With Lewis and Clark at the Cross Ranch as Spring Returns

March 15, 2015

The weather last weekend was so lovely—sixty degrees and light wind in early March—that I forced myself away from several projects and went in search of the open air. I've been walking the city trail in my neighborhood, but that seemed too wimpy for a day of such perfect spring weather. So I grabbed a camera and a bar of chocolate and drove up ND 1804 on the west side of the Missouri River. 

I like the west river road (1804) better than the eastern version (1806) because it is mostly unpaved, it goes through rougher terrain, and someone it feels more like western North Dakota. The great John Steinbeck, crossing the Missouri River on October 12, 1960, said, "Here is the boundary between east and west. On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side it is pure west, with brown grass and water scorings and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart." That's precisely how ND 1804 feels after you pass through the last of the settlements north of Mandan.

I climbed a butte in hopes of watching the orange full moon rise over the Missouri River, but I soon thought better of it for a range of reasons, and drove up instead to Cross Ranch State Park. The grand old stand of cottonwood trees there is magnificent even in the winter. The walking trails are excellent. I like to gaze at the Art Link cabin in silent reverence to one of the great men of North Dakota history. The mighty Missouri eases right in to the edge of the giant cottonwoods.
If I couldn't have these experiences, wandering aimlessly through North Dakota, drinking in the beauty and the subtlety of the great emptiness and the great silence, I wouldn't want to live here anymore. When I was growing up in western North Dakota you could wander just about anywhere with impunity. The sense back then was that if you were dumb enough to venture off the grid, you were probably a harmless pilgrim who knew enough not to leave gates open or light a fire in the grass or spook the cattle. In some interesting ways the state was a kind of "commons." That kind of innocent hospitality has been slipping slowly away for many years, but the sudden industrialization of our landscape has greatly accelerated it. There is a landowner uptightness now that is as sad as it is surely justified. 

Last Sunday was one of those gray spring days at the end of the winter just before the lifeforce begins to poke new life through the dead leaves, and to extrude fragile pale green feeder leaves through the seemingly dead twigs of the massive cottonwoods. The ground cover was drab and brittle—on the color spectrum from charcoal to an anemic looking yellow. The sky was mostly gray-black. A front was moving through from west to southeast—low menacing lenticular clouds that appeared to be only a few feet above the canopy of the trees. I could see the western edge of the front as if it had been cut with a breadknife, and the sky beyond it was blue with the purity of a Biblical painting. The river was wide, sullen, silent, making a big sweep past Cross Ranch. 

I wondered for a few minutes whether it would be possible to walk across the river. It was still covered with ice. I could not see any open water. Lewis and Clark's men used to walk across the river routinely during their five-month stay with the Mandan. Fort Mandan was on the eastern side of the river. The principal Mandan village Mitutanka was just over on the west side of the river, less than four miles away. Occasionally the captains and with great frequency the enlisted men ventured over to Mitutanka for off-duty entertainment. It's common to assume that what the men wanted was sex with native women—and surely some of that occurred—but my sense from the journals is as often as not they just wanted some social variety, a meal other than the now-standard roast buffalo of their military diet, a glimpse of domesticity in an earthlodge, a few hours in a community that was rooted here for the duration, not merely passing through on a heroic mission. I think many of the men were lonely for back home in Ken-tuck and Pennsylvania and they sought comfort in the stable family life of their Mandan hosts. 

I did not walk across the river. Glug glug.

By this time in 1805 (mid-March), Lewis was all hepped up to get back on the road. He was a naturally impulsive, impatient, self-punishing man with a deep fixation on mission. The expedition was supposed to have reached the Rock Mountains in the first year of travel. The Corps of Discovery stopped for the winter in North Dakota for one simple reason. The Missouri River froze up. Their highway was closed. That Lewis and Clark wintered with the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians was more or less a wonderful coincidence. The Missouri froze shut a few days after they started building their winter quarters in early November and the ice broke up on the river on March 25, 1806, just two weeks before they pushed on into the great unknown. In other words, they traveled in 1804 as long as the road conditions let them, and resumed their journey more or less the minute the road re-opened the following spring. In the journals I can feel Lewis's impatience and urgency.

As I stood on the edge of the river looking as far in both directions as I could, I realized that if you plopped Captain Lewis back down next to me in the spring of 2015 he would recognize the landscape as essentially unchanged. That's one of the greatest things about North Dakota. Far off to the north I could just see the water tower of Washburn and a few yard lights. To the south, nothing but primeval Missouri River country all the way to the vanishing point. Across the river, a few sad looking wooden buildings not much larger than shacks. 

Had Lewis been there with me, he would have wondered where all the 4,500 Mandan and Hidatsa folks had gone (and might presume the worst, given the evidences of smallpox he saw in 1804-06). He would have noticed that the river is wider, clearer, and more channelized than when he slipped through. But the honking of the geese would have brought back waves of memories of his long winter at the Great Bend of the Missouri. The marvelous muted shades of tan and drab and ice blue and sky blue would have been just what he remembered. And the great silence of the north.

He'd be fretting that he had promised President Jefferson a significant report—and such scattered notes as he had in his possession were not going to make that possible.