Members News & Information Officers Classifieds Reference Discussion Links Events Regions Store Home
By Sullivan C. Richardson
|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.
"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.
"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.
|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.
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
"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.)
Page last up-dated 2006-02-16