Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rio Roosevelt

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey
by Candice Millard

There were several key words and phrases that rolled through my mind as I read The River of Doubt. These phrases included the following: "Yikes!" "Holy %^$##! and "Shudder." There were also frequent variations on the theme "There is no way I would do that in a million years." If you read (and enjoyed) Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, which was about the Lewis and Clark expedition, chances are you will like The River of Doubt. I have always found Theodore Roosevelt to be a fascinating figure, so I was drawn to this book.

The River of Doubt (renamed the Rio Roosevelt after the famous expedition described in the book) is a major tributary of the Amazon river and it runs nearly 1,000 miles through Brazil in the Amazonian rain forest. T. Roosevelt loved to physically challenge himself, and he also was an amateur (but quite accomplished) botanist and ornithologist. He loved to travel in previously unexplored places, have a part in discovering new species of plant and animal life, and see places that no human had seen before. Those are all admirable things to do, but the expedition on the River of Doubt nearly proved too much for him. In fact, Roosevelt's health never fully recovered and he died just five years after the trip.

The River of Doubt describes the trip from the moment a much tamer version of it was conceived in the mind of the curator of the American Museum of Natural History, Frank Chapman. Millard acquaints us with the major players who planned the trip, and the mistakes that led to its near tragic outcome. The scientists and wilderness "experts" were operating sight unseen and really had no idea what they were getting into. Plus, they were acutely conscious that they would be traveling with a former President of the United States. They thought that TR would be accustomed to traveling in a luxurious, lavish style and they brought along many items that were impractical and ended up getting left in the jungle as they men kept having to lighten their loads.

The River of Doubt is absolutely harrowing. The expedition slogged nearly 1,000 miles, often progressing as little as 3 or 4 miles a day, facing dangers all the time. On a daily basis they dealt with terrifying rapids, a real possibility of starvation, untold number of insects, poisonous snakes and other creatures, and the constant threat attack from indigenous Indians. Most of the men suffered from malaria for most or all of the trip. At one point, Roosevelt suffered a crippling leg injury and he discussed with his son Kermit his plan to commit suicide rather than slow down the group's progress. He knew their food rations were running out and any delay could be fatal. My brief description cannot do justice to all that these men endured. Three men in the group died on the trip, including one who was murdered by another crew member. Roosevelt himself very nearly did not survive.

As a reader, I found myself asking "Why would anyone put themselves through that?" I certainly wouldn't. Apparently there are people for whom wanderlust is so strong that they are willing to risk their own lives to see and experience new places. The River of Doubt is a thrilling story. The descriptions of some of the most remote places in the world are breathtaking. I wonder, though, if the sacrifice in lives and health was worth it. Not only did Roosevelt come back from the trip an old and broken man, but his son Kermit (who went on the trip to try to protect his father from harm) descended into alcoholism and eventually committed suicide. If that happened now, he would probably be diagnosed with PTSD.

The River of Doubt has whetted my curiosity about TR even more. I'm going to have to eventually read a broader biography of him to get a greater sense of who he was. I know there are several major books out there about him. Anyone have any recommendations?

Reverent Reader


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