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The third day we began cutting down our rations. We had realized that we would be long overdue in reaching the food Mendoza was to have waiting for us at El Divisadero, a point where the Urique runs through canyons 7,000 to 8,000 feet deep. Jan and I did most of the cooking, and most of what we cooked was pancakes. We ate them twice a day, including sandwiches made from pancakes and canned meat. Once we made 15 pancake sandwiches from one can of Spam. I never again want to eat anything shaped like a pancake, much less cook one.
Verne, our 70-year-old retired mailman, was always cheerful and did his share of the work. He told us halfway through the trip that part of his stomach had been removed, and that what he had left couldn't hold much at a time. John Sr. decreed that Verne, but only Verne, could eat between meals, an extra pancake during the morning. Verne protested, but we made him eat it.
The day after we went on short rations, the going got even rougher. Morning found us gazing out over a weird jumble of rocks that reached up the sides of the canyon in mighty taluses. We could not go around and we could not go through. We had to go over. We named it El Tap�n de Piedras Grandes (The Plug of Big Rocks). John Jr. scouted ahead and informed us that this formation extended for about two miles. For the first time we felt really discouraged.
We were no longer members of a float trip but a crew of fanatics bent on carrying 82 pieces of gear and four heavy boats over an endless pile of massive rocks. At times we formed a human chain, passing those 82 pieces of gear from hand to hand. Once I jumped into the river to save some life preservers, a curious reversal of procedure. At the end of the first day in the plug we had made hardly more than a quarter of a mile, and our food was getting lower.
James Dean and Larry Davis, two of our boatmen, were given a day's grub and sent ahead to get food at a mine by the river where Mendoza was waiting by prearrangement. We expected them to get back the same day but, as we learned afterward, they did not even reach the mine for four days. During those four days they had to take to the river and swim 20 times because of cliffs rising sheer from the water. Jim sprained two of his toes. He was in shorts and his legs were scratched and full of the fly bites that plagued us all. Their last meal was a piece of candy and some chewing gum. On the fourth day Jim was too weak to continue, but they agreed to stay together and wait it out. They were dozing on the sand when they heard the shouts of two Mexican miners sent by Mendoza. Jim was carried out of the canyon on a mule and taken to the hospital in Chihuahua. It was his description of our plight that started the big search.
Meantime, we were still battling the rocks, but now in an even madder fashion. At a place we named El Portal del Diablo (Devil's Gate) we deflated the rafts and rolled them into bundles like big logs. With some of the men pushing and some pulling, we moved them over boulders 30 feet high, just like ants wrestling with their outsized burdens.
Attempts to catch fish with hooks and lines from our survival kits failed completely. We ate some cactus apples, but I got one of the spines in my tongue and another in the roof of my mouth. Pancakes became more and more repulsive
Seven of our group were Mormons. Each evening just before we ate our meager meal they held a sort of service. Verne would begin by reciting a parable designed to bolster our spirits. Usually it was about somebody who was worse off than we were but came out all right in the end. I must confess that some of us were more concerned over the waiting food than the outcome of the parable, When Verne finished, someone said grace and then we would eat.
Some nights I'd wake up and watch the brilliant moonlight on the towering cliffs. Lying there, I'd wish for some way to outwit those rocks and get down to the open water and subtropical lushness said to exist downstream. The Mexicans all had been so wonderful to us that to give up would be letting them down. My grandfather, Edward S. O'Reilly, had been a great friend of the Mexicans and had fought in the revolutions to liberate Mexico. He had almost died of thirst a couple of times while crossing the deserts of Chihuahua. He was regarded as foolhardy, though he was smart enough to stay away from the rivers that cut through the canyons of the Sierra Madre.
One day a plane flew over us, but at an angle from which we knew we could not be seen. In hopes that the plane might return, we built a big fire, throwing on green bamboo to make a smoke signal. Some of us got out mirrors to flash. Spreading a big tarp on the ground, we wrote comida (food) on it in big letters. The plane did not come back.