rocam Railways had done for us, and asked if we could be given accommodation without customary delay to get the car, and us, to David by train. The Port Captain called the railroad agent by phone and told him that he, the Captain of the Port and Ranking Panamanian Officer by Law, would be personally responsible to the President of the Railroad, for authorizing free shipment of the expedition, its automobile and equipment to David. That same night there was a flat ear pulled on a siding in the yards, the expedition car run up onto it, the wheels secured to planking nailed to the floor and another government had joined the ranks of those cooperating so magnanimously with the expedition.
It was only a three-hour run by passenger train, which stopped at every station and hamlet along the way. But it took us all day long. We reached David at 5:30 P.M. and the early evening darkness was already settling overhead. We borrowed some planking from a nearby ice house, built a bulkhead under it to support the weight of the car, rolled the thing down onto the ground, returned the planking to the owner, and were ready to leave the city and start south toward the Canal at 7:00 o'clock.
"But the road is very bad on this upper half," we were warned by men who knew. "You should never attempt to drive it at night."
"It's an all-weather road, isn't it?" we demanded. "Well, partly. But there has been much rain, and in places it is very slick."
"We'll tackle it," was our answer. And at 7:05 we pulled out of David for an all night drive over strange and difficult road that we might reach the Panama Canal next morning. THE PANAMA CANAL! It sounded fabulous. All our lives we'd heard of the Panama Canal; the heroism and difficulty of building it. We had never expected to see its now in something more than five months we had actually driven all but some 150 miles from Detroit, Michigan to that Canal: At least, it would be the Canal when we reached it tomorrow!
We averaged almost 20 miles an hour that night.
"Bad road!" snorted Kenneth. "These people don't know what bad road is. They should try to drive through Nicaragua."
To be able to average such speed on difficult road was a pleasant surprise. It only fed the feeling of elation, which gradually absorbed every other sensibility within us. And after midnight we actually struck pavement.
"We ought to be there by nine o'clock. Easy," said Arnold who was driving, "it can't be very much farther."
"About fifteen miles to the Zone line, according to my figures," responded Ken. "And probably five more from the line to the actual inlet of the Canal."
We rolled along.
The fifteen miles slipped by.
"This is the big mid-way stop," we explained. "We've got to douse this car with water from the Canal and christen it. Besides, any car that takes the punishment of getting here overland• should be given privilege of a picture alongside the Canal, even if cameras, like Nazi machineguns, are banned inside the Zone!"
It was all arranged. Next morning we were escorted up to Gamboa with an Army car and a Major leading the way. We drove alongside the deep-cut ditch, set our camera on a tripod; the Major looked through the finder to be sure no fortified hilltops showed. or anything else of military importance, And then as a big boat slid through the quiet waters of the cut, our movie camera ground out film. After that, came the christening ceremony. We got more water on the Army than on the car, but the Major laughed and enjoyed the fun.
We were impressed with everything in the Zone, including our welcome there and congratulatory cables from the President of the Plymouth Motor Company, the Governor of Michigan, the Mayor of Detroit, the Director General of the Pan American Union in Washington, and others. The Panama Canal, the men who guard it, and who operate it were wonderful to the expedition.
Then came a reception by officials of the Automobile Club of Panama. It was all sweet relaxation after the weary sweat-dust-and-tick filled miles we had crawled over to reach that spot.
Then finally it came time to move southward: Mr. Arosemena took the expedition to see Mr. Hans Elliot, president and owner of the Elliot Steamship Lines. Result? A trip as guests of the Line from the east side of the Isthmus all the way down to Buenaventura, on the Pacific Coast of Colombia, from where we could take a train a short distance up through the mountains from the coast, get on the Pan American Highway at Cali, proceed back up to Bogot, and then start south again for the final six thousand miles to Santiago. Chile, across the Andes, and south to Magellan Straits.
If southern Costa Rica is difficult, the Darien Peninsula and the Atrato River Basin at the Atlantic neck of Darien are infinitely more difficult.
The expedition is in no position to argue about the terrain, the swamps, the mountains, or the jungle of Darien, We didn't actually cover it, on the ground or in the air. But we talked with those who had, and we know pretty well what is there.
At the moment it is still impossible to drive from Buenaventura to the interior.
We arrived in Buenaventura aboard the Elliot Line ship, Colombia. No Colombian official had received any communication regarding us, and it looked like plenty of trouble Colombia was tough on regulations.
We called the American Consul, Mr. Blood.
He came down to the dock to meet us. He had received communication from the Embassy in Bogota regarding us, but there seemed little he could do. He got us in touch with the Captain of the Port, then said he had to go meet another boat. We never saw him again.
But our good star was watching over us once more. Without fanfare, a little half-pint man in extremely casual almost baggy-clothes walked out of the customs house and up to the car. He introduced himself. Dr. Zapata (Dr. Shoe, in English) from Bogota: an official of the Automobile Club of Colombia.
"We were in communication with the Automobile Club of Colombia, before leaving the States," we explained. "They knew of our coming. And our Embassy knew of our coming. We can't understand why someone at the Foreign Office, or the Automobile Club didn't inform these customs officials here regarding us, that we might get our car and equipment into the country without duties."
"Oh," he beamed, "you are the Pan American Highway expedition, no?"
"Yes- but it seems we are in difficulties at the moment."
"You what?" he said. "There be no difficulties." the doctor soon hard the Captain of the Port over near our car. There were pictures. There was a reporter from Bogota’s leading paper on the scene. There were telephone calls and telegrams m Cali and to Bogota. The car was passed as it had been at every other frontier, without bag or package coming out of it.
And then in an offhand way, while we were still talking about expedition experiences, we told the doctor what Costa Rica and Panama had done about railroad transportation what the Elliot Steamship Line, and the United Fruit Company had done: and the Canal 'Zone authorities. The doctor's small black eyes popped above his over-genrrotr3 Latin nose. He went into conference with the railroad people.
We Somehow felt, however it was to much to expect that our luck in free transportation for ourselves and car should continue.
For a times it appeared the doctor would even swing the gratis transportation. A flatcar was provided and -would pull out next day for Cali. We were to pay our fairs and the freight for the car, amounting in total to some forty-six dollars American money, and every effort would he made to refund the money when we reached Cali or Bogota. But it never came through. Once money is paid in Latin America. it is must difficult to recover.
That ride on the train from Buenaventura to Cali startled us. Half an hour out of Buenaventura we began climbing extreme grade. The train was a combination freight and passenger with only eight cars. But it was all the engine could pull.
"Two hours from the Coast." Read my notes of the trip. "We had Completely left jungle behind and were up in the tops of open spaced mountains still climbing at one spot, a place called Dauga, we twisted back and forth across the face of the same mountain five or six times We had traveled an hour from the station and were still passing back and forth in front of it for more than half a mile up the mountainside!"
All the way up the Pacific side of the mountains and on up the next higher peaks of the interior range, we had watched with eager interest, almost anxiety, the train as it rounded the extremely sharp curves of the track. The car seemed almost to tip over. And when we started down some of the – lesser canyons of the inner range, the train clattered around these bends until we thought some part of it must surely leave the rails and go over the frightening side. The trainmen and the conductor engineer, as he was called, appeared to think nothing of it. We asked if accidents ever happened when the train went that fast.
"Occasionally, perhaps," said the conductor as near as I could translate. "But we travel it many times at this speed and nothing happens. It is quite safe," He shrugged his shoulders.
So the three of us rode the flatcar with the automobile, inspection at every stop the ropes that lashed the wheels to the platform. Sometimes we rode atop the boxcar hooked just ahead of our automobile. There we had to hold our hats in the rush cat wind made by the train. We also pulled our sweaters, Jackets, or whatever we had tightly around us against the cold. Our blood was thin from weeks of sweat and aril in the weltering jungles This change in two days from heat to cold made our teeth chatter.
And up in Bogota, two days later, we read in the paper that same train on which we now rode, left the rails on as return trip to B Buenaventura. The conductor engineer, who had chatted with us so unconcernedly a few moments ago, was torn and mangled in the wreckage. A brakeman also was killed, and another was seriously hurt "One of the greatest disasters of the Buenaventura - Cali railroad." said the article. Somehow, we were grateful for the margin of two days between life and death. We hoped it would never come closer to the expedition. We know now it did.
We got into Call about 7:00 o’clock; well after dark as Columbia short days went. There was no chance of getting the car cleared of the railroad yards that tight, fur everyone had gone home. Besides, since there was question about a refund of money-, we didn't want to do anything until the highest possible officials in the railroad could be reached.
It took some time next morning to get the car cleared of the railroad. There was of course no refund. They said they hadn't heard from Bogota. We changed American money into Colombian money, got as much information as we could about the road north to the Capitol and finally drove out of town about ten o’clock. That night we made camp still short of Ibague.
From Ibague, we flattened out into a large valley that might easily have been one of our United Stairs southwestern valleys except it was infinitely greener. It was cut with tacky ridges and little ravines. This valley was filled with farms, banana plantations, coffee trees, and towns, and stretched all the way to Giradot where we crossed a bridge over the mucky muddy water of the Magdalena River.
From Ibague we watered to climb again almost immediately, up a little canyon with a river in it, then into a wider canyon higher up At one place the car passed under a small - waterfall. Above that point a short distance, we came suddenly upon men working with pulley, block and tackle and chains across the road. Looking below, we saw a truck lodged in trees and the sleep carryon slope. It had gone over the side. The road is very narrow along there and often passes completely under overhanging rook cut right out of the side of the gorge. Today I saw in the paper that two people were killed when that truck went over. It looked like a bad wreck as we passed.
