The Lost City of Z

For anyone who ever dreamed of being an explorer, opted for something a bit more practical, and yet still feels the occasional itch to do something off the map, I suggest that you read The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann. The Lost City of Z is the account of a modern reporter's search for Percy Harrison Fawcett, an English explorer lost in the Amazon as he searched for a city he called Z, a location that the broader public might identify as El Dorado. The narrative jumps back and forth between a historical account of Fawcett and Grann's own search to uncover new information about the missing explorer and his team, which included his own son and his son's best friend. The insertion of the word "obsession" in the subtitle is important, because that's at the root of this book, in both time periods. It's not just about the obsession to find Z, but it's about the need to find answers about the fate of those who went looking for it. David Grann is a great writer with a passion for his topic that comes across quite clearly. While the story isn't exactly Indiana Jones (though real-life Fawcett did inspire a few other works), Grann has a way of making everything exciting while still affirming your suspicions that it's probably better to sit on your couch and read about this. The bugs really are that terrifying.

After a long career of mapping the Amazon jungle, British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett was 57 and ready to launch the expedition he had always wanted to attempt: a search for the lost city of Z. Fawcett had long believed that within the Amazon, there would be evidence of an advanced civilization. His motives weren't based solely on wealth (though most people equated Z with stories of golden El Dorado), but rather he wanted to prove the theory that an advanced civilization within the jungle was possible and, indeed, had existed and thrived. For years, Fawcett had built a reputation as being the Shackleton of the Amazon (while grumbling about the money that the arctic explorers received in comparison to his own meager funding), and while his personality sometimes made dealing with him a bit difficult, everyone around him (including his wife) came to believe that Fawcett could never come to harm. His final expedition launched in 1925. The men that Fawcett had come to rely upon during his previous expeditions were no longer available, and so he brought two young men whom he believed he could trust implicitly: his son, Jack, and Jack's best friend Raleigh Rimell. The last time they were ever seen alive was in April and for years, the Fawcett and Rimell families held out hope that the men would emerge from the jungle alive. Eventually, the rescue parties began... and then simply the expeditions to discover if any trace could be found that gave a clue as to what happened to them. No evidence was ever found, though it's possible that as many as 100 people died in the pursuit of this information.

David Grann was bitten by the Fawcett bug, and while he insists that never developed the obsessive fervor that some Fawcett freaks showed, he clearly went far beyond the usual research. After befriending the living members of the Fawcett family and gaining access to private papers, Grann went into the jungle to see what he could find of Fawcett and of Z. Grann has the benefit of modern technology, but it's clear that the Amazon is still a deadly and dangerous place. While we all would probably know from the news if Grann had achieved ground-breaking success by solving a 90+ year mystery, the answers that he does manage to find are a bit more subtle and yet terribly important.

Honestly, I suggest that you just dive into this book when you're ready for a great read. Just go buy it and enjoy. I don't want to go into too much detail because Grann does a remarkable job of introducing you to one of the last great explorers and the circumstances surrounding his final expedition. There's something so wonderfully readable about Grann's style as he takes you through Fawcett's origins and career, all leading up to his mysterious disappearance. Clearly, everything is well researched and described in incredible detail... often too detailed when it comes to things like the terrible living conditions of the jungle or the pestilence found within. It should be a compliment to Grann for conjuring such a vivid image that I had to take a shower after reading a particular description of maggots that burrow under your skin... yet I can't quite bring myself to thank him for it.

And as for Grann's own interest? Well, obviously I'm pleased that he did everything that he did, or we wouldn't have such a wonderful book to read so I could be an armchair explorer, visualizing the perilous journey through the Amazon from the comfort of my couch... but I also found myself heartily agreeing with Grann's wife, who is supportive and yet a bit skeptical about her husband's sudden obsession, particularly as they have a very young son that just arrived on the scene. Grann clearly seems to be making his last-ditch attempt at being an adventurer as the image of settling down to be a family man looms in front of him. It's not as though Grann is used to long treks through the jungle. Heck, a moment of triumph for Grann is when he decides he should take the stairs up to his second-floor apartment as opposed to the elevator. There is a particularly humorous scene in a camping supply store where Grann loads up on fancy items before the store employee realizes that what Grann really needs are the basics. The modern age and its gadgets are some comfort, but there's still great danger. As recently as 1996, an amateur Fawcett expedition nearly ended in death for its members after they were kidnapped by natives in the jungle.

Seriously, if you've ever named the dog Indiana, posed with a whip and a fedora, or wanted the chance to explore uncharted regions, then I think you'll really enjoy The Lost City of Z. (Sadly, Fawcett never seems to have said, "That belongs in a museum!" but he does actually have quite a sense of humor as evidenced by his writing.) If Grann was going to have a midlife crisis that needed to be worked out via ridiculous travel and danger, then at least this was the wonderful result. So thanks to David Grann for surviving to pen such a fun read... and thanks to his wife for letting him go in the first place.

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