Reconnecting with History and the American Dream—On the Public Lands

I missed my deadline this last week—with permission—by a couple of hours. When noon Wednesday came, I normally would have been pushing "send" from Bismarck or somewhere, but in fact I was gamboling in the Judith River in north central Montana. The Judith enters the Missouri River from the south near today's Judith Landing, after a 124-mile journey from its source in the Little Belt Mountains. It is one of the most beautiful tributaries of the Missouri.

A few of us have been sloshing around in the Judith to avoid having to end our three-day canoe trip. Each year I lead a cultural tour of Jefferson and Lewis and Clark lovers through the pristine White Cliffs section of the Missouri (three days) and then along the remote Nez Perce Trail west of Missoula, Montana (four days). There was a good lunch of tuna salad and fresh fruit waiting at the take-out point, but we few lingered in the last stretch of the Judith. I get this adventure just once a year and I have to squeeze all the spiritual regeneration possible out of a few key moments in the heart of the American West.

The Missouri is a big, powerful river. When 17 canoes spread out on its broad surface in the morning, and move down the river at different paces, they tend to get swallowed up by the sheer size of the river, and by the magnificent and dramatic valley through which it flows. For the last couple of years, my canoe partner Becky and I have kept our eyes sharp for the somewhat hidden mouth of the Judith, turn abruptly right, and then churn our canoe a few hundred yards up against its surprisingly powerful current. Then we park the canoe on a gravel bar and just play for an hour in the warm, brisk, whimsical Judith, where the scale is small enough for you to feel you are flowing like a river. There were six of us this year, including a young geologist who was clearly an otter in her previous life.

The Judith was named by Lieutenant William Clark. Meriwether Lewis had proposed the name "Bighorn," but on May 20, 1805, William Clark, thinking of his future back in civilization, renamed it for a young woman he fancied, one Julia Hancock, of Fincastle, Virginia. Clark married his "Judith" on January 5, 1808. (How could she do otherwise after having a noble Montana river named just for her? Clark made her immortal.)

We slogged up the Judith for about a quarter of a mile in our river shoes, then slipped in and just let the stream bob us slowly towards its confluence with the Missouri. It is shallow enough to stand up in, and you bump a fair number of bottom rocks if you don't line yourself up just right. But after about ninety seconds of wincing and "yow"-ing, you reach a point where the channel is deep enough to lift you up and carry you like a pine log through its sweeping curves. That is one of the happiest moments of my year. That little interlude of free floating is, among other things, a sacrament to several magical friendships.

A river feels like a living being with its ripples and eddies and rills and gurglings. It is possible to speak meaningfully about the "souls of rivers." When you finally allow yourself to relax completely—just surrender to the grace of the river come what may—it feels as if you are now truly one with the river, not some independent self-important biped with a unique identity (ego) and a looming deadline. It's heavenly. Toward the end of the ride, a tree has fallen across the channel. If you lurch up just at the right moment, you can grab a bald skeletal branch and hang on for a few minutes while the river tries to pull you away to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now the members of the tour group have checked into the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton, chosen between the halibut-with-risotto and peppered bison entrees for dinner, and each of them is taking approximately three consecutive showers to get the Missouri River grit out of their bones. I'm still river ratty. We will meet for hors d'oeuvres and live local music on the hotel patio in a couple of hours, and then dinner in a private dining room, during which I will encourage each person to debrief (out loud) on the Missouri River phase of the journey everyone slips off to sleep in a real bed. Tomorrow we depart early for the Bitterroot Mountains, which proved to be the severest challenge to the Corps of North Western Discovery in both directions (September 1805 and May-June 1806).

Like most other people I love America, and thank God I was born here of all the possible places where one might have been born. No one gets to choose. I feel proudest to be an American on three occasions per year. First, on Thanksgiving—that uniquely American holiday when we gather in small groups to celebrate the abundance we enjoy as Americans. We have been blessed with natural resources and economic opportunities unprecedented in the history of the world. Second, on the Fourth of July (often enough at the Medora Musical), when you suddenly find yourself surging up into a full-throttle Lee Greenwood, giant flag, and fireworks mode. It's great to let go with all the patriotism that is in you from time to time. There is something about the idea of America that remains so stirring in our hearts that you actually find yourself overcome with tears of pride and happiness. And you dream that we will somehow find a way to recover.

Third, when I am out on the public lands we have set aside not for the rich and the well born (as Alexander Hamilton had it), but for all Americans to enjoy. Thank goodness much of the American West is arid or inhospitable or magnificent enough that enlightened presidents and legislators have set many parcels aside to remind us of what a fabulous continent we inhabit, so that all Americans—forever—can follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark or explore the Custer battlefield, or sit around a camp fire in Yellowstone National Park talking about the end of the world, or hike side by side in the badlands of western North Dakota without unnecessary industrial intrusion.

Where else on earth could you find such a glorious array of public lands that will never be handed over to the most privileged Americans to be fenced and posted to satisfy purely private vanity? Glacier National Park, Yosemite, Canyon de Chelly, Devils Tower, Mount Rainier, Canyonlands, Arches, the Great Sand Dunes. And on and on. Imagine if we Americans had not all been blessed by the conservation passions of Theodore Roosevelt, who learned how much was at stake in the West right here in Dakota (1883-87). Imagine North Dakota without Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and our 61 US Wildlife Refugees (the most number in America), and Fort Union and Knife River National Historic Sites?

Tomorrow we head west to a lovely mountain lodge (Lochsa). The day after that I will endeavor for the eighth time to survive the Wendover Death March (nine miles more or less straight up). If you never hear from me again, it will be because I left a lung or two in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, in one of the most beautiful places in America.

On the public lands.