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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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