Todd Balf

Todd BalfTodd 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 Theodorewhen 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 Expeditionof 1854] rarely, if ever, taught in history classes?

TB: I actually had a very good history teacher who loved to delveinto the obscurity—

RB: What are you calling obscurity?

TB: There are many obscure stories. We are miningthem more and more now because people are interested in them. ButI remember history classes where it was not all about who were thepresidents. It was about the real anecdotal approach to history.But, by and large, these figures, like Isaac Strain, explorers—Ithink they mean more to our generation, somehow, because we havelost a bit of our risk-taking personality.

RB: And thereby spawning entities like adventure travel companies.

TB: Exactly, adventure travel, yeah. It is a hugemarket. Actually, I was the adventure travel correspondent for Travel& Leisure.

RB: My recollection of history was that Lewis and Clark or evenJefferson's motives for sponsoring that expedition were never fleshedout. And even after reading Stephen Ambrose's account of the Lewisand Clark expedition, it didn't really mean much to me until I reada 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 somebenchmark that we value, and more and more we are looking at somethingbeyond the benchmarks. We are looking at—for me, in this bookI loved the fact that this guy [Isaac Strain], in a sense, failed.

RB: You called him a loser.

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.

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 oddswere stacked against them to begin with based on the body of knowledgethat they had access to and the equipment and more. So it's an oddkind of failure. To have been triumphant under those circumstanceswould really have been earthshaking.

TB: Extraordinary. Well, they were incrediblyambitious 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 beingat sea for 1800 miles, in a row boat, essentially." You immediatelypersonalize it, "Could I have done something like that? Isthat possible?" It strains your credulity in a way, and sothat is part of their magic, part of the appeal and part of what'sreally interesting about writing about it.

RB: So how did you come on this story of this obscure, beautifulloser?

TB: [laughs] It got to me in a roundabout way.I was actually doing some adventure travel work, writing about—thatwas my niche, doing adventure travel stories, going somewhere, climbingsome mountain, going off, nearly getting yourself killed. I wasreally fascinated with this area of the world called the DarienJungle. My first job out of college was as a fact checker at Esquiremagazine.

RB: Who was the editor then?

TB: Lee Eisenberg was there.

RB: That's a while ago—that was when Chris Whittle's groupran 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 timeI got this story that I was fact checking. The story was about theDarien Jungle in Panama, right at the door step of South America,and it was talking about how the Pan-American highway that goesfrom Alaska, all the way to Terra del Fuego did not go through thisgap—the Darien Gap. And I thought that is just incredible.I didn't believe it at first. It checked out. But ever since thattime, I thought that this was a place I wanted to go. And many peopleare struck by that. It was a big hippie trekking route in the '60sbecause, 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 inthe '60s, and a lot of people were enamored of the idea that theroad ends and you connect the continents by walking. So that wasmy connection with the place, and I traveled there—

RB: The Darkest Jungle is about crossing the gap [eastto west]. Is it easier to walk down it [north to south]?

TB: You're right. The route that was popularized was going downit. It wasn't connecting the oceans, which was really the prizein the 19th century, that was, "Let's find a way to connectthe seas. It's so narrow across this isthmus." But mostly,it was the idea of connecting the continents. So I traveled downthere 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 DarienGap. And then I madly started calling everybody down there to getcurrent information. And this was shortly after Noriega had beenrousted out, so it was a fairly iffy place. The word was, "Youdo 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"—andwe are not even talking about the wildlife and the difficulty ofnegotiating this jungle environment. This was one of the early magazineassignments I had. I had to save this assignment—I get togo to Panama and be paid to do it, so I decided I would change thenature of the trip. That I would actually go and kind of walk acrossthe isthmus, looking for the peak where Balboa stood and found thePacific for the first time. Except nobody really knows where thatis. [both laugh] But my magazine editor bought it. [laughter continues]

RB: This would be one of those times where it was useful to preyon the lack of geographical knowledge that is almost a given inAmerica.

balfTB: 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 thistrip. I went to the local library, and they had some old, 19th centurybooks—and one called White Indians of the Darienabout a 1920's expedition. It started to come together, that thisplace was not just a magnet for people in the 1960's. This placehas been a magnet for explorers and scammers and nations datingback to the Spanish conquest. It was amazing.

RB: I read the book, so I can understand the reason why you wouldwrite 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 havebeen interesting.

TB: Right.

