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  • Earlier this week, I rode 420 miles across eastern Bolivia aboard what locals call the tren de la muerte, or the "death train." The route reaches the Brazilian border on the outskirts of the wild, swampy flatlands known as the Pantanal. Passenger service once extended clear across Brazil, and this was this route Thompson used to reach Rio and the coast in September of 1962. He called it "the jungle train," and the trip took close to a week.

    The "death train," it turns out, is disappointingly comfortable and pleasant. There seems to be no consensus on how it earned the name. I've been told that hundreds of workers died while constructing the line in the early 1910s. The most repeated (and most likely) story is that the route was used to transport bodies in the wake of a yellow fever outbreak in 1932. Several guidebooks and websites say the nickname simply stems from the tedium. It's long trip across a flat and empty landscape. To liven things up on my recent trip, the railroad showed the 1979 Christian propaganda flick Jesus, alternately hailed as the most widely watched and the dullest film of all time.

    The Brazilian Pantanal has an entrenched tourist infrastructure today, but when Thompson passed through, the surrounding department of Mato Grosso was the heart of the Brazilian outback. "There are no brochures on the Mato Grosso,” he wrote to a friend, “…which is one of the reasons land there is selling for $4 an acre…It is a rumor, you know — like GOLD! or WHISKEY! In this case, it’s CHEAP LAND!”

    The same area is now broken up into two states, Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, and in the decades since, they've been Brazil's boom region, attracting waves of soybean farmers, ranchers, sugarcane growers, and (if the town I'm in now is any indication) pushy, English-speaking tour guides.

    This afternoon, I head out into the Pantanal for a few days, and I hope to learn more about how the land grab that Thompson predicted has effected the region's ecology. A rep from a local NGO told me yesterday about the case of the Taquari River, a major drainage here now reduced to a trickle by erosion and sedimentation caused by poor grazing and agriculture practices. On the whole, the Pantanal is a still a virtually intact wetland and a stronghold for wildlife. But the character of the landscape changes a little with each new road, each new farm, each new mining concession. To the extent that the railroad helped open the region during the twentieth century, each car full of settlers really was, in some small way, a death train.

    Thompson had to skip the wildlife safaris. He passed through quickly, hurrying to Rio to cover an impending election. "I recently swung through Maned Wolf territory," he wrote regretfully, mentioning the Pantanal's tall and fox-like canid, "...[but] I missed the animals. I am so fucking involved in politics, etc. that I don't have much time for the oddball stuff that is really the most important."

    For my part, I can hear the maned wolves calling, and I'm glad I have time for the oddball stuff.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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