From that pant at up here to Bogota, we unfolded enough mountain scenery to last a long time The climax of routes was the final boost right up through the clouds to this plateau. For five miles we climbed in low gear through the densest kind of jungle. Choking with clouds, fog, and rain. Our windshield wipers swung back and forth like pistons trying to keep the glass clean so we could see out. In each wheel track of road a little rivulet of water raced down the mountain to meet us. The tracks were slick in spots where insufficient rock mixed with the dirt and clay. Suddenly a man stepped out of the side but in front of us and waved n red flag. A chain stretched across the rood and a big yellow sign said 'Pare.”' We stopped. From there up said the man; it was one-way traffic, because the road was narrow and climbed along Side of a bad precipice. When we finally went on, after a forty-five minute wait, we found he wasn’t lying. The road wound upward through moss, fern, and Jungle, with great rocks hanging out over the top of us and off to the side of us, dripping with water and rain. We passed into yet denser fog. Off to the side we knew was a precipice, yet how high or how deep--we had no idea. The abyss and the trees that lined it were completely grayed out with cloud and rain. Finally we crossed the chain at the upper end of the sola via and knew then we'd leave to look out for cars and traffic coming down to meet us. We barely crept along, still the motor was roaring. One quick break in the clouds, four or five hundred yards above the control chain we'd just passed showed us three twisting turns in the road we'd just climbed. Then the clouds closed in and everything was a stringy curtain of grey again.
At last we imagined streaks of light began to appear in the fog, wisps of blue, and without warning we rolled over the summit and practically fell into a wide-open valley without even a hint of cloud or jungle! It was a great wide trough, high in the sky, sparkling with sunshine and the grand tingle of fresh clean air. It was almost unbelievable.
From there on to Bogota we followed that same wide trough, really an expansive valley, several miles wide and many miles long.
But Colombia was still less than half the distance to Cape Horn from Detroit. We hurried on!
We left Bogota exactly six months and nine days after leaving Detroit. (And we had expected to be back in Detroit in six months!)
On the way to Bogota, those first days in South America, we had experienced continual difficulty with the car at high altitudes. We had provided it with a lean carburetor jet, to begin with, but obviously, jet alone was insufficient. The motor would cough, gurgle, and die in the midst of those steepest grades.
We had a trying time.
Before we left Bogota therefore, we installed an electric fuel pump on the gas line. That would provide maximum fuel regardless of altitude. The principle of operation was simple. Whenever the regular vacuum system faltered, the electric system took over. It helped immeasurably.
And going back over those high reaches of the Andes, south to Cali again, on to Popoyan and Pasto, the car worked better. We kept the big water can, lashed on the front bumper, filled with water from the streams we passed and time after time as we climbed those mountains we stopped to fill and refill the radiator. Three times a day, for two days in succession, we climbed over ten thousand feet in the car. The second night after leaving Bogota we expected to stay somewhere in the neighborhood of Cali, but learned upon reaching there that from Popoyan to Pasto was a stretch of Bola via road over which we could not travel unless we were in Popoyan by six or seven o'clock in the morning. And Popoyan was 120 miles away.
Handicapped as we were by not knowing the road, we decided to drive through the night to Popoyan. We needed that extra day. Until midnight it was not so bad, because we could find people to ask regarding the highway. (It was generally unmarked, or at least very poorly marked.) At the entrance and exit of each town of size, and at the entrance of geographical departmentos (much like our state counties) were police control stations with chains across the road. But after midnight it was too late for anybody to travel in those mountains, so the control stations closed up. When we came to chains stretched across the road, with no one there to ask the usual questions, look at our passports, etc., we simply let the chain down, drove over it, placed it back and went on our way.
We got lost once during the night-or thought we were but at 5:00 A.M. we pulled off the highway into tall grass, some five miles out of Popoyan, set up our beds and got two hours sleep. We were awakened with sunlight and two natives driving a herd of skinny cattle almost over us. We got up, didn't wait for breakfast, drove into Popoyan, were "inspected" by a control officer who said it was still 35 kilometers to the beginning of the solo via stretch, piled in again and hurried to get there that our night's drive might not be in vain.
That control inspection at Popoyan was nothing to pass off lightly. The officer said he had to test the car to be certain it would negotiate the grades. He got in, checked the steering gear, started the motor, drove down the road two hundred yards, turned around and came back at us speeding to forty miles an hour! When he put on the brakes the tires screamed with protest. That officer didn't know he was testing ordinary brakes with almost a small truckload of weight behind them! When we got out, he pulled up the front seat to see that we had tire chains, tools, and tow ropes, put the seat in place, looked at our official papers, grunted a muy bien, and waved to us to proceed.
"But is the road so bad, you check each car like this?" we demanded.
"Seguramente, Senores," he replied, "and you often encounter rain in the altitudes. That is why you must have chains." He had us half frightened.
Actually the road was not so bad as we then expected. It was narrow. It was steep. And it climbed to well over ten thousand feet. But it was relatively easy going, compared to what we had accustomed ourselves to expect of bad road.
And every few miles along that one-way stretch were chain control stations. We have never yet determined exactly why, unless it was to give more people more work. At the inspection control in Popoyan we were given a wide long sheet, with mimeographed blanks on it for signing. We didn't understand it at the time what it was for, but we soon learned. At each of these control stations, the guard took the paper, looked to see that we had properly been checked through by the guard to our rear, noted the time we arrived at this particular station, told us of any workmen we might expect on the narrow dug ways ahead, rubber-stamped the sheet above his signature, and let down his chain for us to pass.
There were twelve stations all together. At the last one, we begged the privilege of keeping the sheet as a souvenir. We'd never seen so many rubber stamps and flourishing signatures in our lives! At first the guard shook his head. it couldn't be done. Then I spread it out on his table, back side up, flattened it with my hand and asked him to please sign it himself as the last control officer, certifying that the Pan American Highway Expedition passed La Union at 1:00 P.M., bray 29, 1941. That pleased him. With his rubber stamp he fixed it exactly as we wanted it, folded it again with a big grin, passed it back to me and watched to see how carefully I placed it again in my pocket. His name was on an official document, going all the way back to North America!
We stayed that night in an abandoned mud-and-grass hut, well above 11,000 feet in the air with cold winds blowing the black soot in our faces. The stuff hung like strings of moss to the rafters. It was our last night in Colombia. One more day and we'd be at the Equator!
The day we left Colombia and entered Ecuador, we had the car heater on most of the morning. It was that cold. We spent the day from 8,000 to 12,000 feet above the sea!
From the broken and abandoned mud-grass hut we had camped in for the night, we dropped down into Pasto, climbed more, dropped more and climbed again to Ipiales, got exit papers okayed and drove on to Rumichaca, boundary-line between the two republics. Our visit to Colombia was done.
It was almost night when we finally got through customs, emigration, and military offices at Tulcan, check-up town ten kilometers inside Ecuadorian territory. The Jefe of Customs had received a cable from the Ecuadorian Minister in Bogota advising him we were diplomaticos-which wasn't true, but was none the less more convenient!-and we were to be given every possible assistance and courtesy.
There was little vegetation on those high mountains as we neared the equator. The natives walked with ponchos and shawls drawn tightly around their throats and up under their noses. We shivered in the morning air, got in the car, dropped steadily into the earth to find a large river rushing by a smelly mud-hutted village filled with kinky haired black people. Not a blade of grass, or a bush grew near the town.
About midday we began seeing more colorful country. We climbed over another range and as we topped the crest a large valley spread itself below us, with the town of Ibarra sleeping alongside a lovely lake.
From there on to Quito we hit valley after valley of interesting Indian life.
After passing Otovala we climbed another high range, stampeded an Indian's herd of pack bulls-we couldn't help it. They wouldn't get out of the way so we tried to outrun them. The Indian shouted and cursed, probably at us, but the last time we saw his beasts they bounded up over the side of the road and disappeared into a spread of thorny brush clumps. We hope he found them again: Then we dropped down into another dry valley which finally ended in a searing gorge cut through sun baked mountains until it seemed we must be near earth's center! When we climbed up out of that, with radiator boiling, we were within 20 kilometers of Quito.
We drove some miles out to the north of the Capital to visit the Equatorial monument, aid stand with one foot on either side of the earth's center. Quito is 9,500 feet above the sea.
When we left Quito to go on south, we drove to Cajabamba, put the automobile on a flatcar with a courteous gesture of 25 per cent discount in cost by the railroad company, and rode the rails down off the high plateau to the sweltering, but economically rich, city of Guayaquil on the gulf between Ecuador and Peru. That railroad took a prize for ingenuity in construction in the experience of the expedition in Latin America. Dropping down through Canyon El Diablo, the track describes a great Z across the face of the near-perpendicular walls. One engine can pull only five cars up it. There is no place to make a turn at the points of the Z, therefore, our train, coming down, pulled ahead of a switch, backed down the middle line of the Z beyond another switch at the lower end, then started forward again nearer the bottom of the great canyon. In the bottom nestled a little town and station. The train stopped. I got off and looked back up at the cliffs and shook my head in amazement to think any engineers might imagine they could drive a usable railroad across that mountain face.
That night at Guayaquil we met and had dinner with large, lumbering, unhandsome J. H. Dreibelbis, Chrysler Factory Representative for all of South America. We had met Drei first in Bogota. We happened to be in Guayaquil the same night.
We got our first look at fabulous Peru from the deck of the Grace Line steamer Santa Elena. She dropped anchor off Talara, probably one hundred miles down the coast from the Bay of Guayaquil. And we stared at the desolate coastline, which we were to follow for so many miles south. We didn't want to come so far by boat, but there was no regular ferry service just across the fifty-mile bay to Tumbes, or north of that point. And at the oil town of Talara there begins the first of Peru's really fine through road, gravel to Chiclayo, probably two hundred fifty miles, then pavement from there to Lima.
At Talara, desolate hills of sand and rock rise right from the sea a hundred to three hundred feet to a floor-like plateau, also of sand. There is no sign of vegetation. Yet that plateau is speckled with oil derricks! The ocean wind and water currents, which bring rain, branch out from the Pacific Coast at the mouth of Guayaquil bay. On one side of this bay is jungle, dense and rain-soaked. On the other side is sand; desolate sand and desert where rain rarely falls! And that coast of sand stretches unbroken-save for occasional little river valleys which cut down from the great blue ribs of the Andes in an effort to carry water through the desert to the sea-more than 3,000 miles south almost to Santiago, Chile!
Plump, handsome, and barely-graying Eduardo DiBos, ex-Mayor of Lima, influential politician and businessman, had met the expedition first in Mexico City. He is importer for Goodyear Tires in all Peru. And the expedition was using Goodyear Tires.
