Outside magazine, November 1995
The Marañón River drops out of the Peruvian Andes and spills into the Amazon 600 miles to the east, near Iquitos. Just below the foothills of the Andes, the Marañón is wide and fast. Between the towns of Imazita and Santa María de Nieva, beyond the place where the Cenepa River flows into the Marañón from the north, there is an island about a quarter of a mile long and perhaps 100 yards across at its widest. On the evening of January 18, 1995, two 26-year-old Americans, Josh Silver and Patchen Miller, floated past the island on a large balsa-wood raft they had built several days earlier. They tied off in the eddy at the downriver tail of the island. About 9:30 that night, they were shot and left for dead.
Josh Silver survived and was treated for his wounds at an army base and then transferred to a hospital in Santa María de Nieva. The American consul general in Peru, Thomas Holladay, was informed that two Americans had been attacked. One was alive; the other was missing and feared dead.
Holladay notified Patchen Miller's parents, Sandra Miller, a New Hampshire naturalist, and Paul Dix, a Montana photographer and human rights activist. At the time, Dix was in Nicaragua. He'd driven down from the United States with a truckload of clothing and medical supplies for the poor.
He immediately flew to Peru. The arrangements he'd made were a blur. Had he flown from Managua to Houston first? Or to Miami? He was caught in a spiral of obsessive thinking: Patchen was an experienced traveler. He'd been to Central America with Dix; he'd been to Nepal and Thailand. He was sensitive to the people he met. He made lasting friends everywhere he went and he was 26 years old and he couldn't be dead.
The Peruvian army, the police, and many of the good people of Santa María de Nieva searched for Patchen's body. By the time Paul Dix arrived in Lima there was no longer any hope.
Dix checked into a youth hostel: a 59-year-old man living cheap in a ten-bed dormitory room. He needed to be close to Holladay, who was receiving occasional reports from Santa María.
Holladay's office was set on a side street blocked off to traffic by large cement pillars and guarded by soldiers with automatic rifles. There was still a lingering threat of car bombs and attacks by the remnants of the Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist rebel group whose 12-year-long campaign of terrorism stalled in 1992 when its leader, Abimael Guzmán, was finally captured.
Dix made his way past the pillars, shoved his passport through an opening in a bulletproof window, received a numbered visitor's pass, and was escorted to Holladay's office. The consul general was a burly man with a full beard, just turning gray. He wore an immaculate suit, combed his hair straight back from his forehead, and had the slightly pugnacious look of an Irish bar fighter.
Holladay didn't have much information yet. The assailants were said to have been Indians, but they could just as easily have been armed revolutionaries or drug traffickers. In addition, tensions were building between Peru and Ecuador, its neighbor to the north. War was a very real possibility. If it came, it would be centered around the Cenepa, not far from the place where the Americans had been shot. It was possible that they had been caught in the cross fire in some unreported border conflict. Or mistaken for spies. Or shot by spies from Ecuador in an effort to discredit Peru.
Holladay was a busy man, but he began researching the incident and made time to see Dix often. Together they planned to go to Imazita and then travel downriver to the island where Josh and Patchen had been shot. Meanwhile, newspapers in the United States had picked up the story. "New Hampshire Man Feared Killed in Peru," read one headline.
Paul Dix lives in Montana, in my hometown, and I've known him for many years. We've traveled together on numerous magazine assignments: kayaking in Glacier Bay and Baja, sailing in Hawaii, climbing and hunting dinosaurs in Montana. We're friends. When I heard that Paul was in Peru, I called the American embassy there and was connected to Holladay.
"Is Paul OK?" I asked.
Holladay said he thought he was. "Paul Dix is a strong man," he said softly. There was a pause. "He mentioned you. You're the writer."
He then suggested that I might want to accompany him and Paul to the place where Patchen had been shot. It was unclear whether we'd need armed guards--police or soldiers. Regardless, two American citizens had been attacked, one was likely dead, and the strongest possible expression of outrage was in order. A visit from a high-ranking American diplomat would help bring international attention to the region, as would stories in the media, both in Peru and in the United States.
That was why Holladay was going. Paul, he gave me to believe, had his own reasons, which were private and deeply conflicted. In that context, it wouldn't hurt at all if he had a friend along. I said I'd get down there as soon as I could.
Not long after that conversation, Paul was sitting in Holladay's office when Josh Silver hobbled in on crutches. He'd been transported by speedboat back upriver--past the island where he'd been shot--and then had traveled by bus over the Andes. Paul knew Josh. Together with Patchen, they'd spent nearly six weeks in Nicaragua at the height of the contra war.
Both Paul and Holladay took extensive notes as Josh described what happened on the Marañón on January 18.
The tropical night came down hard, said Josh, and the light didn't linger as it does in more temperate zones. The raft was tied off at the downstream edge of a long, low island covered in dense brush. There was a large sheltering tree, a ceiba, at the foot of the island, and it balanced itself in the marshy soil on huge, gnarled roots. Vines dropped from the branches, and the forest beyond was a dark thicket.
