The journals of Captains Lewis and Clark are the most prophetic narrative of American History. Thomas Jefferson ordered Meriwether Lewis to keep an accounting of all discoveries made on their trek up the Missouri River. Jefferson was a visionary; consequently he taught Lewis to write with the poetry of imagination to insure their journals would be literary masterpieces. On this Montana adventure they are my bible.
We put into the River at Coal Banks landing; the boat crews had methodically loaded the equipment to insure a perfect balance as we shoot the current of the Missouri. I told my students that having balance is a lot like life; the Eastern mystics call it center. It’s what Siddhartha searched for on his quest for the divine. He didn’t realize that he already had it.
Prior to shoving off, I read the words of Lewis, “We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width. The good or evil it has in store for us was yet to be determined, yet entertaining as I do the most confidant hope of succeeding in this voyage. I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”
My students are pensive of leaving terra firma, but nevertheless we head for the center of the river. The current immediately takes us and swings us North. All we hear is the rhythmic sound of the paddles as they dip and with a backward swing they dip again. After an hour the sounds of laughter begin to emanate from the boats. Anxiety is a natural suppressant causing us to overcompensate in our focus. However, confidence is gained through preparation, competence, and repetition. By the late afternoon our crew is worthy of the Captains.
The Missouri is a river that speaks to the traveler, “I am a grandfather spirit; I have a life.” It was the grandfather spirit that brought the Captains into the interior of North America. If you listen close enough you can hear the river saying, “Follow me; great discoveries await.” Lewis and Clark, on the bidding of Jefferson and on behalf of America, headed up the Missouri on a vision quest.
The Corps of Discovery’s purpose was to proceed on with undaunted courage and face whatever challenges came their way. But a metamorphosis ensued where as the expedition members were transformed by the adventure and, through their encounters with their discoveries, the land became truly American. To paraphrase Robert Frost’s poem “The Gift Outright,” Lewis and Clark opened up an artless, un-enhanced, and un-storied country and gave of themselves “outright” so that Americans could realize that the land was ours and we were her people. In short, the expedition was nothing less than a holy act of national transubstantiation.
On our first evening I sat on the River bank, adjacent to a Lewis and Clark campsite listening to the sound of a crackling fire. We were burning the dead fall of cotton wood trees. They were the decedents of the same trees that kept the Captains warm back in 1805. I watched the river flow toward the Mississippi and then to the Gulf of Mexico. We were at, ‘Hole in the Wall,” the very same spot where Lewis proclaimed the White Cliffs of Montana to be “Scenes of Visionary Enchantment.” Almost to the exact day of our presence there, I read from the journal of Lewis. “This immense river so far as we have ascended waters one of the fairest portions of the globe. Nor do I believe that there is in the universe a similar extent of country.”
The embers of the fire lost their glow and I crawled into my sleeping bag. Tomorrow will be a new day with new discoveries as we continue in the footsteps of the Captains.