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Staying Alive on the Longest Road with Arlington FryBarger

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[Editor’s Note: Jim Van Orden of Richardson, Texas, had quite the uncle in Arlington FryBarger. He not only made one of the first postwar civilian treks up the Alaska Highway, he also traveled the Pan-American Highway around the same time. Jim wrote up the tale of that latter adventure for us.]

Dallas Times Herald, January 1946:

Down The Pan-American Highway: With approach of the first peace-time vacation period since 1941, many motorists who like to hit the long, open highways are thinking of going “down Mexico way” via the Pan-American Highway. In order to give tourists some idea of what travel might be like on the highway and also to give them a word picture of what they might see on the tour, Arlington FryBarger, reporter for the Times Herald, and Bill Alderman, engineer with the State Highway Department, are making the trip. FryBarger and Alderman are actually heading for Nicaragua. Whether they make it remains to be seen. Some say it can be done in a car. Others say it can’t. Anyway, if you’re an automobile tourist at heart you’ll want to read this series beginning Friday….

Arlington FryBarger at age 75.

Sometimes nothing goes your way.

That’s how Arlington FryBarger and his companion, Bill Alderman, felt as they stared at their 1941 Chevrolet’s wheels. The car—water bag tied to the grill, windshield covered with squashed bugs—sat trapped in hubcap-deep mud in a forest near Juchitan, 500 miles south of Mexico City.

Then their problem got worse. Eight swarthy-looking men on horseback, rifles slung over shoulders and pistols strapped to waists, emerged from the thick forest flanking the primitive road. Hemmed in by horses, the travelers were trapped, too.

“Americanos?” yelled a large, bearded “jefe” waving a revolver and flashing a smile showcasing gold-capped teeth.

“Que hacienden aqui?” (“What are you doing here?”) he hollered.

The “Americanos” knew they were in extreme danger. They had been warned frequently that “banditos” preyed on motorists, particularly Americans, often robbing and killing them. Was this the end of their journey… and their lives?

“Want to come along?”
Standing six feet and packing solid muscle on his 180-pound frame, Arlington was a “man’s man.” He had a multi-dimensional personality that was intellectual, funny – most thought witty – and, at the same time, intensely serious. He embodied the spirit of an adventurer, writer, poet, historian, naturalist, scientist and athlete… all in one.

Sitting at his typewriter and chain-smoking cigarettes, or alternately drawing deeply on his ever-present pipe, he knocked out feature stories at his old wood desk. He started at the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald right after World War II ended in 1945. His “beat” was the streets and sidewalks of Dallas, where he wore out shoes looking for stories.

Arlington joined the Dallas Times-Herald newspaper as a feature writer after WW-II in 1945. (Photo courtesy of Dian Carville.)

It was during one of his daily walks that he ran into a man who would take him on the wildest journey of his life. Stopping at a local bar for an after-work snort, Arlington heard a tall, well-dressed man talking about a new highway.

“It will be the longest road in the world when completed,” the man said, “covering nearly 16,000 miles between Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and Ushuaia, Argentina.”

Sensing a good story, Arlington introduced himself to Bill Bradford Alderman, a Texas Highway Department employee. During World War II, Alderman served with the U.S. Corps of Engineers constructing a leg of the Pan-American Highway through Nicaragua.

“The war ended and we never finished the job,” he said, “which was too bad because it was one of the final links between Laredo, Texas, and points south including Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, the portal to South America. Heavy rains, mud, bugs and thick forest slowed down my men as we pushed our way through with bulldozers.”

The Highway Department hired Alderman a year after the war. One of his first assignments was to study the uncompleted section of highway.

“Looks like I’ll soon drive back to Nicaragua to evaluate the highway,” Alderman said. “What I learn will determine whether construction continues or we find a new, less hilly route.”

Without getting permission from editors, Arlington asked Alderman if he could “go with him, take a few photos and write a story.”

“You really want to come along?” Alderman asked, sizing up the reporter.

A friendship developed quickly between the men. Alderman learned Arlington, despite his prematurely thinning hair, was about the same age (he was born in 1911). He was impressed with Arlington’s knowledge of Indian history. Alderman had traveled extensively through South America. He, too, had a keen interest in native cultures.

Alderman may have found it amusing that Arlington’s parents – William S. LeRoy Arlington FryBarger and Montaressa Gertrude Hord – gave him four first names: Arlington Elmore Hearrell Hanes (“Fry” was his nickname).

Arlington’s early life was challenging because his father, a physical culturist known as “Professor FryBarger,” moved the family frequently from one town to the next. Arlington and his older sister, Bonnie, often attended many schools during the year. Their mother, who wanted the children to have a more stable environment and education, said she had “enough” and divorced the “professor.” She remarried but her second husband died within a year. Arlington’s father came to her rescue, however, and moved the family to Colorado. They eventually relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

After graduating high school and attending Tulsa University, where he studied biology and won swimming competitions, Arlington dropped out of college, moved to Dallas and worked as a bookkeeper to support his mother, sister and the latter’s two sons during the Great Depression. Then a statuesque, blonde and blue-eyed beauty named Muriel Grogan came into his life. They secretly married in Durant, Oklahoma, in 1932. And they married a second time for Muriel’s parents in Dallas in 1934. The couple had two children: Dian, in 1940, and Hanes in 1943.