Josh and Patchen had rowed a couple of hours that morning, the third of their journey, but the river had risen six feet the night before, and the raft they'd built was unmanageable in the higher water. It was a ten-by-15-foot monster mounted on six 55-gallon oil drums. There was a roof and a rowing station with ten-foot-long oars.
The Marañón is one of the rivers that can be considered the headwaters of the Amazon. Josh and Patchen had planned to float 500 miles to Iquitos and then continue down the Amazon in commercial vessels.
The river here, between the towns of Imazita and Santa María de Nieva, was Indian country, and the Indians had reason to fear outsiders. The two Americans could see for themselves what was happening: An oil-pipeline road, built in the seventies, cut directly through traditional Indian hunting grounds. It brought settlers from the mountains down to the lush, more easily farmed jungle, and opened the land to those greedy for its timber and gold. In addition, the long-standing border dispute with Ecuador had encouraged a proposed "living borders" relocation program, a strategy of moving so many Peruvians into the area that Ecuador's claims could never be realized.
These forces, the Americans knew, were slamming up against the indigenous people, despoiling their lands and eroding their way of life. Patchen and Josh believed in Indian rights and respected traditional ways. But they weren't stupid. In the upriver town of Muyo, where they'd built their raft, the settlers--whites and mestizos--had told them that these Indians, the Aguaruna, were dangerous people. Several Europeans had been killed on the Marañón a few years ago. The details were fuzzy, but everyone, all of the settlers they met in the new towns along the pipeline road, had told them to stay out of the Indian villages. Don't get off the river, and don't talk to the people. Just keep moving.
And so they had.
The river at Imazita, where they put in, was wide and deep. It changed colors as the sun moved across the sky. Sometimes it looked like strong green tea, and sometimes it was as thick and brown as chocolate milk. But even at its darkest, the water reflected the sky, so that the raft often seemed to be floating over puffy white clouds. The banks were dense with vegetation--bamboo and banana trees and a few fields of sugarcane 15 feet tall. Where the banks were steep, small waterfalls tumbled down mossy rocks, catching the sun's light and glittering like polished silver against the various shades of green.
Occasionally they passed well-built split-cane huts with thatch roofs. The Indians didn't live in groups. Except in a few towns along the river, the houses were always separated by half a mile or more. Most couldn't be seen from the river, but you could calculate the distance by the smoke of cooking fires rising in plumes above the trees.
Everything looked well kept, exceptionally clean. There were no electric wires, no roads, no garbage heaps anywhere. Sometimes there were young Indian children, in clean shorts and T-shirts emblazoned with NBA logos, fishing along the bank with bits of string. In the calm stretches between rapids, Indians of all ages moved across the river in dugouts. There was also some commercial traffic--speedboats full of passengers and cargo going downriver, others coming up--but none of the white or mestizo passengers ever stopped at the Indian villages.
Beyond the banks, mountains rose to 3,000 and 4,000 feet, their peaks covered over in perfectly white clouds that contrasted sharply with the impossibly blue sky. It was hot at midday but relatively cool at night. Every afternoon, it seemed, there was a brief storm, one of those torrential tropical rains that lasted an hour or two, and then there were rainbows. Always rainbows.
The Marañón was 300 feet wide in places, and it wound through the land in sweeping curves that could be a little hairy. You had to avoid the current that would pull your boat into the worst of the rapids and still be sure that you had enough room to clear the rocks on the outside of the curve. And then, just where the river began to straighten out, there might be a whirlpool. If the river was narrow and the curve tight, the whirlpool could be as much as 40 feet in diameter.
Local people called these treacherous sections of the river pongos. A bad section was said to be feo, "ugly." Some were feo feo, and in these doubly ugly pongos many people had drowned. The bodies were seldom found.
On the morning of their third day, Patchen and Josh hit a pongo that was much uglier than any they'd seen before. The raft got caught on the outside lip of the whirlpool, and Patchen, who was rowing, spent almost 15 minutes fighting the vortex. At last they spun out of danger, and the river swept them past a long island, where there were fields of sugarcane interspersed with patches of forest. They decided to eddy out and tie off for the day--wash clothes, fix the roof of the raft, study the maps, and try to figure out where they were.
Because Ecuador claims this land along the Marañón--and because several border disputes have erupted into full-scale combat over the last 50 years--detailed maps of the area have military significance and are hard to obtain. The tensions were evident at all of the military checkpoints along the river. The Americans had to stop, show their passports, and watch soldiers who looked to be about 13 years old enter their names into a big ledger. The checkpoints were tightly run, nervous places, and the soldiers seemed to expect war to break out at any minute.
Wherever the hell they were, Josh thought it was an amazing place. Very few gringos had ever seen this stretch of river. Some adventurous souls have rafted the Marañón, but almost all of them begin dozens of miles downriver, past the ugliest of the uglies, the Pongo de Manseriche, a twisting canyon of crashing water and orchid-laden walls half a mile high.
