Near the top of a mountain in the Peruvian Andes is a small lake named Laguna McIntyre. This is the source of the Amazon River, so named for the National Geographic photographer, writer, and prolific explorer who made the discovery. “Amazing is the word heard most often at National Geographic headquarters to describe Loren McIntyre, who surmounts all obstacles with ease,” read a 1987 editor’s note marking his 70th birthday.
But there was one adventure McIntyre rarely spoke about. In the late 1960s, he went to Brazil in search of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon rain forest called the Mayoruna. McIntyre was dropped off on a riverbank, and followed the tribe into the forest. Before long he was unable to find his way back and ended up missing his return flight. McIntyre lived with the tribe for two months. Although they shared no common language, he discovered he could communicate with the chief via telepathy, in a manner he began to call “beaming.” This skill, he later learned, was known to the tribe as the “other language,” a way of communicating possessed only by the elders.
The Mayoruna were on the run, moving deeper into the forest to escape encroaching developers and settlers. As McIntyre followed them, they began to destroy their possessions in a quest to return to “the beginning,” a time before outside civilization intruded into their lands. One night, in the midst of these preparations, a tributary flooded their camp, and McIntyre grabbed onto a drifting balsa raft. He floated down the river and was rescued by a pilot.
If it sounds too good to be true, the New York Times thought so as well. In 1991 McIntyre’s story was published in a book called Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu. They’d met on a trip to the basin, where McIntyre confided in him, telling him about his strange experience 16 years earlier. It was, McIntyre later said, the first time he’d told anyone. The Times book reviewer skeptically lists the events that left McIntyre stumbling out of the jungle with one ruined roll of film and no notebooks, but a conviction that he’d communicated with his mind.
The writer says he was “tempted to dismiss this story as the work of somebody angling for a contract with Steven Spielberg.” Then he observes: “But Loren McIntyre, a veteran National Geographic photographer and journalist widely respected for his eye, his prose, and his careful observation, is not one to tell tall tales; and truth can be stranger than fiction.”
McIntyre moved to Latin America after a stint in the Navy during World War II, working for the U.S. Agency for International Development and as a filmmaker, until he started to write for National Geographic in the 1960s. For years, McIntyre, who considered himself as much scientist as journalist, kept his unusual experience secret. “I’m pretty reluctant to voice very much about the beaming experience because I didn’t want my friends to think I’d gone around the bend. ‘What is this? The guy’s hallucinating?’” he later told the Los Angeles Times.
This fall, Popescu’s book debuted in its newest form, a one-man Broadway play called The Encounter. Simon McBurney, a Brit who’s made his name in pushing the boundaries of traditional theater, wrote, directed, and stars in it. In his quest to understand consciousness, he’d read Popescu’s book in the ’90s, and he felt drawn again and again to McIntyre’s story. “It’s the last great unsolved mystery—the one we carry inside our heads,” McBurney says in an interview. He was fascinated by the white Western explorer who became so immersed in another culture that he began to experience something that so defied logic.
In the play, McBurney is both himself and McIntyre. Despite the bare stage and lone actor, the audio-centric show develops so many layers it becomes hard to differentiate past and present, reality and illusion. Headphones provide full immersion into the sounds of the Amazon rain forest, and, as McBurney describes it, “You begin to see things that are not there.”