Interview with the author


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Interview with the author

Booknoise: When did you get the bug to travel to Darién?
Todd Balf: 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 got there.

Booknoise: Are we talking Conradian ugliness or more like Harrison Ford's famously miserable kin in The Mosquito Coast?
TB: 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.

Booknoise: Isaac Strain is in no American history book. What attracted you to him?
TB: 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.

Booknoise: 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?
TB: 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.

Booknoise: 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?
TB: 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.

Booknoise: And the palm nuts were…?
TB: 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


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