William Least Heat-Moon Interview
Say your name please.
William Least Heat Moon, William Least Heat Moon, Heat Moon Heat Moon, Heat Moon, Moon
Why are we drawn to this great story of Lewis and Clark? What's the appeal 200 hundred years later? Why do we care?
The Lewis and Clark tale has all the all the elements that one would want to put into a movie. It has the, continual threat for life; it's got the thread of Indians; it's got disease. It has daily risk where these men may go under the water. It's got the fight with the elements. It's got the el the role of the unknown continually threatening them. But I think really what happ, what really draws us to it, to the expedition, strangely enough is the journals, the, without the journals, we really wouldn't have an expedition today. It would be like all the other expeditions that went out there. But with those journals, we come in as reading a novel, almost because, because they have that kind of power. Particularly to read the the writing of Meriwhether Lewis who was such a fine stylist. To read his his words of this trip, we participate in a way that we can't participate in any other expedition into the West with perhaps the exception of Prince Maximillian who went a generation later.
Let's talk about the draw, journals later.
Well, let's face it, that that unless you're of a Native American descent or Asian descent, all the rest of us came from the East. And all of us came from the Eastern hemisphere so it's a natural thing in Americans to want to go West. I think we have built into our blood this whole urge for the westering movement so when we can participate with somebody else to to go West, to go at a time in which we we no longer can go to see the world as we think it was, or hope it was, in an earlier time. That's what Lewis and Clark can promise us, can can offer to us.
So it's a promise of the future?
It's a promise of the future I think if if if you see the ramifications of what they were, they were doing. That this was, in a sense, the opening of the West, the opening of the West for commerce. It was the opening for dominion. American dominion of this country. But I think, I really think what draws us is it's a chance to try to to try to see Eden in North America. We want to see what the country was like before we, the Anglo society, the Western society got there. This is a chance to try to see the native peoples as they were before the great onslaught as some historians have called it. Reach them, this was before smallpox. This was before so much of the despair that hit Native America happened. It's it's a chance to step into the garden.
Tell me about Lewis.
Lewis, clearly, is the most fascinating member of the expedition, the leader, but also probably the most complex. A man fraught with with serious emotional problems but also a man of of great character, great integrity, truly marvelous insightful leadership. But a man who continually was on the edge of falling off of the abyss of of good sane control, I feel, as we watch him. And we know in later life, in fact, that's that's what happened to him with his apparent suicide. Lewis, Lewis was the man, who was, it seems to read the journals, never entirely easy with with his own men and definitely not with the with the Indians that he was meeting. He got along with them, he he behaved in a courtly manner and a proper manner, a military manner but there was not that ease that that you see in Clark. We we know that there were various kinds of assignations between the men and and Indian women. You never have that sense in reading the journals that that Lewis was a participant in this. The love stories that people have concocted and I emphasize the word concocted, with Sacagawea and the other men. It's it's always Clark who is the lover, it's never Lewis. Lewis is the cool the cool one.
Tell me about Clark.
Clark the the both men of course were were military men, Lewis also, Clark was the older of the two. Clark was the the man who had the practicality always to be able to to find a solution, whatever the problem was. I have a sense that in a way, he was he was the the rod in the spine of of Lewis. I don't mean to say that Lewis was weak because clearly he wasn't. But it was Clark's force of personality, his capacity to deal with with the men, all of whom were were not formally educated. That gave Lewis his discipline and his intelligence the the force, the power to make it, make it go, to make it active.
This is really e pluribus unum in practice. Neither one could have made it alone. This is a tremendous story of teamwork.
I I think they, they they do did in fact need each other. I think after a while, certainly on the return trip that William Clark could have returned without Lewis. Could Lewis have returned without Clark? I'm not so sure. Initially, though, I think that that that Clark absolutely had to have Lewis there because of his intelligence and his, certainly his knowledge. Thomas Jefferson took great pains, personally to tutor Meriwhether Lewis before before the trip began. He was the one with the instructions. We we needed Lewis's intelligence, his brains, but finally Clark, although he was an older man, he learned from Lewis and I think on the return, he probably, he could have gotten them back.
Distracted by the dangers, we forget they're traveling through exquisite landscape.
