JOE PALCA, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Joe Palca in Washington. What makes humans unique is our passion to explore, whether it's sailing to discover the New World, racing to the South Pole, or being the first to land on the moon. Sometimes, though, that passion borders on an obsession - explorers willing to risk not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone on their team, to achieve their goal. David Grann tells the story of one such explorer. His new book, "The Lost City of Z," describes Percy Harrison Fawcett's obsession with finding a magical city deep inside the Amazon rainforest. And in a way, it also describes Grann's own obsession with finding out what happened to Fawcett and his two companions, who apparently perished in the jungle more than 80 years ago.
This hour, we want to hear from you explorers in our audience. Have you taken a trip to the South Pole, to Everest or K2, to the heart of the Amazon? Tell us why you did it. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on Talk of the Nation.
Later this hour, race and comedy. We'll talk with the senior black correspondent for the Daily Show. But first, "The Lost City of Z." David Grann is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon," and he joins me now in Studio 3A. It's good to have you back on Talk of the Nation.
Mr. DAVID GRANN (Author, "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon"): Well, thank you so much for having me.
PALCA: So, OK. First thing we have to know - Percy Fawcett - Percy Harrison Fawcett was obsessed with the Lost City of Z. What was it? What is that place?
Mr. GRANN: Fawcett had begun doing explorations in the Amazon in 1906, and he mapped the interior of the jungle over a period of about - nearly two decades. And during that time, he began to collect bits of evidence, clues that he believed indicated that the Amazonian jungle had contained remnants of a great ancient civilization. And this had been a dream going back for centuries, and the earliest kind of incarnation of this vision of an ancient civilization, a place like the Lost City of Z, was El Dorado.
PALCA: Mm-hmm. And was El Dorado - what was El Dorado? Was it a European invention or a Native South American invention?
Mr. GRANN: One thing that's really important to understand is that the Amazon is just an enormously vast wilderness. It's about the size of the continental United States. And for ages, it really remained the kind of last blank space on the map, just because it was so impenetrable. And the first conquistadors who arrived in the Amazon had been told by the Indians that the jungle area had contained a great civilization. Sir Walter Raleigh said that he'd been told that the civilization was so wealthy and had so much gold that the inhabitants used to ground the gold into powder and literally paint it on the inhabitants until they shined from the head to the foot. And they began to go into the jungle to look for this. Thousands died looking for it. And the first big El Dorado expedition, some 4,000 men went, and some 4,000 men died.
Mr. GRANN: And it was always assumed - going to back to your question - it was always assumed that El Dorado was really just a product of the imagination of the - basically, a delusion. After three centuries of so many people dying and suffering and finding no evidence, people assumed it really was a figment of the imagination. And one of the things I try to wrestle with in the book is, is that really the case or isn't it?
PALCA: So, why do people think - or why did Fawcett's attempt - attempts to find El Dorado - they got further than some, but obviously they didn't get to the very conclusion.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, I mean Fawcett, unlike the conquistadors, he had been trained at the Royal Geographical Society; he had a scientific bent. Now, he was an amateur. This was still an age where there really weren't too many professional archaeologists or anthropologists. He came of age as an amateur, but he was trained at the Royal Geographic Society; he had a scientific bent.
And during his expeditions, he had a more rigorous method in trying to gather evidence. So he - for example, he was once in the Bolivian floodplains of the Amazon, and he had climbed these large earth mounds. And when he was at the top of the earth mounds, he began to - he saw something sticking out of the ground. He bent down; he picked it up. It was a shard of pottery.
And he began to scratch everywhere along the soil, and he found all these shards of pottery. Now, it was an era before there was carbon dating, so he couldn't say its age, but it looked very old, and it looked to him as refined as something from Greece. So, there were clues like this. So his methodology - unlike the conquistadors, which were slowly kind of pursuing greed and were really - the way they came in with just vengeance towards the native inhabitants. Fawcett was really - it was a much more of a scientific quest.
