Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 09

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Lost in his Work

Lost in his Work
David Grann ´89. Photo by Matt Richman

David Grann ´89 left the safety of his desk job to follow the trail of a legendary explorer who disappeared into the amazon 80 years ago.

By David Holahan


David Grann ´89 is the first to admit that he doesn´t have the right stuff to be an explorer.

"I was a Boy Scout, but I was only in it for the cupcakes,” confesses the author of the bestseller The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. “I never camped, and I don´t hike.”

Raised in Westport, Conn., and now living with his wife and two children in Brooklyn, N.Y., Grann had grown accustomed to elevators, take-out and air conditioning, among other civilized perks. And though once a passable athlete, the staff writer at The New Yorker had let himself go a wee bit.

So when the balding, fortyish writer decided to plunge headlong into the Brazilian jungle for five weeks in 2005, people were surprised, most notably his wife. “I tried to be a little bit sketchy on the details,” he says now. “I did mention that a lot of people had disappeared in this area, and I remember her saying, ´I sure hope you know what you´re doing.´”

As recently as 1996, a group of adventurers had been kidnapped by Indians in the same part of the Amazon and held for ransom. Over the past eight decades as many as 100 people who had gone trekking into this overgrown zip code had died or simply vanished. Happily, Grann was not one of them. He emerged from the steamy wilderness with his wallet, his health and a hell of a story about legendary explorer Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett, who had vanished in the same jungle 80 years before. Grann has parlayed his magazine piece into his first book (Doubleday, $27.50), which was published this year. And, he says, the film rights have been optioned by Brad Pitt´s production company and Paramount Pictures, with Pitt slated to star as Fawcett.

Fawcett was an eccentric Englishman who had been thrashing about the Amazon Basin for nearly 20 years in search of a fabled lost city, developing and trying to prove his radical theory that the so-called “savages” of South America´s interior had once been capable of establishing elaborate and complex societies, comparable to those of the Incas and Aztecs.

The explorer´s track record and indomitable self-confidence made his sudden vanishing act all the more intriguing, as did the fact that he didn´t tell anyone exactly where he was going. The 57-year-old adventurer brought along his son Jack for what turned out to be his final forest foray. Defying death in his previous expeditions (during which others perished, most often from disease), Fawcett was both fearless and seemingly invincible. When one of his exploration parties was attacked by a band of Indians, the Englishman ordered his men not to shoot as he waded across the river waving his handkerchief. The poison-tipped arrows stopped flying, and Fawcett soon acquired a whole new set of friends.

Grann stumbled across the Fawcett saga while working on another story. “I discovered that he had been part of the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle´s book The Lost World,” he explains. “So I began plugging his name into newspaper databases just out of curiosity, and these absolutely crazy, pulp-fiction headlines popped up. Fawcett is now largely forgotten, but for 50 years, all around the world, his whereabouts was like Jimmy Hoffa´s today. His disappearance was considered one of the greatest mysteries of all time.”

In his book, the author describes his own near-Fawcett experience: “I had lost my guide. I was out of food and water. Putting the map back in my pocket, I pressed forward, trying to find my way out, as branches snapped in my face. Then I saw something moving in the trees. ´Who´s there?´ I called. There was no reply. A figure flitted among the branches, and then another. They were coming closer…”

The scary figures, it turns out, were tribal children from the local village, who led the bedraggled journalist to safety. While still formidable, the jungle that Grann experienced is nothing like the one Fawcett hacked through. The first leg of the author´s journey following in the explorer´s footsteps consumed just two days in a jouncing four-wheel-drive truck. It had taken the Englishman a month.
Still, fools should not rush in, Grann says. “You can´t just go wandering around. These indigenous areas are run like independent countries within Brazil. They have their own laws and councils, and because of the history of bloody massacres, of trespassers coming in and enslaving them in pursuit of rubber, or cutting down their forests, whatever it may be, they just don´t let you wander onto their territory. I had a good guide who had contacts with the tribal leaders. That gave me a level of comfort.”

When asked what he would say if, quite hypothetically, he happened upon the lost explorer in the jungle — besides, of course, “Col. Fawcett, I presume” — Grann replies: “The first thing I would say, with admiration, is, ´You were right, or essentially right, in your theory about the Amazon and its people, that these complex societies did exist.´ On a personal level, I would ask him why he took his son along, and did he ever regret that. I think Fawcett had developed a bit of a God complex. He felt he was invincible.”


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