Journeys to The Edge of The World
Thirty Years Ago, Wade Davis Walked Away from Harvard and Went to the Amazon. Since Then, Exploring Strange Places Has Been His Passion.
WITH BLOND CURLS BOUNCING, the young man stepped off a plane at the airport in steamy Bogotá, Colombia. He was a seven-hour flight away from Harvard University, where he was a junior, and a world away from his upbringing in Canada's British Columbia. He had made the decision to come a few weeks earlier while sitting in a Cambridge coffee shop with a friend.
It was 1974, and a map of the world stretched across the wall before them. They were bored with their classes, with learning about ideas and history from books. So when his
friend pointed to the Arctic Circle and said he'd rather be there, the young man with the blond curls dreamily ran his finger along the Amazon River.
"I remember watching my foot hit the tarmac a few weeks later," says Wade Davis, now 48 and living in DC's Cleveland Park. "I thought to myself: 'Oh boy, what are you going to do now?' "
He was there to collect plant specimens, though he knew little about plants and knew no one in Colombia. But Davis somehow felt like he was home, perhaps for the first time in his life. He would stay in the Amazon basin and then the Andes for 15 months. It would be the first of many adventures he would have—in places like Haiti, Tibet, Ecuador, Malaysia, and Borneo.
Today his business card simply says, WADE DAVIS, EXPLORER.
Davis sits, arms loosely crossed, in the circular study of his home near the National Cathedral. A cylindrical bookshelf leads up to a skylight above a round desk. Blowguns, ornate headdresses, and spears are scattered about. Hanging on the walls are animal skulls, beaded fabrics, baskets that once carried infants in Borneo.
The curls that used to frame Davis's face have been replaced by a shorter, sandy-brown mop. He is explaining how he became a best-selling author.
"It was a long, serendipitous journey," he says. "I always tell young people, 'If you knew what it took to get here, you'd want to go to law school.' "
Davis earned a PhD in ethnobotany—the study of people and plants—at Harvard in 1986, but he does not speak like an academic. He makes most of his living giving speeches, being paid $5,000 to $7,000 to tell stories of his travels. He captivates listeners by spinning folklore, scientific discoveries, and adventures into tales set in distant corners of the world.
"He's like watching Richard Leak-ey and Mick Jagger merge into one," says his friend Travis Price, a local architect.
Davis often writes long stories about cultural loss for National Geographic; he's also written for publications as diverse as Men's Journal and Outside and published photographs in Time and Science. He's authored several books, the most famous of which, The Serpent and the Rainbow, tells of his travels researching the secret vodoun, or voodoo, societies of Haiti. It became an international bestseller and was made into a movie directed by Wes Craven. Among his other books are Shadows in the Sun, a collection of essays on his travels, and Nomads of the Dawn, which chronicles the lives of Borneo's Penan people.
His most recent book, Light at the Edge of the World, is a cultural manifesto about the disappearance of indigenous tribes around the world. Published by the National Geographic Society, the book marks the beginning of his work at the society's DC headquarters, where—with such scientists as primatologist Jane Goodall and oceanographer Bob Ballard—he is one of ten explorers in residence.
In 1981 I was engaged in ethnobotanical work in the Northwest Amazon near the Río Ampiyacu, the River of Poisons… . Late one evening, while I was writing up my field notes, a boy came to my hut, his face flushed with panic. He told me that a young man at the other end of the village had been struck by a deadly fer-de-lance and now lay dying in his mother's home.
Because of my interest in plants, the villagers assumed that I was a doctor and requested my help. By the time I arrived at the young man's side, a shaman was already hard at work, rubbing the patient with urticating nettles and blowing tobacco smoke over his brow. A small poultice of renealmia leaves covered the wound. If the shaman resented my arrival, he gave no such indication; his attention was focused on the patient, who had begun to spit up frothy blood. I realized that both the patient and the shaman expected me to intervene, so I did my best to mimic a physician. I felt the young man's pulse, examined his wound, and placed my hand on his forehead, all the time struggling to look as grave as possible.
