yourself to the virgin Mary for in her hands is the way into the
Darién—and in God’s the way out.”
—A sixteenth-century Spanish epigraph
carved in stone somewhere in the Gulf of San Miguel and said to
be observable only when the earth, sun and moon align to produce
the year's lowest spring tide.
Almost as soon as they started felling trees and splitting out
crude planks for the boat—a desperately arduous bout of
activity for even healthy, well-fed men—Isaac Strain seemed
to recognize he was asking too much from his weakened party.
Two days earlier they had run out of tobacco, and
already they were fighting the aftereffects: spiking anxieties,
increased hunger pangs, and low energy. A seaman could perform
with few inducements and no luxuries, but withholding tobacco
from him seemed like a punishment. Strain began to see a rash
of careless and even undisciplined mistakes. The worst was nothing
more than a petty offense, but the ramifications were huge. A
seaman had taken the company's fishing hook without permission—Truxtun,
an expert fisherman and Strain's trusted second officer, had been
the only one allowed to use it—and clumsily mangled it.
Freshwater fish, the lower Chucunaque's most plentiful and
accessible food source and an item Strain counted on to sustain
them in what increasingly appeared to be the widely uninhabited
country ahead, were now beyond their reach.
An officer's journal extract on the 6th: "Proceeded
down stream about a quarter of a mile, when finding a place to
camp, built a fire and spread our blankets in the mild moonlight.
We all feel downhearted to-night, being without anything to eat,
and not having eaten enough each man for the six or eight days
to make one good meal; our clothes all in pieces, and nearly all
almost shoeless and bootless. Have no idea where we are, nor,
of course, when we shall reach the Pacific. The sick almost discouraged,
and ready to be left in the woods to take their chances. I would
freely give twenty dollars for a pound of meat, but money is of
no use here."
Over the next week the suffering worsened. They
hadn't seen a banana or plantain plantation in weeks. Apparently
there would be no more until "civilization," however
far away that might be. Thin
soups were made from whatever small game Strain shot. "We
sustained life principally on the acid covering of palm nuts,"
Strain wrote. They devoured them by the bushel, the plum-sized,
dark red fruit appearing in bunches anywhere from five hundred
to four thousand in number. For men whose haversacks were empty
of provisions, the item's sheer quantity reassured.
But the daily gorging—one of the camps was
happily called Nut Camp—was beginning to reveal disturbing
side effects: The extreme volume of consumed pulp overtaxed their
digestive systems, which couldn't process the fiber overload
and left many with extreme constipation. The oil's deceptively
harsh acids dissolved their tooth enamel, the hardest substance
in the human body. The salvational effects of the trupa were (like
everything else) illusory, only a teasing procrastination before
much more intense privation.
February 12: "Want of proper food began to
tell severely upon the physique of party," wrote Strain,
"and each day out marches became shorter. Halted early in
afternoon… not having made more than 2 miles." In camp
several of the men sat on the ground with their heads doubled
to their knees, so as to "press the stomach together, and
lessen the gnawings of hunger."
They foraged a plant that looked teasingly like
wild spinach. It had large leaves, triangular with toothed edges.
Debate over its suitability ended, Strain recalled, when one of
party said that hogs ate it and "if it was good enough for
hogs, it was good enough for men." It was true that the
young tips and leaves of pigweed, or lamb's quarters, were
edible and often boiled as a
potherb by early colonial settlers. But they had misidentified
the plant. Shortly after supper the entire party suffered terrible
waves of nausea, then fits of vomiting.
On the morning of the 13th "I called the party
together, and stating my intention to advance in person in search
of canoes and provisions, called for volunteers," Strain
wrote. Of the half dozen who responded, the lieutenant selected
three "whose appearance seemed to promise the most physical
Strain believed the party he left at Parting Camp
was far from helpless. Despite their hardships and exposure, the
majority could get along. Nor were they without resources. Their
firearms were almost
all in good condition and their ammunition abundant and dry. Strain
left behind the best compass and the double-barreled fowling piece.
He believed the party would rebound with both rest and food, as
it had done before. He scouted the nearby woods and found them
filled with palm nuts and small game. The nearest settlement,
he predicted, was less than a week away.
He himself could get by on less food, carry more,
and push far harder than anyone else, so his role in commanding
the rescue operation seemed obvious, and yet to "leave his
command to a doubtful fate, tried me sorely." He left the
main party with succinct instructions to follow the river or stay
put but when Strain still hadn't come back 21 days later they
elected to do neither. "Dear Strain," a junior officer
explained in a note tacked to a crude wooden cross, "This
is Holmes grave. The rapidly failing strength of my party…and
your long-continued absence, have induced [us] to turn back to
the ship. If you can come up with provisions soon, for God's sake
try to overtake us, for we are nearly starving…"
Images from Harper's New Monthly