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  • This story began more than two years ago.

    Or, more accurately, it began fifty years ago. That's when Hunter S. Thompson first arrived in Colombia aboard a smuggler's boat from Aruba. He was twenty-four years old at the time, an anonymous stringer for a now-defunct American newspaper called The National Observer. The next year would find him traveling across South America with a typewriter and a perennially empty wallet, filing a series of shrewd dispatches on culture and politics that would foreshadow the "gonzo" literary style for which he later became known.

    I first set out to follow Thompson's route across the continent in August of 2009. This picture was taken on my first full day in Barranquilla, Colombia, by Sky Gilbar, a talented photographer who traveled with me in that country for four weeks. We were looking for some kind of passage up the Magdalena River, a thousand-mile conduit that stretches across Colombia’s populous Andean region like a wide, brown scar.

    Julio was an employee of the nearby shipping terminal, gracious and helpful, but skeptical that we could find a boatman to take us upriver. Buses were cheap and plentiful, he explained, all but rollin his eyes at our interest in the river’s history, our desire to see the Magdalena’s farms and villages as one might have seen them a century ago. To him, the river was primarily a means of making a living. Occasionally, it was an obstacle, something to be crossed with a canoe full of feed. The idea of the Magdalena as place of fascination was foreign to him, and a little ridiculous besides.

    Thompson had traveled upriver from Barranquilla aboard a beer barge in 1962 — not for the romance of it, but out of simple thrift. “I am down to 10 US dollars,” he writes in one letter, “but have developed a theory which will go down as Thompson’s Law of Travel Economics. To wit: full speed ahead and damn the cost; it will all come out in the wash.”

    Sky and I would get to know Thompson's Law well in the coming month, as we slowly worked our way upriver, traveling first by pineapple boat, then crowded aqua-bus and a series of derelict fishermen's launches. We saw much of what Thompson saw, and we learned how the last fifty years have seen the Magdelana spiral into ecological decline, as we encountered its consequences on each stop along our route.

    This month, I will return to Colombia to complete the Hunter S. Thompson Trail across the continent. I will begin in Bogota at the end of January, and for the next four months, I'll make my way through the Andes, the Gran Chaco, the Pampas, and the Atlantic coast. Along the way, I look forward to telling the stories of a rapidly evolving landscape, much as Thompson did a half-century ago. I invite you to follow me here and on Twitter.
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