"Oh, God, we've found it. Did you see it? Hey, Fausto, go back...."
It was past before they really saw it, before they could seal it in their minds: the stark white walls latticed by the weak sunlight descending through the jungle cover. Cramped in the tunnel under the canopy of trees, its great whirling blades slapping at the foliage, the helicopter followed the river.
January 9, 1978
"Hey, set this damn thing down!"
"Did you see the openings? The windows? Geezuss. We gotta go back."
"Hey, Fausto, can you turn around?"
"Not here, there is no room. We must go farther and find a place on the river."
They knew to trust Fausto Padillo. From above, there had been no river at all, only an intermittent silver ribbon, crimping and curling in the deep green. The jungle concealed the river for long stretches, but Padillo, his sensitive gloved hand working the stick, had brought the helicopter down below the crown of foliage, and maneuvered it, mile after mile, as if it were on flanged wheels, holding to the river in the eerie light.
Now he nosed the helicopter through the shrunken passage, letting it flow with the river, watching for a spot to set down. And with each beat of the rotor the image grew inside Jim Woodman and Bill Spohrer. They babbled like children. Had they found it? The lost city? Ciudad Blanca? The white walls, the doorway, the monkey god? Their shared obsession?
They were 15 miles downriver before the Plàtano spread and flattened, bulging around a smooth, rocky place, a natural bed dividing the water. Direct sunlight illuminated the spot. Having stayed out of the trees, it was no feat for Padillo to lay the copter down there.
And there the red light came on, attracting and stunning them. A tiny solitary beacon on an otherwise unlit panel: "Engine Chip." So small the lighted words and so prominent, as though a hatch had been thrown open on a darkened room.
"What does it mean?"
"It means we cannot go back," said Padillo. "We have ingested something in the engine. It is not so bad maybe; there are magnets built in to take care of those things, but I must take the rotor off and see. It will take time."
"It's afternoon already. How much time?"
Padillo reconsidered. No, he said, he would not break the engine down; it was almost better not to know. They were already off the map, beyond radio contact. They were not beside the river, they were in it—it was all around them. A river that could rise 40 feet in the rainy season and could, now, with any precipitation, swallow them up. Night would come soon enough to meet them there.
"We will fly the way it is, and go back to Ahuas," he said. "It is not likely that the chips are bad. But we cannot stay."
"Can we go back by way of that thing we saw back there?"
Padillo shook his head. If he had figured right, he said, it would take at least 25 minutes to fly across the jungle to the relative safety of the Patuca River. Fuel was a factor. "If we go down, we will be part of the jungle. They will not find us."
The young Guatemalan again set the machine in motion. It whistled and hummed steadily—sounds that were previously reassuring but were now strangely suspect—and rose from the pit of brightness like a fighter coming off the deck. Up and up and out of the trees.
It was then, while trying to think his way back to the place they had seen, with the anticipation draining from him to make room for a terrible new sensation—fear—that Woodman remembered the things they had heard and made fun of. The crazy legends: that once you have seen Ciudad Blanca, or Casa Blanca, it disappears; that you never see it again; that if you are not Sumo, if you are not Indian, the invulnerable spirits will come and claim you.
"Those damn Indians!" he said aloud over the thwack of the helicopter blades.
The Mosquitia, along the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua, is 16,000 square miles of uncommon beauty, a breathtaking patchwork of foliage gone berserk—trees 200 feet high, spidery silver rivers dashing in and out of view, razorback ridges that bunch up haphazardly over a granite base. Like a rug that has been kicked, the jungle rises with the ridges, going all the way to the top, so that even from the summits of mountain peaks (up to 5,000 feet) all the views are short and suffocating. The eye gives up on them early. There are no vistas.
Bush pilots call it the Green Sea. Things they spot are no longer there when they circle back to check. Planes that go down are usually swallowed whole. One that crashed only a few miles from the runway at the coastal city of La Ceiba in Honduras never lost radio contact, but when rescued the pilot complained that search planes he talked with flew directly overhead without seeing him. A TAN airlines pilot who crashed an air force plane in the Mosquitia and walked out (he was close to the coast) said most of his aircraft was still in the trees, never having reached the jungle floor. The U.S. Green Berets set up a camp in the Mosquitia in the 1960s, then gave it up as impossible.
