Tony Horwitz has worn the scratchy wool trousers, smelly socks and hobnailed boots of a Confederate soldier.
He has sailed the Pacific Ocean on a replica of Captain James Cook's ship. He has found one of the few men crazy enough to pilot a canoe through the Mississippi River's mighty currents, just like the Spanish conquistadors did in the 1500s.
Canoeing the Mississippi conquistador style would be an eccentric means of travel for anyone except Horwitz, a historian-author who won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for the Wall Street Journal in 1995. He fills his books with intrepid adventures such as these to add heart and humor to history.
But before the canoe trip came an aw-shucks moment of clarity at Plymouth Rock (which the author likens to a fossilized potato) that caused him to reassess his general knowledge of European exploration of America:
"As for dates, I'd mislaid an entire century, the one separating Columbus' sail in 1492 from Jamestown's founding in 16-0-something. Maybe nothing happened in the period between," Horwitz writes at the beginning of his new book, A Voyage Long And Strange.
Flipping through the hundreds of pages still to come, it's obvious much happened.
Yet, by embracing this time warp of missing information and turning his characteristic self-deprecating humor on himself, Horwitz — a college history major — turns the reader into his truth-seeking confidant as he explores more than a century of North American conquest.
What comes next is a veritable treasure trove of information that has very little to do with oft-told myths such as the romantic liaison perpetuated by Disney between Pocahontas and John Smith or Juan Ponce de Leon's "discovery" of the Fountain of Youth.
Horwitz's whirlwind tour through America's founding begins in L'Anse aux Meadows in Canada, site of a Norse settlement that archaeologists date to around 1000 A.D. The journey includes stops in the Dominican Republic, the supposed final resting spot of Columbus' bones; the Zuni reservation in Cibola, N.M., one of the cornerstones of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's hopeful march to fame and fortune; and Roanoke, home of the first English settlement in 1584, from which all the colonists vanished without a trace.
Although Horwitz's travels for his Southern-based book Confederates in the Attic didn't include Florida — a curious omission — he can't ignore Florida's ties to Spain in the discovery of the New World:
• Ponce de Leon's historic landing near Daytona Beach in 1513 during Spain's Feast of Flowers, hence the name La Florida.
• The religious and territorial warfare between the French Huguenots at Fort Caroline (near Jacksonville) and the Spanish Catholics in St. Augustine in the 1560s, which still breeds bitterness between the communities' quirky religious zealots today.
• Conqueror Hernando De Soto's invasion of Florida in 1539 near Bradenton. Panfilo de Narvaez may have reached the Tampa area first, but De Soto brought nine ships, 600 men, 220 horses and a herd of pigs, introducing the first barbecue to the New World.
On the surface, Horwitz's meticulous research for A Voyage Long And Strange gives the book a scholarly air usually relegated to tweed-clad professors. But his style of weaving together deadpan humor and droll commentary with bookish facts turns history into a bestseller. Take his observation about Coronado's meeting with the ill-fated Aztecs:
"Historians have often cast this stunning conquest as a clash of civilizations: European reason and military technology versus Aztec sun worship and spiked clubs."
But the author isn't the only voice in the book to offer a man-of-the-people viewpoint. As in his previous books, Horwitz doesn't have trouble finding earnest, candid subjects willing to talk about the far, far distant past.
Chris Meier, a 20-year-old history buff who moved to St. Augustine, found himself working at the Fountain of Youth, passing out cups of the pseudo-magic elixir to tourists willing to shell out $7.50 to enter. Meier's thoughts echo other present-day sentiments found throughout the book:
"Ponce de Leon came for gold and slaves, not a fountain. Pedro Menendez killed all the French except musicians for his private orchestra. How twisted is that? These guys were psychopathic nutballs. Celebrating them is like idolizing Charles Manson."
Horwitz, like some of his subjects, doesn't shy away from the atrocities committed by America's conquerors — a group of masochistic, murdering, thieving, lying, ruthless treasure seekers. And even though these complicated men paved the way for future settlement, most received their comeuppance, dying impoverished (De Soto, Coronado) or with their reputation in shambles (Columbus).
A Voyage Long and Strange is an engaging, witty glimpse into North America's founding, part travelog, part history lesson, part myth buster.
Jennifer DeCamp can be reached at (727) 893-8881 or firstname.lastname@example.org