Todd Balf attended the University of New Hampshire and is a former senior editor at Outside Magazine and a contributing editor to Men’s Journal as well as a frequent contributor to Fast Company. His 1999 cover story for that magazine on the Walker–McEwan expedition to Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo River turned into his authorial debut bestseller, The Last River. His new book, The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America’s Ill Fated Race to Connect the Seas, chronicles the harrowing fate of the first US naval effort to transverse the narrow, 40-mile Isthmus of Panama in 1854 (under the command of thirty-three-year-old Naval officer Isaac Strain). As you will discover in the conversation below, Todd Balf learned of that expedition and the amazing Lieutenant Strain when he went to the area of Panama [see map] known as the Darien Gap in 1991 on a magazine assignment, and as we are told on a memorably flawed crossing of the Gap, he and his companions managed to see neither the Atlantic or the Pacific. Todd Balf and his family live close to Boston. He is mulling over his next story and his next adventure.
Here is Penny Simon’s brief overview of the Darien Expedition that Todd Balf recounts so vividly:
"Strain’s party provisioned for ten days, expecting in that time to be ‘the first to cross from sea to sea,’ but that optimistic vision quickly devolved into a nightmare. Their guns rusted in the damp heat and no settlements could be found. The palm nuts they subsisted on were so acidic they dissolved tooth enamel and ate away the linings of their digestive systems. The men lost half their body weight and were beset by flesh-embedding parasites, vampire bats, and a range of infectious tropical maladies for which they had no antidotes. In the desperate final days the survivors flirted with cannibalism, and the sickest men had to be left behind so that the rest might have a chance to live. It would be seventy days before the quickest among them made it to civilization."
Robert Birnbaum: What kind of name is Balf? That is, what nationality?
Todd Balf: That’s a very good question. My father actually is Russian.
RB: So it was shortened from something?
TB: Possibly. That’s what we think. His dad was named Theodore when he came over here, at Ellis Island, like a billion other Theodores, for Theodore Roosevelt. So it’s very possible it was shortened.
RB: Okay. Why are stories like this [The Darien Gap Expedition of 1854] rarely, if ever, taught in history classes?
TB: I actually had a very good history teacher who loved to delve into the obscurity—
RB: What are you calling obscurity?
TB: There are many obscure stories. We are mining them more and more now because people are interested in them. But I remember history classes where it was not all about who were the presidents. It was about the real anecdotal approach to history. But, by and large, these figures, like Isaac Strain, explorers—I think they mean more to our generation, somehow, because we have lost a bit of our risk-taking personality.
RB: And thereby spawning entities like adventure travel companies.
TB: Exactly, adventure travel, yeah. It is a huge market. Actually, I was the adventure travel correspondent for Travel & Leisure.
RB: My recollection of history was that Lewis and Clark or even Jefferson’s motives for sponsoring that expedition were never fleshed out. And even after reading Stephen Ambrose’s account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, it didn’t really mean much to me until I read a novel about it—Brian Hall‘s I Should Be Extremely Happy to Be in Your Company. Hall put in the juice for juicy parts, the human context.
TB: These figures are supposed to accomplish something, hit some benchmark that we value, and more and more we are looking at something beyond the benchmarks. We are looking at—for me, in this book I loved the fact that this guy [Isaac Strain], in a sense, failed.
RB: You called him a loser.
TB: Beautiful losers. Shackleton and some of these others, they failed. They out and out failed. They made bone-headed decisions, and yet that’s what makes them more human. It makes them more identifiable in a lot of ways, and when they do something extraordinary, like save their comrades or something incredibly noble, it really hits home.
RB: Yes, they failed and they are beautiful losers, but the odds were stacked against them to begin with based on the body of knowledge that they had access to and the equipment and more. So it’s an odd kind of failure. To have been triumphant under those circumstances would really have been earthshaking.
TB: Extraordinary. Well, they were incredibly ambitious given the tools that they had and the knowledge they had. That’s the part of it. That’s why we always go, "Oh my god, I cannot believe Shackleton climbed that mountain range, after being at sea for 1800 miles, in a row boat, essentially." You immediately personalize it, "Could I have done something like that? Is that possible?" It strains your credulity in a way, and so that is part of their magic, part of the appeal and part of what’s really interesting about writing about it.
RB: So how did you come on this story of this obscure, beautiful loser?
TB: [laughs] It got to me in a roundabout way. I was actually doing some adventure travel work, writing about—that was my niche, doing adventure travel stories, going somewhere, climbing some mountain, going off, nearly getting yourself killed. I was really fascinated with this area of the world called the Darien Jungle. My first job out of college was as a fact checker at Esquire magazine.
