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By Sullivan C. Richardson
|We left the hotel at 6:15 next morning. Daylight arrived
There is no point in describing that early morning drive. In the darkness it was even more terrible. We arrived finally at the Argentina Control Station near
the frontier, about noon. The well-bundled and rubber-booted officers stared in surprise as we rolled to a stop on their gravelly doorstep.
"My malo el camino; No?" they called cheerily.
"You're understanding it a little, aren't you?" we asked, climbing out of the mud-smothered car. Cold rain swirled and peppered our faces. Our clothes were sodden; our feet wet. We'd spent two hours in one hole a few miles back.
"No, Senores, there will be no traffic for some days now. Chocolate, she is very bad."
"Worse than this we've come through?" "Oh, Senores! You joke:"
"Joke hell!" snorted Ken. And he almost never swore. "There's no joking about this road!"
We were soon out of Argentina; with arrangements made for us to come back in when we were finally ready to return. Had we only known it, all those arrangements were unnecessary, for we were not to see that frontier, nor Rio Gallegos again, on the trip:
A mile beyond the Argentine Control Station was the actual frontier. Chilean Control was well over toward Magallanes.
"We'd better pick up some pieces of wood," Ken, said, remembering the morning in Argentina's mud. "It Chocolate is as bad as they say, we'll probably need them."
We chose several pieces of two-by-four, some blocks, and longer pieces, chucked them in on top of the load, at our feet, and drove on. We entered El Distrito Chocolate about 12:30. The first two swales we negotiated successfully. Carefully scouting ahead we drove like the wind, with the car in low gear, down the sides of the hills some hundred or two hundred yards off the road. But in the third swale, we bogged down before we even got well started- The hillside had been too soft. The car could pick up no speed. We worked until three o'clock and moved two feet. the sun would go down at 4:30 and there was more than ten miles of this same country ahead. Cold rain continued to fall.
Not at any time on the journey did things look quite so hopeless as on that afternoon in Chocolate. The soddy bottom of the swale was like sponge. The car was in up to the frame, and as we walked around it our feet became soaked with water and mud. Our clothes were heavy with the drizzle from heaven. We dug out our rain-suits, parka-styled hood attached, and wore them, but our clothes had been wet in the early morning and hadn't dried. We were damp inside and out. The car actually had not hit the most difficult spot in that spongy swale, either. For a hundred yards ahead, the grass sod was like that in which we were stuck, and then for twenty-five yards water came right to the surface and stood in little puddles and lakes about the bunched sod,
As we walked through that, we sank in to our shoe tops.
"This Car will never start from scratch and pull through that sod!" I exclaimed in angry despair: anger, I admit to cover the deeper feeling of fear and worry.
"Well, what do you want to do?" Arnold demanded, nettled. "Pray it out?" he kept digging,
"No. But we may as well unload. There might be a ghost of a chance that way."
Kenneth and I carried everything through the swale and up onto the relatively solid ground of the little hill top two hundred and fifty yards away. We covered everything with the spread tent, to keep it dry as possible from the rain.
For another hour we tried, car empty, to get started. We didn't move six inches. I had caught part of Melton's cold, or one of my own, back up in the Pampas. Here in Chocolate, with my feet soaked and cold, I felt well on the way to illness. Time and again I stood up, looked at the lowered shifting clouds and hoped for a brief respite from the steady rain. It didn't come. Morale sank lower and lower.
"We're here for the night, fellows." I said finally. "And probably for a month of nights. I'll go put up the tent. There's one pair of dry shoes up there. I'll get them on and cry to stall this 'pneumonia' I'm getting." (I tried to be humorous. My humor went flat: both with the boys and me.)
"I'll keep digging," Arnold said. "May as well."
"And when you get things set up, yell, and I'll come and get supper," Ken added. "Seems like digging here only gets us in deeper, but we can't just give up and sit." Those boys were like that. It's the reason we had gotten through Mexico and Central America. But here in Distrito Chocolate things seemed different. So far as we knew, there was no human soul, or help, in all those hills. Just a world of eternal cloud and rain. So Arnold and Ken kept digging.
