Barbarian Book Club: The River of Doubt Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

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“Tell Osborn I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know; I have had my full share, and if it is necessary for me to leave my bones in South America, I am quite ready to do so.” – Theodore Roosevelt

 

Last week my coworker handed me Candice Millard’s River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. The promise of a historical account of my favorite president exploring the uncharted rivers in the Amazon was too tempting for me, so I started reading right away. I couldn’t put it down, and when I did I couldn’t wait to get back so I could find out what befell the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition on their perilous journey down the River of Doubt.

“Far from its outward appearance, the rainforest was not a garden of easy abundance, but precisely the opposite. Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence were not a sanctuary but, rather, the greatest natural battlefield anywhere on the planet, hosting an unremitting and remorseless fight for survival that occupied every single one of its inhabitants, every minute of every day.” 

Depressed from the blow of losing the 1912 Presidential election and dejected from the social ostracism due to his independent “Bull Moose” party bid, Roosevelt decided to raise his spirits in the only way that he knew. Adventure. Answering an invitation to visit Argentina, Brazil, and the Amazon the former 25th President now 55 years old, made his way to South America for what was initially going to be a leisurely speaking tour followed by a  safe trip through known parts of the Amazon rainforest. cheririver

Once he reached South America, the true adventurer changed plans. Upon meeting the famous Brazilian explorer Colonel Candido Rondon, Roosevelt decided to take the expedition down the recently discovered Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt). An uncharted, unknown tributary of the massive Amazon, a river so massive that if superimposed on a map of the United States it would stretch from Bangor, Maine to San Francisco, California.

The newly christened Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition included the American Naturalist George Cherrie, a figure whose life exploits put the adventures of Indiana Jones to shame, and Roosevelt’s 24-year-old son Kermit, along with several soldiers and laborers from Rondon’s Telegraph corps. All tough men, seasoned explorers, and accomplished hunters.

The expedition would take them into the unknown. They would map and chart a river unknown to civilization and be the first Old World explorers to set foot in the unknown deepest darkness of the untamed Amazon rainforest. This kind of adventure was exactly what Roosevelt dreamed of all his life, the ability to test himself against the harshest of nature and put himself on equal footing with the worlds greatest explorers.

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On February 27, 1914, the expedition launched their heavy loaded canoes into the unknown Amazon. Immediately the expedition faced hardship due to the poor planning and provisioning their gear was unsuitable, the canoes barely floated, and their food stores tragically insufficient.

The 19 men of the expedition endured the green hell of the rainforest, rowing down the snaking river in unsuitable boats that had to be taken out and portaged around impassable rapids. Work that was excruciating and deadly. The torrential rain poured non stop, soaking all, covering everything with mold and rusting all equipment. Sickened with Malaria and finished by their lack of rations the men withstood constant attack from the jungles millions of predatory insects. Sweat bees that drank the fluid from their eyes, flesh-eating ants, and termites that devoured their clothing off their backs, carnivorous piranas, caimans, and poisonous snakes whose venom kills in minutes. Most of all the River of Doubt was the territory of yet uncontacted tribes of Indians. Warlike cannibals that were experts of stealth and deadly with their poisoned arrows known as the Cinta Larga, Portuguese for wide belt, due to the armor made of bark the warriors wore around their abdomen.

RiverofdoubtRiver of Doubt is a fantastic read about a group of hard men in a world where the unknown and the unexplored still existed. It’s a riveting account that rivals any fantastic adventure fiction I have ever read. Rosevelt himself, a famed cowboy in the Dakotas, famous leader of the Rough Riders, Secretary of the Navy, Commissioner of the New York Police, and two time President of the United States, is almost an unbelievable character and a giant of a man. A man so tough that after enough life achievements to satisfy 100 men he decides to risk his life in the Amazon. At the age of 55, he battles nature itself, suffering from Malaria, blood poisoning, and enough physical hardship to kill men half his age. The other members or the expedition are almost as equally interesting, Rondon who goes on to become one of Brazil’s national heroes is a first-class explorer and humanist who spent his life fighting for the rights of the Amazons Indian population.

The account shines when it comes to the detailed description of the relationships the men developed. The mutual respect and admiration between Roosevelt and Rondon. The brotherly love Cherrie felt for Roosevelt. Most of all the father-son relationship between Theodore and the fascinating dark and brooding Kermit.

