CLAY JENKINSON: In Search Of America — Traveling With Each Of My Characters

UNDER TWIN PEAKS, NEAR ASPEN, Colo. — What would each of my characters think of this trip?

  • Starting with John Steinbeck: He would be amazed at how much more comfortable pickup trucks are now, with tilting steering wheels, heated seats, air conditioning, better shocks, tinted glass, etc. And how much more convenient a truck camper is. The one I stepped into the other day at Badlands National Park had a television system, a shower and toilet, all sorts of gizmos. Steinbeck would probably be disappointed that I have done so much reading and writing, because that means that I am not really searching for America, not meeting people and learning what is on their minds. But he was the inspiration for this. I did not name my rig Rocinante or anything else, but I would do so if I bought one.
  • Meriwether Lewis: Lewis would be stunned by the height and ruggedness of the Rocky Mountains. He would realize that, for all of the difficulties in transit, the Bitterroots are much easier to get over than the Rockies proper. He managed one of the best routes in America. I read in the Johnson-Boswell book that at the time of the Enlightenment, mountains were not yet regarded as romantic. In fact, they were typically seen either as an annoying barrier (say on the Grand Tour of Europe) or menacing in some way. Lewis is on the cusp, like his patron Thomas Jefferson, between the Age of Reason and the Romantic Era. But if Lewis had a sense of the sublime, he would surely have felt it at this camp, with the 13,000-plus mountain to the southwest and a tributary of the Arkansas River that is flowing with violence not 100 yards from my campsite. Of course, Lewis would have been fascinated by the internal combustion engine. They earned every mile. I drove over a pass yesterday of more than 10,000 feet. There were bicyclists worming their way up the mountain. It just looked like an ordeal to me.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Well, I am on the extreme western verge of the Louisiana Purchase. The Arkansas is not one of America’s most romantic rivers. Most people have not really heard of it. By the time it reaches western Kansas, it is unattractive. It eventually empties into the Mississippi (not the Missouri). But up here near its source, it is a lovely river. I must be right on the eastern slope of the continental divide here. Aspen’s waters (on the other side of Independence Pass) flow into the Colorado. We take the Louisiana Purchase for granted, but we shouldn’t. All hail Jefferson for the patience and persistence he showed in vindicating the American experiment and letting Napoleon suggest the purchase as a way of solving some of his own pressing problems. Jefferson could not have done what I am doing. He was too civilized. I wonder how often he bathed? We know he had severe digestive problems. That had to be a mess in an age before toilets and ready hot water. You want to have robust pipes for a journey like this.
  • Theodore Roosevelt: Probably TR would have seen a trip like this as too tame. He would have crowded the camper and truck with guns. Already there would be trophies on the roof. I’ve spent my time in national forests, all of which, I believe, were either begun or augmented by Roosevelt. I think I read yesterday that a third of continental USA is still federally owned. (This is what stirs up the Sagebrush Rebellion types, the confiscation and occupation of western lands by the hated national government. Their attitude shows almost no historical understanding whatsoever.) We know that TR set aside 230 million acres as National Forest, National Monument, National Wildlife Refuge, National Park, National Game Preserve, etc. Only Jimmy Carter is close with all the set-asides in Alaska during his administration, but by then, such enlightenment was not the work of one gifted leader. My reading and writing would not have upset TR. He wrote everywhere he went. In South America, he wrote under mosquito netting, with fat pencils, on carbon paper. Same in Africa. You don’t write 40 books without writing all the time. He must have been a much faster reader than I am, and a more disciplined writer. There would be people who would argue that I am squandering my trip by spending so much time reading and writing, but I don’t mind. There is nothing I like more than reading great books. If I were really traveling in the footsteps of Roosevelt, I would be out near Eagle. I’d like to find the place where my favorite TR photograph was taken, of him sitting in a doorway with a dog on his lap reading.
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer: Oppenheimer liked desert places more than mountains of this sort. Some of the atomic experiments occurred in southwestern Colorado, but I don’t think he had much to do with them. Atomic bombs were used in the early 1950s to frack shale in Colorado and several other places. It didn’t work out, but attempts to find peaceful uses for atomic energy were prolific during that period. New Mexico is Oppenheimer land. He was such a patrician that I doubt he could have enjoyed a journey of this sort. He would have wanted to bring along fine malt whiskey. Maybe a caterer. His brother, Frank, had a ranch somewhere here in Colorado after his fall from grace. Frank was a card-carrying Communist. When that fact became known, he was fired instantly from the University of Minnesota. He may not have been as gifted as his brother, but he was a gifted physicist. He regrouped, bought a ranch in Colorado and settled down to that life. I don’t know for how long.
  • And, of course, John Wesley Powell: He was a son of the middle border. He first came to Colorado (to the Pike’s Peak region) in 1867. In 1868, he explored Middle Park at Grand Lake and Granby, trying to figure out the hydrology of the headwaters of the Colorado River. And in 1869, he floated the Green and the Colorado. Back then, the upper Colorado was known as the Grand River (Grand Lake). The “Colorado” did not start until the confluence at what is now Canyonlands National Park. I believe the state of Colorado by legislative act declared that the upper Colorado was “the” Colorado, and so it is now. I thrilled to see the beginnings of the Colorado near the southeastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. I have a deep love of sources and of rives. Now I am camping near the headwaters of the Arkansas River. Powell’s “country” was really west of Colorado: Utah, Arizona, Wyoming. He liked the Plateau Province. For whole swaths of Darrah’s biography, one forgets that Powell had only one arm. When he says he never let it get in the way of his life, he meant it. Only when he retired from the U.S. Geologic Survey did he have a third and final operation to ease the pain in the stump. The arm had been amputated below the elbow. The surgeon at Johns Hopkins drew out several nerves to the extent of 6 inches, and Powell had no further pain thereafter. But it was already pretty late in his life. Geology has never been a subject I could warm to. You spend so much time looking at that impossible chart. I can see a few things: slumping, lifting, volcanism, the incising of rivers like the Colorado, but much of formal geology merely mystifies me. To think that all of our USGS maps are the work of Powell, who devised the cartographical conventions in the early 1880s. A man without greed or avarice.

The sun has just appeared. Perhaps it will warm up some. I’m going to take care of a few camp tasks. I think I will stay here again today, so that I can finish the Darrah biography, write some about Meriwether Lewis and proof my articles for the TR the Naturalist book that I am co-editing with Char Miller.

Plus, I need to charge this computer up.

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