Theodore Roosevelt settles into a canoe for a day of exploration and potential death in the rainforest.
Sometimes, life in the city can be difficult, particularly when it comes to travel. The subways will slow down to a crawl or idle between stops for no apparent reason when you're most in a hurry. On summer days, the steam rises from the paveway and the sun beats down on the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds as you trudge seemingly forever to your destination. In the winter there is ice to slip on, snow that drifts into your boots, wind that turns your umbrella inside out and leaves you exposed to the freezing rain, and bone chilling temperatures as you walk from place to place. At times like these, I could remind myself how hard it used to be to get anywhere, especially for those intrepid explorers of the 19th and early 20th century--who braved the unknown wilds of Africa and South America in order to fill in the blank spaces on the world map or answer questions about the nature. They endured blistering heat in the jungle, freezing winds in the mountains, or constant rain. They came close to starvation, fought illness and injury with few medical supplies. They wore bad shoes and clothes that were either stifling or inadequately thin. They dealt with a variety of insects that would make an entymologist consider another profession. They never knew what might lie ahead--predators, unfriendly natives, unpassable mountains, or steep rapids.
Yet...I also wouldn't plan my expedition into the unknown with a low amount of provisions because I expected to be able to hunt, fish, or trade for food. I wouldn't insist on traveling like a pasha, building a slow fury with my porters. I'd find out more about the men I brought to work with me. I wouldn't take foolish risks, such as ignoring my guide's instructions or trying to do things that I knew would get me injured. I'd leave the fine olive oil and mustard at home in favor of more practical food. The truth is, if you read enough stories about those brave explorers and the trials they endured, you'll inevitably find that some of those trials were brought on themselves through arrogance or sheer stupidity.
That is certainly the case in Candice Millard's River of Doubt, the story of Theodore Roosevelt's 1914 descent of the Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt) in the Amazonian jungle. As you read about the preparations for the journey, the mistakes pile up so thickly that even the participants seemed to be aware of them. But trapped in their own pride, determined to follow through on their announcement, and risk their lives for a piece of geographical immortality, they proceeded.
The original American team for the Roosevelt expedition in South America. They had thought they were going to take it easy.
Theodore Roosevelt was, of course, the youngest president in US history, which also meant that he was the youngest ex-president. It didn't have to be that way--in those days before term limits, he could have run for another, maybe two more terms (don't forget, he wasn't elected to his first term). But he stepped aside after his second, choosing not to run in 1908. Instead he pushed his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, into the job, and then found himself immediately restless. He tried to run again in 1912 but lost the election. Even more adrift this time, he eagerly took up the opportunity offered by the Museum of Natural History to descend a river in South America, combined with a speaking tour on the continent.
But a tour wasn't enough for Roosevelt, who still wanted to make his mark on the world. A lifelong amateur naturalist, he eagerly jumped at a Brazilian politician's suggestion that he instead join an exhibition to descend and map a previously unexplored river. His co-leader would be Candido Rondon, a respected military man. Rondon had grown up in the jungle, and as head of the team that had been trying to string telegraph lines throughout Brazil, was experienced at traveling through unknown territory.
The problem, of course, was that Roosevelt had prepared for a much different type of journey. Worse, the men who organized the expedition had done a poor job. Roosevelt had put his friend Father John Zahm, a well-known priest in charge of planning. The publicity-hungry Zahm vastly overrated his experience and skills, and with a taste for luxury, spent his time worrying about things like what kind of tea they should bring on the journey. Anthony Fiala, the quartermaster Zahme chose to provision the journey, was best known for his disastrous leadership and mistakes on a failed attempt to reach the North Pole. Fiala's background in arctic exploration was no preparation for the jungle, and like Zahme, he also focused on the impractical when it came to packing; let's just say that the members of the expedition would eventually discover that the one thing they didn't lack was a variety of condiments. The 800 pound steel motorboats that were supposed to take them down a mild river had to be abandoned even before they started (in one of his few triumphs, the light balsa wood North American canoes selected by Fiala were also deemed unusable and left behind, but they were shown later to have been a much better choice for riding the rapids).
The poor planning had ensured that they were starting off on their travels during the region's rainy season (or rainier season--in the rainforest, it's pretty much always raining). Realizing that it woudl be impossible to carry the provisions for the entire planned group, Roosevelt sent a number of others off on separate, tamer journeys, including Father Zahm and Fiala. Those that were left pared down their belongings to the barest necessity and set off on the dangerous voyage, many with more fear than enthusiasm. George Cherrie, the naturalist sent by the Museum of Natural History to accompany Roosevelt realized he was getting a lot more than he had bargained up for and the porters hired for the journey had to be paid double because of Rondon's reputation for losing more than a few men per trip, due to his willingness to go to places no one else dared visit and his relentless refusal to let anyone fight Indians found in the jungle (Rondon was a fierce defender of Indian rights and believed that the only way to win their goodwill was to never fight back, even if the Indians attacked first).
