Theodore Roosevelt’s Greatest Challenge

Theodore Roosevelt’s Greatest Challenge

Dr. Lorin Swinehart

 

theodore rooseveltA recent film,The Revenant,features Leonardo de Caprio as mountain man Hugh Glass, who in 1823 was abandoned by his companions after surviving a near fatal grizzly attack but trudged, floated and crawled 200 miles to find help at Fort Kiowa. During his ordeal, Glass took shelter inside the carcass of his own horse, dined on raw meat left behind by wolves, and encouraged maggots to eat away at his gangrenous flesh.

Man-against-nature survival epics seem to capture the imagination. One is reminded of Sir Ernest Shackelton’s voyage to civilization across 700 miles of life-threatening Antarctic seas, as well as Slavomir Rawicz’s account of the perilous trek by a small band of Polish POWs who escaped from Stalin’s Siberian gulag and crossed Asia to freedom in India during the darkest days of World War II.

One dark night in 1914, deep in the gloom of the Amazon rainforest, former President Theodore Roosevelt’s companions quietly discussed his imminent death. Exhausted and wracked with a malarial fever of 105, suffering excruciating pain from a leg injury and bacterial infection, TR wafted in and out of consciousness. His companions had seen others die in the jungle. They knew that he could not endure much longer.

At one point TR had selflessly considered suicide by means of the lethal dose of morphine he always carried with him, hoping to free his exhausted companions of the burden he had become. But now, he set his jaw in that world famous grin, determined to struggle on.

All his life, TR had advocated and lived what he called “the strenuous life.”  While managing his North Dakota cattle ranch, he often set off alone to round up strays in the Badlands. Sleeping in a frozen puddle during a snowstorm one night, he turned to a fellow cowpoke and exclaimed, “Isn’t this fun!”

Serving as deputy sheriff, he once captured a gang who had stolen a barge. Marching the suspects for days across the prairie to jail, he never dared to sleep or let down his guard, knowing that he would be murdered by his captives, a theme repeated in countless western movies.  During the Spanish-American War, he led the Rough Riders on their historic charge up San Juan Hill. While on the campaign trail in 1912, an assassin’s bullet penetrated his chest, but he stubbornly continued on to his next rally and delivered his speech.

As President, he once set off on a three-day horseback trip with John Muir to explore Yosemite. His big game hunting trips were legendary, causing Muir to once ask when he was going to stop the adolescent practice of killing large animals.  Still, he sailed off to Africa to collect specimens for the Museum of Natural History as soon as his second term ended.

Failing in his bid for a third term as President, at the head of his Bull Moose Party, TR jumped at the chance for a new adventure, exploring the remote, mysterious, unmapped River of Doubt, a dark band that vanished into the Brazilian rainforest.  The crew consisted of Roosevelt’s son Kermit, the famous ornithologist and explorer George Cherrie, as well as 22 others.  Colonel Candido Miriano da Silva Rondon served as TR’s co-commander.

The expedition was a disaster from the beginning, After a two-month long trek by boat and mule across 400 miles of plain, jungle and desert, the group set off in seven overloaded and unwieldy 2500-pound dugouts.

The rainforest harbored many dangers: Hostile, sometimes cannibalistic CintaLarga Indians with curare tipped arrows; white water rapids requiring long, grueling portages; alligators; poisonous reptiles, especially the deadly coral snake. Schools of up to 100 piranha could reduce a large animal or a person to bones in minutes. There were nine foot piraiba catfish, known to prey upon humans, anacondas weighing up to 300 pounds, biting black flies called piums, malaria bearing mosquitoes, bot flies, inch long candiru catfish that enter the human body through any orifice, especially the urethra, causing painful death. According to some accounts, candiru could swim up the stream of urine to enter a host’s body.  Cutting open one piraiba, the men found a monkey’s arm and head. After observing local Indians with missing fingers and toes, they decided to no longer feast upon piranha.

Never to be outdone, Roosevelt called the trip, “My last chance to be a boy,” but, even though he was in better shape than men half his age, it nearly spelled his end.

Along the way, three men died, one by drowning, another by murder.  The murderer, whose victim had caught him stealing food, was abandoned to his fate and never seen again. Indian arrows killed Rondon’s loyal dog Lobo. Six dugouts were lost, requiring the men to construct new ones.  Food ran out. Day and night, tropical downpours inundated the unhappy travelers.

Crude surgery had to be performed on Roosevelt’s leg in a mud-floored tent, with no anesthesia and to the infernal buzzing of clouds of piums. By journey’s end, he could no longer sit up in his canoe, and he had shed 55 pounds, one third of his body weight, but, as always, the old Rough Rider triumphed and went on to fight another day.

Like Hugh Glass, Theodore Roosevelt was a revenant, one returned from the dead.  The River of Doubt today bears his name, Rio Roosevelt.

Ojo Del Lago
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