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By Sullivan C. Richardson
|"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. The} 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.
TO BE CONTINUED
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.
|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.
"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 µ•ho 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 Bogotá, and then start south again for the final six thousand miles to Santiago. Chile, across the Andes, and south to Magellan Straits'.
Page last up-dated 2006-02-16