Candice Millard wrote a riveting account of great men on a deadly adventure and I am glad that I got the chance to ride along with Roosevelt and Rondon, imagining myself in an era where the world remained unexplored and wilderness still ruled.

 

 History Channel video on the expedition.

Climbing Mt. Fuji

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A picture of Fuji I took last winter. There isn’t any snow during climbing season.

Last weekend, after a bit over half a year of living in Japan, the wife and I accomplished one of our long term goals, climbing Mt. Fuji. It was a unique once in a lifetime experience that left me with mixed feelings. Climbing Mt. Fuji managed to be a rewarding challenge and a bit of a letdown at the same time.

Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan at 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft). It’s an active volcano that last erupted in the 18th century. It’s a free-standing mountain, not part of any range. Considered a holy place it has been the destination of pilgrimages for hundreds of years.

Our trip started at 2pm on Saturday when we met up with our tour group, TokyoSnowClub, in Tokyo. Judy and I got there a bit early so we wandered around and decided to eat a disappointingly greasy burger at Tokyo Hooters. When the rest of the group arrived we hopped on the tour bus for the 3-hour drive to the base of Mt. Fuji.

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Ramen at 5th station

The 5th station Yoshida Trail camp where we hung out for several hours to acclimate is basically a tourist trap. It’s several alpine resort type buildings filled with overpriced gift shops and mediocre restaurants. We bought ourselves a climbing stick, changed into warmer clothes, ate some ramen, and did a quick bit of yoga.

Around 7pm with the sun set and the rain at a constant drizzle, we began our long ascent. We climbed in a single line of what seemed like hundreds. Looking up or down the mountain all one could see in the dark was a zig-zagging line of headlamps. We climbed for hours and the rain and cold worsened the higher we got. Every two hours or so we took quick 1o minute breaks at one of the many way stations on the trail.

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Before we started hiking. The miserable weather just started.

It quickly became obvious that while we prepared ourselves physically we did not prepare ourselves materially. The clothing we brought was woefully inadequate for the downpour and the freezing cold. Two-thirds of the way up both of us were completely soaked, out of spare clothes, and showing early signs of hypothermia. Every break we took was excruciatingly cold.

Making matters worse was the fact that something I ate earlier did not sit well and that unpleasant indigestion mixed with a dash of altitude sickness led to numerous bathroom visits at every way station. Growing up at sea level I do not do well with quick ascents so by the last leg of the climb I was having a nice case of nausea, diarrhea, headache, dizziness, and an overall case of misery.

Our climb to the summit took about 8 hours. 8 miserable hours of constant freezing rain, altitude sickness, nausea, headaches, soaked clothes, and chills. A constant march over steep switchbacks and sharp volcanic rocks. After 8 horrible hours, we reached the top. The highest point in Japan.

Waiting for the sunrise on top of Mt. Fuji was not a fun experience. By the time we reached the top we were soaked and out of spare clothes. Our jackets were under-matched for the 32f degrees. We huddled together shivering and sharing our last hand warmer. When the sun finally started to rise we silently cheered, enjoyed the view, and quickly began the long descent.

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Above the clouds.

Seeing the sunrise from on top of Mt. Fuji was a beautiful experience. I will always remember and be thankful for the opportunity to see a sunrise from the top of “The Land of the Rising Sun.” I’m glad I got to share the experience with my wife. She kicked my ass in motivation and kept me going the whole time.

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The first of the rising sun.

Our climb was a challenge, we underestimated the weather, the altitude, and the quality of our gear. While the climb itself was technically easy the rain and cold really sapped our strength. By the time we reached the top we were soaked, frozen, and tired from being up for 24 hours.

The disappointing aspect of Mt. Fuji is its popularity. Fuji is one giant volcanic tourist trap. My favorite aspect of hiking is the quite nature. I love long trails through empty canyons where the only sounds heard are your breath and wildlife. Mt. Fuji is not a spiritual experience in nature. It’s an overly commercialized amusement park. The climb is less of a hike and more of a long line at Disneyland with the peak being the destination. Every hour or so there are little way stations selling 7 dollar Top Ramen and 5 dollar water bottles. You are constantly at arm’s length with hundreds of other climbers who are talking, smoking, taking pictures, and eating. I have to admit that I was a bit let down. In my mind, Fuji was a serene holy mountain filled with monks and ancient temples. The reality was a bit jarring. It was a long trail filled with loud tourists.

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Some post climb curry. Overpriced and underwhelming but it looked cool and we were starving.