RB: At what point did you find the essential information, whatconvinced 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 crossthe isthmus--that's only 50 miles." We are not talking aboutsome grand, Arctic expedition with expanses of tundra that someoneis crossing. We are talking about something narrow—somethingyou could almost spit across. So how does a guy get totally lost,not emerge for months? Seven people starved to death. It just didn'tadd up. And so that was part of what made me curious. And when Ilearned more about Isaac Strain, this guy wasn't a fool—ashe has been made out to be by anybody who has bothered to look atthis. It spurred my curiosity even more. I wanted to know what exactlyhappened.

RB: But you still don't know what exactly happened.

TB: We have a pretty good idea. The funny thingis that as I was doing [the book] I started to realize—andI didn't realize when I first took on the project—there wereseveral newspapers, just forty-fifty miles away, in Panama Cityand Colon, just up the isthmus where this was all taking place.There were American newspapers because they were building an Americanrailroad across the isthmus. Who would have guessed that you hadthis media spectacle happening in the 1850's—it reminded meof the Krakauer Into Thin Air thing where you had everybodyspeculating on what happened, why it happened and what it all meant.

RB: Is there a sense in which you daydream or think you were bornin the wrong century? After having done this book, would that havebeen a more interesting time for you to live?

TB: I don't think I have any illusions that I would be—Ithink that's part of what goes into my interest in writing aboutit, is that you are so—people lived that way, being at seafor six years without touching home. Could the slightest hint ofan insult lead to a duel and protecting one's honor? There are allsorts of elements of life in the 19th century that is fascinating.

RB: It seems like such a different time, a different world andway of looking at life. I was laid up with some minor but discomfitingillness recently and was thinking about what these guys endured.Really unbelievable deprivation and suffering. And none of themever really recovered.

TB: Right. I wondered throughout this book, wasthere unanimous consent in going across the isthmus, even thoughthey knew they risked death and all sorts of suffering, or was itabout this national honor—it rung some bells for me. We'rein a situation in Iraq, and there is a lot of flag waving goingon. And you wonder what is it that propels somebody to do somethingwhen they know it’s not going to come out well?

RB: That is reminiscent of the advertisement that Shackleton putin various papers to recruit people for his expedition in whichhe pretty much promised that there was little chance of survival.

TB: [laughs] Right and it goes back to your question of, wouldI want to live in that time? It gives you an idea of how desperatepeople were for something extraordinary, doing something—forseaman being on a boat for weeks and years on end, the idea of anadventure, 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.

RB: Adventurer?

TB: Yeah, yeah.

RB: But it wasn't a fifteen-minute, momentary hit.

TB: Right.

RB: The most amazing and unbelievable revelation was your pointingout some US government study that suggested using eight thermonucleardevices to cut a channel across the Darien Gap. And as far as the40-50 thousand indigenous people who had been living there sincebefore history began, well, just move them elsewhere. What psychocould even put that down on paper?

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.

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 jammedfull around the clock. It is an issue. And back then everybody wasin love with using nuclear explosives to excavate—the Russians,the US. But what I was wondering when I crossed and retraced thefootsteps of this expedition and I am with these Kuna Indians whoare on their ancestral homelands and the last stand of North AmericanIndians who are on their homelands. And these guys are pulling thesebatteries out of the jungles—showing the remnants of the 1960expedition to excavate with nuclear devices, and I'm thinking, "Dothey have any idea what this was about?" It didn't seem thatthey did. They knew somebody had something in mind for their territoryas they have always had, and yet it didn't happen.

RB: What was Noriega's record on indigenous peoples? Did he tryto kill them, like everyone else has tried?

TB: I don't really know that. The rumor was that he had actuallygrown up in Darien and was from a place called Yavisa, but I wasn'table to substantiate that. I thought it might be fun to send hima 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—byand large, people feel safe and secure, and the idea of adventureis a part of it and going to corners of the globe that people hadno ideas what would be found. And also about values, acting andbehaving in a manner you hoped if you were faced with a challengelike, "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? Whatwould one do? And I think those sort of questions and, “DoI take care of my clients, or do I save myself and go back to myfamily?” It's not just 19th century. It's contemporary, too,[like] the Everest stories. It is interesting to people for thosereasons.

RB: It seems to be somewhat in opposition to the general disinterestAmericans have about the rest of the world. On the one hand, wecould easily and without a bad conscience dispose of 50 thousandjungle Indians, but we would be fascinated with a handful of Americanswho went to the Indians’ homeland.