Josh and Patchen, however, had studied the river at Imazita, where they put in. They reasoned that if commercial boats with heavy loads of passengers and cargo were coming upriver through the pongos, they ought to be able to float downriver. Patchen was especially well versed on the water: He'd been building rafts and floating the rivers of New England since he was a kid. Later, he'd run several stretches of whitewater in the western United States, including the Colorado through the Grand Canyon.
But now the water was high, and it was time to wait. This island seemed a good place. Earlier that day, they'd pulled up and asked some of the Aguaruna along the bank if they could tie off for the night. The people had seemed friendly and curious, but they'd said no. Just like that. No.
But as far as the Americans could tell, no one was living or working on this island, and overnighting here didn't seem like trespassing. They wanted to be sensitive to the Indians' concerns. Josh felt that he and Patchen "shared a compassion" for the rural poor in Third World countries. At Evergreen College in Washington State, Josh had studied political science, international economy, foreign policy. Patchen had spent two semesters at Friends World College in Huntington, New York, which as a graduation requirement obliges students to live in two cultures other than their own. The six weeks the two young men had spent together in Nicaragua during the contra war had, in part, proved to them that in the Third World it was always the rural poor who suffered.
So why wouldn't they want to do something about it? Alleviate poverty. Expose injustice. That sort of thing. They knew you couldn't do it all at once, and maybe there was very little you could do at all. You had to start with the little shit. Which is why Josh and Patchen had spent the first part of their trip to South America working at an orphanage in Ecuador. They'd been there for ten days or so, over the Christmas holidays. After that they'd hitchhiked south, crossed the border into Peru, bought provisions, and then built their raft in Muyo, a small town upriver from where they would begin their journey. The raft had been mostly Patchen's idea. He thought a fairly stable platform would be the best way to get pictures of the people and wildlife along the river. There was a chance that he could sell some of his photos, maybe even make it as a professional photographer like his father.
Or perhaps he could be a writer. He kept a journal, and people who read his work always said he ought to think about writing as a career. "Excellent essays, demonstrating considerable analytical skills," one of his college professors had commented.
Another professor thought that "Patchen demonstrated a solid understanding of complex text and lecture material in the course 'Topics in American History.'" One of the topics had been The Expropriation of Native Americans. As part of his course work, Patchen had spent two months living with an American Indian family in New Mexico. He had been interested in shamanism and ended up herding sheep for a born-again-Christian Navajo.
And now here he was in Indian country, and it was probably not a good idea to stop and talk with anyone about shamanism or anything else. Hell of a way to learn about Indian culture.
It may be an understatement to say that the Aguaruna are a proud people. They were never defeated by the invading Incas or the Spanish, nor have they been vanquished by the nation of Peru. They are unconquered and perhaps unconquerable. Until about 50 years ago they were headhunters. They abandoned the practice, and today a large portion of the Aguaruna live in close proximity to their traditional enemies, the Huambiza, along the banks of the Marañón in the area between Imazita and Santa María. As part of the same Jivaro linguistic group, however, the 38,000 Aguaruna and the 6,000 Huambiza in the region have put aside their differences to form a political organization, the Consejo de Aguaruna-Huambiza, that looks after the rights of Indians along the river.
The Aguaruna and Huambiza tend to live in separate clans of about 40 people. They are hunters and small-time farmers who on occasion sell produce at markets. Their language, unlike Spanish, uses a lot of sharp consonants: yugkipak for forest pig, ikamyawaa for jaguar.
The men hunt and weave. The women tend the children, grow manioc, and make pottery. The men sing songs for success in hunting; the women's songs encourage the manioc to grow. Some Jivaro songs use a five-note scale. The rhythms are complex and irregular, a bit like the music that comes out of the black townships of South Africa.
Each traditional village has its shaman. When people fall ill, the Aguaruna use herbal cures along with what might be called household magic, but they are in no way averse to modern medicine. In cases where these methods fail, a shaman is called in to remove "spirit darts," likely implanted by a sorcerer, who is an ordinary man motivated by spite or envy. The shaman also performs various ceremonies under the influence of a powerful herbal hallucinogen called ayahuasca.
Michael F. Brown, an American anthropologist who lived with the Aguaruna for two years, cites a 1976 case in which a village elder died suddenly of unknown causes. The shaman, a man Brown calls Yankush, was pressured to identify the responsible sorcerer. "From the images of his ayahuasca vision," Brown writes, "he drew the name of a young man from a distant region who happened to be visiting a nearby village. The man was put to death in a matter of days. Because Yankush was widely known to have fingered the sorcerer, he became the likely victim of a reprisal raid by members of the murdered man's family." Brown rarely saw Yankush leave his house without a loaded shotgun. These conventions--cycles of vengeance, family feuds--persist despite the efforts of missionaries who have been working and living among the Jivaro for generations.
One of my contacts had the Lima phone number for the Consejo, and I gave it to Holladay. The Consejo speaks with a voice that is heard internationally. Formed in the late seventies, the group is most famous for having stifled German filmmaker Werner Herzog's efforts to make a historical film in the area. When the producers refused to negotiate with the Consejo and its leader, Evaristo Nugkuag, over jobs and wages for the Aguaruna whose lives and homes were being destroyed by the project, a party of Aguaruna men burned the film set to the ground; the crew fled.