There, I've made the entire trip from from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean by water. There's not, even today, there's not a scene along the route that that isn't that isn't a scene of beauty. Occasionally you have to, these days you must block out a little piece of urban development that's gone awry. But in their time it was it was a continual scene of wonder for them. And again the image of the garden, the Garden of Eden comes comes to us in that this this is this is the light, this is beauty and the thing that had to be so thrilling to them is that, we have to remember, is that Lewis and Clark were Vir were Virginians and once they got above what is now Kansas City, above the mouth of the Caw River, they were entering into country that they were not prepared for, well, I wouldn't say they were not prepared for it, indeed they were. But they could not believe that the tales that they heard, in fact, could be the way the land was, that the land could match these these notions that they had.
Drink in the Great Plains.
None of the early travelers who came into the West and saw, encountered the Great Plains could believe what they were seeing. It may be the first couple of days of traveling them they could say, "Yes, yes, this is a large meadow. I understand meadows and this is just a bigger meadow." But time is what makes the Great Plains come alive and fearful also to any traveler and especially to Lewis and Clark going through so early in our history. Because day after day after day you keep seeing this expanse of openness. It's not flat, of course, and particularly when you get in the river bottoms, you see these rolling, these rolling hills. It's broken country, but it does tend to get pretty treeless especially in the early Nineteenth Century. It becomes after a while, one must say this, I thi I love the beauty of the Great Plains, but one must say after a while it does become monotonous. It begins to wear people, it begins to numb one's sensitivities. One of the striking things about their journals is that they still were able to remain alive to what was happening in the Great Plains, and and still to find new new species. To see the land almost freshly each day.
And the distances are so deceptive, you think that mountain's going to come up in a day and it's a week.
It's, it is, you you approach things along the Missouri River and you are, you are perhaps six days away from from something that looks like you could walk to it in in two or three hours. And it's heart, that that becomes heartbreaking. One of the remarkable things that that apparently everybody in that crew could do and certainly Lewis and Clark, themselves, could do this is to take each day as an end in itself while still remembering that the goal was to reach the far western sea. Not to be distracted by by the end but to stay with with the means that they were using to get there. To continue to see, to report, to be good scientists, according to their training each day.
Jefferson seems to be the marionette master
Initially I think Jefferson is the person who who put his spirit and and a good piece of his mind, this this deistic rationalism into into the brain of Meriwhether Lewis. And in many ways, in the the months before the expedition, it was Jefferson who became something of Meriwhether Lewis's father, helped remake this man. Gave him an education, gave him a set of values, built upon the man's basic integrity and his and his innate intelligence and then sent him out so that Meriwhether Lewis in a way is the eyes, the ears, the nose of of Thomas Jefferson and one has the feeling in in reading Lewis's words. And reading Jefferson's instructions to Lewis that could Jefferson have been there, could he have gotten away, he would have been the man to have gone. I think Jefferson probably would have been probably a fairly good crew member but I'm not sure that he would have been any better than Meriwhether Lewis or Clark for that matter.
As you're describing Jefferson pushing this teaching into Lewis, it's like a modern day space effort.
It's, Jefferson trying to send the the troops the, the corps of expedition I should call them, is very much a space exploration because that's what they were after, they were trying to find out what was in this space. They were also trying to control this space. There are a number of analogs between what happened in 1804 and 1805 and 1806 and what happened in 1969 with with Americans setting foot on the moon at that time. These these men were setting foot in some places when they got far enough west in places where White men had never set their feet before. Much of the route was was well known by Europeans but as they got farther west, then it became more and more remote and in a way it was the dark side of the moon for the people in Washington, DC who were trying to make political decisions about what is the proper use, the way to control this far western empire.
Geopolitical tensions in Spain and France and to a lesser extent Britain but they're also meeting native cultures.
The the the the the corps came up the river in in this large boat, larger than anything the Indians had seen before. It had a cannon mounted on the front. Some had not seen or heard cannons before. Certainly that that number of people to arrive at once was unusual to them but then even more remarkably than that, these these these men come off of this rather large boat with this peculiar sail on it, they come ashore and they give a few trinkets here and there and they don't particularly want any goods in return. These these are simply gifts. But what they do is they get off of the boat and they start pulling out these these strange things and they put them up to their eyes and the Ind Indians call these things long eyes because they find out that that this object that the White men hold will bring far objects, distant objects closer. The men of the long eyes. The telescopes intrigued the Indians. The, Lewis did wonderful things with magnets to entertain and at times, I think, somewhat awed the Native Americans. He used the compass which was something that was peculiar to them.
