Hunt for Steel
Man of Earth
Preface & Reader Response
There was an overt adventure-
someness, the kind that comes natural to the hard-eye, dirty-hand realism that order relies upon, that is manufactured by muscles, not from ideas and friendly machinery – an outward pushiness that fights it out daily in the streets, in the jungles, on the docks – first to exist, then for power, then for pleasure, then for the grave.
Patterns from a Rooftop
WHEELS UP, TRUJILLO
Chapters: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII
by Jerry Murley
My decision in Antigua, Guatemala, to venture for a while in a separate direction from my companions, was not completely principled or based upon interpersonal differences. Along the way, sleeping in dingy fifty-cent-a-bed rooms, I had acquired a sensitive affliction that required repeated application of a burning mixture of lye and petroleum jelly in privacy for a full day. A quiet darkened room in Guatemala City, in the hotel where my two companions and I stayed the week before, and where we all agreed to meet in a day or two, became my solitary chamber of convalescence.
A rough and circuitous road home is not an ideal path to healing. But it is a suitably evocative one for serious self-reflection. Inelegant and reactive, some young men come to know who they are by accident and bitter attrition, in part by reluctantly stumbling on notions of who they are not, in revolt to how they see themselves perceived in the eyes of associates and strangers.
Mike and I had begun to bicker over minor things, such as touring activities and attitudes toward money, much as had happened to me on the road a year or two earlier with other fellow travelers. Obviously, I played a large role in the disruptive dynamics of these close companionships. With the others, however, I had patched over the differences more quickly, directly, adroitly, and permanently. It was slight torment to inhabit travel while broke. I had become a rider rather than a driver of my own adventure. My mind wandered increasingly toward more practical pursuits in Tennessee: I had begun to think more about my chances of obtaining construction work when I got home in the summer than about the foreign surroundings that enveloped me, propelled me forward, and held me down.
I lay depleted in a quaint, quiet boarding-house room in Guatemala City, knowing only that the world boisterously and surreptitiously flowed just outside my window. The sun circled; I washed at five and ate when lights warmed the cooling streets on the other side of the curtains. Reading and note-taking were the only modes of transportation available to places beyond that room. I could muster little else in my state of immobile recovery, indulging in rare solitude.
* * *
Traveling from Guatemala City by bus with Mike, I had no preconceptions about Honduras. I had done no research about the wild country we were about to enter. Honduras was merely the way home, the last phase of the journey.
We traveled the northern fringe of Honduras, never penetrating far into the interior or visiting large urban areas. Our destination was La Ceiba, where a friend of Mike's had a friend who worked for Standard Fruit Company. Thus it was that we had a potential connection home on a banana boat.
Honduras was blue-gray mountains beyond the sea's edge. The mountains were fluffy with lush tropical green. On the sides and bottoms of valleys, a bright yellow-green prevailed: expansive fields of corn and tall but unfamiliar crops grew thickly. On islands of short hills there were thatch-roof, stick and mud-brick homes. Unlike what we saw in Mexico and Guatemala, there were vast areas of cultivation between the small clusters of hill people; it gave the impression of being less dense than the Guatemalan landscape and less isolated and unused than the brush land of eastern Mexico. The palms of northwest Honduras, fanned and plumed, like headdresses on long, lean scaly necks, stood out tall and personable over the hazed, tiered uplands, in spots making the land appear almost tame and approachable.
The people, black and Hispanic, were an assortment of flavors. In general, they treated us kindly and unlike tourists. There were few tourists in this pestiferous, machismo-plagued country, where deep in the woods twenty wounded or dead by machete in a family feud was not considered sufficiently shocking. We were not a too-tall, rich- and bizarre-looking species around whom Indians were shy, snickering, and mendicant. Instead, we were met by a people who were not as rude, proud, and resentful as were a few Mexicans we had met. The Hondurans were much like the British Hondurans in their casual detachment from us. Like every other Central American country, they would not accept the curious currency of the black non-colony emblazoned with the pale, benevolent visage of the British queen.
