Reading Heat-Moon in Nicaragua – William Fleeson

Ometepe, Nicaragua. Image by Ivana Cajina, via Unsplash

For a dusty Central American beach town, San Juan del Sur has a ton of history. The former fishing village once offered passage to Forty-Niners on their way from the US east coast to California. Cornelius Vanderbilt grew his fortune by running a waterborne transit line for that gold rush: faster than overland travel, the line passed through Nicaragua in general and San Juan del Sur in particular. Mark Twain would visit in 1866, coming the other way; he’d had enough, wisely, of his own fool’s errand to the American West. Rubén Darío, the Nicaragua-born giant of Spanish letters, stayed in the town in 1886 at the Hotel Victoriano, and fell in love (or, given his lothario reputation, lust) with a well-dressed woman in the lobby. William Walker, a Tennessee mercenary who captured part of Nicaragua and tried to sustain a slave-holding military dictatorship, stormed the village from the Pacific in 1855.

My reasons for coming to San Juan del Sur were, if more banal, also more private. And painful. I needed sunshine and rest after the end of a grinding two-year separation and divorce. On AirBnB I found a serious deal, especially for August, on a rented hillside apartment near the beach. The boardwalk had middling-nice bars and $1 beers during happy hour. The region’s strong Pacific waves attracted foreign surfers. The cost of living attracted snowbirds – among which, an inexplicable majority of Canadians – who in turn attracted more, similarly Canadian snowbirds.

For solace, and good reading, I turned to another American traveler, for his tales of the (American) road. Blue Highways, a 1983 bestseller by William Least Heat-Moon about a 13,000-mile trip through the United States using only back roads, turned around the life of a fellow divorcee, similar to me in age and education, with the same loner tendencies and an enthusiasm for getting out there. We even shared a first name. I’d been putting the book off for a long while, despite its cult status and rash-like ubiquity on lists of classic travel titles. I knew it was a post-divorce story. Indeed, the book is a foundational text in that morbid literary subgenre: divorce travel. Blue Highways was, for me, a refreshingly male treatment of the newly-unmarried travel tale, more recently taken up in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. While my marriage still held life, I sought to avoid the book’s talismanic effects. My fear was that the book might tempt me toward giving up more easily. I resolved to read Blue Highways only if, or when, my own marriage was decisively kaput.

I spent two weeks in San Juan del Sur. I used my laptop to work remotely. I received, by email, the final divorce papers – stamped by a county courthouse worthy of a cameo in Heat-Moon’s road book – three days before my flight home.   

*

San Juan del Sur is middling-prosperous. For Nicaragua, anyway. The streets are mostly clean and paved. Locals tend to have jobs. The tourists bring cash and sometimes buy property; their investments cultivate a modicum of stability that few other Nicaraguan regions can claim.

If a PhD student were to study the economics of Latin beach towns favored by gringos, they might struggle to measure how much capital exchanged hands only among fellow gringos, like a feedback loop of expat prosperity. In San Juan del Sur, gringos went to bars owned by other gringos; real estate agents with non-Spanish names advertised in English; some Canadians ran surf schools that taught the children of their gringo friends to stand up on Nicaraguan waves. At one place, a corner-hugging set of taps called Milton’s Bar, non-Nicaraguan-looking friends lounged around in board shorts and half-buttoned Hawaiian shirts. I would see them there at lunchtime when I took a break from work. In the evening, when I passed the same way to find dinner, they were still there. Still drinking, now drunk. It was Nicaraguan Margaritaville. The same scene played out every day.

Another example of the gringo economy, besides the bars and the vacation homes, was the proliferation of Spanish language schools. Seeking a trip-length project, and trying to keep after-work depression at bay, I signed up for 10 hours of beginner lessons with Christián Rodriguez, sole proprietor of The Spanish Corner School.

Christián spoke his mind, often in English, which rather defeated the purpose of my walks down to his house. Of the more dogmatic religious groups in the country – Catholic or Protestant, there are many – Christián had little tolerance. “Yo soy católico, pero yo no soy fanático,” he explained to me, more than once. I’m Catholic, just not fanatical.

On the subject of Nicaragua’s autocrat and Sandinista legend, Daniel Ortega, who was busy planning a rigged election for that autumn, Christián spewed ridicule.

Comandante?” he cried, referring to one of Ortega’s many socialist-military honorifics. “He spent the whole Sandinista war in Costa Rica, safe from the bullets! Comandante??”   

For the gringos and for Ortega, Heat-Moon’s thought about the varieties of destiny-seekers seemed apt: “There are two kinds of adventurers: those who go truly hoping to find adventure and those who go secretly hoping they won’t,” he wrote, near the start of his book. For myself, I had little appetite for the more visceral of travelers’ passions. No sex, no drugs. No surfing, even: it didn’t interest me, even if the conditions were, as reported, world-class. The only satisfaction I wanted, and the reason I had come to Nicaragua, was unadventurous if not anti-social. To take it truly easy, alone. That goal was perhaps too simple, and too ambitious, for one trip to Nicaragua.

*

The double statue of Twain and Darío looked like two stumpy-limbed losers had happened upon each other at the same park bench. Their aspect bore none of the sepia refinement of the Americas’ best men of letters. The statue itself was installed in 2016, on the 150th anniversary of Twain’s passage, with the US ambassador attending, to honor the contributions the men made to their respective countries and to the writerly world they shared.

