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.
"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."