This place was an American fruit-company colony, not a British one. It subsisted on American commerce by producing, and serving as market and port, for adventurers who managed the company from within country. Natives gave these foreigners one eye of service while the other ceaselessly scrutinized their power and their trousers. There was the American violence of flux and money about the place; there was frontier brutality. There was little of the past, except that Hondurans were yet captive of the aspirations to live with and like the foreigners who ran the ships with supremacy, driving jeeps, dwelling in the comfort and wonder of those raised wooden houses high upon stilts with verandas and painted trim. There was an overt adventuresomeness, the kind that comes natural to the hard-eye, dirty-hand realism that order relies upon, that is manufactured by muscles, not from ideas and friendly machinery – an outward pushiness that fights it out daily in the streets, in the jungles, on the docks – first to exist, then for power, then for pleasure, then for the grave.
The railroad running through the middle of the main road was symbolic of La Ceiba's daily ground and destiny. As a train passed down the mountains from American banana plantations, packed solely with product, the element of Honduran blood, it was impeded by the weighty friction of its grip on the iron tracks and the culture of chaos that fruit built. Slowed amid the fetid rubbish of the bars, brothels and dingy hotels, and the flimsily supported shacks wading ankle deep into the sea, it clacked and shook down a long pier, lined with jobless loiterers, fisher boys, and girl friends, until it screeched and crept to the edge and hung on the brink of water. Trains repeated this routine hourly, daily, perpetually. We stood witness as Honduras gave over its fruit, its labor, its nutrients, all it had, to a shiny Israeli-built ship owned by a Danish shipping company, captained by a Germanic native, bound for Galveston and Gulfport, flea-bitten ports of call far enough from jungle justice.
* * *
Advancing from Antigua and Guatemala City, in La Ceiba I reached a higher stage in my tussle for survival: there was calm and solitude as I comfortably read in cooler daytime conditions subdued by shade and sea breeze and nothing much to do. I remember sitting alone one hazy morning in our hotel room in La Ceiba reading a worn paperback copy of André Malraux's Man's Fate. I say hotel but it was less old-fashion hotel and more like a camp dormitory or lodge. We were on the second floor of a wooden two-story building in the middle of town. Everything was painted shades of green, with wood trim accented in darker green. On our floor, looking out over the street below, there was a very wide veranda with wood railings surrounding the partially enclosed interior rooms. A wide covered hallway, like a dog trot, connected the veranda and the stairwell. The rooms were in no way private, as there was screening above the door and around tops of walls for natural ventilation from the veranda and hallway – easy passage for sounds and smells from outside.
We spent a few days exploring the rustic town. The fruit company's railroad tracks, leading down to the pier where bananas were off-loaded onto small ships, lay a mere block away from our rented room. At least one afternoon was spent at the beach-side country club frequented by the fruit company's expat managers and the more well off locals. It was not lavish but exotic enough, sitting in the afternoon shade eating chips made from bananas and swigging a cold beer or a cocktail in a clean glass with ice.
After lounging for as long as possible in La Ceiba, we set out for Trujillo , which was in more rugged, overgrown terrain. The company employee with connections to Memphis arranged for us to stay in a beach cottage that he maintained and probably shared with others at the fruit company. He also helped us book passage on the local plane service; it seemed to operate just a cut above the crazy bus service that we had encountered in Guatemala. The only safe and reasonable way into and out of Trujillo, it appeared, was by way of a small, rattling, vintage airplane.
We met a man on the plane who was perhaps five or so years older than we were. He worked for the fruit company. We was to debark in a very remote village deeper in the interior of the jungle. He carried a pistol, which he said he mostly used for entertainment, shooting rats in and around his hut.
The plane was equipped with worn uncomfortable seats. We could see the two pilots about fifteen feet away from our seats. As we flew above thick, damp clouds on a dark gray day, we could see the pilots partially standing up from their seats looking down through the splattered glass for the village where we would land first to deposit the young man with the pistol. Visibility and atmosphere lent the excursion an air of descent into the heart of a lost, shrouded, and precarious world.
