END OF A JOURNEY
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The life of an explorer is often lonely. Soldiers and sailors have their bonds of brotherhood- but explorers tend to be lone wolves, solitary sots not given to intimacy. The more time they spend beyond the reach of civilization- in a place where life depends on cunning and where they alone are the sole authority- the more difficult it becomes to adjust back to a normal life. Some of the world’s greatest explorers- men who had endured adversity and dangers beyond counting- later found themselves forlorn, wracked by self-doubt and overcome by despair. Meriwether Lewis, lionized for his crossing of North America, was later consumed by inner demons. Spurned in love, lonely and drinking heavily, despite the fame and accolades bestowed on him, Lewis fell irretrievably into despondency. One night, unable to cope any longer, he shot himself in the head. The bullet only grazed his skull. Grabbing another flintlock pistol, Lewis shot himself through the chest. Still, he did not die. Fully conscious, but out of ammunition, in desperation he reached for a razor. In the words of a horrified witness who burst upon the scene, Lewis was found “busily engaged in cutting himself from head to foot” Choking with blood, Lewis gasped”I am no coward; but I am so strong, [it is] so hard to die.” Only after agonizing pain that lasted for hours did Lewis – one of history’s most fearless explorers – finally succumbed to his self-inflicted wounds.
John Hanning Speke, after discovering the source of the world’s longest river in 1858, a riddle that had been puzzled over since the days of the pharaohs-became ensnared in bitter controversies over his discoveries back in England. His fellow explorer Sir Richard Burton disputed the Nile’s source, and the acrimonious debate resulted in angry polemics in journals and newspapers. Speke had braved every imaginable danger in the wilds of Africa, but he found the hounding of the civilized world insufferable. On the afternoon of September 15, 1864, shortly before he was to appear at a session of the Royal Geographical Society to debate Burton, he fatally shot himself while hunting in the English countryside.
Some explorers simply vanished in the wild, never to be seen again, their fate a mystery, such as Percy Fawcett in the Amazon in 1925 and Hubert Darrell, a forgotten hero of the Arctic and solo explorer without equal, who disappeared in northern Canada in 1910 while on a lone journey into unexplored territory. Others lived into old age only to discover that their singular experiences had rendered them unsociable and incapable of developing deeper bonds with other people. They lived out their days filled with loneliness. But not for anything, I think, would any of them have traded their wilderness explorations for a more settled existence-like Faust, they could not repent, for they had seen and done things no one else had.
[Excerpt from Alone Against the North by Adam Shoalts]