Scenes of Visionary Enchantment

Well, it’s time for the annual Lewis & Clark Cultural Tour in Montana and Idaho. As usual, I go kicking and screaming, because I am never ready when the moment comes, not physically and not spiritually, and I have so much to do back in civilization that I let myself think I don’t have time for pleasure in the wilderness.

By the time I meet the 25 or so participants—mostly Jefferson Hour folks—from around the United States, in the back of a motel in Great Falls, Montana, I’m pretty ragged. My trunk is filled with duffles and sleeping bags and life vests and books, but far the more burdensome baggage is in my heart and soul.

How does it happen? How do we get so busy with our lives, so stuck in routines, that we surrender our autonomy and sometimes our integrity, and become not much more than robots going through the motions of life but with pretty anemic vital signs.

I know this much. That it is essential to my happiness that I break my routines a few times per year, get out into some heartbreakingly beautiful lonely place in the American West, where I can sit under the stars at night, listen to the crooning of coyotes, contemplate the ways in which the limber pines sway and dance in the nocturnal breeze, watch for shooting stars, breathe deep, and let the accumulated noise and angst and strain slip out of my soul to be drawn down the great river towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Yes, Becky will attempt to drown me, as always, and about ninety minutes into the nine-mile vertical hike up to Wendover ridge, while I am bent over coughing up a lung, I will vow never, ever to do this hike again. But later that night, after a glass or two of fine red wine, sitting with other serenely smiling Wendover “survivors” around a lovely camp fire, I feel more spiritually re-integrated than I would have thought possible. Among other things, I find myself back in my body after a period of being only lightly anchored in my body.

Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Jefferson was about as civilized a man as I have ever encountered in my reading. He loved nature with a capital N, but he was not much for wilderness. I doubt that Jefferson would enjoy the summer cultural tour very much—he was not one for roughing it. In this respect, my heart is more with Captain Lewis (who thrived more in wilderness than in Philadelphia), and with Thoreau and John Muir and Aldo Leopold, than with the severely civilized Jefferson.

There is a moment, on the second day of the canoe trip through the white cliffs section of the Missouri River, through what Meriwether Lewis called “scenes of visionary enchantment,” when most of us slip out of the canoes into the great river, well-protected by life vests, and just float on our backs down to the evening camp, letting what Lewis called “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouir River do all the work.” We camp precisely where Lewis and Clark did 200 years ago. Wine, beer, and hor d’oeuvres are waiting, but for about an hour we bob down the river like characters out of Huckleberry Finn, and when you finally surrender to the river and the magical landscape through which it flows, surrender to the mingling of wide land and big sky that is Montana, my life soon feels like paradise on earth.

And oh my do I need that rebirth and renewal. Becky, I’m on my way. Be gentle with your fractured Captain.