"When you get to Lima, if you ever do," he promised with a twinkle in his eyes that December day in the Mexican Capital, "well give you the keys to the city."
"Is it a promise?" We demanded.
"And more but you've got to get there first!"
From Panama City I had sent Eduardo a letter telling him we were still coming: to prepare Lima to receive us: I wrote it with a laugh. But from Quito I sent him a cable asking that the authorities at Talara be notified of our coming, and there by make it as easy for us to enter Peru as possible. Eduardo was also president of the Automobile Club of Peru.
The Santa Elena hadn't dropped her anchor more than ten minutes until a young man was aboard trying to find us. He represented the Automobile Club in Talara, he said, and showed us a telegram from Eduardo to himself, and handed us one of welcome, addressed to us.
The young fellow stayed right with us that morning, first, to get the car off the Elena, next to get us through the Captain of the Port's office, Customs, Emigration, and the Police. Then we filled up with gas, at the cheapest price we paid anywhere on the expedition-11 cents per gallon American money-and the chap drove his own car out onto the plateau with us, to start us on the right road for Chiclayo. We said goodbye a few minutes after 12:00 o'clock noon, and started south.
We reached Chiclayo about 10:00 o'clock that nigh:. Eduardo had notified the Automobile Club head there to be on the lookout for us He met us, took us to late dinner, begged us to stay all night and see the age-old things of interest about the city. We declined firmly, but with appreciation, saying we could not lose a single unnecessary day. So our host picked up the telephone called Eduardo in Lima and told him we'd be coming in at 11 o'clock next morning. We drove out into the night on a ribbon of pavement. Lima was more than 500 miles away.
At the outskirts of the city, a motorcycle officer with siren screaming pounded up in front of us. Behind him came five cars. Eduardo had come to meet us!
Of all the cities in South America we entered, the expedition Lutes Lima Number One in pleasantness, interest, beauty, and what we'd term "general livability". It has one important drawback. Fog clouds flat in from the Pacific most months of the year. You enter them only a mile or two from the city limits. You leave them again a mile or two on the other side. That phenomenon is better understood when it is said that periodically all the way down those three thousand miles of desolation and sand we encountered little stretches of one mile to five miles wide, where such clouds came over the desert. They precipitated enough moisture that the sand hills were covered with a tiny blanket of little flowers three or four inches high. Then almost as if we had crossed a fence, we would leave the section behind. The clouds were gone, the flowers were gone, and there was not a stick, a piece of pulpy weed, or anything that ever grew, to be found for miles and miles farther along that wasteland.
We left Lima on Monday morning, June 23rd. and hit south over pavement and more incredible desert toward the northern boundary of Chile. That boundary was almost a thousand miles down the coast. Four hundred and forty miles of that thousand were fine new pavement; the rest was washboard gravel.
Patches of notes from along that road give the idea:
"We've never seen sand like this Peru sand. Perhaps the Sahara is like it. We don't know. But as we drove along today, we saw small ranges of mountains, foothills to the actual Andes: but they were high, jagged, and sharp, and in places they were almost completely covered right to the top with sand."
And days later... ...
"Camped out on the soft sand of the desert about 24 kilometers north of Tacna, last town in Pens. Fog is drifting over us now, making things rather uncomfortable: fog, of all things on the desert! It's cold and damp. I dug out my 'parka style' rain jacket a while ago, and used it while we ate supper. It kept the dampness off very well. Now I'm sitting here in the car, hunched over in the jacket pounding these keys. The head cap feels nice and warm over my ears and the back of my neck."
Several times today we followed up gullies and canyons where the road had been made right in the bottom of them. One good rain would wash out miles of road: but the rains never come! And during the afternoon we've been following along a range of mountains that must go up eight or nine thousand feet, and there is sand almost to the top of them. It's a weird feeling to see sand piled up that high. Rather gives you the impression it might slide down on you! It's one of the amazing sights Peru offers. And in back of these lower peaks rise the high blue snow-covered crests of the Central Cordillera. What a magnificent scene.
In one spot, just as we left the railroad water station of La Joya, our road took off across the desert. There was no graded road or single track. Instead there were literally hundreds of tracks spread over desert for probably half a mile in width. We had no idea which track to follow, for they all looked soft. And we didn't even know if they'd all converge again in the same road. We just guessed, and drove! Several times we almost stalled in the soft sand. After twelve miles of such stuff, however, we noticed the tracks gradually converging, and they all landed on a fine well-graveled and graded road, which we've followed all the way to here. I suppose it runs on into Tacna.
We crossed the boundary into Chile next day. The line was marked only by a cement post and a low steel tower, probably a quarter of a mile apart, and sitting out in a perfect sea of sand, with no visible living thing for miles in either direction.
Chile hung up more records for the expedition than any other country in Latin America: records both good and bad.
She began her spree with the books the moment we crossed her frontier. Three telegrams had come to the customs officer regarding the expedition: one from the Chilean Embassy in Lima, Peru, one from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Santiago, and one from the Automobile Club of Chile, also in Santiago. It took us exactly ten minutes to be cleared of Emigration, Customs, and Police. Ken and Arnold didn't even get out of the car.
Chile was terrific in many respects. Before we were through with her, she went further in cooperation with the expedition than any other country. By all odds, she was filled with the friendliest people encountered on the trip. And that is no reflection on the many extraordinary individual friends who treated us so wonderfully in other countries. Within Chilean borders we experienced perhaps our soberest moments of despair, and our moments of greatest triumph. To Chile goes record for the longest unbroken stretch of "impossible" washboard road in the Western Hemisphere. To her also goes record for perhaps the most spectacular stretch of desert sand and desolation on either continent. And certainly, her record for sand-canyons and sand-gorges is untouched by anything in the Americas.
There could even be a record in the fact that Chile has the longest stretch of territory without improved road, of any country traversed by the expedition.
And through most of that territory a roadway of kind could be easily made with no other implements than a road-grader.
Chile was indeed a country of extremes and superlatives. We'll remember her without question.
Stretching south from Arica, the great Atacama Desert, which is simply a continuation of the desolation to which we had become accustomed in Peru, rises to higher elevation than we had found it anywhere else along the coast. It forms a high sand tableland, one thousand to probably three thousand feet above sea level. For almost a hundred miles at a stretch we traveled without seeing a drop of water, a living soot or a stick of anything that every grew above the ground. In the background, the ragged line of the Andes became higher even than in Peru, with occasional snow-covered peaks to break the monotony of blue spearheads in the sky.
And through that desert there were only patches of road that had ever had a grader over them to mark where the road ought to go. Generally, we picked the tracks, which appeared the most solid to us, and the most likely for traveling. Always they were the same: soft sand in the bottom covering the most vicious washboard we'd ever driven through. The car rattled and shook. We tried to gather speed and get above the vibration point, at least for the car body. That almost wrecked us. Turns were sharp and came without warning. After several near-mishaps, we gave up the above-vibration-point idea entirely. Then we tried going so slow the car could roll through the corrugations without such racking punishment. That too was impossible. When we went slow enough to make appreciable difference in the vibration, the soft sand made pulling impossible in high gear, we tried second gear.
The motor heated dangerously, and we used almost all the water in our big can carried on the front bumper. That alarmed us when we suddenly awoke to the fact, so we quit driving in second, speed up until first gear would develop sufficient power and let the car and our own bodies take the pounding jolts. It was physical and mental distress to drive along that road. A few miles wouldn't have bothered us. But hour after hour, day after torturous day, it kept on. We felt the car was shaking to pieces beneath us, and we were helpless to prevent it.
The second lay out of Arica we came to our first real sand canyon and it took our breath.
We had traveled so long up on the tableland we had no idea we were more than two or three hundred feet above the ocean level. Without warning we drove onto the brink of this gorge cut through the earth. For probably the first five hundred feet down, the slope was sixty-five degrees, and as smooth with sand as if it had been poured there from a molten mould, then solidified to maintain its steep-walled slant. At that point in the side, there seemed to he hardpan formation through the sand, and the wall dropped almost perpendicularly then to the bottom of the narrow canyon.
We actually could not see the bottom of it from where we stood. Far below its, and out toward the sea, we saw the bottom. The hardpan had worn away, and the precipitous poured wall slope lasted all the way to the bottom. It appeared more than a thousand feet down. And in the bottom, a thin desperately-pressed trickle of green threaded between the poured walls: little farm patches which hugged the small stream as closely as their outer edges were hugged by the sand which met the green and swallowed it up as soon as they touched.
We dropped into this canyon down a narrow dug way, barely wide enough for one car or vehicle. Every three or four hundred yards, sometimes half a mile, there were wider spots for probably fifty to one hundred feet where traffic could pass. We had to keep watch for other cars or carts approaching. get on one of these passing tables and wait.
In the bottom of that canyon we filled our front-bumper call with water and started up the other side. The sun blazed fiercely down, beat against the sand wall and sprang back to burn our faces and hands with the heat. Also, there seemed to be a rear updraft in the air current, so we got no cooling help on the motor. We pulled in low constantly. Five times on the way up we stopped to cool the overheated car and refill the radiator with water boiled out in the climb. We watched the speedometer. The climb out of that canyon was more than three miles long.
Near the top we suddenly discovered the water can on the front bumper had sprung a bad leak. Our water was two thirds gone and we had no idea how far it would be to the next stream. Quickly we chewed up gum and rolling our sleeves to our elbows we tried to plug the hole. It wouldn't work. Then we tried to force a small piece of bark or stick into the crack and dumped a whole handful of sand into the can. That partially stopped the lead. Our only hope was to get to water before we had to camp, then Arnold would try to solder the can.
On board the Chilean naval fender Galvarino with the
captain and first mate. It was their first trip around
Cape Horn as well.
So went the days and the travel. Finally, just outside one of the big nitrate mines, called Humberstone. 1400 miles north of Santiago, the left front wheel suddenly sheared clean of the car, bounded wildly out into the desert and we nearly tipped over, trying to bring the car to a halt riding on the brake shoes oil the patch of rough pavement passing the mine.