PALCA: Right, right. And he was a remarkable explorer in his own right. I mean, he had some fantastic physical abilities, at least as you describe them in the book.
Mr. GRANN: Yeah, I mean, he was - Fawcett - he was a large, strapping figure, and he would go on these expeditions over these nearly two decades, and he would take very small parties of about a dozen men. He would go into areas where expeditions did not come back from. They had almost no immunities from diseases, so they would get malaria, they would get yellow fever, they would get elephantiasis. He would take in these parties, and usually half the parties would die of starvation or disease, and yet he always emerged. And it gave him a sense of invulnerability, and you might even say almost a god complex.
PALCA: Well, we'd like to hear your thoughts on this kind of exploration. Give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. And let's take a call now from Marty in St. Louis, Missouri. Welcome to Talk of the Nation.
MARTY (Caller): Hi.
MARTY: Good afternoon.
PALCA: You're wel - hi.
Mr. GRANN: Hi.
PALCA: Go ahead. You're on the air.
MARTY: Hi. Yeah, I've traveled to the Amazon as well - three times. I'm a physician, and I've gone on medical missions. And what I've found was that it was - there was like time travel in that these folks - I was in the Amazon Basin, treating Yanomami and Yaguani Indians, and they're quite literally still hunting and gathering. They are not even to the point of raising chickens or planting corn, as I've seen in other parts of the developing world where I've traveled. There's still the menfolk going off into the jungle to bring back the kill, and women gathering fishes and berries and mangoes and so forth close by. And so, really quite literally, like time travel, like prehistoric travel - fascinating.
PALCA: Interesting. Thanks for that, Marty. In the book, David, you talk - I mean, I want to come back to the reasons you went on this trip, but you went - how did it feel to you, as an urban sophisticate and a New Yorker writer, to be sitting in - with the - not far from the - did you see the Yanomami?
Mr. GRANN: No. We didn't see the Yano…
PALCA: You didn't see them.
Mr. GRANN: We were further south.
Mr. GRANN: We were in the southern basin of the Amazon, so it was really the Xingu area. And I met with a lot of the Xinguano tribes - the Kalapalo, the Kuikuru. We stayed with the Baikari Indians. And as I say in the book, and if anyone could see me right now, they would know I am the least likely explorer in the history of man…
PALCA: Yes, Crocodile Dundee does not come to mind.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GRANN: No. I'm a bit overweight, a bit out of shape, and I have keritakonis, which is a degenerative eye condition. It makes it very hard to see at night. I tend to get lost even going to the New Yorker office in Manhattan, riding my subway. And so, this really became something of an obsession for me to try to solve this mystery of what had happened to Fawcett, and was this city real. And it made me do things I would otherwise not do. So, I was very ill-prepared, let's just say, and trekking through the jungle wasn't the easiest thing for me.
PALCA: Well, let me ask you. Did your own - I mean, you speak about how you were attracted to Fawcett. Did your fascination with Fawcett help you understand his fascination with arriving at the city - the Lost City of Z?
Mr. GRANN: You know, in many ways, Fawcett often felt like my Z. And, you know, for me, I'm a writer, and I wanted to tell Fawcett's biography, and I wanted to know everything about him. I wanted to know not just kind of how he died, but I also wanted to know the mystery of his life. And so, my quest was to try to always find every little clue that was a part of that. And so, in a way, I was chasing him, and he was my Z. But as part of that and as an outgrowth, I became increasingly interested in what he was searching for as well, and that was the City of Z.
PALCA: Right. Let's take another call now and go to Graham in Cleveland, Ohio. Welcome to the program.
GRAHAM (Caller): Thanks so much for having me on. First off, I want to applaud your guest's spirit of adventure.
Mr. GRANN: Thank you.
