In our twenties, we’d bounced around from apartment to apartment.
We’d go abroad at least three times a year, sometimes for Amy’s work—she’s a contemporary-art curator—other times for my freelance writing. My wanderlust had been born out of my largely sedentary childhood. I had grown up in a rigorously normal town of about 30,000 in upstate New York. We didn’t travel much, except for a family vacation every July when my brother, my parents, and I climbed into a Ford station wagon and drove to a beach in Delaware.
There was a lake in my town, but with little horizon. The hills had no real vistas, and planes flew past overhead at 30,000 feet. Amy liked to joke that if it hadn’t been for her coaxing me into our first trip to Europe together, when we were twenty, I would have never left the States. We didn’t have much to worry about then. We made enough to get by. Now there was little time—or money.
I still traveled as a writer, stringing along interesting assignments—a couple weeks in Iran, where I hunted down rogue military shipments, another couple weeks in the Balkans to search out diamond thieves, and more in Russia chasing down mobsters—but those trips never lasted long enough for me to feel as if I was fully inhabiting another world, living out another life. The assignments provided only an approximation of a sustained adventure. By the time the stories came out in the magazines, I was already back to folding laundry and changing diapers.
Amy and I had been married for six years and had just moved with our three-year-old daughter, Sky, from the frantic crush of Manhattan to sleepier Brooklyn. Strapped with a mortgage and talking about having another child, we were settling down—or trying to. That stuff scared me, as I’m sure it does most young adults, especially those living in New York, where everything is so preposterously expensive. I was getting along in my thirties. I craved something more. Who isn’t charmed by the idea that there are still secrets left in the world?
I first learned about the lost city in the spring of 2008. At the time, I was reporting a magazine feature about the growing Honduran drug trade. The jungles and Caribbean shores of Honduras were considered major transshipment points for cocaine traveling from Colombia up to the United States, and the business had created a healthy underworld economy. I was interested in a particular drug king who had apparently made a business of killing off the Colombian traffickers at sea, pilfering the cocaine from their submarines or speedboats, then selling it back home. He was said to live on a fortified hilltop mansion above the sea.
After months of reporting, the story fell apart. One day I heard that the drug pirate had taken one of his speedboats out to sea, this time alone, without his gun-toting army, pointed the boat south, and never stopped. Stealing drugs as a business hadn’t turned out to be a very sustainable long-term proposition. The man had made his score, and now, it seemed, he would disappear. In the course of a phone conversation about the drug trade, though, a former U.S. soldier mentioned the lost city. He had been in the Mosquitia during the contra wars to train fighters in what he described as the “shittiest, buggiest shithole jungle in the world.” He’d slept in covered hammocks and tents. He’d always been wet and scratching his welts. “That place was bad, man,” he said.
He couldn’t remember when he’d first heard about the city, if it had been in the bush or at a seaside bar where he chased women, but the stories revolved around the same reports of gold, priceless artifacts, overgrown temples and buildings, and “monkey gods.” “I always thought about going out there to find it,” he told me. He had never tried.
Some nights, when my wife and daughter were asleep, I sat at my computer in the living room and mapped the Honduran jungle, shooting Google’s satellite camera downward, flying over winding rivers and tightly packed trees that made up one of the largest rain forests in the world. I zoomed until the image coming back was one impenetrable swath of green, and my imagination seized on what lay beneath.
I researched the White City in down moments, when Amy was teaching in the late afternoons or on the weekends when Sky was at ballet or art class. I made phone calls to archaeologists, prospectors, adventurers, and crackpot conspiracy theorists. I found a magician who had been searching for the city for years and told me, “Once you start looking, it never lets you go. It sucks you up.” Another man mentioned “ghosts,” and an archaeologist named Chris Begley found the city’s legend so captivating that he described it to me as “one of the slipperiest and most elusive mysteries.”
From what I could tell, the first inklings of a vanished city came from Christopher Columbus when, on his fourth voyage in 1502, he landed in the eastern part of Honduras at a point now known as the city of Trujillo. Walking the beaches nearby, he described in his journals rumors of gold nuggets “larger than lima beans” and an “island made entirely of gold.”
But where? Almost twenty-four years later Hernán Cortés and his army of conquistadors arrived on the same eastern spit of land. In his letters home to King Charles of Spain, Cortés described the hunt for the legendary town of Hueitapalan, or the Old Land of Red Earth. His army searched the jungles of Honduras for almost two months but found nothing. Soon after, in 1544, Cristóbal de Pedraza, the bishop of Honduras, wrote a letter to the king about an arduous trip through swamps and forests outside Trujillo. He recalled his introduction to an Indian princess, who had told him of a fabulous civilization west of the sea, “where nobles drank from gold goblets, ate from gold plates.” It sounded like El Dorado—one of the original lost-city myths—a golden land ruled by a golden king.
Over the centuries, there were loosely reported sightings. In 1927, on his flight over Central America, Charles Lindbergh spied an expansive stretch of white ruins—“ an amazing ancient metropolis.” Several years later, an anthropologist named W. D. Strong claimed that he’d found ancient artifacts scattered about the Honduran river basins and that during his six-month expedition, he had heard “many stories of strange archaeological ruins.” Not long after, S. H. Glassmire, a mining engineer and gold prospector from New Mexico, announced that he’d found a lost city that was “five square miles,” with “crumbling limestone walls.” He said that it was overgrown and described walking along a “cornice that stuck out of the ground.” Later, his claims were questioned, though they seemed to only stir the seekers.
