Gene Savoy plunged into the Peruvian jungle half a century ago in search of the fabled El Dorado, a lost Incan city so wealthy that its king reputedly walked coated in gold dust.
For months at a time, Savoy tromped through mountain terrain that local Indians were reluctant to enter. He was bitten by snakes, lost in the jungle and once nearly lynched by irate campesinos.
Now semiretired, Savoy never found El Dorado. But along the way, he became the world's foremost chronicler of a forgotten civilization known as the Chachapoya -- and a blight to traditional archeologists.
Savoy, 79, is among the last of a dying breed -- the swashbuckling adventurer whose expeditions plow through the world's rain forests in search of lost history.
"I would rather die out there than not explore," Savoy said from his hillside home overlooking Reno.
Lean and lanky, with a bandito mustache and a Stetson hat, he looks like a character out of a 1930s adventure movie.
He has probably seen more Chachapoya architecture than any man alive, discovering, by his own account, more than 40 ancient cities. The Peruvian government gave him a medal, the Order of the Gran Pajaten, for bringing attention to a region once thought archeologically barren.
People magazine has called him the "real Indiana Jones."
Real archeologists agree -- and some wouldn't mind if he were chased through a cave by a rolling boulder.
"Savoy's involvement in the Chachapoya saga clouds the scientific issues, attracts a lot of crackpots and scares off serious researchers who don't want to constantly have to deal with Savoy's tedious legacy of lost cities/El Dorado fantasies and delusions," said archeologist Keith Muscutt of UC Santa Cruz.
For many archeologists, Savoy's exploits are the source of endless annoyance. They see him as a charlatan who steals credit from genuine scientists and makes highly publicized forays that damage sites and attract looters.
Archeologists -- a group that Savoy often dismisses as "fuddy-duddy academics" -- go to a site and carefully document what they find, preserving artifacts and eventually building a theory to explain their discoveries. Explorers, such as Savoy, have a preconceived theory and go smashing through the forest in search of proof.
Most archeologists spend years working at a site and report their findings in journals and at scientific conferences. Explorers announce their discoveries to the media, then go on to the next expedition.
"Exploring is the key," Savoy said defiantly. "The scientist tells you what you found, but you have to find it in the first place.... Let the scientists come in later."
The tension between Savoy and the archeological establishment has unfolded in one of the most forbidding places in the world -- a spot in northern Peru known as Ceja de Selva -- the Eyebrow of the Jungle.
As much as 150 inches of rain may fall each year. The mountains reach above 10,000 feet and the jungle grows so thick that ruins just feet away can remain hidden.
"Imagine the Amazon jungle stretched over the Rocky Mountains," said University of Florida archeologist Michael Moseley.
Even Savoy, who now makes his home in the dry climate of Nevada, shakes his head at the terrain: "I hate the danged jungle."