Lochsa Lodge

#1324 Lochsa

#1324 Lochsa

"nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free."

— Thomas Jefferson, 1821

Clay Jenkinson returns from his cultural retreat held at Lochsa Lodge in Idaho last week and reports in on this year's meetings. Also, perhaps prompted by the 50th anniversary of the famous Beatles "rooftop concert," we wander into a short conversation about pop music, and discuss the recent extreme cold weather along with how Jefferson is co-opted by many of us without paying enough attention to the historical record.

#1273 Three Friends

#1273 Three Friends

"I'm just thrilled to see that people can still have intelligent and thoughtful conversations and walk away still feeling friends."

— Rick Kennerly

We speak with three friends of the Jefferson Hour this week: Rick Kennerly, who talks tomatoes and why they don’t taste as good as they used to, Pat Brodowski, Head Gardener at Monticello who speaks about the gardens and upcoming events at Monticello, and Beau Wright, Director of Operations at Protect Democracy.

#1271 Current Events

#1271 Current Events

We speak with President Jefferson about current events including the government shutdown, philanthropy, and water shortages in Cape Town.

#1246 Special Places

#1246 Special Places

"The bureaucracy can actually serve a really valuable purpose."

— Beau Wright, Director of Operations at United to Protect Democracy

In an out-of-character program, Clay reports on this year's Lewis & Clark cultural tour. Later, we're joined by Beau Wright who reports on his recent visits to Jefferson’s Poplar Forest home and the Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County, Virginia.

#1117 Lochsa Lodge

#1117 Lochsa Lodge

Each year, Odyssey Tours and Clay S. Jenkinson host a winter humanities retreat at Lochsa Lodge in north-central Idaho. This week's program, hosted by Russ Eagle, was recorded on location during the winter book retreat and and features questions for President Thomas Jefferson from those in attendance.

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.


Are There No "Higher Laws" in North Dakota Life?

For the past five days I have been holed up at a fabulous Spartan resort just inside Idaho west of Missoula, Montana, with a dozen folks from all over America. We gathered in the mountain snow at Lochsa Lodge for the sole purpose of discussing one of the world's great books, Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods.

Walden has many themes. It is much more than a book about one solitary man's love of nature. It is a surprisingly muscular and argumentative book that wrestles with some of the main issues in American life, then and now. It was published in 1854 at a time of rapid industrialization in the United States, when the railroad boom was transforming the landscape and the social structure of America in an unprecedented manner.

One of our participants was an ideological libertarian. He believes that government exists solely for the purpose of protecting property rights, and that anything else government might do is an intrusion into our liberties. He believes that absolutely everything can be "monetized," and that the free market is the best tool humans have to sort everything out, from the price of a loaf of bread to the delivery of health care.

So, to take an easy example, it's the year 1900 and the timber companies are cutting down every redwood tree they can get their hands on because there is a lucrative market for redwood lumber. Theodore Roosevelt (a big believer in free enterprise) decides that unless government steps in to manage the resource and conserve it for future generations, the short-sighted profiteers of the timber industry will cut down the last redwood to squeeze the last dollar out of the species. Moreover, Roosevelt believes that there is an inherent majesty in a redwood forest and that is in the interests of American civilization to release a few extraordinary things from the tyranny of the market. TR therefore determines that the national government will supervise the timber industry on public lands to insure the sustainability of our forests.

According to our Lochsa libertarian, that was the wrong thing to do: sloppy, sentimental, misguided, unfair, possibly un-American. "If you really think a redwood tree is as valuable standing in the air as it is turned into lumber for redwood decks, then you need to outbid the lumber companies tree by tree or forest by forest. The market works." You don't want a power co-op to put up wind towers just offshore at Martha's Vineyard, outbid them for the resource.

Thoreau was something of a libertarian too. He trumped Jefferson's "that government is best which governs least," to declare, "that government is best which governs not at all." Thoreau was committed to the individual, not the state. But Thoreau believed that individual had a duty to evolve from the brutishness and savagery of his base character into a more enlightened being, that America cannot be a great civilization unless we learn to hearken not just to economic laws but also to what he calls "higher laws." An individual who learns to hear "higher laws" does not believe that the value of everything can be measured in dollars. I think Roosevelt would regard Thoreau as hopelessly naïve. While you wait for the slaughterhouse owners to evolve, you are going to eat a fair quantum of rats, excrement, and tainted pork in your breakfast sausage.

On the third day of the Lochsa retreat I took a long walk through the woods in the hopes that I would encounter a wolf or a mountain lion. As I crunched through the pure white snowpack along the magnificent Lochsa River, I wondered what are the higher laws of North Dakota life in the era of the Bakken Oil Boom.

An oil shale deposit is different from more traditional pool oil because once you perfect the technology, in a fracturing boom you "strike oil" nearly 100% of the time. There is so much shale oil and natural gas in western North Dakota that you can more or less arbitrarily pick your spacing protocols, lay down a drilling grid of 40-60,000 wells, and then systematically work the field over time, until you have created the maximum extraction efficiency. Most of the land in North Dakota is privately owned. Even most of the public lands are open to development. As long as there is money to be made—and the money to be made dwarfs anything North Dakota has ever seen or dreamed about—oil companies are going to come get it. The drilling of any one individual well is a highly-efficient, nearly miraculous example of human technological ingenuity, and the environmental "footprint" of any given well is comparatively light, especially once the fracking process is over. But add all those drilling events together—systematic oil extraction in every direction—and then add in the pipelines, the storage tanks, the transfer facilities, the natural gas processing plants, the new roads and railroad spurs, the bypasses, the giant parking lots for idle trucks and pipe, and the industrial "hospitality" infrastructure, and—voila--you have transformed western North Dakota from a quiet rural countryside into an overwhelming hive of pell-mell industrial activity.

All on the principle of the market. Although the overwhelming majority of the oil wealth of North Dakota leaves the state never to return (such is the history of North Dakota), the amount of money being left behind in the hands of mineral owners, service providers (from water haulers to car dealers and hotdog stands), and in the coffers of the state treasury is so vast that it makes a mockery of my libertarian friend's economic equations. A day care provider in Watford City can barely pay her bills and put tennis shoes on her children's feet (traditional economy). An elderly couple in Dickinson, living on a modest pension and Social Security, is told that their rent will triple on March 1st (traditional economy). The rancher who would rather not see oil development in that special pasture near the river is told by a company representative or his lawyer that he will be getting checks for tens of thousands of dollars per month if he signs in triplicate, here, here, and here (the oil economy). Who can resist?

It's as if there are two types of currency in North Dakota today—the currency of our state's 125-year history, in which we toiled and scrimped and wound up moderately prosperous because of the quality of our character and our work ethic, and the new currency of unbelievable stacks of carbon money, funny money, that staggers the imagination and overwhelms any discussion of "higher laws."

I believe that North Dakotans value many things that cannot be monetized. If there were a precise enough way of polling the people of North Dakota, I believe that the majority would say they do not want western North Dakota to be overwhelmed by industrialization, however grateful we are for the surpluses and the full employment and rural renewal in our beloved state. Our traditional commitment to higher laws—family, neighborliness, community, volunteerism, faith, stewardship, civility, lawfulness, decency--is what has made us such a special people in such a special, improbable place. But this thing that has come upon us is so gigantic and the payoff is so huge that it is eroding things in our heritage and our character of incalculable value, in both senses of the term.

There is a value in a rolling prairie and windswept ridge, but who will be left to measure it?