Darwin Slept Here
A few years ago, I was fleeing my first attempt at post-college employment via a six-month wilderness backpacking tour of South America, and I washed up in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, the self-proclaimed southernmost city in the world. Ushuaia is a waterfront city, on the shores of the Beagle Channel, and I started wondering about Charles Darwin’s travels there. I was struck by the rather sudden realization that I had absolutely no idea what the guy had done, apart from the visited-Galapagos-discovered-evolution-grew-miserable-great-beard thing.
There’s an English language bookstore in Ushuaia, and so I bought a copy of Darwin’s book, the Voyage of the Beagle, and started reading. And I kept reading for the next few weeks, amazed by what I considered remarkable similarities between Darwin’s account and the traveler’s tales I’d been hearing in hostel dorm rooms for the last few months. I had always thought of Darwin as a boring old English scientist, but in his twenties he was an enthusiastic young explorer -- an excitable, slightly aimless twenty-something looking for steady work, adventure, and something fun to do on a Saturday night in Patagonia. Darwin spent five years traveling the world, climbing up mountains, tearing through jungles, exploring and labeling a continent in a way that’s still familiar today. As I read I got the urge to set out on my own and explore – to see the people, places, and legends that interested Darwin, and what they’re like now.
About a year after I got home, I returned to South America to track down those adventures. From the chaotic jungles of Brazil to the crammed bars of Buenos Aires and an epic performance of “The Adventure of the Beagle, the Musical,” I traveled from place to place with the young Charles Darwin as guide and cultural interpreter. Along the way I tried to look into the myths of a continent defined in part by the descriptions of western explorers and naturalists, sought the adventures and wild lands that still inspire travelers, and explored the way that for four years in the 1830s, place and personality intersected to create the world’s foremost naturalist.