I looked at the car, and the boys. They hadn't moved four inches ahead from where I'd left them. There had been several attempts while I was putting up the tent. But I could always tell, without looking up, from the quick spurt of the motor and its immediate dying roar, that the try was unsuccessful. If it would only stop raining!
"Do you think we could get through empty, providing we pulled out of this one bog?" I asked.
"'And earn, our equipment on our backs for ten miles?" Ken demanded.
"'Well, perhaps we could move forward in installments. Take a little of the equipment, drive across one swale, then come back for more!
"No good. If we ever got the car through a swale once we'd be nuts to come back again.'
"And if it rains all the time everything would be soaked and ruined', I added. 'This looks about as hopeless as anything I ever imagined.
"Finally just before supper was ready, Arnold yelled that he thought he could get out, with a good push. I yelled back and said he was crazy, with all that sponge and water in front of the car. Ken said. 'You stay here Sullie, keep your feet dry and stir the stew. I'll give him the push.' (Ken was wearing a pair of rubber boots which Melton had also brought along and loaned to him. )
Arnold had found a large piece of wood, which some other stalled driver had used, cut it up into short heavy pieces, and got them laid crosswise under and ahead of the rear wheels. As I stirred the mulligan, I heard the engine roar and subside several times as if they were rocking the car back and forth, but I didn't even watch. I had no hope or faith either^. Suddenly I heard the steady blast of a real drive and turned instantly to look. Up out of that bog the car came, hesitantly at first, for as the wheels got oft the sticks and hit the soft sod sponge, they began to sink and the car to die. It seemed about to give up, like a sinking cow stuck in mud. Then something happened: evidently a few sturdier grass sods under the rear wheels, and the balance of power turned our way. The car gained momentum. Ken yelled. He ran alongside, still pushing. Momentum increased. He yelled some more. The car hit the water spot and bounded like something alive. I could see Whitaker through the windshield, the outline of his cap, and I even imagined I could see the characteristic set in his lips and narrowed red eyes. But the car came on, hit the slope of the hill and started up. Then I yelled. In fact, I may have jumped up and down a few times. I don't know. But I knew the car was out of that bog: that it would be safe alongside the tent, and that we could make some kind of 'moving' decision in the morning! It was one of the indescribable thrills of the expedition: that single moment as the car roared up that hill, stopped within fifteen feet of where I was standing, and gradually throttled down to a die. As Arnold got out of the door, I believe I hugged him.
"We were overjoyed. I even forgot the cold rain, which still stung my face.
But though we were freezing ourselves, the temperature was not low enough to get us out of Chocolate! Without embarrassment, the expedition admits it prayed a little that night!
"It will be a long time before we forget the next morning. Saturday. July 26th! During the night I remember waking several times with cold seeping through my bones. I turned over, snuggled down farther into my sleeping bag, and wished I hadn't been so long in Central American heat. Day light finally came, and we woke up at 8:00 o'clock. Ken was near the door flap. It had come open a little way. 'Holy smokes!' he yelled. 'The sky is clear, and everything is frozen solid!' I guess our hearts leaped with our bodies. Hurriedly we dressed. It was very cold in the tent. Our breath made little white clouds when we spoke. Our teeth chattered. Unmindful, I ran out in the cold. The moment my icy boots struck the sod I knew the freeze had come, though I was still unbelieving. I ran to the road. The muck was solid I ran down into the grass-bunch swale where the car had been stuck yesterday afternoon. That was solid too. I jumped up and down on it several times. It held under my weight. I ran back up the hill, shouting.
“The sun was coming up, and we were afraid of what would happen if things began to thaw. Never on the expedition did we take down the tent, assemble things and get ready to leave so quickly. When we tried to open the car doors, they were frozen shut. We couldn't even get the key in the lock. We took the ax, pried the trunk door open, climbed through from the rear-thank goodness there was no back seat in the car! We opened the left door from the inside, and piled the stuff in the car. We didn't get the right door open until almost noon. And we still remember joking as we folded up the tent with a heavy coating of frost and ice on the top and sides of it.