The incessant punishment of that washboard was having its effect. The first break had come: Of as the places that accident might have happened to the north of Humberstone! In the desert fifty miles from water and equally far from a living soul: a hundred miles from a telephone: or even on one of those narrow one-way dug ways where nothing could have passed us, and where it would have been a trip actually dangerous to life, to go for help. Again our star had been watching. We were less than two miles from the office of this mine, where there was a store, food, water, telephone, and human beings!
But more implausible than all that was the fact that in Iquidue, fifty kilometers away and down on the coast, the Central Office of the Nitrate Company had a fleet of fifteen Plymouths and a small stock room. Among them parts they had a spare steering spindle that would fit our car. Probably the only such spindle between Lima and Santiago: a distance of 3000 miles! They gave it to us at their cost.
Those three days we sat on the sand out from Humberstone, baking in the day, with the wind blowing chalk dust and sand in our eyes and ears, freezing at night when dampness and cold settled over the desert, was an ordeal. But how lucky we were it had happened there! We started south again the morning of July 2nd.
For four days more we traveled, doing between two hundred and fifty and three hundred and forty miles each day. The road got no better, fit fact it became worse. The Fourth of July dawned with its camped in a gravel pit off the road north of Copiapo. Kenneth had carried four firecrackers all the way from Mexico City. Each of us took one, fired it off and shouted, "Viva los Estados Unidos!" And that morning we celebrated with an unusually large dish of mush, the ground-wheat cereal that had been shipped all the way from Arizona to San Jose, Costa Rica, That was our patriotic observance of Independence Day.
On Sunday afternoon, July 6, it happened again. This time, the right front wheel sheared clean, and again we dropped to the rough ground on the brake shoes. That ceaseless unthinkable shaking was tearing the car to pieces.
It is hard to write of the first minutes of that second break. We wanted so desperately to be in Santiago Monday morning. The near-three-thousand-mile journey from Lima, over such trying road, was wearing heavily upon us. We were still more than two hundred miles from Santiago, and how we'd get help now we didn't know. Each of us tried to hide our disappointment.
"I'll change my clothes," I said, "and by that time we'll pray the gods to bring along another car so I can ride in to Valparaiso. or some point where I can catch a train to Santiago. With luck I should get in there sometime tomorrow, and perhaps I can get another spindle and parts out to you by tomorrow night, if I can find a car to bring them back."
"Don't leave us sitting here an hour longer than you have to." Arnold said, "it's not fun." I caught the note of helplessness in his voice.
There was despairingly little traffic along that road that day. We had seen few cars. But with great show of "faith" I shaved, changed clothes, got papers and things together I wanted to take along and said, "Okay, taxi, I'mI shaved, changed clothes, got papers and things together I wanted to take along and said, "Okay, taxi, I'm ready!" then looked up at the ridge of the hill we'd just passed. (The accident had happened this time as we climbed out from a little creek down which ran a stream of water. We'd managed to back the car up, and get it off the road.
Fantastic as it sounds in fact fantastic as had been most of that whole journey from Lima south-a truck hove into view at the top of the hill within three minutes after I'd said I was ready. They picked me up. One of the three natives pressed into the cab seat with the driver, courteously gave up his warm place and went back up on the load that f might get in out of the cold wind. I had no overcoat. I waved Arnold and Ken goodbye.
These friends landed me in Vina del Mar that night five minutes before the train from Valparaiso came through for Santiago. At 11:30 P.M. I was in the Capital! And when stores and offices opened next morning I was visiting outside the Plymouth dealer's with the list of numbers in my hands. A special car took the parts out to Arnold, a mechanic from the Chrysler garage helped him install the spindle and next day noon, the boys were with me in the Chilean Capital. There was no charge for the parts, the special car, the mechanic, or the 500-mile roundtrip journey up to the boys and back. Mr. Besa, owner of the Plymouth agency, Chilean businessman of long standing wanted "to show his appreciation of the kind of courage it took to drive any automobile from North America to Santiago!" Chile was stepping forward with kindness: kindness from her citizens.
Santiago was one pleasure after another. Undoubtedly the Goodyear man in that city presented us the finest steak dinner the expedition sat down to on the entire trip. The Automobile Club arranged a luncheon at which many dignitaries of the City were present. Newspaper reporters and cameramen were on hand. The expedition was news, as it had been in all Latin American Capitals. But we were becoming more anxious to get across the Andes into Argentina and make the try for that final lap of two thousand miles south to Magellan Straits, and Cape Horn.
As had been our fear before reaching Santiago, we learned that the automobile pass over the Andes had been closed for weeks already with ice and snow. We learned too that the passes farther south, which would have landed us on the Argentina side near Bariloche were also closed. That left but one recourse. The Trans-Andean Railroad.
"Will you ask them for us if we might be permitted to drive across the ties to Argentina?" We questioned Automobile Club officials, "We would like to avoid shipping the car another foot. if humanly possible."
"We will see."
Next morning we had the answer. It was "No. We're sorry."
"We'd rather have a chance to try driving across your railroad on the ties, than to have you give us a flatcar without cost to take us across!" we responded.
"We'll do either one you want. You try to drive across. If you can't make it, you come back down to Los Andes, at the foot of the climb, and we'll have a flatcar waiting there to take you across on the next train-without cost!" Mr. Pinochet must really have liked our effort to talk his language!
So we had our way across the Andes provided. We left Santiago about noon on Saturday. July 12, and drove to Los Andes in cold rain. Rain at the foot of that majestic spine of a continent meant only one thing: snow in the upper reaches where we'd have to travel. The thought frightened us a little. The railroad crossed at an altitude above 14,000 feet through a gigantic tunnel under the last crest. The automobile road crossed the top almost 2.000 feet higher.
Mr. Pinochet had made all arrangements by telephone. We went to the stationmaster at Los Andes. The evening was dismal. The temperature was steadily dropping.
"You may try to drive, Senores, as you choose. But it will be most difficult and dangerous. We hope you will not have accident up somewhere in the Cordillera and tie up our line."
"We'll be careful about that." we promised. "But can you give us more information about what we'll encounter in the way of snow!"
"Si, Senor. With pleasure."
He drew a diagram on a sheet of paper, showing how the snow slid down from the mountainside, covering the rail on the inside to a depth of some three or four feet, and on the outside where it finally fell over the drop-off, probably only six inches. He explained how they sent a plow, or sweeper ahead of every train: how also the inside of the rails would be packed level with ice and snow: how only the cogs in the center would be clean of it. We had counted on clear rails as a safety factor to keep us from sliding over the edge when we began climbing their eight percent grade. The train pulled it only with the help of cogs. Ice to the rail level was disconcerting news. We shook our heads, but we weren't done yet. Arnold went out and measured the rails.
They were narrow gauge. We expected to run with a rail just inside each wheel. He came back shaking his head even more.
"Only half an inch clearance on each side. Sullie. We'll tear our tires to pieces if we try it. But I'm still game." He rubbed his chin. "How about the trestles?"
I translated the question for the Station Master.
"Are the ties wide enough on the trestles so we won't be in any danger?"
"Ties. Senores? There are no ties. The rails are laid on longitudinal steel girders. There is nothing either in the middle or on the outside."
That stopped us. Cold. We accepted the flatcar offer and drove into the yards to a platform already waiting for us should we need it.
Our blood was still thin. We were missing that heavy clothing in Mexico City! And now, as we waited for our climb into glaciers and real cold, we shivered in long underwear and blankets and wished we were more prepared for winter in July. Our notes describe that ride:
"When we finally got the automobile onto the flatcar I fixed the stuff in the back and unrolled a bed on it. Ken and Arnold got in there and curled up together, trying to sleep. I took two blankets and the front seat, tangling my feet around the steering-wheel post. It was very cold."
"I woke up when the train began to move at 4:00 A.M."
And so we crossed into Argentina through the long tunnel at the top of the universe.
At Punta de Vaca, little station just below the snow line, we rolled the automobile down off the platform car and cleared ourselves and our papers through Emigration and Custom.
After getting across the Andes, we dropped down onto the sunny plains of Argentina at Mendo7a, a country noted for its wines and vineyards. We were to drive southeast from Mendoza, reaching the Atlantic Coast at Bahia Blanca, almost a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires-by road. We left the Argentine Capital to be seen when we came back, because of our concern over what we'd find in the wintry stretches of Patagonia. (Another mistake, had we only known it.)
The expedition owes much to Messrs. Favre y Basset, Chrysler importers in Argentina: two impeccable Frenchman, born in South America, who as sportsmen, gentlemen, and ready friends were unsurpassed by any of the host of well-wishers the expedition met and appreciated in Latin America! It seemed nothing was too good or too much for them to do in our behalf. Nor can it be said their interest and generosity were impelled by commercial benefit they expected to derive from the fact we drove a Chrysler product. They sent Valdemar Melton to meet us at Punta de Vaca where our wheels first touched Argentina soil.
Altogether, he was with us some four weeks, and took a similar period to return to the Buenos Aires home office. He drove his own car about six thousand miles, and shipped it by boat some 1500 miles: all at the expense of Messrs. Favre y Basset. They paid hotel bills, entertained us, took the car apart and put it together again, replacing parts battered and beaten to death by the 16,000-mile journey from Michigan! And yet with no cars to import, and with which to reimburse them for their increased expense-these two grayed and genial partners, with their General Manager, B. G. Guy and their Treasurer, Mr. Bloomquist, shook hands with us warmly upon our departure from Argentina's vast and terrific experience, and said:
"We like you boys. Come down and see us again." It's a privilege to have known and enjoyed them.
Those first days from Mendoza, southeast and south were pleasant. There is pavement from Mendoza to Buenos Aires. We followed it probably one-fourth of the way to the capital before we headed right. It was the last pavement we saw, except for a few city streets!
But the sun was shining, the days were comfortably warm, the evenings and mornings exhilaratingly cold, and we were on our last lap! We stayed each night in some wayside inn-hotel, often little more than tin-roofed shacks: other times more elaborate and comfortable. But they all had clean beds, no heat, and good Argentina steak dinners.
