Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008 | San Diego native James Spring tells jaw-dropping tales through radio and the written word, and some of his best tales are his own.
Spring, a former foreign correspondent in Latin America for Cox Newspapers, has delved into the worlds of Minutemen, motorcycle racers and Tarahumara drug traffickers as an occasional radio journalist for National Public Radio. He reads fiction and reflective prose at a monthly event called DimeStories where writers are limited to three minutes onstage, which has, in turn, spawned its own radio show. But one of his best stories has never been published or aired.
Spring and a friend barely survived an ill-conceived trek through the war-ravaged jungles between Panama and Colombia. He chronicled his journey in an as-yet-unpublished book
called Crossing the Gap, which recounts his adventures and an unexpected e-mail from a British father that nearly brought Spring back to that treacherous region to find two men who had gone missing while following his path.
It was an aborted quest for redemption, said Spring, who alludes to his own dark past, a history that he shies from describing. Now living a milder existence as a marketing director, Spring is still seeking salvation through extraordinary deeds. He recently tracked down two fugitives suspected of murder in Baja California, helping to return their two daughters to the custody of their grandparents.
Spring joined us to talk about getting captured by indigenous tribes, mixing with the Minutemen, cutting out the adjectives and redemption.
Tell me about the jungle that separates Panama and Colombia — the Darien Gap.
The Darien Gap is about a 75-mile long stretch of just untamed and largely uncharted jungle. If you look at any of the charts that have been created of the area, vast swatches say “Information Unavailable” or “Topographical Data Unreliable.” It shifts and changes. There’s a lot of swamps. And it’s also changed because a lot of the villages that have been written onto the charts no longer exist. It’s a very difficult, impenetrable jungle just for its natural resources, but then on top of that you add a civil war in Colombia that has now spilled over the border into Panama.
So what happened is the rebels like the FARC … in Colombia started using the Darien Gap like Nottingham Forest. They were going out, doing their madness in Colombia, and then retreating back and hiding out in the Darien Gap. The paramilitary followed them in and there were just bloody, bloody wars in the middle of the Darien Gap. And sadly the biggest victims of it have been the Indian tribes who live there, like the Kuna who already live a communal existence. Communism comes kind of natural to them and they are generally supportive of the aims of the Communist rebels, but they are really easy targets for the paramilitary to come in and assume, oh, you’re harboring Communists. So many of those villages have been razed. Women raped. Families just disappear.
What made you decide to travel across it?
I had recently turned 30 when I went. It was at the end of a whole bunch of unclever choices I’d made in my life. Unwise expeditions. I’d spent a lot of time in Central America. I’d driven the whole length of Central America in an old Jeep, repeatedly — I’d driven all the way down to Panama. But then the road ends, and there’s the Darien Gap. When I turned 30 I thought, how many more chances am I going to have to see this?
And the situation got horrible. Deaths. Murders. Every tourist who walked in there was getting kidnapped or murdered. And when I say every, I mean one or two a year. Hardly anybody would even go there. Four hundred people a year scale Mount Everest. One or two people a year try to get through the Darien Gap.
So I thought, this might be my last hurrah. It didn’t end up being that way, but that’s what my thought was — a now or never. Plus I had this notion of my own vitality slipping away. I thought, I can prove that I’m still somebody. Still able.
You (nearly) attempted to find a missing British backpacker on behalf of his father; more recently you tracked down these two fugitives and their two little girls in Baja. What compelled you to make these incredible efforts on the part of people that you didn’t know very well?
I had gone through the Darien Gap with my friend Matt and when I returned to the U.S. I wrote on this website, “Hey, this is a lousy place. It was really brainless and obsessed and we shouldn’t have done it. Nobody else should do it. The only way we survived and got around all the paramilitary camps was by doing this. (Spring had described their route.)” And I wrote it down … on this de facto “Hey, visit the Darien Gap” website.
And the woman who ran the website wrote back and said, “Thank you very much for the information, I didn’t know it was that bad now. Do you mind if I forward this information to a couple of British backpackers that are planning to go down there?” And I said, “Absolutely, send it on. Thank you. Bye.” Never going to think about the Darien Gap again. It was a mess. I had pictures of villages that had been burned. We got held captive by Kuna Indians in the Darien Gap too. …
But I get back to life as it is in San Diego, find the girl that ends up being my wife, things are great. And then six months later I get an e-mail from a man who says, “I read about your adventures in the Darien, it sounds terrifying, my son also read the account and he attempted to try to follow your path, and he’s been missing for six months. Please help me find my son.”