The roads were perilous
Alderman invited Arlington to meet his wife, Elora “Scoop” Buck, a well-known reporter for The Dallas Morning News, the other newspaper in town. A fiercely independent, liberated woman, she served as a general assignments reporter, a job similar to Arlington’s. Her nickname, “Scoop,” was bestowed on her by editors for her excellent features on the National Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1940.

Like her husband, Elora was excited about the Nicaragua trip… and pleased Arlington would accompany Bill. She knew well the dangers involved. A second man sharing the driving – one with survival and weapons skills – would help ensure her husband’s return.

She also knew the roads were perilous. Centuries-old oxcart trails posing as roads crossed Mexican deserts and mountain passes, wound over El Salvador’s volcanoes and skirted Nicaragua’s enormous lakes and jungles. Stories abounded about Mexican and Central American gangs whose members stalked desolate highways and attacked unwary travelers.

Elora carefully studied their route and made maps. She researched reports and newspaper stories to determine the safest – and fastest – roads between towns and cities, most of which were far apart. The locations she recorded by pen had unusual, ancient names such as Juchitan, Saltillo, Tapachula, Tehuantepec and Managua.

Meanwhile, the men prepared Bill’s 1941 Chevrolet, a black four-door with six-cylinder engine and standard shift, for the 3,000-mile trip. Their equipment list – which included everything from a tent and folding chairs to boxes of food, water and tools – was so long they debated whether to pull a trailer.

Arlington and Bill somewhere on the desolate, unfinished Pan American Highway (probably in Mexico).

Ultimately, they decided the trailer was a bad idea. It would add too much weight, straining the engine, drivetrain and suspension, as well as reduce gas mileage… a critical factor because service stations were usually found only in cities.

Almost every square inch inside the car – trunk, floorboards, backseat and rear window well – was dominated by containers filled with gasoline, food and water. They had to find room, as well, for sleeping bags, emergency equipment, medical supplies and weapons. The latter included a .44-calibre revolver and axe.

In addition to Elora’s maps, Bill packed his surveyor’s tools – measuring tapes, compass, mounting telescopes, altimeter for determining height, and others – in sturdy boxes. Arlington planned to bring his Speed Graphic 4×5 press camera that used 35-millimeter black-and-white film. Pads, notebooks and pencils were wrapped in water-proof canvas bags.

The Texas Highway Department and the newspaper provided cash for the trip. The men divided the money into small denominations they wrapped in canvas bags and hid throughout the car. Coins and other valuables may have been secured behind door panels and inside the dashboard.

They decided to leave in early January 1946, the driest – and coolest – part of the year for Central America. In so doing, they hoped to avoid torrential rains and killer floods.

“We can do it all – drive from Texas to Nicaragua – in only a few weeks if the car holds up and we have no emergencies,” Arlington said… optimistically.

Every geography – and climate – possible
Plans to build the Pan-American Highway – a road that would cut through every kind of geography and climate possible – were proposed at the Fifth International Conference of American States, which met in Santiago, Chile, in 1923. Inspiration for the highway started with written accounts by explorer Juan Vasquez in 1563. He marveled – as did others centuries later – at the route’s incredible scenic variety and beauty.

It was a dreary, rainy morning, punctuated by tear-filled eyes, when Arlington and Bill kissed wives and waved goodbye. Dallas hadn’t awakened and traffic was minimal as the Chevrolet started south on Route 35, then a two-lane cement highway lined by immense fields of cotton and cattle, for the 250-mile journey to Austin.

The car was fully prepped and felt good. New tires flanked its wheels and the men had serviced the engine, transmission, clutch and other mechanical parts. After purchasing the tires, they crammed another spare tire/wheel combo into the tightly-packed trunk. Its lid couldn’t be closed… a rope tied to the rear bumper kept it in place. Now they had two spares… “insurance” should they have multiple blow-outs.

After trekking south past San Antonio, they drove into Laredo and purchased five-gallon canvas water bags. A bag was hung by a heavy rope from the hood ornament and tied to the front bumper.

The trip from Dallas to Laredo was “uneventful.” Our wives had argued us into our topcoats, and as usual they were right. The cold drizzle and slippery roads whittled down our highway time as we passed over miles of Texas prairie covered with mesquite, miserable and bare under the cold, wet and fog. Pulling into Laredo that night we stopped at the Las Palmas Tourist Court and got a double room, neat as a pin, for only $3.

The cement bridge over the Rio Grande River at Laredo into Nuevo Laredo, its Mexican sister city, was a narrow span flanked by sidewalks where hundreds of workers crossed daily. There they picked up Mexican Federal Highway 85, then known as Autopista Panchuca Ciudad de Mexico. Today it’s called the “Narco Corridor” for being the main conduit of Mexico’s drugs.

