Thursday, April 9, 2009

Searching for the Lost City of Z

In April 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett, along with his 21-year-old son Jack and Jack's best friend Raleigh Rimell, walked into the Amazon jungle, determined to find what he called "The Lost City of Z," an ancient, highly cultured and sophisiticated civilization he believed still existed in the Brazilian Amazon. They never returned. In early 2000, David Grann, a writer for The New Yorker, stumbled on the Fawcett mystery and began researching, eventually heading into the jungle himself.

I'm not spoiling things, I don't think, by telling you that Mr. Grann made it out. He must have, because I just finished reading his account, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.

Percy Fawcett and David Grann come from opposite ends of the explorer spectrum. Colonel Fawcett was "the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass and an almost divine sense of purpose." Although his family remembers him as preferring vegetarianism because he hated to kill an animal unnecessarily, he frequently told his traveling companions that anyone who broke a leg in the forest or became otherwise impeded would be abandoned to prevent slowing down the entire party. He willingly and frequently faced hostile tribesmen armed with blow darts and poison arrows and encountered crocodiles, jaguars, piranhas, vampire bats, giant anacondas, the candiru or "vampire fish" (you don't even want to know what they do to you), and every nightmarish insect you can imagine, and some you probably can't (say, the "eye licker" bees). He charted miles and miles of previously unmapped Amazonian wilderness, and kept coming back for more.

Grann, conversely, is neither explorer nor adventurer. "I don't even like to camp....I like newspapers, take-out food, sports highlights (recorded on TiVo), and the air-conditioning high. Given a choice each day between climbing two flights of stairs to my apartment and riding the elevator, I invariably take the elevator." I enjoyed his account of shopping for supplies -- at his wife's insistence, who felt that his sneakers and Swiss Army knife weren't sufficient -- at a Manhattan mega-store catering to hikers, off-road bikers, extreme-sports junkies, and weekend warriors, under the tutelage of a young clerk with "the glow of someone who had recently returned from Mount Everest."

But, like hundreds before him, Grann fell under the spell of the Fawcett mystery and set out to find out what happened -- even though as many as 100 "Fawcett freaks" have died over the decades in similar quests. So he leaves behind his wife and one-year-old son (after taking out extra life insurance) and travels more than 10,000 miles from New York City to London to Brazil, researching Fawcett's life and his story, eventually entering the same "Green Hell" where Fawcett was last seen.

This is a great book -- part biography, part detective story, part contemporary travel writing, with a bit of history and anthropology thrown in for good measure. Fawcett's adventures are said to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel The Lost World, in which explorers disappear into the unknown of South Ameri ca and find a land where dinosaurs still exist. As you might imagine, Grann's own telling of "the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century" has already attracted Hollywood's attention. Paramount Pictures bought rights to the book before it was even published, and supposedly Brad Pitt is set to produce and star as Fawcett.

And if you enjoy reading The Lost City of Z, you should also check out The River of Doubt, by Candice Millard, the story of Theodore Roosevelt's journey in 1912 down a black, uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through some of the most treacherous jungles in the world.

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