It was a long night of serious work for the shaman and earnest gesticulations for myself. By dawn the crisis had passed, and the young man's condition began to improve… . Was either of us in any way responsible for the patient's recovery? Neither of us had interacted with him in a manner that a scientist would define as meaningful, and at no time had we physically extracted the venom from his wound. However, there was a vast difference between my antics and the ritual behavior of the shaman, who invoked a spiritual tradition that reached back millennia. Was it possible that he had actively assisted the patient in other, less tangible ways?
—from Shadows in the Sun
Some reviewers have called his books "beautifully and meticulously written." Academics have described his work as "sensationalist." Davis ignores any negative comments about the book he is most proud of. It took him six years to write One River, which chronicles his travels in South America's rain forests as well as the life of his mentor, Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes—a man who left for one semester to collect plant specimens in the Amazon and returned 12 years later with 300 previously undiscovered species.
It was after a class with Schultes that Davis began longing to travel to the Amazon. When Davis went to Schultes's office on the fourth floor of Harvard's Botanical Museum, he told the professor he was from British Columbia. Then he added, "I want to go to the Amazon and collect plants like you did, sir."
Schultes didn't blink an eye. "Well, when do you want to leave?"
Thirty years later, on a table outside the French doors of Davis's study, a dozen dried plant specimens sit in glass jars beneath framed photographs of Schultes and members of a rain-forest Indian tribe. Davis pauses in front of the photograph.
"In talking with Schultes," Davis says, "you knew if you emerged from the rain forest alive, you'd be a wiser man."
When he speaks of his mentor, Davis seems uncomfortable. It's as if he thinks he can never do justice to the man who transformed botany and transformed Davis, too.
Within days of arriving in Colombia in 1974, Davis was exploring deep within the lush lowlands of the Chocó rain forest. Schultes had advised him to meet up with another of his protégés, Tim Plowman, who had a grant to study the coca plant—the source of cocaine. Schultes's only other advice: Bring a pith helmet, and don't leave without trying ayahuasca, a shamanic potion made of plants that is one of the most potent hallucinogens known.
"I only had one word in my vocabulary at the time," says Davis, "and it was 'yes.' "
In Plowman's red Dodge truck, the duo traversed roads that disappeared in heavy rains. They missed by a few minutes falling to their deaths with the collapse of a bridge. Their first mission was to reach the villages of the Kogi and Ika Indians, who in their resistance to outsiders had retreated higher and higher into the mountains. Davis and Plowman brought 20 kilograms of seashells as gifts; the Indians use the alkalies in the shells to offset the bitterness of the coca plant. The two discovered three new plant species during their two weeks there and collected thousands of specimens during their time in the Amazon.
"Plants were an obvious way to get to know indigenous people," says Davis. "It was an easy way to break down the barriers."
When he returned to his base city of Medellín, Davis was approached by a British journalist who was walking the length of the Americas from the southern tip to Alaska. The journalist had gotten Davis's name from Schultes; he wanted a companion to accompany him into the Darien Gap, a roadless and dangerous chunk of rain forest separating Colombia from Panama.
"I didn't know what I was getting into," says Davis. "I later found out my friends from the British army had refused to go, knowing how treacherous the journey would be."
With Kuna and Embera Indians as guides, Davis and the journalist moved through the forest from one Indian village to the next until they were tipped off by a missionary that they might be murdered. Abandoning their backpacks, Davis led their escape into the mountains. But in their attempt to evade pursuit, they were lost for ten days. When they reached Panama, Davis boarded a small prop plane. The pilot flew directly into a violent tropical storm.
"For an anxious few moments, as the winds buffeted the plane," Davis recalls in One River, "I feared that having survived the Darien, I was about to die ignominiously."
If his parents were relieved when Davis returned to finish his junior year at Harvard in 1975, they did not show it. They always supported his pursuits, even stay-ing quiet when Davis graduated from Harvard and took a job as a park ranger in Naikoon Park, a remote archipelago in northern British Columbia.
