On this day in 1804, Lewis and Clark began their voyage west. In 1998, when we first moved down here, our local PBS station was running the Ken Burns' documentary, Undaunted Courage, based on the book by Stephen Ambrose. I was hooked.
Longtime readers of this blog will point out that I was just the viewer PBS probably had in mind, what with my love of Laura Ingalls Wilder and my love of stories of people stranded in various landscapes who must make their way out.
I remember being fascinated by all the upsets they faced along the way, and I remember reflecting that we never learned these details in school. In my elementary school history lessons, the explorers leave, they have success, they return. I don't remember spending any time on explorers at all in high school. We zipped from one war to the next to the next.
This morning, I was fascinated again by the false starts that happened before the final trip. The Writer's Almanac post for today explains: "Jefferson wanted to send Ledyard to explore out West, and they worked out an intricate plan for him to get to the West Coast via Russia. But the trip was a disaster — Ledyard walked 1,200 miles through Scandinavia and the Artic Circle, and managed to travel through most of Russia before an angry Catherine the Great had him captured and deported, so he took off for Africa, where he soon died."
Jefferson with an unsuccessful plan? Another item we never learned in history classes. But he continued to plot and plan for the next time: it's a lesson for us all.
And how interesting that we call Ledyard's trip a disaster, when he walked 1200 miles!
Finally, Jefferson would find success with Lewis and Clark. Consider the supplies that they took: "They had a long supply list, which included 25 hatchets, 10.5 pounds of fishing hooks and fishing lines, 12 pounds of soap, three bushels of salt, 45 flannel shirts, 15 pairs of wool overalls, 176 pounds of gunpowder, 130 rolls of tobacco and 4,600 sewing needles (the tobacco and needles were gifts for Native people they would encounter), a microscope, a telescope, two sextants, 15 .54-caliber rifles, and 50 dozen Dr. Rush's patented 'Rush's Thunderclapper' pills — a laxative whose two main ingredients were mercury and jalapeños. They fit all this and much more into three boats: one was a 55-foot Keelboat, a riverboat that could be sailed, rowed, or poled; and two were pirogues, smaller flat-bottomed boats that were similar to big canoes, one painted red and one white."
I feel like there's a poem lurking in that list. Or maybe I want to think about my own habit of overpacking. I noticed that when we packed for our day trip to Key West, which might have turned into an overnight trip, we looked like we were moving in for a season.
Still, even with all those supplies, they likely would have perished without the crucial help that they received along the way from Native Americans. It is not lost on me that the help they gave led to their ultimate decimation of their tribes.
I remember the episode of Undaunted Courage that talked about the return of the expedition. Jefferson had assumed that they had died.
This morning, I am also thinking about Dr. Joyce Brothers, who died yesterday. Her column was one of my favorite aspects of my mother's Good Housekeeping magazine. I don't much of a memory of her as a TV presence; we weren't allowed to watch much TV during my childhood in the 1970's. But I loved her columns, which dealt with people's problems with a kindness and a very no-nonsense manner, like Dr. Phil, but with less yelling.
Did I see her as a feminist pioneer? Was she one of women who convinced me that I could do anything? I don't remember her that way, but study after study has shown the importance of seeing people who look like oneself in the careers that one is considering.
This morning, as I was considering the poems I've written that have been inspired by Lewis and Clark, I came across this one, written at least 10 years ago, part of my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard. It combines history and psychology in interesting ways.
Again, I sail into this landlocked sea,
a pool of despair ringed by mountains
of misery. I search for Northwest Passage,
a quicker way to chart my path
through this depressing landscape.
Lewis and Clark forged their way across
a continent. Why can’t I do the same?
Where are my native guides? Why do they hide
in the landscape, an ominous screen of hooded eyes?
Why can’t I lift my hand in a friendly
gesture, simply ask for help?
I am no fearless explorer of my emotional
terrain. Instead, a runaway slave, I feel my way
through unfamiliar territory with no map
and only a rough understanding of the language.
I keep an eye on the North Star
and inch forward under cover of darkness.
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