ROGER COHEN’S BOOK about adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews will make any boy smile. It includes tales of snakes, battles with bandits, towering sandstorms, and even managing camel caravans. You might enjoy it too since there is a little boy sleeping in many a grown man you’d call sensible.
The subject of this young adult biography is a man who organized scientific expeditions for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Hired as a recent college graduate to sweep floors, Andrews learned quickly, and over the subsequent thirty-six years he was sent to remote parts of the world for various studies. He also wrote a series of his own books about these adventures.
Cohen’s book concentrates on Andrew’s first (1922) of many expeditions into the forbidding Gobi Desert during the waning days of China’s first experiment with a republican government under the elected president Sun Yat-Sen. China was anything but modern and the Gobi was considered one of the most inhospitable and inaccessible places on earth with temperatures fluctuating between summer highs of 145 degrees and winter lows of -40 degrees; it was a land of screeching blizzards and smothering sandstorms. Mounted bandits roamed. Poisonous snakes abounded.
Revolver on his hip, Andrews led the expedition that not only recovered countless dinosaur fossils, but also revolutionized scientific theory when his men uncovered dinosaur eggs. Until that moment, the scientific community had assumed that dinosaurs were mammals born alive.
One reason that the expedition was so successful was the ingenious use of the automobile. Andrew’s explained, “We’re going to do it the Mongolian way. We’ll hire a camel caravan to carry fuel for the cars and other supplies. The caravan will meet us at certain points along the route. We’ll be able to stay mobile and explore a huge amount of territory.”
Even so, the exploration was not easy. After getting lost, they discovered that their old Russian maps were inaccurate. They faced apocalyptic sandstorm, and as temperatures dropped they had to battle vipers. One night alone, they killed forty-seven snakes that had slithered into their warm tents.
Like Odysseus, Andrews displayed guile. While driving through a Mongolian mountain pass, armed and mounted bandit sharpshooters literally shot the steering wheel, forcing Andrew’s vehicle to the side of the road, stuck. Since Andrews and his sidekick had not had time to return fire, the bandits thought them unarmed and approached casually, talking. Andrews and his friend then shot two of the bandits, and the others fled. Later near the Chinese border, Andrews faced four mounted bandits. “Each wore a thin dust-covered dell and had a long musket slung across his back.” Andrews drew his ever-present pistol and gunned his car’s engine, heading straight toward them. The engine’s roar spooked the horses “throwing two to the ground. The other two men dropped their muskets . . ..”
The book also digresses to important moments in Andrew’s life; his childhood experiences in the wild, his introduction to the museum, and his early studies of whales. This is a fascinating story about a man who is generally believed to have inspired the cinematic Indiana Jones character. In an age of robotic astronauts, it is refreshing to read about an individual, cut off from his homeland, who adapts and succeeds much like a Peace Corps Volunteer. The author, Roger Cohen, served in Mongolia, traveled through the Gobi Desert, and met locals who still speak “of the richest sites of dinosaur bones in the world” and their discoverer, Roy Chapman Andrews
Lawrence F. Lihosit works as an urban planner. Several of his books and pamphlets are available on-line at www.abookcompany.net. A regular contributor to Peace Corps Writers, he may be contacted directly at LawrenceFLihosit@gmail.com.