Getting out of Nuevo Laredo was harder than they thought. Drivers were reckless, shirking basic courtesy and caution. They frequently were forced to stop in the middle of intersections for drivers who refused to yield when making left turns. Motorists cut them off then slammed on brakes before accelerating.

The honking of horns was incessant. For some, it was an act of aggression: The loudest horn got the right of way. For others, it was a way to say “hello.” Being able to interpret horn blowing became a survival skill. Tailgating – usually by enormous buses or trucks – was another challenge.

As fast as Mexican drivers were, customs officials and procedures were painfully slow.

With 200 tourist cars passing over a day, the Mexican government customs facilities are overtaxed and cars were backed up almost across the bridge for hours.

What will it be like this spring when the number of tourist cars increases the expected five-fold? It promises the possibility of a first-rate bottleneck.

As it is, the tourist should figure on at least half a day for crossing the bridge not including a tourist card costing about $2, an auto permit costing about 60 cents, …and car and personal property insurance for south of the Rio Grande.

Hungry, they pulled off the highway in the town of Vallecillo, 67 miles south of Nuevo Laredo.

“Jalisco, Jalisco” was the tune struck up by two musicians who appeared around the corner of an adobe filling station. We had stopped at the combination filling station and café to get a cold drink to wash down our fried chicken fixed at home (and put up in a shoe box, of course). Before we could toss away a bone, music was in the air.

Then something unexpected happened. Bill… muttered “Jalisco,” put down his box of chicken, unfolded his long frame out of the car and in two strides had reached the musicians to lend his voice to the duet.

They were surprised, but they didn’t miss a beat and their grins broadened as they went through verse after verse, and all but drowned out by Bill’s vocal roar. He knew the words, but apparently considered the tune incidental. When we left, they cheered us off as if we had been on the home team.

“The Pittsburgh of Mexico”
The road to Monterrey was long – 140 miles – but hardly boring. On one or two occasions, large, on-coming trucks loaded to over-capacity forced them off the road to the shoulder. Seen along the highway:

Cows grazing on hillsides so steep that Arkansas farm animals wouldn’t have a chance…Surreys with fringed tops serving as local taxicabs in Sabinas Hildalgo…A peon walking along the road with fighting cocks cuddled under his arm – probably his most valued possession…At dusk, the glow of charcoal fires through the doorways of homes in Cienega de Flores, a village untouched by the last century…The thick-walled church and the pastel shades of the square buildings…And off in the distance, the outline of mountains like a low blue cloud bank.

Darkness fell as they crossed a bridge over the Matacanes River, its fast-moving current forcing its way toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Hundreds of lights could be seen in the distance as they approached Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city and capital of the State of Nuevo Leon. Above their heads was a tall arch. A sign proudly proclaimed “Monterrey: The Pittsburgh of Mexico.”

We didn’t eat that evening. Gasoline fumes leaking through from the luggage compartment where we carried several five-gallon cans of gas for emergency use, had given us headaches and mild nausea and we decided to hit the hay rather than tackle a Mexican bill of fare.

Dog-tired, we ducked into the Hotel Genova on Madero Boulevard for a comfortable double room, modern, costing $3, or $15 in pesos. It was a bargain.

Despite our weariness, we didn’t sleep for hours. The tooting of automobile horns reached such a volume that we got up several times to look out on a steady stream of cars speeding mysteriously up and down the boulevard. It was funny for a while. The next morning we were told that a driver established his right-of-way at an intersection by tooting his horn and crossing the street first. It’s a game of bluff, and the loudest horn on the fastest car wins.

The next morning, a bit tired and grumpy, the men had breakfast at the Gran Hotel Ancira, its French-provincial architecture making the five-story building stand out among its drab neighbors. They walked past the same ornate lobby desk, its adornments including silver-plated ink wells and Tiffany-shaded lamps, where Pancho Villa, mounted on his horse, gave orders to hotel staff in 1912.

Breakfast at the Gran Hotel Ancira was good. Orange juice, coffee, papaya (a cross between a cantaloupe and a honeydew melon), scrambled eggs, toast and honey, cost about 75 cents, or $3.60 in pesos. Everything tasted different but it was palatable.

No hay gasolina
A gasoline shortage was the first challenge encountered after leaving Monterrey.

Apparently there isn’t enough to go around and that included us after we had tried several stations with the same answer, “No hay gasolina.” Some said it was because of strikes on the railroad.

The fumes from the remaining cans of gasoline in the luggage compartment leaked into the front of the car and we experienced headaches and nausea. Opening the car windows gave relief, of course, and we alternated between getting cold to the bone and then putting up with obnoxious fumes for a while.

