Just as ladies in Victorian novels had no legs, there are some sports that one assumes exist without any unmentionable underpinnings of preparation. I had always believed exploring was one of these grand, pure pastimes. To explore, you simply get off a plane and meet John Wayne, who takes you to the place where Maureen O'Hara is held captive by Humphrey Bogart. The plague may take you, Wayne may knock you about for showing the white feather, Bogart may drink up the last of your vodka and tomato juice, but that's exploring. You just go out and explore.
Alas for illusion, three of us recently went off exploring in Central America. About all we discovered is that exploring is, so to speak, all underpinnings. The things that you have to do to explore are never much mentioned by explorers, but it turns out that they are just as important as a Victorian lady's legs.
Our destination in this rather remarkable venture was the mountains and jungles along the Mexican-Guatemalan border, and particularly El Sumidero—the great gorge of the Grijalva River. Besides wanting to explore, our motives were mixed. Norman Carver Jr., an architect-photographer, wanted to take pictures of Mayan ruins. Billy Rosenberger, a University of Maryland student, wanted to collect beetles and girls. I wanted (what must be said is best said quickly) to trap mice. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington wanted the skins of several hundred Central American mice, I wanted to provide the Smithsonian Institution with the said skins of several hundred Central American mice and that is all I intend to tell you about that.
We three were aware that one of the most important pre-exploring requirements involves making courtesy calls on other explorers. This permits one to gather a large file cabinet of invaluable conflicting advice. We made one of our first pilgrimages of this sort to the lair of a U.S. Air Force survival officer, an expert in tropical disasters and dangers. He was a professorial sort, who measured out his opinions as if they were the last drops of fresh water on a crowded life raft.
January 27, 1964
"Ah," he mused after hearing our plans. "Along these rivers the jaguar, Fells onca, is often encountered. The jaguar is a large and occasionally aggressive animal."
"Yes, yes," we panted, waiting for a tip on how to improvise an antijaguar spear from a spare screwdriver.
"Do not molest the jaguar," our authority suggested. This became the slogan of our entire expedition.
Part of the challenge of assembling expert exploring advice is that no two answers to one query ever agree. It makes for a sort of surrealist version of twenty questions.
"The Grijalva River," says Veteran Archaeologist I, with a shudder. "A maelstrom. Our Indians called it Devil Water that Eats Men for Breakfast."
"The Grijalva River," says Veteran Archaeologist II. "Sluggish little stream, but pleasant in its way. Our boys called it Water to Take Siesta By."
Simultaneously with collecting hot tips on exploring, a would-be explorer must assemble his gear. The neophyte expects that after he has been properly accredited and introduced as an explorer he will purchase his genuine explorer's kit at an outfitter's establishment founded in the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He will be provided with rare and exotic items, which the average do not know exist. The truth is that exploring, or at least selling explorers' kits, has become a big, mass-market business. Supermarkets, hardware stores and many discount drugstores handle a confusing multitude of explorer-type items. We, for example, were astounded to learn that crocodile repellent is now available. We were hopelessly unprepared to choose the best variety from among three brand-name products and eventually settled, with no great assurance, on a case of the spray-on sort.
Our principal equipment consultant was the proprietor of a friendly neighborhood surplus store. "We want a few things," we said as casually as possible. "Getting ready an exploring kit. Going to attempt [attempt is a bona fide explorer word] El Sumidero, the formidable canyon of the—"
"Swell, lotsaluck," this merchandising menace interrupted. "We got just the item for you. Special this month. Portable Quonset hut. Eleven hundred ninety-six. Great value. Sold three of them to the Viet Cong last week."
"No, we'll be attempting some rough work. We want to keep our kit to the essentials."
"I get you. You want to keep your kit to the essentials. Smart idea. Lot of birds go off exploring with too much kit. I got just the thing for you, if you want to travel light. These aren't going to last. It's a lightweight strawberry mousse-maker, complete with dehydrated strawberries."
Or take the matter of guns. Except for Billy, who occasionally bags large moths with an air rifle, none of us had ever used a gun. However, we knew that if we were going to be explorers we would have to overcome this timidity. Part of the pleasure of exploring is purchasing one's first Purdy 470 elephant gun. So we assembled an arsenal, only to leave it behind after a warning from a mammalogist friend recently returned from one of the provinces we intended to visit.
"The army doesn't like strangers with guns down there," he said. "A drunk soldier came into town, stole a shotgun from a fellow. They caught him. Shot him."
"No, he was long gone. They shot the guy the soldier stole the gun from. The army claimed he didn't have the right kind of permit."
When eventually completed, our kit contained no weapons more lethal than 300 mousetraps. However, as far as soothing the suspicions of authorities went, we might as well have brought along a brace of rocket launchers. As soon as we reached the Mexican border we discovered that customs inspectors are the same the world over. They are pleasant and polite as long as things are regular. If they routinely inspect loads of cattle, native pottery or narcotics, they will deal promptly and efficiently with these cargoes, but beware of showing up with anything so out of the ordinary as a Volkswagen busload of explorer's kit.
"So, a folding canoe—it folds?"
