Levison Wood: Walking The Americas

Cover of Walking the AmericasI’ve found on these long expeditions that there sometimes comes a point when you grow tired of walking.

Walking the Americas recounts the story of Levison Wood’s third epic walking journey—a successor to Walking the Nile and Walking the Himalayas, and a companion volume to the Channel 4 TV series of the same name. You can find my review of Walking The Himalayas here.

The Nile was a highly specific route—following the river from source to sea; the Himalayas were more diffuse, offering Wood a range of route options, so that he could string together a series of particularly interesting locations; the “Americas” starts with broad choice in the north, and narrows down to some severely limited options in the south.

Wood walks through the historical core of the Americas—Central America. For start and finish points that allow a complete traverse of this isthmus, he chooses two events from the Spanish conquest of the region—the landing of Hernán Cortés on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 1519, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa‘s  journey across the Isthmus of Panama at Darién in 1513, during which his party became the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. As Wood points out, these two men are forever united by a historical inaccuracy in John Keats’s poem On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, which ends:

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Cortés never visited the Darién colony, and Keats clearly conflated his adventures with those of Balboa. (The story goes that, when informed of the error, he left it in so as to preserve the scansion of the poem. That’s poets for you, that is.) Despite the neatness of this poetic link to the geography of the region, it seems logistically more likely that Wood chose his starting point in Yucatán simply because that’s where his walking companion, the photographer Alberto Cáceres, lives. And his destination is clearly dictated by the shape of the isthmus, which has a definite southern endpoint where it joins the continent of South America just beyond the jungles of Darién. Between these two points, he walked 1,800 miles over the course of four months.

Walking the Americas route
Click to enlarge
Levison Wood’s route through Central America (Public Domain base map)

In contrast to companions on Wood’s two previous journeys, Cáceres is able to stay with him throughout the trip, and it’s evident that he’s an invaluable asset—aimiable, upbeat and possessed of an apparently infallible ability to charm Spanish-speaking officialdom.

Wood also seems to be blessed with an easy sociability that stands him in good stead—chatting cheerfully to border guards, drug dealers, gang members, child refugees and pretty much anyone else he meets along the way. I think he describes his approach well when discussing photography, early in the book:

You need to speak to people and get them to relax. You need to spend an hour or so chatting about their life, their passions, their wants and needs, before you even get your camera out. They must trust you, and that cannot be forced. They must like you, and you can’t force that either.

Wood’s impulse to chat only betrays him once, when he and his companion are treated to lunch (in a manner that can’t be refused) by a group of men they believe to be drug dealers. He works very hard to make it clear he is simply a traveller and writer (not a police informant), and then has to work hard again to be sure they understand he is not a rich writer (so not worth kidnapping for ransom). Presumably exhausted by this gruelling process and beginning to relax slightly, he then asks brightly, “So, what do you do?”

After a tense silence that gives Wood ample time to regret his curiosity, he is told that they “grow beans and corn.”

As with previous volumes, the book is a useful companion to the television series. The memorable moments from the series are all here—diving in a cenote used for human sacrifice; walking to the rim of an active volcano; climbing Cerro Chirripó, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, to see the sunrise; walking edgily through gang territories in San Pedro Sula; and the final slog through the jungle of the Darién Gap. But there’s also much background information on the history of the area, and a lot of moments that never made it to the TV screen—a hilarous consultation with the elderly and  eccentric explorer John Blashford-Snell (during which Wood develops a sort of explorer envy because he won’t be able to take a gunboat with him into Darién); the apology he receives from the gang leaders through whose territory he passes, who say that they would have tidied up the graffiti if they’d had more warning of his arrival; the enthusiastic but seriously underequipped and ultimately ill-fated Belgian travellers who are planning to cross Darién before Wood gets there, and who have the potential to blight his carefully negotiated arrangements in that sensitive region; and a poignant visit to Puerto Escosés, the site of Scotland’s failed colony in the New World, and the focus of the seventeenth-century Darien Scheme, a financial venture that ultimately bankrupted Scotland and ended its existence as an independent nation.

And there are snakes, spiders, vampire bats, river crossings, unpleasant injuries, quicksand … and a moment when they get lost and turn up as unwelcome trespassers in someone’s garden.

What’s not to like?

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