So at this point I felt a certain human responsibility. The thing about the Darien Gap is the only person who can be an expert on the Darien Gap is the last person who went through it. Things change there. … Paramilitary groups move and flow and the war evolves. And the landscape changes. So I thought, well, if not me, then who?
I stayed in really close contact with the family. They had been gone for so long I assumed it was dead bodies we were looking for. So I wasn’t going to bring anyone else with me. I just couldn’t risk it. I shouldn’t have taken my pal that I took (the first time) — he had never been anywhere in the world, and it was just a lousy situation all around. And now I’ve got this woman that I’ve fallen crazy head over heels in love with, and she’s like, “You’re going where? You’re doing what?” And so I made some plans to go back and pull them out. I had my flight set and all these things in order.
Then right before I left I was ambushed by some friends who had contacted the family without me knowing and said, “Look, you can’t send him back in there. He’s got a full life ahead of him.” … All the obvious things. Sorry that your kids are dead, but there’s nothing that can be done.
Turns out they weren’t dead. Turns out they were held captive for nine months by the FARC, by rebel forces. So I ended up not going back down there. The week before I was to fly to England for the funeral that they’d arranged, they were released by the FARC and found their way to a ranger’s station. I ended up flying back to England and they came back and they said, “There’s nothing you could have done.” In fact, my presence there might have made things worse.
But the guilt was never assuaged. I always felt like I should have been there. I would have found them. I mean, I feel like I would have found them, if I’d gone down.
That kind of ate at me for the better part of the decade. Then before I turned 40 in April, I had this notion that I wanted to do something for somebody else. I’d done a lot of taking in life and not a lot of giving. And I thought, it’s time to even the books up a little bit.
It was really a flukey weird thing. I told my wife this plan that I was going to help somebody, and she rolled her eyes and said, “What are you doing now? I don’t want you to go to Iraq.” And I said, “I’m not going to go to Iraq! I want to go somewhere where I can help. Maybe a little girl is going to go missing here in San Diego and I’ll join the search effort. Maybe an earthquake will hit in Arizona and I’ll go pull people out of rubble. I mean, I don’t know what it’s going to be. But in April something is going to manifest itself. I’m going to go do this thing.”
So she started making plans for us to do things on weekends in April, and I’m like, “I’ve got to keep some time open.” And she’s like, “What? Oh yeah. No, knock it off!” And I said, “No, this is what has got to be.”
On that first Friday in April, I only did one search and I put in the two words in Google where I thought I might be able to help. And that was “Baja” and “missing.” Just those two words and I hit the return key. And up came a story from the day before in the Santa Cruz Sentinel about a little girl and her sister with Down Syndrome who had been caught in this horrible family drama, the parents wanted for murder and on the run, a tourist thought maybe she’d seen her in part of Baja California, which is an area that I’m really, really intimately familiar with. I lived there for five years when I was in my 20s and I raced the Baja 500 the year before that. And I felt like, if anybody in the world is going to be able to find them in Baja, it’s going to be me.
And so I thought OK, I’ll join the search effort, whatever they’re doing. And it turned out there was no search effort. Nobody was doing anything. Nobody in Mexico knew anything about it. I printed up the flyers and translated them into Spanish, and I caught a couple of good breaks. I found them in a day and a half. And it made a difference in that case and the girls are well.
You have called this book an attempt at redemption. You kind of hinted at this — what did you need to be redeemed from, and do you feel like it worked?
I want to be kind of careful here. When I was in my early 20s, the late ’80s, early ’90s, I made some unwise decisions. Let me put it this way: in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a lot of drugs were flowing into this country. I never did drugs myself. Never had the interest in it. But I saw opportunity. And so I made choices that, in retrospect, I definitely wouldn’t have made, and I recognize that I caused a lot of heartache and a lot of damage. These were people who were complicit in their own victimhood. But I feel like, there was me taking again. Taking at the expense of families and kids whose parents made bad choices. I’ve long felt like I’m out here on borrowed time. Thank God I’m not in prison somewhere. And so I always felt like I needed to give something back.
(Spring later declined to specify what, exactly, he had done.)
And the other part of your question was, do you feel redeemed? And the answer is no.
There’s a movie, “The Mission,” with Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro. It’s set in Mission times in Central America. The Spaniard character has killed a man, killed his brother, and feels like he needs redemption. And so he punishes himself for many years. He’s actually carrying this huge thing as a punishment for himself. And then one day it’s cut off his back. At one point you decide, “OK.” And I don’t know. I don’t feel like the books have been balanced out yet.
How do you think that experience has shaped your writing?