But the farther south we went the colder it became. Nights grew less and less comfortable in those little inns. It wasn't the temperature alone. It was the fact we three had just left the tropics and had insufficient heavy clothing. We were watching our dwindling "life insurance dollars" by that time and didn't want to buy winter clothing to use only for two or three weeks. We thought we could get along without!
The first day out, we blew a head gasket on the expedition car. We had done that just south of Lima, too, and a special motorcycle messenger from the Automobile Club of Peru had come exactly 99 miles down to us, to bring two: one as a spare. In Santiago, we had picked up another, so we had two spares.
Here in Argentina we pulled off by the side of the road, and Arnold went to work even while the motor was burning hot. He took off the head, oiled the bolts, replaced the gasket, and we were on our way again in less than two hours. Next day the same thing happened near evening. We limped into Rio Colorado, and by flashlight, Arnold changed it again. I came out behind the old garage where he worked in the cold and darkness, to hold the light for him.
"If I have to do this many more times," he sputtered in the cold, rubbing his black greasy hands together in an effort to warm them, "I'm going to put a zipper on this motor head. I wonder what in hell is making her do it!"
Next morning, before we traveled very far, he stopped at the roadside to investigate. In Mendoza, he had asked a helpful garage mechanic to advance the spark timing a little to make possible maximum motor power render increased compression. The boy had simply set it forward without checking how far, and it was so much off firing time, it was surprising the motor ran at all. With that corrected, we had no more blown head gaskets.
There is no use describing that day out of Rivadavia. We were to have others, many others, and much worse. Though that first one seemed depressing and hopeless enough that night. Melton had promised us road we could travel, all the wav to the Straits: road of a kind.
"It'll be frozen solid when we get below Rivadavia," he'd said that day in Mendoza, answering our anxious questions, "And cold enough to make you boys wish you had your sheepskins."
We had wished for sheepskins, all right. But the country was not frozen. In fact, the natives of the Pampas told us that not in fifty years had they seen a winter like this: Rain. All the time, Cold, cold rain. If it would only snow, they said. Or freeze. That was what we too wanted. But it did neither. And rain made the cold still more difficult to endure.
"Yesterday we dug, or pulled, Mr. Melton's car back on the road six times.. Early this morning I was driving the expedition car. Ken rides with Melton. I was only going about twenty miles an hour. Suddenly I started to slide. I turned around once and then dove straight into the ditch - head first. It took us more than an hour to get going again. After that, we were much more careful."
"Most of the road through here has been graded, which is infinitely worse for us. It is simply impossible to stay up on it. We have chains on, but they are little help. The car begins to slide, even at 15 miles an hour, and we ease right off into the bar pit, as if we didn't even have a steering wheel!"
Near the middle of the next afternoon-and it seemed to start getting dark right after lunch! -We came upon a large truck, turned sideways on the road, it’s front wheels and radiator buried in the mud of the bar pit. The rear end extended so far out, however, it was impossible for us to pass. Evidently it had stuck there since the day before and no vehicle had passed since. There was no traffic on that road. We often traveled for forty miles and never saw a house or living thing!
Standing on the slippery road top behind the truck, we held a consultation.
"If we try to get by back here we'll go in sure," Arnold said, walking across the slanting grade in the rear of the truck. His boots slid from under him. He landed on his hands.
"Probably right, my dear Watson." Melton said between clenched teeth, sucking wind through his wet dead pipe.
"And over here, it'd be a gamble," I said, "but looks to me to be our only out."
I stood in front of the truck, measuring with my eye, our chance of shoveling down the side of the pit, filling in the bottom with the ties and wood the drivers of the truck had used in an attempt to get out-then cross entirely to the level side of the pit around the front of the buried radiator. The truck men evidently had gone somewhere for help, leaving their stalled and-loaded transport alone on the highway. Guess they felt perfectly safe, "for no one but damn fools would try this road now," sputtered Melton, "and if they did they'd be much too busy staying on the road to think of robbing a truck!"
On the south side of the vehicle we'd have to shovel in the pit again, and dive through with speed in an attempt to get on the road once more. The problem would be double: first to get up without sliding into the pit through which we were trying to pass, and second, stay up without our speed carrying us over the ridge of the road and into the pit on the other side. If that happened, we'd be completely helpless. It was deep and half full of water.
"It's a chance, and that's about all," Ken observed, "but it's our only one."
We shoveled and worked, placing the wood and timber as carefully as possible to avoid a slip that would capsize us into the truck. Then we fixed the other side, so that once we got in and out on our side of the stalled transport, we could use the speed and keep going for the last and supreme effort.
When all was ready, Arnold stood by me to say:
"Sullie, you take it through here. If you don't succeed, you can't blame me. Besides. I want some pictures of my own!" He grinned. I knew he really wanted pictures. I didn't blame him.
It was a wild two minutes. I backed up, probably a hundred feet to Mr. Melton's car, then put the expedition car in low gear and plunged forward. The right rear fender had never been replaced after losing it in Mexico, and that flying wheel, along with the others, had covered the car completely with a two-inch carpet of mud. It was impossible to see out either window. We kept the windshield clear on the driver's side and that was all. The doors, the foot pedals, the rubber floor mat, the leather seat, everything on the inside, were coated with mud. Lumps of it made sitting on the seat uncomfortable, and our feet felt as if we were wading in it.
But those dives in and out of the bar pit, then in and out again was one of my sensations of the expedition. With a great roar the car charged down in the first time. It struck the slick timber. slid unpleasantly for one breath, held, and charged up. Up that slick bank where we'd shoveled, it, it bounded. Again it slid for a moment, sideways toward the truck radiator, stopped somehow when there seemed nothing to keep it from crashing, and pulled on out. I didn't wait for congratulations. The job was but half done. I pushed the accelerator to the floor a second time, and lunged into the pit on the other side. Going down was easy, but up the other side, the rear end began to slide toward the pit out of which I was climbing. Ken, Arnold, and Melton were yelling. I couldn't hear a word. I didn't want to hear. I leaned forward until my chest was almost flat cross the steering wheel. A great rain of mud was coming up and over the car and down again almost fifteen feet in front of the radiator. The rear end of the car was going as fast sideways as the front wheels were rolling forward. I dared not straighten them. If I did I would certainly slide in backward. I could only hope something would stop the slide, let the rear wheels get a little traction and pull me out on top. As long as I didn't actually go down completely, there was hope.
For fully seventy-five feet the slide continued, the motor pounding and the rear wheels spinning furiously. Then that miraculous something, which finally always decides a slide, one way or another, happened. The rear wheels caught more traction for a fleeting second, straightened slightly, picked up more traction, then decisively rolled free of the skid and came up onto the road crest. I rose from the steering wheel, was conscious suddenly I must have bumped myself in the chest during the crossing for there was a small pain there now, eased to a stop, got out and looked back. I had no word to speak.
Though the other three were shouting their congratulations. I walked back to them quietly.
"Nice driving," they exulted slapping me on the back.
"Let's wait till the next car is over," I advised, rubbing my chest. "Then I'll be happy too."
But when the cars finally stood together again on the road beyond the truck, we felt we had overcome a major obstacle. We stayed that night at Florida Negra: a tilling-station and hotel combined. They had two rooms for guests. It was the only building in miles.
Two days later the cars became separated at Piedrabuena. Arnold and I crossed the river early, while Mr. Melton waited to have his tire fixed. He said he'd be half an hour. It was the last time we saw him and Ken for three days.
All that day we kept watching behind us for Melton's car. He usually traveled faster than we-when he could travel, and strangely enough the road improved considerably for the first 75 miles. But as noon passed, and still no car, we began to worry.
"There's no use going back for them. We know they can travel the road we've come over without trouble: that is, real trouble." Arnold was thinking out loud.
"Let's pull off the road for an hour," I suggested. "We can take pictures, clean the car a little, and use the time generally to good advantage."
We did that, and when the hour was up there was still no Melton. We drove on slowly. As afternoon began to wear toward night, we began considering our own plight.
"Listen," Arnold said again, "it's still about fifty miles into Gallegos. We have no idea what the road is like. We'd better step along and get there. If Melton decided to stay in Piedrabuena, he'll undoubtedly send a telegram or something to Gallegos so we won't worry."
We began driving earnestly then, as fast as we dared, or could go. Almost immediately the road got worse. Then it became virtually impassable.
"Melton will never in the world get through these ruts with his car," I said. "If he's coming behind us he'll stick here as certainly as night comes. We're dragging the axles ourselves. Hear it?"
We didn't have to hear it. At times the car almost stalled-so deep were the winding wheel trenches.
"Well, we don't dare stop now," Arnold said. "If we did, we'd be here for the night." We hadn't see a house or living thing in hours. And it began to rain again.
For twenty miles that night we drove in low and second gear. So saturated had the road became with water that each of the three or four pairs of tracks that followed the road embankment appeared to be great deep furrows a foot apart, ragged and full of muddy water. Darkness was rapidly settling down over the rolling hills.
"According to my figures, we're still more than twenty miles out. If this road keeps up, or gets any worse, we'll never make it."
I didn't reply, but kept straining my eyes at the darkening road. When we had to climb a hill in those ruts it seemed certain we'd stall. And once, even going down hill, they were so impossible we had to pull them in low gear and were grateful even then to get through.
"I understood Melton to say there was better road for a little way out of Gallegos," I finally offered.
"Better pray we reach it soon!"
Less than five miles from there we suddenly joined another road, seemingly out of a large Estancia. The highway had once been graveled from there on.
It helped. Then we came to a police control.
"You will have no trouble from here in," the officers said warmly. "The roadway is pavementado." That sounded too good. "You have had hell, No?"
"Yes. Plenty of it, thank you."
So Arnold and I reached Rio Gallegos: last town in Argentina. There was no pavement. The main street was a wide wallow of mud and gravel. We went directly to the department store, whose owners bought Plymouth cars from Favre y Basset to sell them at retail. Store people had been told we were coming.
"Yes, Senor," they told us. "Here is a telegram for you. It came this afternoon."
"Delayed," said Melton. "We'll come on tomorrow."
Arnold and I went to a hotel.