"Please fold and unfold the folding canoe."
"An inflatable rubber raft, now deflated. Please inflate and deflate."
"A machine for making strawberry mousse? A sweet? Please operate."
"These small devices which appear to be mousetraps?"
"They are mousetraps. Three hundred. We are a scientific expedition."
"We have granted that status, permitting the importation of the small jars of poison for crocodiles and insects. But 300 mousetraps? It would not seem that a true scientist, even a gringo, would fear mice so greatly. Please wait until the chief returns."
Once across the border, we headed directly for our base camp at the Hotel Bonampak in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the Mexican state of Chiapas. The Bonampak is a rude compound consisting of a series of terraces, well-tended gardens, cocktail lounge, bar, three restaurants, coffee shop that serves excellent hot cakes and swimming pool decorated by exotic girls from Chicago and Los Angeles. In addition, the Bonampak is located across the street from the office of our chief guide, Pepe Camacho, the veteran public relations man for Chiapas. (We had quickly caught on to this new wrinkle in exploring. It is foolhardy to proceed until a PR man has cleared the way.)
Pepe is an impressive fellow, with the narrow-eyed look of one accustomed to studying the far Horizon, Holiday and LIFE. Pepe's first intelligence was disheartening. We had been promised that El Sumidero was unexplored territory, but six weeks before, while we had been learning to operate the strawberry mousse machine, a party from Utah had successfully attempted El Sumidero, running the entire canyon in rubber rafts.
"It was magnificent," Pepe recalled. "The air dark with helicopters, camera crews on the canyon rim, the Associated Press, the National Geographic. A magnificent feat. But," said Pepe, reluctantly returning from this sweet dreamland of press agentry, "for you, my friends, it will be more difficult. You are second; perhaps smaller trade journals and travel brochures, but newswise the bloom is off the Grijalva. Then, too, both of the experienced girls have severe head colds. They will not wish to accompany you for at least a week."
"Girls?" Billy said, brightening. "Are they part of the deal?"
Pepe looked wondering. "But of course. Girls, in tight bathing suits, for the photographs."
"Unfortunately, but then you would have to wait in any event. Our helicopter is at your disposal, it goes without saying, but at the moment the governor has taken the helicopter to Mexico City."
"When does he get back?"
"Ah, governors," Pepe sighed with some envy. "Who knows? Governors have no schedule. But perhaps you could still see the canyon from the air. The medical missionaries from Ixtapa occasionally fly over it."
Ixtapa was a handkerchief-sized landing strip laid out on a precipitous mountainside, cluttered with shallow ravines and large boulders. The missionary group that operated the field was overhauling one plane, and the other was waiting at a jungle landing strip, socked in by fog and rain.
"Get one of the bush pilots to take you," the mission's chief mechanic advised, "but be careful which one you hire."
"Who's the best?"
"Captain Gomez from Comitàn is the only one I'd fly with."
As we talked, we had been eying the twisted remains of a Cessna 180, which rested against a fire-blackened boulder.
"Who does that belong to?"
"Captain Gomez. He is not familiar with this strip, but he is still the only one I'd fly with—if I had to."
We decided to push ahead, to attempt El Sumidero by traditional methods, without public relations counsel, helicopters, bathing beauties and Captain Gomez. Sadly, as the sun sank behind the marimba bandstand, we broke our Bonampak camp. We established our advance assault base on a sandy beach of the Grijalva, 20 miles upstream from Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Though primitive in comparison with the Bonampak, the camp was habitable. A nearby Indian village provided an unfailing source of beer, Coca-Cola and guitar players. As a community service project, the local Lions Club had constructed a palm-thatched cabana on the Grijalva beach, which sheltered us from the fierce rays of the tropical sun.
Under these Spartan conditions we, along with a hundred or so Indian children, played out the final preparation drama of our assault on El Sumidero. The high point of these activities was the assembling of our foldboat. A foldboat is a marvelously ingenious craft, so seaworthy that at least one adventurer sailed his across the Atlantic. In retrospect it seems to us that the really impressive part of this feat was that to sail the ocean this man first had to put together his foldboat. A folded fold-boat consists of two canvas bags holding bits of rubber, wood and a great jackstrawlike collection of curiously shaped aluminum rods. From these rods one may construct a miniature Eiffel Tower, a waterwheel or a narrow-gauge railway. We tried all of these shapes before coming up with one that more or less resembled a canoe. Norman, whose architectural training has made him hypercritical in construction matters, was the only one dissatisfied with the finished, unfolded foldboat.
"What about those whatchamacallits there?" he asked, pointing to two leftover elbow-shaped lengths of aluminum tubing. "Shouldn't we work them in?"
"They don't fit anyplace," Billy said. "Flush them." Norman's fears were to prove unfounded. The pair of elbows served only to connect the bow and stern sections of the frame. In the fast water of the gorge we found that without these links we could bend the canoe at right angles around troublesome boulders. A patent on this foldboat refinement has been applied for.
With the raft and canoe launched, we began to check and load supplies. All 350 pounds of our gear were accounted for except the tin of dried food—"Remember, just six ounces of this and five gallons of water and you can feed a party of two for an entire day," our friendly surplus store man had touted.