Resorting to using gasoline from one of their reserve cans, they were able to make it to Saltillo, 55 miles to the southeast. Pulling into the sleepy town, once a water-stop on the 19th century Camino Real, they parked between other cars at a bar. Wandering inside the dark domain, which smelled of sweat, beer and urine, and before their eyes could adjust or they could sit at a table, they felt hands caressing their bodies… and sweet voices whispering in their ears.

Bill’s wallet disappeared immediately. And Arlington protested loudly when someone grabbed – and squeezed – his most sensitive body organ.

Screaming in Spanish, Arlington informed his attacker, a young woman who used her other hand to caress his hair, to stop the assault.

“I’m no good to you!” he proclaimed. “I lost my ‘equipment’ in an explosion during World War II.”

To Arlington’s relief, the woman bought his lie, felt sorry for him and retreated, as did the other women. Bill eventually retrieved his stolen wallet. Sitting with the girls at the bar, the men told stories and may have imbibed a little too much.

Famished and ready to eat, they left the bar in search of food, an unlikely prospect as no restaurants were open. Seeing a small Indian woman sitting on the sidewalk, they asked where they could buy a meal… while rubbing stomachs in circular motions to indicate their hunger. The woman, laughing, stood and walked into the dirt road. Her speed amazed the men as she ran down a fleeing chicken.

Bringing the hapless bird to them, she twisted its neck with experienced hands, killing it instantly. She then took them to a hearth where she plucked the bird and roasted it over hot coals. They slept in the car that night… well fed and exhausted.

Trouble in Victoria
They enjoyed the drive between Saltillo and Victoria, a smooth dirt road. Bill must have been at the wheel because Arlington took notes:

…we spotted these items of interest: Peons going to work carrying three-tiered lunch pails with perforated bottoms so the food could be warmed up over a fire… native women in American-type dresses, putting out their week’s wash on the river bank… Diesel-motored trucks spouting smoke from vertical stacks… and the first orange and pineapple fields.

Then they ran into trouble.

South of Victoria, about 400 miles from Laredo, our generator burned out and set up an awful racket. We coasted into a village which had no name, and while the motor was cooling, Bill… succeeded in locating a mechanic who assured us there were no repair parts in that section.

Running slow for hours, we finally made it to Valles and put up at the Colonial Tourist Courts. We weren’t too tired to appreciate the handmade gothic window frames fitted with pebble-grained green glass, the cathedral-type beamed ceiling, the double doors with the upper-half divided into two more independently swung sections, and the mosaic work on the tile floors. The double room cost about $4, or $18 pesos.

The next morning, after coffee and wild honey on bread, they found another garage and mechanic.

The mechanic stuck his hand under the hood for a second and announced the need of a new generator armature which would cost $50 in pesos. So we decided to look for a bigger and better garage farther on.

Although their quest was unsuccessful they enjoyed exploring on foot the town of Valles. Apparently, they were very cautious about eating food sold by vendors in courtyard markets as well as drinking mountain water spewing from fountains.

We are still avoiding strange drinking water. Bottled cold drinks, including several well-known domestic brands of soda pop made in Mexico, and a five-gallon container of good old Dallas water has been our supply of liquids. This might seem on the conservative side, but we based our action on the experiences of others who had made the trip before. Also we’re avoiding pork and any green leafy vegetables that are uncooked. Anything in the way of fresh fruit that you can peel is all right, we have been told.

Slow going
Generator still broken, but spirits high, on they went slowly climbing and curving their way between Tamazunchale, which they humorously called “Thomas and Charlie,” and Tasquillo.

This is being written from a gash in the side of a mountain off the highway. Before us spreads one of the most beautiful works of nature we have ever seen.

As far as the eye can see, there is a vast white blanket of clouds rumpled below us.

Caps of jagged peaks poke through the bunting to form occasional dark blue islands in the brilliant white sea.

The sun has a startling intensity.

The whole thing seems topsy-turvy and the impact of the panorama was sudden.

For hours we had creeped through the cloud strata itself working our way to this more than 8,000-foot point. Driving was a strain since it was impossible to see more than 10 yards ahead, on the most winding road I have ever driven. It was dark in the middle of the day and the rocks and foliage along the side of the road glistened and dripped from the touch of the cold fog.

Then the road curved up and around the side of a huge up-thrust and we emerged suddenly into extra-brilliant sunlight with a new world laid at our feet.

The Grand Tetons in the Jackson Hole country of Wyoming must continue to rate first in sheer magnificence of natural beauty, as a matter of personal opinion, of course, but we are looking on a close rival.

From Tamazunchale, the road passes through lush vegetation of banana trees, species of palm, orange and pineapple fields, and various species of broad-leafed flora which is gradually replaced by scrub trees intermingled with Norway pine, Jack pine and balsam.

…there are many places where the twisting road is a lip on the face of mountainsides that drop away thousands of feet.

Now and then on the way up, we would spot patches of native humanity moving among their adobe huts which clung to the crags like eagles’ nests. We wondered how they managed a living. We are reluctant to leave this fairyland and renew our worries about gasoline and generators.

