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By Sullivan C. Richardson
|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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
Page last up-dated 2006-02-16