There is gold in the Mosquitia, and precious stones. Howler monkeys cough like lions, creating, with the screaming jaguars, bedlam hours at dusk and at first light. And there are snakes. Some of the world's deadliest snakes are found there, among them the fer-de-lance and the coral. Coastal natives insist that some of these killers hang from the trees in the dry season, waiting for prey. In the rainy season, the natives say, the snakes mostly sleep.
As with most remote and unknown places, the legends of the Mosquitia are extravagant. For example, Camizahual, "the Tigress," a white Mosquitia goddess, was said to have had three children without knowing a man. When she tired of governing, she went to the roof of her palace and, in the vortex of a lightning storm, ascended as "a bird of rare beauty and fantastic plumage." The most persistent legend is that of Ciudad Blanca, a "lost white city" of vast ruins behind glistening white walls and a huge white doorway that stands out against the jungle's blanket. Commercial pilots have reported glimpsing such walls and doors, but are unable to pinpoint their sightings.
In 1933, an anthropologist named W. D. Strong spent six months exploring the Patuca River basin—in outboard-powered dugout canoes and on foot along machete-cut paths—doggedly covering an area that a man in a helicopter could have ranged in two days. At a place called Wankibila he found bits and pieces of carved stones of an early civilization, and dutifully marked the place. He said he heard "many stories of strange archeological ruins."
There were two subsequent "finds," of considerably less scientific impact. In 1939, a man named Theodore Morde wrote that, with directions hot from "the lips of some old Paya Indians," he had found "the lost city of the monkey god, the capital of the extinct Chorotegas." (Anthropologists believe the Chorotegas to be contemporaries of the Maya, but with less staying power and not as good public relations.) Morde told of a "perverted religious cult" that featured dead monkeys and, at the site itself, monkey images "impressed on stone, [decorating] the entrance." He said he would not reveal the location, but could "hardly wait to get back." There is no record of his getting back.
Then, under the modest headline I FOUND A LOST CITY, a New Mexican mining engineer named Sam Glassmire wrote in a 1960 issue of Empire Magazine about the "crumbling limestone walls," the "tons of artifacts," and the "five square miles" of a city he found in the jungle off the Wampu River. He was there for gold, he said, and found some, but he sure enough also "found Ciudad Blanca." His account, done with a ghostwriter named Hank Chapman, told of standing "on top" of the city, on "a cornice that stuck out of the ground," the city itself being buried by the jungle. He, too, promised to go back but never got around to it.
One trouble with "going back"—whether you want to or not—is that the Mosquitia is inexactly charted. "Official" government maps and "official" air force maps confound as much as they instruct. Because of the sawtooth ridges and the jungle's density, instruments used to survey from the air cannot function properly. Tromping around with theodolites is unthinkable. But cartographers cannot leave voids. They must reach a point, a line, a border, and so in the Mosquitia their maps reflect their guesswork: smaller ones do not synch. Larger ones have places marked "relief data incomplete," and elevations "reported" and "source material irreconcilable" (the latter on a U.S. aerospace navigation chart, imagine).
But maps are poor inducements anyway. Printed mountains flatten out; facsimile jungles, on paper, offer little to lure you to them. However, on the official map of Honduras, charted for the government in 1954 by Dr. Jesus Aguilar Paz and a U.S. Geodetic Survey team, there is one tiny notation that catches the eye. It sits tentatively, in eight-point type, all but begging to be lifted off, in a washed-out yellow place near the Plàtano, Pao and Paulaya rivers:"?"
And below it, "Ruinas Ciudad Blanca."
It was the question mark, tantalizing them, that drew Jim Woodman and Bill Spohrer into the Mosquitia.
Who is to say what an explorer is today, except that the word connotes a certain amount of courage and guile and an itch to be someplace else. But that would describe Evel Knievel, too, would it not? One would assume the explorer is an anachronism, there being so few question marks remaining to call a Sir Richard Burton out. Such an assumption would suggest, however, that Sir Richard would have stood in bed if there had not been possibilities, and would ignore other qualities inherent in the breed.
