The river was a mirror of glass—like a silvery puddle of mercury, spilling me forever forward into the wilderness. Odd-shaped cliffs of sparkling white stone framed either side of the channel, with bulging towers and blobs that looked like some child’s dribbled sandcastle.
We were utterly alone in the world—just me and Bob, a retired high school teacher and my canoe companion for the day. Bob knows every little plant and animal and rock and bit of history for every inch of the Missouri, but when I stopped my cascade of questions, he fell silent, too. Now was a time for quiet, and Bob simply steered us with the current, silently moving us through the silent world of Central Montana.
A bald eagle watched from the branch of one tree, another floated on the morning air, watching the clear water. Giant carp thrashed up into the air and then disappeared back into the river with a white splash. From the bank, a mule deer blinked his big black eyes at me, with almond ears that pointed out.
I dipped my paddle into the stream but barely pushed—the current was there to prod us along. We glided forward, a tiny toothpick floating in the vastness of Earth, and I began to feel what I have felt time and again in Montana—that we were the only humans in this universe.
“I felt a secret pleasure in finding myself so near the head of the heretofore conceived boundless Missouri.” That is how Meriwether Lewis described the emotion of discovery—a secret joy, one that was hard to share with the world at large. He penned that line on the very banks that I was floating past now, an American explorer laying eyes on America for the very first time.
“This morning we set forward at an early hours, the weather dark and cloudy—had a few drops of rain.” Lewis wrote that as well, and though I’m sure he scribbled the line without too much thought, his words still served perfectly well, now, more than two centuries later. Bob and I had set off early, the weather had been dark and cloudy, but lightened up, and occasionally, minute drops of rain had flecked down on our faces, only to disappear.
Now the weather was moody but still, and the river shone silver beneath a brooding sky.
“A most romantic appearance,” is what Lewis said, over and over, in describing the lofty cliffs that rose up from either side of the Missouri River, “formed of remarkable white sandstone . . . made to represent elegant ranges.” Out here, in the quiet nothing of nature, his imagination ran wild. He writes of seeing “lofty freestone buildings” and “parapets and statuary” or “columns of various sculpture” and “galleries—ruins of pedestals and capitals’; even “vast pyramids”. In the sandstone geology of Montana wilderness, Meriwether Lewis imagined the greatest architecture of human civilization: Greek, Roman, Egyptian.
And now, here I was, paddling the same 15-mile stretch of Missouri River that Lewis had described so aptly in his pages. Instead of a giant hollowed-out log, I paddled in a Kevlar canoe, and instead of a buffalo carcass, we had dry bags with deli sandwiches and satellite phones—but otherwise, this place remained unchanged.
And what I mean is that we paddled for one entire day down the Missouri River and for that day, I observed not a single sign of human civilization: no boats, no roads, no cars, no planes, no cities—not even a telephone wire. For one entire day of travel, I only saw nature, from a distance—or in one case, up close.
“On my return to camp I trod within five inches of a rattlesnake . . . . fortunately escaped his bite.” Lewis wrote that in his journal as well, on this very same stretch of the Missouri, at Eagle Creek—now a BLM campsite near the town of Virgelle. Likewise, as I walked ashore at Eagle Creek, I also trod within a few inches of a prairie rattlesnake and fortunately escaped his bite, as the snake slithered into the grass and then coiled up nicely for a picture.
Overall, nothing has changed in this part of the world, and somehow, I am surprised by this. I do not know any other place in the United States of America that has remained unchanged since its first recorded description—
—except here; the “curious scenery” that Lewis described, the towering white-grey Virgelle sandstone, and this slithering Missouri—the very shape of the river resembling a shy rattlesnake, curving back and forth into the farthest north of the lower 48.
This is true wilderness, and much of it can only be accessed by canoe. For one full day I felt the same secret pleasure as Meriwether Lewis, wishing that I could continue on for weeks and months, floating down the “boundless Missouri”.
Instead, I continued across the boundless state of Montana, enraptured by its gargantuan size and the promise of discovery—even now.