When they heard that they were exploring and not traders, what did they make of this expedition?
Well, I suppose that that the the response of Indians to find that this is an exploring group rather than a trading group probably varied from tribe to tribe. I don't think that there was a unified response, anymore than there was a unified response by the Indians to anything else. These were different peoples, spoke different languages, different cultures. They functioned with the other river peoples in different ways. But what's the question again?
Vision quest, seeing this
It it it seems that once, let me say it this way, it seems that that the Indians who could actually understand that that the expedition was in pursuit of of the far country, the far western sea, to learn what was there, to learn new names for these things, could possibly understand this in terms of a Native American tradition, that who who knows how old it is. The vision quest in which an individual goes into the remoteness, alone, typically, isolates himself or herself, vision quests also happened with women. And seeks to link himself or herself with the greater power. And in a way, that was that was what Lewis and Clark were doing, they were going into the remoteness to find links with a greater power. In this case it was it was the other half of what is now this nation.
And also rationalist knowledge
To to come back absolutely with with Jefferson's dream of the rational notion that that we must have science in order to govern wisely, to make our politics sensible and lasting without reason that all will collapse. Yeah, these were very much men of the age of reason. Thomas Jefferson made Lewis who was had had very little formal education into a rather typical man of the age of reason. It's a remarkable transformation. I don't think that Lewis had any notion of the vision quest, but we can look back now and overlay some of this and see that yes, there are similar things going here. It would have been a wonderful tool if if if Meriwhether Lewis could have articulated that to to the peoples along the rivers that he met.
Clark brought a Black manservant. What was the Indians' response to York?
York perhaps was the most exciting thing or person, I should say, to come along with the expedition. Even though, at least the early part of the the the trip where they were traveling along the Missouri River and most of the tribes had seen Europeans before, I'm not aware that many of these tribes had seen a a Black man before. Their attempt was to find out what kind of, first of all, was he mortal? Was this, was this a human being? That they did not believe. One of the ways to test it was to go up and rub his skin, to try to rub this color off. Sometimes they would pick up dirt and go up as if to sand the color off of his skin. It didn't happen. And they, they were even more in awe that that this was a black man. He was extremely, apparently was was a sturdily built man, and an attractive man, he certainly was attractive to to the Native women and the legend, many of the legends, maybe a few details that we have of York's assignations with the Native women is one of the more intriguing aspects of the of the whole Corps of Discovery's trip.
The relations went extremely well with the Indians
I would say, early encounters between the Corps of Discovery and the Indians typically would would, there would be a little feeling out of each other and particularly the farther they went up the Missouri River the more this would happen where they got in among peoples that had seen fewer and fewer of the of the French traders. There would be a period of of testing each other. There would not uncommonly be a bit of a test of wills. Who who who will control this conversation, this this meeting. Always the Corps of Engineers maintained a strong position, somewhat of a military position. It worked most of the time. Some of the encounters with with with the Lakotas were a bit more intense and tense as a result of that. But again, the intelligence of Lewis backed by the common sense of Clark made these encounters ones that that eventually became friendly exchanges. The great shock of all this, the great sadness, I think in looking at the Lewis and Clark expedition from the eyes that we have a couple of centuries later is that later explorers, later traders, later military expeditions could not repeat with the same kind of compassion and intelligence what Lewis and Clark did. There were only two Indians killed in this entire expedition. One White man died apparently of appendicitis, two Indians were killed in the last year on the return. That's remarkable, given that that the the seeds for hostility for conflict were there every day and it hap it happened only one day.
It's a miracle that they survived.
