Photo credit: Jill Johnson
Jeff Guinn will be at Powell's City of Books on April 19 at 7:30.
It’s always been hard to get to Jonestown. In the mid-1970s, when Jim Jones and Peoples Temple established their foreign settlement, one of the most isolated areas on earth was a deliberate choice.
The jungles of northwest Guyana comprise thousands of square miles of triple canopy trees, with thick thorn bush woven through the narrow spaces between them. This near-impenetrable maze teems with screeching monkeys, cawing birds, lurking big cats and slithering snakes, many of the latter poisonous to almost immediately lethal degree. All manner of biting insects crawl and fly in every inch of available space, and weather options are limited: bake in furnace-like heat or be drenched by lashing seasonal monsoons. The nearest town is Port Kaituma, a community populated mostly by ragged miners (magnesium and gold have occasionally been discovered nearby, though in limited quantities) and skeletal dogs, perhaps several hundred of each. Shabbily perched on the bank of a chocolate-colored inland river, and with a narrow, primitive airstrip on its outskirts, Port Kaituma offers the best — really, the only — jumping-off point for Jonestown, which is about 60 miles away.
Most of the world learned of this area in the days immediately following November 18, 1978, when hordes of international media attempted descending on the sites of mass suicide (Jonestown) and murder (the Port Kaituma airstrip). In all, 918 people, a third of them children, one of them the only U.S. congressman ever to be killed in the course of an official investigation, died on that terrible day, yet boots-on-the-ground news coverage proved virtually impossible. Only a handful of reporters and TV crews ever got to Jonestown; most remained amid the modest, but still limited, comforts of Georgetown, the Guyanese capitol about 140 miles away on the country’s coast. There, they relied on mostly second-hand information to tell the world the sensational story of lunatic preacher Jim Jones and his zombie-like followers, all of them ready to kill others or themselves on his command. Eventually, a catch phrase emerged that became a permanent part of the national lexicon: don’t drink the Kool-Aid
. We’ve all heard it, thought it, said it.
Going on four decades later, it’s even tougher getting to Jonestown. Port Kaituma still exists. The airstrip remains narrow and full of craters. Ralph Lauer, my photographer, and I charted a small plane to fly in. Because the trees all around the strip tower so tall, it’s necessary for pilots to practically point their aircraft nose straight down to land — a very disconcerting experience for passengers. Part of the road from Port Kaituma to Jonestown remains, reddish, loosely packed dirt that instantly turns to deep, thick mud during rainstorms, which are frequent. One hit hard just as our plane landed. We’d hired two guides, who drove us in their beat-up car about four miles down the road, right to where the Jonestown settlers cut another two-mile passage to their farm. But few venture in that direction anymore, and the jungle has overgrown the Jonestown road. There was nothing for it but to get out of the car, grab machetes (called cutlasses
in Guyana), and try to hack our way in. It wasn’t like the old movies where after a dozen swipes with the blades, you’re there. After just a few swings, your arm hurts. There were also the biting bugs and the thorns. Within minutes, Ralph and I were muddy, bloody messes.
When we finally arrived, we found there was little left of Jonestown — bits of the old cassava mill, a few skeletons of trucks and tractors, huge trees thrusting up through them, spreading rusted vehicular ribs wide. There’s a small white monument honoring the 11/18/78 dead, and a stained, mounted map of what the settlement once looked like. These few things squat in a tiny clearing the size of a school gym. Otherwise, the jungle has completely reclaimed its own, and Amerindians living in the jungle have long since hauled off any boards, glass, boxes, or other items that might prove useful to them. As we sat and rested with our backs against the monument, an aggressive snake took exception. Only the fast reflexes and sharp machete of one of our guides saved us (really, me) from significant danger. I was shaken. The jungle seemed about to swallow us. The sense of human helplessness in the face of such primitive power was overwhelming.
Photo credit: Ralph Lauer
And that was when I finally began understanding how, in some sense, Jim Jones was such a great leader, and the members of Peoples Temple who followed him to Guyana were tough and smart. Until they arrived, eventually about a thousand people, many of them from inner-city ghettos where they’d never so much as mowed a lawn, no one had ever carved a self-sustaining farm community in the heart of the northwest Guyanese jungle. They did, more than 800 acres worth of hard-fought achievement, and they sustained those acres right up until their increasingly mad “Father” gave the orders that ended it. I’ve seen the autopsies and medical reports. True, Jones had some fanatical followers eager to do his bidding, however bizarre. But at least dozens, perhaps hundreds, more refused to voluntarily drink poison on the fateful day, and were held down and forcibly injected. There was mass murder as well as suicide. And in all the years since, despite innumerable attempts, no other group has been able to tame this jungle and establish a permanent settlement. Only Jim Jones and Peoples Temple have done it. Jonestown is only one instance that proves they were, in some ways, exceptionally capable, able to achieve things that most of us could not.
I’ve spent three years researching and writing The Road to Jonestown
. On April 19, I look forward to talking with you at Powell’s about the bad and the good regarding Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. It’s a fascinating story, one that I suspect you’ll find surprising in many ways. As always, the truth is far better than mythology.
And, by the way, on that fateful day in Jonestown, they didn’t drink Kool-Aid. See you soon.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the winner of the 2016 TCU Texas Book Award and the bestselling author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including Buffalo Trail
, The Last Gunfight
, and Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde
. The former books editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
and award-winning investigative journalist, he is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. Guinn lives in Fort Worth. The Road to Jonestown
is his most recent book.