RB: Who was the editor then?
TB: Lee Eisenberg was there.
RB: That’s a while ago—that was when Chris Whittle’s group ran it, yes?
TB: And Phil Moffit. It was actually a great time to be there. It was a resurgence. Esquire had been down for a while—
RB: This was a little after Clay Felker revived it.
TB: Right. It was really a great place to work. But at the time I got this story that I was fact checking. The story was about the Darien Jungle in Panama, right at the door step of South America, and it was talking about how the Pan-American highway that goes from Alaska, all the way to Terra del Fuego did not go through this gap—the Darien Gap. And I thought that is just incredible. I didn’t believe it at first. It checked out. But ever since that time, I thought that this was a place I wanted to go. And many people are struck by that. It was a big hippie trekking route in the ’60s because, again, the road ends—
RB: We’re not talking about Darien, Connecticut?
TB: [laughs] Talk about an interesting parallel—Darien, CT and Darien, Panama. But yeah, it was a popular place to go in the ’60s, and a lot of people were enamored of the idea that the road ends and you connect the continents by walking. So that was my connection with the place, and I traveled there—
RB: The Darkest Jungle is about crossing the gap [east to west]. Is it easier to walk down it [north to south]?
TB: You’re right. The route that was popularized was going down it. It wasn’t connecting the oceans, which was really the prize in the 19th century, that was, "Let’s find a way to connect the seas. It’s so narrow across this isthmus." But mostly, it was the idea of connecting the continents. So I traveled down there in the early ’90s and was to write a story for a magazine. And the story was going to be that I was going to walk the Darien Gap. And then I madly started calling everybody down there to get current information. And this was shortly after Noriega had been rousted out, so it was a fairly iffy place. The word was, "You do not want to walk down the Darien Gap. This is a bad news place. There are old Noriega cronies there. There are guerrillas from Columbia"—and we are not even talking about the wildlife and the difficulty of negotiating this jungle environment. This was one of the early magazine assignments I had. I had to save this assignment—I get to go to Panama and be paid to do it, so I decided I would change the nature of the trip. That I would actually go and kind of walk across the isthmus, looking for the peak where Balboa stood and found the Pacific for the first time. Except nobody really knows where that is. [both laugh] But my magazine editor bought it. [laughter continues]
RB: This would be one of those times where it was useful to prey on the lack of geographical knowledge that is almost a given in America.
TB: That’s true. It sounded good to him. So we went, and it was sort of a disaster. It was a disaster in a sense that we never accomplished anything. We wandered around in circles in the middle of the Darien jungle, and when I was down there doing the research, I heard the story about Isaac Strain and his crossing and the disaster that ensued.
RB: You heard about it from…?
TB: From doing research prior to leaving for this trip. I went to the local library, and they had some old, 19th century books—and one called White Indians of the Darien about a 1920′s expedition. It started to come together, that this place was not just a magnet for people in the 1960′s. This place has been a magnet for explorers and scammers and nations dating back to the Spanish conquest. It was amazing.
RB: I read the book, so I can understand the reason why you would write this book. But you just had strands of research at the time. So how did you do the book? It’s possible that it might not have been interesting.
RB: At what point did you find the essential information, what convinced you to move forward to writing a book?
TB: There were just some open-ended questions. The first reaction when you say, "Okay the guy could not cross the isthmus–that’s only 50 miles." We are not talking about some grand, Arctic expedition with expanses of tundra that someone is crossing. We are talking about something narrow—something you could almost spit across. So how does a guy get totally lost, not emerge for months? Seven people starved to death. It just didn’t add up. And so that was part of what made me curious. And when I learned more about Isaac Strain, this guy wasn’t a fool—as he has been made out to be by anybody who has bothered to look at this. It spurred my curiosity even more. I wanted to know what exactly happened.
RB: But you still don’t know what exactly happened.
TB: We have a pretty good idea. The funny thing is that as I was doing [the book] I started to realize—and I didn’t realize when I first took on the project—there were several newspapers, just forty-fifty miles away, in Panama City and Colon, just up the isthmus where this was all taking place. There were American newspapers because they were building an American railroad across the isthmus. Who would have guessed that you had this media spectacle happening in the 1850′s—it reminded me of the Krakauer Into Thin Air thing where you had everybody speculating on what happened, why it happened and what it all meant.
RB: Is there a sense in which you daydream or think you were born in the wrong century? After having done this book, would that have been a more interesting time for you to live?
TB: I don’t think I have any illusions that I would be—I think that’s part of what goes into my interest in writing about it, is that you are so—people lived that way, being at sea for six years without touching home. Could the slightest hint of an insult lead to a duel and protecting one’s honor? There are all sorts of elements of life in the 19th century that is fascinating.