Landing on December 28, 1866, Twain crossed Nicaragua from San Juan del Sur, a plaque near the statue explained. (Darío, of a younger generation, was born three weeks later.) Twain would chronicle his trans-isthmus jaunt in Travels with Mr. Brown, a first-person narrative from the same long arc of travel that would produce a far better-known account, of his trip to Europe and the Middle East, The Innocents Abroad. As for Darío, he would in 1897 write Twain’s obituary for an Argentinian newspaper. Twain was said to be gravely ill at the time. But Twain’s sickness yielded to convalescence and a dozen more advanced years of life.

“Twain’s recovery to us was a low blow, of the very gringo kind of humor,” Darío wrote of the incident. When Twain finally, actually died, in 1910, Darío would again pick up his pen, journaling that “There was hardly time today to speak of the gringo glory that has disappeared: Mark Twain.”

But the statue in San Juan del Sur didn’t suggest “gringo glory” or any other kind. The writers’ likenesses had been fashioned by Nicaraguan hands, but the result hardly evoked the respect, bordering on worship, that Nicaraguans have for Darío. The statue aside, the two men reflected, in their own lives, the same spirit of adventure and movement that Heat-Moon celebrates in Blue Highways. No doubt the author drew inspiration from Twain, a fellow Missourian, whose 1884 masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn chronicles the beloved protagonist’s trip down the Mississippi River. Finn, like his creator, was a traveler. On this Heat-Moon saw fit to quote a line from a woman he met while passing through St. Martinville, Louisiana. She asked about his sojourn, with no little incredulity: “What in the world are you doing here? Got a little Huck Finn in you?”

I pondered those questions for myself, from Nicaragua, where Twain had played his own traveling character, a century and a half before.

*

I settled into little routines as the trip went on. I got up early, in order to work on US east coast time (Nicaragua is two hours behind). I always went out for breakfast, and again for lunch. At each afternoon’s Spanish class, Christián taught irregular verbs and more Nicaraguan politics. The beach bars offered drinks during every gobsmacking sunset: this being the Pacific, the sun always set beyond the water, in a rage of molten, darkening oranges and blues.

And I found myself drawn, moth-like, to the flames of Asados Juanita, a legendary grill shack in town. In two weeks, I had probably ten dinners there. None of them cost more than $5.

The first dinner was spectacular: a huge chicken leg with black grill marks, the rice-and-beans mix called gallo pinto (“spotted rooster”), a slice of fresh avocado, a pile of pickled onions. I couldn’t eat fast enough. Supping the chicken and beans and onions felt joyful and pure. The subsequent, identical meals were delicious, but they lacked the first-time smack of a food revelation. I had felt like a young child let loose on a sunny new playground. At Juanita’s, I regained a small piece of my innocence. Redemption through asado.

Blue Highways waited for me in the evenings, after the day’s other patterns. I didn’t go out, as most gringos had come here to do; I went in, toward freedom from sociability and, in simpler terms, toward a good book. I read every night for an hour or more, and not always Heat-Moon. When I did pick up Blue Highways, it offered metaphors everywhere for the emotional road I was treading: a crucible, an odyssey. Its full distance and duration, twin mysteries.

In the book’s afterword, written in 1999 – after Blue Highways had become an acknowledged classic of its idiom – Heat-Moon wrote of his trip:

“Leaving was one of the easiest big decisions I’ve ever made. But once I left home, continuing the journey until it either reached some kind of sensible conclusion of fully played itself out, was another matter – one of the hardest things I’ve attempted.”

I felt precisely the same. Wherever the path back to normalcy led, it was going to be a long slog.

And Heat-Moon captured the Americanness of his moment, between his trip, started in the spring on 1978, and the four years of writing, sweat, and rejection-taking he would put into Blue Highways before its release, and smash success, in January 1983. Again, the afterword: “Perhaps it’s in our blood, maybe it’s just in our history, but surely it’s in the American vein to head out for some other place when home becomes intolerable, or merely even when the distant side of beyond seems a lure we can’t resist,” he mused, long after the book’s publication. Heat-Moon wrote that a generation ago: before the internet boom, before 9/11. Before smartphones and social media and the Instagramification of travel made places into objects of conquest—the way that long-dead men thought of military adventurism or California gold. I had sought something quieter, a balm for my brain and my suffering. I came down to a strange, out-of-the-way place called San Juan del Sur, rich in history, where I could think and heal and sink into a pleasant read for the meantime.

Another American writer, Paul Theroux, encourages the reading traveler to pack a book that has nothing to do with the destination. I did that with Blue Highways, after putting it off deliberately, with superstition, for so long. Heat-Moon’s story of divorce, of the American road trip, and of the therapeutic possibilities in travel, were not notions that he kept to himself. Reading Heat-Moon in Nicaragua, I saw the grit and the beauty of his journey, from the actual road to the final printed page. His Blue Highways story became my story. I’m grateful to him for everything. 

*

William Fleeson is a writer and journalist. A native and current inhabitant of Washington, DC, his writing has appeared in National GeographicNewsweek, and elsewhere. In longform narrative he was a finalist for the New Millennium Writing Award 2020. www.willfleeson.com

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