"But nothing was going to stop us that morning. Every moment counted. We took things gingerly at first, racing the car across the soddy swales and avoiding spots where iced puddles of water showed between the grass-bunches. The freeze hadn't been so hard as we at first thought back up on the hill! And underneath the crust, it was still spongy and soft. We swung wide of anything that looked like trouble-if we could get around it by following hillsides, lunging and lurching like a bruised wild horse.
"At first Arnold and Ken walked, not wanting to add their weight to the car. But after half an hour, we saw we were losing time waiting for them to walk, or run, so I stopped for them, got them in the inside, and we did our scouting through the windshield hoping we'd not made a mistake just because we were trying to hurry. The safe way was still to look over each swale before driving into it.
"Only once did we break through, and that but momentarily as the car raced ahead. We drove that ten miles out of Chocolate in record time-for us. And when we hit the more level and more solid road over near an Estancia gate, we stopped the car, got out, beat upon our chests a little and gave full vent to our happiness."
By one o'clock that afternoon the freeze was gone. By three o'clock it was raining again. It rained for three more weeks that we know of, because we were there in Magallanes to watch it! So the one night in eight weeks when the expedition had to have a freeze, the freeze came. That was the reason we reached Magellan Straits!
We stopped that afternoon late, at a little wayside hotel, about 70 kilometers from Magallanes: an inn called Hotel de los Cruceros. We stayed there over the next day, Sunday: rested, wrote notes and letters. Monday morning we drove up to the Central Plaza of the city and I went straight to the Telegrafo to send a cable to The Detroit News:
"After two weeks of mud, the expedition pulled into Magallanes, world's southernmost city, at 10: 15 this morning. Stop. Fifteen thousand seven hundred and forty-five miles by our speedometer, Stop. Hello to our friends in Detroit and Michigan: Richardson."
That cable made the front page of The Detroit News, Tuesday morning, July 29th, the day the Jap armies rolled into Indo China. Our headline was carried above the Japs in all editions except the last one, and a full page of pictures with a long recount of excerpts from previous stories sent in by the expedition along the torturous way, told the tale. Circulation of the paper that day jumped several thousand copies. We don't believe all of them wanted to know we had reached Magellan Straits.
But we were still short of Cape Horn!
We went to Comandante Arroyo, Vice Admiral of the Chilean Navy and ranking officer of the Naval Post at Magallanes. The Comandante spoke excellent English.
"But don't you know," he advised, "no boat goes to Cape Horn, unless they have to?" It is wild water down there."
"So we've heard, Mr. Arroyo. But we've traveled almost 16,000 miles to see it. When we left Detroit we said we were going south to that point." We were talking earnestly. It meant much to us. "In tact. that's the slogan of the expedition: 'Detroit to Cape Horn.' It was decided by a publicity man in Detroit as a grand-sounding phrase: Perhaps it's foolish, but we've got to go out to Cape Horn!"
The Comandante laughed. We didn't blame him. He had spent enough time in the States so he fully appreciated how slogans, even for expeditions, are born. And how three fellows crazy enough to attempt such a trip in the first place, would also feel they could not turn around until they had actually fulfilled the expedition's slogan!
"You can of course charter a boat, if you want," he suggested smoothly.
"For approximately how much?"
"Well, if you went with our inspection boat down as far as Navarin Island, you could probably charter a boat from one of the ranchers there for $300 to $500." The trip had been almost twice as long, and at least twice as expensive as we'd planned, in spite of all that had been done for us.
"It looks bad," we said dismally. "We thought perhaps your inspection boat would have some business closer to the Cape, and you might be willing to run on over for a consideration." Vice Admiral Arroyo laughed again.
"We never have business near the Cape. Unless it's bad business."
"But I'll tell you what I'll do," he said finally. "I have already said I'd take you boys with us on an inspection trip of the buoys and islands down through the lower channels. But I'll send the boat on out to Cape Horn-if the weather is good. It will cost you your food while you are gone. How is that?"
