Paul McCartney, so the story says, retreated alone to a farm in Scotland once where he sat at the piano gazing on the trace of a road meandering wild heather, the moors and lochs beyond – in short, his life – and penned a ballad: ‘The Long and Winding Road’.
Were there a list of the most impressive such roads, roads of lore and glory, near the top would figure the Pan American Highway that passes from Dead Horse, Alaska (near Prudhoe Bay) to the world’s south-most city, Ushuaia, Argentina. That would be a span of 21,700 kms. or 13,020 miles*. From the verges of this road are visible every dimension of our planetary drama: majestic landforms, fragile tundra, thriving cities, climate alarms, equatorial forest, the remains of indigenous architecture, the harshest desert on the globe, unbearable poverty, shrinking glaciers, intense religious devotion, rivers of legendary grace, and along much of its way, a Pacific Ocean that creams its surf, its depth and strength at your feet.
If you bisect that epic highway, the mid-way marker would fall on National Highway #34 in Costa Rica, where a gravel sideroad brings you to a little-known beach called Esterillos. From this place you gaze westward across an expanse of ocean unbroken by any landfall until the Marshall Islands, well beyond Hawaii. The breakers roll in from this unobstructed abyss with a power that surfers yearn to ride.
Esterillos is engraved in family lore as the spot where my wife, Mary Kay, and I honeymooned 51 years ago. We borrowed a VW micro-bus, properly dubbed a ‘surfer wagon’ (it was 1969), and roistered backroads from San José to the Pacific coast. We’d been told that the approaches to our thatch cabana and open-air restaurant would be from a gravel road head, then down an open beach. This entailed some risk because as the tide rolls in, the strip of firm sand allowing a vehicle to safely pass is narrow. Too high above this strip would leave the vehicle mired in loose sand. Too close to the breaking surf and the Pacific would drag the vehicle into its depths. Graphic stories of families standing helplessly on the beach watching the riptide devour their wheels had been rehearsed for our benefit.
Arrived at the fringe of palms where Esterillos faces the surf, we could see that our timing could have been better: a rising tide, leaving little room for error on the beach. Revving the engine, I turned the micro-bus on to the open sand to make a run for it. But within a stone’s throw, I felt the vehicle bogging down. The honeymoon came to a humiliating halt in never-never land, up to its axles in wounded pride.
When digging out proved vain, we waited until a boy with a burro ambled past. He offered to help, lashing the creature’s halter to the front bumper, and then beating the poor thing until its mouth bled at the bit. We begged him to stop, but he left us with the impression that he would get help further down the beach. A short time later, a tractor snarled to life and swung onto the beach toward us.
I watched nervously as the driver fastened a chain to the VW bumper, then mounted the tractor and popped the clutch at full throttle. The thrill of being delivered from shifting sand onto firm footing was tempered, though, when I discovered that my bumper had come off second-best to snorting diesel power.
We went on to sample celebrated local fare – ‘arroz con pollo’, to angry sun burns, to the soul-shaking roar of wild surf, to fording tidal estuaries hand-in-hand, to first steps on a shared sojourn. All this on the verges of a mythic highway beyond the full embrace of a single lifetime: that long and winding road.
These lives are surely borrowed. Our dreams, though tantalizing, do sometimes meet with bogging down. Our way is possible with the good heart and help of others. And there lies ever before us a mystery of bracing beauty, depth and power.
*The highway, for all its grandeur, does suffer from a single break known as the Darién Gap. In southern Panama and NW Colombia a stretch of swamp, of jungle and rivers, is so forbidding that only the most intrepid travelers have attempted to cross the 106 kms. (66 miles) by vehicle. Environmental concerns make it unlikely that the gap will ever be closed. At times a ferry service has provided the necessary link, but that has proved financially difficult to sustain. Meanwhile, ‘the Gap’ remains an object of poetic, aesthetic, and philosophical reflection.