Meriwether Lewis would never have won the spelling bee.
Reading from the American explorer’s journal on the plane made me feel a little better about some of the typo-rich copy I am guilty of punching out (on occasion). In recounting the tale of what is perhaps one of the greatest overland expeditions ever undertaken by man, Captain Lewis managed to spell “Sioux” 27 different ways—a remarkable feat for a one-syllable word.
And yet, despite the misspellings in the text, both Lewis and Clark were marvelous storytellers who detailed every mile of their journey across America with such intricate descriptions that now, more than 200 years after they rowed up the Missouri River and into the great wilderness of Montana, their first impressions ring true.
In the days before photography, words just mattered more. For Captain Meriwether Lewis, the “great falls” of the Missouri were “an even sheet of water falling . . at least eighty feet,” that broke “into perfect white”, “flying up in jets of sparkling foam” with impetuous current and beautiful rainbows that added “not a little to the beauty of this majestically grand scenery.”
“A sublimely grand object,” Lewis called this cascade, although yesterday, driving along the south bank of the Missouri River, I found the sleek hydroelectric dams a bit grander and the shiny metal power plants a bit more sublime than the sparsely falling water for which they are named.
Sadly, the once-great falls of Great Falls are no longer the greatest thing in Great Falls—not nearly as great as the stucco and trapezoidal complex of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, perched atop the Missouri with convenient overlooks over the span of river which caused the explorers to portage some 18 miles upstream.
One of the more arduous moments in the Lewis and Clark journey, the portage around Great Falls is memorialized at the Center with a life-size, triple-story diorama showing how in 1805, members of the Corps of Discovery wheeled and pushed their hefty canoes and luggage uphill and around Great Falls.
I was shown the impressive exhibit by a kindly white-haired woman with a brass name tag (Phyllis), who must spend her long hours of northern summer smiling and answering endless questions for the hordes of Lewis and Clark groupies, of which I am one.
I am always inspired by the accounts of early travelers—and in this post-modern era, most of our travels boil down to the imagined impersonations of famous travel accounts from the past. Even President Thomas Jefferson, who commissioned the Lewis & Clark Expedition, was inspired to do so by reading the accounts of Captain Cook and Alexander Mackenzie. In 1803, he installed the Corps of Discovery within the United States Army—a special division dedicated solely to exploring America’s undefined west.
The Corps of Discovery was the only branch of the military for which I might have ever had any interest, or been any use. In handpicking the team to accompany Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson demanded each member be “brave, unmarried, and healthy.”
Alas, one out of three means I probably would have been cut from the team, but I still love to compare their past adventures while traveling presently in Montana. For instance, the Corps of Discovery were issued with two hats and nine pair of socks, while I have only brought one bad-hair-day baseball cap and 5 pairs of socks. Furthermore, in just half a day, I flew from Washington, DC to Chicago to Denver to Great Falls, leapfrogging my way along the Lewis & Clark trail, covering in half a day what took the Corps of Discovery almost two years to travel.
As I considered the museum display of the Great Portage, I made the discovery that one of the mannequins was quite naked—indeed pantsless, and so I felt that maybe I needed to go and inform my new friend Phyllis that all was not OK among the rank and file of the Corps of Discovery.
Only upon reaching the upper floor did I look back and realize that the nudist mannequin was wearing a breechcloth—like so many of the Indians that the Corps of Discovery encountered along the way, and so I did not mention this to Phyllis.
Instead, I watched her explain a map of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
“They put a lot of time into Montana—trying to figure it out,” she said, waving her hand in circles around the very large expanse that is today’s Montana. Back then, it was just frontier and wilderness, then it became Louisiana, and then Nebraska, Dakota, and Idaho territories before finally—it was named Montana.
Trying to figure out Montana is exactly what I am trying to do now. Six months ago I traveled here in winter and explore the west side of the Rockies. Now, in summer, I have returned to the east side, where the “rolling country” and “beautiful and level plain of great extent” that Lewis described, meets the purple wall of the Rocky Mountains that even now, guide me like a compass.
“Have all your questions been answered?” asked Phyllis, still smiling, ready to take on any inquiry into the vast topics of Lewis and Clark and American history.
“What is the meaning of life?” I asked her, surprising myself with a hint of sarcasm.
Phyllis paused and then pursed her lipsticked lips for a moment, before shooting back at me, “The meaning of life is to enjoy the journey.”
And then I wondered, if Lewis and Clark and the half-naked Corps of Discovery, whilst shoving their cumbersome boats on hand-carved wheels up into the foothills of the Rockies—nourished by earthy roots and wild plums and porcupine stew—ever turned to one another and wiped their brow and said, “The meaning of life is to enjoy the journey.”
But in spite of all their hardships, they did enjoy their journey. I can tell when I read their journals how fascinated they were by every new thing they encountered and the indescribable beauty of Montana and the unforgettable adventures they lived.
We travel for the very same reasons today—to live, to learn, to explore—and most of all, to enjoy. That is the core of discovery, and that is why I have returned this summer . . . to Montana.