His parents, Edmund and Gwendolyn Davis, were typical Montréal suburbanites of the 1960s. His father, a banker, was a soldier in the Canadian army during World War II. His mother was a homemaker who got a job as a secretary to help pay for the children's education. They moved to Vancouver Island, off the coast of British Columbia, when Wade was 15. They lived in a cookie-cutter house in the suburbs. Every morning his father walked to his office, then returned in the evening for a cocktail and dinner. Davis saw only monotony in it.
"I used to stare and look for any hint of adventure in my dad's eyes," he says. "Every day he would get a little shorter. Still today I get anxious if I'm in the suburbs."
The young Davis looked to stories of explorers for excitement. He knew all of the early fur traders' names and traced their routes down the Saint Lawrence Seaway. In the summers he would drag his father to any historic trading post within driving distance. He envied boys with fathers schooled in the outdoors. He remembers going fly-fishing on a class trip and watching a father teach his son how to tie a fly. He longed for the same relationship with his father. He realizes today that what he wanted was a teacher.
"I sought out and found the kinds of relationships my father couldn't give me," says Davis. "I knew early on that he couldn't give me the knowledge that I wanted."
The pursuit of that knowledge brought a kind of duality to Davis's boyhood. His parents scrimped to send him to a prestigious Canadian boarding school, where he wore a uniform to class. In the summers, he labored in logging camps to help pay for his education. The logging camps were full of draft dodgers—the danger of the work kept foremen from asking many questions. Davis found their irreverence fascinating.
"One guy had a Life magazine with a cover showing Harvard students protesting," says Davis. "They looked just like the guys in the logging camp. So I thought Harvard was the place you went to be cool."
When he arrived at Harvard, he found a school filled with the offspring of the rich—and felt that he didn't fit in. His parents were struggling to send him, using more than half their income to pay tuition for him and for his older sister, Karen, at Brown. Everyone seemed to know more than he did. It made him even hungrier to learn.
Within a couple of years, Davis had surpassed most of the classmates who at first had intimidated him.
"I think at college Wade finally met the kinds of minds that could match his mind," says local filmmaker Lavinia Currier, a friend who is a great-granddaughter of the late Andrew Mellon.
But Davis's travels and growing knowledge of the wider world made it harder to relate to home.
"Every penny my parents spent to give me an education," he says, "widened the social chasm between us. I was living in a world they couldn't even imagine."
As we wrangled horses, repaired fences, guided the odd hunter in search of moose or goat, I would ask him to tell me the stories of the old days, the myths of his people and his land. He happily told tales of his youth, of the hunting forays that brought meat to the village and of the winter trading runs by dogsled to the coast, but he never said a word about the legends.
Long after I had given up on hearing the origin myths, I went out one morning to salvage a moose carcass abandoned by a trophy hunter. When I returned after a long day with a canoe full of meat, Alex was waiting for me. As we walked back across the meadow with our loads, he said very quietly that he remembered a story and invited me to drop by his tent later in the evening. To this day I don't know whether Alex had simply achieved a certain level of trust, or whether I had finally inquired about the stories in the correct manner, or whether the gift of meat had some greater significance. But that night, I began to record a long series of creator tales of We-gyet, the anthropomorphic figure of folly, the trickster/transformer of Gitxsan lore.
—from Light at the Edge of the World
IN THE LATE HOURS OF A WINTER'S NIGHT IN 1982, Wade Davis was summoned to New York. He hopped a shuttle from Boston, where he was in grad school, and a few hours later found himself sipping Haitian rum in the living room of Nathan Kline, an award-winning scientist who studied psychopharmacology with the backing of a wealthy financier. Davis's mentor, Richard Evans Schultes, had recommended him to Kline.
