In 1914, just five years after serving his second term as the 26th President of the United States, avid outdoorsman and lifelong adventurer Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and the legendary Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon undertook an epic expedition into the heart of the Amazon jungle, ostensibly to chart an unknown river and, one supposes, find El Dorado, the mythical Lost City of Gold.
It ended badly. Three expeditioneers died in the jungle and the president himself was lucky to escape with his life.
Tuesday this week, as part of PBS’s ‘American Experience’ showcase, filmmaker John Maggio’s absorbing, often eye-opening documentary Into the Amazon follows Roosevelt’s great-nephew, Tweed Roosevelt, and ex-New York Times Rio de Janeiro bureau-chief Larry Rohter as they retrace the elder Roosevelt’s muddy bootprints into one of the darkest, most impenetrable jungles remaining on the planet.
It’s 2017 — or at least it was, when Into the Amazon was filmed — so how hard could it be? We’re living in the age of GPS, Lady Gaga and cellphone service, after all. Venturing into the Amazon, as fearsome as it sounds, should be no more difficult than a walk in the park, right? As long as the battery on your iPhone lasts, how hard can it be?
Pretty damn hard, as it turns out, filmmaker Maggio told a room full of reporters at this past summer’s semi-annual gathering of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif. — a somewhat more sedate and civilized venue than the headwaters of the Mantaro and Apumirac Rivers. There are rainforests, and then there are jungles, and then there is the Amazon. It’s a place where it’s easy enough to lose faith in one’s leader, Maggio said, sitting alongside Rohter and 21st-century jungle survivor Tweed Roosevelt.
“To your earlier question about losing faith in your leader,” Maggio said, “we had one of the locals, his name was Abhijius. He spoke an Indian dialect that I, that nobody understood. But he had previously taken — or tried to take — David Beckham on a motorcycle tour all the way across the Amazon. Beckham was on a bit of a vision quest. In the end, Beckham — ‘I would go anywhere in the world with Abhijius,’ Beckham is said to have said — that he gave him these designer boots that he'd worn the whole time.
“So the only thing that Abhijius could say to me in English was ‘Beckham boots.’ And that's all I needed to know.”
The younger Roosevelt is wise enough to know that he never was cut out for jungle travel, but the idea of following in the footsteps of his great uncle intrigued him. After all, how hard could it be?
“To begin with, when somebody called me up and said, ‘Do you want to go on this expedition?’, I listened. I always kind of thought about it in an abstract way, something I might want to do, but I'd never done anything about it and I'm not the explorer type. It's not the sort of thing I do normally.
“When I was on the phone, I thought, ‘Gee, this sounds neat.’ But it also sounded like it wasn’t actually going to happen. So I could get credit for saying I was going to go do this, and then not actually have to do it.
“And then, unfortunately, one day there I was, on the river.”
“There were several things,” Roosevelt said. “First of all, how much the same it was. And second, how much my impression of how hard it was hard for us, but how much harder it must have been for them. Much, much harder. And my respect for their abilities and what they achieved on this, just to survive, went way up. It was still gruelling, but it was much easier for us.
“We had, for example, freeze-dried food. They had real food. It weighed a lot. And what they call canoes were these dugouts that were 2,500 pounds. You had to use block-and-tackle to drag them around the rapids.
“And where there were rapids, the jungle wasn't easy. I mean, that's why there are rapids! Hel-lo! So the jungle was very difficult.”
But wait, there’s more.
“I've sort of retraced, if you will, a lot of (Theodore Roosevelt)’s trips. Because it was so difficult for him, because it was so unpleasant, because he almost died, I could feel, for whatever reason, the dark, negative side of this, going into this jungle, as opposed to the Bighorn Mountains or some of the other places I had been.”
All in all, he suggested, it’s more relaxing to read Joseph Conrad than to actually live the experience.
At least, in the 21st century, one can count on cell service, though. Rohter, as a career foreign correspondent, is used to being uncomfortable conditions in far-flung, tropical locations. He’s learned how to get out of a jam.