Later that day, now off the mountain road and in the tiny town of Zimapan, the men were amazed when they found a gas station.

Gasoline at last. At Zimapan, we listened happily to the gurgle of 21.8 liters of gas going into our tank and were glad to shell out $6 in pesos, or about $1.25. We had used our last reserve supply and according to our calculations, we had one and a half gallons left in the tank. About 30 miles farther on we got another five gallons which would be enough to take us to Mexico City.

Two days and 400 miles of driving with a broken generator brought them to a rise in the highway for their first glimpse of Mexico City.

“Eureka!” Bill shouted.

Pricking the blackness of the plateau with a million pinpoints of light, rows of the tiny dots fingered out into the night and twinkled like stars. Those who have seen Los Angeles at night from the hills will know just what I mean.

Our enthusiasm in sighting Cuidad Mexico was real. For the past 400 miles we had driven without benefit of the generator and our lights had finally faded completely away two hours earlier that night. With a full moon we were able to keep going, but the situation created tension. We hadn’t forgotten the numerous pigs, goats, cattle and burros that had crossed our path leisurely during the day, and every shadow became a concern. Practically all the highway is on open range.

During the last five miles into Mexico City, we wondered at just what moment the dying battery would fail to supply sufficient spark. Then there was the problem of finding our way through the city.
“Entering the city limits, we blindly picked one street out of the maze which led eventually to a boulevard along which we traveled until the motor quietly gave up the ghost and we coasted over to the curb. But we were in luck. It was just half a block to a hotel.

Mexico City, estimated population 2,000,000, is a city of contrasts.

It captures the swank of Fifth Avenue, the glitter of Hollywood, and the sophistication attributed to Paris, all mirrored in the smartly dressed women, the fine cars, polished personages, café conversations shifting as a matter of convenience through several languages, a night club life that starts at midnight, and a Bohemian conviviality. It is the mecca of wealthy persons who have detached themselves from any one homeland. It is metropolitan and cosmopolitan.

Century-old buildings along avenues seem sad at the sight of the ultra-modern type of structures replacing them.

Traffic in Mexico City is in a class by itself. Cars zip down the boulevards at a fast clip, play a speedy game of bluff at the intersections, toot their horns without reserve, double-park in peculiar places, and dodge around pedestrians.

Gasoline… is selling for about 26 cents a gallon and is plentiful. There are but few shortages here and many items that have not reappeared on the shelves in Dallas stores are carried in regular stock, including radios, electric irons, refrigerators, stoves, cutlery, and the like.

On to Puebla
After an extra day in Mexico City to have the car’s generator fixed, which broke again when they left the city, they set off for the little town of Puebla, a day’s drive southeast.

Puebla is a pleasant relief from the big city confusion of Cuidad Mexico. Old buildings at every corner reflect the faded splendor of the past….

Oh the bells, bells, bells, the rhyming and the chiming of the bells of Puebla.

Out of a sound slumber I was awakened by a cascade of sound that seemed to come from all directions. Big bells tolling slow and little bells wagging merrily, pealed forth the song of a new day.

The sun hadn’t quite risen over Puebla when the bells in the many churches of the city came to life as though on a given signal. I sat upright in bed and yelled across the room, “Hey, Bill, do you hear that? What in the world are those bells ringing for?”

Bill…didn’t even raise his head. “Nuts, they do that every morning in this country. Go to sleep,” he said. He did, but I didn’t.

In our room at the Hotel Arronte, built in 1672 as the Casa de Marqueses, and converted into a hotel more than 100 years ago, I gazed up at the 20-foot ceiling and a single, heavily barred window about 14 feet from the floor. Through the doorway I could see a funny looking chair covered with a moth-eaten red plush and the edge of a faded drapery made of such heavy brocade that it hung straight as a board. In the hall was a beveled mirror about four by eight feet with the most massive gilt frame I’ve ever laid eyes on.

The walls facing the inner court of the three-story structure were covered with handmade, hand-glazed, red and white tile, each one slightly different from the general design.

A clock of a pattern popular in the time of our great-grandfathers, struck seven and I got Bill out of bed in a hurry with just the mention of our second burned-out generator.

The concord of bells had started the day off right and we didn’t get impatient with the three mechanics who took more than half a day to fix our car.

Puebla to Oaxaca… and rough roads

Sometimes we’ll travel more than half a day without benefit of any highway signs. We have found that our little floating compass which we bought at an army store in Dallas has been invaluable. The compass coupled with a scrutiny of the maps and a close track of the mileage, is the best solution to the absence of highway signs.

In the absence of any highway signs at a major intersection, we asked a native which road to take and he replied with such unhesitating conviction that we promptly went about 20 miles before we caught the mistake. The Mexican highway department has signs showing the name of each little stream and gully, but they apparently have an aversion to showing the names of towns and distances.

At one point after we left Puebla the Pan-American Highway dodged around racks of printed cotton cloth, straddled mats of beans spread on the ground for sale and skirted piles of pottery with only inches to spare.

