The weather last weekend was so lovely — 60 degrees and light wind in early March — that I forced myself away from several projects and went in search of the open air. I’ve been walking the city trail in my neighborhood, but that seemed too wimpy for a day of such perfect spring weather. So I grabbed a camera and a bar of chocolate and drove up N.D. 1804 on the west side of the Missouri River.
I like the west river road (1804) better than the eastern version (1806) because it is mostly unpaved, it goes through rougher terrain, and it feels more like western North Dakota. The great John Steinbeck, crossing the Missouri River on Oct. 12, 1960, said, “Here is the boundary between east and west. On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side it is pure west, with brown grass and water scorings and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart.”
That’s precisely how N.D. 1804 feels after you pass through the last of the settlements north of Mandan.
I drove to Cross Ranch State Park, where a grand old stand of cottonwood trees is magnificent even in the winter. The walking trails are excellent. I like to gaze at the Art Link cabin in silent reverence to one of the great men of North Dakota history. The mighty Missouri eases right in to the edge of the giant cottonwoods.
Last Sunday was one of those gray spring days at the end of the winter just before the lifeforce begins to poke new life through the dead leaves, and to extrude fragile pale green feeder leaves through the seemingly dead twigs of the massive cottonwoods. The ground cover was drab and brittle — on the color spectrum from charcoal to an anemic-looking yellow. The sky was mostly gray-black. A front was moving through from west to southeast — low menacing lenticular clouds that appeared to be only a few feet above the canopy of the trees. I could see the western edge of the front as if it had been cut with a bread knife, and the sky beyond it was blue with the purity of a biblical painting. The river was wide, sullen, silent, making a big sweep past Cross Ranch.
I wondered for a few minutes whether it would be possible to walk across the river. It was still covered with ice. I could not see any open water. Lewis and Clark’s men used to walk across the river routinely during their five-month stay with the Mandan. Fort Mandan was on the eastern side of the river. The principal Mandan village Mitutanka was just over on the west side of the river, less than 4 miles away. The captains and the enlisted men ventured over to Mitutanka for off-duty entertainment. It’s common to assume that what the men wanted was sex with native women — and surely some of that occurred — but my sense from the journals is they just wanted some social variety, a meal other than the now-standard roast buffalo of their military diet, a glimpse of domesticity in an earth lodge, a few hours in a community that was rooted here for the duration, not merely passing through on a heroic mission. I think many of the men were lonely for back home in Ken-tuck and Pennsylvania and they sought comfort in the stable family life of their Mandan hosts.
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I did not walk across the river. Glug glug.
By this time in 1805, Lewis was ready to get back on the road. He was a naturally impulsive, impatient, self-punishing man with a deep fixation on mission. The expedition was supposed to have reached the Rocky Mountains in the first year of travel. The Corps of Discovery stopped for the winter in North Dakota for one simple reason. The Missouri River froze. In the journals, I can feel Lewis’ impatience and urgency.
As I stood on the edge of the river looking as far in both directions as I could, I realized that, if you plopped Capt. Lewis back down next to me in the spring of 2015, he would recognize the landscape as essentially unchanged. That’s one of the greatest things about North Dakota. Far off to the north I could just see the water tower of Washburn and a few yard lights. To the south, nothing but primeval Missouri River country all the way to the vanishing point. Across the river, a few sad-looking wooden buildings not much larger than shacks.
Had Lewis been there with me, he would have wondered where all the 4,500 Mandan and Hidatsa folks had gone (and might presume the worst, given the evidences of smallpox he saw in 1804-06). He would have noticed that the river is wider, clearer and more channelized than when he slipped through. But the honking of the geese would have brought back waves of memories of his long winter at the Great Bend of the Missouri. The marvelous muted shades of tan and drab and ice blue and sky blue would have been just what he remembered. And the great silence of the north.
He’d be fretting that he had promised President Jefferson a significant report — and such scattered notes as he had in his possession were not going to make that possible.
(Clay Jenkinson, the author of nine books, is a North Dakota native who lives in Bismarck. Contact him at Jeffysage@aol.com.)