The heroes of each generation reflect the conditions, priorities, and goals of the era in which they reside. In the United States and throughout Europe, the wilderness explorer enjoyed widespread public adulation long before leading sports figures, rock stars, and astronauts of later decades. The ingenuity of the Industrial Revolution gave way to early manned flight, and other breakthroughs in communication and travel. The British Empire flourished across the globe, incorporating entirely dissimilar cultures into its stylized world view. Within this social canon, the explorer of the Victorian and post-Victorian eras fit perfectly within a nationalistic urge to unveil the secrets of every continent. Even expeditions to both poles became the rage among home-bound vicarious adventurers. Throughout climes featuring thick ice and palm trees alike, the maps of the day featured enormous blank spots where no modern man or woman had ever set foot.
Among the largest was, and continues to be, the rain forest of the Amazon, particularly in the vast Mato Grosso region of Brazil. The explorers who stepped forward to cast light on such unknown expanses were often driven by obsessive personalities, and lived in the cracks between hard science and the metaphysical.
None were more driven than Colonel Percival (Percy) Harrison Fawcett of the British Army. Fawcett, a veteran of the service, a skilled surveyor, and a tough-minded swashbuckler with a soft spot for psychics and astrologists, captured the public’s fascination with his numerous treks into the untraveled jungles of Brazil, which he called "the last great blank space in the world". The first few were simple map-making expeditions, none of them intending to turn the world of archaeology or anthropology upside down. It was, however, Fawcett’s later expeditions and his final trek in 1925 that piqued the imaginations of the masses who hung on every outlandish discovery of the age. In the end, he drew more attention to the world of the Amazon by being devoured by it, disappearing without a trace, never to be seen again.
The subject of his search was equally riveting, the pursuit of the Lost City of ‘Z’, somewhere in the Brazilian Amazon. The literary world had already been set ablaze by Tarzan, and other works by Edgar Rice Burroughs and his contemporaries. Readers were still consumed by the stories of Jules Verne, and a collective fantasy viewed the remaining exotic regions of the world as haunted by strange creatures once thought extinct or impossible, indigenous people with no knowledge of the outer world, and even the secretive work of extraterrestrial beings. Shangri-la, El Dorado, and the gold-laden Seven Cities of Cibola served as prime material for the era’s imagination. Against that backdrop, the Amazon served as the perfect stage for a generation of literary thrills, and Colonel Fawcett seemed eager to oblige.
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