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Theodore Roosevelt's Well-Traveled Life

Theodore Roosevelt as a mountaineer, in a photo commemorating his 1881 climb of the Matterhorn while on his honeymoon.

Photo: Courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard Image Library

What distinguished TR as a traveler, in an age when (even then) Americans sought the company of other Americans abroad for security and self-congratulation, was his compulsion to come to grips with every country he entered—not only physically but intellectually and socially, as well. It was not enough to gaze up at Vesuvius from a comfortable carriage: he had to hang over the edge of the crater and cough in its fumes. He wanted to hunt foxes with the British, quiz Hungarians on Magyar history, and eat elephant hearts with Africans. Crossing the Atlantic on a German liner, he went down from first class into steerage and participated in a hot, dark Catholic mass with a crowd of Polish immigrants. On a visit to the mosque of Al-Azhar, in Cairo, he delighted the mullahs by asking to see a medieval Arab scroll (appropriately enough, The Travels of Ibn Battuta). He could not read its calligraphy, but he recited a passage from it anyway, saying that he had memorized a French translation many years before. As colonel of “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders” in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, he swam across Santiago Bay to inspect Morro Castle, undeterred by an escort of sharks: “They [stroke] won’t [stroke] bite [stroke].”

TR was, consequently, not only the youngest president we’ve ever had (being only 42 at the time of his elevation in 1901) but also the best-traveled—at least up to modern times. Indeed, I’m not sure if any of his successors have seen as much of the world as he did, until they got free access to Air Force One. Nor did he ever lose his yearning for other cultures, other climes. Three weeks after quitting the White House in 1909, he was off to Africa. And the most legendary of his travels was yet to come—his exploration of an unknown tributary of the Amazon in 1914. Longer than the Rhine, that “river of doubt” is now known as the Rio Roosevelt.

“It was my last chance to be a boy,” he said after nearly dying on the expedition. I think his reasons for undertaking it were more complex. By then, TR had had his fill of red-carpet touring (“If I see another king, I think I shall bite him.”). As a passionate nature lover and conservationist, he was consumed with a sense that the world’s wildernesses were being carved away. He no longer believed that civilization improved by expanding. On the contrary, it coarsened as it spread: he found his own gentlemanly sanctuary at Cove Neck, in Oyster Bay, Long Island, invaded by a new species, the “moving-picture man of vast wealth.” So he sought a few months of wild freedom in the Brazilian rain forest, only to be struck down by a combination of malaria, abscesses, and heart disease. The pathogens he brought home with him were largely responsible for shortening his life span to only 60 years. But “Theodore the Sudden” never stopped moving, or trying to move, until his final hospitalization on the day World War I came to an end. He died, to international grief, on January 6, 1919.

After such a peripatetic life, it was no wonder that a cartoonist for the Des Moines Register, casting about for a farewell image, should draw a ghostly picture of the Rough Rider on horseback, cantering off toward distant hills.

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