In our travel down the coast of the Pacific Northwest, we are listening to an audio version of the book “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_City_of_Z). This engaging, compelling narrative simultaneously tells the stories of three adventurers: Englishman Fawcett, Brazilian banker Lloyd, and the American reporter and author Grann. The early twentieth century, English explorer Percy Fawcett repeatedly journeyed into the heart of the Amazon in an attempt to discover a rumored, ancient civilization now succumb to the relentless onslaught of what Fawcett described as the green hell.
Far be it from me to summarize the chapters of this book in any manner as to even come close to its effect on the reader, for it is, in a single word–riveting.
Grann captures the essence of the mindset and determination of that era of explorer. The Royal Geographic Society was then filled with men (and later women) of this caliber, people capable of enduring hardship in overland exploration that give the modern day outdoors enthusiast cause to shudder, if not turn away from the thought alone for the onset of nausea.
The journals of Fawcett and his small crew describe pressing through a jungle so thick that a full day’s effort, at times, saw the gain of just 100 yards. The were attacked by mosquitoes without remorse, vampire bats while they slept, bees that nested in the liquid of their pupils, and maggots that infested their open wounds, occasionally pushing through the surrounding skin, as though to come up for air before diving back in. Despite swollen limbs, muscles far too lean to carry the packs on their backs, and the dark brood of malaria, they continued. They built rafts which they pulled up-stream, wading in waters infested with piranha and candiru, the famous “dick fish” of the Amazon river (which I have since learned, is not at all capable nor even interested in swimming into the male reproductive organs (http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160104-does-the-candiru-fish-really-eat-human-penises)).
I have not cringed so many times in reading a book as I have in these several hours as we drove from Powell’s book seller in Portland to Redding California. I have not so many times been reminded of how much our relationship to the world outside of the land we occupy as cities has changed.
For centuries Europeans dominated the natural and discovered world through a system of brutal oppression and control. This was accompanied by a determination that anything and anyone outside of the geographic regions described by the Christian bible were automatically uncivilized, heathen, even inhuman. Grann recounts this paradigm in his retelling of some of the Spanish entries into the Amazon with not a handful of men, but hundreds in full metal uniform and thousands of natives forced to accompany as slaves.
We have in the twenty first century entered the age of data collection. Mountains that were once held as impassible, sacred, or simply unnecessary to conquer are now scaled as a matter of recreation. Treks across inhospitable terrains in temperatures that never climb above freezing required years of preparation, massive ships to safeguard rations, and a risk to all who were encumbered.
The same trek across the South Pole are now conducted by individuals with a faction the gear, in far less time. The Pacific Crest Trail is walked, Mexico to Canada, 2600 miles without ever checking a compass, a topographical map, or the stars overhead. Our digital devices can tell us exactly where we are, at any given second, and yet we have no clue as to where we reside.
Colleen and I journeyed forty miles over the source of four days and three nights in the Washington Cascades, carrying packs roughly half the weight of those shouldered by Fawcett and his men. We hiked on trails so well worn that without a map, without compass or GPS we could cross the entire Glacier Peak Wilderness and not lose our bearing. Yet in those four days we were reminded how it feels to carry one’s own weight, to have all that we needed, to “discover” land in which many have gone before us, but they remain preserved enough that we felt as though we could be the first to set foot on those boulders, mountain shoulders, and snow fields.
In Fawcett’s two decades of exploration he adapted, evolved, and improved. He traveled lighter with each entry into the midnight canopy, and learned from the wisdom of the natives. He was perhaps one of the first ethnobotanists, replacing the brutal English attempts at curing wounds with heated irons to using local plant leaves, roots, and applications that for thousands of years had allowed the South Americans to survive, even prosper.
As my own gear has become lighter over three decades of excursions into the wilderness (clearly, a very different wilderness than that of the Amazon), I have moved from 65 pound packs to roughly 20 on most occasions. Now, I am motivated to take this farther, to learn what plants are available along the trail of the Sonoran Southwest, the Colorado Rockies, and the Washington Cascades and Olympic Peninsula such that my pack is even lighter, and I am able to travel longer without resupply.
Yet in comparison to the journeys of Fawcett, Shackleton, and Livingston, I recognize that I will never push my body as they once did. No one does. We have, I am certain, lost that kind of adventure.