I think there is a certain element of the miraculous about their survival. Certainly a great a great deal of it comes simply from their common sense and the good preparations that they made for this. But there is a tremendous element of luck in their going, what is it, eight thousand miles and some on this journey and returning. There were not even any broken bones. There were some what, some dislocated shoulders, and Lewis got shot in the backside. There were certainly lots of minor ill, illnesses and other that Sergeant Floyd who died of the appendicitis, the ones who came back, came back alive. They came back well. But every moment on this river was a chance to to lose somebody, to fracture a bone. It didn't happen. Lewis was pretty good at falling down at times. He fell off of river banks more than once. He survived, as did the others.
It would be a mistake to think that this was not an arduous journey.
Having made the trip from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean myself going up up up against twenty-five hundred miles of the Missouri River, I can testify that it's one of the most arduous trips that anyone can make on this continent and yet I had a power boat to do it in. They were doing this by cardelling the boat, by oars, by walking a great bit of it, continually fighting insects, without proper medications, the continual threat that one of these tribes might might take umbrage at their passage. Not really knowing the way after a certain point, fighting the weather through, through all the seasons of the year. We all know what an incredibly vicious climate the Great Plains get in the winter. They survived two of those. It's it's it's it's beyond our compre, certainly beyond my comprehension today, that those men could make it and make it back with the information that they were supposed to come back with. It wasn't entirely good news of course, what they come back with. They didn't come back with the notion that there is an easy route to the West. They did come back with the notion that according to to Louis that this was a feasible trade route, though. I think sometimes that we forget that that
Out of film
Continue this sense of effort and difficulty. They're going upstream
The entire route, until the continental divide was against the current of the Missouri River. The current at various times of the year can reach ten, fifteen miles an hour. You have a boat that weighs several tons, going against this current. The wind blows against you a good bit of the time since the Westerlies are normally what they were going against. They're fighting it, fighting it all. They said, "Let's get out, we'll put lines on the boat. We'll drag the boat along the shore." Well, that shore was incredibly overgrown, especially in the lower part of the river. And even in the in the Great Plains, because of the moisture along the river val valleys, those banks are incredibly crowded with with growth. So you get into the water, well then you're dealing with with the sand, you're dealing with the mud. You're dealing with the rocks, depending on what the bottom is. All of it's slick, the footing bad, the the men probably really not eating what they wanted to eat all of the time but yet managing the strength to drag this this these these several tons up against this this current which really was interested a good bit of the time in taking them back downstream, bodily, in pieces, whatever it could do.
Moments of meeting a new tribe. . . set speech that they would kind of give, a patronizing speech
Typically, Lewis would would make the set speech to the gathered groups of Indians that he was talking to. It would be interesting to know just how much actually was communicated from Lewis to these, to these people, what kind of distortion there was. They were relying on interpreters who, really were more voyageurs than they were interpreters. So I think that probably a whole lot of what Lewis said, very happily for for for the implications of the speech very happily never made it to the minds, to the ears of of the chiefs. And I wonder, Lewis's phrase about the, referring to them as children and Thomas Jefferson as the Great White Father, and the other terms that appear in his in his set speeches. I wonder if much of that simply didn't really reach them. And if that is the case, it's probably all to the good. Those who did understand that this that this white man was coming in and speaking of somebody that they had never seen in the far East of the land as a father, I I think that they probably shrugged that off, "Ah, how can he be a father? He's too far away, we haven't seen him." So, because the receptions tended to be reasonably hospitable, I have a feeling that that there're a whole lot of the chiefs who did not take this expedition seriously from a political point of view. Took it seriously as as as a source of power for them because clearly these these White adventurers, these explorers had powers and could do things that that the natives had not seen before.
But they ran into the Tetons and the Lakotas, and things were different
Things were different once they hit the the the the many of the Souen tribes but especially the Tetons and the Lakotas. These these were were peoples who were more interested, I think, in controlling territory, sometimes not entirely theirs than many of the other tribes. They were less settled say than the Mandan or the Hidatsa and as a result, things were really touch and go with with with those meetings. They were fraught with with with threats and bluffings and promises and occasionally the firing of of of guns just to make noise, unlike some of the other meetings. And we we can see in later times that in fact these these same tribes were the were the last to be conquered militarily. In, it took another, what, another three generations before these people really came into into acceptance, how grudg, however grudging it might have been, of the Great White Father in Washington.
This is a great women's story, is it not? We run into an amazing character. Can you talk about Sacagewea?
