“This day I completed my thirty first year. … I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation.”
Those words could have been written by any underachieving young man who, in the midst of what should be his prime, still yearned to make his mark. That they were written by Meriwether Lewis on a birthday celebrated during the Corps of Discovery’s epic expedition westward should be enough to give pause to anyone who hasn’t cured cancer or devised a viable college football playoff format.
The voyage of cocaptains Lewis and William Clark and their crew was a two-year, 8,000-mile odyssey to explore the land then newly acquired from Napoleon’s France and chart, if possible, a passage to the Pacific Ocean. It was also, in many ways, the true birth of our nation.
The banishment of Native Americans, the extermination of indigenous wildlife and the vampiric draining of natural resources that followed in the wake of Lewis and Clark revealed our still burgeoning consumptive selfishness. But Lewis and Clark and company also represented America at its best. They embodied the traits we like to collectively assign ourselves even when we don’t deserve them: tolerant, self-reliant, dedicated, compassionate.
That we can still mostly retrace the Corps of Discovery’s monumental journey, and that portions of it remain at least an approximation of the untamed wilderness they witnessed, is a genuine gift.
Today, the once-abundant bears, bison and wolves are largely confined within the boundaries of national parks while the hooved locusts that are sheep and cattle roam free. But there are long stretches of river where the fences, power lines and roads vanish; where the livestock are temporarily replaced by deer and antelope (this is where they play, after all—or at least where they used to).
Drifting through these swaths of open country, it is easier to picture the labors of the Corps of Discovery, paddling, poling and pulling against the current into the unknown; easier to visualize their awe and apprehension; easier to imagine a West that was a little more wild.
In the introduction to his great book on the Corps of Discovery’s journey, Undaunted Courage, historian Stephen E. Ambrose urges citizens to retrace at least a portion of the route that opened the West and led to the United States as we know it today: “It is your duty, your privilege, as an American.”
He encourages travelers to bring an abridged copy of the journals of Lewis and Clark to read aloud over a campfire, which often “will be at the site where Lewis or Clark wrote his account of what happened to the Corps of Discovery that day … I guarantee that if you practice you can learn to read well the run-on sentences the captains indulged themselves in, and that when you do, you will have your children or friends or parents or whoever is sitting around the campfire leaning forward just a bit, listening intently, so as not to miss a word. Like you, like me, like every American, they want to know: what happened next?”