* * *
In Trujillo, we walked from the airstrip to the cottage. The cottage was isolated and shaded by heavy vegetation. It was simply, even sparsely, furnished and contained several movable cots for bedding in addition to a few traditional twin beds.
There was a short walk from the cottage though the vegetation to a secluded private beach in a cove, also surrounded by thick, exotic vegetation. The water was exceptionally clear, composed of every color variation of turquoise and aquamarine. But the cove was so small and close, with thick dark-green growth wrapping around it and projecting out into the sea for twenty or thirty feet, that one was hesitant to venture far into the water. There was no telling what lurked and hovered over, in and around that still, lonely inlet of sea. There was no telling what psychological peculiarities and phobias lay hidden in the minds of locals and travelers on rough roads for far too long.
Exploring beyond the cottage, we discovered that there were more compelling reasons to be cautious of Trujillo and its environs. The airport was back up the dirt path less than a mile away. It was a couple of hundred yards below the town center and was a mere grass and dirt field containing no buildings, except for a little bus-stop-like shelter used for departing passengers and ticket-takers. I call what I saw of Trujillo a town, but it consisted of only a few scattered buildings: a general store and a cafe or two; a few rustic structures that apparently served as places of residence; a bar or two or three. And maybe there was a church, but I would not swear there was. And, oh yes, there was a state prison nearby for all manner of crime.
On our first walk from the cottage to Trujillo proper, we noticed men who carried rifles slowly riding horses about town. Every male we saw carried a machete while walking in town. We soon learned that while we were there, prisoners had broken out of the prison and were on the loose in the area. With the sea and the jungle, there weren't many places they could go.
I don't remember how I got a gun. Either our host had advised us to carry it on the plane to the cottage or it had been hidden at the cottage and we were told where to find it. Every night while we were in Trujillo, I slept on a cot in the hallway in the middle of the cottage with that pistol loaded at my side. I had never done such a thing my entire life; I had probably only fired a real gun fewer than a dozen times. I swore that if I got out of there, and Central America, whole, I would never wing it in bad lands again.
In more rational moments, we read and sometimes played chess but seldom ventured farther than to town once or twice for supplies or a cheap cooked meal. I recall reading a treatise on aesthetics from a small book found among the collection left lying around and on bookshelves by the frequenters of the cottage.
By the last day of our few-day stay, our supply of sliced ham, which we had recently purchased in town, was rancid. We ate part of it before making that determination. When time came to leave Trujillo and try to catch one of the two flights a week in and out of that distant outpost, it was touch and go whether we would obtain a seat on the flight. It may have been an issue of disconnected language, real but unbelievable over-booking in that no-man's land, a normal delay, or the airline personnel toying with our eagerness to get the hell out, but when the plane landed and we waited in the sun and I heard my name mangled as "Mr. Murky," I was overjoyed to be mercifully allowed aboard. With wheels up in Trujillo, I was finally on my way home.
By the time some of my last letters launched from the road were received by friends and family back home, I was homeward bound. I wrote that I wanted a cookout with homemade ice cream. I reported that we were winding up a week on a strip of beach in Trujillo, narrowly borne between the Caribbean and the mountainous jungles of Honduras. The insects and the night heat, then the chill and the cold, had for two weeks made the journey barely tolerable at moments. But the afternoon beauty of the area, I wrote, was just compensation.
In truth, in Central America, I began to feel penniless and left behind. Trujillo added fear and claustrophobia to worsen the trapped sensation that had been mounting during the journey.
* * *
Expecting a weathered freighter piled high with bananas and tarantulas, I was pleasantly surprised to find that we were booked on a brand new Israeli-built ship for our return home via Gulfport. On board ship I found that I had a snug cabin to myself – and there was a steward who came to the cabin occasionally to inquire as to my comfort. There was a small lounge with a bar on the ship where a good Scotch drink could be purchased for little at all. It was arranged that we would eat meals for the next few days with the officers. Finally we were to get a decent meal.