Sacagewea probably is the most romantic figure of of the expedition, it's truly remarkable that this that this teenager carrying an infant could make so much of the trip. I do think that there's a great deal of romanticizing of Sacagawea and idealizing her which has probably distorted her role in the in the expedition. Clearly, she was able to direct them topographically at certain key moments to help them along and it was it was truly a stroke of luck that when they got on the other side of Lemhi pass came down the western side of the Continental Divide that she ran into into her her people again and to her great surprise, her brother was now the chief. They needed horses at this point, Lewis and Clark needed horses at this point and here is the sister of a tribal leader who can help them get horses. Without those horses who knows what would have happened to that expedition. That wa that was very much luck. But, beyond that, so so many of the statues of Sacagawea now, it's hard to find in this country a statue of Lewis and Clark but what she wasn't there also, and typically, she has her had thrust out, pointing the way. I think, I think that happened only occasionally. Perhaps her most important function is one that sometimes we don't realize and that is by carrying a woman along, especially a woman who was carrying an an infant, said to tribes this is not a party that is out for aggressive reasons. This is not a war party. The Corps of Expedition is here doing something other than fighting because you don't carry warpa, in warparties you do not carry a a woman with an infant. So she was a living white flag, so to speak as they as they moved along. She was a sign of peace, better than anything they could have found.
She made them a family
Sacagawea turned that group into some kind of extended family because she was female and because she had that infant in..
Arriving out on the other side of the Continental Divide, overcome with dysentery and they wind up eating dog. Can you tell this story?
No, I can't do that. No.
If you, what moment on the trip would you most like to accompany them?
There're so many marvelous moments, it's a difficult choice to pick one moment where I could, I could step in, and and be the invisible partner there. Certainly, the winter that they spent at Fort Mandan with the Mandans and the Hidatsas, that that whole winter had to be marvelous. But I guess, if we're going to talk about a smaller moment, a shorter moment, it would be the one where they're in their canoes, they're coming down the Columbia River and William Clark, Clark looks forward and at last, he does not see a treeline at the end of the river. What he sees is a clear, flat horizon that is miles and miles and miles long and that horizon can only be the far western sea and he writes that wonderful line about, "Oh, the joy, ocean in view." To to have been sitting there in the bow of that boat and turned around and watched his face see that ocean and speak those words would have to be, that's that would be tears in the eyes. And I'm sure that William Clark had tears in his eyes when when he reached that moment. Even though the journey still had the great difficult return to make, but they had gotten there. They had arrived.
I like the democracy of this outfit from the two leaders sharing their duties and voting on where they were going to stay.
I think early in the expedition, Lewis and Clark in in in in counsel together realized that strict military discipline, while it was necessary, necessary would go only so far. That there had to be some response from the men. And as the expedition increased by bringing in Sacagawea, yes, she too perhaps should have some kind of a voice. So, the expedition does become somewhat more democratic as as as they go on. But we must, mustn't push it too far because, still, there was never any doubt, it seems to me, in the minds of the enlisted men and the sergeants that Meriwhether Lewis was in charge and even though he did, he took great pains to to cover over the fact that he was the headman and that that Clark, in a sense, was reporting to him. He was, he was so generous and wise also, practically wise in making it appear to the men that he and Clark were co-captains even though, as far as Washington knew, that was not the case and that's not the way the official papers read, of course.
Lewis is in charge, but what happened to him?
On the journey?
Yeah, what's your take on Lewis?
Well, I I understand Lewis in a way that perhaps some other readers don't, being a writer, I I see Lewis fraught with some of the problems that writers typically have. One of the problems that we always face is that many of us really don't like to write. It's it's difficult and we procrastinate and I think Lewis was a procrastinator. We we have fewer days of his journal than we do of Clark's. Even though he was, he was by far the greater stylist. And we we probably have lost some of what he's written still. There're apparently days in which, that he wrote nothing. Now, I wonder, is that because of procrastination, or is that an early indication of this depression which seemed seemed to to bother him very much later. I'm not sure, why on the trip was he not writing? There there was a morose streak in him that that that was apparent in the trip. But I think he kept under control because of the tremendous necessity to continue the journey. His his great wish to fulfill his, Thomas Jefferson's hopes. I think it was the force of Thomas Jefferson moving in Meriwhether Lewis that kept his his his depression, his his potential for depression and and moroseness under control. But also, I think it would show in his incapacity at times apparently to do his journals.
