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By Sullivan C. Richardson
|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.
"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, "Cm 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
"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 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.
|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.
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.
Page last up-dated 2006-02-16