An explorer might well be the ultimate adventurer—he must deal, after all, not with a tangible left hook or the angle of a mountain, but with the unknown. You probably couldn't categorize him or construct his profile the way you might a defensive tackle's or a six-day cyclist's. You probably wouldn't even know he was there until a question mark showed up on a map.
Jim Woodman's family owned newspapers around Evanston, Ill., but early on he was distrustful of the tack the Woodman course had taken ("Journalism didn't seem to pay very much") and identified himself with a more maverick ancestor, a certain Captain Woodman, who, as he recalled, had to leave—was ordered out of—England, "over a woman." He reasons that Captain Woodman was not a run-of-the-mill rounder, because the Crown gave him the ship to leave in.
Woodman, 44, is tall, handsome, curly-haired and intelligent. When he is making a point, he becomes spellbinding. After several false starts at an education, including two suspensions, he wound up at the University of New Mexico, where he captained the swim team—his two sons and three daughters are now age-group prospects in Miami—and led the university's debating team to the 1952 national championship, beating Notre Dame on the resolution "The basic non-agricultural industries of the U.S. should be nationalized." Debate, says Woodman, "is excellent training to make you a better liar."
At New Mexico, with a small band of conspirators, he rounded up "every old tire in New Mexico that wasn't attached to a car," tied them in bundles, set them on fire and dropped them down the cone of an extinct volcano outside town. Smoke billowing from the mountain "had the natives on their knees," he says, and brought out the state police. Instead of finishing his last year (he came back later for that, making the dean's list), Woodman was encouraged to join the Marines.
This was during the Korean war. The Marines made him a "combat correspondent," as which he wrote the radio program Marines in Review for ABC. This led to his spending considerable combat time in Hollywood. He seldom wore a uniform during his last year or so of service. When he got out, and graduated from New Mexico, he discovered he could further his education on the GI Bill, and chose to do so in Spain. On $175 a month, he studied art to go with his English and speech, did line drawings and watercolors, "lived like a gypsy" and, besides learning to speak Spanish, found he got along well with foreigners.
Released from the servitude of education, he came to a crossroad: "What could I do to keep seeing the world for nothing, traveling around and chasing women? Why, of course. I went to work for Pan American." In sales, he was dispatched to such hot spots as Izmir in Turkey, and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and other farther-away places. Eventually, he wound up in Miami, where he left Pan Am to help organize an adventure-tour operation called Brazil Safaris. He began commuting to Rio, where he lived in a 10th-floor penthouse in Copacabana. "It was insane." he recalls. "A party every night. Once we had the entire cast of a local floorshow in for 20 U.S. dollars. We had to go to Carnival just to rest up." When his roommate opened the door one day to a friend who immediately ran to the balcony and jumped, Woodman said, "I knew I had to change my life-style."
He married in Rio. His wife, presumably without polling the family (they had three children in three years), joined the CIA. "We didn't know," Woodman says. "She'd say, I've got to go to Caracas.' 'What for?' 'Never mind. I'll be seeing you.' I suppose you shouldn't be 30 and live in Brazil and get married."
They were divorced, and Woodman began writing travel books and selling Brazil Safaris and hiring out as a consultant to various South and Central American airlines. On an assignment for Playboy he met a woman named Lisa. She was a veteran transoceanic sailor and a crack tennis player, and when the two-week assignment was over, Woodman told her, "I don't want to leave without you. Come to Miami and marry me." She did. Now Lisa gives private tennis lessons in Miami and poses for the covers of Woodman's travel books.
Along the way, Woodman met Bill Spohrer, whose father-in-law, an American living in Peru, owned TAN Airlines, one of Woodman's accounts. Stars crossed.
Like Woodman, Spohrer—a smaller man with straight brown hair but equally youthful and vigorous—cared nothing about being immortal. Born in Drummond, Okla. the same day and year as Woodman, he was a Fulbright scholar who had served with the U.S. Military Mission in Indochina before Dienbienphu. Working with French troops, he participated in "the intrigue, the counterintrigue, the coups. I was 22. I loved it."
Later, Spohrer went to Guatemala on an archeological expedition. He had studied archeology in college and was a Maya buff. He married and moved to Honduras, where he began collecting old books and charts of the Americas and made pilgrimages. Poring over his maps in 1958, he noticed the question mark in the Mosquitia.