Holladay called Evaristo. He said that he wanted to visit the site where a young American had probably been killed. He would be bringing along a couple of journalists and the young man's father. Holladay called me and said Evaristo had been very helpful.
"You identified Paul as Patchen's father?" I asked.
"I thought it was best to tell the truth."
"Ah, geez, Thomas." I had to hook up with the one diplomat on earth who thought it best to tell the truth. What Holladay and I both knew about Aguaruna culture was this: A murdered man's father seeks revenge. The Aguaruna people along the river would assume that Paul was there to find and kill the men who shot Patchen, which put us in danger of a preemptive strike. On the other hand, anyone who knew anything about the area said that the Consejo could guarantee our safety.
"Evaristo says we're welcome to come," Holladay said. "He'll help us in any way he can."
It was now about dusk, and Josh and Patchen had begun to wonder: Had the river crested, or was it going to rise some more? How far were they from the Pongo de Manseriche? A young Indian man in a dugout paddled by, and though they'd been warned against contact with the Indians, Josh hailed him. They spoke, in Spanish and at a distance, about the river. Slowly the man pulled closer until he was sitting right next to the raft.
Eventually this shy young Indian got up on the raft, and the three of them were shooting the breeze in Spanish. He was maybe 20 years old. He wore his hair short in front, long in back, and had a strange nose that came flat out of his forehead, made a perpendicular turn to the world, and formed a kind of box. It looked to Josh "like the guy had a Dick Tracy nose."
The Americans gave their visitor a few small presents--some matches, batteries--and they drank some coffee. By then it was dark, about eight in the evening. Another dugout came by. The two Indian men in it seemed to know the kid on the raft, and they spoke for a while in their own language: a lot of long and short vowels separated by sharp consonants. There was none of the soft sibilance of Spanish.
The men in the dugout were drunk--"fully inebriated," in Josh's view--but they were friendly enough, in the you're-my-best-pal-wanna-fight manner of drunks the world over. At last they paddled away, and a big rainstorm hit. When it was over, the kid wouldn't leave. He wanted to see everything on the raft: the clothes, tents, boots, backpacks, headlamps, cameras, binoculars, and all of the provisions they'd bought for a trip that could last as long as six weeks. It seemed like he looked everywhere, searched every storage place on the raft.
They traded songs, and the young man sang some beautiful, haunting melodies in his own language. The strange rhythms of the music somehow reminded Josh of the South African singers on Paul Simon's Graceland album.
At about 9:30 P.M. the two men in the dugout came back. They weren't nearly as friendly this time and spoke to the kid only briefly before they left.
About ten minutes later, Josh and Patchen heard rustling in the brush beyond the big tree at the end of the island.
"What's that?" Josh asked in Spanish.
"It's my father," the young man said. "He's an evangelical minister. He wants to meet you."
The kid yelled into the brush, something quick and sharp in his own language. Patchen got up and walked to the back of the raft with his headlamp. He'd light the way for the father.
Then Josh heard the shot--a booming blast. He saw the muzzle flash in the foliage. He didn't see Patchen get hit, just saw his body pinwheeling off the raft. Josh reached for him in the dark water, but he came away with nothing. There was another shotgun blast, and something tore into Josh's left thigh.
The kid wasn't surprised, wasn't shouting, nothing. He'd set them up--Josh knew that instinctively. He knew that the killer was reloading even as Josh dove into the waters of the Marañón.
Josh didn't look back. He swam sidestroke, applying direct pressure to his leg with one hand to stop the bleeding. He made for the near bank and hid in the foliage. He found a vine and tied it above his wounds. He'd taken a dozen or more pellets--bird shot, it looked like--and one had passed directly through his thigh, leaving entry and exit wounds.
Josh couldn't believe that they had been set up. When the kid yelled to the man in the brush, he was probably telling him that there were no weapons on board. "They're not armed. Kill them!" Something like that.
The man in the brush didn't stumble, and the gun didn't go off accidentally. He stood there in the darkness, took aim at Patchen--illuminated by his own headlamp--and shot him at point-blank range. He meant to kill, and now he'd have to kill Josh.
The Indians must have thought, Two gringos on the river, they disappear, who's to say they weren't sucked down into some ugly pongo? And if that's your plan, Josh thought, you can't leave a witness. So they were looking for him; Josh could hear their voices across the water.
Time passed. Then Josh saw a man moving along the bank on his side of the river, shining a flashlight back and forth. The beam passed very close to where Josh was hiding.
He couldn't stay there; he needed to find help. He figured that the last military checkpoint he and Patchen had passed was about four miles upriver. The moon was nearly full, and black clouds were scudding across the sky. Josh was wearing river shorts, that's all. His skin, in the moonlight, looked impossibly white. He smeared mud on his bare chest and arms and started upriver on foot.