"We're almost to the turning-around place, Pal," he said as we got to our room that night. "It's a hundred and eighty-five miles from here to Magallanes, back over in Chile."
"I don't feel as if we're even this tar, yet," I replied, "until Ken gets here. I don't see how he and Melton will ever negotiate that road. They can't possibly do it!"
"Let's get a good night's sleep ourselves," counseled Arnold wisely. "We'll wait tomorrow and if they don't come, we'll go back after them."
"I hate to make this car travel one mile farther through that kind of stuff than it has to," I said hopelessly. "It' can't keep going much longer without a major break somewhere. We've beaten it too near to death already."
"Worry about a break when the break comes. Let's get some sleep."
Melton and Ken did not arrive the next day. We watched the main street hopefully during the afternoon and early darkness. But no maroon car came through.
"Exactly as I expected," I said dismally. It had rained most of the day.
"You don't want to go after them now, do you?"
"That would be foolhardy. But we'd better be away with daylight in the morning."
We had spent our hours checking up on chances to drive on to Magallanes.
"You boys will never make it," a Britisher told us. We had found him at the hotel. "I've been waiting here for five weeks, just to drive back out to my Estancia. It's only twenty miles." "Five weeks?" we repeated in dismay. "Why-" "Rain. Every day. Rain. Just a one-night's freeze would fix me up. I could drive out there in two or three hours."
Then he told us about the road to Magallanes: that there was a twelve-mile stretch just across the Chilean frontier called El Distrito Chocolate-meaning, "The Chocolate District." The name is self-explanatory.
"The mail car has been getting through with some regularity," he said. "But it's a very small and very light car. They don't dare carry any load. That district is a series of rolling grass-sod hills. Every depression between the hills is a bog." He smiled at our anxious faces. "They getup on the tops of the hills-off the road, of course, because that's completely hopeless-put the car in low gear and drive like hell down through the bottom trying to get across before they bog in. They've turned over a time or two doing it. But they somehow manage."
"Not so good. Not so good," said Arnold after we'd left the man. "If they have that much trouble with a light car, what'll it be like with our three ton?"
"We'll find out," I replied. "We've come more than fifteen thousand miles now. And we've only one hundred and eighty-five between us and the goal. I'm certainly not for turning back."
"Who said anything about turning back? You couldn't hire me to!"
At the lunch we met a man who had come over from Magallanes the week before.
"There were eleven cars stuck in Chocolate, last Saturday." he said. "You don't dare stop to try and help anyone If you do• you only get in yourself."
"But why so many cars, if there is no traffic'" we wanted to know.
"Oh, there must be dozens of cars in Magallanes, and here both, whose drivers would like to get to the other place. Give them a couple of days when it hasn't rained, and they hope Chocolate has dried up enough so they can make it. Saturday was one of those rare days. Only it hadn't dried up." He laughed. "You've come a long way, and evidently worked a few miracles to get here. Maybe you can work some more and get there!" It was most disheartening.
Next morning early we started back to find Ken and Melton. At the Police Control twenty miles out, the officers said they had seen no car coming through which answered the description we gave. And they would see every car. We passed them dejectedly and began the twenty-mile stretch of low-gear ruts. It seemed worse this morning than it had two nights before. It had rained almost constantly since our arrival. For two hours we traveled. We met a boy walking. "Yes," he said. "There is a car stuck about one league back along the road-" But he didn't know if there was one man, two men, or no man. He had seen no one. From a mile away, we thought we recognized Melton's car. We were right.
"By God, I've never been so glad to see anyone in my life," Melton said. "We've been here all night. What a hell of a place!"
"I'm even glad to see you boys," Ken said, wrinkling his face with a grin. "I've spent more comfortable nights, even on the expedition!"
The car was stuck solid. They had had one blanket between them, and their coats. Melton had brought along an extra one, fortunately! I Ken had been up at 6:00 A.M. not able to stand the cold longer, had walked three miles to an old abandoned hut, torn off some boards and carried them all the way back. But the car jacks wouldn't work any more and they had no shovel. There was nothing to do but sit and wait until somebody came along. And nobody was traveling the road now,-"except you damn fools from North America!" snorted Melton. His words were harsh but his tone was almost affectionate. He was that glad to see us.
"Well, we're here. Let's get going."
Melton had become so completely exhausted and mentally unstrung by the driving that he now gave up completely.
"See if you can take it," he said to me. "I can't keep it on the road anymore."
"I don't know that anybody can," I answered. "You've only got about a foot of slick mud between each of these deep ruts. It'd take Houdini and two angels to stay up on ridges that narrow!"
For a full hour we tried. We'd go a few feet, then slide into the ruts again.
"Let the damn thing sit here." he said in final desperation. "When we get into Gallegos I'll send a tow truck for it."
"I don't know if our car will take all of us, and the equipment too." Rather than repack everything when we were going right on, we had left all our regular equipment in the car.
Somehow, we all got in. Bags and cases were piled high. On top of them Kenneth crawled back, curled into a knot. his head and hips rubbing the ceiling.
Arnold. Melton and I sat in the front. With the additional load the car dragged worse than it had done before, but by sheerest luck we drove through. When we reached Rio Gallegos, night had already settled. All day to do forty miles in low gear! And how lucky we were even then, we did not realize at the moment. We were to find that out next day.
It was decided without much argument that Mr. Melton would not try to accompany us to Magallanes. First, his car was forty miles back along the road, and we wanted to start next morning. Second, he had his stomach full, he said, of fighting such road. And third, his automobile had actually become a burden to the expedition car.
"You boys go ahead," he counseled. "I'll get my car in here, contact the office in Buenos Aires, and probably go back on a boat. I wouldn't try that road again for anything!" "Besides these people say it has rained for five weeks without even a mild freeze. There is no use waiting for one now. Might be a month or two yet."
We agreed, spent two of those first night-hours shopping-the stores remained open until 9 o'clock-for heavier underclothing, gloves, socks, etc., and we were ready to leave next morning.
"You fellow's have got guts." Melton said, shaking his head. I wouldn't try that road tomorrow for fifty thousand dollars: "spirit is a sign of youth!"
"And of damn fools," he retorted. "But I can see why you got this far."
"The car trip doesn't end until this automobile sits on the pier at Magallanes, farthest point south it can possibly go. We've got to christen it with water out of Magellan Straits!"
"I'll he waiting for you back in Buenos Aires," he said. "Good luck. And don't think you won't need it!" He went to bed.
When he was gone. Arnold shook his head.
"It's all right to joke, but every word he said was true!" "Are you hearing anyone deny it?" demanded Ken. I said nothing. My heart was pretty full of worry.
Mailed back to friends and family in the States from
Puerto Navario. At the time this was the furthest
south post office in the world.
We left the hotel at 6:15 next morning. Daylight arrived at 7:30.
There is no point in describing that early morning drive. In the darkness it was even more terrible. We arrived finally at the Argentina Control Station near the frontier, about noon. The well-bundled and rubber-booted officers stared in surprise as we rolled to a stop on their gravelly doorstep.
"My malo el camino; No?" they called cheerily.
"You're understanding it a little, aren't you?" we asked, climbing out of the mud-smothered car. Cold rain swirled and peppered our faces. Our clothes were sodden; our feet wet. We'd spent two hours in one hole a few miles back.
"No, Senores, there will be no traffic for some days now. Chocolate, she is very bad."
"Worse than this we've come through?" "Oh, Senores! You joke:"
"Joke hell!" snorted Ken. And he almost never swore. "There's no joking about this road!"
We were soon out of Argentina; with arrangements made for us to come back in when we were finally ready to return. Had we only known it, all those arrangements were unnecessary, for we were not to see that frontier, nor Rio Gallegos again, on the trip:
A mile beyond the Argentine Control Station was the actual frontier. Chilean Control was well over toward Magallanes.
"We'd better pick up some pieces of wood," Ken, said, remembering the morning in Argentina's mud. "It Chocolate is as bad as they say, we'll probably need them."
We chose several pieces of two-by-four, some blocks, and longer pieces, chucked them in on top of the load, at our feet, and drove on. We entered El Distrito Chocolate about 12:30. The first two swales we negotiated successfully. Carefully scouting ahead we drove like the wind, with the car in low gear, down the sides of the hills some hundred or two hundred yards off the road. But in the third swale, we bogged down before we even got well started- The hillside had been too soft. The car could pick up no speed. We worked until three o'clock and moved two feet. the sun would go down at 4:30 and there was more than ten miles of this same country ahead. Cold rain continued to fall.
Not at any time on the journey did things look quite so hopeless as on that afternoon in Chocolate. The soddy bottom of the swale was like sponge. The car was in up to the frame, and as we walked around it our feet became soaked with water and mud. Our clothes were heavy with the drizzle from heaven. We dug out our rain-suits, parka-styled hood attached, and wore them, but our clothes had been wet in the early morning and hadn't dried. We were damp inside and out. The car actually had not hit the most difficult spot in that spongy swale, either. For a hundred yards ahead, the grass sod was like that in which we were stuck, and then for twenty-five yards water came right to the surface and stood in little puddles and lakes about the bunched sod. As we walked through that, we sank in to our shoe tops.
"This Car will never start from scratch and pull through that sod!" I exclaimed in angry despair: anger, I admit to cover the deeper feeling of fear and worry.
"Well, what do you want to do?" Arnold demanded, nettled. "Pray it out?" he kept digging,
"No. But we may as well unload. There might be a ghost of a chance that way."
Kenneth and I carried everything through the swale and up onto the relatively solid ground of the little hill top two hundred and fifty yards away. We covered everything with the spread tent, to keep it dry as possible from the rain.
For another hour we tried, car empty, to get started. We didn't move six inches. I had caught part of Melton's cold, or one of my own, back up in the Pampas. Here in Chocolate, with my feet soaked and cold, I felt well on the way to illness. Time and again I stood up, looked at the lowered shifting clouds and hoped for a brief respite from the steady rain. It didn't come. Morale sank lower and lower.
"We're here for the night, fellows." I said finally. "And probably for a month of nights. I'll go put up the tent. There's one pair of dry shoes up there. I'll get them on and cry to stall this 'pneumonia' I'm getting." (I tried to be humorous. My humor went flat: both with the boys and me.)