It was like driving through a crowded department store in an auto when we proceeded in low gear for half a mile through the bazar just outside Matamoros on the road to… Oaxaca.

They must have been having a one-cent sale, judging from the number of natives crowding around each display and offering a solid front of humanity before our car. As we slowly approached, they would make room, some way, for us to pass. The noise was something fierce. Everyone was talking, laughing or singing.

A little farther on down the highway giant cacti, single-stemmed, growing straight up for 20 or 30 feet, covered the hillsides. For all the world they looked like green telephone poles.

Now and then we had to wait for herds of goats to cross the road under the shouts and flicking whip of the goat herder. The goat and the burro are indispensable to the Mexican farmer.

Over a 15-mile stretch to Oaxaca, the first rough road covered with sharp gravel was encountered. It wasn’t the pebble kind of gravel, it was the sharp jagged kind that is death to recaps. Up until now the road has been very close to the standards of our highways.”

Then they found Alezma
Now that they were more than 1,200 miles south of Laredo and 465 miles below Mexico City, Arlington and Bill wondered if they had reached the end of the highway. What convinced them was that the road had morphed into what looked like mountain streams.

The front wheels of our car were resting in the cold water…. The bright lights of our car could not span the black expanse of swift water and there were no markers to indicate the course of the shoals. The road had become increasingly bad and we had been dragging center every few minutes.

We took off our shoes and socks and waded out, stumbling over slick rocks, to the edge of the shafts of light. The far bank was still swallowed by the night and we had crossed places too deep for the car. Back at the car we sat down to debate our course.

Then we found Alezma.

Something moved in the bushes along the side of the road; we called out, and Alezma ambled up. He was a Mexican lad about 19 years old. He agreed to show us the way.

Without hesitation, he walked into the water and we followed blindly in the car. Soon we turned down the river bed, out of sight of both banks. After several hundred yards during which the motor drowned out twice, he turned from the parallel course and we emerged on a sand bank.

Bogging down in the sand, we rocked the car back into the river and Alezma found another place to come out farther down. He also found the road for us. When he learned we were headed for Juchitan, he agreed to go with us since his family lived there. He worked on the highway construction outfit and wouldn’t be missed, he said.

Earlier in the day we encountered the worst kind of roads, including a six-foot ridge of earth and boulders. We located a bulldozer in a nearby construction camp and the driver obligingly shoved the offending ridge off the brink of the mountain. For about 25 miles we had to leave the highway and took to an access road. Wide enough for only one car and with grades that looked impossible, the road required our low gear upgrade and downgrade. For 30 miles we averaged about six miles an hour, I guess.

Our gasoline reserves were getting low and there were no stations. Our last fill-up was at Oaxaca. The car bogged down in sand and was stopped three times. We managed to dig out and kept going.

With Alezma, we wound through an unmarked maze of native houses in Tehuantepec, 496 miles from Mexico City, where we had a truly native meal cooked over a charcoal fire. Broiled chicken, tostados, Mexican pastry, native beer, fried beans, rice, and some other dishes I couldn’t identify.

After the meal we headed for Juchitan, which was off the highway and even Alezma had some difficulty in finding it. With both the native hotels full at 1 a.m., we were sitting in the car debating what to do when one of the proprietors reappeared in his Mexican version of a nightshirt and said he would put us up. He and Alezma convinced us that we had come to the end of the first lap of the ‘Pan-Am’, and in the open courtyard we spent the night on tejeras, or broad canvas cots. Bats and night birds failed to keep us awake more than two minutes, although they were swooping about in considerable numbers.

This is where we started
At Juchitan, 175 miles south of Oaxaca, the men came to the first missing highway link. A steep, muddy road had led them into thick forest where the car’s wheels spun and sank up to the hubcaps. As hard as they tried, they couldn’t extricate the car. Exhausted, they found a dry patch and fell to the dirt.

It was at that moment the “banditos” on horseback mysteriously appeared from the woods, circling the men and asking what they were doing.

“We’re tracking the unfinished Pan-American Highway,” Arlington told them, “and hope to find the section of road my partner worked on during the war.”

Arlington had the temerity to ask them what they were doing.

“We’re hunting rabbits,” the leader of the group answered, which his men, laughing hard, found very funny.
“You can’t get through by car,” the Mexican said. “You must put the auto on a train’s flatcar and pick up the highway again at Tapachula, which is about 225 miles from here.”

Without being asked, in a gesture of friendship, the Mexicans attached ropes to the Chevrolet and their horses pulled it from the mud. Then they escorted Arlington and Bill on the road back to Juchitan.

Getting the auto on the flatcar without loading facilities was a considerable undertaking. With eight men heaving under the car, it finally scraped over the angle formed where two short planks lay on the edge of the platform. Each little detail became a major problem. Large nails, planks, blocks, and 100-feet of stout rope were objects of separate search. It was impossible to sleep after we hitched up with the engine at 3 a.m. The car bucked and jumped on the flatcar like a wild thing, but the ropes held.

