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. 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 Lewis' words: “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 for experiment yet to be determine.... Entertaining as I do the most confidant hope of succeeding … I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”
My students are pensive as they leave terra firma. 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 would have made the Lewis and Clark proud.
The Missouri is a river that speaks to the traveler; it says, “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 closely enough, you can hear the river saying, “Follow me; great discoveries await.”
The Corps of Discovery's purpose was to proceed with courage and face whatever challenges came their way. But a metamorphosis ensued 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, unenhanced, and unstoried 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 deadfall of cottonwood trees. They were the descendants of the same trees that kept the captains warm back in 1805. I watched the Missouri flow toward the Mississippi River 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.” I read from Lewis' journal a passage written almost on the same calendar date of our presence there: “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.