did you get the bug to travel to Darién?
About two decades ago.
I was working at a New York magazine, a 22-year-old fact checker
who daydreamed a lot. I had vague notions of ditching work to
become a fulltime writer and tropical Darién seemed a fetching
destination for someone stuck in a cubicle: Untamed wilderness
on the doorstep of civilization…a mythic black hole at the
bottom of the North American continent. The Pan American Highway
dead-ended at Darién and didn't pick up again until deep
in Colombia. The only way to get from North to South America,
I learned, was by the most elemental and ancestral form of locomotion:
by foot. I was thrilled by that idea, that is until I actually
Are we talking Conradian
ugliness or more like Harrison Ford's famously miserable kin in
The Mosquito Coast?
The latter, I suppose. We
walked a lot, often in great stuporous circles, as it turned out.
I had intended to do a three-week, trans-hemispheric lowland journey—a
common trekking route in the '60s and one with little chance of
getting lost—but plans changed when I was persuaded that
escalating guerrilla activity near the border made the route too
risky. I already had the go-ahead for a magazine feature, so wanting
to preserve one of my few assignments, I came up with the idea
of crossing the isthmus and alighting on the "peak in Darién''
where Balboa first sighted the Pacific. Thing is, nobody really
knows where Balboa was on that day in 1513, and my quest to retrace
his steps was predictably disastrous. Alberto, a native Kuna Indian
guide (who misunderstood my poorly translated wishes), led us
along a remote trail that burrowed deeply into steamy, steep,
and incredibly unforgiving terrain. One night our camp was nearly
swept away in a flash flood and on another our hammocks collapsed
the rotting timbers they were attached to, bringing a whole bug-infested
cabana down on our heads. Needless to say we never made it to
a peak in Darién—the magazine photographer said he felt
as if he was living at the bottom of a tossed salad. Very green,
very wet. Extreme fatigue and discomfort made our friendly little
party sullen and quick to second-guess each other. My brother,
the trip naturalist, had it with me. When he got home he discovered
a suspicious rash blooming from beneath his undershorts, which
made him like me even less.
Isaac Strain is in
no American history book. What attracted you to him?
In explaining why he shifted
gears and wrote only about John Adams and not Adams and Thomas
Jefferson as he originally intended, the historian David McCullough
is fond of saying that you go where the light is. I seem drawn
to the dark and what my friend calls 'unsung failures.' Isaac
Strain lived brilliantly, daringly, but died in obscurity because
of a few iffy choices and immensely rotten luck. He was an early
glimpse of the modern American explorer—ambitious, undaunted,
and drawn away from his own continent to the exotic corners of
the globe. Had he managed to resist the Darién assignment he might
be on a coin today—in Encarta, at least.
When you spend two-plus
years with a character nobody has heard of, about an expedition
nobody knows, does it do weird things to you?
I wrote a letter to Nathaniel
Philbrick, whose work I greatly admire, confiding with perhaps
too much honesty about my sense of isolation doing this sort of
book. When you find yourself ecstatic talking to the arid descendents
of naval figures nobody has heard of, then it's probably time
to go see a Red Sox game or something. Apparently, he got a hoot
out of me. He wrote back cheering me on, saying that looks of
blank incomprehension shouldn't deter, and that these are incredible
stories that we Americans should know about. I lived off those
words for weeks.
When you returned to
Darién in 2001 to retrace the footsteps of Strain's expedition,
there were still State Department warnings and a chance you wouldn't
get permission from native tribes to traverse that portion of
the wilderness they govern. Given your past experience, what made
you think you'd get across?
I have a helpfully short memory
when it comes to painful episodes. I also got an extra large canister
of permithen [tick repellent], a guide who was bilingual, and
a sturdy lightweight tent to replace my dashing-but-always-troublesome
U.S. Army-issue hammock. Good decisions all. The day before I
left was my 40th birthday and one of the cards I got quoted the
French author Victor Hugo, who said that 40 is the old age of
youth. It was a nice, vaguely promising, sentiment but it paled
as a send-off when an attorney friend came by so I could sign
off on my will before leaving.
And the palm nuts were…?
Still there and waiting to
be eaten on the crossing route, but I'd have to say Strain's description
of his survival staple as 'refreshing' is on the generous side.
You will pretty much throw down anything after a long day in the
jungle, but in a taste test we sided with Gu.
The author in the Darién in 2001
Photographs by Todd Balf