Spohrer and Woodman got together and teamed up with Michael DeBakey, son of the Houston heart surgeon. DeBakey, who was then representing Texaco in Lima, shared their need to head someplace, to go from here to there, to get out. In 1973, Hurricane Fifi swept across Central America, killing 15,000 people and flooding thousands of square miles. TAN, of which Spohrer had assumed command at his father-in-law's death (he has since sold out), became a center of rescue operations. The three compatriots joined in flying relief to battered Honduras. And over a beer in Belize, exhausted after a long series of flights, they dreamed up the International Explorers Society.
Spohrer: "The world was full of people who wanted adventure but didn't have a vehicle for it. How about a society for explorers? 'Explorers,' at that point, was a catchword. We weren't really interested in scientific findings. We simply wanted to do exciting things."
Woodman: "We thought, let's have a home for guys who like adventure, who wouldn't mind hiring a psychic or a helicopter to help find something, who would actually build a primitive balloon and fly it. I.E.S. seemed to fit. For 10 or 15 bucks a member, we'd tie things together, send out bulletins, drum up ideas."
In November 1975, Woodman and Julian Nott, a record-holding balloonist from England, flew an 88-foot smoke-filled balloon over the Nazca plain in southwest Peru. The balloon was made from native materials available to primitive Indians: coarse cotton cloth, reeds for the gondola from Lake Titicaca, etc. There were no metal fittings.
The idea was Spohrer's. An amateur balloonist, he had read Erich von D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üniken's book Chariots of the Gods?, and decided that it was "mostly baloney," that ancient earth people, not extraterrestrial visitors, had made the enormous Nazca ground drawings (which can be appreciated only from the air), that the mysterious burn pits at the end of the "runways" were caused by fires—possibly to provide hot air for balloons—not from prehistoric jet exhaust.
Because Spohrer could not make the flight, having aggravated an old back injury, Woodman fetched Nott and conscripted him into I.E.S. At dawn on the given day, the homemade Condor I rose 600 feet above the Nazca plain, abruptly plunged back to earth, dumped Woodman and Nott out, and then soared again for 18 minutes. The flight was hailed as "a classic example of experimental archeology" and "a modern demonstration of an ancient possibility." Woodman quickly produced a book about it—Nazca: Journey to the Sun—and ABC did a televised segment for The American Sportsman. Book and TV money helped defray the $60,000 expense.
By that time Woodman and Spohrer had begun a more personal search. "We've been looking at that question mark for 15 years," Spohrer said. "It's high time."
Whenever they could cadge a free day or two, Woodman and Spohrer—DeBakey's interests lay elsewhere—followed the scent. Facts were sought and sifted, evidence accumulated. They rummaged through archives and libraries, and rallied conversation. Everyone had a story to tell—one that had been heard, one that a grandmother swore by. They consulted museum directors and bush pilots, grave robbers, cigarette smugglers and jaguar hunters.
The best stories seemed always to come from the area of Palacios, a remote fishing village on the northeast coast of Honduras that had grown out of an old English fort. Lush and fruitful, Palacios is a speck of Eden at the mouth of the Black River, where it washes into the Paulaya. Elements of four tribes live there, more or less harmoniously—Paya, Sambo, Miskito and Black Caribe. From Palacios, grizzled prospectors and men who failed with rubber plantations had gone into the Mosquitia and returned with stone carvings—tiny things, usually, replicas of metates (corn grinders) that had washed to them down the rivers. There was talk of "burial mounds" not many days away.
But Woodman met only one man who had actually seen Ciudad Blanca. Sam Glassmire.
Woodman: "Sam turned out to be a helluva guy. Handsome, white-haired, a rugged New Mexican gold miner the Indians loved. The right kind of American abroad. He is a consulting geologist and mining engineer. The trouble was, he hadn't seen Ciudad Blanca—at least not the way it had been described. He told me he found carvings, all right, near the Pao River, and metates, but not a 'white city.'
"But he said something interesting: he said as a miner he had come to believe that the white walls pilots had seen were probably calcium carbonate, oozing down the cliffs. When lightning hits, the walls catch on fire, which would damn well scare hell out of the Indians. I liked Sam. I knew if he had found Ciudad Blanca, he wouldn't have talked about going back, he would have gone back."
