And So Once More to the Breach

People often ask me why I love the summer Lewis & Clark trip so much. All I can say is that I look forward to it 51 weeks per year. It’s the highlight of my year, and I won’t stop leading the trip until I’m too old to crawl up the Wendover Death March on all fours. I call it the Wendover Death March, but actually it is the most satisfying hike in the American West.

If the Lewis & Clark Expedition matters, this is the trip you must take. There are no rivals. Lewis and Clark were the greatest and most interesting explorers in American history. I’m known as a Jefferson scholar, but my best book is a study of Jefferson’s protégé Meriwether Lewis, an iron man who was heroic, a brilliant journal keeper, an outstanding amateur scientist, but also high-strung, self-critical, and prone to what Jefferson called “sensible depressions of spirit.” For a week, we talk every day around the open campfires about Clark, Lewis, Sacagawea, the Nine Young Men from Kentucky, the dog Seaman, the contributions of Native Americans, the naming of the West, sense of place, and Jefferson’s vision of a rational agrarian republic. There is God’s plenty of talk, but more adventure than talk. This trip changes lives. It has certainly improved mine in every way.

Meriweather Lewis and William Clark. Portraits by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1807-1810. Public domain images from Wikimedia.

What I love most about the summer tour is that it is adventurous without being ridiculous. Nobody who has tried has ever failed to complete the Wendover Death March. Sure, I cough up a lung at about mile four, and during the first hour I curse not only Chad the Tree Dork but also the day I was born. Still, I know I am going to make it to the top, and—better than that—I know that when I walk into the summit camp I am going to feel like a hero, like someone who has walked the walk, not merely talked the talk.

The trip consists mostly of Jefferson Hour listeners. They come from all over the country. They often bring their wives or husbands kicking and screaming, and then in subsequent years it is those once-reluctant spouses who insist upon returning. If repeat customers are a sign of success, we must be doing something right. For half a dozen, at least, it’s same time next year.

The Lewis & Clark trail is thousands of miles long. It begins at Monticello, appropriately enough, and it ends at the mouth of the Columbia, at a place called Dismal Nitch. But without question the best part of the whole transcontinental trail lies between the confluence of the Judith and Missouri Rivers in eastern Montana, and Orofino, Idaho, on the Clearwater River on the other side of the Bitterroot Mountains. Best because it is most pristine. Best because it is the least damaged by industrial civilization. Best because on this section of the great journey you can actually stand where Lewis and Clark stood, camp where they camped, and walk precisely in their footsteps. It’s thrilling and moving and sometimes it gives you goosebumps.

For so much of my life I have been not much more than a Head Delivery System—carrying my brain and dragging my body to one zip code after another. Nothing particularly wrong with that, of course, but any time we return to our bodies and reintegrate body and soul we are likely to find happiness.

And yet every evening the tents are already pitched when we reach camp, hors d’oeuvres are waiting, the wine is uncorked and the beer is ice cold. Our outfitter serves excellent food on real plates over tablecloths. It’s like roughing it at the Four Seasons. And there are plenty of showers along the way.

On the second day of the canoe trip, when our arms are a bit tired and we are ready to get into camp and drink a glass of wine, I urge those who wish to to get out of their canoes and float the last mile or so of the day in life jackets. One of the professional guides stays behind to wrangle the canoes. The rest of us form a kind of human chain, and bob down what Lewis called “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River” like corks. It is really like heaven on earth, that last half hour. The river is powerful and strong, but at the same time gentle. I love to lie on my back and just relax—letting the tug of the current propel me slowly downstream, towards a beer and a juicy beefsteak; if we kept going, towards Bismarck and Yankton and Sioux City and Omaha and Kansas City and St. Louis, and all the way down to America’s greatest river’s destiny with the Gulf of Mexico. I know I must wade out at the camp landing, but for those few minutes every summer I feel like Huck Finn “free as the wind, enfranchised, and at large,” as the poet Wordsworth put it.

I never get tired of the trip.

Learned opinion varies about whether my travel partner Becky Cawley tries to drown me every year. Doubters doubt, but I am the one who spends every second of the canoe segment in vigilant anxiety, as Becky, my very dear friend, stops paddling to take pictures, have another drink of water, reach back for her lip balm in her backpack eight feet behind her, take off or put on an extra layer of clothing, identify cows, antelope, deer, sheep, cloud formations, or what she likes to call “eagles,” which to the untrained eye appear to be sparrows, hawks, and meadowlarks, but for Becky if it flies in Lewis & Clark country, it must be an eagle. Twice, under her watch, I have gone down to the bottom of the river, along with my books, gear, binoculars, and dignity. She swims like a fish.

Every July, before the tour, I walk into my favorite camera store in Bismarck, ND, and the lead salesman says, “Hey, good to see you, must be Lewis & Clark time again. What sort of camera would you like to buy this year?”

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said you can never walk into the same river twice. That certainly is true. The Missouri River presents a new face every year, warmer, cooler, higher, lower, more and less clear, dead calm or rippled with waves. And there is no doubt that the historian wading into the river is different every year—biologically older, of course, but sometimes purely lighthearted, other times carrying his little world on his shoulders. But always the river heals, the river cures, the white cliffs dazzle and daunt, and the weeklong experience renews me in ways that are unavailable to me in no other form. Lewis was right to call these “scenes of visionary enchantment.”

Join me if you can. We’ll pick huckleberries together, and howl like coyotes at the Moon over Montana.


Learn more about the Lewis & Clark Cultural Tour.