Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Fort Clatsop Reverie

In my own small way, I am an ambassador of travel.  It is only through travel that history jumps off the pages of a dry, boring book and smacks you in the gut.  Only through travel does history become meaningful.

Such is the case with the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Any child growing up in the United States, learns about their journey from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.  They learn about Sacagawea and the  Louisiana Purchase.  They pass the end-of-the-chapter test.  And move on.  Not giving it another thought.

But take that child canoeing down the Missouri River.  Rafting on the Snake.  Fishing on the Columbia.  Take that child to a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  Or watch a ranger firing a musket at Fort Clatsop and suddenly, the enormity of what these two men and the Corps of Discovery did, seems both impossible and truly heroic.
The above fort is a replica of the one built by the men who were part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  They wintered here from Dec. 7, 1805, until March 23, 1806.  It is located south of Astoria, Oregon.  On Monday, when we were there, the skies were gray but it was warm and the scent of cedar wafted through the air.  When they were there, it was freezing cold and wet, wet, wet.  It rained every single day but 12.  These men split the logs, dragged them through mud and hurriedly cobbled together shelter.  They were frozen to the bone and sick with colds and dysentery.

Once inside, they kept the fires going and stayed warm and dry, but boredom soon set in.  They tried to keep busy by mending clothes and making moccasins for the journey home, but Captain Lewis was worried. He writes:

Many reasons had determined us to remain at fort Clatsop till the first of April. . . .About the middle of March, however, we become seriously alarmed for the want of food:  the elk, our chief dependence, had at length deserted their usual haunts . . . We were too poor to purchase other food from the Indians, so that we were sometimes reduced, notwithstanding all the exertions of our hunters, to a single day's provision in advance,  The men too, whom the constant rains and confinement had rendered unhealthy, might we hoped be benefitted by leaving the coast, and resuming the exercise of travelling.
There is a small museum at the site which gives you a good overview of the whole expedition.  Thomas Jefferson sent these men on a mission:  To explore the Missouri River to its source and establish a direct water route to the Pacific Ocean.  They were also to keep a journal of plants, animals, and geographic points.  Make maps.  Study the Indians along the way.  The Journals of the Expedition of Lewis and Clark are, without a doubt, one of the most treasured sources of American history that we have today.
All week long I have been reading them non-stop.  These men were amazing.  Not only explorers, but botanists, cartographers, anthropologists, diplomats, traders, writers, artists.  But what we must realize, is that no one back on the east coast knew if they were dead or alive.  Night after night, they diligently wrote in these journals.  Sometimes it was Lewis  Sometimes, Clark.  Sometimes, one of the other men.  But every step of the way was duly noted.

When they left the fort, Lewis wrote out a certificate to give to the Chinnook chief.  It read, in part:

The object of this last, is, that through the medium of some civilised person, who may see the same, it may be made known to the world, that the party consisting of the persons whose names are hereunto annexed, and who were sent out by the government of the United States, to explore the interior of the continent of North America, did penetrate the same by the way of the Missouri and Columbia rivers . . .

And this is what gives me pause.  They had no idea if they would make it home alive.  They had no idea if anyone would get this certificate or read their monumental journals.  It is possible, they realized, no one would ever know what they had accomplished.
Fast forward to 2015.  If two weeks go by and I don't get a text or an e-mail from my sons, I'm close to 911 panic-mode.  We have our cell phones and computers to document every single thing we do all day long.  We have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.  We take pictures of what we eat and what we wear and make them all public, as if we're the most fascinating creatures in the world.

The humility of these men is very apparent in their journals.  They write about fur traders and a blue-eyed, red-headed Indian.  Clearly, other "white men" had been here before.  How many men had done exactly what they had done?  Crossed the Continental Divide from the unmapped prairies to the Pacific Coast.  Who were they?  What happened?  No one will ever know.

Not to mention the millions of Native Americans who treated these foreigners as guests until, they realized, their intentions were far from noble.  These foreigners were here to stay.   It didn't take long after the Lewis and Clark expedition that stagecoach trails and railroads opened the corridors to mass immigration.

 It is another reason why visiting such historic sites is so valuable.  It sends us into a state of reverie.  It humbles us.  It gives us a thirst to learn more.  And if, by posting about my day at Fort Clatsop, I make just one person download the Lewis and Clark Journals on his or her Kindle or plan a trip to the mouth of the Columbia River . . .well . . . it's far from epic, but it's good enough for me.

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