Lewis & Clark slept here, sort of
Editor’s note: Vail resident Polly Letofsky has been on the road since she left town Aug. 1, 1999, on her mission to become the first woman to walk around the world and promote awareness of breast cancer. From Vail she first walked to the West Coast, then crossed to the two islands of New Zealand, up the eastern coast of Australia and on to Malaysia and Southeast Asia, India, Turkey, Greece, Great Britain and Ireland. She’s now back in the United States, having arrived in New York City and crossed New York State to the Canadian Border at Niagara Falls and made her way to her home state of Minnesota. She’s still catching up on some of her journals from the summer. She is expected to reach Vail at the end of July. You can follow along with Polly’s journey on her Web site, http://www.globalwalk.org.
ARROW ROCK, Mo. – President Thomas Jefferson says to his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, “Listen, Mer, Napoleon just sold me the Louisiana Territory and that gives us land half way across the West. We really need to explore the resources, the native peoples and find that elusive Northwest Passage. We need to preserve plant samples, animal skins, chart rivers and mountains and set up a trade route to the Pacific. I’ll give you $2,500 for expenses. You up for it?”
So Lewis writes his old army buddy, William Clark, quite a frontiersman in his own right, and asks him to co-captain the journey. Together they form a team of 33, name the group the Corps of Discovery and set out from St. Louis following the Missouri River in search of a water route to the Pacific.
What ensued was a four-year, nearly 8,000-mile journey in which they gathered vital new knowledge of the vast new West. Only one crew member died and one was born – Sacagawea’s son. The journey was an immeasurable success and was the start of the American West.
What’s really amazing is the camaraderie on the Corps of Discovery – it’s a rare example of a team conducting a dangerous enterprise so successfully. Despite the ongoing stress, hardships and other conditions that could easily breed jealousy, mistrust, contempt, etc., there doesn’t seem to have been a single trace of a serious quarrel or dispute between Lewis and Clark.
Their relationship ranks right up there in the realm of notable human associations.
This being the bicentennial year of the Lewis and Clark expedition, I figured what better path to follow through Missouri. The Corps of Discovery came up the river – which is tough to walk on.
But lucky for me, back in 1978 Congress established the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail providing a water trail and a motor route. So I’m actually following the official motor route – or Highway 24 as it’s now known to bikers, drivers and global walkers.
Along the trail there are got interpretive signs, exhibits, museums and living history displays. This bicentennial year there are celebrations and re-enactments all along the 3,800-mile route from St. Louis to Oregon, but they don’t start until May 14, the exact date that the Corps of Discovery left St. Louis 200 years ago.
From Boonville I turned northwest, hugging the Missouri River and bonding in my little insignificant way to my heroes.
I plodded along the Missouri River through the historic towns of Arrow Rock, Marshall, Lexington, Waverly, Dover and Buckner. When I look out at the banks of the Missouri I picture Lewis and Clark and their team of 33 hunting for their food every night and sleeping under the stars with the gnats, the cold, the snakes and overnight storms turning to floods. I
promised myself no more whining about dogs, truck stop food and potholes in the road.
All along the route I thought what it must’ve been like along this same route 200 years ago and how different our journeys are. I picnic along a mowed park with my fresh McDonald’s salad. Then I pull out my Gatorade to replenish my electrolytes and have Second Skin for a nagging blister.
I stay at the Super 8 or the Lexington Inn complete with a hot shower after walking, fresh eggs in the morning and up-to-the-instant international news at night.
Like the crew on the Corps of Discovery, every night I write in my journal and keep my mileage records. One of the things I find truly remarkable about their journey is that while scouting and mapping uncharted rivers and mountains for four years, at the end of their 7,689-mile journey, Lewis was only 30-miles off in his mileage.
I think of my own record keeping – with the aid of mileposts, maps and the occasional odometer – and I wouldn’t doubt if I’m off by a hundred miles.
Let me say again, these are truly remarkable people.
But not a one of them could spell. Looking through their journals, which nearly all of the crewman kept, none of them could spell worth a bean. Clark, himself, spelled the name of the Sioux Indians 27 different ways.
I took that as promising news because, see, I can’t punctuate. I’ve got dashes, apostrophes and semi-colons busting out all over my dangling participles. Now I can tell Dad not to worry, I’m in good company — bad grammar is actually a sign of true trailblazer.
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