My friend Timothy Murphy has written a new poem about my hero Meriwether Lewis. He sent it to me a couple of days ago. Murphy, who lives in Fargo, North Dakota, has written a number of excellent (and accessible) books of poetry. I had the honor of writing the foreword to Hunter’s Log. You might also wish to read Mortal Stakes-Faint Thunder.
Here’s Tim’s poem:
The Grand Portage
Lewis, a young explorer in a hurry
charting the upper reaches of the Missouri
discovered the Great Falls
carving their red, sandstone canyon walls.
The Mississippi? A major feeder stream
as one overflying the forks can deem,
eighty percent the strength
but barely half the mighty Missouri’s length.
High above Lewis lay the Great Divide,
then the Columbia sculpting its western side
to reach a sea of salt
crashing forever under heaven’s vault.
But how dispiriting it must have been
to drink alone back in a world of men
after his epic race,
then cock his pistol on the Natchez Trace.
I love the last stanza. It perfectly epitomizes my understanding of the last days of Lewis’s life, in the three years following his successful return to “civilization” on September 23, 1806. Lewis found re-entry exceedingly difficult. He failed to find a wife. He failed to write his book. He failed to communicate with his superiors in Washington, DC. He failed to respond to his patron Jefferson’s letters. He failed to manage his public finances as the governor of Upper Louisiana Territory.
And, in the end, in the early morning hours of October 11, 1809, he put a gun to his head in a lonely frontier inn on the Natchez Trace 72 miles from Nashville, Tennessee.
Actually, I suspect that Tim Murphy really believes that Lewis was murdered, but he has suspended that doubt in writing this fine poem.