He ran, jarring his wounded leg, and then slowed to a walk. Some time later he saw a dark figure moving along a path beside the river, carrying a rifle or a shotgun. Josh didn't think the man had anything to do with the people who were looking for him. They were too far back, and Josh had heard that the Aguaruna generally carry guns at night, that they are night hunters. Still, he wasn't sure, and he hid.
He was, he realized, never going to make it to the military checkpoint. He'd have to stay deep in the foliage, off any trails, and traveling that way, barefoot, with a wounded leg, was impossible.
But if he let the river carry him, he could swim back downstream, staying close to the banks and out of the pongos. There was sure to be another checkpoint where he could get help. He just needed to stay in the water all the way past the island, keeping his head low and moving as little as possible.
The water was cold, and Josh could stay in it for only half an hour or so at a time. He'd pull out on a bank, warm up with some push-ups and sit-ups, and then swim again until he began shaking.
At dawn the next day, roughly nine hours after he dove off the raft, Josh took a big chance. He spotted an Indian working on the tiny outboard motor of his boat and spoke to him. The man put the wounded American in the dugout and fired up the engine, and together they sped across the river to the military checkpoint at a place called Oracuza.
He'd been shot by one Indian and rescued by another.
Late last January, while Paul Dix was still in Lima preparing to fly to the Marañón, pitched battles broke out on Peru's northern border between that country and Ecuador. The fighting was centered on the upriver sections of the Cenepa, which flows into the Marañón not far from the island where Patchen Miller was shot. Though official figures were lower, it was rumored that several hundred Peruvian and Ecuadoran soldiers were killed.
Because of the skirmishing, we were forced to postpone our visit to the ambush site. Paul flew back to the United States for Patchen's memorial service. It was a celebration of his life, held in the woods of Vermont. More than 700 people attended. What struck Paul about the ceremony was the sheer diversity of Patchen's friends. There were rough-hewn backwoods loggers, young musicians, hippies, yuppies, professors, rich people, poor people, and hundreds of children. Patchen and his mother participated in a summer program in Vermont teaching children about wetlands, a kind of ecology camp. The kids had loved Patchen and came back year after year.
Sandra Miller put together a keepsake of Patchen's life that included excerpts from "Growing Up in the Woods," an autobiography her son had written in the fifth grade: "Our bird feeder has the most action around," Patchen wrote, "with chickadees that eat from our hands, flying squirrels that eat from my hands, chipmunks that eat from my hands.... They all like to come through the window into our house. The voles and mice wash their faces after eating peanut butter." The last bit of the autobiography was titled "Chapter IX: The Future." It read: "I would like to be active outdoors, explore, go places, have experiences, live with and study people from other backgrounds. Anthropology sounds good."
In Peru the war dragged on. Paul joined me in Montana, and we combined our notes. The missionaries, we agreed, had enjoyed a large measure of success with the Aguaruna. Today each village is likely to identify itself as either Protestant or Catholic, but the new religions are sometimes understood in a manner singular to the Aguaruna. The most hallucinatory book in the bible, Revelation, is the most significant to the Jivaro. This has led to strange interpretations of outside culture. Canned goods, for instance, which might be purchased in stores that serve the army checkpoints along the Marañón, are carefully examined by the Aguaruna and Huambiza. It is thought that bar codes hold dangerous meanings and must be carefully counted. If they add up to the number 666--the sign of the devil--the food is demonic and not to be eaten.
What we were coming to realize was that the Aguaruna and Huambiza, especially those in remote river villages, have ample reason to fear outsiders. The new pipeline road has brought in many mestizo farmers who use an indiscriminate form of slash-and-burn agriculture. The Indians, by contrast, slash but don't burn and have much smaller fields. The Aguaruna believe, quite rightly, that their ancestral lands are being destroyed.
Which partly explains why they sometimes resort to a form of self-defense that trades on their fierce reputation. When a settler builds a house on what is considered Indian land, Aguaruna men have been known to dress in their traditional costumes and surround the place at night. They scream and brandish weapons. No one is ever injured, but the settlers generally conclude that it would be prudent to move, usually the next day.
The Aguaruna's fear of outsiders is embodied in a ghoulish night creature called the pishtaco. Not every white man is a pishtaco, but the belief is that those who are kill in the night and then plunder the corpses for their life force, which is focused in the "grease" or body fat. This grease is used to lubricate the white men's machines and explains the efficacy of their technology.
Thus the dread of pishtacos is invariably mentioned as a possible motive whenever any white person is killed in Indian country. On October 8, 1989, three French citizens and a Peruvian were shot and killed by Indians near the place where the Cenepa flows into the Marañón. They were floating on a raft, shooting videotape. According to Charles Pittaluga, the French consul in Lima, the killers were never found and therefore the incident remains shrouded in mystery. Some settlers in the area blamed the harsh rhetoric of the Consejo for creating a climate in which unwitting trespassers could be murdered. There was also a persistent rumor that the killers believed the video camera to be a pishtaco device that could extract a man's grease from a distance.