The expedition was even beginning to feel more like an obligation than an adventure for Roosevelt and his son Kermit, whom he had invited to accompany them. Roosevelt heard about the rebellion going on in Mexico and missed being part of the political maelstrom that his rival Wilson was trying to manage. Kermit had been working on building railways and bridges for a few years in South America, and though moody and introspective by nature, he also was the most physically daring Rooseelt son. However, he had recently gotten engaged and just wanted to get through the journey and get married. He felt that it was his job to go along and help protect his father, though. Meanwhile, Roosevelt felt the same thing about Kermit, suspecting that he was too young to have learned the difference between fearless and reckless.
Roosevelt was right, Kermit's reckless disregard for one of Rondon's orders got a man killed and lost an irreplaceable number of provisions at one stage in the journey. And that was only one problem. The weather was relentlessly bad. The provisions were inadequate, and the explorers rarely found the game or Brazil nuts they'd counted on to fill out their minimal supplies. The rapids were too dangerous to traverse by canoe, and instead the heavy dugouts and cargo had to be portaged over the swampy land. Slowe than expected progress meant that they would run out of food long before they'd reached their planned meeting point in a more civilized area. Then there were injuries and illness--Kermit was constantly sick from malaria, which he'd had for years; Roosevelt injured an already weak leg and nearly died from the infection. He asked to be left behind so the expedition could progress more slowly, but Kermit wouldn't obey his father's orders. Oh, then there was the threat from the reputedly vicious Cinta Larga tribe, who shadowed the expedition, but amazingly, decided not to attack them (Millard proposes that the extremely decentralized leadership structure of the tribe helped prevent them from agreeing on whether to and how to attack). There was also the crew member who had a reputation for laziness, was caught stealing food several times, and then shot one of the best men in the group.
The Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition Team a few months into the journey.
Then there was the world around them, the river and rainforest, seemingly still, but teeming with life. The rainforest could seem like a monotonous stretch of green, that became to the weary scared travelers as vast and empty as the desert. Instead, as Millard describes it, the jungle was its own universe of extreme survivors--trees that altered their way of growing in order to deal with the darkness and rain. Animals that knew not to move, plants and seeds that had made themselves inpenetrable to predators. Most of all, there were the insects--hives that could release a swarm that speedily aimed for the same target, columns of ants that marched with as much precision and determination as a well-drilled army. All of these had found ways to survive, even striking bargains with the other living members of the rainforest. Open cavities in trees became homes for bugs who in turn ate predators who would destroy that tree. A poison that would have destroyed one food source is eaten by another. And where a mutually beneficial agreement couldn't be formed, a bug will find a way to get what it wants--my favorite of Millard's descriptions of creepy crawlies was the crab spider, who ate the insides of ants and then wore the leftover skeletons so they could approach new groups of ants and attack them. The river was no less dangerous and bizarre--aside from the lethal piranhas, caimans, there were creatures such as the arawana, a three foot long fish with a huge mouth and bony tongue that can leap twice its body length. The four-eyed fish has eyes divided in two at the water line by a band of tissue, so they can search the earth and sky for predators at the same time.
Sick, starving, and weary of each other, the expedition was rescued when they began to run into the independent rubber tappers who lived in the forest. From them they got food, new canoes, a guide, and even a chance to perform surgery on Roosevelt's infected leg. Roosevelt survived to write a successful book about the journey that was challenged by some well-known geographers, but his description of the river's course was eventually proved right.
Millard's description of the journey is riveting. She has plenty of drama to work with, but there are many narratives about difficult explorations, and they can easily become monotonous in the common details--the lack of food, the route that doesn't work, the bad weather, the infighting/attacking tribe. Millard, though, succeeds by creating full portraits of all the main people involved--not just Roosevelt, but Rondon, Cherrie, and especially the darkly romantic Kermit (who, unhappily, came to the sort of end that is often the fate of the darkly romantic; that doesn't mean you, dear reader, can't have a crush on him for the length of the book, though that sort of thing is rather inadvisable and can end really, really, really badly. Trust me on this one.). She makes the rainforest and the river just as vivid characters as any of the people in the book. Reading her explanation of how the forest works is enough to make anyone cross it off their "must visit" list--at least for a little while.
I haven't been able to stop myself from recommending this book to people already. This is the kind of book where you will find yourself sneaking glimpses of the index to try to get clues to the fate of some participants.
I must confess that a little bit of my enjoyment comes from how I found it--I get most of the books I read through reviews or from the advice of others, or the occasional library stumble through. But this one came from one of my favorite tricks. I also really liked David Grann's "Lost City of Z," so I combed through the bibliography and pulled out this title. So if you're not already reading the bibliographies of books, start right now! You never know what treasures you might find.