* * *
I began to daydream about the jungle, about what was under those green Google images, and about all the lavish stories of the lost city. I daydreamed as I strolled past the brownstone buildings of my leafy Brooklyn neighborhood, as I jogged around the paved lanes of Prospect Park, as I pushed my shopping cart through the colorfully stocked aisles of Fairway. At Ikea one Sunday morning, as Sky and Amy tested out a gray cotton pull-out couch, I stood off to the side and let my mind wander. I imagined myself tromping through the heavy jungle air—no iPhone blinking with e-mails and phone calls and Twitter updates. I imagined living off the forest, eating what I caught, drinking river water, my clothes soaked in sweat and rainfall, setting up camp when darkness came, the nights spent listening only to the simple buzz and whir of the forest. No air-conditioning. No aisle 7. No crowds. There I was, in the middle of the jungle, trying to find the lost city by myself. Driving home from the store, I couldn’t shake the thought. I drove right past our street and then backed into a sign when I was parking the car. “Sorry,” I said. “Just got distracted for a minute.”
* * *
My curiosity crossed into obsession when I encountered Theodore Morde. In 1940, Morde returned from a four-month journey into the deepest parts of the Mosquito jungle with news that he had finally discovered the city. He was only twenty-nine years old. He had already circled the globe five times and visited nearly a hundred nations. As a teenager, he had stowed away on freighters bound for England and Germany. He covered the Spanish Civil War with Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, lectured on cruise ships, and later worked as a spy during World War II for the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence agency that preceded the CIA.
As with many of the great explorers of the past, Morde was more of a seasoned amateur, guided not by classroom study but by guile, boldness, and a tremendous self-confidence. The New York Times described his Honduran mission as “exploring hitherto unexplored land” with only a machete and pistol to defend himself. The McNaught Syndicate of newspapers called Morde “a true explorer,” as if to suggest that his lost-city discovery made him the last of a special breed of world adventurer.
Morde fascinated me. And it wasn’t just his discovery, which would have helped overturn years of science arguing that a major civilization could never exist in such a harsh climate, but also something else: his extravagant life. The fact that he couldn’t seem to settle down, that he always burned for adventure.
There was one big problem with the quest of Theodore Morde. Despite his claims of discovery, the city remained a complete mystery. No one knew the location of his city. Fearful that others would plunder the site in his absence, he never actually told anyone how to get to the site, and then he died before he could return to excavate it. His journals and everything else that he had written about the place disappeared after his death. Which made me wonder: Was Morde even telling the truth? And did the city really exist?
At one point I found an article in a 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated that detailed an expedition to find the city. Titled “Quest in the Jungle,” the story featured two explorers, named Jim Woodman and Bill Spohrer, and mentioned the legend of Morde. I made calls and sent e-mails about the men, hoping that I might find them and that they might give me some more clarity on the legend. I jotted down notes from their trip and added it to my growing notebook on Morde’s adventure. When Amy saw my notes lying around the house, she sometimes asked where all this was going. At first I didn’t know and I told her so. “Only sniffing around,” I said. But soon I started to believe that I was onto something bigger than myself, bigger than anything I had undertaken before, and eventually, despite all the reasons to say no, despite all the trappings of the good life I lived, I just kept wondering—what if? What if I really managed to retrace Morde’s journey? What if I traveled to Honduras? What would I discover? Did I have the guts to actually try?
* * *
“You want to do what?” Amy asked the night I told her my plan. We were having a drink at the dining room table of our Brooklyn apartment one early-winter night in 2008, while Sky was asleep in the back. It was mostly quiet, except for the occasional car that groaned past on the street below and the footfalls of our neighbors overhead.
“I want to find the White City,” I said. “Ciudad Blanca!”
She laughed, swallowed a sip of red wine, and, though she’d heard many of my phone conversations with people about the city, searched my face for a sign that I might be joking.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“Yeah, I bet the others who went out there were serious too,” she said. “How many did you say?”
“I don’t know the exact number.”
She took a strand of her blond hair and began to twirl it, winding it around an index finger and then letting it go.
“Your hair,” I said.
“I can’t help it.” She let the strand drop. “You don’t even know how to camp!” she said.
True: I’m not a backpacker or a trekker or even much of a hiker. I have a bad back. I have lived in New York City for more than fifteen years, so the idea of going to the rain forest might as well have meant heading off to Mars.
“I’m more qualified for this kind of trip,” she said before reminding me that she had gone on Outward Bound as a teenager in the High Sierra.
“You were like sixteen,” I said weakly.
“Yeah, but I spent twenty-six days in the mountains. And three of those days I was completely alone!”
“Still—” I said, but she cut me off.
“How many days have you spent camping?” she asked.
The answer was probably twice—and I’d hated it both times.
We sat there in silence for some time.
“What about your explorer?” she asked finally.
“What happened to him?”
“He’s dead,” I said.
She nodded, as if to underline my obvious lunacy.
“But he didn’t die in the jungle,” I said.
We laughed uneasily together at that, poured out the last of the wine, and listened as a siren rang out on the street below.
“I feel old,” I said as the noise died down.
“Is that what this is about?”
“I’m just saying.”
“You’re not the only one.”
“I’d just like to do this.”
“Soon, I guess.”
“You don’t have a plan, do you?” Her green eyes widened. She couldn’t believe it. “You’ve lost your mind. You have.”
I told her that there was still a lot to do.
“You and the man-eating, what, jaguars?” she said after some time. “I can just see it.”
“They don’t eat people,” I said. “Jaguars don’t.”
“Sure they don’t. Wait until they see you!”
Excerpted from “Jungleland: A Mysterious Lost City, a WWII Spy, and a True Story of Deadly Adventure” by Christopher S. Stewart. Copyright 2013. Published by HarperCollins. Reprinted with permission.