Walker: Forced March

<i>Walker:</i> Forced March

Actor and writer Linda Sandoval met Alex Cox in 1983, when her husband, Miguel Sandoval, was cast in Repo Man (she recalls that Cox phoned to say he had good news and bad news: the bad news was that Miguel was cast in Repo Man; the good news was that he got to shave his head). Linda and Miguel both worked with Cox on Walker and have remained friends with him all these years. In this piece, written for the Criterion Collection in 2007, she recounts one day during production of that film.

My character in the film is a kind of camp-following actress who performs Shakespeare. A small part. I spend a lot of time hanging around the hotel in Managua with not much to do and feeling a bit like a fifth wheel. So I’m flattered to be invited on the “forced march” with Ed Harris and Alex Cox and all of the actors who are to play Walker’s lowly band of mercenaries known as the Immortals. And I will be the only woman. How about that! This march is to ground the actors in the hardships of the time, to help us form relationships, to examine leading and following, to interface with the jungle, heat, exhaustion, survival, and the “real Nicaragua.”

Later on I’m not so flattered.

The wake-up call is at four thirty, with breakfast at five. I carry a pack with two bottles of Evian water, Kleenex, and sunblock. We board a bus and head into the wilderness. I begin to feel a bit alarmed at how far we are being taken on this bus. Seems to me like the farther we drive, the farther we will have to walk.

We have maps, rather confusing topographical maps. Charley Braun turns them every which way, trying to make sense of where we’re going. Finally, the bus stops in the middle of the rutted dirt road, and we fall in behind Ed Harris.

At the beginning I keep up with the others. None of us speak much. We’re just fake soldiers on a not-so-fake march, and we don’t waste energy talking. Richard Zobel carries his guitar, wanting to be the strolling minstrel of the Immortals, but is promptly shouted down. Too early in the morning and too steamy hot for “Oh! Susanna.”

The sun gets higher and more threatening. And there’s nothing much like a jungle around us either. It’s mostly scrub, due to the fact that we’re at the end of a long dry season.

While the men stop to piss effortlessly by the side of the road, I realize the true nature of penis envy. A nice thing to have on a picnic, as they say. And what was “the only woman” to do? March off alone in the brush carrying my Kleenex, feeling embarrassed as hell.

We pass through a collection of pitiful shacks. Charley figures it is the “town” marked on his map. A drunken man stumbles toward us. He carries a bottle of Flor de Caña rum and weaves through the men with his palm out. Dollars? Dollars? He touches my cheek. Not in a lewd way but with great sympathy, like he is really and truly sorry for me.

And now we’re lost. We walked in the wrong direction, it seems. Charley studies the map. We backtrack. The heat is crushing. I notice my hands beginning to swell, and I hold them over my head. When we stop for a bit, chills come, then nausea. I’m not keeping up. Alex Cox notices this and takes my backpack, swinging it over his shoulder along with his own. We walk on.

I hear a beautiful silvery singing. For a moment I think I’m hallucinating. But alongside of us is a deep gorge, and at the bottom I can see a group of women. Their braids are twisted in white cloth, and they’re slapping and washing long pieces of the cloth in a stream. The real jungle is around them, down there, dense and green, with a beautiful waterfall and a mossy cave. It looks so cool and peaceful. I want to join them. Just leave and live there by the water in that female world far from this endless road and insane heat.

Thank God for the wind that is beginning now.

We walk another hour and come to a haphazard collection of huts thrown together from scavenged tin and cardboard. Naked children watch us from dark doorways. They have swollen bellies above emaciated legs, and their hair is a dull orange color. How long do these children have to live? Two months? Three?

The people of the village line up to view the impromptu parade of sweating gringos.

About five miles covered so far and I’m praying we’re going in the right direction. We eat granola bars. We try to ration our water, but it’s almost impossible to resist drinking. We inquire after one another. The younger men are slowing but doing okay. René Auberjonois, who is a practiced hiker, is doing well. Me, not so much. My hip bones are aching. I feel every step. I feel the bone in the socket. I’m ashamed, though, to admit how much trouble I’m in.

