Chasing the Ivory-Bill

Day 7: The End of the Good Times

Slip sliding into Humboldt National Park is much harder than it sounds.

January 29, 2016, Guantanamo, Cuba — Yuri had a subtle smirk on his face as he glanced at the Russian “Kozlik” we would be driving into the mountains. Compared with the rugged old Willys, it’s tiny, but we somehow managed to cram all of our gear behind the rear seat, piled to the roof, and climbed aboard. Yuri gave us a mock salute and fired up his car. The plan is he’ll meet us in a week back at Farallones, on the other side of the mountains.

Our new driver, Yordi, is a wiry black Cuban with a calm, pleasant demeanor. (I guess you need that to drive the back roads of Cuba.) We were all in high spirits as we left Guantanamo, racing through the countryside. Although the road is steep, with long uphill and downhill stretches that tested the power of the Kozlik’s tiny 75-horsepower engine as well as its brakes, it is well paved all the way to Palenque.

Yordi paused when we reached the end of the pavement. “This is the end of the good times,” he declared. “The battle of the road begins.” The Kozlik seemed invincible at first, clawing its way up the worst rocky slopes in low 4-wheel drive. But the mud was a different story. In the swampy spots, the ruts were often axle-deep—or worse. Each time he approached another mud hole, Yordi revved the engine to gain ramming speed and just piled into it, fighting mightily to push his way through. And he was amazingly good at it, flying fearlessly through jam after jam. If he got stuck, he would back up, drive forward, back up, and drive forward again and again until we hit solid ground.

Entering what looked like just another boggy spot, Yordi sped up initially, then downshifted to get more traction. And it seemed good. We had pushed through maybe three-quarters of the muddy area—the dry, stony ground was in sight—when the Kozlik started its agonizing slide sideways, leaving us stuck at the edge of the road, tilted rightward against a dirt bank at a 45-degree angle. Yordi tried his best to break free, fighting to go backwards and forwards, but the engine finally overheated—even though we had filled the radiator with water at the last river crossing. We all climbed out through the left-hand doors and started piling rocks into the ruts and digging away excess mud from under the Kozlik with a couple of huge tree limbs.

Yordi turned the ignition switch, and the engine spun smartly for about 10 seconds, then slowed down and, finally, stopped. He got out and opened the hood. After removing the air cleaner, he poured fuel from a plastic soda bottle down the throat of the carburetor and manually operated the fuel pump. He hit the ignition switch again. The engine did its best to turn over—one revolution, almost two—and then it let out a final gasp.

We’re done. Stuck for the night. Maybe stuck forever. It would be dark in an hour. I assumed we’d be sleeping sitting up in the Kozlik, swatting at mosquitoes all night. But Yordi had other ideas. He set off on foot to return to the last farm we passed, maybe a mile or more back down the road. I was amazed when he came riding up on a mule half an hour later, followed shortly by a man leading a team of massive black oxen, bound together with a wooden yoke tied to their horns. And he started hitching them to the Kozlik. So here we were, using Third Millennium BCE technology to aid mid-20th-century technology in the early years of the 21st Century.

The man roped the oxen to the front of the Kozlik and screamed at them to pull as we pushed from behind, alternately rocking the car to break it loose, heaving with all our might as we slipped in the mud. We then removed all of our gear from the back of the Kozlik and stacked it in the woods beside the road to lighten the load. Still no go, so the man unhitched his oxen and moved them to the back. It was incredibly difficult to get the animals to move in the right direction. Sometimes they went left, sometimes right, occasionally they doubled back and got on the side of the vehicle—but whenever they pulled straight ahead, the vehicle moved slightly.

Despite the team's concerted efforts, the slippery fiasco lasted well into the night. Photo: Greg Kahn

This was clearly a big deal for the local people, and they came streaming in from miles around to watch this strange spectacle and help out. One man brought a pickaxe and started clearing away mud from beneath the vehicle. Others brought machetes and chopped down saplings to put under the wheels. Then everyone was screaming at the oxen, urging them forward, and the car began to move—only an inch or two at first, but it seemed to be working. But then the oxen broke loose and ran off through the woods, knocking down small trees as they stampeded away. And then the rains they’d been predicting all day finally came, beating down in sheets upon us, drenching us to the skin.

Miraculously, the man eventually came back with the oxen, tied them more securely, and pulled us completely away from the mud hole. And then, Yordi turned on the ignition and popped the clutch as the animals pulled him, and the engine fired up. He kept it running until it was completely warmed up, then turned the Kozlik around and tried once more to ram through the quagmire. And this time it worked, because so many rocks and sticks and tree trunks had been thrown into the ruts. We carried our gear quickly back to the car and loaded up again.

Although it was pitch black and raining hard, we were back on the road and felt invincible—for about 100 feet. The road ahead was steep and rocky, and our mud-caked tires couldn’t grip the rain-slick stones. Yordi wouldn’t give up. He revved the engine and spun the tires till they smoked, filling the Kozlik with the acrid smell of burning rubber. Then the car started slipping backwards down the hill, and we knew it was useless. We still had miles to go to reach Humboldt Park, but it wouldn’t be tonight. We turned the Kozlik around and started retracing our journey, searching for a dry place to spend the night.

Follow my daily blog as the search for the Ivory-Bill unfolds.

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