But as luck would have it, with all of that bounty before me, I suffered my first and only serious bout of seasickness. The Gulf sea was rough on the first leg to Galveston. At mid-morning on the first full day out, I tried to walk outside for some fresh air after eating. That was a big mistake: the water was choppy and the wind was stiff. I walked into a spray of water to vomit over the side and the vomit blew back into my face. I looked up at the bridge and the captain was standing watch over my performance with measured amusement and disapproval.
Therefore, I could not partake of the full meal and glass of Scotch as I would have liked. But, as need arose, the steward came to my cabin to bring me something to eat and drink. After a day of bland diet and rest, as seas calmed, I was able to dine with the others. One night in the lounge, the ship showed the movie Carry on Nurse to the few men who remained after dinner. Only a few were interested in the movie; more were interested in drinks and jokes.
Over the course of a few days, we grew fond of the chief engineer, who was a bit of a heavy drinker and looked like the British actor Pete Postlethwaite way past his prime. Once we docked at Galveston we were allowed to debark for a few hours while cargo was handled. The engineer and some others went bar hopping at their favorite spots in Galveston. The captain had made it clear that if we were not back on board at a specific time, something like 6 p.m., we would be left behind. At the appointed time we were all on board except for the chief engineer. I told the captain that I knew where he was and requested fifteen minutes to retrieve him. The captain told me that if I was not back in fifteen minutes, I would be left behind, too. On the long, long journey through Central America, I had one more quick adventure in store. But this one was of my choosing and undertaken in part because I felt bad for the engineer, who might lose his job, and in part because I wanted to redeem myself for the seasickness during the two previous days. I raced to the bar, found the engineer, who was being entertained by a couple of local ladies, and the two of us raced back to the ship, thus escaping expulsion in execution of the captain's ultimatum. I was not sure whether the captain was entirely pleased that the search and rescue had been successful.
There was one more night aboard the banana boat as we sailed for Gulfport. Nevertheless, at that juncture, I was home – I could feel tension exiting my body and energy and expectation reviving. We had a rendezvous with Mike's car and an evening with one of Mike's uncles near Mobile, then next morning we were on our drive back to Memphis. A whole other life awaited us there – we had only to find and nourish it.
* * *
Having spent $150 more than I had allotted for my journey, at almost twenty-four years old, I had no college degree, an uncertain health prognosis, no job prospects, no family property to bank on, and no more money. Travel had done its duty: now I wanted work – now I wanted stability in my native land. 
When my travel companion and I returned to Memphis in the summer of 1973, he got an apartment and I moved back home with my parents for several months while working as a framing carpenter. By fall I moved into a tiny duplex apartment diagonally across the road from the large Tudor-style home of the writer Shelly Foote, who lived on Parkway. I shared the apartment with a college friend who was working on her master's degree in special education at Memphis State. Two years after thinking of her while I sat on that bench back in Antigua, Guatemala, we were married. In that interval, I went from frame carpentry to being an apprentice cabinet maker, then an intern in city planning at city hall, then a printing-company typesetter and paste-up artist while editing a tiny community newspaper. All along I painted and took photographs. The week we were married, we bought a small, old brick house and began renovating it. Within six years, we were building a house in the country: the simple wood house with a wood stove that I had imagined eight years earlier – the house that I have lived in ever since. Like never before, after returning from Central America, I embedded myself in home, family, community, and long-simmering, slowly unfolding aspirations. It was not until ten years after that trip that my wife and I had a child.
A year after our shared journey, Mike moved to Europe to teach. He later taught English at a private school in rural Massachusetts. Eventually, he became involved in work with the U.S. Congress, in Washington, D.C., focusing on education policy. He became an art collector and remained unmarried.
