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By Sullivan C. Richardson
|On Sunday, November 17, 1940, the Detroit News ran
this eight-column head: "Detroit Expedition Ready To Blaze Auto Trail To Cape Horn."
"To cross 14,000 miles of North and South America", ran the opening paragraph, "through tremendous expanses of jungle and over high mountains is the ambitious undertaking of the Pan American Highway Expedition, which will leave Detroit tomorrow to attempt what nobody has ever done-drive an automobile all the way from the United States, over the proposed route of the Pan American Highway, to the lower end of South America.
"The expedition will be headed by Sullivan C. Richardson, a Detroit News advertising man He will be accompanied on this adventure by Arnold Whitaker specialized mechanic from one of Detroit's big automobile plants ... and Kenneth C. Van Hee, also of Detroit ... They will drive a 1941 stock model Plymouth automobile, built in Detroit. “
Across the country from Washington to Los Angeles, people scarcely raised an eyebrow at the announcement. Those unacquainted with the geography of the Southern Americas and previous attempts to take an automobile through them, were unimpressed. Those who did know simply said it couldn't be done and dismissed the expedition as another stunt by "publicity hounds who'd do anything to get their names in the papers" and who'd "give up when they hit the first hard stretch."
The "Cape Horn Auto Caravan will bog down." said Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times in a two-column interview by Editor & Publisher on December 28. "If the Detroiters can make it to the Pacific port of Panama and ferry to a landing on solid roadbed in Colombia, they should be able, weather conditions permitting, to finish their journey to Argentina's capital city. That 'if' remains formidable." And Mr. Chandler was "pretty certain" the expedition would never get through Central America.
He was not alone in his conviction. American Automobile Association directors, Pan American Union and Highway Confederation officials and engineers, business men and intimate friends of expedition members from Detroit to New York, joined in the publisher's opinion with varying degrees of vehemence.
"You're three damn fools," we were told, too often to fight about it. And we offered little or no denial. In fact we had no tangible evidence on which to base denial. Still we wanted to go. We'd make every possible preparation for road trouble: we'd be vaccinated for typhoid, yellow fever, small pox and diphtheria. We'd carry quinine for malaria; we'd boil all water we drank and be careful about fresh vegetables and fruits as carriers of the dread amoebic dysentery: in short, we'd do all three men could do, then hope for breaks when the going got beyond us. It sounded sufficient to the expedition.
A few minutes before midnight, Monday, November 18th, we drove quietly out of Detroit and headed southwest. We were off the great adventure. How great, we were happily ignorant. It was enough that we were started.
Even as we rolled along through the night over the smooth pavement of U.S. 112 to Chicago, we recalled and chatted about the advices we had received from United States diplomatic representatives throughout Central and South America. Acting on instructions from the State Department in Washington, these representatives had helpfully furnished us information and data. In friendly, but pointed terms, they suggested we call the whole thing off.
Meredith Nicholson, American Minister to Managua, wrote: "So far as I am aware, no individual has been able to make the trip from one boundary of Nicaragua to the other all the way by automobile. Last year a fully equipped expedition, which had traversed the Sahara three times and had gone from end to end of Africa, was compelled to abandon the attempt after progressing from the northern Nicaraguan line to the town of Chinandega. Hospitalization was also necessary."
"There is no road," wrote Spurille Braden, American Ambassador to Bogotá, Colombia, in his letter of October 30th. "T6,; line shown on the highway map is only a projected highway on which no construction has been done ... In the Embassy's opinion and in that of the Ministry of Public Works (Colombia), it would be folly to attempt to cross that territory in an automobile."
"From Cartago to the Panama line you will have your greatest and perhaps insurmountable difficulties," came from E. W. James, Chief of Highway Transport, Division of Public Roads, Washington. "I have no hope you can get through."
We had never intended to try crossing the unbroken swamps, mountain and jungle terrain of the Darien Peninsula from the Panama Canal to Turbo in Northern Colombia. There is not even a footpath through that wilderness, and the Atrato River Basin spreads a hundred miles of death filled swamp between Darien's neck and the little hamlet of Turbo on the eastern coast of Darien Gulf to which point Colombia is projecting a highway down from Paravandocito. We would be satisfied actually to reach the Canal with the car, then ferry to "solid ground" in Colombia, as the Los Angeles Times' Mr. Chandler had suggested. But we weren't going to stop with Argentina's capital. Our destination was Cape Horn. And the car must actually reach Magellan Straits!
"That's a long way south," said Arnold as we rolled up and down Michigan's Irish Hills. It wasn't hard to keep awake, even in those hours from midnight to dawn.
"1f we reach Cape Horn," I replied, "we'll only be 500 miles from Byrd's Little America, according to the map."
"If we get that close," Ken put in, "we ought to-"
"Cape Horn's far enough. Richard and the penguins can keep Little America. We'll probably be ready to start north once we round the Cape." I straightened my back to dislodge a "driving hitch" in the back of my neck. We'd probably have a lot of them in the next 15,000 miles.
We fell silent. The purr of the motor was comforting. Would it always respond so nicely in the months ahead? Time would write that chapter: Time, and Arnold's solid capable hands.
Even during those first hours of the trip, too, we discussed the west coast of Mexico and what S.L.A. Marshall, Detroit News' war analyst and authority on Mexican affairs, had said about it.
"Why kill the expedition before it gets started, Rich?" he had asked quietly. "Take the paved Pan American Highway from Laredo to Mexico City, and leave the west coast alone. That's not the Pan American, anyhow."
"There's no road - for tourists. A few dry-weather trails, stretches for trucking and bits of roads near towns. Save your punches and go the easy way.
You'll need all the guts you've got." Sam Marshall eyed me soberly. "If you hit rain, it'll stop you. Mexico mud is hell."
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