At every village the train would stop, then the engineer would try to make up lost time. The dust was bad until we came to the jungle country. Banana plantations lined the way. Natives would pop from their straw huts to watch the train. At some points, the jungle would close in around the tracks and brush against the sides of the car.

The villagers were friendly and waved greetings. Strange, large-leafed trees replaced the desert flora. Peculiar birds paralleled our course. Coconut and date palms were frequent. Vaqueros tried to control their excited horses as the train hopped along the tracks.

In this section green things grow big, fence posts take root and form living walls, and the sweat pours from us.

Our drinking water first turned green, despite chlorine pills dropped in it. Now it has turned light brown.

“The cleanest city in the world”
Tapachula’s Gran Hotel Internacional was a sight for sore eyes after the bruising 12-hour train ride, most of which was spent standing on the flatcar while watching the Chevrolet.

They unloaded the car the following morning, an ordeal almost as strenuous as the loading process. Then they were off to Guatemala City, known then as “the cleanest city in the world.”

The 191-mile drive from Tapachula to Guatemala City took 12 hours, most of the time in low gear up and down cobblestoned grades that were intended for foot travel. We asked for distances in terms of “leguas” or leagues since the natives were not familiar with miles or kilometers. The legua apparently originated with the Spanish and constituted about an hour’s ride on horseback. We made about the same kind of time. On the other hand, we passed through scenery that is unsurpassed.

Along the way: Natives padding through the dust, staggering under huge burdens suspended by straps over their head… sunlight glinting through the light-green giant ferns uncurling to arch gracefully over the road… sides of the road a spectacle of color with the vivid extravagance that is found only in the tropics… strange noises and cries floating up from behind the green wall banking the highway… flowering trees, 150 feet in height, standing on tip-toe above the jungle.

We’ve come so far off the beaten track that we’ve lost the track itself at times. For more than four days we haven’t sighted a single tourist auto. A checkup in Tapachula, Mexico, the jumping off place for Central America, showed only about a dozen tourists there and all of them were traveling by air. All the way to Guatemala City we saw no tourists in their own cars. We did encounter one passenger car (stuck in the sand) which was operated by a side-excursion agency in Guatemala City. The four passengers and the native driver didn’t seem to mind their predicament even though our car lacked sufficient power to pull them out. The high altitude cuts down on the motor efficiency unless you can change carburetor jets.

Guatemala City is the smaller and better dressed cousin of Mexico City. It is purported to be the cleanest city in the world. The climate is delightful. It was warm enough in the sun to be in shirt-sleeves and cool enough in the shade for a coat. Snappy nights call for one wool blanket.

In Guatemala we became indebted to “Hank,” a roughly dressed taxi-driver, who steered us around to the various consulates for passport red-taping after our solo efforts had failed.

Hank, whose real name we couldn’t pronounce, turned out to be a toreador in disguise. He had 29 bulls chalked up to his credit and his occupation as a taxi-driver was temporary.

Someone had stolen his vestido de ora, his vest of gold, something which no well-dressed toreador could be without. He had ordered a new one from Mexico City several months previously.

So while his vest was being tailored, Hank herded a taxi and the lives of many bulls were saved.

Hank wanted to go on with us to Salvador, his home, but he was barred by his political inclinations. He went with us to the outskirts of Guatemala City and stood in the middle of the road waving to us.

A cheer for Salvador

Shifting like the different scenes thrown by lantern-slides, travel through the diminutive Central American republics revealed individualities strengthened by the various altitude levels.

From Guatemala City, about 5,000 feet, the highway wound through virgin forests of pine and mountainous terrain. Then came the descent to the lower tables of Salvador with a return to the semiarid vegetation that is similar to that of West Texas or parts of New Mexico.

Earlier in the day we had given a cheer for Salvador, with the first paved cross-country highway we had been on in two weeks. From border to border, practically, we skimmed along on glass, so it seemed, after jouncing over roads that had taken loose the dashboard, one door handle, and the fillings in our teeth.

Passing through the customs has become a downright chore, since an inspection is required on entry and exit from each country. It usually takes the best part of an hour at each stop and sometimes much longer. We hope that they become so snarled up in their own red tape that they can’t move to discourage the landslide of tourists that will follow the completion of the highway.

Honduras presented a rolling country that became downright rugged by the time we came to the Nicaraguan border. The top price of gasoline so far was at San Lorenzo, Honduras, where $2.56 a gallon was charged the unlucky guy who had to buy there. We used some of our reserve supply. Most of the way from Guatemala City gasoline has been selling from 28 cents to 60 cents, if it could be found.

The money situation has become complicated, and in our pockets we have pesos and centavos from Mexico, quitzales from Guatemala, colones from Salvador, lempiras from Honduras, cordobas of Nicaragua, and our own money. The folks in one country won’t accept the currency of another, but the American dollar is good any place.

“That’s all, brother!”