On his last trip to Haiti, Kline told Davis, he had discovered something extraordinary—proof that zombies, or the walking dead, did exist. An American-run hospital in rural Haiti had a signed death certificate on file for a man who had died and been buried 18 years earlier. But months before Davis and Kline's meeting, the man had shown up in his home village claiming he had been made a zombie by an abusive sorcerer. It was thought to be a component of "black magic" employed in some sects of the vodoun religion. But Kline and his Haitian colleague, scientist Larmarque Douyon, did not believe in magic.
"They focused their attention on reports of a folk preparation, mentioned frequently in the popular and ethnographic literature, which was said to induce a state of apparent death so profound as to fool a Western-trained physician," writes Davis in Light at the Edge of the World. In other words, the Haitians had figured out a way to slow the heart to a point that a person would be considered dead but, with the proper antidote, could be resuscitated.
It was Davis's job to find the formula, presumed to consist of botanical elements. When he applied for funding from the National Science Foundation, one of the scientists handwrote a warning about the vodoun people on the award letter:
Davis should know, if he does this research, he'll be killed.
ON A STIFLING AFTERNOON, THE NAME OF one vodoun priest in hand, Davis arrived in Haiti. That night the priest took him to see a ceremony at a temple. Davis was struck by how much the Haitians "became God" rather than simply worshiped God. They danced feverishly to pounding drums. Their bodies went into spasm. Many danced on burning coals.
"Within hours of arriving in Haiti," he writes in Light at the Edge of the World, "I had witnessed a phenomenon that had eluded me in the Amazon for a decade: a window open wide to the mystic."
For four years, Davis slipped in and out of vodoun "secret society" ceremonies, often observing and many times taking part. He saw a woman sever the head of a chicken with her teeth; he watched as a baby's body was exhumed from a grave and ground into powder. He was one of the first white men initiated into the Secret Society of the Bizango Shanpwel. One Haitian asked him, "What kind of white are you?"
Of one night in Haiti, he writes in The Serpent and the Rainbow:
The hounsis [a vodoun initiate] was [possessed] violently—her entire body shaking, her muscles flexed—and a single spasm wriggled up her spine. She knelt before the fire, calling out in some ancient tongue. Then she stood up and began to whirl, describing smaller and smaller circles that carried her like a top around the poteau mitan [ritual centerpost] and dropped her, still spinning, onto the fire. She remained there for an impossibly long time, and then in a single bound that sent embers and ash throughout the peristyle, she leapt away.
Landing squarely on both feet, she stared back at the fire and screeched like a raven. Then she embraced the coals. She grabbed a burning faggot with each hand, slapped them together, and released one. The other she began to lick, with broad lascivious strokes of her tongue, and then she ate the fire, taking a red-hot coal the size of a small apple between her lips. Then, once more she began to spin. She went around the poteau mitan three times until finally she collapsed into the arms of the mambo. The ember was still in her mouth.
ON EASTER SUNDAY 1982, DAVIS RETURNED to the United States. In his suitcase were dried toads and snakes, seeds and herbs, powders made from toxic fish, a small collection of amulets, fetish symbols, and bits and pieces of human bones—the ingredients, as he explains in his doctoral dissertation, for a zombie potion.
Would it work? Davis believes so, but he thinks its efficacy would depend on the devout belief of the vodounist and subject.
GAIL PERCY POINTS TO THE FRESH LEAVES of a greening plant. "Aren't they beautiful?" she says. "It's a Lebanese bush. We had some in our yard."
She's sitting on a bench in the gardens of the National Cathedral in jeans and a pink fleece. It's a warm spring morning. She notes which of the buds and flowering plants have bloomed since her last visit. She and her husband, Wade Davis, often come to the gardens here. Davis will pace the grounds if he's run into writer's block; Percy will walk through on her way to visit their daughters, Tara, 14, and Raina, 11, at the National Cathedral School.
Percy is not a stranger to these gardens—or to Washington. Her father, Charles Percy, was a moderate Republican from Illinois who served 18 years in the US Senate. Her sister, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, runs public television's WETA and is married to Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat from West Virginia. Gail attended eighth and ninth grade at National Cathedral School before transferring to Concord Academy in Massachusetts and heading off to the University of California, Santa Cruz. "They have beautiful gardens there, too," she says.