RB: It seems like such a different time, a different world and way of looking at life. I was laid up with some minor but discomfiting illness recently and was thinking about what these guys endured. Really unbelievable deprivation and suffering. And none of them ever really recovered.
TB: Right. I wondered throughout this book, was there unanimous consent in going across the isthmus, even though they knew they risked death and all sorts of suffering, or was it about this national honor—it rung some bells for me. We’re in a situation in Iraq, and there is a lot of flag waving going on. And you wonder what is it that propels somebody to do something when they know it’s not going to come out well?
RB: That is reminiscent of the advertisement that Shackleton put in various papers to recruit people for his expedition in which he pretty much promised that there was little chance of survival.
TB: [laughs] Right and it goes back to your question of, would I want to live in that time? It gives you an idea of how desperate people were for something extraordinary, doing something—for seaman being on a boat for weeks and years on end, the idea of an adventure, idea of actually being able to come home and saying, "We did something remarkable."
RB: ‘Thrill-seeker’ wouldn’t cover it, would it?
TB: No, but there was that element.
TB: Yeah, yeah.
RB: But it wasn’t a fifteen-minute, momentary hit.
RB: The most amazing and unbelievable revelation was your pointing out some US government study that suggested using eight thermonuclear devices to cut a channel across the Darien Gap. And as far as the 40-50 thousand indigenous people who had been living there since before history began, well, just move them elsewhere. What psycho could even put that down on paper?
TB: It’s totally mind-boggling when you think about what did this place do to deserve these idiotic schemes that keep coming, haunting it over and over again.
RB: Is another canal needed?
TB: Apparently, it [the Panama Canal] is jammed full around the clock. It is an issue. And back then everybody was in love with using nuclear explosives to excavate—the Russians, the US. But what I was wondering when I crossed and retraced the footsteps of this expedition and I am with these Kuna Indians who are on their ancestral homelands and the last stand of North American Indians who are on their homelands. And these guys are pulling these batteries out of the jungles—showing the remnants of the 1960 expedition to excavate with nuclear devices, and I’m thinking, "Do they have any idea what this was about?" It didn’t seem that they did. They knew somebody had something in mind for their territory as they have always had, and yet it didn’t happen.
RB: What was Noriega’s record on indigenous peoples? Did he try to kill them, like everyone else has tried?
TB: I don’t really know that. The rumor was that he had actually grown up in Darien and was from a place called Yavisa, but I wasn’t able to substantiate that. I thought it might be fun to send him a copy of the book and see if he would blurb it. [laughs]
RB: Send it to the Marion Federal penitentiary?
TB: What is he doing anyway, you know? [laughs]
RB: Why do you think people might want to read about these expeditions—as opposed to maybe watching documentaries or movies?
TB: People—maybe things have changed after 9/11—by and large, people feel safe and secure, and the idea of adventure is a part of it and going to corners of the globe that people had no ideas what would be found. And also about values, acting and behaving in a manner you hoped if you were faced with a challenge like, "Do I leave my men behind and save my own hide?"
RB: Or do I eat them?
TB: [laughs] Do I go down with the ship? What would one do? And I think those sort of questions and, “Do I take care of my clients, or do I save myself and go back to my family?” It’s not just 19th century. It’s contemporary, too, [like] the Everest stories. It is interesting to people for those reasons.
RB: It seems to be somewhat in opposition to the general disinterest Americans have about the rest of the world. On the one hand, we could easily and without a bad conscience dispose of 50 thousand jungle Indians, but we would be fascinated with a handful of Americans who went to the Indians’ homeland.
TB: Yeah, it’s true. Like the Balkans, there was a war that almost completely blew over the heads of most Americans when it was seemingly faceless. Why do some of these stories resonate and stick with people? Maybe because they are somewhat simple, in some ways. Somebody was trying to do something incredibly ambitious. They failed, and then they had to scramble to save themselves and save others. And there is a certain formula to some of these stories. And that’s appealing. When it gets complex, when you don’t know who the bad guys are or the good are, it gets to be a different thing.
RB: Is there any kind of trendiness about which areas of exploratory expeditions are focused on? There is a whole slew of Arctic-inspired stories, including novels.
RB: There have been some on Amazonian expeditions stories? And some Sahara Desert stories?
TB: One of the interesting things for me was that there seemed to be less—I loved the Arctic stories, too, but I am a little overwhelmed with them. One of the things was that this is a tropic story. It’s been done but not nearly as much as the arctic stories, and this one came at a time period that was really fascinating for me. Because we didn’t have the knowledge that we had even 50 years later—about malaria and disease theory. So all of that was really on the cusp of modern medicine and modern life—the post-Civil War period. And you had Isaac Strain, who was one of the most educated and ambitious guys that could have been. And yet there were only certain things he could have known.
