Friday, August 23, 2013

Lewis & Clark

My friend Rachel is the smartest person I know, and she's humble enough that she would likely be surprised to hear me say that. Homeschooled in what sounds to be a close-knit, fun-loving family, Rachel went on to get degrees from Harvard and Stanford, including a doctorate. BJ knew her husband Ed in high school, and we have both discussed that Ed is ridiculously smart...but Rachel seems to be even smarter. Have you ever had a friend who is so lovely and yet teaches you (unknowingly) every time the two of you converse? As down-to-earth as she is, keeping up with her everyday dialogue requires a dictionary! BJ and I always loved spending time with Ed and Rachel, and we miss them as they have returned to their west coast stomping grounds.

A few years ago Rachel told us all about a book that she had just read and loved entitled Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. The book is written by Stephen Ambrose, who also wrote Band of Brothers, and is the riveting account of the Lewis and Clark expedition of the early 1800's through the previously-uncharted Louisiana Purchase. I'm smart enough to sometimes listen to smart people, so I put the book on my Goodreads “To-Read” list and considered the idea of tackling the hefty volume when the inspiration struck.

Well, the inspiration began striking last August when my parents, BJ, the boys, and I drove to Estes Park, Colorado, for a week of hiking the mountains and breathing in the fresh air. Even though I've seen the Rocky Mountains several times, their majesty is indescribable, as most people would agree. The beautiful Appalachians, the other large mountain chain that runs through our country and which I have also seen several times, do not even begin to come close to the American, and especially the Canadian, Rockies. As we drove into Denver from the east and the mountains first came into view, BJ, Silas, and I all began exclaiming our joy at the sight of those magnificent formations. During the week of exploring and vacationing that ensued, my mind went many times to Lewis and Clark as I wondered what in the world they must have been thinking when they first glimpsed those mountains and knew that they had to cross them on a wilderness expedition. I wondered, did they even know those mountains were coming? Did members of their expedition die? What were their relations with Native Americans like? What route did they actually take? I thought of Rachel's suggestion many times and finally checked Undaunted Courage­ out of the library to begin seeking the answers to these questions.

(The answers, in case you're interested, is: 1. Yes, they knew the mountains were coming but had no idea of the scope and grandeur until they laid eyes upon them, which is the case for all of us. Along the way, Native Americans could pass on information about what could be expected in the next hundred or so miles, but no single explorer had been known to tackle it all at once and provide a description and map of it. 2. One member of the expedition did die in Iowa from what is now believed to be a ruptured appendix; he could not have been saved at the time even if he lived in Washington among a strong medical community because they had no idea what a ruptured appendix was or how to remove it. Otherwise, Lewis and Clark retained the lives of all of their men and Sacagawea to the Pacific and back. 3. Relations with the Native Americans ranged wildly from extremely friendly to violent; bloodshed occurred on one occasion with the deaths of two Blackfeet Natives. Sadly, even when relations with the Native Americans were friendly and mutually beneficial, Lewis always considered them to be secondary in status to himself and other white people, and he always viewed them as people to be “coerced.” In all of his writings, Lewis never once acknowledged that he was always at the mercy of Native Americans and he never gave them the credit that they deserved for the knowledge that they imparted to him and the generosity and honesty that they showed his crew, which many of the tribes could have easily overtaken if they had had a mind to. 4. The actual Lewis and Clark expedition went north through Wyoming and Montana, never venturing close to Colorado. I am of the mind that they sure did make it hard on themselves by wintering in North Dakota and Washington state, but of course I love my Southern heat.)

I read as much as I could of the book before it was due back to the library in three weeks; sadly, it could not be renewed because there was a hold placed on it by someone else. A couple of weeks ago BJ purchased the book on his Kindle and I quickly finished the remainder of the hefty volume in the evenings after we had the kids in bed. I simply didn't want a night to go by without immersing myself in the adventure of the journey, the interactions of the people, and the descriptions of what was seen in my country in years long ago. The devaluation of Native Americans, African Americans (who were still owned as slaves at the time), and women was of course disheartening to read, but obviously the more we know the more we can learn from our ancestors' mistakes. My apprehension was through the roof when the crew hit plunging waterfalls, wary tribes, and grizzly bears that refused to die, as was my sense of accomplishment at times when something went really well, as though I had anything to do with it at all. The last 50 or so pages cover the life of Lewis after the expedition, which was a total bummer for which I was unprepared; again, though, it is an account of history as it happened, so I finished the book as Lewis physically and emotionally fell apart in the years immediately after the voyage was complete.

I'm here to say that Rachel was right: the book is very much worth a read and is told from an unflinchingly honest perspective by Ambrose. The author clearly cherishes the accomplishments of Lewis and Clark (while questioning their judgment at times), and this is evidenced by his introduction in which he shares that his family navigates and camps along some portion of the expedition each year, and I'm talking kids and grandkids too. I smile as I think of how his passion about the subject has ignited not only his family's interest but also mine as well. I know that BJ and I have talked with excitement for years about taking our kids on backpacking trips and Boundary Waters canoe adventures! More on this to come...

1 comment:

  1. Jenny, what incredibly kind words! I really don't think I deserve them, but I am so happy you read and enjoyed _Undaunted Courage_. (And, being a native Coloradan, I'm especially pleased that your trip to Colorado was the impetus for starting the book!)

    I laughed when you described the last 50 pages of the book as a total bummer, because that is *exactly* how I felt about them. Such a depressing end to such a glorious adventure story.