In collecting information on the Aguaruna, I too was looking for a motive--a reason why Patchen Miller was shot--and that may have colored my questions. Edmond Hammond, a 26-year-old Indian rights activist and graduate student at the University of Texas, asked me please not to "mythologize" the Aguaruna. "They're different," he said, "but not inhuman or unhuman. They have a right to live as they choose. They're people."
If the Aguaruna were "demonized," Hammond said, it would play directly into the hands of certain Peruvians who want to open up the land to more colonization. "If the Aguaruna are slammed as a people because of the actions of one or two men who should go to jail," Hammond said, "it will be an ecological and civil rights disaster."
Which, I thought, would hardly be a fitting tribute to Patchen, considering the way he'd lived and the things he'd believed.
By spring the war had wound down, and on April 30 Paul Dix and I, along with Thomas Holladay and a Peruvian photographer named Victor Chacón, boarded a commercial flight in Lima on the first leg of our trip to the Marañón ambush site. The Russian twin-prop banged and crashed its way over the Andes, and as we dropped into the vast green expanse of the Amazon basin, Paul said, "People talk about closure, that I'm coming here for closure." He shook his head slowly. "There's no closure. You don't just cry for a few days and then it's over." He paused for a moment and then went on: "Every once in a while a wave of grief just washes over me, and I know it's never going to stop happening. It'll get better, but it's never going to be over."
Paul is a photographer and tends to express his emotions visually. When he thought of Patchen, he said, he saw a globe with a dark spot, an invincibly evil area, centered in the jungles of Peru. He disliked the image, but he couldn't get it out of his head. There was little chance we'd ever find out who had shot Patchen. Paul just needed to understand, to talk with the Aguaruna, to shake the dark image, if that was possible.
Of course, if there was a group of robbers along the Marañón who killed for profit, they should be punished. But Paul hoped the Aguaruna would do that themselves, in their own way. That's what Patchen's mother, Sandra, wanted: Just leave it. She had raised Patchen, she was suffering terribly, and as Paul saw it she had all the rights in this matter. But there was that dark spot on the globe, and Paul needed to sink into its depths. Something beyond grief or even justice was pushing him. He couldn't explain it.
We landed at Bagua on a military airstrip. It wasn't a scheduled stop, but Holladay had pulled a few strings, and we stepped out of the plane into blinding light. A couple hundred uniformed soldiers were sitting under a tin-roofed palapa, waiting for their flight home from the war.
A group of Peruvian national police, who had been notified of our arrival, met us on the runway and asked how they could help. Take us to Imazita, we said.
Presently we were thumping and sliding down the gravel pipeline road in a white Nissan police pickup. The rain was falling in sheets when we pulled into Imazita at about dusk. It was a small town with muddy gravel streets set around a tiny public square constructed entirely of cement: cement walkways, cement benches, a cement sculpture of what appeared to be a soccer ball on a pedestal. Men and women--mestizos, whites, and Indians--sloshed through the streets in high-topped rubber boots. The shops were open to the street, and merchandise was piled in racks: soap and canned food and aspirin and rope and pails and towels and toys, all covered over with blue tarps.
A distinguished-looking man stepped out of one of the cafés and hailed us. I had seen pictures of Evaristo Nugkuag taken back in the seventies. Then he wore colorful handmade ponchos and his hair was cut in traditional Aguaruna fashion, short in front, long in back. Now he wore gold-framed aviator glasses, a dress shirt, slacks, and leather shoes, and he had a typical Peruvian businessman's haircut.
Evaristo welcomed us. He and Holladay exchanged diplomatic pleasantries in Spanish. The rain let up, and we stood in the muddy street under a light drizzle. Two little boys ran by, screaming with laughter, chased by an angry girl in a frilly pink dress that looked as if it had been in a mud-ball fight. Evaristo shook Paul's hand and held it in his own as he expressed his sympathy. He said that the killers were probably "outsiders."
Very gently, Paul said he didn't think that was so. The incident had happened in the middle of Aguaruna country, the thieves were Indians, and they probably spoke Aguaruna. Evaristo dropped Paul's hand, walked about in a circle, agitated, and said, "Oh, this is bad. This is very bad for the Aguaruna people." He said that the shooting could only have been the work of "individuals." There were many "bad influences" now.
Paul said he understood a little about the problems the Aguaruna faced. Evaristo nodded: That was good, he said, and he wanted Paul to know that what happened was not political and wasn't meant to be a message of any sort. "We work with many Americans," he said. "We work with people of all nationalities."
That night Paul and I spoke for a while in private. "When Thomas introduced me to Evaristo," he recalled, "he said that I wasn't looking for the killers or coming for vengeance, and that's right. But then he said I came to forgive."
"And you didn't?" I asked.
"I'm not Mother Teresa," he said.
We sat in silence for a moment. "What do you think Evaristo meant," I asked, "when he said, 'This will never happen again'?"
We speculated for a bit. Evaristo was a politician. He had traveled widely in Europe, raising money for the Consejo, and had been received in the White House. The man owed his power and position to the fact that he was able to mobilize international opinion in favor of his people. I truly believed him when he said that the murder was bad for the Aguaruna. It diminished his effectiveness on the international stage. It was entirely possible that Evaristo knew who had pulled the trigger that night and that steps had already been taken, punishments meted out. Not that he would ever tell us.