“I first went into the Amazon in 1978, as a Newsweek correspondent,” Rohter said. “I told them, ‘I’m going to be gone three weeks. I’ll call you when I get back.’ There was no way then to communicate with the outside world. The last time I made a journalistic trip, in 2007, I was on a canoe in the middle of the Rio Negro, and my cellphone kept ringing. I was a hundred miles north of Manaus.”
A hundred miles, in the Amazon, is nothing, though.
“There are vast areas of the Amazon where you can’t get a signal,” Roosevelt said. “That hundred miles is nothing. I mean, you’re right, I’m not arguing with you. But there are places on Martha’s Vineyard, where I live, where I can’t get a signal.
“You have to remember the Amazon is huge. To give you an idea, the Amazon River itself is, I think 13 or 15 times larger than the Mississippi. There are a thousand major rivers flowing into it. We’re talking real rivers here, rivers approaching the size of the Hudson. There’s so much there, and so little of it has been looked at, even minimally. Each river has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tributaries. Yes, you can have a GPS. You can know where you are. But there’s still a lot of adventure to be had.”
Size isn’t all that matters, either.
“Trying to navigate a flooded forest at night, when you have to go two hours to just get back to your camp, you rely on the indigenous people so much. They can tell you a caiman has red eyes, the anaconda's got blue eyes. You're watching this entire cycle of life go on in front of you. Then you get back to camp, and you're watching moths the size of bats, and the bats are eating them. And then the owls show up, and the owls start eating the bats. And all of this is happening in front of you, while you're trying to keep your wits about you.”
Does El Dorado actually exist?
“Cities, no,” Rohter said. “Tribes, yes. We know from helicopters, flying over the Basin, and from FUNAI, the Brazilian government’s National Indian Foundation, that there are still uncontacted tribes in the western Amazon.
“But when you talk about lost cities, you're probably thinking about the Fawcett book, The Lost City of Z, and the movie that just came out. That's just kind of lunacy, all that stuff. If there were cities, they would have been discovered by now. But tribes are an entirely different story.”
One thing soon came clear to everyone involved in the expedition, though, and everyone associated with making Into the Amazon: Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was a mensch. A man’s man.
Admirers of the present occupant of the White House often draw comparisons to the older Roosevelt, who was also a Republican.
“I’m afraid that I can’t tell you what I actually think about that,” the younger Roosevelt said. “It’s absurd. One thing I do say, when people make that comparison, is, ‘Yes, there are characteristics similar to both (Teddy Roosevelt) and our president, one being they both spoke a lot and said what they thought, And both are from New York. But the difference is that TR thought about it before he said it.”
Teddy Roosevelt survived his Amazon adventure — barely — but he didn’t live happily ever after. Within five years, he died in his sleep, on Jan. 6, 1919, from a blood clot that lodged in his lungs. He was just 60, a whippersnapper by modern-day terms. But he had done something few outsiders had accomplished: He had made it to the heart of the Amazon, and came back alive to tell about it.
He got a book out of it, too: Through the Brazilian Wilderness. According to one jacket blurb, ‘This astonishing tale of adventure and survival Roosevelt details his participation in the 1913-1914 Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition, undertaken a year after his failed bid for reelection. The team set out to find the headwaters of the River of Doubt then paddle the river to the Amazon. What was originally intended to be “zoogeographic reconnaissance” soon turned into a tale of survival, with turbulent whitewater and peril around every bend of the river, so much so that it nearly took the life of the “Bull Moose” himself.’
The Amazon Basin may still be raw in places, but that doesn’t mean the ecosystem isn’t endangered.
“It is as raw as you can imagine,” filmmaker Maggio affirmed. “I don't want to toot my own horn, but it was an absolutely intrepid experience to try to even just navigate the rivers there. People live on the river. They live in boats. They're masters of that world. And for me at least, to try to get this 20-person crew in and out, it was an absolute adventure. It was one I'm so glad I did. And I would never do it again.
“That said, one of the great tragedies is that, as thick as the jungle is, a lot of old-growth is no longer there, at least not the part we were in. Where we were is still a tangle of webs, but when you come across the occasional old-growth tree that is 20-, 30-, 40 feet wide, you realize what it must have been like only as recently as a hundred years ago. Those trees are still there, but you have to go much deeper into the Amazon to find them.”
Into the Amazon premieres Tuesday on PBS at 9ET/8C.