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“Commit 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 astoundingly well 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 the
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 endurance."

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 magazine, 1873

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