The road dwindles to a path that stops in front of a ten-foot-deep ditch. The men bound over it. I’m too exhausted to risk jumping. Joe Strummer comes back for me and takes my hand. We crawl down into the ditch, and he pulls me up the other side. You’re not going to fall, he says.

After another hour there are others wondering if the march will ever end. All of us look for walking sticks in the brush. Fred Neumann, the oldest person on the hike, is struggling. His face is red with heat and effort. Worrisome. There is no help for any real emergency.

I’m behind a good distance now and all alone on the road. In front of me is a large, rotting carcass. Impossible to tell what kind of dead thing, covered as it is with worms and flies. A dog, I think. Unbelievable stench. I step into the brush and walk awhile off the road.

All at once there is a group of real soldiers in tattered uniforms, with their guns drawn. They break formation, crowding around me. Sandinistas? Could they be contras? I am so frightened I can barely breathe. I walk slowly back onto the road and try not to look at the soldiers directly. They pass me by, re-form their lines, and continue marching in the opposite direction.

Ahead is another village, where the Immortals are waiting for me to catch up. I’m dizzy and shaking with chills. Ed soaks a bandanna in some of his precious water and wraps it around my neck. I lie down right on the road.

Alex takes the empty Evian bottles out of my pack and gives them to a woman in the village. She runs into her hut and comes back with them filled with brownish water for us to drink. Her eyes are so kind.

“No, para usted,” Alex says to the woman. “Botellas para su familia.”

The woman is overjoyed. “Mira, mira,” she calls to the other villagers and passes the prized plastic bottles around for everyone to admire.

Fred sits with me. Only three more miles to go, he says. We can make it. The problem, though, is that it’s all uphill. Mountain after mountain and absolutely no shade. Ed gives me the last of his water and helps me up.

The wind is so strong now we can barely stand against it. We’re covered in dust. Dust in our noses, in our eyeballs. All of the water is gone. Fred and I have dropped far behind. We can’t hear or see the others. We are in another reality, the two of us. Like a Beckett play. Pain, exhaustion, unending hills. We walk ten steps and rest. We lay for a long while under some dry brush, just for a little shade. A dust devil swirls toward us, and we turn so that our backs take the sting. We recite poetry to each other in Spanish. García Lorca. “Verde que te quiero verde. / Verde viento. Verdes ramas.” We stand again and face the hill. Fred puts his hand on my back and pushes gently, that slight touch making it possible to take a few more steps. I am so grateful for Fred. I think he could have gone on but he’s staying with me. He speaks to me in French. Is he reciting Proust? Are we losing our minds?

And then I see Ed Harris popping up over the top of the hill. He’s carrying two big glasses of ice water. My God, sweeter than champagne anytime. Ed holds an ice cube on the back of my neck. He tells me there is only this one last hill. He offers to have the bus come down to get me. Or, he says, you can try to finish the march like all the others. Fred and I climb with Ed, who still holds the blessed ice on my neck. The Immortals are waiting for us and cheering. René Assa hands me a bouquet of weedy flowers, and we all take the last few steps together.

Our destination is this beautiful little town, Realejo. Beautiful because it’s not the real Realejo but one constructed as a set for the film. White, clean, with long vistas of those punishing hills. A picnic is ready. Sandwiches, cold drinks, copies of the New York Times. Spider Stacy plays his penny whistle.

The men recover quickly now, including Fred. They’re planning a trip to the beach. Swimming after all of that? Yes. And later, after quite a few bottles of Flor de Caña, my fellow marchers scale the sides of the pyramid-stacked Hotel Intercontinental and watch the sunrise over the smoky fields and whoop like conquerors.

I don’t think I’ll ever recover. I will need cool sheets that night and Russian antibiotics for the weeks to follow. But I know forever afterward we will all carry visions of the real Nicaragua.

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