She spent summers touring the world with her father, often on congressional fact-finding missions. With him she met Indira Gandhi, watched camel races in Sudan, and had a guide translate hieroglyphs on the walls of the pyramids in Egypt. Through her father she got an internship at the Ministry of Culture in Afghanistan.
Gail Percy had just returned from Tunisia, where she had been studying women and their work for her PhD in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, when she met Wade Davis in 1984. They were at a dinner party near Lavinia Currier's 1,000-acre farm in the Virginia countryside; Currier's adventurous and wealthy parents died when their plane vanished over the Bermuda Triangle when she was nine. Davis had been holed up in the servants' quarters behind Currier's main house re-reading his favorite books to teach himself how to write his first novel.
"The first time I saw Gail," says Davis, "I dropped a glass of wine, and it shattered on the floor."
Percy had worked as a fashion model in Paris to earn money to fund her research. Davis says he couldn't take his eyes off her. They were seated at opposite ends of a long table. "We shouted over everyone else to talk to one another," laughs Percy. "I don't think we said a word to anyone else."
Later, after watching Davis give a lecture at the Smithsonian, Percy drove back out to the farm. Davis invited her to see his collection of artifacts. He read her passages from the book he was working on. He showed her maps detailing his travels, running his finger along the routes, sharing stories about the places he'd been.
"I love maps, and I would always chart my travels in the same way," says Percy.
MONTHS AFTER THEY BEGAN DATING, Gail Percy decided she wanted Davis to meet her family. She invited him to dinner and told him to dress casually. Both were 34.
"In Canada, casual means jeans and a T-shirt, so that's what I wore," says Davis. "I knew her father was a senator, but it was more like me meeting my girlfriend's dad."
A butler answered the door. Davis was led into a room filled with other senators and men in business suits. By this time, Davis recalls, "I was committed. It was too late to run." The gathering was for the Karmapa Lama, the third most important holy leader in Tibetan Buddhism. Gail had told Davis that her father read his book about vodoun, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and joked that he hadn't understood a word of it. Davis wondered how a Republican senator would react to his daughter's dating someone known for shamanic medicine and drugs.
"He was very gracious," says Davis. "He took me aside to a private corner of the room and asked me if I loved his daughter. I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Then you're welcome in this house.' "
Davis proposed marriage a few months later, as he and Gail floated down the Amazon.
In marrying Percy, Davis found himself attached to much more than a wife.
"Wade was on his own for a very long time," says Gail. "My large extended family was hard for him to get used to."
With the sun going down over the Sonoran Desert, Andrew led me down a dusty trail toward a narrow draw that opened onto a flat enveloped by mesquite trees and looming cacti… . Tending the fire was the person we had come to see, White Dog, Andrew's main toad man… . With a warm embrace, he greeted Andrew, and then, turning to me, asked, "So, have you tasted toad?"
"No," I replied.
"It's a tool for meditation," he noted sagely, getting right to the point… .
"How often have you taken it?"
"Not often. Seventy-five, maybe a hundred times," he replied. I gasped… .
When we [Andrew and Wade] burned the venom we found that the odor and taste of the smoke closely resembled the very distinctive odor and taste of the vapor of the pure compound. We prepared a small chip of dried venom, the size of a paper match head. Within 15 seconds of a single deep inhalation of the vaporized material, both of us experienced pronounced psychoactive effects… .
I experienced warm flushing sensations, a sense of wonder and well-being, strong auditory hallucinations, which included an insect-cicada sound that ran across my mind and seemed to link my body to the earth… . Warm waves coursed up and down my body… .
In general, however, the practice of milking the toxic glands of a living animal, drying the venom on glass, and inhaling a substance that sends one into a netherworld of oblivion did not catch on. The toad's moment of fame was short-lived.
