“Central & Middle America are quite a way from S. Africa, but with Europe and most of the world in such a state of devastation & turmoil from the war, I can think of no place more desirable to visit at the present time.”
Thus wrote Elizabeth Turner Miller about her 1940 travels to Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Despite Miller’s acknowledgement of massive geopolitical upheaval, the documentation of her voyage is almost completely devoid of other references to politics or current events. Instead Miller seems to have embraced the literal and metaphorical distance her journey afforded her from the rest of the world. Travelling through dense jungles for weeks at a time with very limited external communication, Miller immersed herself in the natural beauty and ancient history of the Yucatan.
Miller was twenty-nine years old, living in Baltimore, and working as a commercial artist when she was presented with what she described as “the rare privilege of going on a semi-archaeological expedition.” Her cousin, sculptor and archaeologist Benjamin Turner Kurtz, was making a tour of Mayan ruins in Guatemala and Honduras, and asked Miller to come along. In January of 1940, Miller set out for Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, and from there travelled to Quirigua and Copan, where she and Kurtz photographed ancient stelae. Miller relished the three weeks she spent abroad, and leapt at the chance to return to Central America on a similar expedition, this time to Mexico in the summer of 1940.
The Elizabeth T. Miller papers (Ms. coll. 1265), part of the Caroline F. Schimmel Collection of Women in the American Wilderness, document this trip through written accounts and hundreds of photographs later arranged into albums. Miller travelled through Mexico with Kurtz, the photographer John Henry Coon, and the acclaimed operatic singer Carolyn Long. The group visited many of the major Mayan sites in the area, including Labna, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil and Monte Alban.
Transportation through the tropical forests of the Yucatan was often laborious. Miller wrote that on some roads, the travellers’ Ford Model T (apparently the only vehicle suited to the terrain) ran with “one wheel over the precipice.” Regarding driving in the lowlands, Miller explained that “bracing ourselves to keep from falling out was a full time occupation except when we were busy removing strange specimens of bugs from our persons, which showered upon us every time a car brushed against the limb of a tree.” Still, not all of Miller and her companions’ interactions with nature involved “strange specimens of bugs” or the aggressive feral bulls that made their homes in the cool shade of ruined temples. It was with “amazement and delight” that one day, while driving through the forest, she and her friends realized the “patches of color in the road ahead of us about a foot square and chartreuse in hue” were actually masses of “tiny, yellow-green and white butterflies,” so plentiful when they took flight that “without exaggeration there were times when we could not see where we were going.”
After several weeks in the Yucatan, Miller returned to Baltimore, where she would spend the rest of her life (after marrying Svend Peuleche around 1949, she changed her name to Elizabeth M. Peuleche). It is not entirely evident why Miller chose to spend 1940 travelling through Central America. As an artist, she deeply admired the exquisite Mayan sculpture and architecture of the region, which may have served as inspiration for some of her own work. Additionally, she maintained an interest in archaeology and was well informed about local investigations. It seems most likely to me, however, that Miller undertook this voyage for its own sake, to learn about and appreciate the beauty of unfamiliar surroundings in the true spirit of exploration.