Lost City of Z

I’ve just read The Lost City of Z, by David Grann, which is a terrific read. It details the life of an English explorer, Percy Fawcett, and his attempts to find what he is sure exists — a mysterious hidden city in the midst of the Amazon which had once been the center of the indigenous culture. He makes several attempts to find it before he finally goes missing in 1925. The amazing thing is that he was right — there apparently was a central culture which made magnificent earthworks and roads and supported thousands of people before they all died of European diseases. If you’ve read 1491 you know the story.

I felt a little bit like Fawcett this weekend, dragging my friend A through the rain around Bodega head. I was reminded of a very funny section of the book when Fawcett gets a new assistant. His name is James Murray and he had been to the Antarctic with Ernest Shackleton, so he had plenty of explorer cred. Grann points out first that perhaps what is require of a polar explorer — the ability to endure cold and vast expanses of nothingness — in not exactly what is required of an explorer in the Amazon, where it is hot and there is almost an excess of stimuli — plants and animals and dangerous Indians and especially bugs. Murray does not do well — he is old, and it’s too hot, and his legs become infested with maggots which, when he foolishly tries to kill, rot inside his leg. He’s hungry, and when left behind once, eats half of a package of caramels sent along by Fawcett’s wife. Fawcett comes to regard him as “a coward, a malingerer, a thief, and worst of all, a cancer spreading thoughout his expedition,” while “Murray believed that Fawcett simply lacked empathy.”

As the party pushed ahead again, Murray began to fixate on Fawcett’s gold-washing pan, until he couldn’t bear it any longer. He opened his backpack and dumped the pan, along with most of his possessions, including his hammock and clothes. Fawcett warned him that he would need these things, but Murray insisted that he was trying to save his life, since Fawcett wouldn’t wait for him. The lighter pack improved Murray’s speed, but without his hammock he was forced to sleep on the ground in the pouring rain with bugs crawling on him, ‘By this time the Biologist . . . was suffering badly from his sores and from a lack of a change of clothes, for those he possessed were stinking,’ Fawcett wrote. ‘He was beginning to realize how foolish he had been to throw away all but immediate necessities in his pack, and became increasingly morose and frightened.”

And then, apparently, there were thunderstorms.

It reminded me of Bill Bryson’s friend, in A Walk in the Woods, who, on the Appalachian Trail, throws away all his specialized hiking gear and gets a U.S. Postal mailbag which he fills up with Snickers. As I remember it, he was quite pleased with that set-up.


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