The author of The Last River (2000) anatomizes another disastrous adventure in the unwelcoming outdoors: the1853–54 effort to discover a potential waterway through the isthmus of Panama.
It was the height of the canal era, and the canal that would cut through Panama would be the grandest yet: the rude weather of Cape Horn could be avoided, travel time to the gold fields of California cut in half, the whole world of shipping turned on its head. At the eastern end of Panama, in Darién, rumor of a gap through the mountains had hardened into belief. Here the land was only 40 miles wide, and 19th-century mapmakers avowed that “the mountains parted and the oceans all but kissed.” The US government sent the Darién Exploring Expedition, headed by Lieutenant Isaac Strain, to “lead a ‘speedy’ overland crossing of the isthmus in an attempt to map and survey the route.” It was anything but quick. The local Kuna population were evasive, worried about occupation of their land and reprisals for their ill treatment of an earlier expedition. But Strain thought he detected in their reticence a desire to hide the supposed gap’s location. Bad maps slowed the expedition’s progress, jungle damp fouled its scientific instruments, bloody flux and malaria felled its members. Strain was in way over his head even before he sailed into Caledonia Bay near Darién to find “mountains rising above mountains, a sea of dark peaks clothed in dark forests”—and no gap in sight. Balf pours on the historic doom and misery with such practiced ease that readers will not be surprised when a rescue party finally discovers Strain, weighing no more than 75 pounds, sporting a Panama hat, a tattered blue flannel shirt, one boot, and sores inflicted by burrowing insects. An epilogue recounts Balf’s own 2001 excursion to Darién and attests to the region’s utter wildness.
Crack contemporary place writing, related in wrenching, enchanting detail. (4 maps)