There Pat and I stood, in the village of San Juan Guichicovi in the middle of southern Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, staring at a huge, old church.

One hundred and sixty years ago, my great-grandfather, Eugene Ring, had described this church: "The walls were standing almost entire, but the roof had fallen in, leaving a single slight and narrow arch spanning from wall to wall at the height of perhaps 60 feet from the floor."

I couldn't describe the scene any more accurately - that is exactly what Pat and I saw last month while retracing my great-grandfather's unplanned trek across the isthmus after he was abandoned by his Panama-bound ship while ashore foraging for food and water.

What an emotional moment for us, and a fantastic trip.

For five days, our driver, Pablo, and his wife, Araceli, guided us close to Eugene's path from Salina Cruz on the Pacific coast to Veracruz on the Gulf coast. All the research and planning we had done paid off - we were able to find and visit most of the places Eugene described in his California Gold Rush memoir.

We now truly appreciate the country Eugene struggled through on foot, horseback and canoe - the rocky, chaparral-fenced beaches, the green hills and mountain passes, the lush jungles and the flowering plants and trees of many colors.

But, for us, the highlight was rediscovering the sights, particularly churches, that had captivated Eugene so many years ago.

Our biggest frustration was not being able to reach Eugene's probable landing site - a beach on the Pacific coast that I had identified from research. Access to the area was restricted by the Mexican military and Pemex, the state-owned petroleum company.

We found the people of the isthmus (mostly indigenous Zapotecs) friendly and helpful, but few spoke English and there were very few tourists. Thankfully, Pablo was bilingual and was able to help us with everything from hotels to menus.

It was fascinating to watch him wend through the towns and villages to sites we visited. It was "navigation by asking" - he simply asked directions from people at the side of the road.

Sometimes getting around by car wasn't easy. The larger cities, such as Salina Cruz, Tehuantepec and Veracruz, were crammed with traffic.

In small towns, speed bumps (called topes) effectively controlled speeding. These topes came in bunches, appeared to be everywhere, and really shook things up if you didn't slow down.

Frequent speed bumps, combined with convoys of huge two-section trucks, made for a high-tension ride on the only cross-isthmus road. Thank goodness I wasn't driving!

Pat kept busy filling a notebook with our impressions of the sites and other subjects - plants, animals, hotels, meals, public transportation, local driver habits and our education in Mexican culture.

It will take an entire book to adequately describe this adventure; I'll let you know how I'm progressing.

E-mail Bob Ring at or view his website,