And he just fell apart when the trip was done.
He he once he completes the mission, returns to St. Louis, his life gets darker and darker, he slips into one problem after the other. It was it was the continual challenge of the expedition, it was, I think also the threat of of of extinction of dying on this trip that that kept him alive, oddly enough.
We tend to make native peoples one entity and yet they ran into a diversity of native culture.
At, it was a real challenge as they, as they moved upriver and then once across the divide downriver meeting different people every few hundred miles or sometimes less, they, moreso than many later travelers who should have known better, understood that that these were different cultures. They did not, that is Lewis and Clark did not lump all Indians into one giant people. Certainly they were continually reminded because of the differences in language, the difference in dress, the difference in facial paint, the difference in the way they handled horses, the different ways that they responded to the expedition themselves, everything they saw about this people said, "We are one tribe and this is another tribe. We are one nation, this is another nation." Again, knowledge that we later forgot and tended to lump American Indians into this one giant category which has done so much to to harm our our relations.
Let' s talk about this. What is the negative cost of this trip?
The negative cost of of of Lewis and Clark entering the Garden of Eden is that later expeditions regardless of what they were intended to do, later expeditions did not deal with the native peoples with the intelligence with the almost kindly resolve that that Lewis and Clark did. What we should have learned from them, we seem to forget. Another cost, negative cost that some people see today is that they were the vanguard of empire, that they were the vanguard of commercialism, American commercialism coming in. This this was the great loss of the Garden of Eden. I don't see it that way because if it had not been Lewis and Clark, it would have been some other group or groups coming out there who probably would not have comported themselves as intelligently, as wisely, as humanely as as did that expedition. The the Twenty-first Century was on its way to these people. The technological world, the Western world was on its way to them regardless of who brought it out there. There was no way to escape it. The the fate of of any native peoples is to face up to the coming technological society that's there. And what we know is that in many ways the the Indians embraced this, they wanted guns. They wanted whiskey, they wanted flints. They wanted compasses. They wanted horses at an earlier time. These were all, these were all imports from the from the world that that the Whites inhabited. They nec, did not necessarily want the warfare that the Whites brought, they had enough of that themselves.
And this story had good things too, it made us as a country in a way. What is the gift of Lewis and Clark to us?
I think the greatest thing that Lewis and Clark have brought to us that we can see today is that that they made us into one nation. The one nation that we understand today. It's difficult for me to comprehend what this country would be like if it stopped at the Mississippi River. And the year before they left, that's where the United States stopped and it's remarkable to read their journals in which they will refer, being say, at the time in in Iowa or on the other side of the Continental Divide as we do not see this species in the United States. Th th we forget at times that that the nation did not run to the Pacific Ocean. Certainly our our status in the world today, now as the last super-power is a gift of Thomas Jefferson's vision. Of the Corps of Eng, of the Corps of Expedition, let me try, the Corps of Discovery of being able to pull the two seas together. The Corps of....
Why don't you start over.
The great gift of the Corps of Discovery that we can see today in the Twentieth Century is that they were able to knit the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. They were the sinews which bound these two great oceans together. Right across what we now call the heart of the United States. They they are the the first binding force to bring these oceans together and give us the topographical economic basis for the nation that we are today.
And yet they fail to do the principal thing they set out to do, which was to find the Northwest passage. That must have been unbelievably disappointing.
They, we often think that that they did not find the Northwest passage, but but but Lewis believed that he had found a passage and he believed that this route which he knew was so arduous and so difficult, he still believed it was a feasible trade route. I think he may have been the only one who thought that. But then again, he realized the political consequences of spending what at the time was a reasonable, reasonably high amount of money, to come back and report to the Congress that, "No, we haven't found this." What he did find instead, perhaps was something even more important, he found the western half of the United States. Even though we had other pieces to fill in in the Southwest. Certainly, the land running from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean today is far more valuable to us than a trade route to Cathay.
Can you tell me the story of Lewis and the dog along the Columbia River?
