My wife Carol routinely gets after me for misusing “I” and “we” in conversations. I’ll be with her at a party and start a sentence with, “When I was canoeing in Montana…” only to catch a cold stare and be reminded that I wasn’t alone on that trip. Upon recovering I might go on to say, “Great trip, until we left the keys to the house and car behind (heh, heh)…” only to be elbowed and lectured that it wasn’t we who left the keys, but I who forgot to retrieve them from the boat house before our return flight home.
It’s probably best to mention up front that accepting an invitation from friends to spend six days canoeing and five nights “primitive” camping following the path of Lewis & Clark on the Missouri River was more my preference for a summer vacation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Carol doesn’t appreciate historical sites; it’s just that she prefers experiencing her history in places like Italy, Costa Rica and China.
Over the years I’d coerced her into visiting some places associated with the historic trek. On a business trip to Oregon I used the allure of a pricey B&B at scenic Cannon Beach to coax her to nearby Ft. Clatsop where the intrepid explorers spent a miserable winter without TV reception or decent cell phone service. (Carol: “We’re going where and why?”) Then there was the long side trip into Tennessee to visit Grinder’s Tavern where poor Lewis met his untimely and mysterious demise. (“You’ve got to be kidding me! We’re driving 100-miles out of our way to visit a tavern that doesn’t serve beer?”)
Conspiracy theorists insist that the entire voyage was faked, that Lewis and Clark spent 1804-1806 holed up in Philadelphia inventing stories for their journals. Spending two whole years in Philly rather than towing overloaded keelboats upriver in frigid muddy water, feeding on rodents and roots, and total freedom from American Idol? C’mon!
In the tradition of McCain-Palin, the Indian woman Sacagawea has all but nudged Lewis and Clark – and Jefferson for that matter – to the historical sidelines in the stories and images of the famous trek. Based on artist renderings, Sacagawea was the daughter of Pocahontas and the twin sister of Natalie Wood. She warily joined the expedition (“We’re going where and why?”) when her French-speaking husband, Roger Vadim, was induced to go along as an interpreter. The only woman in the troop, her notoriety stems from convincing her Shoshone brother to give the explorers horses in exchange for some beads and trinkets. She ended her brilliant trading career on Wall Street.
To reenact history as closely as possible – and provide a pinch of one-upmanship in the process – our flotilla of four canoes and three kayaks set out with two French speaking members and four women. Of course, upon encountering our own band of Shoshone Indians operating a mid-course beer stand, we finished the trip with three canoes, two kayaks, a bundle of old-looking beads and trinkets…and no women.
Okay, I’m just kidding, thinking you might enjoy a lusty sample of our “boys around the campfire” knee-slapping humor. Besides, we’d never have traded that canoe.
The “Corps of Discovery” as it was so called by Jefferson (his original thought was “The Cher Farewell Tour”) encountered several close calls with grizzly bears, but, as far as I know, they never had to deal with Bigfoot. Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t Bigfoot lurking outside our tent one night making loud and grotesque noises.
Ned: “I’ll hold the flashlight. You stick your head out the front flap and have a look.”
Carol: “Have you been sniffing the seam sealer?”
Ned: “C’mon, we’re gonna have to do something.”
Carol: “Now’s when you can use ‘I’ instead of ‘we.’”
Ned: “Mais oui! That’s it!”
Carol: “May we all share in what you have in mind before this thing gets in here?”
Ned: “Sure! Let’s holler for the French couple to come see the cute baby bighorn!”
In the morning I fully expected to find matted hair snagged in the zipper and drool staining the tent top but nothing looked unusual. The Montana guys laughed, saying that our monster prowler was likely a spindly-legged blue heron known for making quite the racket. I did notice, however, tents being zipped up more tightly the next few nights.
The explorers also didn’t have to deal with the dreaded Scoutus Troopus Horriblis – the bane of any private camping trip. Is it just me, or does it seem that most news stories about Boy Scouts involve them being rescued? Anyway, we’d been in camp for several hours, darkness was approaching and we were returning from a hike when we spotted a convoy of canoes rounding a bend on the river heading straight at us.
It was reminiscent of MacArthur’s forces landing at Inchon in front of the startled North Korean army. General Yu: “Did we order more beer or am I looking at big trouble?”
For reasons he preferred not to mention – although someone was clearly going to be stripped of a badge – the exasperated troop leader explained that they’d gotten off to a very late start. He clearly struck me as a man who’d happily exchange his current circumstance for a hard chair in the front row of an all-day Sweet Adelines competition.
We came across the whole troop again the next day at our lunch break stop. Now it’s not that I was expecting boys in starched shirts, pleated khaki shorts, knee-high socks and shoulder-to-waist sashes adorned with neat rows of round achievement badges busily involved in outdoorsy things – like old-time fire making with flint and stones – but it was a bit disheartening to find them sloppily dressed in “let’s hang out at the mall” garb, lounging around plugged into their iPods. Put it this way, they weren’t all fired up about the experience, as if it was either be here or risk being found and adopted by Madonna.
The country we traveled through was beautiful but forbidding — nature’s own version of that alluring strip club dancer you met in college with whom common sense told you to share one drink then head for the door. Those who followed Lewis and Clark – and there were bunches of them – mainly showed enough sense to simply admire the scenery, send a postcard home, and move on. The exceptions were a hearty and (let’s be frank if we might) moderately deranged group of homesteaders – future Unabomber types with a mix of disgruntled Cubs fans — who settled along this remote stretch of the Missouri River.
Occasionally we’d pass the ruins of their tar-papered cabins, propped high above the banks on the wind swept plains. Though none have been preserved or restored, a few have been designated for historical protection, arguably as warnings to young people about the shortcomings of dropping out of school. I couldn’t imagine anyone ever living there, or even wishing it upon someone to live there, except for Nancy Grace, of course, for whom I’d gladly buy a plow and a goat if she’d just promise to stay and keep quiet.