GRAHAM: Well, you know, I've done some adventures. I'm part of an adventure team called the Nystad-Vezy(ph) Adventure Team, and we've done Kilimanjaro in Africa and Aconcagua down in Argentina, and just finished an adventure race in the north of England. And you - yeah, you definitely can't help but realize that the experience is why you do it. And you can read as many books and you can check out as many pictures and videos, but there's nothing greater than the experience, the feel of the Andes air against your cheeks or the smell of the African rainforest or the sound, or rather lack of sound, while you push yourself both physically and mentally. And not only are you out there exploring the physical world but, you know, there's an enormous amount of introspection that you get when you're on one of these adventures, pushing yourself to the limit.
PALCA: Graham, I want to ask you. Have you ever gotten - in these adventures you're describing, have you ever felt like, you know, you might have taken one step too far?
GRAHAM: Yes, and I think that's the part that reminds you that you're alive, because you're up there and - you know, a recent adventure was up on top of Aconcagua, and a snowstorm came up. And you're at 22,800 feet, and you realize that you're completely alone and you don't have a telephone to rely on or a guide, if you've chosen to go on a guideless tour. You've just got yourself and so, you know, that's the element of introspection that I think is so important about these adventures, is, you know, it's you and nature. And it's also the team that you've chosen to surround yourself with.
Mr. GRANN: I just wanted to say one point about the introspection, because I think that's very interesting, and it really does relate to Fawcett. Fawcett would go on these journeys, even before he disappeared in his final expedition in search of Z, and he would go for a year, two years without contact with the outside world, with just his men. And he was a spiritualist, and a lot of his journeys had a great deal of introspection in his writings. And there was even some question whether Z was a spiritual quest or was it - was he searching for something concrete?
PALCA: Well, Graham, thanks for that call. We're talking about explorers and obsessions. David Grann's new book is called "The Lost City of Z." We'll talk more about his own obsession with this story in a moment. And we're taking your calls at 800-989-8255, or drop us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Joe Palca. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
(Soundbite of Talk of the Nation theme)
PALCA: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Joe Palca in Washington. "The Lost City of Z" is a story all about obsession - the obsession of the explorer Percy Fawcett to find the magical city of El Dorado; the obsession of the author of the book, David Grann; and the obsession of many other explorers to take the risks they do.
Today, we want to hear from you and your - from you explorers in the audience. Have you taken a trip to the South Pole, to Everest or K2, to the heart of the Amazon? Tell us why you did it. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on Talk of the Nation. You can also read about what convinced Fawcett that El Dorado really exists, and the research he did to prove it. It's all at npr.org/talk.
I wanted to ask you about the difference in travel today with what Fawcett experienced 80 years ago. And the reason I'm thinking about this - it's about - oh gosh, it's now 15 or 18 years ago. I made it to the South Pole. Wow! You know, the South Pole, and it's pretty darn impressive, and I'm glad I went. But I got on a plane in Washington, and I flew to Tennessee, and then I flew to Los Angeles, and then I flew to Auckland, and then I flew Christchurch, and then I flew to McMurdo, and then I flew to the South Pole.
And apart from the fact that I had to sit down for a really long time, it wasn't like what I would call strenuous. And once I was at the Pole, the big decision was whether to have Bailey's Irish Cream or, you know, beer with my dinner or something like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PALCA: I remember Bailey's, for some reason, was very popular at the South Pole when I was there. And I felt a bit of a fraud, because these initial explorers were putting it all out there. And you describe in your book - you had cars and planes get you a large proportion of the way. But it felt like you were much closer to the experience of what…
Mr. GRANN: What Fawcett did?
PALCA: Yeah, than I was.
Mr. GRANN: It's interesting. One of the things…
PALCA: Than I was to Shackleton, let's say.
Mr. GRANN: Shackleton.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GRANN: One of the things I try to do in the book is alternate chapters between the past and the present. And my hope in doing that was to really juxtapose and show how the world had changed and how the Amazon had changed. And so, to get a little bit to your point, when we started out on the trip, we left from Cuiaba, which is the capital of Mato Grosso Now, the name Mato Grosso in Brazil means dense forest, and we got a big car - we needed four-wheel drive. And we take it, and we're driving.
