In the far southern reaches of Panama, on the narrow strip of land that connects North and South America, lies one of the few remaining unconquered regions in the western hemisphere. The area, known as the Darien Gap, is the only break in the great Pan-American Highway which stretches from the Northern Alaska, to Southern Chile.
Today, the Gap is a relic hailing from a time when there was no debate about the degree to which man controlled nature, and vic versa. When the world was full of Darien Gaps, there was no question. Man was acknowledged to be at the mercy of the world around him.
The fact that this small region has defied human settlement, resource extraction and even attempts to build a highway to allow people to simply cross it, is a testament to the continuing subordinate role that humans play to nature. The Darien Gap seems to be there to remind us of our oft-forgotten dependence on the natural world.
The Gap is hardly famous despite the fact that it separates two of the richest agricultural continents in the world, which would benefit greatly from a land-shipping route. Almost no one knows it, but goods cannot be shipped by land from South America to the United States.
This means that every South American product that North Americans consume must be imported by ocean or air. The Brazilian coffee, Argentine steaks, Peruvian mangos and Venezuelan oil that are worth billions of dollars to the U.S. economy are forced off their semitrailers and out to sea by the Darien Gap.
It is truly amazing that all this commerce, and all the efforts of the governments that oversee its production, are turned away by a nasty little Vermont-sized stretch of Panamanian jungle. Only 80 miles lie between the end of the road in Panama and its re-emergence in Colombia, but they have proven to be some of the toughest in the world to traverse.
Attempts to conquer the Gap have not been infrequent. It was first settled, or attempted to be settled, by 2,000 Scottish immigrants in 1699, all of whom died within one year. In 1856 it claimed the lives of seven professional U.S. Military explorers, and has been equally vicious to many explorers since.
Motorized vehicles first crossed the Gap only 30 years ago when two Americans successfully crossed it on two-wheel drive jungle motorcycles. It was their fourth attempt. The first three times they were turned back by a combination of the impassable jungle, endless swamps, jaguars, snakes and narcotics traffickers.
Today the Gap is said to be home to some of the most intact tropical rainforest in the Americas, and is inhabited by a host of extremely rare species. It is also attracting ever greater numbers of poachers as the populations of Panama and Colombia push against the ability of their land and governments to provide them food and jobs.
It is a nearly lawless area, and is heavily used by Colombian narcotics traffickers, as well as the Colombian Revolutionary Army (FARC). Huge amounts of arms and drugs are loaded and unloaded on the shores and backwaters of the Gap, and the Panamanian government is helpless to stop it.
To most observers the Darien Gap must sound like hell on earth, and it may well be an awful place to go. However, its existence should be celebrated simply for its symbolic value. It is completely unique in its resistance to human domination, and it serves well as a warning to the rapidly advancing societies that flank it.
Modern society has cut through the earth with road and rail grades, sculpted the landscape into perfect shapes for suburban housing developments and stuffed the earth under skyscrapers and giant stadiums, but it can never hope to control nature.
Like the infuriating single blades of grass that grow between otherwise perfectly clean concrete driveway slabs, the Darien Gap refuses to be beaten back. Its stands as an icon of a time when people were not lulled into thinking that they were impervious to the gritty and nasty truth of the world around them.
The very existence of the Gap is a surprise to most people, who assume incorrectly that modernity has surmounted all of the Americas for their free-trading and freewheeling lives. The Gap has survived centuries of human advances because it demands the respect of those who enter it. This same deference ought to be given to the more benign natural world that we call home, for, as residents of New Orleans recently discovered, we are not in control.