Once, well I must say that that as the expedition traveled to the Great Plains they they were used to to eating meat, bison, beaver, in fact, one of the favorite meats along the way was was beaver tail. I've eaten beaver tail, and how they could find that as a favorite meat is is well beyond me, but Lewis loved it. When they crossed, crossed the Continental Divide, fresh meat became much much more difficult for them to get. And we know that once they left the Lemhi Valley in what is now Idaho and began moving on toward the the Snake and Columbia Rivers they had almost starved to death. They began eating fish. These were men who grew up in in Virginia and other parts of the of the South and what we might now call the middlewest, they were they were meat eaters. Well, they ate the fish and at times got sick. When they could get ahold of dogs, however, from Indians, that could be a pretty good source of meat. Clark did not like dogs. Lewis, on the other had, liked dogs, especially young dog. We would call it a puppy today. On the return in 1806, I guess it was, they stopped for an encampment on the west side of the Continental Divide and were having a meal with with some Indians and one young, one young Indian by way of making fun of Lewis and Lewis's taste for dog, I must say here that some Indians liked dog, other Indians wouldn't touch it. This tribe was not was not an eater of dogs, but he took a puppy and he threw it into Lewis's plate. Lewis, who was a man of of quick temper and a man who would brook no insults whatsoever from anyone, picked up the puppy and with great violence, threw it back and hit the Indian in the face. And also, if I remember correctly, pulled out, pulled out his tomahawk and held it up, that this would not be something he would tolerate. But that was his defense, I suppose also of saying, "I'm going to like dog and I will not be mocked out of my taste for puppy."
Did I get that one pretty close?
... you called Lewis a stylist, a great stylist... as a writer?
Meriwether Lewis had little formal education. After he, he met up with Thomas Jefferson and became Jefferson's personal secretary, Jefferson took him into the, into the White House and let him use his own library. Lewis had an amazing facility to read books and assimilate style. It's difficult for anyone to do this, certainly given someone of his, of his limited formal education. The man read, the man picked up words, and when he went, when he went west, that style was there. Yes, his spelling is erratic, it's peculiar, it's jolly, but the phraseology, his phrasings are on the mark, they are complex, they're sophisticated, and as a writer, I believe, that had Lewis not been a soldier and an explorer, he could have been a fine novelist for his time. I think the man is a greater stylist, say, than somebody roughly contemporary - Thomas Paine, for example, who grew up in England with far more advantages in education. Lewis was a natural, when it comes to expressing ideas in language.
They were called the Corps of Discovery. What did they discover?
They discovered the, the extent, to a certain degree, of the American, that is the United States' notion of a, of part of the continent. They also discovered a good many of the limitations that lay out there. They discovered that some of the legends that existed about the west, mountains of salt, for example, did not exist as far as they could find. They discovered that the easy path, the easy way to the western sea was not there. They discovered dozens upon dozens upon dozens of native tribes who potentially could be a tremendous resource in themselves for the trading empire. They discovered more than a hundred species of animals, of plants. They discovered that, that America was even more than Thomas Jefferson dreamed that it could be.
Can you talk about that... they saw a glimpse of our future...?
Lewis and Clark, especially Lewis, was able to, to, I think, get a glimpse of the American future, through the inspiration, the training of Thomas Jefferson. As Jefferson's eyes, as Jefferson's pupil, in a way, he could carry the Jeffersonian vision west and come back with it. He did not come back with everything that Jefferson hoped that he would come back with. The point, really, though, was to come back with answers. Whether those answers are the ones they thought they would get, or whether they were new answers. Just, just to come back with m..., more answers than questions, but of course, that never happens in human life. Every answer leads to 10 questions. That wasn't ... speaking of answers, that was a piss-poor one, wasn't it?
No, no, no. Expeditions, journeys teach people lessons...?
As a p..., as a people?
Yeah. What can we draw...?
Can I handle this one? Do I have an answer for that?
Well, think about it... Initial contacts with people, contacts that went awry...?
Let me try this. The sorrow behind the, the Corps of Discovery is that what they did so well, later people were not able to do half so well, and that is in, in dealing with the native peoples who were there. W..., we, we didn't learn what they taught themselves. They went, they went as students, they came back as masters, that is, teachers and we failed to learn the lessons that they had learned. We, we simply were not paying attention to what they brought back to us. It took far too long for us to learn what they learned in 1804 and 1805 and 1806.