"I'll keep digging," Arnold said. "May as well."
"And when you get things set up, yell, and I'll come and get supper," Ken added. "Seems like digging here only gets us in deeper, but we can't just give up and sit." Those boys were like that. It's the reason we had gotten through Mexico and Central America. But here in Distrito Chocolate things seemed different. So far as we knew, there was no human soul, or help, in all those hills. Just a world of eternal cloud and rain. So Arnold and Ken kept digging.
I looked at the car, and the boys. They hadn't moved four inches ahead from where I'd left them. There had been several attempts while I was putting up the tent. But I could always tell, without looking up, from the quick spurt of the motor and its immediate dying roar, that the try was unsuccessful. If it would only stop raining!
"Do you think we could get through empty, providing we pulled out of this one bog?" I asked.
"'And earn, our equipment on our backs for ten miles?" Ken demanded.
"'Well, perhaps we could move forward in installments. Take a little of the equipment, drive across one swale, then come back for more!
"No good. If we ever got the car through a swale once we'd be nuts to come back again."
"And if it rains all the time everything would be soaked and ruined', I added. 'This looks about as hopeless as anything I ever imagined.
Finally just before supper was ready, Arnold yelled that he thought he could get out, with a good push. I yelled back and said he was crazy, with all that sponge and water in front of the car. Ken said. 'You stay here Sullie, keep your feet dry and stir the stew. I'll give him the push.' (Ken was wearing a pair of rubber boots which Melton had also brought along and loaned to him.)
Arnold had found a large piece of wood, which some other stalled driver had used, cut it up into short heavy pieces, and got them laid crosswise under and ahead of the rear wheels. As I stirred the mulligan, I heard the engine roar and subside several times as if they were rocking the car back and forth, but I didn't even watch. I had no hope or faith either^. Suddenly I heard the steady blast of a real drive and turned instantly to look. Up out of that bog the car came, hesitantly at first, for as the wheels got oft the sticks and hit the soft sod sponge, they began to sink and the car to die. It seemed about to give up, like a sinking cow stuck in mud. Then something happened: evidently a few sturdier grass sods under the rear wheels, and the balance of power turned our way. The car gained momentum. Ken yelled. He ran alongside, still pushing. Momentum increased. He yelled some more. The car hit the water spot and bounded like something alive. I could see Whitaker through the windshield, the outline of his cap, and I even imagined I could see the characteristic set in his lips and narrowed red eyes. But the car came on, hit the slope of the hill and started up. Then I yelled. In fact, I may have jumped up and down a few times. I don't know. But I knew the car was out of that bog: that it would be safe alongside the tent, and that we could make some kind of 'moving' decision in the morning! It was one of the indescribable thrills of the expedition: that single moment as the car roared up that hill, stopped within fifteen feet of where I was standing, and gradually throttled down to a die. As Arnold got out of the door, I believe I hugged him.
We were overjoyed. I even forgot the cold rain, which still stung my face.
But though we were freezing ourselves, the temperature was not low enough to get us out of Chocolate! Without embarrassment, the expedition admits it prayed a little that night!
It will be a long time before we forget the next morning. Saturday. July 26th! During the night I remember waking several times with cold seeping through my bones. I turned over, snuggled down farther into my sleeping bag, and wished I hadn't been so long in Central American heat. Day light finally came, and we woke up at 8:00 o'clock. Ken was near the door flap. It had come open a little way. 'Holy smokes!' he yelled. 'The sky is clear, and everything is frozen solid!' I guess our hearts leaped with our bodies. Hurriedly we dressed. It was very cold in the tent. Our breath made little white clouds when we spoke. Our teeth chattered. Unmindful, I ran out in the cold. The moment my icy boots struck the sod I knew the freeze had come, though I was still unbelieving. I ran to the road. The muck was solid I ran down into the grass-bunch swale where the car had been stuck yesterday afternoon. That was solid too. I jumped up and down on it several times. It held under my weight. I ran back up the hill, shouting.
The sun was coming up, and we were afraid of what would happen if things began to thaw. Never on the expedition did we take down the tent, assemble things and get ready to leave so quickly. When we tried to open the car doors, they were frozen shut. We couldn't even get the key in the lock. We took the ax, pried the trunk door open, climbed through from the rear-thank goodness there was no back seat in the car! We opened the left door from the inside, and piled the stuff in the car. We didn't get the right door open until almost noon. And we still remember joking as we folded up the tent with a heavy coating of frost and ice on the top and sides of it.
But nothing was going to stop us that morning. Every moment counted. We took things gingerly at first, racing the car across the soddy swales and avoiding spots where iced puddles of water showed between the grass-bunches. The freeze hadn't been so hard as we at first thought back up on the hill! And underneath the crust, it was still spongy and soft. We swung wide of anything that looked like trouble-if we could get around it by following hillsides, lunging and lurching like a bruised wild horse.
At first Arnold and Ken walked, not wanting to add their weight to the car. But after half an hour, we saw we were losing time waiting for them to walk, or run, so I stopped for them, got them in the inside, and we did our scouting through the windshield hoping we'd not made a mistake just because we were trying to hurry. The safe way was still to look over each swale before driving into it.
"Only once did we break through, and that but momentarily as the car raced ahead. We drove that ten miles out of Chocolate in record time-for us. And when we hit the more level and more solid road over near an Estancia gate, we stopped the car, got out, beat upon our chests a little and gave full vent to our happiness."
By one o'clock that afternoon the freeze was gone. By three o'clock it was raining again. It rained for three more weeks that we know of, because we were there in Magallanes to watch it! So the one night in eight weeks when the expedition had to have a freeze, the freeze came. That was the reason we reached Magellan Straits!
We stopped that afternoon late, at a little wayside hotel, about 70 kilometers from Magallanes: an inn called Hotel de los Cruceros. We stayed there over the next day, Sunday: rested, wrote notes and letters. Monday morning we drove up to the Central Plaza of the city and I went straight to the Telegrafo to send a cable to The Detroit News:
"After two weeks of mud, the expedition pulled into Magallanes, world's southernmost city, at 10: 15 this morning. Stop. Fifteen thousand seven hundred and forty-five miles by our speedometer, Stop. Hello to our friends in Detroit and Michigan: Richardson."
That cable made the front page of The Detroit News, Tuesday morning, July 29th, the day the Jap armies rolled into Indo China. Our headline was carried above the Japs in all editions except the last one, and a full page of pictures with a long recount of excerpts from previous stories sent in by the expedition along the torturous way, told the tale. Circulation of the paper that day jumped several thousand copies. We don't believe all of them wanted to know we had reached Magellan Straits.
But we were still short of Cape Horn!
We went to Comandante Arroyo, Vice Admiral of the Chilean Navy and ranking officer of the Naval Post at Magallanes. The Comandante spoke excellent English.
"But don't you know," he advised, "no boat goes to Cape Horn, unless they have to?" It is wild water down there."
"So we've heard, Mr. Arroyo. But we've traveled almost 16,000 miles to see it. When we left Detroit we said we were going south to that point." We were talking earnestly. It meant much to us. "In tact. that's the slogan of the expedition: 'Detroit to Cape Horn.' It was decided by a publicity man in Detroit as a grand-sounding phrase: Perhaps it's foolish, but we've got to go out to Cape Horn!"
The Comandante laughed. We didn't blame him. He had spent enough time in the States so he fully appreciated how slogans, even for expeditions, are born. And how three fellows crazy enough to attempt such a trip in the first place, would also feel they could not turn around until they had actually fulfilled the expedition's slogan!
"You can of course charter a boat, if you want," he suggested smoothly.
"For approximately how much?"
"Well, if you went with our inspection boat down as far as Navarin Island, you could probably charter a boat from one of the ranchers there for $300 to $500." The trip had been almost twice as long, and at least twice as expensive as we'd planned, in spite of all that had been done for us.
"It looks bad," we said dismally. "We thought perhaps your inspection boat would have some business closer to the Cape, and you might be willing to run on over for a consideration." Vice Admiral Arroyo laughed again.
"We never have business near the Cape. Unless it's bad business."
"But I'll tell you what I'll do," he said finally. "I have already said I'd take you boys with us on an inspection trip of the buoys and islands down through the lower channels. But I'll send the boat on out to Cape Horn-if the weather is good. It will cost you your food while you are gone. How is that?"
The inspection trip was not scheduled for almost four weeks. The boat, which usually made the trip, was busy doing a hundred other things the Chilean Navy was supposed to do with insufficient money and ships to do them with. Still Comandante Arroyo decided he would send the Naval Tender, Galvarino, actually a deep-sea tug, with her complement of 36 men, down on the trip ahead of schedule, that we might be able to wait and complete our slogan.
At midnight, August 15th, eighteen days after our arrival in Magallanes, the Galvarino steamed away from the pier, with coal loaded aboard her decks because she had not sufficient room below to hold fuel enough to make such a long trip. The boat headed west through the long channel of the Straits, and after we watched the lights of Magallanes black out with distance and torturous coastline, we went below lobed. At four o'clock in the morning I awoke to hear violent scraping against the boat sides I thought, a sickening roll to my berth, and water dripping in my face. I thought certainly the boat had struck one of those great rocks we'd heard so much of which lurk in the narrow deadly channels of the Straits and the inland lanes to the south through Tierra del Fuego. I bounced up in my bunk. Instantly my stomach bounced with me.
"Que pase?" I demanded of the first officer who was just getting into bed, next to me. His clothing was dripping wet. The dim electric lights were wavering above his head.
"Nothing. Nothing." he said in Spanish. "Just a wide spot in the Straits, and a little blow." The scraping I could hear was the piles of coal being washed about on the deck above us, as waves broke over the low sides of the ship. I suddenly began to wonder if I hadn't as soon turn around without going to Cape Horn! And if the sea down there were worse than this! Well ... We'd see!
That four-day ride out through western Magellan Straits, south through world-famous Beagle Channel and down beyond Navarin Island were four days of the most spectacular and remarkable scenery of all. There was no travel at night once the boat left Magellan Straits. We'd pull into a quiet little inlet somewhere, drop anchor and wait for daylight. Every foot of the way was charted on large maps, and the officers navigated that boat as carefully as any giant liner was ever steered across an ocean.