The inspection trip was not scheduled for almost four weeks. The boat, which usually made the trip, was busy doing a hundred other things the Chilean Navy was supposed to do with insufficient money and ships to do them with. Still Comandante Arroyo decided he would send the Naval Tender, Galvarino, actually a deep-sea tug, with her complement of 36 men, down on the trip ahead of schedule, that we might be able to wait and complete our slogan.
At midnight, August 15th, eighteen days after our arrival in Magallanes, the Galvarino steamed away from the pier, with coal loaded aboard her decks because she had not sufficient room below to hold fuel enough to make such a long trip. The boat headed west through the long channel of the Straits, and after we watched the lights of Magallanes black out with distance and torturous coastline, we went below lobed. At four o'clock in the morning I awoke to hear violent scraping against the boat sides I thought, a sickening roll to my berth, and water dripping in my face. I thought certainly the boat had struck one of those great rocks we'd heard so much of which lurk in the narrow deadly channels of the Straits and the inland lanes to the south through Tierra del Fuego. I bounced up in my bunk. Instantly my stomach bounced with me.
"Que pase?" I demanded of the first officer who was just getting into bed, next to me. His clothing was dripping wet. The dim electric lights were wavering above his head.
"Nothing. Nothing." he said in Spanish. "Just a wide spot in the Straits, and a little blow." The scraping I could hear was the piles of coal being washed about on the deck above us, as waves broke over the low sides of the ship. I suddenly began to wonder if I hadn't as soon turn around without going to Cape Horn! And if the sea down there were worse than this! Well ... We'd see!
That four-day ride out through western Magellan Straits, south through world-famous Beagle Channel and down beyond Navarin Island were four days of the most spectacular and remarkable scenery of all. There was no travel at night once the boat left Magellan Straits. We'd pull into a quiet little inlet somewhere, drop anchor and wait for daylight. Every foot of the way was charted on large maps, and the officers navigated that boat as carefully as any giant liner was ever steered across an ocean.
Each day we watched the weather reports from a lone Chilean radio station down at Walya, last outpost of civilization maintained by the government in those treacherous waters and channels. These weather reports were monotonously discouraging, Barometer falling. Weather bad. Not one of those days did we know if we'd actually get to see Cape Horn or not. The Captain of the Galvarino had specific and positive instructions from Comandante Arroyo that he was not to try the twenty miles of open water between the last sheltered land, and the Wolston Island group of which Cape Horn was the southernmost tip-much less the open sea around the Horn-if the weather was bad. The officers were constantly joking with us about trying to go to Cape Horn in an automobile. Why didn't we drive on down? They wanted to know, and put water wings on the car. We had gone through every other kind of difficulty. We laughed with them. But getting to Cape Horn was now no joke.
"Tomorrow, we see", the Captain said as we stopped for the final night in a little open bay called Puerto Grande at the bottom end of Tierra del Fuego proper. We went to bed hoping. Of the crew of 36 officers and men, only one of the officers had ever been around Cape Horn. There was a feeling of expectancy among everybody aboard. The night dragged slowly.
About eight o'clock next morning, we headed out of the bay and into open sea. Wind velocity was five: much too strong for comfortable voyage. But the Captain kept his nose out the open window and we proceeded across the twenty-mile stretch of water instead of turning left and following up around the sheltered side of sprawling Navarin Island. We were all on the bridge together those first hours.
"I tell you Senor Amigo," the Commander said, finally, as we were approaching the channels, which broke, between the various islands. "We come this way. No?" And he traced with his pencil on the map showing a route which came out of the shelter of land groups just in back of the Island which was Cape Horn, passed along the back of the Cape, then ducked again into the shelter of more islands, to the side, never venturing out into the open seas to the south of the point.
I know he saw the expressions of dismay on all our faces, as he traced that line. Ken grumbled something I couldn't quite catch. Arnold said he would rather have not come all the way through that rolling water at all, just to see the tail end of a rhinoceros whose horn he'd traveled 16.000 miles to see!
