Teddy Roosevelt descendant talks wilderness, family legacy and a summer in Taos

A family in the forests


When Tweed Roosevelt, the great-grandson of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, showed up in Taos to work in the forests during the summer of 1960, he came donned in khaki pants and shiny penny loafers.

Much like his presidential ancestor - who he calls simply T.R. - Roosevelt was an Easterner, raised in the rarefied world of elite prep schools and the Ivy League.

As Roosevelt said, "I didn't know a damn thing about anything."

The forest superintendent that summer took pity on Roosevelt, handing him a pair of leather chaps for the first week of trail work in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. By the second week of high-mountain snows and lugging tools into the forests, Roosevelt traded out his finery for a more functional uniform.

Though Roosevelt has not been to the mountains of Taos in decades, the experience - facing some of the realities of the West - shaped him in the tradition of his family and the distinctly American myth of "roughing it."

Roosevelt, a "sort of family historian" and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, is among the experts featured in a new documentary about the former president, a 1914 expedition into unmapped swaths of Brazil and what it meant to the man that led the United States for two terms in the first decade of the twentieth century.

"Into the Amazon" is an episode of PBS' "American Experience" and premiers on KNME-TV Tuesday (Jan. 9) from 8-10 p.m.

While the film focuses on the president (played by Alec Baldwin), the grueling expedition and the poor decisions that nearly killed him, Roosevelt told The Taos News the story of a person facing their morality and mortality resonates especially strong today.

"T.R. is very popular these days. There's a yearning for leadership of his type," he said.

"It's important for people to know about their presidents, not just in their historical form, but also about the men, what made them tick," he said.

As the documentary details, the 26th president saw himself as a paragon of "outdoor adventure and manliness" in the vein of frontiersmen, who saw the West as wilderness rather than a landscape, home to Native communities and pre-colonial empires. T.R.'s dad told him to "make his body," and T.R. took to nature as his proving grounds through big-game hunting, camping, cowboying and more off-the-map journeys.

Though he didn't know it at 17 years old, the president's great-grandson picked up the same western mythos when he came to work in the forests around Taos Mountain.

Roosevelt was mostly maintaining trails although he and a crew of two also "did a little firefighting, a little of this and little of that," he said. "We would trail in somewhere with our horses and pack animals and spend a week working before we came down again. The first three or four weeks, they were trying to figure out if I had any hope at all."

Roosevelt worked the forest a decade before the people of Taos Pueblo successfully won back Blue Lake and thousands of acres of land that was claimed as a national forest by none other than T.R.

"I learned a lot that summer," he said.

For more than five decades, Roosevelt has made a study of the former president, his family and journeys. Some of those experiences - such as retracing the entire 1,000-mile trek through the Amazon - influenced the PBS documentary premiering next week.

"The [political] climate today is totally ignorant of our history," he said. "The more they know about T.R., the more they know what kind of leaders we could have if we insisted on it. People are feeling kind of helpless, but they're not."