And I had Fawcett's letters with me. And I'm reading his letters, and he's describing just hacking through dense jungle. It's so intense. He had taken his oldest son with him. They become separated at one point, and the third companion is sick. Now, I'm looking out the window of the car, and it looks like Nebraska. There's literally nothing there. It had all been cut down. There was literally no forest. I mean, you could see to the horizon.
So, the beginning of the trip - and I try to show that - is just one example of how - this is only - it was 1925, 2005 - so what, about 80 years? - how the world had changed. But as we move further north into the jungle, there really still are dense pockets of wilderness in the jungle. And so, for the latter part of the journey, while we could make that trip in two days that it took Fawcett a month, according to his letters. We did it in two days. But then the latter part was a bit closer. But even then, it's never quite the same as what they were going through. I had malaria pills, for example.
PALCA: Yeah. Good things to have in those circumstances. Well, let's take some more of our intrepid callers and see what they have to say. Jake from Golden, Colorado. Welcome to Talk of the Nation.
JAKE (Caller): Hi. Hi, Bill and everyone. Thanks for having me on here. I'm an explorer, I guess, an adventurer, and really fascinated personally by the cerebral aspects of exploration. I am also the director of a mountaineering museum here in - the American Mountaineering Museum here in Golden, Colorado, and was fortunate enough to take part in the discovery of George Mallory's remains high on Everest in 1999. And really, you know, the question of exploration versus obsession with exploration, I think, really comes to fore in many stories but specifically in the story of George Mallory in 1924, and his obsession with reaching the summit of Everest that eventually ended in him remaining on Everest forever and losing his life up there.
PALCA: But it's interesting that you described your own sense of obsession in going back to find him.
JAKE: Yeah, yeah. You know, it was - you know, it was interesting because in some senses, we - you know, we were obsessed with finding him and putting ourselves at great risk in order to attempt to find his remains. So, it is an interesting, almost dichotomous relationship, because on the one had, we recognized his obsession that eventually, I think, got him killed up there. That's my opinion, but I think that's what led to it. And yet, we were embarking on a similar obsession in our attempts to find him and tell his story and Irvine's.
Mr. GRANN: One of the very interesting things that has some parallels with your story is, after Fawcett disappeared in 1925 with son and his companions, he had warned that nobody should follow in his wake because it was too dangerous. And literally, scores of people plunged into the wilderness trying to recover his party alive or dead, and find Z. And just as Fawcett had became obsessed, they became obsessed with chasing his ghost, and chasing the ghost of the city of Z, and countless of them lost their lives. They died of starvation or disease, or many of them also disappeared like Fawcett.
PALCA: Jake, thanks for that call. David, are you - I want to jump to the punch line here. Are you satisfied that - how far was Fawcett from finding what he was after? Are you satisfied that you know what happened to him? And did you find the City of Z?
Mr. GRANN: Did I find the city? Yeah. I mean the interesting thing about this mystery - it's often called the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century - is that it really has two separate components. It's two mysteries wrapped into one, which is - there's the mystery of what happened to Fawcett, a man who was pretty much considered indestructible, on this final expedition. And then there's the question of Z.
And in tracing his path and staying with various tribes that he stayed with, one of the really interesting things was that many of the tribes, even though they don't have written records, they have oral histories, and these oral histories are passed down for generations with incredible precision. And Fawcett and his party were among the first white men they'd ever seen. So, it was a very historic moment in their history. And I was amazed and astonished that they had an oral history about his party, and these oral histories are almost like epic, Homeric poems. And they - these - these oral histories had incredible clues and gave me a real sense of knowing, or as close I think as possible, to knowing to what happened to Fawcett.
And then, the second part was this question of Z. And I eventually met up with an archaeologist working in the very area where Fawcett believed Z would be, a man named Michael Heckenberger. And he had uncovered ruins, remnants of 20 pre-Colombian settlements. And there's now, really, a revolution in archeology, and in our understanding of the Amazon and what the Americas really looked like before the time of Columbus. So, one of the more astonishing things was learning that Z is much more than a fable.
