The principle I’m going by here is that, when reading tales of exploring gone disastrously wrong, one should read the desert and jungle stories in the winter, and read about the polar explorers in the summer. But perhaps I have it backwards. Explore the poles wrapped up in a blanket in front of a fire, and wander the jungle with a drink in a coconut or pineapple? I’m consumed by doubt. But not by parasites, like the hapless members of the 1854 United States Darién Exploring Expedition.
The book is The Darkest Jungle (2003) by magazine writer Todd Balf, about an attempt to explore an especially difficult piece of the Panama isthmus in hopes of finding an easy route for a canal. I suppose it would be an exaggeration to say that everything goes wrong. After all, most of the explorers survive. But it’s rough going.
Balf does a fine job with the story. His prose is clean and efficient. He skillfully blends current knowledge with the perspective of the explorers:
In the morning when the men awoke, some found themselves weak and disoriented, their night clothing saturated with blood. The culprit, a vampire bat, excised such a tiny piece of flesh, and bit so surgically, a sleeping man almost never stirred. An anticoagulant in the bat’s saliva produced a steady trickle of blood that flowed freely all night long. (138)
What did the explorers experience, why was it not quite what they thought it would be, that’s the pattern. There’s a nice bit in Chapter 7 where I kept trying, futilely, to compare Balf’s account to the map at the front of the book. Something was wrong. Did Balf botch this passage? Is the map no good? But it’s a trick: Balf has been writing entirely from the point of view of the explorers, who were completely confused about their location; he ends the chapter by showing how far off they were from where they thought they were. The map snapped back into place, and I was left in a fine state of suspense – now things were going to get really bad!
I give Balf great credit for not claiming that the story he is telling is particularly important. Academic and popular historians both suffer from this terrible disease, insisting that their study of body-building in Chicago from 1892-1901 informs us about all sorts crucial points of historical importance, when in fact it is a tiny project of minimal import that might someday help a scholar working on a genuinely important project write a footnote (I am describing, in disguise, my own dissertation). Balf makes it clear that his book is not about a turning point in history, or an essential stage in the building of the Panama Canal, but is merely a great story. Merely.
Recommended to anyone who likes this sort of thing, and not to anyone who does not. Why do we read these horrible stories of catastrophe? Where else do we see such human ingenuity, such fortitude, such stubbornness? I hope to never see it in my own life. Other people can explore for me.