All in all the experience was well worth the effort and sore muscles. We will always have some great memories from our climb. The sunrise was beautiful and being above the clouds was an ethereal experience. Both of us agreed that given the chance we would do it again. Now we have to make our way to Peru for Machu Picchu and Tanzania for Kilimanjaro.

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Mount Fuji Winter Tour

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Mt. Fuji from Oshino Eight Ponds

 

 

My adventures through Japan continued last Sunday when I decided to take one of the tours offered on base by the MWR. I went on the Mount Fuji Winter tour that took everybody to several temples and shrines at the base of Mt. Fuji.

Mt. Fuji is one of Japans most visited place and really fantastic. It’s a free standing volcanic mountain not part of any mountain range. So it’s basically this giant majestic mountain that has  no neighbors. It dominates the landscape and looks amazing on a clear day.

Our first stop on the trip was at the Fuji Peace Park, a Buddhist temple dedicated to world peace and built in Nepalese style. It was beautiful, laid out in a forest covered with  statues of goddesses. At the main pagoda I took off my shoes and walked its path counterclockwise. The Buddhists believe doing so while praying will give you a year of health.

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After that stop we went to one of the Oshino Eight Ponds. At the base of Mt. Fuji lie eight freshwater ponds filled by constant flowing springs. The water comes from the snow melt on the mountain that seeps through the volcanic rock. After many years it comes out at the springs forming eight distinct ponds that are considered sacred sites. The area around the spring we visited was a kind of village and tourist shopping area. You can go up to the spring and ladle some of the fresh water and even fill water bottles with hit. It’s also one of the best views of Mt. Fuji and often used for postcards and art.

Next we drove to Lake Kawaguchi, a lake at the base of the mountain, for lunch. Lake Kawaguchi is a popular tourist resort area and the has a lot of hotels and restaurants around it. I had a pretty interesting looking lunch that included some fresh fish from the lake itself.

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Finally for the highlight of the trip we went to the Sengen Fuji Shrine. The shrine where all of the Fuji climbing ceremonies take place and the shrine dedicated to the Kami of Mt. Fuji. It was a beautiful place and I loved getting to see the Japanese walk to the shrine and pray. It looked and felt like something out of a Japanese story taking place in the Japanese middle ages.

I can’t wait to go back to some of these places when my wife catches up to me. I really want to see everything in the spring when the Sakura trees blossom.

Now climbing Mt. Fuji is my ultimate goal for this summer. The climbing season opens in July and lasts until the end of August. By then I should be able to drive and the wife will be here. I plan on getting to the top of that mountain first chance I get.

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Japan is a beautiful place and every time I go out on my little trips I feel so thankful that I get to be out here to explore and enjoy this place.

Here’s a link to my google pictures album that includes a few more pictures.

https://goo.gl/photos/nXx2ZeZvxgkUeMBk6

 

Happy 240th Birthday Marine Corps

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It was one of the greatest honors and a privilege getting to serve with the most baddass, dip spitting, ass kicking, freedom loving motherfuckers on this planet. No fighting force comes close. Semper Fidelis!

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The Three Musketeers and Modern Fantasy

The Three Musketeers and Modern Fantasy

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Taking a break from my traditional fare of Fantasy and Science Fiction I decided to jump in and read through Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. For some reason I overlooked this novel in the past probably thinking that the plot was already spoiled due to all the spoofs and movies etc. I can’t even begin to describe how surprised I was when the book blew me away. Not only is it one of the best action adventures I have read but sets the bar so high for other books that I thought were original yet are surpassed by this fantastic piece of literature written 171 years ago. If you have not read this masterpiece do yourself a favor and pick it up, you will not be disappointed.

For readers of Fantasy one of the genre givens is that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is often the blueprint and baseline for all modern fantasy. Through Tolkien fantasy is also affected by his influences being Germanic and Anglo-Saxon mythology. Heroic characters, Epic world shattering battles, dark evil powers, elves, orcs, trolls, and dragons. But a lot of modern fantasy breaks from that mold and dwells in a perpetual gray zone. The hero’s are often hard to differentiate from the villains, the scale is often smaller, and the setting often grimmer. Dark epics such as GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire have only superficial elements in common with the heroic fantasy of Tolkien.

With the history of fantasy in mind I read The Three Musketeers and realized that for a book written 171 years ago it read like a piece of modern fantasy. At it’s core and thematically it has more in common with modern dark fantasy than LotR does. Reading it I could not stop thinking that if there was one or two semi-magical elements you could easily shelf the adventures of d’Artagnan next to Jalan Kendeth and Tyrion Lannister.