TB: Yeah, it's true. Like the Balkans, there wasa war that almost completely blew over the heads of most Americanswhen it was seemingly faceless. Why do some of these stories resonateand stick with people? Maybe because they are somewhat simple, insome ways. Somebody was trying to do something incredibly ambitious.They failed, and then they had to scramble to save themselves andsave others. And there is a certain formula to some of these stories.And that's appealing. When it gets complex, when you don't knowwho the bad guys are or the good are, it gets to be a differentthing.

RB: Is there any kind of trendiness about which areas of exploratoryexpeditions are focused on? There is a whole slew of Arctic-inspiredstories, including novels.

TB: Right.

RB: There have been some on Amazonian expeditions stories? Andsome Sahara Desert stories?

TB: One of the interesting things for me was that there seemedto be less—I loved the Arctic stories, too, but I am a littleoverwhelmed with them. One of the things was that this is a tropicstory. 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 forme. Because we didn't have the knowledge that we had even 50 yearslater—about malaria and disease theory. So all of that wasreally on the cusp of modern medicine and modern life—thepost-Civil War period. And you had Isaac Strain, who was one ofthe most educated and ambitious guys that could have been. And yetthere 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 ofit out of the book. It was riveting to me, but it was a little bitoff the story line—but yeah, it's an incredible story of aguy, 21 years old, who decides he is going to take two years, throwinghimself into the Brazilian wilderness. Nobody was in the middleof Brazil at that time, and he is writing letters all over the placetrying to get support and put some money together and get the Navyto give him a ride there. He [really] was working it.

RB: The US Navy seems like an interesting institution in the 19thcentury.

TB: It really was. That's one of the things thatyou are seeing with some of the books out there. Philbrick did thebook about the Wilke's expedition and that was beginning of thiswhole adventure age for the Navy. For a twenty-year period of pre-CivilWar, it was going everywhere and part of it was that it was in thebattle of wills with Great Britain to say, "Hey, look whatwe can do. We are not just a military force; we are a scientificnation. We want to battle on the intellectual battlefields as wellas out on the open seas." And so there was this really enlightenedkind of period; and in 1854, when this expedition tales place, itwas really the height of it. You had expeditions opening Japan atthe same time, expeditions to the Bering Sea and going up the Amazon—everywhich way. There were no wars to fight, so this was a way to exploitthe Navy.

RB: We had knocked off the Mexicans and were preparing to fightamong ourselves and had no stake in the Crimean War—it wasn'tuntil the Cuban-Spanish War that we got back into it.

balfTB: Right, right.

RB: Another fascinating thing that you introduceis the winter of 1857. Which was an anomalous weather phenomenon?But it does remind one that it's only predictable in the rear-viewmirror. One of these raging winters that went deep into April withsub, sub-zero temperatures. Was that part of cluster of weather?

TB: No, just that winter. As a writer, you arealways toying with some of these themes, and ones that I reallyenjoyed were, the beginning of the book starts with a huge storm—itseemed too good to be true. You have this expedition with thesetwo anomalous events. This North Atlantic storm that wipes out allsorts of shipping up and down the coast, and he somehow managesto squeak through with his ship and in fact pushes him even fastertoward the destination that is eventually going to kill him. Andthen you have on the back end this—when he is trying to recoverback at home—cold weather that is brutal. So he decides forwhatever reason—is it the cold weather? Is it that he needsto get back to this part of his world to reclaim his honor? Buthe gets on a ship and he goes back to the Isthmus of Panama, tothe utter incredulity of his friends, who are thinking that nowhe is going to write his memoirs and tell his story. But no, hehas to go back to Panama. And, of course, what happens is, he diesthe 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'ssort of the bottom part of the isthmus. I think Darien is a placethat they probably never heard of. Although the interesting thingis that I have been at some readings where people have come expresslyfor that reason. They have—one of the things you find is thatPanama resonates with people because of the canal, because a lotof people lived or had family that lived in the canal zone becauserelatives in the military. You think of how many people pass throughthe canal as part of our military. The US Air Force had a survivaltraining group camp down there with tens of thousands of militaryhave trained down there. It is one of the most memorable experiencesof their lives. Think about being thrown in the jungle for two weekswith nothing and having to find your way out. So I found that peoplehave come out to the readings and they have had some connections.Nine tenths of the people have never heard of Darien, but one tenthof those have a connection, and that is kind of interesting.