RB: Is Strain’s Brazilian expedition worth more attention?
TB: There is a lot more there, and I ended up cutting a lot of it out of the book. It was riveting to me, but it was a little bit off the story line—but yeah, it’s an incredible story of a guy, 21 years old, who decides he is going to take two years, throwing himself into the Brazilian wilderness. Nobody was in the middle of Brazil at that time, and he is writing letters all over the place trying to get support and put some money together and get the Navy to give him a ride there. He [really] was working it.
RB: The US Navy seems like an interesting institution in the 19th century.
TB: It really was. That’s one of the things that you are seeing with some of the books out there. Philbrick did the book about the Wilke’s expedition and that was beginning of this whole adventure age for the Navy. For a twenty-year period of pre-Civil War, it was going everywhere and part of it was that it was in the battle of wills with Great Britain to say, "Hey, look what we can do. We are not just a military force; we are a scientific nation. We want to battle on the intellectual battlefields as well as out on the open seas." And so there was this really enlightened kind of period; and in 1854, when this expedition tales place, it was really the height of it. You had expeditions opening Japan at the same time, expeditions to the Bering Sea and going up the Amazon—every which way. There were no wars to fight, so this was a way to exploit the Navy.
RB: We had knocked off the Mexicans and were preparing to fight among ourselves and had no stake in the Crimean War—it wasn’t until the Cuban-Spanish War that we got back into it.
TB: Right, right.
RB: Another fascinating thing that you introduce is the winter of 1857. Which was an anomalous weather phenomenon? But it does remind one that it’s only predictable in the rear-view mirror. One of these raging winters that went deep into April with sub, sub-zero temperatures. Was that part of cluster of weather?
TB: No, just that winter. As a writer, you are always toying with some of these themes, and ones that I really enjoyed were, the beginning of the book starts with a huge storm—it seemed too good to be true. You have this expedition with these two anomalous events. This North Atlantic storm that wipes out all sorts of shipping up and down the coast, and he somehow manages to squeak through with his ship and in fact pushes him even faster toward the destination that is eventually going to kill him. And then you have on the back end this—when he is trying to recover back at home—cold weather that is brutal. So he decides for whatever reason—is it the cold weather? Is it that he needs to get back to this part of his world to reclaim his honor? But he gets on a ship and he goes back to the Isthmus of Panama, to the utter incredulity of his friends, who are thinking that now he is going to write his memoirs and tell his story. But no, he has to go back to Panama. And, of course, what happens is, he dies the day he lands.
RB: How do Americans receive this book? What has been the response?
TB: It’s hard for me to say. Darien is a place that surprises people. It’s pretty close to where we live, and Panama has its relationship, a really bizarre kind of relationship with our country, and yet—
RB: Do you sense that people know where Panama is?
TB: I think they know the Panama Canal—
RB: Do they know where the Panama Canal is?
TB: [laughs] That’s a good question.
RB: Do you think people can list the counties south of Mexico and north of Colombia?
TB: No. No way. I think they have general sense of Panama, it’s sort of the bottom part of the isthmus. I think Darien is a place that they probably never heard of. Although the interesting thing is that I have been at some readings where people have come expressly for that reason. They have—one of the things you find is that Panama resonates with people because of the canal, because a lot of people lived or had family that lived in the canal zone because relatives in the military. You think of how many people pass through the canal as part of our military. The US Air Force had a survival training group camp down there with tens of thousands of military have trained down there. It is one of the most memorable experiences of their lives. Think about being thrown in the jungle for two weeks with nothing and having to find your way out. So I found that people have come out to the readings and they have had some connections. Nine tenths of the people have never heard of Darien, but one tenth of those have a connection, and that is kind of interesting.
RB: I don’t see much difference in this story as you tell it and someone like Andrea Barrett having written it as a novel. Maybe it would be damned as piece of fiction, but it’s a very compelling story. That is, it’s nondenominational [fiction/nonfiction].
TB: It’s funny, I have gotten that reaction for my first book, too, The Last River. I remember the publisher came out with the cover, and it was very moody and had a skeletal head in the picture, which alarmed me. They explained it, "The way we are seeing this book is as novelistic, even though it’s nonfiction."
RB: That explains putting a skull on the cover?
TB: Well, I was a first-time author, and so I bought anything, "Sure, okay." There is that kind of reaction, and in a way I like that I am getting that kind of feedback.