Finally, Woodman and Spohrer abandoned their maps and research. But they had been at it for more than a year and were reluctant to give up on their project; sooner or later they had to go see for themselves. They set aside $5,000 for reconnaissance flights, to triangulate the more likely areas, to define and establish guidelines. And they went to see Bill Earle in La Ceiba.
Woodman had known Earle for 20 years—"a round-faced, stockily built Reader's Digest-type character" who had once been the youngest airline captain flying in the Americas. Earle had been trying for years to get regional air carriers going in Honduras, and finally, if tentatively, had made good with a six-plane fleet he called Lansa Airlines. He had a reputation Woodman admired. He would go anywhere, fly anything. Bill Earle could, it was said, land a flaming torch on a sheet of waxed paper.
"It was fate," said Woodman, "that put you in La Ceiba," and presented the plan to Earle.
"You guys are out of your minds," Earle said. "You can't find anything out there. Have you seen it? It's the worst jungle in the world. The maps don't match up. The elevations are wrong. It's spooky as hell. I've lost three planes out there. Didn't find a trace. If you go down, and survive, it would take forever to walk out."
"You're right. I shouldn't have asked. It was foolish."
"I'll take you. I need the money."
In a single-engine Cessna 132 (his "safer" two-engine aircraft seemed always to be in the shop), Earle flew the explorers into the Mosquitia a dozen times following endlessly complicated patterns, putting down on make-do grass strips. At each outpost, Woodman and Spohrer made brief forays into the bush.
Ahuas is on the eastern edge of the jungle, at the basin of the Patuca River. There was a Moravian mission there, and in close proximity, as if to keep the missionaries on their toes, a "trading post" operator named Jim Berry. Berry served his guests a belly wash of rum and Kool-Aid and said, yes, indeed, he believed there was a "white city" out there. "The natives here say there is, and I think so, too." Native women came in and out of his place as they talked, nodding familiarly.
At Palacios, the village "mayor," Felix Marmole, produced a character from the bush named Willie Wood—"I didn't believe it, either," says Woodman—who spoke Spanish with a Miskito accent. "Willie was a mixture of everything that had gone through that area—Indian eyes, high Sumo cheekbones, skin of the Miskito—the whole place in one body. He said he'd had a rubber plantation up the Plàtano that went bad, and that he had seen Casa Blanca.
"I said, 'Ciudad Blanca?' 'No, Casa Blanca.' 'The white cliffs, the windows?' 'Yes.' 'Ciudad Blanca?' 'No, Casa Blanca.' He said, 'Go up the Plàtano, turn this way, and that way, and it's on the left.' It was like getting directions on the freeway. I said, 'Have you been in it?' 'Oh, no. It is where the spirits live.'
"Well, what the hell. Not a white city, a white house. Was there no end?"
After still another scary dogleg landing at Palacios, Earle suggested to Felix the mayor that he move the village around. Transplant a few houses so that the airstrip could be straightened, drag the strip smooth with oxen. He needed such a strip to fly supplies in. "Do it and I will bring the village a shortwave radio," Earle said. Felix said he would do it.
It was six months, however, before the strip was completed. And with each intervening flight, expecting to experience something stupendous, something startling, the explorers instead felt the jungle slowly entering into them, taking hold, gaining command. Instead of diminishing, it seemed to enlarge. The rivers they followed ducked out of sight. A waterfall—1,200 feet high and spectacular—was found, lost and found again, as if it were on stage wheels. The mountains were never in the right place.
On one flight, true to Woodman's pledge against normality, they took along a psychic, a young woman from Duke University who wore prayer beads and crescent rings and spoke of "vibrations." She lifted her ringed fingers and stretched them in front of her, palms out, drawing encouragement from the granite and brush, and from the navigation chart in her lap. And though her imagery was rich (she had a high IQ, she said, and very definite ideas), the results were unspectacular.
The weather turned on them. They flew into dark, tense rainstorms that hurled sounds into the windshield like batting-practice balls against a backstop. Since Fifi, the weather pattern in Honduras had gone haywire; no one seemed sure when the rainy season was, or if it ever stopped. Now, when it was supposed to be dry, the rain came over them like a black sheet, hollowing their conversations in the cockpit of the Cessna and drumming into their spirits.