Which one? All of them?
The sense of having something that you want to be redeemed for.
I think that all my larger writings have always been about redemption. It’s been chasing a moving object. I’ve always thought that if I just did this everything would be fine. And then you get here and it’s a mirage. Redemption is further in the distance. And so I think that the reason it’s working in the writing is everybody can identify with reaching out for things that are always just beyond their grasp.
What drew you to DimeStories?
DimeStories is a funky crazy little thing, a monthly event hosted by Amy Wallen, bestselling author of MoonPies and Movie Stars. … When I first started attending four years ago, it was to support the local writing community. I was always reading excerpts from longer works. I was never reading short stuff back then. And then I just kind of watched and I found that it didn’t work. Excerpts weren’t working. Short stuff that had a complete cycle within it had a big impact. And I found that by slicing things down, by just trimming adjectives and adverbs and description and never describing something, just showing a scene and everyone will invent it on their own — like if I told you, think of a house on a hill, you would draw a very different one than I did, the hill would look different, the house would look different — but it doesn’t matter. The house on the hill is enough. Let everyone paint their own picture.
I really started liking the challenge of it and it made it easier to segue into public radio and started writing radio stories. Those are all very spare. There’s a real raw beauty to it. … It’s not really my life’s work to do DimeStories but I am honored to be part of the new movement.
One of your radio dispatches took you along with the Minutemen as they patrol the desert. What did you learn from the hours you spent with the Minutemen, and did it surprise you?
This is a hard thing to tell people. When it comes to the Minutemen, there are two camps. One is, “Yeah, those Minutemen are doing what the government should be doing,” and then there’s the other that says, “You don’t put a bunch of guys with coolers of beer and guns out hunting Mexicans on the border.” That’s how people look at it. You pick black or white.
Did you have a side coming in?
Yeah. The side coming in was, “What the hell is wrong with these people out there in their lawn chairs?” The time that I spent in Mexico and Central America gave me a real perspective. If there is anything I’m not in life, it’s a complainer. I watched people with real problems. These Mexicans that were crossing a border to make a life for themselves — they were upholding our economy in a big way. So for selfish reasons as a country there’s that. And we have a long history with the braceros (migrant worker program) in World War II. It really seemed twofaced.
Part two is these people are risking everything to provide for their families. This notion that they’re all felons crossing the border to pick tomatoes is so ludicrous. … That’s where I was.
Here’s the key. Here’s what I found. Within the Minutemen there were people who were lunatics who should not be holding guns, people with racist tendencies, but there were a lot of people, including this grandfatherly character I hung out with, who truly believed the rhetoric that Mexicans were coming across the border, they were destroying our schools, they were using up our budget, they were overwhelming emergency rooms, they were making life bad and unsafe for his family and his friends. He believed that. It wasn’t a racist view. It was what he’d read and been exposed to and what he believed.
And if that is what you’ve been given and you actually leave the comfort of your home and you go out to defend your friends, your family and your country, there’s something noble in it. There’s something noble in the notion, however misguided, that you would actually go out there and try to be part of something. And I had to honor and respect that. Obviously I had a difference of opinion and I hope that after it was done, he had a different view too. But it really solidified that the notion that there are really two very distinct sides to every single story.
Did you get any feedback from the Minutemen about the piece?
Not a single one.
Really? Did you contact them?
No. No. One of the things I enjoyed hearing — I’ve got friends who are crazy right-wing Republicans and I’ve got nutty liberal friends too and I think that the piece was fairly evenhanded. I think whoever you were, you didn’t feel like you got stepped on too much.
After crisscrossing Latin America as a journalist and going off on these crazy adventures for the radio, you describe yourself as having a relatively quiet existence. You work as a marketing director, you have a baby girl and a son, and you’re trying to get your book published. Is it difficult to reconcile your past and present?
There is a constant war inside me and it’s a really odd thing. Just this morning my wife and I started to argue about something — I think my sock drawer, it was nothing, a throwaway thing — and I reached out to her and said, “Come over here, I’m your husband.” And she said, “You’re not my husband. You’re the NPR guy. You’re the guy that finds kids. You’re the adventurer. You’re not my husband.”
She was laughing as she was saying it and it was like, there are these two different things. And one thing that has to be incredibly annoying to her and would be annoying to me, is every six months I have this crazy buildup where it’s like, I’ve got to go, I’ll pack a bag and be gone for a few days. I put the motorcycle on the back of the truck and I head to Baja by myself. I do my Jesus in the wilderness thing for a few days. I need that time to recharge, and be who I thought I was.