Paul and I agreed that Holladay's presence on this trip was crucial and demonstrated that Patchen's disappearance was being taken seriously at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
"I suppose Thomas has a file on me," said Paul, who has been vocal in his criticism of U.S. involvement in Central America and tends to see the government as a monolith: diplomats in league with the CIA in support of death squads. That sort of thing.
"This is a tough trip," I said. "It's dangerous. Thomas didn't have to come."
"I know," Paul said. He thought for a moment and then allowed that maybe, despite what he did for a living, Thomas Holladay was one of the good guys.
"Probably just fell through the cracks," I said.
By ten the next morning we were on the island where Patchen and Josh had been shot. Evaristo had said that people all up and down the river knew we were coming and that we were free to visit any of the villages. He didn't think the police would allow us to do that in their absence, so he had helped us put together a complex connivance in which we would book passage to Santa María on a commercial passenger craft and then call an unscheduled stop at a place where a member of the Consejo, Yuan Unupsaan, would be waiting for us in a small speedboat.
The water was low, but otherwise the island was just as Josh had described it: the eddy, the ceiba tree, the wall of foliage. Holladay and I crashed through the underbrush, looking for a trail. I was sweating and sunburned, and when I rubbed my hand across the back of my neck there were dozens of nasty little stinging ants balled up in my palm.
"There might be a trail here," Holladay called.
It wasn't much, but we followed it 20 or 30 feet to a hole in the ground, where it ended.
"Iruich," Yuan said in Aguaruna. Armadillo.
"It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes, does it," Holladay said.
Clearly the assailant hadn't just been strolling through the forest. It had to be the two drunken men in the dugout. And since they had arrived in a hand-paddled boat, they couldn't have come very far. The river had been almost 20 feet higher in January. No one could paddle upstream against that current, and the pongo above us, the one that Patchen and Josh had battled for almost 15 minutes, was very ugly. So the killers had come from Huaracayo, the village across the river to the south, or from the smaller one to the north, Ajachim.
Paul had already figured that out. He was sitting on the sand beach near the place where Patchen's raft had been floating four months earlier, when the water was that much higher. The sky was perfectly blue, there were a few white puffy clouds, and the river was clear and fast and clean. Paul was miles away, fighting one of the waves that rolled over him from time to time.
I sat some distance away, with Holladay and Victor and Yuan. "Can you take us over to Huaracayo?" Holladay asked.
Yuan said he could, and we climbed into the boat for the short trip across the river. The town was small, consisting of a sort of village green surrounded by a soccer field and a medical clinic and schoolhouse built of split cane tied together with vines. The townspeople lived in similar houses some distance away. The only man we saw told us that everyone else was out working in the fields but that we could meet with them the next day.
And so we made our way downriver, checking in at two army posts, and arrived at Santa María de Nieva. It was a larger version of Imazita, and entirely unlike the immaculate village of Huaracayo it gave off a faint odor of rotting produce and human waste. We were met there, with great fanfare, by the local police. The commanding officer was a bundle of energy and looked a bit like the late actor Sal Mineo. He said that he'd just been assigned to the post, that there wasn't a lot of mysterious crime in Santa María--whenever anything happened it was generally pretty clear who did it--and that he was very keen to find Patchen's killers.
Still, it was with some skepticism that Paul sat with the officer for three hours, going over a detailed list that Josh had made of all the gear and clothing on the raft. Paul drew the brand logos of the various items, and the officer copied everything down in a growing state of excitement. Oh yes, this was a big break, he said. Sooner or later someone would show up wearing something on the list. He'd hear of someone showing off a cookstove or a knife. The killers had probably taken the covers off the oil drums on the raft and sunk it in a pongo. But they may not have considered the fact that Josh could produce such a complete inventory.
It was clear to me that this officer, assigned to a jungle backwater, desperately wanted to solve a crime with international implications. It was a career-maker. There was just this one thing holding him back. A detail. The police in Santa María--it pained him to say it--did not have a boat. He'd never actually been to the ambush site, which was several hours upriver. And if we were going there tomorrow, if we'd already hired a boat, was there any chance he could come along? As an observer. He wouldn't be in the way at all.
The next day, at Huaracayo, we were met by the mayor, called the apu, whose name was Victor Yagkuag. The townspeople were gathered in the schoolhouse. There were about 50 of them, sitting three across on benches built for schoolchildren. The women sat to the left, and several of them were breast-feeding babies they carried in slings. The men wore T-shirts and shorts or dark slacks. Most of them didn't wear shoes.
Yuan Unupsaan of the Consejo seated Paul and me at the front of the room on tiny children's chairs. He introduced Holladay, who in turn introduced the police officer, Victor, Paul, and me. He said that Paul had not come to seek vengeance. He had come to understand the context of his son's death. He had come for emotional reasons. He had come for spiritual reasons.