Finally, Earle called a halt.
"Look," he said. "I don't know how many times we can do this without going down. We don't have a backup plane. We can't go slow enough or get low enough to see what you want to see, and we sure as hell can't land. With a fixed-wing aircraft, it's going to take you months of this."
"What are you suggesting? A helicopter?"
"We'll see. They're expensive."
In June of 1976 Woodman's two sons and three other teen-age boys were flown to Palacios, where, under the general supervision of Felix the mayor they could explore, sample the jungle, make friends, listen, remember. Before they left they were joined by a sixth member, a snake hunter who had inquired about flights into the Mosquitia.
"He looked the part," says Woodman, "dark hair, flowing black mustache. I asked if he'd been in the area. 'Yes, up beyond the headwaters of the Paulaya.' I said, 'Have you ever seen anything that looked like a white city?' He said, 'Yes. I have been at the base of temple ruins.' He kept talking. I couldn't believe the luck. He said he found snakes under the rocks, but that the only danger was the falling walls. He said he was an ex-Marine. I thought, 'How bad can he be?' "
Woodman offered to pay the snake hunter's air fare and to give him an additional $500 if he took the five boys to the place he spoke of. The snake hunter accepted the ticket and flew out with the boys.
Nothing came of it. The boys heard "many stories" of Ciudad Blanca from the natives but also noted that "if you act interested, they feed you lie after lie. They like to see the gringos sit with astonished faces." The snake hunter was no help, indeed turned into an opponent. He would not take them to the "temple." He blamed the weather. He exploded in bad temper, screamed, punched one of the boys, threw a knife and left. They never saw him again.
They did find Raimundo Jones at the headwaters of the Paulaya, in a stout house of mahogany with comfortable homemade furniture. He was an old man and whip-lean, with white hair like tissue and eyeglasses that were strapped to his head. He said he had been there 60 years, at first living with the Paya Indians, "having a wonderful good time." He said he was born in Missouri. His link to home was a daily dose of Paul Harvey news on the shortwave.
The boys inquired of the white city. "There's something out there, all right," said Raimundo Jones. "The Sumos say it's dead people. A city of dead people. They tell of a stone monkey with a golden mask. I tried to go there, over the ridges, but three times I could not make it and gave up." That was all.
Spohrer, meanwhile, found a company in Guatemala that would rent them a helicopter for $325 an hour, and a 28-year-old pilot named Fausto Padillo who agreed to the requirements. "What we need is a guy who'll slice through jungles you couldn't put your finger through, land on river rocks, fly off the map. We need a complete idiot." "I'm your man," said Fausto. "Just don't tell the guy who owns the helicopter."
Including gas and freight, it was estimated that the copter would burn up $10,000 a week—modern exploration at its costliest. Woodman went shopping for additional funds and got them—from Standard Fruit, from Esso, from ABC—which had already agreed to film part of the expedition. From TAN he got additional flight concessions. In two weeks he raised $30,000.
"Don't complain to me about corporations," says Woodman. "I think they're great."
In October, with the helicopter secured and a television crew from ABC brought in, Woodman and Spohrer established a base at Ahuas. Woodman believed the White City of the monkey god would be reached west of there, toward the Paulaya. A series of fixed-routine flights took them out and away from Ahuas. Like a circle in a puddle, the arc grew daily—down the Patuca, up the Pao, out over the jungle. They scoured the tops of what they considered key mountains. The process was slower than they had hoped.
The copter put down on riverbanks, on sandbars, anyplace, living up to its pedigree, and the explorers got out and chopped to the top of ridges, punching holes in the jungle. Once Spohrer had to drop from the machine into 10-foot-high grass to clear a pad. He did a three-hour clearing job in less than an hour because, he said, he kept seeing images of snakes. "I prayed, 'Dear Jesus, get me out of this and I'll never be bad again.' "
Sometimes they sent the copter home and spent the night on the ridges. They had a plan if the machine crashed with them in the jungle. They would hack a tunnel through the trees to the sky, start a fire and send up a cylinder of smoke. They would stay there three days. If nobody found them by then, they would try to find a river and follow it out. Their survival equipment included everything from Band-Aids to wrist and button compasses, dehydrated food, firearms and fishhooks.