RB: I don't see much difference in this story as you tell it andsomeone like AndreaBarrett having written it as a novel. Maybe it would be damnedas 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 formy first book, too, The Last River. I remember the publishercame out with the cover, and it was very moody and had a skeletalhead in the picture, which alarmed me. They explained it, "Theway 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 Ibought 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 isgoing to do? A Jon Krakauer/Sebastian Junger kind of thing. Or isthere a belief that a certain kind of story has a longer gestationperiod?

TB: I don't know. There is a strong attraction in publishing tohistorical narratives, and some of them have been successful. Thereading that publishers seem to be getting now, whether it's rightor not, is that historical narratives are doing okay. The readingpublic may be moving somewhere else. Where that is, is anyone'sguess?

RB: Gardening books.

TB: So they treated this book as opposed to the way they treatedthe first book was very different. The last book was about a contemporaryexpedition, 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 avery positive thing. In terms of what happens from the writer'sperspective. It's difficult. It does feel like a roller coaster.Who knows? I don't want to go off and whine and complain. Everybodyhas their stories—

RB: Would it have been sufficient just to written this book, tohave gotten this book on the shelf?

TB: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely, that's what you ultimately have tobe satisfied with, is that there are things that are out of yourhands. Certainly the way someone markets a book or what the readersare into at this particular moment.

RB: What do they know?

TB: [laughs] I think about the first book thatI wrote. It was a kick just to—I have a book to write, andI always wanted to do this, and what I really hope to do—Idon't care if it's a best seller. I want to tell this story, andI hope that it's good enough that I can write a second book. Andthat's what has happened. Hopefully, it keeps going. So you needto make a living, and everybody would love to sell a million booksand all that, but ultimately I found out about a place that veryfew people know about and in a historical context that very fewpeople have looked into. And for me that was an adventure. It'sone thing to walk across the Darien, and that's the traditionalsort of adventure that I have done. Mountain climbing or kayakingor whatever, all these different things. The adventure of doinga historical research—it is an adventure. You are diggingand putting connections together that other people have not puttogether. This isn't like the sixteenth book on Thomas Jefferson.This is a start—in a sense. If someone—that's both excitingand frustrating. It's fresh ground, it's new tracks. But it's alsoas a historical project—history changes.

RB: Will there be subsidiary uses of this story? A PBS or NationalGeographic special?

TB: Last summer the BBC went to Darien in thesame bay that this expedition landed. They went not to researchthis expedition but to do the one that occurred in the 1700's whenthe Scots had landed in Caledonia Bay and had attempted to colonizeDarien. It was a predictable disaster, and so the BBC sent a crewand scientists as well who were doing digging there and peelingback the jungle finding remnants of this village that was once there.That is a pretty fascinating aspect of that landscape because thingsgrow so quickly. The jungle has taken over everything, and yet thereare all these footprints, and you could lift up the mat that hasgrown up there and taken over—

RB: Bomb the place. Defoliate it!

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?

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?

TB: Yeah.

RB: As an opposed to an adventurer?

TB: I think that initially I got into it because I wanted to dothings 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 otherpersonal areas. For me, I have a very broad interpretation of whatadventure is. I don't see it as necessarily having to climb a mountain.It can be personal, within your life. And within a very domesticsituation. It could be anything really. But typically editors andpublishers are a little reticent to share that interpretation. SoI may have to take my own little risks if I want to pursue somethings 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 magazinestuff 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 communicatethat well. I remember even as an editor at Outside andthere was always a bit of suspicion about authors. These guys hadlarge egos and they were difficult to work with. That they reallyhad no sense of what a good magazine story was. It was patentlyunfair, but that hasn't changed a lot. There is still—an agentwill tell you, "You've had a best-selling book. You could bewriting for anybody." I know, as an editor, that magazinesdon'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 whatyou want for the next project.

TB: No, I am really looking at a couple of things. But they reallydo range quite dramatically, and so it's going to take a decisionon my part whether I want to run the risk of doing a pretty non-commercialproject—if you want to consider my books in the commercialcategory. Having worked on The Darkest Jungle and doinga 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'sstrength of mine as a writer and one that I haven't been able toexploit in the books I have done so far.

RB: Good luck.

TB: Yeah, thanks. Good.

© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

Share this story