—from Shadows in the Sun
"IT'S DEFINITELY MY FAULT WE got stuck here," says Gail. She's only half kidding. The decision to live in Washington was a tough one for Davis, who craves the expanses of British Columbia. The two had lived in Vancouver in the late '80s after they married. Percy got pregnant; Davis was working on One River. They enjoyed the rainy season and the short days—the sun set at 4 PM and rose at 9 AM.
When he and Percy met, Davis had been ready to slow down his travels. "He was a gypsy," says Percy. "He had been living throughout his twenties out of a knapsack, stringing up a hammock in the Harvard botanical garden to sleep in. He desperately wanted to settle down."
The question was where. When Davis needed to use documents from the National Archives, he traveled to Washington, staying in Gail's Georgetown rowhouse. As he needed research facilities at the Library of Congress and the Archives more and more, they slowly began to move back, alternating between their Vancouver cottage and the District. Finally, in the early '90s, they made the move for good. The girls loved school on the Cathedral grounds, and Percy thought it was important that the family consolidate into one home. For a man who had lived his life without compromise up until this point, it was not an easy transition.
"Trust me, I've been the therapist on this one," says his friend Travis Price. "He kept saying, 'Why am I in Washington?' "
IN ONE OF THEIR LATE-NIGHT CONVERSAtions, Davis and Price went through the pros and cons of living in Washington. Pro: Easy to get transatlantic flights. Con: Some people here think it's the center of the world. Pro: Lots of research facilities. Con: Not enough mountains. Finally, it dawned on Davis.
"This is my port in the storm," he says. Canada is still home, he says. But Washington is a place he can springboard from. Then he was offered the explorer-in-residence position at the National Geographic Society and, he says, "I had a reason to be here."
Davis admits he isn't as comfortable in Washington social circles as he is in an Indian hut. But he says he now realizes that Washington was one of the world's best-kept secrets. Here he has an eclectic group of friends—writer Christopher Hitchens, journalist Ann Crittenden, Govinda Gallery owner Chris Murray, National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting. He appreciates the intellectual intensity and loves that when he goes to a dinner party, everyone else there is writing a book, too.
Sometimes, he says, he'll train an anthropological lens on his surroundings. He'll watch the behavior at a Washington party and begin to analyze the culture he sees playing out in front of him. "You get a sense that there is a river rushing, and people don't realize the velocity of the current," he says. "Another thing that astonished me is how this city is thick with intelligence, but among the ruling political class I seem to find more people who are clever as opposed to wise, ambitious as opposed to generous."
He finds pundits fascinating because they are always talking about subjects—including some of which he has firsthand knowledge—of which they know little.
"Why would you pontificate on things you don't know anything about?" he asks.
BETWEEN TWO TALL WINDOWS IN DAVIS'S study hangs a mask the size of a serving platter. It is made of white cedar with eagle down and goat hair. All of the facial features are exaggerated, the lips nearly the size of the mask's forehead.
It was a gift from a friend in British Columbia—a Kwakiutl Indian named Simon who carved the mask as a token of friendship. He exaggerated the lips, says Davis, "because he says I never shut up."
Davis is a talker. In a one-hour conversation he jumps from his experiences with hallucinogens to US drug policy to America's historic isolationism to 9/11 to the challenges of a global economy.
"He has so many ideas, so much he wants to tell you," says his boss at the National Geographic Society, Terry Garcia. "It's like drinking from the proverbial firehose."
In his work, his ability to talk is a gift. He will sit down with anyone. On a recent trip to Tibet, Davis worked alongside Daniel Taylor-Ide, executive director of Future Generations, an environmental nonprofit on whose board Davis sits, to survey conservation and development on Mount Everest. They hiked up the mountain, encountered blizzard conditions, and were forced to retreat.
Taylor says that every morning, Davis was out of his tent before dawn, perched on a ledge to watch the sun come up.
"Then, instead of going into the tent with the Westerners to have a cup of sugared tea with milk," says Taylor, "he'd slip into the tent with the yak herders and have a cup of salted yak butter."
