So here comes my favorite week of the year. It’s the 18th time I head to Montana and Idaho for the Lewis and Clark Cultural Tour through the White Cliffs of the Missouri River east of Fort Benton and up on the Lolo Trail west of Missoula.
I made a list Monday of the number of times on the nine-day journey that you are assuredly, without doubt, are actually in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. We sleep in four authenticated campsites where they were 215 years ago, hike heroically up the Wendover Trail, eight miles straight up, precisely as they did it in September 1805, though we carry only Camelbacks and electrolytes while the outfitter and the internal combustion engine go by another path doing the heavy lifting. We visit at least half a dozen places on the Lolo Trail — the Sinque Hole, Lonesome Cove, the Smoking Place, Spirit Revival Ridge — that correspond precisely to descriptions in the journals.
No other Lewis and Clark trip puts you there in this way. My close friend, Chad Jones (aka the Tree Dork), says only perhaps 1,500 people have ever been stupid enough to attempt the Wendover Death March (and then he looks at me and says, and a few truly demented people have done it more than once). But if you want to get into Lewis and Clark’s footsteps, Chad says, this is precisely how you do it.
But that is in some ways the least of it. I’m happy to talk Lewis and Clark until the cows come home, as they say. I’d talk about the expedition forever. After 30 years of thinking about the mercurial genius Meriwether Lewis, I still don’t know why he put a gun to his head Oct. 11, 1809, at a squalid Airbnb 72 miles from Nashville, Tenn., on the Natchez Trace, at the age of 35. Until I can make sense of that I’m not going to stop puzzling over the journals, which — astoundingly — have never really been read closely in their entirety as literary texts as well as a historical narrative. I talk about the expedition on this annual cultural tour until I see their eyes glaze over, until someone tries to put himself on a gin drip.
But mostly, we just drink in the American outback. To be out there on a late July day, under the pines, beer or wine in hand and the smell of steak or salmon on the grill, sitting in fabric lawn chairs in nearly inaccessible mountains, replacing uptightness with relaxation and replacing shallow breathing with a deep return to our bodies after months of treating them like head delivery systems, watching the first stars blink on and feeling the cool of the evening sashay through the campsite — that is more or less paradise on Earth.
Chad does comic shtick with his Chevy Chase arrow-through-the-head routine, picking up Milk Duds — which he calls indeterminate wilderness scat — and plucking them into his mouth; or his famous crayon-painted paper bag mask, which he calls Sack-a Ja-wea, until I banish him to his tent for the sake of accurate history and tell him, as he slinks away, like Steve Martin’s Freddy in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” that we all hope he passes his G.E.D. exam this time.
And then there is the river. The Missouri is a manageable and hospitable river through the White Cliffs. It’s 85 degrees and 10 percent humidity (if that) on a July afternoon, and you’re in a canoe drifting down what Meriwether Lewis called “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri.” When you get to camp somewhere around 4 p.m. hors d’oeuvres will be waiting, and bracingly cold beer. Your tent has been set up, with a personalized ID label, and they are already chopping up vegetables for dinner. A wood nymph named Heather darts through camp carrying more weight than you could after a year in a gym, and you think, I would give anything to be that healthy if it didn’t require any human effort.
Drifting down the river in the afternoon, gazing up at the blue blue sky, slipping past golden eagles as if they were sparrows or wrens, examining the famous White Cliffs that Lewis said had the feeling of “scenes of visionary enchantment,” and at times just pulling the paddles into the canoe to feel the gentle but inexorable tug of the continent, this too is paradise on Earth.
It’s not a frightening river. Were there no current, you could walk across it in most places. The water temperature is perfect. Except at dawn you could stay in the river for hours without getting chilled.
At some point in those afternoons you forget about your civilizational woes — health insurance, tuition payments, handling your aging parents’ needs, the current political madness of America — and for a few minutes or perhaps an hour you drift into a magic state called Presence or Pure Being. You just are.
Your mind and heart are clear. You are in one of the most beautiful places in North America. All your needs are being met and, as Jefferson says in southern France, it is amazing how few and simple our real needs are. You are no longer an ego or even an identity. You may not be one with the river, the cliffs, the eagles, the sky and the cosmos, but you are as close as you are going to get to nirvana without yoga and drugs. When this happens I think, “Thank God I’m an American. I so love this country.
Whatever else is wrong with it (the beat goes on and on and on and on), we have places like this that have been set aside by an enlightened national government so that generations of Americans can have this experience without jet skis and burrito food trucks and obnoxious people with fireworks.”
It is as close to Huck Finn as you are ever going to get, and you are not escaping from anyone or anything, and there are no moral dilemmas except that you left your lip balm at the last camp.
Our lives have many goals. One of them is to be present with a capital P. As you know it is almost impossible to be present for very long or ever for that matter. We need to take it where we get it, and if you cannot get it on day two of the Lewis and Clark canoe trip, you cannot probably get it anywhere. It is so deeply satisfying to Just Be.
Walt Whitman wrote, “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”
For a few hours every July, that’s what my life becomes.
I make the same two resolutions after every summer Lewis and Clark Cultural Tour. First, note to self: Nothing in the world could ever make me hike up the Wendover Death March again. Two, I am going to do this trip, including the WDM, every year until I collapse on the trail and they give me burial at sea, somewhere near Cathedral Rock on the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri.
I will report back in two weeks. Chad tends to jump me in camp like Kato in the “Pink Panther” movies. My jujitsu moves are not as sharp as they once were. Wish me luck.