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The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey - Candice Millard ”In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Roosevelt wrote articles for Scribners while he was on this trip. Notice that he had to cover up his hands and face to keep the constant barrage of biting insects at bay.

As Theodore Roosevelt lay on his cot in the Amazonian jungle burning up with fever, yellow pus leaking from his leg, and his mind wandering aimlessly through the corridors of his memories he would recite over and over the opening stanza of Kubla Khan. I can only imagine how terrifying that was to his traveling companions, especially his son Kermit, to see the Bull Moose nearly at the end of his tether. So how did Teddy end up in such circumstances?

Well it all starts with the Republican primaries for the 1912 Presidential election. Roosevelt had finished up William McKinley’s term after McKinley was assassinated at the World’s Fair in 1901. Roosevelt had then won the presidency as the top man at the ticket in 1904. In 1908 he graciously decided to step down and not run for another term as president. He supported his good friend William Howard Taft for the presidency. Taft won. Teddy had a falling out with Taft probably having more to do with personality conflicts than political differences. He went to the party and asked them to replace Taft with himself for the 1912 election. They refused, but they assured him he would be their candidate in 1916.

Teddy is not one to wait.

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He formed the Bull Moose Party and decided he was going to run against everyone. His own party, the Democrats, and anyone else who wanted to jump in the race. While campaigning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin he was shot by a saloonkeeper named John Schrank.
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John Schrank the man who shot Roosevelt.

Roosevelt decided that since he wasn’t coughing up blood that instead of going to hospital he would deliver his campaign speech in his blood soaked shirt.

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Roosevelt x-ray showing the bullet in his chest.

If you just heard a CLANK that was Roosevelt’s brass balls.

The 1912 election turned out to be an unusual one with four candidates splitting up the vote.

Woodrow Wilson Democrat 6,296,284 votes 41.8% of the vote.
Theodore Roosevelt Progressive 4,122,721 votes 27.4% of the vote
William Howard Taft Republican 3,486,242 votes 23.2% of the votes
Eugene V. Debs Socialist 901,551 votes 6% of the votes

Roosevelt frankly couldn’t believe he lost. Whenever anything goes wrong he has to figure out a way to hit the reset button to keep from going into funk, and one of the best ways for him to do so is to do something dangerous like take a trip down to South America and see if the Amazon could kill him or make him whole again. He was 55 years old in 1913.


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Kermit Roosevelt on the Amazon

His son Kermit had just become engaged to a young socialite, so he wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of a long excursion into the jungle, but he could not let his father go without him. Kermit was already suffering from malaria when the trip began and fought it all the way down the river. Initially they were supposed to take a relatively easy trip down a known byway, but when Colonel Rondon came to Roosevelt and presented an alternative idea, surveying an unknown river, can’t you see the brimming excitement in those myopic eyes and the big smile with all those tombstone teeth?

CLANK! CLANK!! He hopped up and down thus the double clank.

Everything went wrong. They brought too much stuff. They brought the wrong stuff. They hired the wrong people. On top of all that: ”Compared with the creatures of the Amazon, including the Indians whose territory they were invading, they were all--from the lowliest camarada to the former president of the United States--clumsy, conspicuous prey.”

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They named the river after Roosevelt. He insisted that The River of Doubt was a much better name, but showing diplomacy graciously accepted the honor. With him is Captain Rondon. What I’m struck by in this picture is how thin Roosevelt looks.

The River of Doubt turns out to be a nemesis capable of swallowing them all without leaving a single trace. It is beautiful though, and certainly majestic.

”If Roosevelt and his men could have soared over the rain forest like the hawks that wheeled above them, the River of Doubt would have looked like a black piece of ribbon candy nestled in an endless expanse of green. Here, at the start of its tortuous journey northward, the river was so tightly coiled that at times it doubled back on itself, and in every direction the jungle stretched--dense, impenetrable, and untouched--to the horizon.”

Hidden beneath the canopy and beneath the roiling waters of the river are hazards that are just waiting, patiently, for someone or something to make a mistake.

”Of the approximately twenty piranha species, most prefer to attack something their own size or smaller, and they are happy to scavenge, especially during the rainy season, when there is more to choose from. However, their muscular jaws and sawlike teeth, which look as if they have been filed to tiny spear points, can make quick work of a living creature of any size and strength, from a waterbird to a monkey, to even an ox. During telegraph line expeditions, Rondon and his soldiers regularly offered up their weakest ox to a school of piranha so that the rest of their herd could safely cross the river."

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Anybody for a quick swim?

Rondon lost a good friend who was attacked by piranhas. When they found him all that was left on his skeleton was the feet in his boots.

There are Indian tribesmen of course, not friendly. These blundering explorers stirring up the jungle probably were perceived more as an irritation than a real threat, but still they were “other” which could also mean that they were on the menu.
”The most important rule of cannibalism within the tribe was that one Cinta Larga could not eat another. The tribe drew a clear distinction between its own members and the rest of mankind, which they considered to be ‘other’--and, thus, edible.”

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Try not to look sooo hungry when you are looking at me.

The survey expedition soon becomes low on food. The river demands carbs as they have to negotiate brutal rocky rapids that require their canoes and their supplies be hand lowered down to a calmer section of the river. When they needed more food for energy is when they had the least to eat. Teddy cuts his leg trying to help with the canoes and it happens to be the leg that was crushed in a traffic accident more than a decade before. I would assume that blood flow was not the best through that leg which makes it harder for the body to fight infection. On top of the infection that quickly starts oozing from his leg is the assassin’s bullet still in his chest. It is not completely healed and continues to pull down his immune system. He is perfectly positioned to die.

He offered to pull the trigger, Hemingway style.


He wouldn’t be carried. He was going to walk out of that jungle.


”Roosevelt realized that if he wanted to save Kermit’s life he would have to allow his son to save him. ‘It came to me, and I saw that if I did end it, that would only make it more sure that Kermit would not get out. For I know he would not abandon me, but would insist on bringing my body out, too. That, of course, would have been impossible. I knew his determination. So there was only one thing for me to do, and that was to come out myself.’”

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Could you toss your hair Candice? Beautiful. Now look over here. Lovely.

Candace Millard is not only lovely, but also a wonderful writer. She placed me there in the jungle with Teddy and his camaradas. I didn’t trail my hands in the water and in generally just kept all my digits as close to my body as possible. I could feel the desperation as one thing after another continued to go wrong, stacking the deck against them. It was an adventure too arduous for a 55 year old man, but Teddy needed a victory. A victory that would sooth the pain of his defeat in 1912. He needed something larger than life that would put the sparkle back in his eye when he came home and told everyone just how close to death he came. The Amazon never did let go of him; in fact, when he died in 1919 it was from complications associated with his trip down The River of Doubt. I also highly recommend Millard’s book on President Garfield. Destiny of the Republic