The Aguaruna perhaps thought it unlikely that Paul wasn't seeking vengeance, but they nodded with a kind of forlorn wisdom when Holladay talked about death and spirituality. You could grasp some tragedy with your mind, but until your soul understood, you would forever be in pain.
Holladay excused himself from the meeting. He said that he, as an official of the United States, and the police officer, as an official of the Peruvian government, would go back down to the boat so that everyone could speak freely.
Once they were gone, Paul and I caught a quick blast of Aguaruna theater, an acting job probably motivated by fear. "Here," the apu said, and he showed us a neatly handwritten document festooned with signatures. The police had come to the village directly after the murder, and everyone had said then that they didn't know who did it. See, it's all written down.
This demonstration was conducted at high volume, with many emphatic gestures. No one had heard the shotgun blasts that night. The river was too high, too loud for the sound to carry. And what motive would someone from the village have?
Paul got up and waved his arms. He wanted to speak.
A woman stood and said, "We too ask our God why this happened."
"We didn't know your son," a man shouted. "Why would we kill him for vengeance?"
"Wait, wait, wait," Paul said in his fluent Spanish. "Esperen."
Yuan translated Paul's words into Aguaruna, though it was clear to me that all but the oldest men and only a few of the women didn't understand Spanish.
The crowd settled down, and Paul thanked the Consejo for helping make this trip possible. He thanked the people for taking time off from their work to speak with him, and he told them that they lived in one of the most beautiful forests he had ever seen, alongside one of the most beautiful rivers on earth. He emphasized again that he hadn't come for vengeance. He was not looking for los cupables, the guilty ones. He had come only to understand and to resolve the situation for himself spiritually. He had suffered much pain since his son was killed, he said, but he wanted the people to think about Patchen's mother and the pain she felt. For the mother, he said, it was very bad. Very bad.
The people now sat in complete silence. Paul spoke slowly and sincerely, using simple words and short declarative sentences for an audience that spoke Spanish as a second language. The care he took gave his sentences the force of poetry.
He said that he was beginning to understand the customs of the Aguaruna and that he had great respect for them. He understood their fear of people coming in from the outside, people who wanted to take their land, their hunting grounds.
Perhaps there were Aguaruna people who had fallen under the spell of bad influences, he said. Perhaps there were people who killed, not for vengeance, but for profit. This was very bad for the Aguaruna. To rob and kill--this had never been the Aguaruna way. It was a sin against the soul of the people.
Paul paused. There was a stirring on the women's side of the room. The Santa María policeman was standing outside, listening. We could see him through the split cane. Paul walked outside, and the people heard him tell the officer to leave.
There was a certain rumbling of satisfaction when Paul came back into the room. He sat back down next to me on his tiny chair.
"I am not a citizen of Peru," he continued, "and there is nothing I can do about my son's death. Perhaps the police will do something. I would prefer--and the mother would prefer--that you do something about it in your own way, according to your own customs. Perhaps that has already been done."
I could not read the people's faces.
"You did not know my son," Paul said. "His name was Patchen. Patchen Miller." And he told them that Patchen loved rivers and mountains, that he loved the forest and all the animals in it. He told them how Patchen had lived and what he had believed. "If you should find out who the guilty ones are," Paul said, "I want you to tell them that they killed a brother."
There was utter silence in the room, and now I could read the people's faces very clearly.
"Patchen Miller was your brother," Paul said.
What I saw in some of those Aguaruna faces was a sudden shock of sorrow.
I thought about that as we ate the chicken and yucca and plantains that the people of Hauracayo brought us for lunch. The advice that Patchen and Josh had been given--don't talk to people on the river--was wrongheaded and maybe fatal.
It's a simple thing to sit around a campfire, drinking and discussing what to do about a couple of men you don't know, men whom you haven't spoken to and who won't speak to you. The killers may have thought, These two men could be pishtacos, and they are on our land, and they are like the others who come and steal from us, and they have things we want, and we can steal from them, and this is only fair. We don't know these men. They are not our kin, and they are not our brothers. They are like monos, monkeys, not even human, and we can kill them.
After lunch, the apu broke out some manioc beer, a tuberous mess that the women spit into buckets to ferment. It was quite white, lumpy like buttermilk, sweet and cool.
A woman filled a wooden bowl, and I took it over to Paul, who was talking with the apu.
"This stuff is really good," I said.
"Especially if you don't know how it's made," Paul said in English.
He was feeling better--good enough to joke around, anyway--and when we said good-bye to the people of Huaracayo, Paul thanked them for speaking with him. He said they'd helped him deal with his pain and that he felt tranquillo, peaceful, calm.
Later that day we flew out of the Marañón basin in a small single-engine plane chartered from a missionary group. We rose above a series of rain squalls and then passed over the island across from Huaracayo. The sky was clearing to the west, but it was still raining in the east. There were half a dozen rainbows arced out over the place where Patchen Miller died.
Tim Cahill, an editor-at-large of Outside, is the author, most recently, of Pecked to Death by Ducks. He is at work on a book about the Endoke Forest in northern Congo.