Mike and I were introduced to one another when, as a casual guest at a party in his apartment in Memphis, I admired his extensive library of books. Reading and discussing books, art, movies and music, and pursuing photography, were the bases of our friendship. We both were interested in the Memphis of our youth and the world at large, particularly history. At one point, during and after graduate school, Mike's writing seemed to be particularly promising in the eyes of his admirers. I wanted to write, as a way of thinking aloud and exercising political influence, but stumbled, having insufficient affinity and grounding for it. In all these matters, except the practice of photography and a more extensive and rarified application of his writing skills, Mike not only continued but intensified his focus and activity, building his expertise. In a given year, I could never read a fraction of the books Mike read in just a couple of weeks. The same applied to his knowledge of music. All these things, and our shared experience in Memphis and in travel, and our mutual friends, bound our friendship.
Mike and I traveled several times together after the trip to Central America. Once, around Christmas 1976, Mike and his dear, long-time friend Lynne generously hosted me and my wife in Holland, a visit that included a car tour and long stay in Northern Ireland, where we warmed ourselves and our relationships with sips of Bushmills whiskey beside many a peat fire.
* * *
Despite the occasional awkward strain of our beginning venture, and my mixed feelings about the journey at the time, the trip to Central America was a small price to pay to build a friendship that would last decades. Alas, back then we were more capable of selfless generosity and agile adaptation. Such traits stiffen with age – with disuse, commitments, and disappointment.
My only regret about the trip was that I abbreviated or constrained Mike's first journey abroad. It was rotten luck that I had just returned from eight months overseas, weary of the road, while he had waited six years to travel because of work and military-service obligations. Long, low-budget travel is always full of hardships that test friendship. Two willful companions will inevitably find conflict – if they are fully alive. When I was a restless young man, I could hardly bear not doing what I pleased. Over time, nevertheless, I attained a sort of in-between state of resignation and patience, where I tried my best to restrain and endure and find things to enjoy regardless. Even that simple adaptation, I am sure, never failed to reveal itself in some annoying fashion, giving away the truth beneath it.
There was a tightly wound, chain-smoking history teacher at Memphis State who, in commenting about the robust culture of the Renaissance, said that friends are mirrors that confirm and magnify personal and social change. She seemed to be suggesting that the strong and hasty development of minds and huge egos of that period were fed by intense friendships. As I have thought of that statement over the years, however, I have come to consider how it could mean that such friendships also engender rival viewpoints over time that squash or alter development paths, smothering, smoothing and refining expressions of personality rather than just enlarging them. Being at odds is a natural state: it is the process that makes us individual and forces us to grow – its amplification is also what keeps us separate.
Friendships sting; strong friendships sting badly, even when they are pitch perfect. Expedient, often socially beneficial, microscopic deceptions regarding familiarity with deeply ingrained traits and habits of oneself and one's friends – particularly if the deceptions, traits, and habits are not fully formed or realized – lie in wait below the surface working at poles with opposing pull. My travel companion and I remained close friends for nearly forty years – until the long unspoken was.
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* * *
1. In an article in The New Yorker on archaeological exploration in the eastern rain forests of Honduras, Douglas Preston wrote in "The El Dorado Machine" that the area of Mosquitia is "among the densest and most inhospitable in the world." Adventurers think that it contains "the ruins of an ancient city, built of white stone, called la Ciudad Blanca, the White City."
Trujillo is less than one hundred miles from this lost world. While the Mosquitia remains so unapproachable, in the years between 1973 and 2014, Trujillo has become marketable as a resort. There is a paved highway making Trujillo a two-hour drive from La Ceiba. Nevertheless, Honduras has also become one of the most violent countries on the planet in terms of drug- and gang-related crime. [May 6, 2013]
2. Though I could afford better travel during the forty years following my sojourn in Central America, only a handful of times in that interval did I go abroad. Those times were for durations of three weeks or less, yet extremely gratifying. In my advancing years, perplexing daily news of the world outside – and wildly unexpected family health challenges – sufficed for personal thrills. Otherwise, ordinary revelations of family, friends, nature, and routine – as well as once overlooked pleasures of urban and rural life in my native country – and the joys to be found around my own kitchen table and sleeping in my own bed – became the genuine adventure I sought, the only novelty I required.