I have returned to the deep, dark, dangerous Amazon River. In The Lost City of Z, which I read last month, David Grann mentioned that Theodore Roosevelt explored the region in 1913. To learn more about the Roosevelt expedition, I borrowed the audiobook edition of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard. Though the story spans ten compact discs, I finished it in only four days, lucky to have had much good weather for gardening/listening.
Millard starts her story about Roosevelt and his ill-conceived journey with the 1912 convention of the Progressive Party. Two weeks before the convention Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt in Milwaukee. With a bullet still lodged in his chest, wearing a bloodstained shirt for effect, he took the podium to accept the nomination to run for a third term as president of the United States. Losing the election to Woodrow Wilson, he was then without a political office and open for adventure. After accepting an offer to speak in several South American countries, he accepted another invitation to take a trip on the Amazon River or on one of its tributaries. As originally conceived, the journey was simply sight-seeing. Once he was in South America, however, the former president was easily talked into a more arduous venture, a boat trip down the uncharted River of Doubt. He had always dreamed of being a real explorer.
The expedition required months of travel just to reach the headwaters of the fabled river. During that time many porters deserted and most of the pack animals died. Most of the provisions (gourmet foods, heavy scientific instruments, and other items appropriate only for the original pleasure cruise) were lost. The band of men, including Roosevelt's son Kermit and the Brazilian explorer Candido Mariono da Silva Rondon, were in dire straits already when they reached the headwaters, not knowing what lay before them. Rocky rapids, impassible waterfalls, piranha, malaria, poisonous snakes, and hostile tribes who had never seen outsiders were only a few of the dangers. Roosevelt and his guides did not even know how long the river was or whether it really emptied into the Amazon.
As I was listening, I kept wondering "Did Roosevelt die in Brazil?" It seemed like I would remember that if it were true! Millard foreshadowed that Roosevelt wrote about the trip afterward. Still, I was expecting to hear that he had died. I would not have been surprised if the whole expedition died, though I knew that it survived. There were no easy days on the River of Doubt.
Readers who enjoy adventure should seek this book.
Millard, Candice. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey. Books on Tape, 2005. ISBN 1415924562