This summer, I have had the joy of leading two cultural tours — two weeks on a cruise ship in the eastern Mediterranean, and now 10 days on the Lewis and Clark trail in Montana and Idaho. Talk about contrasts!
From Cairo, which the U.N. regards as the densest urban population in the world with 70,000 people per square mile (that’s all of North Dakota’s population in a single township, with oodles of room to spare), to the White Cliffs region of the Missouri River in Montana, east of Fort Benton, where there are far fewer than two people per square mile.
When I travel abroad, the thing I miss most is the sheer vastness of America, particularly the American West. Far away, in coffeehouses in London or taverns in Greece, sometimes I close my eyes and daydream America: not our amenities (burgers, coffee, pizzas, hotels, who cares?) but wandering through empty country west of the Mississippi River with no particular deadline.
There are lots of open places all over the world (deserts, savannahs, pampas, steppes, plains), but so far as I know there is only one landscape where it is easy and comparatively inexpensive to hop in a car and wander in dusty, windswept, endless aimlessness.
Here’s the formula that makes the American experience magical and unique: Prosperity plus our incredible mobility plus comparatively cheap gas plus the vast and still lightly settled outback plus our unique national mythology in which freedom and space are inextricably interwoven.
As Stephen Ambrose liked to say, “Nothing like it in the world!”
As I write this, in a historic hotel in Fort Benton, Mont., we have come off three perfect days on the Missouri River, floating and gazing and hiking and talking about nearly every aspect of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. By now, I’ve said just about everything I know about Lewis and Clark, and I’ve started making stuff up.
Our group consists of 31 Lewis and Clark and/or Jefferson lovers from around the United States. When there is time, we’re also discussing German Prince Maximilian’s ethnographic journey through this same country in 1832-33.
Yesterday morning, we floated past the exact spot where Maximilian’s colleague, the Swiss watercolorist Karl Bodmer, painted what one historian has called “the most spectacular vista of the voyage.” It’s the image of the Stone Gates, off in the distance upriver, with a romantic castellated white bluff in the right foreground and a brown columnar monolith called La Barge on the left bank in the middle distance. (You can Google it). I turned just enough in my canoe to take a handful of photographs without tipping over.
It was thrilling, beyond thrilling, to have gazed at that painting a hundred times over the years, to have written about it, and now to have camped literally IN the painting. And then, the morning after, to have turned around as we drifted down the Missouri River in canoes and to have seen precisely what Bodmer saw 177 years ago. The landscape is essentially unchanged. Think of that. That’s one reason they call Montana the last best place.
Later in the day, about 10 of us cinched up our lifejackets and jumped into the river to drift down the last two miles to our evening camp. Buoyed by the lifejackets, we swam out to the middle of the river so we could just surrender to the powerful current of the mighty Missouri. We bobbed like corks among the White Cliffs, laughing.
That night in camp, we settled into our tents, cleaned up just a little, drank a little wine and ate some hors d’oeuvres, took a short hike, had some group talk about Lewis and Clark, ate a splendid dinner—salad, beef tenderloin, Dutch oven potatoes, zucchini and, for dessert, cobbler, then sat in a circle around a fire pit listening to two young river men of the outfitter crew, Mike and Pete, as they plunked a banjo and a “gee-tar” and sang western folk songs, some of their own creation.
It was one of those rare magical nights in the heart of the American West. Everyone was tired and well-fed, glad to be on this journey of discovery in Lewis and Clark country, and relaxed in a way that is virtually impossible back in what Huck Finn called “sivilization.” Part of our satisfaction was that we had in some small way earned it: paddled our way in pairs to our evening encampment, rather than be delivered there by way of an internal combustion engine. We all felt renewed as well as a little sore in the back and shoulders. We felt more self reliant, a little bit more in control of our lives for a change, as well as sunburned above our knees. We felt (perhaps a little smugly) that we were in a place you have to work at to get to, and that it meant more to us because we had worked at it rather than just shown up. Nobody wanted to move from those camp chairs. We wanted to linger forever in our state of physical fatigue but not exhaustion, all senses on alert in that slightly numb zone that comes from a day out in the sun and water. Coyotes called into the night.
And then, no surprise, but utterly stunning nevertheless, the full moon brimmed up over the eastern ridgeline. The moonrise over the Missouri was as magnificent as any I have ever witnessed.
In fact, we all stood up more or less in unison to walk to the clearing in the cottonwoods to gaze and gape. Even banjo boy and guitar man abandoned their song in mid-strum to come notice the moon.
Half an hour later, the moon cast eerily perfect moonshine over the cliffs, the river and the long thin line of cottonwoods that line the river on the north bank on this stretch of the river. It felt like being in an X-ray.
Half a dozen of us tried to take photographs of the scene before us. We knew no photograph could ever capture that moment. And though we lamented that fact, we knew too, that this made the moment a perfect embodiment of what we sought when we set out on this journey.