PALCA: Right. And that Fawcett got awfully close.
Mr. GRANN: Very close.
PALCA: Although - what finally happened to him?
Mr. GRANN: Well, I got as close as I could. But even as Paulo - my guide - Pinochet said at the very end, he said, only the forest knows all.
PALCA: Well, and she ain't telling, I guess.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PALCA: Let's go to another call now. And Anton in San Francisco, welcome to Talk of the Nation.
ANTON (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.
ANTON: Yeah. My - I mean, I'm originally from South Africa. I grew up in South Africa in the apartheid era, and I was always filled with questions about, you know, life on the outside, because there was very - kind of restrictive travel in South Africa at that time. So, my passion for exploration, I think, was more a cultural passion to find out how the people are living and all these things that I was taught as a child to believe, and that were obviously not true once I set foot outside the country. You know, and once I discovered that, I realized that I had to explore the rest of my continent to fully understand, you know, where I grew up. And I think once you know what the questions are, then you know where to go and look for the answers, in terms of exploration, so…
PALCA: And what do you do now?
ANTON: Right now, I'm a documentary filmmaker.
ANTON: So, I still explore, you know, every opportunity I get, whether it's the mud volcanoes in southern California or people in Mozambique - you know, small villages in Botswana. I just recently went to Botswana on a short trip, and just living with the people on the ground and seeing how they eat, how you negotiate for food, how you, you know, cut your meat from a carcass hanging from a tree, and just seeing how people live. And they're happy, you know. It's kind of a question of finding civilizations still today - or cultures that live with the bare, bare minimum, and they are just extremely content.
PALCA: Interesting. And unfortunately, disappearing, but Anton, thanks for that call.
ANTON: You're very welcome.
PALCA: Let's take another call now and go to Dennis in Riverside, California. Welcome to Talk of the Nation.
DENNIS (Caller): Thank you. Thanks for letting me be on. I have a slightly different type of question. I grew up in a little town up in the Andes as a teenager, and there was a family there named Fawcett, and there was an airline in Peru named Fawcett. And this family was a fairly well-established family in Peru, and I know that the Fawcett name is a fairly well-recognized name in parts of South America. Is this any connection to this man, Fawcett, who was doing all this exploring in the '20s?
PALCA: Dave Grann?
Mr. GRANN: Yeah. That's a great question. I have seen the references to the Fawcett Airline, and I was never sure if that was named after him, but Fawcett's son, his youngest son - he had three children. His older son went with him and vanished with him. But his son, who lived into the late '70s, early '80s, had lived in Peru. In fact, he was a big-time railroad engineer there. And Fawcett's wife stayed with him for a while in Peru. And there are still parts of the Amazon, especially in Brazil, that it's literally known as a Forest Country, because that was the area where he mapped it. On some maps, it still says Fawcett Country.
PALCA: Dennis, thanks for that.
DENNIS: Well, I was a neighbor of that woman you were describing.
Mr. GRANN: Oh, that's amazing.
PALCA: That is. Wow. All right. Well, Dennis, thanks for calling in with that.
DENNIS: Thank you for the information.
PALCA: Sure. It's always nice to - I found out that there's a town called Palca in the Andes or - near La Paz so - but no explorers, no. We didn't know, we - very - no, no, no.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PALCA: Let's take another call now, from Eric in Elizabeth, Colorado. Welcome to Talk of the Nation.
ERIC (Caller): Hey there. Thanks. So, I don't know where you draw the line between travel and adventure. I suppose, you know, what I have done would fall under the heading of travel, especially when compared with Fawcett and other great adventurers. But I've, you know, traveled in Alaska, and that was my great adventure of my youth, when I got out of college and went from one end of the state to the other, and got stuck and lost in all kinds of places in between.
But, my question - I've always been fascinated by stories of explorers and obviously, Sir Francis Burton is one of them. And I think of what drives adventurers, and I think of what kinds of personalities they had. Burton always comes off, especially in the Rice biography, as being sort of dour and extreme. And then I think of, you know, the impressions I have of, say, Rockefeller - young Rockefeller, who I think was in Southeast Asia - seemed like always a very happy person. What kind of person was Fawcett? What was his affect? What was his personality like?
