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 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.

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 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


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


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


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

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.

TB: Right.

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


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.

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 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?

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 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


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


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.

TB: Right.

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


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.

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


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


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!

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 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

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