Each day we watched the weather reports from a lone Chilean radio station down at Walya, last outpost of civilization maintained by the government in those treacherous waters and channels. These weather reports were monotonously discouraging, Barometer falling. Weather bad. Not one of those days did we know if we'd actually get to see Cape Horn or not. The Captain of the Galvarino had specific and positive instructions from Comandante Arroyo that he was not to try the twenty miles of open water between the last sheltered land, and the Wolston Island group of which Cape Horn was the southernmost tip-much less the open sea around the Horn-if the weather was bad. The officers were constantly joking with us about trying to go to Cape Horn in an automobile. Why didn't we drive on down? They wanted to know, and put water wings on the car. We had gone through every other kind of difficulty. We laughed with them. But getting to Cape Horn was now no joke.
"Tomorrow, we see", the Captain said as we stopped for the final night in a little open bay called Puerto Grande at the bottom end of Tierra del Fuego proper. We went to bed hoping. Of the crew of 36 officers and men, only one of the officers had ever been around Cape Horn. There was a feeling of expectancy among everybody aboard. The night dragged slowly.
About eight o'clock next morning, we headed out of the bay and into open sea. Wind velocity was five: much too strong for comfortable voyage. But the Captain kept his nose out the open window and we proceeded across the twenty-mile stretch of water instead of turning left and following up around the sheltered side of sprawling Navarin Island. We were all on the bridge together those first hours.
"I tell you Senor Amigo," the Commander said, finally, as we were approaching the channels, which broke, between the various islands. "We come this way. No?" And he traced with his pencil on the map showing a route which came out of the shelter of land groups just in back of the Island which was Cape Horn, passed along the back of the Cape, then ducked again into the shelter of more islands, to the side, never venturing out into the open seas to the south of the point.
I know he saw the expressions of dismay on all our faces, as he traced that line. Ken grumbled something I couldn't quite catch. Arnold said he would rather have not come all the way through that rolling water at all, just to see the tail end of a rhinoceros whose horn he'd traveled 16.000 miles to see!
"You have your instructions, Senor Capitan," I said. "Naturally we'll be very disappointed, for we wanted actually to round the southern tip. But if it can't be done, then it can't be done.
"Very good, Amigo. Mio. We take the chance. We make complete vuelta!" and with a flourish he ran his pencil completely out and around the Cape. Our faces lighted instantly.
As long as we draw breath we of the expedition shall remember the next three hours. Here are my notes, written that night, while we were still almost in sight of Cape Horn.
"This afternoon at three o'clock, August 19th, nine months and one day after leaving Detroit on this expedition, we rounded the southern tip of Cape Horn, in a gale we won't forget. There is much to tell, if I can only get it on paper..."
When we finally came out of the channel behind Hall Island, and looked off to our left. the great Horn we had traveled so far to see was less than two miles away. We laughed and slapped each others shoulders with pretty boisterous delight. Then I began taking pictures: My first pictures of Cape Horn!
Even as I worked those first fifteen minutes, the officer behind me said, "You better hurry. Senor. Here comes the rain." I looked down into the direction of the wind, and sure enough I could see the storm. But I had no idea what that meant, if anything. All the stories of quick weather changes around Cape Horn were still only stories to me. I kept on with my cameras.
Then all of a sudden the storm hit us. It was probably the same wind we'd been driving into all morning, except rain now joined it and we were out where the full force of the world's two great oceans hit us. The seas got progressively worse. Arnold grinned, fingered his camera and said, "Oh Boy, Oh Boy! A storm. Around Cape Horn!" and his red whiskered face crinkled with wrinkles and grins. That was the last time I saw it for about an hour. And when it showed up again, it was like reddish-white paste.
As we plowed farther and farther out into the sea, the wind gathered force, and the waves, became very bad. I had my movie camera than. I was acutely conscious, however, of an unpleasant feeling in my stomach, but I was determined I was going to stick it out and get pictures regardless of what happened. Then, I think it was, the full force of rain, wind and sea took hold of us.
Ken sat at my left near an open window of the Bridge. I was suddenly aware he was not feeling well. The junior officer who shares this bunkroom with me was standing just in back of me and to the right. I didn't suspect him of either fear or sickness, but I realized his face was white. The commander stood by an open window. His face was pointed straight out into the gale, and not a muscle moved or quivered. Then I saw the sailor who stood with his back against the big steering wheel, operating the little one that protruded just far enough for him to get his body between them for a brace. He was whirling the small wheel first one way and then the other, driving the clanking steam donkey, which pulled the chains running back to the steering blade at the rear of the boat. The boy's eyes were glued on the big magnifying glass above the 12-inch compass in front of him. He was cursing in Spanish, I could tell, though I wasted little time looking at him. His face was working.
By that time I had myself braced against the open window on the leeside of the boat, protected from the wind and rain by a projection in the bridge at my right. But I could still see the rear end of the boat, and most of the ship in front of me. My forehead was braced against the top of the sill, my elbows anchored against each side and my feet spread well apart and back. The boat was rocking and plunging badly.
I've seen lots of movies of storms on the ocean. I remember that in the scenes from 'Hurricane' the wind would catch the tops of the waves, beat them to spray and owl them across the seas in a veritable cloud of water. That was artificial storm. This was real, and it was exactly the way the scene before me seemed then. The ship fairly dove into the big troughs, and tossed about on the crests of the huge waves. (The boat was small, only 125 feet long.) As far across the seas as I could see were white spouts of driven spray. I wound and rewound my camera. The sea drove at the boat, covering it completely, and poured by my open window in a great curtain of water: solid continuous sheets of it beaten and hounded by the wind. It was impossible to see Cape Horn any longer. The monstrous rock was completely grayed out with storm and wind. Somehow I had the fearful feeling we might be driven sideways right onto the granite splinters around its base. It was an unpleasant thought. It persisted during the entire hour that we couldn't see the Cape. We were struggling all that time to get out far enough to turn left-with the wind-around it.
For a moment we'd be perched on the crest of a huge wave, then we'd begin that sickening, slanting slide down into its valley of wildly churning water, while the break of the next wave came at us like a white-topped mountain. The waves were actually higher than the bridge. They seemed to dive right at us.
Ken looked at me and tried to grin. It was a failure. His face, covered with black stubble, was a dirty white. I didn't feel like grinning either. I kept my camera against my cheek with the lenses turned back from the window except when I thought a big wave was coming. Then as it came closer, I'd turn them out toward the sea again, close my eyes, press my lips, and start the motor. Sometimes it seemed the prow of the ship was so high up into the sky it must be half out of the water. Then the wave crest would pass, the boat pause an instant, fall, slap the oncoming water hard, then begin that sliding dive which seemed as if there would be no coming back from it. Cape Horn was living up to its reputation. It was putting on a show for the North American expeditionary, quite worthy of the tales of its ruthlessness.
I don't mind saying I had fought my stomach about as long as f could. I felt surely if the wind didn't subside soon, I'd give up.
I am still surprised when I consider how little fear I felt. I must admit I'm no sailor, and any kind of storm on water frightens me. Here, however, I must have been insensible to fear, until later. There was only one conscious thought in my mind: get pictures!
Strangely enough, the wind broke soon after: almost as suddenly as it came up, at least to that gale force with the storm! The sun broke through: he clouds occasionally, and now again, we could see Cape Horn. We were pretty well to its southern end now, and could turn left, with the wind. That also made going easier and incredibly faster. We all began to move around. And after another ten minutes, while we were actually passing the southernmost needle one of near-perpendicular rock that was the Horn-it rose probably eight hundred to one thousand feet out of the sea-the three of us went down on deck with the Commander. With Cape Horn in the background, the waves still sufficiently wild about the boat, we took pictures. The, in our final moment of victory, we threw our arms into the air, shook them in all the bearded and disheveled vigor we could command and shouted above the wind and the sea: "Horsy! Hooray! We made Cape Horn."
Later that night, in the tiny sale of the Galvarino, we brought out a number of expedition envelopes, which we intended to mail back to the States upon our arrival again in Magallanes. Cornerwise across them, we typed: "This envelope carried around Cape Horn August 19, 1941, at 3:00 P.M. by the Chilean Naval Tender 'Galvarino,' Wind, S.W. 7. seas heavy." Beneath that, the Commander of the Galvarino put his official stamp and signed each one in ink. Later at Magallanes, Comandante Arroyo did the same. It was official proof that we had "filled to the letter, the slogan of the Expedition: we had gone “From Detroit to Cape Horn!"
So we made Cape Horn. Approximately sixteen thousand miles south from Michigan's Great Lakes; home of the automotive industry which will one day make cars again instead of tanks. And those cars will travel rapidly and comfortably over ribbons of pavement through those thousands of miles over the great Pan American Highway, spanning two continents. Perhaps in those days this same old and battered white Plymouth will make the journey again.
So the Expedition went back to Magallanes. Back north to Buenos Aires, shipping by boat-again, at great discount in rate, by courtesy of hospitable "muy simpatico" Inter Oceanica, Chilean Company of Navigation-around the torturous miles of Distrito Chocolate and the limitless stretches of Patagonian mud. Back from Buenos Aires, three thousand five hundred miles by road across the incredible, amazing reaches of upper Bolivia: back to Lima, Peru. There, in fitting and magnificent climax to all that had been done for us by Latin Americans, and North Americans doing business in Latin America, the Grace Lines people gave us free passage for ourselves and the battered car, aboard the Santa Clara to New York.
In the foggy mist of morning we stood at the Clara's rail and watched New York take shape, out of the smoke. We saw Miss Liberty, holding high her torch, standing with her feet in the water of America's shores, welcoming us. It was as moving a sight as that August 19th day, sixteen thousand miles south, when we stood by another rail, watching Cape Horn slip past, beaten and battered by white wolves out of the southern cold Antarctic seas.
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One last photo of the Expedition's 1941 Plymouth
was taken during their 1975 reunion. It would later be
sent to the scrapyard.