"I left it at the Bonampak," Billy airily explained, "but don't worry. You know that supermarket in Tuxtla? The one where what's-her-name works, Elena. Look what I got." Ceremoniously the ingenious young entomologist opened a bag and displayed a dozen jars of Cheez Whiz and a bale of soda crackers. "Just like we get in Bethesda," Billy said. "Why should we eat that mash?"
Thus loaded low to the gunwales with Cheez Whiz, we set off down the Grijalva. The foldboat began to fill with water almost immediately. However, we quickly were able to diagnose the problem. Norman's large hunting knife, one which he had worn faithfully from New Orleans to the Grijalva, had unaccountably been woven into the foldboat between the aluminum rods and the rubber skin of the craft. Repairing the rent, we moved along swiftly and camped that evening in a bamboo thicket at the mouth of El Sumidero. From our camp we could hear the roar of the river ahead and watch the moonlight as it crept slowly down the sides of the cliffs. The canyon is 5,500 feet deep, and the walls from river's edge to rim are sheer—like straight, very straight up and down. At the time of the Spanish Conquest 1,200 defeated Indians availed themselves of El Sumidero to commit voluntary genocide. Rather than live as slaves, the warriors first threw their wives and children into the gorge, then leaped after them.
"How," asked Billy, eying the cliffs speculatively, "do we get out of here?"
"Get out?" we older, more thrill-oriented sports asked incredulously. "We're not in yet. Don't worry about details."
"I am worried. If there's any heavy lifting to be done, I know who's going to do it. I wonder when that helicopter's coming back."
In the morning we experienced a genuine explorer-type thrill. There were cat tracks all around our tent. We identified the trackmaker as either a very large Siamese cat or a very small jaguar.
"Whatever it is, it likes Cheez Whiz," said Norman, pointing out an uncapped jar that had been licked clean. From then on in El Sumidero we slept lightly and kept the Cheez Whiz in the tent.
By the third day we had penetrated—an explorer's word meaning capsized, swum, crawled, dragged and fallen—several miles into the canyon. At this point we were stopped at a terrifying phenomenon that one might call a rapids if one were in the habit of speaking of Mount Everest as a hill. Tons of ferocious water poured over a 12-foot drop onto a hedgehog pattern of sharp ledges. Downstream there appeared to be still larger cataracts, all designed on the same pattern.
"You're kidding," Billy said without laughing and retired to a high rock to watch for helicopters.
It was a hot, desolate, water-scoured, wind-whipped place. For three days we had been alone, seeing no human signs except for abandoned cornfields (Mayan milpas) far up on the rim and an occasional crumpled film carton or press release—droppings of the Utah party.
"Oh, oh," Billy warned, "here comes trouble."
We turned in time to see a very small Indian man dressed in native costume, ragged Bermuda shorts and sleeveless undershirt materialize from the scree at the foot of the cliff. He carried a battered single-shot .22 rifle and was followed by two dogs. Freely translated, the group conversation was as follows:
"Good morning. Beautiful day. I am Rafael, a hunter."
"What do you hunt?"
"How do you get out of this joint?"
"I hunt jaguars. It is difficult to get out."
"You hunt jaguars with that gun?"
"How do you get to a road?"
"Yes, with this gun. The dogs help me. They are very brave. Do you care for a jaguar-skin souvenir of Chiapas? There are no roads. It is a political thing. The governor of this state thinks only of helicopters."
"Would you like some Cheez Whiz?"
"Is the river worse below?"
"Many thanks, but I have some Cheez Whiz. My cousin who lives below says the river is worse there. I do not go there. Do you know Oakland, California? I have a cousin who lives there. I hope to go there."
The invaluable information provided by Rafael immediately cast a new light on the expedition.
"Certainly we can do it, but since we would only be second...."
"And there won't necessarily be any Mayan ruins...."
"And there aren't any girls to take pictures of...."
"Let's flush it."
We then learned another of the hard lessons of exploring. It is often even more difficult to stop exploring than it is to begin, especially when this involves pulling a partially folded foldboat, a rubber raft, 300 mousetraps and a moussemaker upstream against a river such as the Grijalva. Eventually Rafael took pity on us and sent a squad of his children down to the river. They dragged us back to the Lions Club cabana, just as our Cheez Whiz ran out. We regrouped and fell back smartly some 600 miles to Vera Cruz, convalescing there during Mardi Gras. From then on exploring was a snap. We had no trouble until reaching Falls Church, Va., where we became somewhat confused on a newly opened freeway cloverleaf. We were immediately stopped by a highway patrolman. The officer peered suspiciously at our explorer-type beards and our explorer-type kit, which we had only partially covered with our explorer-type jaguar skin.
"Whadaya guys think you're doing?"
"We're going home."
"Well, we've been exploring."
"El Sumidero, the formidable canyon of the Grijalva River."
"Awright, awright. Where you trying to get to now?"
"You're going the wrong way on a one-way expressway headed toward Richmond. Follow me. I'll get you out."