The knobby landscape of Nicaragua is like none of the others. There are many shades of color in the hills, blending into slopes which are tawny with dry grass. Ridge after ridge, one peeping over the head of the other, gradually become a dark blue in the distance.

Perhaps our first impression was intensified by the setting sun. Topping one steep climb, we stopped the car and looked about. The brimming paint pot in the West had run over the edge and flooded the country with a soft glow. We could see a thin strip of the Pacific Ocean which caught the reflection of the sun like a bright sword.

This is the land of topsy-turvy where the bananas grow upside down, where it’s summer in the winter and winter in the summer, where sharks and salt water fish thrive in fresh water lakes, where a week is called eight days, where a dictatorship is termed a republic, and where they mean “yes” when they say “Como No.”

In these rugged hills of Nicaragua live music-loving people who pay little attention to the passage of time, and time pays little attention to the people.

Managua, Nicaragua, is a city of hundreds of surreys drawn by small Spanish ponies that dash madly through the narrow streets, a city under the thumb of a dictator, a city of incredible prices, where a can of peas costs $1.50 in our money, mayonnaise about $3.75 a pint, and bed sheets about $10 each, as examples.

Riding in a surrey or “coachie” is an experience. The two raw-boned ponies have a fearlessness that matches that of the driver and they clatter down the street with no recognition of blind intersections other than a brief ting-a-ling of a bell that sounds like an ice cream wagon at home. Each pony is equipped with four heel brakes, and I’ve seen them sit down and slide to a halt when a collision was otherwise unavoidable.

The dozen or so tourists in Managua are all traveling by air. We have learned of only one other auto tourist and two motorcyclists who have ever driven through from the United States.

Here we have come to the end of the Pan-American Highway.

From Dallas to a point near Pinas Blancas on the border of Costa Rica our speedometer has clocked 3,003 miles.

We have come to the end of the road and we have come to the end of our luck.

In the last day of driving from Managua, our tires, which were practically brand new when we left Dallas three weeks ago, began to give up the ghost one by one. As if they sensed that the end was near, they delivered their last strength in a final blowout that carried away part of the casing in each instance.

That’s all, brother! Three tires, irreparably ruptured in the last 50 miles (including one tire borrowed from the Nicaraguan Highway Department) put the period at the end of this sentence.

Coming in on a rim and a prayer, we limped back to our friend’s house in Esteli, then threw the battered wheel away. Our friends sent out scouts to find the tire equipment. Two days later our mechanical steed was again shod sufficiently to place it in the hands of a new owner, may he rest in peace.

Neither the car nor our individual constitutions would have stood the trip back. We plan to take the airways for our return trip.

During the past two weeks we have each lost about a pound of weight a day and many times 12 to 15 hours have passed between meals. That is not mentioned as any great hardship, but rather as a condition which a tourist might want to consider if he planned to drive over the stretches where restaurants just aren’t.

There is no question that the Pan-American Highway offers an unparalleled panorama of scenic beauty and interesting places and peoples. There’s absolutely nothing like it!

By the time we return to Dallas we will have covered more than 6,000 miles.

The calendar is cockeyed. It shows that we’ve been gone from Dallas three weeks, but we both know it’s been three months.

The end of the road
In his final newspaper article, Arlington recommended that tourists avoid the Pan-American Highway.

“Incidentally, the entire leg of the journey from Oaxaca to Juchitan in Mexico is definitely not recommended for travel this year, for anyone under any circumstances.”

He and Bill had achieved their goal of driving to the end of the highway in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, Bill was unable to take measurements and record vital road information for his employer. But Arlington’s photos and words proved that much work was needed before the road was passable. Here’s how Arlington described the highway’s southernmost terminus:

The end of the Pan-American highway is an undramatic thing. You don’t come to a sudden green wall of jungle, or up to the foot of a mountain to be scaled. The road leads south of Managua and is paved for about 70 miles before it changes to a gravel road. I suppose that the end of the highway could be designated there since the gravel road turns and narrows down to terminate in the village Pinas Blancas about 12 miles further on, right on the border of Costa Rica. It was along this stretch within sight of the blue hills of Costa Rica where we decided we had reached the end….

I had the pleasure of knowing Arlington for many years before he passed at age 87 in 1999. After divorcing his first wife in 1954, he married my Aunt Elsie in 1961. They had a home in Oak Cliff when Grace and I moved with our children to Texas in 1986. Arlington and I enjoyed each other’s company and engaged in many conversations. One day he showed me a giant wall poster, titled “The Living Earth,” he had written and designed for a client. The poster was intended for “children” of all ages to help them learn about our planet and its kinship with the universe. Arlington was truly a “man of the universe” whose fervent desire was that someday mankind would “replace the compulsion to kill for survival with the vital need to co-exist for survival.” He believed in protecting Earth’s resources. Perhaps his favorite quote came from T’AO CH’IEN in 400 AD:

Though I am different from you,
We were born involved
In one another.