Do you think because they were students, they could be with the Indians...?
I think that, because Thomas Jefferson was not there to serve as the guiding intelligence behind these later expeditions that later explorers, later military exploring tours came in with the idea that, that we are the superior race. We, we have technology, therefore we know more than you do. They did not go in with questions, they went in with assumptions, they went in with presumptions, and they went in with answers. And the result was, was 200 years of, of warfare that, that need not have happened in the way that it happened.
When you boil it all down, what was this expedition about...?
When it comes down to 'What really did Lewis and Clark give to us as a people?,' it seems to me that what we, what we find is that they gave us America as we know it today. Without them, the United States might have stopped at the Mississippi River. We could have had another nation across that river, speaking a different language, perhaps, and I can't imagine what this country would be like without, without our great western states. The whole culture would be so much different. Our food. The way that we con..., we, we conceive of ourselves. Certainly, our econemic, economic power. Our social sense. Our belief that, because of the great challenges that, that we have faced in our 400 years as a, as an attempt to become a separate nation, those challenges are, are the things that have made us what we are today. And they're the ones who, who led the way s..., far beyond anybody after them and, to some extent, before them, into showing us that the challenge is there and we can face it. They set an example of, certainly, of courage, of intelligence, of compassion too.
And they were traveling through some of the most spectacular landscape on earth...?
The route that they took west is a route that, if you tried to plan a scenic route... 'I want to see scenery. I want to see some of the best scenery,' in, what is now the 48 states, if you laid out that route, you would be, you would, and if you took the route that they took, you would be hard to lay out a route that was, that was any finer. Just in terms of topographic beauty and variety. It's, it was a terrifying route because of much of the scenery. The scenery was great. The mountains were marvelous, but they also were, were dangerous because of that. But when you talk about topographic beauty, they, they found a route that, that is probably surpassed by none other in this nation.
When I think of the descriptions that Lewis gave, the White Cliffs description, scenes of visionary enchantment...?
I'm going to take that right from you. Lewis's description of the White Cliffs along the Missouri River in what is now Montana, 'scenes of visionary enchantment' is another expression of, of this notion that in fact they had ented, entered a kind of Garden of Eden. They, they understood that... I can't take it any farther, sorry. Lost that one.
Is there something that you would like to add to our story...?
I think you've pretty well gotten what I know. I'm already down to the point where...
I feel from visiting there and also reading that the Missouri is alive.
I've, I've done a number of our major rivers from from source to mouth or vice versa. I have not been on any river that has more of a distinctive personality than does the Missouri River. It's a river that immediately presents to the traveler, "I am a grandfather spirit. I have a source; I have a life." The 2500 miles that I did against the current on the Mis Missouri River, every day I felt that the river wanted to pull a trick on me. And and it did, daily. At the same time, I never once felt that that river wanted to kill me. It was a river with a grand heart like like some great uncle that wanted to tease me, that wanted to toy with me but it wanted me to get to its head waters. And im, importing from my own experience, I have a sense that Lewis and Clark felt that too, given that that's the longest river that they were on. That that was the greatest challenge of all, in terms of waterways. I think that that grandfather spirit, or that great uncle spirit of the Missouri River helped draw them on. Once you get to the head waters of the Missouri River, you're at the Continental Divide. So, from that point on, in in a sense, you're going downhill, but 'til that point, you're going against the current the whole way. You're going against the snags and the sawyers and the sandbars. You're going against the treachery of the river. But you're also are going against this river which seems to say to the traveler come up me.
When you go over the top, you've got dangers running with the current, too.
We, you come down the western slope of the Continental Divide. You have the current behind you now, but that speed also increases dangers. Fortunately, Lewis and Clark when they got into what could be the most treacherous of the rivers, the the Columbia River, particularly going through the great Columbia Gorge. They went through in the fall as they were heading west in which the winds tend to be at their backs, the winds tend to be less than they can be at other times of the year. That was a great boon to them. They could have been destroyed going earlier in the year. So even thought they would liked to have arrived in the Columbia sooner, arriving as they did, later in the year, it helped pull them right down to the Pacific Ocean.
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