"You have your instructions, Senor Capitan," I said. "Naturally we'll be very disappointed, for we wanted actually to round the southern tip. But if it can't be done, then it can't be done.
"Very good, Amigo. Mio. We take the chance. We make complete vuelta!" and with a flourish he ran his pencil completely out and around the Cape. Our faces lighted instantly.
As long as we draw breath we of the expedition shall remember the next three hours. Here are my notes, written that night, while we were still almost in sight of Cape Horn.
"This afternoon at three o'clock, August 19th, nine months and one day after leaving Detroit on this expedition, we rounded the southern tip of Cape Horn, in a gale we won't forget. There is much to tell, if I can only get it on paper...
"When we finally came out of the channel behind Hall Island, and looked off to our left. the great Horn we had traveled so far to see was less than two miles away. We laughed and slapped each others shoulders with pretty boisterous delight. Then I began taking pictures: My first pictures of Cape Horn!
Even as I worked those first fifteen minutes, the officer behind me said, "You better hurry. Senor. Here comes the rain." I looked down into the direction of the wind, and sure enough I could see the storm. But I had no idea what that meant, if anything. All the stories of quick weather changes around Cape Horn were still only stories to me. I kept on with my cameras.
"Then all of a sudden the storm hit us. It was probably the same wind we'd been driving into all morning, except rain now joined it and we were out where the full force of the world's two great oceans hit us. The seas got progressively worse. Arnold grinned, fingered his camera and said, "Oh Boy, Oh Boy! A storm. Around Cape Horn!" and his red whiskered face crinkled with wrinkles and grins. That was the last time I saw it for about an hour. And when it showed up again, it was like reddish-white paste.
"As we plowed farther and farther out into the sea, the wind gathered force, and the waves, became very bad. I had my movie camera than. I was acutely conscious, however, of an unpleasant feeling in my stomach, but I was determined I was going to stick it out and get pictures regardless of what happened. Then, I think it was, the full force of rain, wind and sea took hold of us.
"Ken sat at my left near an open window of the Bridge. I was suddenly aware he was not feeling well. The junior officer who shares this bunkroom with me was standing just in back of me and to the right. I didn't suspect him of either fear or sickness, but I realized his face was white. The commander stood by an open window. His face was pointed straight out into the gale, and not a muscle moved or quivered. Then I saw the sailor who stood with his back against the big steering wheel, operating the little one that protruded just far enough for him to get his body between them for a brace. He was whirling the small wheel first one way and then the other, driving the clanking steam donkey, which pulled the chains running back to the steering blade at the rear of the boat. The boy's eyes were glued on the big magnifying glass above the 12-inch compass in front of him. He was cursing in Spanish, I could tell, though I wasted little time looking at him. His face was working.
"By that time I had myself braced against the open window on the leeside of the boat, protected from the wind and rain by a projection in the bridge at my right. But I could still see the rear end of the boat, and most of the ship in front of me. My forehead was braced against the top of the sill, my elbows anchored against each side and my feet spread well apart and back. The boat was rocking and plunging badly.
"I've seen lots of movies of storms on the ocean. I remember that in the scenes from 'Hurricane' the wind would catch the tops of the waves, beat them to spray and owl them across the seas in a veritable cloud of water. That was artificial storm. This was real, and it was exactly the way the scene before me seemed then. The ship fairly dove into the big troughs, and tossed about on the crests of the huge waves. (The boat was small, only 125 feet long.) As far across the seas as I could see were white spouts of driven spray. I wound and rewound my camera. The sea drove at the boat, covering it completely, and poured by my open window in a great curtain of water: solid continuous sheets of it beaten and hounded by the wind. It was impossible to see Cape Horn any longer. The monstrous rock was completely grayed out with storm and wind. Somehow I had the fearful feeling we might be driven sideways right onto the granite splinters around its base. It was an unpleasant thought. It persisted during the entire hour that we couldn't see the Cape. We were struggling all that time to get out far enough to turn left-with the wind-around it.