They began to enlist natives to sight for them. A native guide was not necessarily foolproof. "The first thing he would do when we got him up in the helicopter," said Woodman, "was throw up. Then he would get lost." But instead of crisscrossing vaguely above, as they had in the Cessna, they now were able to dip down and float over the rivers in the helicopter, twisting idly through the turns, taking in close-hand the Mosquitia's beguiling irregularities.
Wherever they went, whenever they put down, they found things—tiny cut stones of ancient workmanship. They saw mountains with surprisingly symmetrical splashes of white, the calcium carbonate Sam Glassmire had predicted. They saw everything, and nothing.
They put down at a tiny colony at the junction of the Patuca and Wampu rivers, where the villagers were saving up to buy a shovel. They made camp farther up, on high ground belonging to an old widow named Juana, a Sumo. There were fruit trees in the clearing, and Juana's thatch-roofed house had a view from 60 feet above the river. She said it was necessary to be there. She showed them the water marks where the river came, just 10 feet below.
Juana had a daughter and a son, and pigs to kill the snakes. She estimated her age at 50, but looked 80. She wore a single gold earring and bragged that she had once been to the coast, but when they pitched camp and strung up lights her eyes widened at the sight of electricity in action.
Woodman asked if she knew the white city.
"Yes. See that mountain? See that doorway? It is there."
The mountain loomed behind her, the straightest, tallest one they had seen. There were, to be sure, white splashes on it—but not unfamiliar ones.
"No, I don't see the doorway. What is the mountain called?"
"That is also the river."
"Yes. The spirits live behind the door. At night, you can hear the wailing of a man."
"Are you sure it isn't a monkey? Or jaguars?"
"No, it is a man. I have heard him. He has been there a long time. See, there. La puerta."
In the evening light, the mountain's colors were uncertain, the shadows deeper and condensed. Woodman sucked his teeth. Indeed, there was a door—a huge, perfectly carved white door as large as a castle drawbridge. Or something that resembled a door.
"Have you been there?"
"No one who lived here has ever climbed to see it. They are afraid. The spirits...."
"Would you mind if we flew up there tomorrow?"
"No, but you will see only the door, not the man. You cannot see spirits."
The night produced the spirit-man's anguish—the keening hysteria of howler monkeys and jaguars, enough in themselves to make the flesh crawl. In the morning, Padillo flew the helicopter up to the mountain and hovered there like a mosquito hawk. The white walls and the erosion-carved door were exactly what Woodman and Spohrer expected: a remarkable likeness and, perhaps, an explanation, but nothing more.
They were on the Wampu a week, living in Juana's backyard, ranging out. At the last outpost on the Pao, they found one more witness, an old Sumo Indian who told them there was no white city, not the kind they sought.
"It was not the city that was white, it was the people," he said.
"I don't understand."
The old man said there had been a plague, some kind of biological horror that had wrapped its arms around the area. "It came and everyone in our largest city died. Generations ago. When a man died from it, he became very pale. The Ciudad Bianca you seek was not a city of white buildings, but of white corpses."
It was then, the day before they broke the Wampu camp, that Padillo took them out beyond the Pao, west and north and, for the first time, all the way to the headwaters of the Plàtano River. It was then that he took them into the river's unexpected tunnel, and the red light went on.
The 30 minutes across the jungle, and then the longer leg down the Patuca to Ahuas, produced a profound change in the passengers of the helicopter. The initial elation at seeing the white walls, which had changed to apprehension, the fear of going down in the jungle, faded into a deeper, quieter force, hitting them harder. For the first time they were really discouraged.
"I think we realized finally that the walls we had been seeking, even the ones of Casa Blanca, could not have been a city," Woodman says. "A city with quarried stone would have turned gray and blended into the jungle and been covered by it. In its antiquity it would look considerably unlike a city. A shipwreck isn't a ship at all when you find it years later. It's spikes and nails and a few metal weapons. We thought, 'Maybe we've seen all we will ever see of the white city.'
"So we decided to pull back. Get out, think it through."
Woodman says he does not know why they did not go back to the Plàtano to confirm or deny the thing that was fresh in their memory, the possibility of Casa Blanca. "We just didn't. I suppose we were too down. We had covered almost every inch of the area where the maps said Ciudad Blanca was supposed to be.