RB: What’s the expectation of the publisher of what this book is going to do? A Jon Krakauer/Sebastian Junger kind of thing. Or is there a belief that a certain kind of story has a longer gestation period?
TB: I don’t know. There is a strong attraction in publishing to historical narratives, and some of them have been successful. The reading that publishers seem to be getting now, whether it’s right or not, is that historical narratives are doing okay. The reading public may be moving somewhere else. Where that is, is anyone’s guess?
RB: Gardening books.
TB: So they treated this book as opposed to the way they treated the first book was very different. The last book was about a contemporary expedition, and this book is a historical narrative.
RB: Your publisher had the award-winning Erik Larson book The Devil and the White City.
TB: They are committed to these sorts of stories, and that is a very positive thing. In terms of what happens from the writer’s perspective. It’s difficult. It does feel like a roller coaster. Who knows? I don’t want to go off and whine and complain. Everybody has their stories—
RB: Would it have been sufficient just to written this book, to have gotten this book on the shelf?
TB: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely, that’s what you ultimately have to be satisfied with, is that there are things that are out of your hands. Certainly the way someone markets a book or what the readers are into at this particular moment.
RB: What do they know?
TB: [laughs] I think about the first book that I wrote. It was a kick just to—I have a book to write, and I always wanted to do this, and what I really hope to do—I don’t care if it’s a best seller. I want to tell this story, and I hope that it’s good enough that I can write a second book. And that’s what has happened. Hopefully, it keeps going. So you need to make a living, and everybody would love to sell a million books and all that, but ultimately I found out about a place that very few people know about and in a historical context that very few people have looked into. And for me that was an adventure. It’s one thing to walk across the Darien, and that’s the traditional sort of adventure that I have done. Mountain climbing or kayaking or whatever, all these different things. The adventure of doing a historical research—it is an adventure. You are digging and putting connections together that other people have not put together. This isn’t like the sixteenth book on Thomas Jefferson. This is a start—in a sense. If someone—that’s both exciting and frustrating. It’s fresh ground, it’s new tracks. But it’s also as a historical project—history changes.
RB: Will there be subsidiary uses of this story? A PBS or National Geographic special?
TB: Last summer the BBC went to Darien in the same bay that this expedition landed. They went not to research this expedition but to do the one that occurred in the 1700′s when the Scots had landed in Caledonia Bay and had attempted to colonize Darien. It was a predictable disaster, and so the BBC sent a crew and scientists as well who were doing digging there and peeling back the jungle finding remnants of this village that was once there. That is a pretty fascinating aspect of that landscape because things grow so quickly. The jungle has taken over everything, and yet there are all these footprints, and you could lift up the mat that has grown up there and taken over—
RB: Bomb the place. Defoliate it!
TB: [laughs] That’s right. Scour it.
RB: What would be the next thing that you do?
TB: I am just all over the map.
RB: Is that what you are, a writer?
RB: As an opposed to an adventurer?
TB: I think that initially I got into it because I wanted to do things and experience part of the world and travel.
RB: And then you had a family and have gotten soft.
TB: [laughs] I find myself wanting to branch out in to some other personal areas. For me, I have a very broad interpretation of what adventure is. I don’t see it as necessarily having to climb a mountain. It can be personal, within your life. And within a very domestic situation. It could be anything really. But typically editors and publishers are a little reticent to share that interpretation. So I may have to take my own little risks if I want to pursue some things that are meaningful to me at this point.
RB: Your ambition is to continue to write books?
TB: Oh yeah. And I continue to write magazine pieces. Because magazine stuff is a nice way to brew stories.
RB: Will the magazine word allow you to do that?
TB: It’s funny the two worlds don’t communicate that well. I remember even as an editor at Outside and there was always a bit of suspicion about authors. These guys had large egos and they were difficult to work with. That they really had no sense of what a good magazine story was. It was patently unfair, but that hasn’t changed a lot. There is still—an agent will tell you, "You’ve had a best-selling book. You could be writing for anybody." I know, as an editor, that magazines don’t work that way. So you have to sell on your own.
RB: So the answer to my question is that you are not sure yet what you want for the next project.
TB: No, I am really looking at a couple of things. But they really do range quite dramatically, and so it’s going to take a decision on my part whether I want to run the risk of doing a pretty non-commercial project—if you want to consider my books in the commercial category. Having worked on The Darkest Jungle and doing a lot of time in libraries and archival research and the last book, a pretty straight kind of documentary approach telling a story, I am looking at some more personal stories to tell. I think that’s strength of mine as a writer and one that I haven’t been able to exploit in the books I have done so far.
RB: Good luck.
TB: Yeah, thanks. Good.
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing