Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Wandering and pondering the Missouri River

Last week I mentioned that I am adventuring in the West for the 31st year, teaching college kids the history of Lewis and Clark and how to survive on the land. I am convinced that survival is the alchemy of skill, brute determination and endurance. We are canoeing the White Cliffs of the Missouri River that Lewis referred to as “Scenes of Visionary Enchantment.”

The Missouri River is not conducive for contemplative thought. I can appreciate the lapses in the captains’ journals, when they went for days without an entry. The overwhelming logistics and the arduous daily struggle to survive must have been exhausting. Similarly, I struggle to write my thoughts but the demands of this river are debilitating. Nevertheless in the evenings, under candlelight, I pen my journal just as the captains did.

The Missouri River and the land that it waters is a spiritual geography. Words hardly capture the essence of wilderness, nor reveal its melancholy, mystery or charm. Every turn on the river with its treacherous current, snags and sandbars yields a wild moment; the land has not changed since the Corps of Discovery came this way.

The river with its twists and turns and its seething pulse speaks as it groans and moans. “Come up me,” says the Grandfather Spirit of the Missouri. What drew Lewis and Clark up this river was an unformed sense that their country’s destiny lay that way. They journeyed at Jefferson’s behest to find the Northwest Passage.

As we float the current I see the men of the Corps of Discovery knee deep in the river pulling the keelboat up a current that displaces 20,000 cubic feet of water per second. I see Lewis walking the shoreline collecting specimens to send back to the scientist president. I see John Colter hunting buffalo and fighting grizzly bears. I see York, Clark’s black slave, cleaning the weapons. I see Captain Clark, sitting near the fire, dipping his quill in ink, and creating an American epic in the prose of the journals. I see the Indian girl, the teenager named Sacagawea, sitting with the men around the campfire nursing her infant son, Jean Baptiste, the youngest member of the Corps of Discovery.

They searched for the Northwest Passage, the fabled waterway that linked the Missouri and Columbia rivers. Jefferson believed it was there. We stood at three forks where the mighty Missouri disappeared into the ground. There, Lewis climbed a hill, hoping to see a water route to the Columbia. Instead he saw vast mountain ranges. It wasn’t there!

It matters less what they went to find than what they did find. They discovered the future of America: they discovered the land. They went, literally, from east to the West Coast, which is what America did in their footsteps. It was a physical journey of the nation to go to the Pacific Ocean to discover its own future.

I am drawn to the captains. Jefferson called them, “Men of Undaunted Courage.” They led an expedition that defined the diversity of America. There were soldiers from Kentucky, French boatmen, Yankees from New Hampshire, sons of Indian women and white men, farmers from Pennsylvania, a black man and a woman.

Jefferson sent the captains to inform the native peoples that the land they lived on for thousands of years now belonged to the Great White Father in Washington, D.C. Ironically, the native peoples received them with kindness. We are our brother’s keeper.

I see the Judith River ahead and we struggle against the current to make the shore. We say farewell to the Missouri and head to Wyoming. I ponder the words of Mary McCarthy, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.”

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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