Mr. GRANN: That's a great question. And Fawcett was an incredibly complicated character, and he was incredibly daring. I mean, there were few men, you know, arguably, who would show more courage than what he would do. He would march into areas where people just simply didn't go, and make contact with tribes that because of the bloody history of the contact with - even once-friendly tribes would ambush interlopers. And Fawcett, unlike many people of that day, refused to let his men fire their weapons on the native tribes. He would order them to drop their weapons and in kind of crazy, mad, Victorian fashion, sing "God Save the Queen." And then he would take his handkerchief...
PALCA: It's always worked for me.
Mr. GRANN: It always works - "God Save the Queen."
Mr. GRANN: And in a mad, Victorian fashion, would take off his handkerchief and wave it in the air, march into a fusillade of arrows. And this isn't just lore because I read it in his companions' diaries, not in his own, where it was just simply embellishment. So, he was incredibly daring. At the same time, he was incredibly curious, he was very driven, but he was also very maniacal. And someone like me would have been terrified to be with him. And he was a very polarizing figure in his expeditions, because if you kept - could keep up with him, you admired him and worshipped him. But if you were weak and slowed him down, you were terrorized by him.
PALCA: We're talking with David Grann, the author of the new book "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
Yeah, in your book at least, you describe in this last expedition with his older son, how he sort of marched off when the son and his - and the younger companion weren't able to keep up.
Mr. GRANN: He - there was nothing - he let nothing stay in his way of his object and his goal. And in some ways, that would sometimes help his men survive, because he was in such conditions where you had to be maniacal. In fact, there was a rule among his parties that if you were wounded or too sick, you would have to be abandoned, because there was no way to get you out, and you would risk the welfare of the whole party. And so, he would drive those men through that wilderness to try to get them out.
PALCA: Amazing. We have time for one more call. Let's go to Eric in Daytona, Florida.
ERIC (Caller): Yes, hello everyone. Very interesting show.
ERIC: I wanted to comment, first of all, with respect to travel to the Antarctic, I was one of the guys that made you feel like bit of a fraud. I was a navigator on the C-130s and used to shoot celestial - use celestial navigation to figure out where in the heck we were.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PALCA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ERIC: Before we had GPS.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PALCA: That was a great flight, and I remember going up into the cockpit and seeing the trans-Antarctic Range and thinking I was in a Disneyland expedition because it was so unbelievably unreal looking.
ERIC: Yeah, you should try it when it's completely clouded over and you have no magnetic bearing. You have to rely on a gyro and hope that works well, and you have to take sun lines and moon lines and hope they intersect, and that you're somewhere near where you need to be in order to land safely with enough fuel to get back home.
PALCA: Yeah. Well, I'm glad that we're talking to you today, basically.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ERIC: There was more adventure than you knew, perhaps.
PALCA: Yeah, yeah. Well, maybe yes. Ignorance is bliss. Maybe that was it.
ERIC: The reason I called and what attracted me to service in the Navy, I had an ancestor who was on one of the early Arctic explorations. He actually was with Grealy on the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. (Unintelligible) were stranded up in the Arctic for three years. The relief ship was not able to get in and rescue them. Their boat was crushed by ice. And the reason I bring it up is, I think that when you look at our nation (unintelligible) character of individuals, this whole experience of exploration becomes a (unintelligible) to who we are as individuals, as families, and as people within a nation.
PALCA: Eric, I'm going to have to cut you off there, partly because we're losing the line and partly because we ran out of time. But thanks so much for calling in. And David Grann, thank you very much for coming in today.
Mr. GRANN: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
PALCA: David Grann is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, and the author of "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon." You can read an excerpt at npr.org/talk. Up next: Making race funny. We'll talk about - we'll talk with the senior black correspondent for "The Daily Show." I'm Joe Palca. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.