The Heroes or Anti-Heroes

Bunch of drunken rakes.
Bunch of drunken womanizing rakes.

The four Musketeers(yes there are actually four, it make sense once you read the book), would easily fit on the pages of current fantasy, the darker the better. Our main hero the young d’Artagnan starts off the novel as your typical poor farm boy out to join the King’s Musketeers and make a name for himself. That’s where the similarity ends tho because our d’Artagnan is an arrogant entitled jerk. He picks fights with everybody that looks at him wrong, beats his servant, tricks women into sleeping with him, and spends his days drinking and partying with his buddies. He’s not the hero the movies portray him as.

Athos, the oldest of the Musketeers is your typical wounded dark soldier. A dark sophisticated man with a hidden mysterious past who spends his days drinking his sorrows away and flying into violent rages. Athos is such a moody jerk that he forbids his servant from speaking, forcing him to only communicate by using hand gestures.

Porthos is the big foolish buffoon of the crew. A self centered man who loves fine food, fine wine, fine clothing, and fine women. His sole purpose in life is to weasel his way into older and richer women’s money so he could live comfortably without effort.

Aramis is the group hypocrite. All he talks about is giving up the warrior lifestyle and becoming a man of the church but secretly he is having affairs with noble women. He goes so far as to get into duels with anybody that even suggests he might be having the affairs, even when presented with proof.

The most striking thing I noticed when reading this novel was the fact that unlike the movies that portray them as heroes the Musketeers are quite a serious bunch of assholes. Yes they go on and on about honor and courage but they are far from your shining knights serving the king out of duty, they are a bunch of drunken adventurers doing it for gold and women. They thematically fit more into a modern crime movie about gangsters then your typical heroic portrayals they have been given. Not only that but a lot of the actions they take during the plot of the novel can be seen as treason or downright betrayal of duty to their King and France.

The Villains.

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The Three Musketeers has two of the greatest villains that set the bar high for their modern successors. The first being the Cardinal Richelieu a real historical figure that is the mastermind behind the events going on in the novel. Richelieu is the power behind the throne running the war against Protestant rebels and Protestant England because the King of France is a worthless childish wimp. Richelieu has spies and agents throughout Europe and has so much power that he can order assassinations and kidnappings on a whim. Reading the novel I could easily see him as an inspiration for characters such as Tywin Lannister, strong, driven men who lead from behind the throne.

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OG evil

The show stealing, best character award of the novel goes to Milady de Winter, the original badass court seductress and assassin. She’s the Cardinals number one Spy and the darkest character in the novel. She’s a evil bitter woman, twisted on the inside by greed, revenge, and envy. Shes so well written as a conniving seductress that after being in her point of view for several chapters you begin to sympathize with her only to be kicked in the teeth a few pages later when she does something batshit evil. Cersei Lannister has nothing on Milady who would make a perfect companion for Littlefinger.

The Plot

The novel is set in 17th century France during the Siege of La Rochelle. Protestant rebels are surrounded by the Kings Catholic army led by Cardinal Richelieu as the English led by the Duke of Buckingham are preparing to come to their aid. The plot of the novel centers on a clandestine affair between Queen Ann of France and the Duke of Buckingham. Cardinal Richelieu is determined to expose the affair to the King and use it as leverage in the war against England. The novel focuses on our heroes, Musketeers in the service of the king, who get involved in a tangled web of intrigue and romance between the powerful figures behind the scenes in both France and England. Lots of duels are fought, lots of women are won and romanced, and lots of wine is drank.

In closing I highly recommend this classic piece of literature. If you haven’t read it and you enjoy bad ass adventure you will not be disappointed if you chose to follow d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis around. I also think that a lot of modern fantasy should look at adventure novels like The Three Musketeers for inspiration. The intrigue, wit, focus on fantastic pacing, and action of Dumas’ masterpiece should be a baseline in all modern fantasy. A lot of current work should supplement the obsessive world building of Tolkien by implementing more Dumas style action and adventure.

P.S On the Importance of Translation.

If you decide to read the Three Musketeers please get the proper and modern translation. The best out there is the 2006 version translated by Richard Pevear. Other versions of the book, like the free kindle version are based on the original Victorian English translation and due to Victorian sensibilities downplay a lot of the sexual innuendo between the characters. Do yourself a favor and go for the best version.