Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

By Candice Millard

Doubleday. 416 pp. $26

Just try to imagine it: George W. Bush loses re-election by a landslide and, undeterred by the humiliation of it all, sets off on a journey of unspeakable danger and hardship into the darkest depths of the Amazon jungle. There would be a media circus the likes of which the world has never seen. Picture the TV crews following in his wake, tripping over chemical toilets, generators and satellite phones. In these times of media gurus and spin-doctoring, we would write off the expedition as a stunt, a way of stealing the limelight from his rival's victory.

Rewind almost a century, to November 1912. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most popular presidents in American history, is crushed at the polls by Woodrow Wilson after two terms in office (this was before the two-term rule). Roosevelt is 54 years of age, 5'5" tall, weighs more than 200 pounds and when speaking sounds "as if he had just taken a sip of helium." He's shunned by his high-society Republican friends for having run as a third-party candidate, and is generally lampooned by everyone else for losing by such a wide margin. What does he do? Sets off into the Brazilian jungle to venture up an uncharted tributary of the Amazon, known as "The River of Doubt," which has given Candice Millard the title of her fine account of the expedition.

For the indefatigable Roosevelt, the adventure was not a media stunt, nor the start to a long comeback campaign. It was a form of self-imposed therapy. Roosevelt had been a pallid, sickly child. He had overcome asthma and early illness by throwing himself headlong into physical challenge. Whenever hit by despair, he collected himself and embarked on what he termed "the strenuous life." There was no question about Roosevelt's stamina. While campaigning for the 1912 election, he had been shot in the chest by a Bavarian immigrant. Although wounded (one bullet was five inches inside him), Roosevelt insisted on delivering the address. Holding up his text so that the terrified audience could glimpse the holes in it, he shouted, "It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!" As far as he was concerned, a resounding political whipping called for a fabulous feat. He was invited to Latin America to deliver a series of political speeches. It was a mildly uninteresting proposition, for he claimed to detest public speaking, but the thought of jungle adventure was a potent incentive. That his third son, Kermit, was living in Brazil at the time made the idea of South America all the more enticing.

The expedition was to be led jointly by Roosevelt and Brazil's most celebrated explorer, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon. Kermit was invited to participate, too, and he readily accepted despite his recent engagement. Another leading member was the naturalist George Cherrie, who had spent 30 years exploring the Amazon.

A journey of 400 miles took them across the Brazilian Highlands to the Amazon basin. Three years earlier, while exploring the region, Rondon had discovered a twisting, foaming waterway. With no clue as to where it went -- or if it went anywhere at all -- he christened it Rio da Duvida, "The River of Doubt."

From the outset the name must have seemed inappropriate; "The River of Execution" would have been more fitting. The stream was a surging passage of rapids and boiling white water, the banks of which hid enraged Indians armed with poison-tipped arrows. As one who has endured months of adversity in the Amazon, I can vouch that jungle hardship strips a man of his defenses. The enemy is all around: anacondas, piranhas, caimans, sweat bees, disease, hunger, fever and -- worst of all -- the uncertainty of knowing when, how or if it will come to an end.

But for Roosevelt, the jungle also provided the therapy he sought, making his usual world of American politics seem distant and trivial. The endless succession of calamities (resulting from ill-planning and sheer bad luck) would have been enough to distract the most disciplined mind. Notable setbacks included terrible illness and the loss of canoes and supplies to the perfidious rapids. By the end of it, the party was so worn down that even the slowest advance was an ordeal. The team members were emaciated, crippled by disease and fatigue and trapped by rapids -- Roosevelt as much as anyone else. One night George Cherrie, the naturalist and Amazonian expert, took a good look at the sweat-soaked figure before him. He had little hope, he confided in his diary, that Theodore Roosevelt would survive until morning. The specter of death hovered over a man who faded in and out of delirium, reciting over and over a couplet from Coleridge: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree."

Roosevelt pulled through, and The River of Doubt reminds one of the man himself -- thorough, robust, extremely knowledgeable and triumphant. There are far too many books in which a travel writer follows in the footsteps of his or her hero -- and there are far too few books like this, in which an author who has spent time and energy ferreting out material from archival sources weaves it into a truly gripping tale. *

Tahir Shah's new book, "The Caliph's House," will be published in January.

"Face to Face and Teeth to Teeth," cartoon of Teddy Roosevelt