It didn't matter that he doesn't speak a word of Tibetan. Davis uses basic ways to communicate—smiles and laughter, pointing and gesturing.
"I think they get a kick out of Wade," says Taylor of the yak herders. "They like the fact that if they pull something out of their food bag—even if it's dried yak yogurt—he'll want to taste it."
Davis has begun tracking some of the cultures he first encountered as a younger man. He returns periodically to Cuzco, a village in northern Peru, to see how its customs are surviving. When he visited the nomadic Penans of Borneo, he worked with them as they formed human chains against bulldozers razing their forests to make room for oil drilling.
One of Davis's first assignments from the National Geographic Society is to "map" every single culture worldwide—a list that does not yet exist—so the fate of indigenous cultures can be monitored. Davis notes that 6,000 languages are spoken in the world today, but only half are being taught to children. This means, he says, that in one generation we will lose half the world's cultural diversity.
A day in camp, relieved only by a short outing to establish a camera on the high trail to Everest, followed by another night and day of heavy snow, left all of us wondering whether we might be forced to retreat. By the third morning, when we woke to gray skies still swirling with snow, the yak herders themselves seemed fearful. Their animals had not eaten in three days, and the storm showed no signs of letting up. With winter coming on, not one of them was keen to climb thousands of feet higher to the East Face of Qomolangma.
While Daniel, Lhakpa, and others sat in the cook tent, talking things over, I noticed Tandu, the quiet leader among the Tibetans, placing a large flat stone on the snow. Kindling a fire with dried juniper, he burned incense and green boughs, then added offerings of tsampa, yak butter, and tea, all the while singing a deep melodious chant that drew everyone out of the tents into a wide circle around the flames. The ritual puja, a ceremonial prayer, in this case for good weather, had two immediate and gratifying effects. First, it brought our group together, dispelling in a moment any thoughts of retreating over the pass. Second, the sky cleared. Within an hour the clouds lifted, and the sun emerged.
—from Shadows in the Sun
IT'S A HECTIC MORNING. WADE DAVIS AND Gail Percy have gotten their girls off to school. Percy is surrounded by piles of documents to make the tax deadline. Davis is doing half a dozen things at once—putting the finishing touches on a magazine article; organizing his research for his next book, on climber George Mallory; preparing a speech he has to give in Kentucky; and packing for a two-week trip to Ecuador. He keeps throwing clothes on top of a large black duffel bag in the foyer.
Amidst the chaos, their golden retriever, Kelly, has had an "accident" on the floor. Now Davis is on his hands and knees, cleaning up.
A few months later they trade in their Washington life for the solitude of their fishing lodge in British Columbia. It's 1,200 miles north of Vancouver in a wilderness so remote that the nearest town is 350 miles away. There is no electricity, no television, no telephone. Just them, a valley as big as Switzerland, a steady stream of houseguests, and two shotguns over the doorway in case a black bear meanders into the yard. They retreat there every summer.
It's then that Davis makes up for all the time he spends away from Gail and the girls during the year. He'll take them backpacking or on two-week rafting trips. They'll go up on the tundra, where the caribou graze, and find creative ways to cook the trout that live in their lake. The important thing to Davis is that they are together—and that he is teaching his girls the skills his father never taught him.
All of the men who inspired Davis's journeys have passed on. His mentor, Richard Evans Schultes, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, died a few years ago. Tim Plowman died of AIDS. Davis's father died more than a decade ago after a heart attack.
Since his father's death, Davis has had time to reflect on their relationship. He's come to see his father as a strong man, willing to set his son free to learn from those who could teach things he couldn't. "He was secure enough to think I didn't need to follow in his footsteps," says Davis. "He was so generous, not just financially, but emotionally, having no envy of my mentors."
Davis knows now that his father taught him his greatest lesson: "I was always too foolish to realize that his gifts to me were his values—which are infinitely more important than learning to shoot a deer or tie a fly."