FORT BENTON, MT.
I'm sitting out on the patio of the Grand Union Hotel looking at the Missouri River. This is the halfway point of my annual Lewis and Clark canoeing and hiking trip. We have spent the last three days paddling through the magnificent White Cliffs stretch of the Missouri. Tonight we regroup in a historic hotel (which mostly means showers). Tomorrow we head up to Lochsa Lodge on the Lolo Trail just inside Idaho (west of Missoula), and prepare for four days of hiking along the most pristine stretch of the entire Lewis & Clark trail from Charlottesville, VA, to Astoria, OR.
This year I'm joined by 35 adventurers from all over the United States—and one winsome young geologist from Australia. With my tour partner Becky, that makes our little corps of discovery about the same in size as the permanent party of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1805). The main difference is that we cannot establish military discipline. Last night one of the enlisted men engaged in an unauthorized incursion into our limited supply of liquor. After a wonderful midnight thunderstorm that woke and enchanted our urban guests, he went wandering through our camp like King Lear on the heath, tripping over guy lines, chanting patches of patriotic song, and invading tents of perfect strangers in search of his longsuffering wife. This produced a little chaos. We wanted to flog him at dawn, but he looked pretty self- or spouse-flogged, so we merely pardoned him to nurse his hangover. The mesh cowboy hat that he has been wearing all week looked as if it had gone through a tree shredder. I predict a long run of temperance in his future.
These are minor concerns. Each year for five years my canoe partner Becky has attempted to drown me in the Missouri River. She's a natural water nymph with a heart the size of Montana, but she has two exceedingly bad habits. She stands up from time to time in the canoe, and she turns around to take pictures, adjust her life vest, reach for something in her kit bag, ask me a question, or just tempt the river gods. No amount of caution or rebuke can prevent her from taking appalling risks, and every summer I lose not only my new camera—an expensive sacrifice to what Meriwether Lewis called the "mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River"—but books, notes, GPS devices, journals (both my own and the expedition's). I went to my favorite camera store a few days before this trip to buy my fifth annual digital camera. The clerk said, "Ah, it's your annual Montana trip, is it?"
I can now report a miracle. My camera survived the canoe portion of the trip. We'll see how it fares on the Wendover Death March.
I don't know if I can explain why this annual trip means so much to me, but I am going to try. When you are out on the river drifting through some of the most enchanting scenery in America, or placing one foot in front of the other on a serious and strenuous hike directly in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, you get out of yourself. You all know that persona you drag around almost every day of the year, full of fears and frets and frustrations and figments and frauds and foolhardiness. It's almost pure pleasure to check that tinny thing at the embarkation point, and become a more basic and authentic self for a few days. The camping trip tasks are very basic: paddle, hike, perform rudimentary acts of hygiene in rudimentary structures, sleep, eat, warm your hands in the fire in the chill of the evening, and get up in the middle of the night to pee in the dewy grass just outside your tent, and then linger in your shorts in the night chill to watch for a shooting star. The idea is to let the past slip away, put the future on hold at the other end of the journey, and just try to BE for a change. Feel the tinge of sunburn on your face and legs, the affirming strain in muscles you don't much use in what Huck Finn calls "sivilization," and let the long stretches of pure silence redeem your life.
There is also the "same time next year" phenomenon.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said "you can never enter the same river twice." That is true of the Missouri. This year it was down by three or four feet from last year. Last year's gravel-bottomed swimming hole was a mud bog this year. The air was easily ten degrees cooler this summer, and the afternoon swimming was therefore less imperative. Etc. But I also know I bring a different me to the river every year. My left shoulder was not a factor this time. I was more serious, less playful in the evening talks. I know why, though I'm not willing to explain it. People from all over the country insisted on my talking about the Bakken oil boom, even though I came out here in part to escape the oppressive never-endingness of that subject in my life. I threw myself into this year's adventure with none of my usual detachment—in part because there is so much I wish to escape from this year, and I am counting on the journey to provide spiritual renewal.
When we undertake the Wendover Death March Friday morning (nine miles more or less straight up) I will be listening to my body take that severe strain. Every summer I wonder when the year will finally come when I cannot make the hike—or, worse, choose not to make the hike. In a strange sort of way, this summer journey is my way of testing who I am, who I still am, and who I might be able to become, because the one constant is that a full year has passed since the last seemingly-identical journey.
The jury is still out about this year's Death March, which is led by my glorious young friend Chad, now just under 40, who prances and gambols and jibes his way up Wendover Ridge as if he were jogging to the corner post office, while the rest of us bend over and cough up a lung every ten minutes and curse the day Chad was born. The trip would not be worth making without Chad—who knows everything about the Bitterroot Mountains except the trees, which is a bit ironic if you think about it—and it certainly would not be worth making without Becky. They are the north stars of my summer.
Mostly I thank God I live in virtually the only country on earth where this is possible—where the population density is light in the heartland, where there is still plenty of public domain to play and wander in, where the qualities of wilderness and frontier still have some potency in our national soul, and where the words "the West" touch off a long reverie of romance, awe, redemption, mystery, and renewal.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," said Thoreau. That indeed is my quest.