"I said, 'Look, nobody lives out there now. If the stone was quarried in the mountains, the people who did it must have lived on the coast, or up from it. From Palacios to the mountains is 20 miles. We will come back and start again, but from Palacios. Casa Blanca, if we ever find it again, will be easier to reach from there.' "
And how ridiculously easy it was, too, Woodman would say later. Ten miles out of Palacios, after almost a day of travel in a dugout canoe hacking through the sickly green and brown of the jungle, at a place called Aguacate (avocado), Spohrer put a machete in the ground and heard a gritty, clinking sound, like a cake with an unexpected center, like a cake with a file in it.
A Sumo Indian lived there, on top of a mound, by an avocado tree. He seemed amused by their interest.
"Are there any big stones here?" It was a question Woodman had asked many times. Usually he got vague, deliberately tempting answers: "Far away, past that river, on top of that ridge."
This man said, "Yes. Do you want to see?"
He took them to the place.
Two, three, five times they dug—only inches into the ground. There they were: hewn granite stones waiting for a spade. "There is more," the Indian said. "Less than two miles. At Bukra."
"Are there other mounds?"
"Yes. People say from here to the mountains."
For Woodman and Spohrer, the rest was not so much anticlimactic as it was a concession to a different set of priorities. I.E.S. followed in force, with the ABC crew. And Edwin Shook, a leading archeologist of Central America, flew in from Guatemala to take charge of the digging. "Don't touch anything till I get there," he said.
Shook was amazed when he saw what they had found. "I've never known anything like this," he said. They unearthed huge table altars, serpentlike granite carvings with lizard heads, and tips of 20-ton megaliths. They stepped off the remains of an ancient plaza.
Shook said, "Boys, they've all been full of beans if they thought there wasn't a big stone civilization out here." He said it was certainly not Mayan, but was "probably Chorotega," and was at least a thousand years old. A white city? He couldn't say, didn't seem to care.
For Woodman and Spohrer, the job was reduced to transporting I.E.S. digging teams in and out. But one morning after they had dropped a load, Woodman told Padillo not to head back to Palacios but to go on up the Plàtano.
"I want you to go up that river until it absolutely stops, and then I want to see if we can find that white house."
And just like that, almost as simple as following directions to a freeway, they found it. Scudding beneath the jungle canopy, marveling as they went along at the trees, the flowering bromeliads, past the last scratchings of man, they came to a turn and Casa Blanca burst slowly open to them.
Woodman would remember later that at first glance he thought it must surely be a condominium. It lifted up from a ledge, a 20-foot-high balcony over a cavity the river had etched away, and rose another 80 feet or more almost straight up, various levels carved by the river as symmetrical as terraces—all white with calcium and honeycombed with cave holes.
Padillo found a rocky spot in the river to put down on, and the rotor unwound into silence. The smell of animal hit them, raw and pungent. Jaguar prints were all about them. Some prints were fresh. They measured six inches across. As a precaution, the explorers peppered the caves with rocks for 10 minutes. They got no response.
Woodman lit a torch and ducked inside one, groping his way. The smoke from the torch went straight up and out, indicating an updraft and an opening to the top. He went as far as he could, about 60 feet, and then came back. He found no carvings on the walls, no altars, no sign of a temple, no real hints that the cave had ever been inhabited.
He was certain it was the Casa Blanca of the legends—a dramatically eerie, mystical kind of place. But it was a natural formation, not a man-made one. Had it ever been inhabited, perhaps by cliff dwellers? He would leave it to others to determine. "Perhaps," he said, thinking of business, "an I.E.S. spelunking team."
The find got front-page coverage throughout Central America and was hailed by the Honduran government. There was a color picture on the front page of The Miami Herald, which speculated rather positively on the possibility that it was Ciudad Blanca.
"I think there are three possibilities," Woodman says. "One, that the white walls, the white calcium carbonate on the cliffs, were what the Indians thought was Ciudad Blanca. Casa Blanca might have been part of that. Two, that the Sumo legend is correct, and that people—Chorotegas, probably—lived in places like Bukra and died of a plague, turning white. Hence, 'White City.'
"Or three—that it is still out there, and still worth looking for."