For a moment we'd be perched on the crest of a huge wave, then we'd begin that sickening, slanting slide down into its valley of wildly churning water, while the break of the next wave came at us like a white-topped mountain. The waves were actually higher than the bridge. They seemed to dive right at us.
"Ken looked at me and tried to grin. It was a failure. His face, covered with black stubble, was a dirty white. I didn't feel like grinning either. I kept my camera against my cheek with the lenses turned back from the window except when I thought a big wave was coming. Then as it came closer, I'd turn them out toward the sea again, close my eyes, press my lips, and start the motor. Sometimes it seemed the prow of the ship was so high up into the sky it must be half out of the water. Then the wave crest would pass, the boat pause an instant, fall, slap the oncoming water hard, then begin that sliding dive which seemed as if there would be no coming back from it. Cape Horn was living up to its reputation. It was putting on a show for the North American expeditionary, quite worthy of the tales of its ruthlessness.
I don't mind saying I had fought my stomach about as long as f could. I felt surely if the wind didn't subside soon, I'd give up.
"I am still surprised when I consider how little fear I felt. I must admit I'm no sailor, and any kind of storm on water frightens me. Here, however, I must have been insensible to fear, until later. There was only one conscious thought in my mind: get pictures!
"Strangely enough, the wind broke soon after: almost as suddenly as it came up, at least to that gale force with the storm! The sun broke through: he clouds occasionally, and now again, we could see Cape Horn. We were pretty well to its southern end now, and could turn left, with the wind. That also made going easier and incredibly faster. We all began to move around. And after another ten minutes, while we were actually passing the southernmost needle one of near-perpendicular rock that was the Horn-it rose probably eight hundred to one thousand feet out of the sea-the three of us went down on deck with the Commander. With Cape Horn in the background, the waves still sufficiently wild about the boat, we took pictures. The, in our final moment of victory, we threw our arms into the air, shook them in all the bearded and disheveled vigor we could command and shouted above the wind and the sea: "Horsy! Hooray! We made Cape Horn."
Later that night, in the tiny sale of the Galvarino, we brought out a number of expedition envelopes, which we intended to mail back to the States upon our arrival again in Magallanes. Cornerwise across them, we typed: "This envelope carried around Cape Horn August 19, 1941, at 3:00 P.M. by the Chilean Naval Tender 'Galvarino,' Wind, S.W. 7. seas heavy." Beneath that, the Commander of the Galvarino put his official stamp and signed each one in ink. Later at Magallanes, Comandante Arroyo did the same. It was official proof that we had "filled to the letter, the slogan of the Expedition: we had gone “From Detroit to Cape Horn!"
So we made Cape Horn. Approximately sixteen thousand miles south from Michigan's Great Lakes; home of the automotive industry which will one day make cars again instead of tanks. And those cars will travel rapidly and comfortably over ribbons of pavement through those thousands of miles over the great Pan American Highway, spanning two continents. Perhaps in those days this same old and battered white Plymouth will make the journey again.
So the Expedition went back to Magallanes. Back north to Buenos Aires, shipping by boat-again, at great discount in rate, by courtesy of hospitable "muy simpatico" Inter Oceanica, Chilean Company of Navigation-around the torturous miles of Distrito Chocolate and the limitless stretches of Patagonian mud. Back from Buenos Aires, three thousand five hundred miles by road across the incredible, amazing reaches of upper Bolivia: back to Lima, Peru. There, in fitting and magnificent climax to all that had been done for us by Latin Americans, and North Americans doing business in Latin America, the Grace Lines people gave us free passage for ourselves and the battered car, aboard the Santa Clara to New York.
In the foggy mist of morning we stood at the Clara's rail and watched New York take shape, out of the smoke. We saw Miss Liberty, holding high her torch, standing with her feet in the water of America's shores, welcoming us. It was as moving a sight as that August 19th day, sixteen thousand miles south, when we stood by another rail, watching Cape Horn slip past, beaten and battered by white wolves out of the southern cold Antarctic seas.
We were home.
Page last up-dated 2006-02-16